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Write a Historiography

1. Narrow your topic and select books and articles accordingly

Consider your specific area of study. Think about what interests you and other researchers in your field.  

Talk to your professor or TA, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and current issues in periodicals in the field.  

Limit your scope appropriately based on the assignment guidelines (i.e., focusing on France's role in the Second World War, not the whole world, or on the legal agency of women in medieval Scotland, not all medieval European women). 

2. Search for literature

Define your source selection criteria (i.e., articles published within a specific date range or written through specific historical lenses; or research applying specific theories and methodologies or focusing on a specific geographic region, chronological period, or historical event).  

Using keywords, search a library database. If you need help finding the literature, contact a librarian through 

Published articles and books always cite earlier studies in the footnotes, endnotes or bibliography: you can use these to trace the development of the subject.  

Include studies with conflicting points of view to help create a more engaging discussion within your historiographical paper.  

3. Read the selected books and articles thoroughly and evaluate them

Evaluate and synthesize the studies' findings and conclusions.  

Note the following:  

  • assumptions some or most historians seem to make.  
  • methodologies, theories, and sources that historians have used to answer historical questions.  
  • experts in the field, usually recognized as names that come up repeatedly in the literature (cited in the text or in the footnotes).  
  • conflicting assumptions, theories, methodologies, and types of sources.  
  • popular theories and interpretations, and how these have changed (or not) over time.  

You may not agree with everything you read and, indeed, the point of historiography is to critique (positively and constructively) the work of other historians on a given subject. With that in mind, remember the following historical conventions:  

  • Respect your subject. 
    • Someone writing in 1883 about the Norman Conquest of 1066 may not consider questions that are central to more recent kinds of history, but this does not mean that earlier historians and antiquarians were unqualified, unintelligent, or uninformed: they simply had different biases and experiences. These are worth discussing (for example, it might be worthwhile to compare how Protestant and Catholic historians of the late nineteenth century wrote about the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation) but avoid condemning the authors outright without a thoughtful explanation of your critiques.  
  • Try not to apply modern worldviews or beliefs to past subjects or historians (this is called anachronism). 
    • Consider why historians writing in the 1930s were not engaging with questions about gender history and compare the outcomes of their methods and research to the arguments being made by feminist scholars writing since the 1970s. Dig into how different theories, assumptions, and methodologies have led scholars to different conclusions about the same events. 

4. Organize the selected sources by looking for patterns and by developing subtopics

Note the following: 

  • Findings that are common/contested. 
  • Important trends in the research. 
  • Popular sources, important theories, and common methodologies. 
  • Chronological change or continuity in the dominant trends. 
    • For example, the histories of many topics, regions, and periods have had “phases” like the Great Man Theory of History, the Cultural Turn, Feminist History, Disability Studies, and Queer History. Each of these has been tied to contemporary social changes, such as interest in nationalism during and after the World Wars, influences from sociology and anthropology, and different waves of social justice activism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Tip: If your historiography is extensive, find a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or filing cards to organize all your findings into categories.

  • Move them around if you decide that (a) they fit better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings. 
  • Develop headings/subheadings that reflect the major themes and patterns you detected. 

5. Develop a thesis statement

Write a one- or two-sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been conducted on your subject.

Some example statements to help you get started are: 

  • Historians disagree about X (your topic), but I am the most convinced by the scholars who say Y because… 
  • Historians disagree about X (your topic), but there is something bigger going on, and the whole debate should be reframed with Y in mind. 
  • Historians have come to a consensus about X (your topic), but I disagree and propose a different interpretation (e.g., one that considers gender, one that takes a middle view, or one that incorporates underused primary sources). 

Explore the following library resources to help you create and revise your thesis statement: 

Note: The thesis statement is typically located in the first paragraph of a short paper (fewer than 2000 words) but can be left to the second paragraph of a larger paper (more than 2000 words) if you feel the reader needs more contextual or background information before you begin your argument. 

6. Draft the paper

Follow the organizational structure you developed above, including any headings and subheadings you constructed. 

Make certain that each section links logically to the one before and after. 

Structure your sections by themes or subtopics, not by individual theorists or researchers. 

  • Tip: If you find that each paragraph begins with a researcher's name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done. 

Prioritize analysis over description. 

  • For example, look at the following two passages and note that Student A merely describes the literature. The writing is strong, but Student A has not explained how these two historians came to different conclusions. The paragraph would be stronger if it followed Student B’s approach. 
  • Student B takes a more analytical and evaluative approach by comparing the methods and sources used by the historians. One thing to look for (and use) in historiographical writing is keywords that suggest there is some evaluation happening. Here, Student B makes logical connections (“conversely,” “this is due to,” and “as a result”). These techniques demonstrate Student B's ability to synthesize knowledge and explain the differences in the studies based on the sources used. 

Student A: Keith M. Brown argues that, although James VI had clear ideas about what he wanted the reformed Scottish and English churches to look like, he relied on his relationships with magnates and ministers to ensure the speed, success, and cohesion of reform efforts. A different scholar, Julian Goodare, argues that James VI came awfully close and indeed, in some cases, succeeded at reorganizing Scotland’s dissident authoritative bodies—the kirk, nobility, parliament, and crown—into a centralized and moderately absolutist government. According to Goodare, by the end of James VI’s reign, the state attained sufficient command of its organization to reintroduce an episcopal structure to the contemporary kirk. It also gained the authority to define the role of church and state in the trial and conviction of moral and criminal offences. In other words, the crown itself wielded sufficient authority to govern independently, and Scottish nobles acquiesced to or resisted its demands as they performed their institutional duties, with varying rewards and consequences.

Student B: Julian Goodare and Keith Brown have reached quite different conclusions about the role that the Scottish nobility played in helping or hindering the efforts of Protestant reformers.  This is due in part to the bodies of sources each employed. Brown drew on a wide variety of archival sources that provided insight into the lives of individuals and families: family papers and letters, local court records, and documents relating to bloodfeud. For Brown, these records demonstrate that, although James VI had clear ideas about what he wanted the reformed Scottish and English churches to look like, he relied on his relationships with magnates and ministers to ensure the speed, success, and cohesion of reform efforts. Conversely, Goodare offers a more traditional political examination of Scotland’s development from a medieval kingdom into an early modern state. After consulting crown financial documents, proceedings of the general assemblies, state papers, and the records of the privy seal records and justiciary court, Goodare argues that James VI came awfully close and indeed, in some cases, succeeded at reorganizing Scotland’s dissident authoritative bodies—the kirk, nobility, parliament, and crown—into a centralized and moderately absolutist government. As a result, the concepts of personal kingship and crown-magnate negotiations of power so central to Brown’s analysis are absent from Goodare’s assessment, in which the latter argues that the crown itself wielded sufficient authority to govern independently and that Scottish nobles merely acquiesced to or resisted its demands as they performed their institutional duties.

Note: These examples have been reproduced and modified with the permission of the student author. For the purposes of these example paragraphs, citations have been omitted, but you should always indicate your sources using footnotes.

7. Review your work

Content 

Make an outline of each section of the paper and decide whether you need to add information, delete irrelevant information, or re-structure sections.  

Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you find that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? The topic sentences of each paragraph should indicate the main points of your historiography. 

Read your work aloud (or use the speech-to-text feature in your word processor to have the computer read it to you). That way you will be better able to identify where you need punctuation marks to signal pauses or divisions within sentences, where you have made grammatical errors, or where your sentences are unclear. 

Avoid over-generalizations: societies are made up of individuals and they vary regionally and temporally. Starting your paper with “Since the first history was written...” or claiming that "scholars agree that the Enlightenment was the Age of Reason” is neither specific nor accurate. 

Evidence 

Since the purpose of historiography is partly to demonstrate that the writer is familiar with the important literature on the chosen subject, check to make certain that you have covered a broad selection of the important, up-to-date, and pertinent texts. What is considered relevant will depend on your subject, region, and period. Good strategies are to pick a few monographs from each decade of the past fifty years and to follow up on authors whose names show up frequently in the historiography sections of other papers. If you need help, ask your instructor or TA for advice once you have picked your topic. 

Check to make sure that you have not plagiarized either by failing to cite a source of information or by using words quoted directly from a source. (Usually, if you take four or more words—in a row—directly from another source, you should put those words within quotation marks, and cite the page.) 

Formatting 

Make certain that all the citations and references are correct and that you are using the appropriate formatting style for your discipline. Most history courses at the University of Guelph ask that you use the Chicago Manual of Style: Notes & Bibliography. If you are uncertain which style to use, ask your instructor.

Sentences should flow smoothly and logically. The text should be written in a clear and concise academic style; it should not be descriptive in nature or use the language of everyday speech (colloquialisms, slang) or excessive disciplinary jargon (specialist words). There should be no grammatical or spelling errors. 

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