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Research Help for History Students: Historiography

This guide has been designed to help history students with research.

Getting Started

At some point during your time in the History program at the University of Hartford, you will come across a word that has kept historians on their toes for decades - HISTORIOGRAPHY.  It is important for every history student to understand the two common uses of the term and how they relate to the discipline.  

Historiography, broadly defined, is the study of the discipline of history.  It goes one step past learning about a historical event. Historiography asks you to consider how interpretations or studies of events have changed over time.  Whereas in a typical history paper you would use primary sources as your evidence for what you claim, historiographies require using articles and books written by historians (otherwise known as secondary sources) to understand how interpretations of historical events have changed over time. 

Historiography as a General Descriptor

Historiography (General Descriptor) of a topic consists of a group of interpretations around one topic, written by past and present historians.  

For example:  "The historiography of the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima changed over the years as new research questioned the former consensus view that the decision to drop the bomb was predicated on the necessity to save American lives." 

For example:  "The historiography on the causes of the American Revolution have changed over time as new research has uncovered and analyzed primary source documents on several groups of people involved in the Revolution."

Looking at it this way, historiography can be added to your paper to make it more complete, or you can discuss the "state of the historiography" at a certain point in time.  

Historiography as a Noun

Historiographical Paper (noun) is an analysis of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past historians. Specifically, a historiography identifies influential thinkers and reveals the shape of the scholarly debate on a particular subject. 

The major purpose of writing a historiographical paper is to convey the scholarship of other historians on a particular subject, rather than to analyze the subject itself.

  • A historiography can be a stand-alone paper, in which case your paper examines the work completed by other historians. 
  • Alternately, a historiography can act as an introduction to a major research paper, in which you will go on to add your own analysis.

Thus, a good historiography does the following:

  • Points out influential books and papers that exemplified, shaped, or revolutionized a field of study.
  • Shows which scholars were most effective in changing the scope of the debate.
  • Describes the current trends in the field of study, such as which interpretation is currently in the mainstream.
  • Allows the writer (that's you!) to position themselves in the field for their analysis.

Created, Updated, Adapted

Created by Alan Witt 02/2012.  Updated by Alan Witt 04/2012.  Updated by Michaela Keating 11/2013.  Adapted by Jillian Maynard 07/2017.  Updated by Taylor St. Pierre 7/2021.

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