Historiography is the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline. Briefly, it is the history of history. When you study historiography, you are not studying the past directly. Instead, you are studying the changing interpretations of past events through historians' eyes. For example, instead of studying the First Crusade, you'd study the ways individual historians have interpreted the First Crusade.
What are schools of history?
When a group of historians interpret historical events or eras through the same lens, those combined interpretations form what's called a historical school (essentially a school of thought about history). There are many different schools that all focus on different elements of history, such as politics, economics, and world cultures. One school of thought, Counterfactual History, is even designed at answering "what if" questions about historical events and looking at, hypothetically, how they might have happened rather than how they actually did. The Different Schools of Historiography: A Reference offers a detailed comparison of the different historical schools. Encyclopedia Brittanica also has a helpful collection on historiography from ancient to modern times, as well as different historiographic methods.
How do I start writing a historiography paper?
- Settle on a topic. You don't need to have your topic completely worked out, but you need to know the general way you want to go about the assignment. Your thesis will probably change as you read—don't worry, but you will eventually need to know where and when to start your research.
- Collect your sources. Collect a wide-range of sources. Since you're writing about the history of history, it is probably a good idea to make sure you get a multitude of different sources. However, this also will depend on what you're focusing on.
- Begin to read. It would take you a long time to read all of the works by all of your sources, so you'll want to develop some reading strategies that help you find the most pertinent information quickly. One time saver is to read the introduction and then the conclusion. Then, go chapter by chapter and read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. You should be able to get the general idea of what they are saying. If a source seems to be extremely relevant to your paper, you will want to take a closer look. Indexes are another helpful place to look up specific topics in reference books: find the topics that seem most directly related to your source and read them first; then, expand your research to the topics that seem "adjacent" to your source (related but not exactly what you were looking for) to find helpful information you may not have realized you needed.
- Take notes. You won't remember everything you read. The easiest way to keep track of all of your information is by taking notes. Make sure you write down the author, the year they wrote the source, and either their school of history or their general stance. If you're using actual printed sources, make sure to write down the page number where you found the information. We're also big fans of using sticky notes to mark pages and topics in books; this lets you include your thoughts about the topic without marking up and ruining a perfectly good textbook or library book. Taking notes will also help you when you're organizing your paper, and might even reveal some trends in history you didn't even notice before.
- Organize your notes. Decide how you want to approach your historiography. Is it going to be by date the source was written? The author's "school" of history? Their ethnicity?
- Write your paper. We've provided a helpful list of history writing tips, and you can find a guide to the entire writing process here.
- Don't just list historians and what they have written about a given topic. Instead, make sure you compare and contrast the arguments of all of the major scholars in the field,
- You must have an argument. Ask yourself what you're trying to say about in your historiography. Why is it relevant that there was increased sympathy for a certain ethnic group during a certain time period? How have our interpretations of Christopher Columbus changed over time?
- Organize your historians! Place your historians in specific categories, including their approaches and historical conclusions. It is also appropriate to categorize them by date, if you are making an observation about the period and what people were saying about a topic during that time.