Exploring the Study, Writing, and Interpretation of History

3 Definitions of Historiography

Human cultures have always told stories about the past. Historians study and write about these stories to make sense of them.

Historiography considers how historians research and write their work, as well as why that works has changed over time. It also looks at the history of writing itself.

1. The study of the past.

Historians study what happened in the past to understand how it happened and why. Their studies are usually based on primary sources, which are documents or objects from the past, and secondary sources, which are research published in peer-reviewed journals, books, and conferences. Historians also use their own research and that of other historians to interpret the past. A historiographical essay explores the interpretations of a particular historical topic written by other historians.

Scholars often study the same historical events and come away with very different interpretations. This is because, unlike the physical sciences, history churns out many possible explanations of why things happened. For example, a historian may study the outcome of an important football match and end up explaining it differently than another historian who studied the same data.

This variety is partly due to the fact that different societies value different types of history. For example, early antiquity saw the rise of biography, as writers such as Plutarch and Suetonius wrote accounts of prominent figures highlighting their humanity. By contrast, the late 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed the rise of social history influenced by the chief tenets of Marxism, which emphasized class conflict as a cause of historic events. This school of historiography was led by writers such as Ranke and Engels.

2. The writing of history.

Historiography is the study of how historians write history. Unlike the natural sciences, which capture regularities and general laws through experimentation, historians make sense of the past by researching and interpreting historical sources. Historians attempt to explain how and why certain events, ideas or people came to be (causes); the relative significance of different events, ideas or people (significance); and change and continuity over time.

Historiography also analyzes how historians have interpreted certain subjects, such as a particular event or institution, geographic region or time period. In this way, it is important for anyone interested in studying history to have a solid understanding of the historiography surrounding that subject, as it influences the interpretations of historians and, therefore, the conclusions that they draw from their research.

Historians are aware that their conclusions may not necessarily align with those of other historians, and as a result, historiography is often divided into different schools or interpretations. This can help to ensure that a historian’s work is accurate and well-researched, and it allows for new interpretations to be challenged and disproved. It is, however, essential to understand historiography before attempting to write an academic paper on history, as it helps to avoid championing a view that has already been contested by other historians.

3. The interpretation of the past.

Historians often work with the same historical records and archival materials but come away with very different opinions about why things happened. This is because historiography explores the mentalities, cultural praxis and political categories of a certain time and social environment.

Historiography begins with the assumption that there are no concrete truths about the past, only competing interpretations of it. Nevertheless, historians are able to discover and use new sources for studying the past. These sources may help them to understand the past better and to form new theories about why events occurred.

The study of historiography also helps us to understand that history is never set in stone. Even the most objective histories present a certain bias, since interpreting the past is always a human activity. Historians must always be prepared to challenge their own ideas and to question the conclusions that they draw from the evidence they find.

The earliest histories, like those of Herodotus (4th century BCE) and the ecclesiastics, were written to instil moral and political wisdom to rulers and aspirants to power. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, historians wrote about the lives of statesmen and generals. The work of Machiavelli (16th century) marked a turning point, when it became apparent that success is often associated with immorality.

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