Richardson's Rules of Order, Part IX: What is Historiography, Anyway?

Editor's note: Professor Richardson gave a wonderful lecture at ENC last night. Her talk, "Wounded Knee: Gilded Age Economics and the Road to an American Massacre," opened a window on her forthcoming book--out in 2010 with Basic Books. Heather is a obviously a terrific teacher. (Was nice to see some of her advice
about the history classroom shine through in person.) Her lecture led to some great discussion afterward.

What is Historiography, Anyway?

Heather Cox Richardson

Historiography is the study of the way historians have written about the past. It is NOT specifically about the particular events of the past, but rather about how historians have interpreted those events. For example: In the expansionist late nineteenth century, American historians tended to see the history of the American West as one of the triumph of civilization over savagery. During the 1930s, a time of depression and environmental disasters, historians saw western life as a product of environmental determinism. By 1970, in the midst of liberation movements, historians argued that Western history was about racism and the destruction of native peoples. During the 1980s—a time when western Republicans were revolting against Washington—historians looking at the American West focused on the role of the federal government there. In all these examples, historians were studying the same place and the same events, but they advanced very different theories about why things played out the way they did.

When I was in college, I found this an impossibly hard concept. It might have been easier if someone had explained to me why anyone bothers to study historiography. There are a number of reasons professional historians concern themselves with this seemingly odd pursuit.

First of all, the way someone interprets the past invariably says a great deal about the concerns of his or her own time. Studying historiography, then, often enables us to understand the past better.

People also study historiography because at different times, historians have advanced quite different theories about how and why things happen. Anyone interested in how human societies work will want to read a number of different theories and evaluate whether or not those theories seem to make sense in the present.

The study of historiography often helps to illuminate the work of other scholars. By understanding that one set of historians is responding to those that came before them, a reader can more clearly figure out what each scholarly group cared most about.

Historiography helps to sharpen critical thinking skills. How have different historians used the same evidence? Which is most convincing? Why? How can you learn from them to make your own arguments?

Generally, there are trends—at least loose ones—among historians of a certain era, making it possible to see “schools” of historical thought. Learning the skeletons of these “schools” can often speed up your work and make it more informed, enabling you to pull a book off the shelf and, by glancing at the author and the year in which it was written, to have a sense of the general theory the author will probably advance, along with the biases s/he will have.

It may be easier to understand the concept of historiography if you put the idea of it into a different context. Think of movie Westerns. Almost invariably, they deal with the Plains West from about 1860 to about 1900. But their interpretations of the events of those years are strikingly different. It’s impossible, for example, to image someone making Brokeback Mountain in 1950, or Stagecoach in the 1980s. Just as those movies tell us a great deal about both the eras in which they were made and the filmmaking theories under which they were filmed, so too can historiography tell us much that we need to know about society.