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HIS397 - Seminar in Comparative History

The Process of Writing a Historiography

Think of working on your historiography as a multi-step process:

  1. Identify the main themes or schools of thought related to your topic.
  2. Find books and articles on these themes/schools of thought.
  3. Read and analyze each book or article. (It may be helpful to write an Annotated Bibliography entry for each source as you read, and to take very good notes so you do not have to re-read the work.)
  4. Compare all of the sources (It may be helpful to use an organizational tool such as an Article Analysis Matrix).
  5. Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your historiography (make an outline).
  6. Write your historiography.
  7. Don't forget to include the sources you discuss in your historiography in the Bibliography at the end of your paper, and to cite them properly with the text! (Use the Citing Sources page of this Course Guide if you need citation help)

Synthesizing Sources In-Class Activity

Historiographic Approaches

A historiography is not the same as an annotated bibliography. The point of a historiography is to analyze how history has been discussed by historians (the "history of history"). You should not summarize each source you are reading in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight how the research on a certain topic has evolved.

4 ways to organize a historiography:

  • Historiographical-Evolution approach: Use this approach to compare a group of comparable secondary works that deal with closely related questions and show a clear evolution of viewpoints over time. This approach might begin by discussing a fundamental book that set forth important theses on a historical topic and then looking at subsequent publications that challenged those theses, perhaps substituting a new general interpretation that was subsequently revised in its turn. In an essay of this sort, you tend to treat each successive publication as a response to the earlier ones; your job as historiographical analyst is to show how this conversation among historians proceeded and what ending point it finally reached.  In such an essay, you would usually discuss each book in turn, normally in chronological order.
  • Rival-Schools approach: You may find that your readings reflect differing approaches to a subject. In this case, it may make more sense to present the major interpretations of a problem as examples of competing historiographical or ideological approaches. In this case, the chronological order in which works appeared may be less important, since you may be suggesting that different interpretations have co-existed with each other over time, rather than one replacing the other. Here your emphasis would be on explaining the logic of each explanation and its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Different Aspects of the Problem approach: Sometimes one constructs a historiographical essay by treating the different works you read, not as competing attempts to explain a single central problem, but as different perspectives that add up to a larger whole. It would make more sense to talk about the different kinds of information one can extract from each of these sources, and how they may complement or undermine each other.  While such an approach would be natural in dealing with primary sources, it may also be used in discussing secondary literature.
  • Thematic approach: In the three schemes of organization discussed above, the essay would normally be organized as a succession of sections, each discussing a particular book, held together by an introduction explaining why you are discussing these books and a conclusion recapitulating the argument you have made about how they are related. A completely different approach would start by defining several issues or themes that are found in all the books you have read, and then discussing each issue in turn, comparing and contrasting what each of your authors says about it. In this case, your discussion of any one book will be broken up into sections dealing with the way your themes are treated in it. 

See http://www.uky.edu/~popkin/650%20HolocaustSyl_files/Historiographical%20Essay.htm for more info.

Example Article Analysis Matrix

Create a matrix by listing the sources you want to analyze in the top row of the matrix, and the major themes in the far left column. You will then review each article to see what themes are covered in that article. Check the appropriate boxes for what themes are discussed in each article. When you are done, you will be able to easily see which articles share common themes, and where there are gaps in the research regarding coverage of certain concepts.


Source 1

Source 2

Source 3

Source 4

Example Article Analysis Matrix
Theme 1 X X X X
Theme 2     X  
Theme 3     X X
Theme 4 X   X  
Theme 5 X X    

What does this example matrix tell you? What themes are well covered in the literature? Which are lacking? What do the different articles have in common?