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Write a Historiography

What is historiography?

Historiography means “the writing of history.” In a research paper, the writer asks questions about the past, analyzes primary sources, and presents an argument about historical events, people, or societies. In a historiography paper, the author critiques, evaluates, and summarizes how historians have approached, discussed, and debated certain topics over time. 

Scholars who work with the same historical records and archival materials can often come away from their research with vastly different opinions about why things happened the way they did. In some cases, historians who study the same sources are not even interested in the same topics or people! This variety of approaches is precisely why we write historiographies.  

Historians arrive at such different conclusions for many reasons. One is that historians are individuals with unique experiences, and our experiences and identities often affect how we approach our work. Historians are also influenced by social, cultural, political, and technological events in their lifetimes. For example, the introduction of computers allowed historians to use more quantitative data in their research, while social and political developments (e.g., civil, gay, and women’s rights movements) continue to influence the kinds of questions historians ask about historical subjects. 

In a historiographical paper, the author (that’s you!) examines the sources, theories, and assumptions that historians have used to conduct their research. Your job is then to explain why and how the history of a particular subject has been written the way it has.  

Writing historiography is a lot like writing a literature review. For this reason, many of the links and resources in this LibGuide will direct you towards existing Library resources for writing literature reviews.

What is the purpose of a historiography paper?

Historiography assignments typically have two goals:  

  • They encourage you to explore secondary studies and familiarize yourself with scholarly debates within the history of a given topic.  
  • They also help you to get a sense of:  
    • how historians have treated a topic in the past,  
    • how they have used novel approaches and methodologies to ask new questions, and 
    • how other disciplines like anthropology, sociology, literary critique, and psychology have influenced the work of historians.  

Your instructor might leave the approach up to you or they might encourage you to write a specific kind of historiography. For example, your paper might:  

  • analyze how contemporary or near-contemporary historians interpreted or explained past events as or just after they occurred,  
  • review how historians have approached a specific topic over time and explain why their methods and assumptions have produced different or similar arguments, or 
  • compare how historians from different “schools” of thought have treated the same topic.  

Depending on the nature of your paper and argument, you might end up combining some of these approaches, for example, by dividing your paper chronologically and discussing the branches of history that were popular during each period.  

What are the different branches of history?

There are many fields and subfields within history, each with its own theoretical assumptions and methodological trends, but this list of the most common ones will help you get started: 

  • Art history  
  • Cultural history  
  • Diplomatic history  
  • Economic history  
  • Environmental history  
  • History of science  
  • Intellectual history  
  • Political history  
  • Social history 
  • Women’s and gender history 

What are the parts of a historiography paper?

Like most history papers, the historiography follows a traditional essay structure with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The major difference is that the analysis focuses on the secondary sources, as opposed to the primary sources.  

What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources are the sources created by or about our historical subjects, during or slightly after the period we study. They can be firsthand accounts of historical events (newspapers, chronicles, diaries, letters, memoirs, or court documents) or sources that were produced during or just after the period we study (books, songs, films, art, or artifacts). The most important distinction is that most of these sources do not contain any big-picture analysis of the past: they are sources or materials that get us as close to our subjects as possible, to help us understand how they thought, believed, and lived.  

Secondary sources are the texts that contain research produced by historians who have analyzed primary sources to learn more about the past. To help the reader understand their arguments, the authors of historical studies interpret, analyze, and synthesize information from primary sources and the research of other historians. Peer-reviewed articles, books, and conference papers are all considered secondary sources.  

Introduction

  • Purpose  
    • To explain the focus and show the importance of the subject.  
  • In general, your introduction should  
    • provide the framework, selection criteria, or parameters of your historiography.  
    • provide brief background context for the topic being discussed.   
    • outline what kind of work has been done on the topic.  
    • briefly point out any controversies within the field or any recent research that has raised questions about earlier assumptions, if they are relevant to your paper.  
    • conclude with a purpose or thesis statement.  
      • In a stand-alone historiography paper, the thesis statement will sum up and evaluate the current state of research on this topic.  
      • In a historiography paper that introduces or is preparatory to an argumentative history paper or graduate thesis, the thesis statement will situate your original research within the existing historiographical debates and help to justify your work by proving what is new or interesting about your chosen approach.  

Body

  • Purpose:  
    • To summarize and evaluate the current state of historical knowledge about this subject.  
    • To note major themes or topics, the most important trends, and any findings on which researchers agree or disagree.  
  • Structure:  
    • Can be divided by subheadings, but this is usually not necessary in papers shorter than 2,000 words.  
  • If the historiography is preliminary to your own thesis or research project, its purpose is to make an argument that will justify your proposed research. It will explain the importance of the field and situate your research in the context of past studies while focusing on research that leads directly to your own project.  
    • For example, a historiography section in a dissertation on memories of the Second World War might discuss how commemoration has been studied in the context of the First World War and the American Civil War, as well as broader cultures of commemoration in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the US.  

Conclusion

  • Purpose:   
    • To summarize the evidence presented and show its significance.  
    • Rather than restating your thesis or purpose statement, explain what your historiographical overview tells you about the current state of the field.  
  • If the historiography is an introduction to your own research, the conclusion highlights gaps and shows how earlier research has led to your own research project and chosen methodology.   
  • If the historiography is a stand-alone assignment for a course, the conclusion should summarize your findings and discuss implications and possibilities for future research.  

References

In most history courses at the University of Guelph, you will use Chicago Manual of Style’s notes and bibliography reference style (footnotes). Follow the guidelines to format citations (footnotes) and create a reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper.  

To get started with basic Chicago style, see the library’s quick guide on how to Cite Your Sources: Chicago Notes & Bibliography

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