Historiography: Meaning, Approaches, Examples, Importance

Meaning: Historiography as an intellectual and academic discipline has been hard to define. Shrouded by abstract theoretical, philosophical and methodological jargon, professional historians themselves have not been able to achieve common consensus on the specific definition of the term, describing it to mean the writing of history, the study of historical methodology, the analysis of the different schools of interpretation on a particular historical topic, or the history of historical writing.

Historiography approaches examples

Oxford dictionary defines historiography as the study of history itself, ‘a history of history’. On a more literal plane, however, historiography mainly focuses on ‘The representation of history in verbal images and written discourse.’

Historiography then becomes the science that studies the conceptions and production of historical interpretations of human civilization. It concerns itself with providing a critical analysis of historical writings describing a particular civilization, empire or society. Dominant power structures, political ideologies, personal biases, cultural trends and social norms steer narratives, consequently making historical accounts lie at the mercy of those who wrote them.

Historiographers work to place history within the context of its time and accommodate the social and cultural norms of the time within wider historical discourse. Their work then takes upon a more critical and philosophical approach to written history, analysing existing records and situating it within the socio-political and economic framework of its time.

Carl Becker’s 1938 journal article, titled ‘What is Historiography?’ seeks to examine this discipline, questions its status as a discipline and provide a comprehensive introduction to its ideas and approaches. Becker pays heed to Harry Barnes, author of ‘A History of Historical Writing’ who stated that his purpose in historiography was to, “to characterize the intellectual background of each major period of human advance in western civilization, show how the historical literature of each period has been related to its parent culture, point out the dominant traits of the historical writing in each era, indicate the advance, if any, in historical science, and then make clear the individual contributions of the major historical writers of the age (Becker 21)”.

Becker then builds off of Barnes’ agenda and describes historiography as a ‘phase of intellectual history which records what men have at different times known and believed about the past, their knowledge and beliefs, and the underlying presuppositions which have made their knowledge seem to them relevant and their beliefs seem to them true (Becker 22).’

An academic sub-discipline, according to Becker, historiography is essentially that which seeks to uncover patterns and structures of thought that have helped construct real of imaginative historical truth. Historiographers will then be concerned with what, for example, the Greeks had in mind when they thought about a specific political empire. They would analyse Strabo’s or Ctesius’ account and claims, looking into their reproduction of reality as a product of their time. Historiographers look into myths and other historical belief systems because although they may not be historical facts in and of themselves, the belief in these myths and other systems is a historical fact.

Importance of Historiography:

The importance of historiography is essential in understanding it. Historiography allows us to understand the wide range of historical interpretations and how differing perspectives have shaped the representations of historical fact. It helps us adopt a more critical lens in understanding history as relative, as a subject that has been manipulated by those telling it and reclaimed by those who have participated in it. It encourages to seek out the biases in historical accounts and understand the subjective nature of historical writing.

Historiography gives us the tools to examine history in the context of the multitude of factors that determine how history is recorded and reproduced.  For example, it raises the question of whether historians altered an empires history to suit those in power or if they moulded a narrative of a ‘successful’ colonial state by excluding imperative information about indigenous resistance. Historiography probes into the literature, examining gaps and understanding the causes for it. For instance, a historian may study about how there was a significant omission of socio-economic information in the historical accounts of a particular empire.

Historical writing, the major focus of historiography, is as much a product of its time as any other historical development (Abonyi 2016), and can therefore serve as a lens into major trends and developments in the history of civilization.

Historiography is also integral to the academic inquiry as it complements the study of history as well as all other disciplines which study the history of said discipline. It provides a broader framework to specialists in a variety of fields like economics, psychology, and sociology.

A sociologist could benefit greatly from historiographic accounts that focus on a particular social group in a colonial state. For example, looking into American historiography as background research for a study focusing on Native American tribes today, will be of great use.

Difference between Historiography and History:

Although there is considerable resemblance between the two concepts, historiography cannot exist in isolation whereas history can. Historiography relies on the accounts provided by history in order to carry out its inquiry while history is essentially the study of historical fact. Historiography challenges the very notion of historical ‘fact’ and builds upon academic approaches to recorded history.

History places emphasis on observing records and historical data in order to reproduce and represent historical fact through transmittable knowledge. Far more than chronology, historiography forages far beyond tabulating dates and events. Historiography dives into the ideas that conceptualize and produce the historical record. It emphasises the notion that history must be approached as a construct of the historian’s imagination as they have perceived it. An exercise that accommodates perspectives, social and cultural norms among other ideas, historiography revolves around history which is concerned primarily with systematically recording and organising events of the past.

The distinguishing factors lies in historiographies acknowledgment of subjective ideas that determine and decorate written history. Put simply, historiography advocates for skepticism and a critical approach to written history.

Historiographical approaches:

The aforementioned descriptions of historiographic inquiry must be subsequently explained in the context of approach. Historiographers seek to garner a holistic understanding of a historical society, civilisation or empire, but must employ some critical approach to do so. Depending on the subject of study, Historiographers may employ one of the few types of approaches listed below:

  1. The chronological approach: This approach seeks to chronicle specific historical empires or civilizations, with an emphasis on their rise and fall. Historiographers may employ this approach to observe the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire. What differentiates this historiographic approach from history is that it extends its scope to include the attitudes, beliefs and perspectives that characterised this time period, in other words, it accounts for the intangible and philosophical aspects that surround their topic of study.
  2. The geographical approach: Employed when the impact of the topic of study encompasses a large geographical area such as World War I & II, This approach seeks to inquire into the distinct features of each region impacted by the world wars. It observes the idiosyncratic experiences of each nation/ region and situates it within the context of their personal history and response to the historical event being studied.
  3. The school of thought approach: A more academic approach to a particular historiography, this approach is best suited for topics that have been the subject of a large body of literature and have attracted comments from historians belonging to multiple schools of thought. British colonial and imperial expansion in the 18th century serves as an appropriate example as ‘Historians have produced a canon of works about this subject based on gender theory, race theory, environmental history, economical history, subaltern history, to name just a few (Seibert 2018).’
  4. The impact of a seminal work: This approach analyses the impact of an influential secondary work chronologically, geographically or theoretically.
  5. Other approaches: Some approaches that are an amalgamation of the aforementioned perspectives are employed when studying types of history such as Nationalist historiography (a study of Nazi Germany) or Radical Historiography (a study of Marxist history ). This approach is a much more holistic one which enquires into socio-political, economic and philosophical mechanisms that underpin their topic of study.  (Seibert 2018)

Schools of Historiographic thought

Although there is an absence of formal schools of historiographic thought, it is possibly to map a few based on common patterns and perspectives, and what facet of history historiographers choose to study.  The scope of each of these schools are broad and not definitive, organized vaguely to allow for a wider understanding of historiographic study

  1. Social history: The French Annales School and their journal, ‘Annales: histoire, sciences sociales’ is a great example of the school of thought concerned with social history. Emerging in the early 1930’s, the journal sought to inquire into historical patterns in social mobility, class, cultural history and family studies.
  2. World history: Presumably the most recent establishment of historiography, this school looks into world religions and their approach to humanity and the trope of homogeneity in this context. It mainly concerns itself with unity and a linear approach to human history, common patterns across civilizations and a divine providence governing the human race.
  3. Economic history: This approach to history seeks to look solely into the economic factors surrounding historical settings. Marxist history may be considered a member of this school of thought.
  4. Cultural history: Historiography steered by a curiosity in culture studies, mainly concerns itself with specific cultures such as indigenous cultures, erasure or preserved, the evolution of certain cultures throughout history for example, Mawlynnong, a remote village in the Khasi hills of Meghalaya would be of interest to a historiographer looking into culture, for this tribe has retained aspects of its traditional culture while also accommodating the culture of the Christian missionaries that arrived in the early 20th century. Cross-cultural inquiry has emerged more recently and can be observed as a study within this school of thought.
  5. Women’s history: this school delves into the exclusion of women from history which was most often stained by war, politics and power dynamics, all of which concerned men and the patriarchy. This school of thought seeks to reverse this exclusion and probe into the life of women in historical societies, the roles they were subjected to, their ideas and habits. Most often, work in this field, takes a feminist approach and focuses on women who did not fit into the boxes that society constructed for them, telling the story of a minority group of wage workers, nuns, lesbians, unmarried and childless women. A string of Women’s history has evolved into gender history which focuses on the concept of gender and the binaries that have been constructed, perfected and strengthened throughout history.

Schools of historiography also exist within bigger historiography. For example, within Indian historiography, four schools have come to dictate historiographic approaches to India: these include Cambridge, Nationalist, Marxist, and subaltern. Each of these schools may employ a different lens and choose to study different aspects of India with Marxist historiography looking into the radical and revolutionary history of India and its accounts, while the Nationalist approach may look into nationalistic ideas and their history in India.

Examples:

a study of how and why a certain phenomenon has been written about as an object of historical study

  • Greek Historiography:

Greek Historiography took root with the help of logographers who reproduced their reality through prose. The logographers recorded all oral traditions pertaining to the origins of people and places. Logographoi was a conglomeration of geography, cultural anthropology, and sociology which cemented the foundation of history as a discipline. Herodotus, famously regarded the ‘father of history’, cemented Greek historiography with his account of the Greco-Persian Wars among others. His ethnographic approach was echoed by the work of other Greek historians such as Thucydides, Ctesius and others.

  • Roman Historiography:

Inheritors of Greek historiography, Roman historians emulated Greek historian methodology to produce a comprehensive account of early Rome. Greek historian Polybius was actually the first to introduce the world to roman society and its intricacies which went unnoticed by romans themselves. He also set the tone for cross-cultural comparisons by critically analyzing Roman and Greek empires. Roman historiography was one of the first which boast a detailed written account of political institutions and the manifestations of monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy. Other historians who contributed greatly to roman historiography include Diodorus, Livy and Tacitus.

  • Medieval Historiography:

Medieval Historiography concerns itself with the earliest modes of Christian thought. It pertains to Christian philosophies about history and God’s breaking into it through the incarnation (Vann 2020). A complex approach to the incarnation, resurrection and the gospels, Medieval historiography deals with Christian perceptions about historical figures and the co-existence of said figures and the present.

  • Islamic Historiography:

The Qurʾān and the Hadith provide the foundation of Islamic historiography which historians like Al-Tabari and Rashid al-Din have built upon. Al-Tabari provided historiographic accounts which were characterised by famously accurate chronology and in reproducing authorities, for which he relied upon the Hebrew bible (as interpreted by Islam). Persian scholar Rashid al-Din’s work ‘Collector of Chronicles was broader in approach, reporting on the Islamic world as well as Spain, India, Europe, Mongolia and China.

Arab historian Ibn Khaldūn provided nuance and sophistication not just to Islamic historical thought but historiography as a whole with his work The Muqaddimah (“Introduction”). Previously, chronicles took centre stage with most historical work concerning itself only with tabulating historical events. Khaldūn’s work details his philosophy and unique perspective on history and introduces subjects like geography, culture, economics, public finance, population, society and state, religion and politics, and the social context of knowledge into historical thought. (Vann 2020)

  • Renaissance era Historiography:

Renaissance-era historians propelled the idea of history as a new science, with scholars like Petrarch introducing new attitudes towards history. Historiography is the study of the history of history that emerged as Renaissance scholars like Lorenza Valla and others acted as philologists who edited, emulated, and reported on texts of Latin and Greek antiquity.

  • Marxist Historiography:

Marxist historiography deals with a wide variety of complex subjects, and its place as a part of ‘history’ has been questioned often. As a framework of critical analysis that looks not only at economic conditions but also at socio-cultural changes and at the seemingly immortal psychological phenomenon of alienation, Marxist historiography exists on a continuum. This historiography is employed regularly in political, economic, social and psychological schools of thought to analyze current conditions and trends. Marxist discourse itself is largely historical in the way it traces class struggle, the history of radical thought (like the ideas of earlier ‘utopian socialists’), and the historical growth of industry, capital, wealth inequality etc. Most importantly Historical materialism which was born from the sprout of Marx’s interpretations of Hegel’s’ philosophies on history: lies at the crux of modern radical thought. Thus, Marxist historiography has existed almost as a stream of historical and critical analysis which has been built upon by scholars like those of the Frankfurt school who wrote extensively about the culture industry among other things.  

  • Enlightenment Historiography:

Another historiography that prompts curiosity and criticism as well is ‘enlightenment historiography.’  The success that boasted the value of natural sciences, incited an enthusiasm for scientific values and principles. The impulse was to apply these scientific principles on to politics, economics and literature. This fervour persisted through the centuries, cut through history, to cement the foundation of skepticism, positivism and structuralism. It was able to set boundaries and limits for historiography with a strong emphasis on scientific renditions of historical thought. Philosophers that contributed and critiqued the trends of this period include Rene Descartes and French enlightenment philosophers Montesquieu and Voltaire.

Other historiographies that exist in extremely complex contexts and can only be done justice if written about extensively include American historiography which must include political, sociological, cultural, and economic schools of thought. African historiography and Indian historiography also must be understood not only with post-colonialism and orientalism in mind but also in the context of their historic civilizations, idiosyncratic cultures, and the social atmosphere of those times which consequently steer the narrative of those historical accounts.

Historiography is a broad and vaguely defined discipline that dips into a wide variety of more established academic disciplines and utilizes their tools to critically examine history. It allows any keen individual to probe into history, acknowledge subjectivity, and situate any given era or movement within its relevant social and ideological context. 

References:

Abonyi, Michael. “The Importance of Historiography.” Making History, 8 Nov. 2016, unm-historiography.github.io/intro-guide/essays/introduction/introduction.html.

Becker, Carl. “What Is Historiography?” The American Historical Review, vol. 44, no. 1, 1938, pp. 20–28. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1840848. Accessed 6 July 2021.

Cheng, Eileen Ka-May. Historiography: an Introductory Guide. Continuum, 2012.

“Historiography: Definition, Importance & Examples.” Study.com, 11 July 2020, study.com/academy/lesson/historiography-definition-importance-examples.html

Jenkins, Keith. Rethinking History. Routledge, 2015.

Seibert, Jutta. “Approaches to Historiography.” Falvey Memorial Library, 2018, library.villanova.edu/research/subject-guides/history/historiography/approaches-historiography.

Vann, Richard T. “Ancient Historiography.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2020, www.britannica.com/topic/historiography/Ancient-historiography.

Shivanka Gautam is a student at FLAME University, studying Psychology and Literary & Cultural studies. She has a passion for Critical theory, Cultural Affairs, Political Philosophy and Academia.