The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method

The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method

The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method

The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method


This is a practical guide to the historical study of international politics. The focus is on the nuts and bolts of historical research--that is, on how to use original sources, analyze and interpret historical works, and actually write a work of history. Two appendixes provide sources sure to be indispensable for anyone doing research in this area.

The book does not simply lay down precepts. It presents examples drawn from the author's more than forty years' experience as a working historian. One important chapter, dealing with America's road to war in 1941, shows in unprecedented detail how an interpretation of a major historical issue can be developed. The aim throughout is to throw open the doors of the workshop so that young scholars, both historians and political scientists, can see the sort of thought processes the historian goes through before he or she puts anything on paper. Filled with valuable examples, this is a book anyone serious about conducting historical research will want to have on the bookshelf.


My goal in this book is to provide a practical guide to the historical study of international politics—a guide to how historical work in this area can actually be done, a guide which people working in this field might actually find useful.

Is there any real need for a book of this sort? Historians have gotten by quite well over the years, or so it would seem, without paying much attention to issues of method. Charles Gillispie, the distinguished historian of science, remembered how he was trained in graduate school: “All that we students of history were taught to do, was to go look at the sources, all of them.” That was my experience too. What we historians got in terms of formal methodological training was fairly minimal. and yet isn't there more that can be given by way of guidance than just the simple piece of advice: “go look at the sources”? the sources, after all, cannot be approached in a totally mindless way. So isn't there something useful that can be said about how they should be approached?

I think there are things worth saying. One key point, for example, is that the evidence needs to be approached with specific questions in mind. To draw meaning from the sources you examine, you need to pose questions. But questions arise in your mind because you come to the subject at hand armed with a kind of theory, that is, with a general sense for how things are supposed to work. and to present conclusions—to make sense of the sources, to bring out the meaning of what was going on—you also have to draw on a certain sense for how things work.

It is for that reason that historical work, if it is to be of real value, has to have a strong conceptual core. That basic claim is scarcely original. I remember Sheldon Wolin arguing, when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960s, that at the heart of every great work of history lies a certain political theory, a certain conception of how politics works. (He was referring specifically to Thucydides.) I remember Edward Segel, in another class I took at about that time, pointing out that at the core of some major works of history lay a certain conception of “what makes history run.” (He was referring to Churchill's The Gathering Storm.) a good deal of what I am going to say in this book is nothing but a long footnote to points of that sort—to insights I absorbed as an undergraduate forty years ago.

Those insights are a point of departure for thinking seriously about issues of method. They imply in particular—and this is a major theme that will run

Charles C. Gillispie, “A Professional Life in the History of Science,” Historically Speaking 5,
no. 3 (January 2004): 3.

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