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.
Historiography assignments typically have two goals:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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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