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Historiography I: Methods and Theories in their Historical Context, 1750-c.1990 (HI2E1-15)

Module Convenor: Dr Aditya Sarkar

This 15 CATS second-year module is compulsory for all single-honours History students, and is not available to students of other courses.

Context And Content

Historiography, taught in the Department since 1968, has been designed to complement the learning which students will have done so far in their work in the Department, both in core and optional modules. For all students taking it, Historiography provides an overview of ‘doing History’ from the later eighteenth-century onwards, the ideas that have underpinned historical research and writing, and of recent methodologies and theories of history (many of them drawn from other disciplines), as they have been used by historians. It provides students with an opportunity to think reflexively about the nature of the historical enterprise. You are encouraged to link your studies in Historiography with your other second- and third-year modules.

Historiography I (HI2E1) is the first of two 15 CAT core modules which explore the development of modern historiography from the 18th century to the present. Both Historiography I and Historiography II (which runs in the second term) focus each week on a major and influential strand of historical thinking, examining its key figures, ideas and influence. The module structure is roughly chronological.

This module - Historiography I - traces the development of modern historiography from the 18th century Enlightenment till the development of 'post-modernism' in the 1970s and 1980s. It looks at 18th and 19th century departures in historical writing, at Marx and the influence of Marxism, at the 'total history' pioneered by the French Annales School, at the rise of feminist historiography, at the 'history from below' approach pioneered by E.P. Thompson and other historians of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s, at the development of micro-history and cultural history, and, finally, at the challenges posed to traditional history-writing by post-structuralist thinkers such as Michel Foucault.

Historiography I is designed principally as an introduction to modern Western historiography up till the 1970s and 1980s. This is not accidental. The development of historical thinking is not the story of a pure, disinterested search for truth, but reflects real political and material forces at work. Among these forces is the global dominance, for a long time, of Western societies - a dominance which, as the module reveals, was both validated and challenged by trends in history-writing. History-writing was closely bound up, in complex ways, with modern forms of power and dominance: this is a key element of the module. Historiography I studies the development of specifically Western modes of modern historical knowledge, while Historiography II, in term 2, will delve closely into the challenges faced by dominant Western paradigms, especially as a consequence of the rise of post-colonial historical criticism and global, anti-Eurocentric historical methodologies.

It is important to this module that such theories and methodologies did not float in ‘empty’ space but were expressions of a specific wider socio-cultural and political context at a particular moment in time. The central message of this module is: methodologies and theories of academic history writing are always deeply embedded in the values, norms, debates and tensions of the specific society in which they are produced. The development of historical thinking is related to wider historical processes and changes, and the development of modern historiography, conversely, provides an angle of vision upon the major historical changes associated with modernity. The module explores both the inner content of different schools and lines of historical thought, and their relationship with the key shifts in modern history.


Teaching and Learning

The module runs in Term 1. There will be 9 x 1-hour lectures.

Lectures will take place in FAB 0.08 on Tuesdays 9.00-10.00 am. Lecture recordings will be made available via Moodle.


Lectures and Seminars

Seminars follow the lectures for each week, and are always connected to them. Lectures will provide the historical context for a specific methodology/theory discussed and will introduce into the method/theory itself. The narrative and perspectives of the lecture and the weekly reading assigned on the Historiography website make up the material to be discussed in the seminar. You are expected to read in advance the basic texts set for that week.

PLEASE NOTE: In week 1, in order to ease participants into the module, there are no texts to discuss in the seminar sessions. The seminar for week 1 will be an introductory session where tutors can introduce the module to students, and indicate the path that subsequent weeks should follow.

If you require assistance for taking lecture note taking, please arrange this through the relevant University services.


Seminar Preparation And Readings

For each seminar (EXCEPT week 1) you should prepare the readings mentioned in 'Texts/Documents/Arguments/Sources’ and ‘Seminar Readings’ for each seminar. You should focus in particular on the texts listed in 'Texts/Documents/Arguments/Sources': these will be the focus of seminar discussions. The 'Seminar Readings' are important as supplementary material to help you ground your knowledge of the thinkers and primary texts.

Please click on the 'Syllabus' link at the top of the page in order to find the list of module topics, and follow the links on the page to locate the webpages for each teaching week.

For each seminar there is a list of questions to guide your reading and note-taking. Your seminar tutor may also assign additional or alternative readings from the ‘Further Reading’ lists, if you wish so.

The seminar webpages for each week also contain a list of 'significant quotes' associated with the historical thinkers studied in that week. These quotes serve as a (very loose) indication of the key aspects of these thinkers' ideas, and are meant to help you identify some of the key themes, 'biases' and contributions associated with them.

All the compulsory weekly readings for the module can be found both on the individual webpages for the teaching weeks, and on Talis Aspire. However, if there is ever a discrepancy between the readings listed on this website and on Talis Aspire, please do the readings prescribed on the website.


Core Textbook for Module

There are many textbooks on historiography. We think that Lloyd Kramer and Sarah Maza, eds., A Companion to Western Historical Thought (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002) is most useful for our purposes. The library has an electronic copy and several hard copies.

See Resources for further surveys and resources.




Deadlines can be found on Tabula.

Assignment 1:

Oral participation/engagement (10%). For marking criteria, 'Seminar Contribution Guidelines'.

Seminar participation will be assessed across all classes according to the following criteria:

            • Preparation - Evidence shows preparation for the seminar (has prepared notes and/or recalls the readings without the use of the open text).
            • Engagement and Initiative - Quality of engagement is active, respectful and inclusive; participation in discussions; engagement with others; taking own initiative ask questions
            • Response and Discussion - Quality of response reflects knowledge, comprehension and application of the readings; Quality of response extends the discussion with peers and reflects analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

 Self-Evaluation formLink opens in a new window


Assignment 2:

short essay (30%): a short answer (1500 words):

Essay Questions:

1. "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances given already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." What is the significance of this quotation from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte for Marx's approach to history?

2. Is a 'total history' something historians should aspire to write?

3. Discuss Ranke's views on the nature and purpose of the historian's craft.

4. Discuss and evaluate the legacies of the Enlightenment for modern conceptions of history.

5. Did German historicism pose a challenge to the historical ideas associated with Enlightenment-era historical thinkers?

6. Do you think history should be viewed primarily as an art or as a science? Discuss with reference to historical thinkers you have encountered in the module.

7. Evaluate the breakthroughs, potentials and limitations of the ways in which Western historical thinking was transformed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

8. Do you see Marxism as a form of 'historical determinism'?

9. Discuss the transformative effect of the Annales tradition upon history-writing.

10. How were 'positivism' and 'historicism' linked to the historical transformations of the 19th century?

Assignment 3:

Long Essay (60%): a long answer (3000 words)


(a) Frame your own question (you may consult your seminar tutor about this). You may base your question on any one or more currents in historical thinking you have encountered during the module.


(b) Answer any one of the following questions:

1. How can the historical approaches we have studied in the module help you understand the history of our present? You may focus on any one or more approaches you find most interesting. Be as specific as possible when you explain how this might relate to the present, i.e. which aspects of our present you would analyze through these approaches.

2. Has modern Historiography been irredeemably Eurocentric since the Enlightenment?

3. Historian Arnold Toynbee once criticised those historians who approach history as ‘one damned thing after another’. Based on your reflections of the readings this term, do you think history is really nothing more than ‘one damned thing after another’? If not, what underlying patterns or dynamics should we be looking for? Which ones should we not look for?

4. Has History writing been an empowering and liberating practice since the Enlightenment? If so, for whom?

5. How did 'post-modernism' challenge and transform existing approaches to history?

6. Examine some of the ways in which modern history-writing and historical thinking has been transformed over the last two centuries. Discuss some of the possible reasons for these transformations.

7. How did historical thinking change after World War II?

9. Discuss the possible connections between modern historical thinking and modern ideological/political currents.

10. What was new about Thompsonian history-from-below? How would you assess its strengths and weaknesses?

12. Discuss the potentials and limits of 'micro-history' as a form of history-writing.

13. Discuss the impact of second-wave feminism upon historical writing.

14. How did Foucault challenge established modes of historical thinking?

15. Discuss the significance of the 'ethnographic turn' in history-writing.

16. What do you find more persuasive as a historical approach - the longue duree approach associated with Braudel, or the ideas and methods associated with micro-history?

17. Contextualize and discuss the politics of history-writing between the 1960s and 1980s.

18. Compare and contrast any two historical approaches you have learned about in this module.

19. Do you see Marxism as a living or dead mode of historical analysis?

20. How did socialist-feminist historiography build on 'history from below'? To what extent did it challenge some of the conceptions associated with 'Thompsonian' history-writing?


(c) Imagine an encounter between any two (or more) of the historical thinkers you have encountered in this module. Construct a dialogue about history between them, highlighting the distinctiveness of their approaches, as well as the points at which they converge or clash. This can be written in any form you prefer. You might want to write it as a short 'play': it could be set in a pub or a cafe or a park or wherever you like. You could also, if you prefer, dispense with 'setting the scene' and write it straightforwardly as a conversation, or in the form of a report.



Coursework and Assessment Regulations

For guidance on format, footnotes, quotations, and bibliography refer to the style guide in your history undergraduate handbook, or see the online style guide.

Written feedback on formative work will be received within 20 working days of submission (unless submitted late). Seminar tutors will provide individual feedback tutorials to support written feedback.