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History and Culture of Canada – Handout 1
Historiography means literally "history-writing" (Latin: historia, "story"; Greek: γραφειν,
(grafān), "to write").
Historiography is the study of how history is recorded and presented. In this
recording and presentation, we are faced with the problem of the meaning of the
word ‘history’: are past events ‘history’, or is it the description of the events that
is ‘history’?
Historiography asks questions both on a broad theoretical level, and on a more
practical or specific level.
Theoretical questions:
What is the purpose of writing history?
Should an historian interpret or merely report?
Is it even possible to report without interpreting?
Is bias unavoidable?
Is the past too complex to be described adequately?
More practical questions:
Has history focused unduly on famous men, and their warfare, whilst the actions
of un-famous people, collectively, or even individually, may have been more
What was the style of a particular historian or group of historians?
What were their biases?
How did they gather data?
What were their sources?
How did they organize their data?
Who were they working for?
Defining historiography
The modern study of historiography can be traced to E. H. Carr's 1961 work What
is History? (ISBN 0333977017). Carr challenged the traditional belief that the
study of the methods of historical research and writing were unimportant. His
work remains in print to this day, and is common to many postgraduate programs
of study in both the United States and in Great Britain.
Historiography is often political in nature. For example, much 1960s
historiography focused on the exclusion of the roles of women, minorities, and
labor from written histories of the USA. According to these historiographers,
historians in the 1930s and 1940s had a bias towards well-connected white
males. Many historians from that point onward devoted themselves to what they
saw as more accurate representations of the past, casting a light on those who
had been previously disregarded as non-noteworthy.
The study of historiography demands a critical approach that goes beyond the
mere examination of historical fact. Historiographical studies consider the
source, often by researching the author, his or her position in society, and the
type of history being written at the time.
Basic issues studied in historiography
Some of the common questions of historiography are:
Who wrote the source (primary or secondary)?
What is the authenticity, authority, bias/interest, and intelligibility of the
What was the view of history when the source was written?
History and Culture of Canada – Handout 1
Was history supposed to provide moral lessons?
What or who was the intended audience?
What sources were privileged or ignored in the narrative?
By what method was the evidence compiled?
In what historical context was the work of history itself written?
Issues engaged in so-called critical historiography includes topics such as:
What constitutes an historical ‘event’?
How does the medium (novel, textbook, film, theatre, comic) through which
historical information is conveyed influence its meaning?
How does the historian establish their own objectivity or come to terms with
their own subjectivity?
What is the ‘goal’ of history?
What is history?
Styles of History-writing
Annales School
Pioneered by French historians, the Annales school promoted a new form of
history, replacing the study of leaders with the lives of ordinary people and
replacing examination of politics, diplomacy, and wars with inquiries into climate,
demography, agriculture, commerce, technology, transportation, and
communication, as well as social groups and mentalities.
Big History
Big History is looking at the past on all time scales, from the Big Bang to
modernity, looking for common themes and patterns. It uses a multidisciplinary approach from the latest findings in biology, astronomy,
archeology, anthropology, etc.
Big History arose out of desire to go beyond the specialized and self-contained
fields that emerged in the 20th century and grasp history as whole looking for
common themes across the entire timescale of history. The study of history is
typically limited to the written word, yet this only encompasses the past 5000
years or so and leaves out the vast majority of history. Big History examines the
links between different fields of study and weaves a common narrative along
thematic lines.
History from below
History from below is a level of historical narrative, which was developed as a
result of the Annales School and popularized in the 1960s. This form of social
history focuses on the perspectives of ordinary individuals within society as
well as individuals and regions that were not previously considered historically
important. This includes women and the working class, as well as regions such
as India or Africa.
Marxist analysis
Marxist or historical materialist historiography is an influential school of
historiography. The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of
social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes.
Political history
Political history is what most people refer to simply as history. It is the statement
of various historical facts, dates of events, names of rulers, battles, court
intrigues, generals, kings, queens, presidents, revolutions, the
explanation of these events and people, timelines, etc.
It is history with an emphasis on the state. The first ‘scientific’ political history
was written by Leopold von Ranke, who helped reify the concept of nation. His
methodologies profoundly affected the way historians critically examine sources.
History and Culture of Canada – Handout 1
Social history
Social history is an area of historical study considered by some to be a social
science that attempts to view historical evidence from the point of view of
developing social trends. In this view, it may include areas of economic
history, legal history and the analysis of other aspects of civil society that show
the evolution of social norms, behaviors and mores. It is distinguished from
political history, military history and the so-called history of great men. Social
history can be considered ‘Grass- roots history’ because it deals with the
everyday people, the masses and how they shape history rather than the
leaders. While proponents of history from below and the French Annales school
of historians have considered themselves part of social history, it is seen as a
much broader movement among historians in the development of historiography.
Unlike other approaches, it tries to see itself as a synthetic form of history not
limited to the statement of so-called historical fact but willing to analyze historical
data in a more systematic manner. A question in social history is whether the
masses follow the leaders or whether it is the other way around.
An example of social history can be seen in the American Civil Rights Movement
of the 1950s and 1960s. Typical history would focus on the who, what, when and
where; whereas social history focuses on the causes of the movement itself.
Social historians would pose such questions as, “Why did the movement come
about when it did?”, and “What specific elements fostered the growth?” “What
elements hindered the development?” This approach is favored by scholars
because it allows for a full discussion on the sometimes less studied aspects. By
understanding the past, we can begin to understand who we are now.
Universal History
Basic ideas of universal history are so prevalent that they are difficult to separate
from basic Western assumptions of how the world is or should be. Outside some
intellectuals, such ideas continue to predominate as core assumptions. The
teleological aspects of universal history remain entrenched. Many people believe
that the events of our world, and more specifically, the events within the
human community, are directed toward an end or tending toward an end
of some sort.
‘Linear’ pre-suppositions of the theory are no less prevalent. Most people living in
Western cultures conceive of time, and therefore of history, as a line or an arrow,
that is proceeding from past to future, toward some end. The idea that time may
be cyclical, or that there is no fundamental “end” to the human struggle, is
World History
World History is a field of historical study that originated in the 1980s. It
examines history from a global perspective.
Unlike history writing of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, which focused
on narratives of individuals, national and ethnic perspectives, World History looks
for common patterns that emerge across all cultures. World historians use a
thematic approach, with two major focal points: integration (how the processes of
world history have drawn peoples of the world together) and difference (how the
patterns of world history reveal the diversity of the human experience).
The study of world history is in some ways a product of the current period of
accelerated globalization. This period is tending to both integrate various cultures
and to highlight their differences.
Questions for discussion in the next class:
Read the transcript of Dr. Ritter’s lecture: History is Dangerous. Which events in
history have been interpreted by historians in different ways?
History and Culture of Canada – Handout 1
What do you think about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Some suggest it was an inhuman and cruel event that killed ordinary people
not soldiers. Others insist that the bombing saved lives because if the US
had invaded Japan, millions would have died. Imagine you are a historian.
What do you write about this event?
Two years ago, some people suggested that Japan should not participate in
the Beijing Olympics because of China’s attitude toward Tibet. What do you
know about the history of Tibet? Use Google and Wikipedia. What do you find
out? Be aware of your sources.
The first technological civilizations developed in the Near East and China but
didn’t in Africa and America. Why? Is it because Eurasians are smarter than
Africans or Americans, or is there some other explanation. Some interesting
and controversial answers to this question can be found in the book, Guns,
Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.
Diamond, J. (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-03891-2.
Read this book or a review of this book in English or Japanese. What conclusions
does Dr. Diamond draw?