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Theories, Skills & Methods (HI989)


Dr Charles Walton

This is a compulsory 30 CATS one-term MA module designed to equip students with the theoretical approaches and some of the methods used in the discipline of history necessary to carry out an extended piece of historical research and writing (dissertation). Students on all four MA History courses are required to follow it during the Autumn Term, and the teaching is delivered in weekly one-hour seminars.


Module Aims
  • To widen and deepen students’ understanding of methods and approaches to the study of history across space and time
  • To help students develop a conceptual and practical understanding of the skills required by historians and scholars from neighbouring disciplines
  • To help students hone their ability to formulate and achieve a piece of critical and reflective historiographical writing
  • To support students in developing the ability to undertake critical analysis
  • To help students develop the ability to formulate and test concepts and hypotheses
Intended Learning Outcomes
  • A conceptual and practical understanding of the skills required by Humanities scholars
  • The ability to formulate and achieve a piece of critical and reflective historiographical writing
  • The ability to undertake critical analysis
  • The ability to formulate and test concepts and hypotheses
Outline Syllabus

Advice: There is a recent book which offers a comprehensive, yet easy introduction into most of the module topics. Particularly for those who have not encountered the theoretical/methodological angle of academic history writing yet, please dip into it. Berger shows that academic history writing and research is not simply about discovering hidden 'facts' in the archives and libraries. History writing, Berger, demonstrates, is shaped by the political, social-cultural condition in which the historian lives. The module will introduce you to some of the past trends' in history writing. We will also see what is 'en vogue' today in order to help you situate your own work.

Stefan Berger, History and Identity: How Historical Theory Shapes Historical Practice (2022). (available e-book library)

Useful Bibliography:

  • Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995)
  • Stefan Berger, Heiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds), Writing History: Theory and Practice (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010)
  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 2005)
  • Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (London: Verso, 1998)
  • Richard Sennett, The Hidden Injuries of Class (Cambridge, 1977)
  • Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1. An Introduction (1978)
  • Larissa N. Heinrich, The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008)
  • Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)
  • Daniel Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption (London, 1997)

Marking criteria can be found hereLink opens in a new window.

Deadlines: check Tabula.

1,500 word essay

On a theoretical approach of the students choice. Be sure to engage with the core and further readings assigned for the module before choosing your topic.

NB: Given the early deadline and the short length of this first essay, you should focus on weeks 2 and 3 (theory and class) and may only be able to address one or, at most, two issues.

Comparison is always a good way to get the intellectual sparks going. Figure out an aspect of the readings that bothers you -- a tension within a reading that needs to be exposed, or tensions between rival views on how to write history, that you want to assess and explore. For guidance, think about the historiographical essays you've read over the years, where approaches and methods are analysed -- what are their strengths and limitations?

Alternatively, you might write a fictional debate in the form of a play between two non-fictional historians. You can invent the setting, but the debate should reflect the two perspectives that are put into dialogue with each other. You might create a third character (yourself), who intervenes at towards the end to set the two scholars straight -- i.e., say what you think about it all, critically. If you choose the fictional dialogue, you will be assessed on how well you understand the two sets of views and identify the relevant points of tension -- i.e., where the two scholars agree or disagree. Also important is how well you assert your own critical voice in the debate. Essentially, the dialogue contains all the intellectual elements that you should include in a conventional essay, but it gives you the ability to cover more ground with fewer words, since people generally speak more efficiently than they write!


4,500 word essay

On a theoretical approach of the students choice. You can choose a question from any of the weeks or design your own. Where possible, try to include material from more than one week. Many of the echoes of theoretical concerns or methods can be heard across more than one week.

For some tips about writing this essay see here.