How Much Historiography Should Be Included in Essays?

By Claydon, John | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

How Much Historiography Should Be Included in Essays?


Claydon, John, History Review


One of the biggest problems that all history students face when they write essays is knowing when to refer to different historians and their views. This is especially the case in timed or examination answers when space is short. The problem exists because teachers and examiners, and even the historians who write books and articles, disagree themselves about what is appropriate. This article is intended to make you think carefully about the issue so that you can strike a sensible balance in the essays you write.

What we are dealing with here is historiography, literally the study of historical writing but more precisely the explanations and interpretations of historians. All historical topics have their own historiography, and most history books include a historiographical survey to help readers understand where the book fits in with previous research and writing on the same topic. For history students, therefore, coping with the historiography of the topic is not only a question of what to include in essay answers but what to read about the topic in the first place. Most students should have some knowledge of the views of leading current historians, for example John Guy on the Tudors, Barry Coward on the Stuarts or Denis Mack Smith on Fascist Italy, and it obviously helps to have read other authors too. Usually a textbook will be available, but its main purpose is to provide a detailed outline of the chronology of the period not of the historiography, and though there will be references to historians and their views there is not usually space for these to be fully explained. This is where the guidance of your teacher and of those series of books designed specifically to focus both on the content and historiography of a particular topic, such as Access to History or Seminar Studies, will be valuable.

Defining key terms

During the course of your reading you are bound to come across terms which categorise the broad approaches of historians, such as, for example, `structuralist' or `revisionist'. Few students are very confident about these terms, and many find them bewildering or even frightening, because they are rarely carefully explained. In fact they are difficult to define because they were usually devised, almost as terms of abuse, by historians taking a different view. You do, though, need to try to understand them because they help to outline the main interpretations of most topics.

Some terms are definitely worth getting to grips with.

Intentionalists essentially construct a case around the decisive impact of particular individuals or events.

Structuralists (or Functionalists as they are sometimes known) react specifically against the intentionalist approach and build up a picture of what happened through meticulous research, often at a very local level, and without any pre-conceived ideas.

Marxists work from the standpoint that economic forces are the main causal factor in historical change and development. This must be distinguished from the much cruder Marxist angle, used in the Soviet Union and by its supporters until well after Stalin's death in 1953, which employed whatever argument was deemed necessary to meet the requirements of Communist Party propaganda at the time.

Revisionist approaches are relatively recent, dating from the last quarter of a century at most, and challenge what had up till that time been accepted as orthodox or even definitive interpretations.

Historiographical examples

The debate between intentionalists and structuralists is clearly highlighted in interpretations of Nazi Germany. The intentionalists suggest that the history of Nazi Germany was basically the deliberate implementation by Hitler of the programme he had devised before he came to power. The structuralists argue that, far from tightly controlling everything that went on, Hitler presided over a Third Reich in which there was a huge degree of independence at every level of administration, and where the guiding criterion was what individuals in any position of authority interpreted as Hitler's wishes.

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How Much Historiography Should Be Included in Essays?
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