Historiography: Introduction

Theories and Perspectives of Doing History

History is about doing work to recapture a representation of reality no longer present. It is the gap between experience now and having had experience that a historian somehow seeks to bridge.

It is not as simple as finding the sources and retelling the experience. As doing history gets under way, many issues are raised about the reliability of sources and the nature of accounts recreated. Some of these issues are unique to history, and some issues exists in other disciplines of a generally literary nature. Terminologies, like postmodern, are shared though shift their meanings according to the focii of each discipline.

There are a number of historiographies:

Empirical The simplest and purest use of reliability-tested documentary sources, and one which would dismiss all these following categories as jargon: rather, are they doing history or not?
Quantitative Issues relating to mass data and problem solving in perspective.
Annales French school of changing emphases, from geographical overviews of total history to quantitative problem solving.
Sociological Patterns of collective social causality in the analysis of the past, either collective-conflict, collective-consensual or symbolic-individual-in society or meaning-action into a collective rationale.
Marxist Economic base and superstructure of ideology and institutions understanding of the past to produce a total history.
Gender Not simply putting women back into the picture but having a feminist perspective and understanding that what was universal was often male in gender and looking at systemic and patriarchal aspects.
Pyschohistory Particularly psychoanalysis and personal childhood and sexual based reasons why some people come to do what they do.
Oral A methodology of past memories, deemed by many to be slippery but showing that understanding the past relates to present constructions of it.
Ethnohistory Closest to cultural and social anthropology, distant in time as well as space and principally the study of simpler ritualistic societies.
Postcolonial Correcting many assumptions of the past which created a Other and Primitive and Oriental distanced in space, producing authentic histories of struggle and indigenous self-understanding.
Narrative History as story telling, producing a focussed tale of the past which shares fictive literary characteristics, understanding also that the past understood itself as a narrative and trying to into that just as does the historical novel.
Poststructural History looks at the past as a set of discourses subject to deconstructive analysis to show hidden yet contained views; but the history produced is a set of discourses subject to the same deconstruction now. Fact and fiction have little difference but historical sources are still important.

These colour how historical facts or representations make it to the historical account, through different authors, interpretations and biases. Every window is coloured and every window has an affect (view) on another window.

Empirical All other perspectives muddy the waters of a clear inductive process: calling it reconstructionist is word play.
Quantitative Words in other perspectives do not have the same overview force of mass trends (Annales being a matter of fashion at any one time).
Annales No other perspective provides the necessary totality of view about how people perceived themselves as actors.
Sociological Others ignore collective and individuals in community. social causal forces (Annales being a matter of fashion at any one time).
Marxist All other perspectives are economic based ruling class based and promote conservative ideology, especially empirical.
Gender All the perspectives including Marxism generate universals which are often riddles with gender partiality.
Pyschohistory The others are collective or ignorant of the critical place of the individual actor's psychosexual formation towards action (e.g. political)
Oral The other perspectives perhaps forget or take insufficent account of the fact that we construct history from the present day into the past.
Ethnohistory People live in meaning enhanced worlds which only one part of sociology, and then often imposed, seem to ignore, and this is the necessary analysis that oral history polds away at with its method.
Postcolonial A systemic approach like Marxism may be useful but is not the only way to analyse the labelling of others and the distancing of self superiority.
Narrative No matter what methods or overviews the others have, in the end someone has to reduce all the primary data to a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end (emplotment). Historians are auters!
Poststructural This history is like the narrative approach (but it does not stop there) with the perspective that all texts are discourses which contain within them hidden and opposite meanings which reveal out many meanings in a variety of potential narratives. It means that documents of authorities can be read for the opposite meanings contained within using a deconstruction process.

The issue here is what constitutes objectivity. Perspectives except the narrative and poststructural present their own objectivity solution. Empiricism has a correspondence view of truth between the language of the source and the reality it describes. Some histories see the need to leave the present, whereas others (oral, poststructural/ postmodernist - the narrative aims to get into the essence of the past) see that the present is significant.

Selection is necessary, guided by the perspective. The historian has to choose the right facts and their correct significance (Carr, 1964, 123; Marwick, 1989, 194). For E. H. Carr, an "historical fact", a piece of historical data, and gains its status through use by many reliable historians (a consensus view of truth). This historical fact is a status well above what might be called a raw "fact of history", which may lie unused as a piece of historical data.

So the issue then becomes who is a reliable historian, and whether many of these perspectives are principally about history. Is Michael Foucault of New History fame (a development of postmodernism: discourses produced in time) really a historian, for example (to select but one).

Arthur Marwick (Marwick, 1989, 195) (an empiricist, sometimes called reconstructionist, as in Munslow, 2001) points out that the trained historian would actually focus not on the take-up by historians but the reliability of the historical evidence. For Marwick, the interesting area is not around these facts at all, but the business of drawing interpretation from sources, reliable or otherwise (Marwick, 1989, 198).

This then brings the matter back to interpretation, but the issue is how much the perspective determines the selection of historical data in the first place as well as interpretation to follow.

For some, perspectives offer a scientific or semi-scientific bases for this selection, with deductive method, and history itself is a science in the cause. For others, history is a writing art with perhaps a strict method - although this definition by division is not universal as, for example, Marwick sees history as science (Marwick, 1989, 249). It builds from the evidence rather than tests out a theory. Reconstructionists oppose philosophising and testing theories of explanation using historical sources.

Not surrounded by people in activity, as is the anthropologist, the historian sifts through meaningful data and sometimes this data is witting and unwitting (Marwick, 1989, 216-220) so the historian is doing an analytical interpretive task even at the purest level.

The empirical position has its influence elsewhere through applying a craft of intended reliability, close and careful application, and using a language as strictly as possible in the translating of sources into an account of the past.

Questions surely for any historian about any source:

The source may contain some of these answers. The context of the source may suggest some of these answers. Some related work elsewhere may suggest some of the answers. There may be nothing but the text to go on. There may be a perspective to help answer.

A soft approach to a perspective is to work on the documents inductively (what possibilities does this evidence suggest?) and then look around for additional assistance from one of these theoretical positions. A hard approach to a perspective is to come at the evidence from a perspective point of view deductively (here is my theory, does this evidence prove or disprove?). The issue is whether the latter approach is history.

Whatever, the fact is that history is mixed in with other perspectives. We no longer treat language transparently, gender issues in the production and interpretation of evidence matter, as do the postcolonial approaches, there has been a linguistic turn, we do know that so much meaning is wrapped up in humankind's ability to tell stories, people do tell of the past from a construction in the present, and meaning gets put into statistics and even challenges their production. The dissolving of disciplines has affected history too.

Adrian Worsfold


Carr E. H. (1964), What is History? London: Pelican

Joyce, P., 'History and Postmodernism' in Jenkins, K. (ed.) (1997), The Postmodern History Reader, London: Routledge, 244-249.

Marwick, A. (1989), The Nature of History, London: MacMillan, first published 1970.

Marwick, A. (2001), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave, 1-20.

Marwick, A. (2001), What is History? Book Review: Author's Response: Marwick, A. (2001), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/marwick2.html [Accessed September 19, 2003, 22:16]

McCullagh, C. B. (1998), The Truth of History, London: Routledge.

Munslow, A. (1997), Deconstructing History, London: Routledge.

Munslow, A. (2001), What is History? Book Review: Marwick, A. (2001), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/munslow5.html [Accessed September 19, 2003, 22:04]

Spiegel, G., 'History, Historicism and the Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages' in Jenkins, 1997, 180-203.

Stone, L., 'History and Postmodernism' in Jenkins, 1997, 242-243.