What is Historiography?

In the second part of our series looking at the academic discipline of history, we offer a more practical look at the purpose and utility of historiography.  We will examine how to approach writing historiography, some difficulties with it, and its value for students.

Historiography is a term familiar to upper-year history students, graduate students and academic historians.  It is perhaps simply explained as “the history of history.”  Historiography is the body of literature on a historical subject. It is most often found in the first chapter of a book or the introductory pages of an article, but it can also be hidden away in long, explanatory footnotes. 

Historians examine historical sources by asking questions of them. These sources can be a document, a painting, a video or audio recording, etc. Essentially, any information preserved from the past, from any medium.  Their role is to edit the long list of things that “we know” about a subject.  They add to or correct the list through the questions that they ask.  So historiography traces this evolution of historians' ideas about a specific topic, place or event and how what “we know” about the past changed.  It includes all books and articles published by historians and examines what questions they ask about a specific subject or theme, how they ask those questions, and the answers they found.  It can be as broad as a review of "19th Canadian History" or as narrow as exploring "Durham Township History from 1825-1848." Both strive for the same basic task of exploring what historians have previously written on a topic. It is also required of most undergraduate and graduate students taking history classes. Such assignments take long hours of reading and difficult writing, and usually includes at least one moment where you ask yourself: Why is it so important to know what past historians wrote? 

The answer, like so many topics in academia, requires some explanation. 

At its core, historiography represents a historians' answer to two fundamental questions that underpin any historical work: Is it authoritative? Is it original?  Does the historian have the authority to ask new questions or ask them in new ways? If you cannot demonstrate that you have the authority to speak on the topic and that your work has value to historical scholarship, you are missing a vital aspect of a worthwhile academic contribution.  So historiography is more than just a review of books, it is a vital process for historians to gauge the value of their work.  When it doesn't meet that criteria, such as when they can't establish their authority or it's not original, or both, it is sign for a historian to return to the archives or to their word processor.  A strong work of academic history should have an equally strong historiographical base.

By examining a group of historians rather than individuals ones, we can understand the importance of  historians' authority and originality.  A historian must establish their authority to shape our knowledge of the past by demonstrating their understanding of it. Authority is proven by a comprehensive review of the literature on a subject. This review demonstrates that the author knows enough about the topic to present an argument on it. The naming and discussion of each historian who has written on their topic are flags for other historians.  If all the important ones are named, then the author has read enough to add on to, correct or change older arguments.  A historiography also serves to inform the reader of the context surrounding the author's contribution.  What other questions have been asked about this historical period, individual or event? What were their answers?  What were their weaknesses and strengths?

Thus historiography is an inherently conservative endeavour. By invoking other historians and their work, each work of academic history builds upon past scholarship. That obligation to acknowledge those who have "come before" represents the kernel of conservatism - that there is a value in what has already been established. New approaches are not dismissed, but it is difficult to present work that discards all previous scholarship without backlash. Even the most novel of arguments must at least accept that the work which has come before them was valuable in some way - but perhaps limited because of incomplete sources, bias or some other reason. 

There are exceptions to this rule.  The history written by Marxist historians was by definition revolutionary and sought to challenge authority. Karl Marx believed that society's view of history had to be understood through class warfare.  He believed that everyone before him, with the exception of a small coterie of intellectuals, got history wrong. Historians following this approach focused on inequalities which explained social tension and eventually societal transformations.  The “authority” of older historians was illegitimate.  Marxist historians' challenge of authority eventually resulted in whole new fields of history, as scholars began to examine areas outside of the traditional subjects of political and military history.  History turned from being purely “top-down,” or the history of states and other suprastructures, to previously excluded areas of history, such as examinations of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.  Though that shift has led many historians to ask important questions of the discipline's traditional values, there is still an element of conservatism engrained in the practise of historiography, even among the fields which originated in rejecting authority.  They have developed their own historiographical progression and their own history of history. Though, they acknowledge the authority of past Marxist historians instead.

Assessing the past works of other historians does more than assert authority, it also emphasizes the originality of scholarship.  The value of a historian's contribution becomes clear only after explaining “what is known” about a subject.  Otherwise, it is not clear that they are doing something new or different. Originality is based on historians asking new questions, but it is sometimes the result of discovering new sources.

An excellent example of this process is the historiography on William Lyon Mackenzie King.  King was Canada's longest serving Prime Minister who formed Liberal governments from 1921-1925, 1926-1930, and 1935-1948. He was originally remembered after his death in 1950 as one of Canada's most effective politicians, though whether that was a compliment or an insult may have depended on whether you were a Liberal or a Tory. In the 1960s, it was discovered that he also wrote daily in a diary, describing the events of the day and his thoughts on them.  Though his estate had ordered the diaries burned, they were preserved by his executor who understood their great historical value. C.P. Stacey was the first historian to read the diaries, quickly realizing how little Canadians had actually known about their wartime Prime Minister.  Stacey subsequently published A Very Double Life, revealing King's nighttime walks to “save” prostitutes (we aren't sure if he did anything more than that), talking to his deceased Aunt and dog, and other strange behaviours.  From one book, the entire historiography on King was transformed.  No future work could ignore the revelations from these new sources.  As a result, historians asked different questions about King, ones that took into account his private life.  New sources being discovered is rare though, more often it is the thrill of posing new questions to the past, and finding their answers, that inspires historians. 

One illustration of this is the development of Aboriginal History in Canada.  For decades, Aboriginals were discussed in Canadian history as passive agents.  Historians only asked questions about Aboriginals as external forces, unimportant influences on the political and economic history of Canada.   Harold Innis’ The Fur Trade in Canada is representative of such work.  It was a comprehensive look at the Canadian fur trade, but Aboriginals took a passive, background role. They were important in so far as they had affected European settlement.  Only as publications like Arthur Ray’s Indians in the Fur Trade in 1974 were produced did historians begin to address a more complete picture of Aboriginals.  Instead of asking about the European role in the fur trade aided by Aboriginals, Ray turned it around and asked what was the Aboriginal role in the European fur trade.  He argued that they actively and knowledgeably interacted with European traders and communities on a commercial level.  They were not inert actors, but rather had a dynamic role and the ability to shape their circumstances. They possessed an agency over their lives and their role in the fur trade.  The new questions Ray asked and the new answers he discovered helped push historians to study Aboriginals as real people in real situations, not as inactive figures whose sole purpose in the historical record was to interact with Europeans colonizers.

A poorly thought-out historiography has consequences for the rest of an article or book as well.   For us, describing the past as accurately as possible and considering the knowledge that was known at the time is the most important aspect of our profession. Sometimes historiography hinders this goal. Good writing of history requires a balance between authority and originality.  Every historian must decide where they lay between the two in their historiography section. Too much authority turns into unquestioning acceptance of arguments or sources and a lack of original thought. Or, basing an argument too much on historians' work rather than sources can remove an argument from historical context. Likewise, too much emphasis on the originality of an argument or sources over the work of other historians might ignore their valuable conclusions.  Unknowingly, the argument might have already been made or rejected.  The conservatism of the historian's craft is necessary so that we can be confident about judging a work's value and stagnant or disconnected scholarship has little value at all.

The ordinary person, or at least ones not pursuing history professionally,  might still be wondering at the utility of historiography.  It all sounds very complex, and it is difficult for non-historians to engage with the literature in the way described here.  Still, producing historiographical studies offers important training for students studying history.  It requires a set of mental tools useful for any number of professions.  Ask yourself: What have we described here today?  We have outlined how historians have to find, read and absorb information. Comparing, contrasting and comprehending historical works is more than just discussing past events. They have to critically reflect on those works while understanding and then communicating their value and limitations. Dealing with complex information in complicated ways, as historiography demands, is a skill-set useful for many jobs, not just those associated with academic history.  It is valuable for any profession that deals with information, be it in a corporate office, a civil service position, or managing a business.  Next week we will look at exactly how useful history and its study can be to the modern world.