Today’s word/concept is: HISTORIOGRAPHY
So, what does this word mean in the context of historical research?
Historiography usually refers to all the work on a given historical topic and the study of how historians have dealt with historical subject matters.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians’ methods and practices. Moreover, “historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that these frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an interesting subject. How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history?" (Source)
Trent University defines historiography as “a summary of the historical writings on a particular topic … It identifies the major thinkers and arguments, and establishes connections between them. If there have been major changes in the way a particular topic has been approached over time, the historiography identifies them.” (Source)
So, to put it plainly, historiography can be understood as the the body of historical writing on a topic and the history of how historians have approached a particular topic over time.
⇒ For example, if you encounter in your readings: “The Historiography on the Haitian Revolution is very large” It usually means → ”Lots of stuff have been written about the Haitian Revolution.”
Historiography of course, does not only refer to the grouping of works on a topic, as we have seen already, it also focuses on the changes in historical methodology.
So, historiography evolves over time? Why?
Historians can rarely escape their own time. This is not to say that the historical discipline is entirely subjective, rather, this is to suggest that historians do not write in vacuums. Historiographical essays are thus important because they help us see how the methodology in studying a particular topic has changed over time.
⇒ For example, in the 1960s, most (but not all) historians favoured an approach that gave a significant importance to economy and were often interested in making Marxist and class-based analysis of History. This is not necessarily true today when many historians prefer an analysis which gives more space to culture (hence, you will often hear people refer to a "cultural" or "linguistic turn" in History).
Now, this change in the way historians understand events rarely means they debate over the occurrence of those events (although, it does happen), — what it actually means is that historians find that some approaches highlight factors that better explain historical events than others. Historians’ major task is not simply to narrate events, their work also involves looking at the relationship between various instances (that is, their causal relationship) in explaining historical events. (To make this text more digestible, I will save you a discussion on the problems historians face with narration and causality, just remember that the two have an influence on historiography.)
So, as just mentioned, historiography helps us see how the way in which historians write about History changes, in part, because they often take different approaches with time.
⇒ For example, for a long time, the dominent historiography on the causes of World War I suggested that the Great War was fought between European powers for colonies (i.e. the surproduction of goods forced European capitalist to pressure their own government to support their adventures in foreign lands in search of the new markets). Other historians, who do not necessarily completely reject the previous explanation, argue however that nationalism is better in articulating the drive to go to war. Historiography also suggest that we should not underestimate the importance of European alliance system before WWI (i.e. the “domino effect”). More importantly, most (but not all) historians who favoured the colonies and market explanation tended to be further towards the left (Marxist, Leninist and so on) in their analysis. (Notice “tended’ is in italics.)
At any rate, historiography is a complex term but it is necessary to understand it in order to comprehend some of the work historians do (and to grasp the real nature of most of their disputes).
To recapitulate, in most instances, historiography is:
- The body of work on a particular historical topic of interest (i.e. : the historiography on the Haitian Revolution, the 20th century historiography on the French Revolution, the historiography on Thomas Jefferson…)
- The “history of history” (the study how historians have dealt with particular topics, with a special importance given to the context in which their work was written. This usually emplies analyzing the approach(es) historians have favoured to write about History (i.e.: was this historian sensible to the Marxist turn in History, the Postmodern turn in History, the Cultural turn in History, the Subaltern and Postcolonial turn in History …?))
Warning: Before using a term, always make sure you are comfortable with its meaning and that it won’t be placed in your text simply as an ornament. If unsure, consult an appropriate dictionary or a Professor.
I have to admit that this is a pretty dense read.
This is also kind of what I’m talking about with the sort of ascending hierarchy of jargon…you have to understand the words used to explain the jargon, which requires a foundation of jargon already in place.
This is why I try to show the process, rather than tell it. This is also a rather conservative explanation that tends to blunt the critical edge I think that historiography should have, as well as downplaying just how contentious and common debates and disagreements among historians are.
This is why I think some people are confused when I do something like post a medieval artwork, and then cite writing from someone in the late 1700s who talks about that work. What I’m trying to do is show how our ideas about that medieval work have been affected by the person writing int he late 1700s. I’m not using “outdated sources”, I’m showing you how the centuries between middle ages and right now have affected our view of that work.
After all, if each era’s historians add their own perspectives, doesn’t the racism, colonialism, and orientalism of their writing affect the work of those who build on those narratives? Doesn’t racism, colonialism, and orientalism right now affect the narratives of today’s historians?
I think these things can be discussed by anyone, and understood by anyone, regardless of jargon and strict gatekeeping over exact definitions. The purpose of language is communication, and I think a lot can be communicated through images, audio, and video as well.
Bottom line for me is really, trying to maintain the subjective/objective dichotomy in historiography is counterproductive.