The Historiographical Essay
Professors occasionally call upon upper-level undergraduate and graduate students to write historiographical essays. It is an opportunity to consider a selection of publications about a specific topic in order to determine what historians have accomplished and what research awaits. Historiographical essays differ from other writings that consider the trends in the profession. A review essay in a journal weighs the merits of a small number of works and includes a good amount of detail about each book, so it is something between a book review and a historiographical essay. A bibliographical essay, often found in monographs, examines a large number of works linked to a topic that often are loosely tied to each other. Yet, as with a historiographical essay, the author of a bibliographical essay may make some references to accomplishments resulting from certain directions in research along with deficiencies in the literature. Historians increasingly include a literature review in the beginning of an article or monograph, a technique they learned from social scientists. In a paragraph or two, in the case of articles, or over the course of several pages, in the case of monographs, reviews of the literature explain how the author’s thesis relates to the work of other historians. Historiographical essays occasionally appear as articles in journals and can serve as models for students. Furthermore, graduate students’ historiographical essays sometimes appear on the Internet, as do some guides for writing them. What follows is one perspective on tackling such a project.
In some cases, a professor will set parameters for a historiographical essay. In other instances, the title of the course provides the only limit. Either way, the student will need to narrow the range of the essay. The first step is to select a general topic, which covers one aspect of the history of a country or region for a certain period of time. If the topic is too broad, the search for monographs, chapters, articles, dissertations, and other publications can yield scores or hundreds of works, generating an essay of little value. To rectify this difficulty, establish narrow geographical and chronological confines. Just as important is to focus on specific historiographical types (political, social, diplomatic, military, and so forth) or methods (narrative, biographical, quantitative, and the like). Another factor to consider is the age of the studies a student selects for the essay. Most historiographical essays cover new trends, so the publications will be relatively current, perhaps five or ten years; unexplored topics may lead the student to earlier works. Practicality may help determine the number of books under consideration. The bibliography for an essay of 15 pages may have around 15 entries, which would mean about one page for each item. Depending on the material and depth of analysis, even 15 entries may be too many. However, the author could include more sources were he or she to group works with similar analytical styles or outcomes. To build the bibliography, consult the bibliographies and citations of the most recent studies on a topic and scour the card catalogs of the best libraries for the chosen field of study. Publishers’ web sites include not only published books but those whose release is pending. Examining the book reviews of journals is another way to find sources, but it takes time to write and publish a review. Always check to see if journals or association newsletters publish a list of books received.
A student might be tempted to include in a historiographical essay a summary of the contents, reiteration of the thesis, and litany of faults, in addition to comments about the prose, information about each author, and other things one might find in a book review. A historiographical essay, however, is not a collection of book reviews knitted together in one long paper. Similarly, it is not a summary of historians’ factual presentations. Instead, it is a well-integrated analysis of authors’ methods and interpretations of events. It is a critical view of the evolution of historical thinking and the state of the profession that has an extremely narrow depth of field.
Given a dozen historiographical essays, one might find as many approaches. One possibility is to consider how an author’s work inspired others in order to uncover the evolution of thought about a topic. A second is to determine how well historians employ a certain methodology on a given topic, such as an evaluation of histories using quantitative analysis, biography, oral history, or economic history. A third option is to examine specific types of historical works, such as urban history, labor history, gender studies, demographic history, or legal history. Fourth, a historiographical essay can weigh the different outlooks that color the works of historians. They may reflect a political bias–liberal, conservative, religious, anticlerical, agrarian, environmentalist, socialist, communist, and more. Historians may have different views based on their ethnic background. Often, historians associate themselves with schools of thought, that is, intellectual trends. Fifth, historians frequently debate, challenging or supporting the viewpoints of others. Works that fit into this category give the author of a historiographical essay a chance to contribute to that debate in the role of an impartial observer or as the advocate of one side or another. Sixth, the author of the historiographical essay may conclude that a group of historical studies has little in common in terms of methodology or type of history, nevertheless they collectively construct a broad perspective on a particular subject. In such instances, a historiographical essay essentially can place the historical works on a concept map or topic map to determine how close the literature as a whole gets to describing accurately a particular issue. All of the factors that motivate historians and tools they use can serve as the groundwork for a historiographical essay. Of course, it is possible to combine the various approaches of historians to a topic, adding more complexity to the analysis.
While researching and reading, devise a common set of questions to assess how historians proceeded with their work. The organization of their studies, the primary and secondary evidence they used, and the types of archives they visited all may be important. Other questions may involve determining the individual and common faults of the authors as well as their strengths. Also consider how the research changed over time, that is, is how the profession has developed with respect to a particular issue. Determine how the authors as a group add to the understanding of their common topic. Answering this last question will enable the author of a historiographical essay to draft the most significant element of the piece: judging what the historical profession needs to deepen the knowledge of a subject. In other words, the author must devise a thesis that explains to the reader what historians have missed or what the next logical advance in analysis should be.
Far from a mundane exercise, historiographical essays serve some important purposes. First, they allow students to become acquainted with a new body of literature and sometimes a totally new subject. Second, they enable students to bank on their existing knowledge of methods and types of history in one field and apply it to another or to learn about new historical methodologies or types. Third, they hone students’ ability to analyze historical trends or schools of thought. Fourth, students become acquainted with how historians use evidence and archives as well as how they develop innovative theses. Finally, students can suggest possibilities for future research. This last item helps them to think creatively about historical research, and they can apply their innovative research ideas either to the field their essay examined or to a totally different area. As a result, many excellent research papers, articles, and even dissertations have emerged from historiographical essays.