What is historiography?

In my talk earlier this month at the Australia and New Zealand History of Education Society, I wanted to make the different strands of my argument clear, and after I framed the broader question of the talk, I formalized the way I often talk about historiography (mostly with graduate students). Historiography is one of the few bits of jargon that historians can reserve to insulate themselves as a special tribe, and yet there is little explicit definition of it except by pointing to superb examples such as Peter Novick’s That Noble DreamThe ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988). In general, people talk about it both as “the stuff that historians write” (i.e., secondary sources about history) and “what historians write about when they navel-gaze” (i.e., write literature reviews of some depth and reflection).

So here is the way I explained the “historiographical layer cake” you will find at the bottom of this post. It is just a device to make clear that historiography often involves several layers of analysis:

  • the intellectual history, which includes the material conditions of historians;
  • the specific arguments about time and place at issue;
  • common motifs we find in historiography, from continuity/discontinuity to agency, contingency, questions of causation, and so forth;
  • the implicit models of social behavior embedded in the specific arguments at issue;
  • the tone that writing takes towards its subject;
  • and questions about the philosophy of and ethics of writing history.

There is nothing particularly deep about this list of strands or layers of analysis, just my effort to keep track of what I read and then think about as a professional historian.

On the other hand, it helps to understand that most well-respected historiographical analyses touch upon at least two of these layers. For example, Novick’s That Noble Dream discussed the attempts by American historians to professionalize in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their efforts to implement Auguste Comte’s positivism, and the resulting claims of objectivity that obscured the ideology of what they wrote. So I think of Novick’s book as emphasizing the intellectual history, argument, and philosophy/ethics strands or layers.

One could also look a few decades earlier, when David W. Noble wrote Historians against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing since 1830 (University of Minnesota Press, 1965). In it, Noble discussed 19th century amateur historians and their claims that the United States was exceptionalist. These early national historians claimed that the creation of the United States constituted a dramatic break from old European history, even a step outside history’s dynamics altogether.1 In my idiosyncratic reading, I see Noble focusing on the motif of discontinuity and the brash tone of early 19th century American historians, in addition to the specific arguments and intellectual history of the men (yes, men) about whom he wrote.

This “layer cake” approach is somewhere between a stick-figure diagram of historiography and a true heuristic, so take this with a grain of salt. But I think it helps us distinguish the difference between a review-as-summary and a more interesting, substantive historiographical analysis. Most historians have at least the specific-arguments layer, and our tendency is to write about the intellectual history of what we do as well; it was common enough several decades ago for senior seminars in the major to be largely a “history of history” course. The better and more memorable historiography articles and books add something beyond a summary and tune that analysis so that it tells us more about our own field.

Historiographical analysis generally includes at least two types of analysis among the six shown here: the intellectual history of the literature, the specific arguments about time and place, memes common in secondary sources, deeper models of social behavior, the tone taken towards a subject, and the philosophy and ethics of writing history.

Historiographical analysis generally includes at least two types of analysis among the six shown here: the intellectual history of the literature, the specific arguments about time and place, memes common in secondary sources, deeper models of social behavior, the tone taken towards a subject, and the philosophy and ethics of writing history.

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Notes

  1. If you see shades of Hegel or Fukuyama in this claim, you would probably enjoy the book. []