From Citizendium
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
Catalogs [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.

History (from the Greek ἱστορία) is the study of the past. Most historians tend to focus on past human events, mainly political, military, or diplomatic because these areas are most heavily documented. But in recent decades, historians have developed methods to study events or peoples for which documents are rare or non-existent. These new methods have led to a proliferation of sub-fields within the history discipline.

History, as a body of literature about the past, is conventionally divided chronologically into ancient, medieval and modern periods. Academic studies of history attempt to interpret and explain the meaning of past events. Prehistory deals with mankind before written records and is part of archaeology.

According to R. G. Collingwood, history is "a kind of research or enquiry" into "actions that have been done in the past", conducted "by the interpretation of evidence"—evidence being further defined as documents.[1] British historian E. H. Carr (1892–1982) has advised that history is not a single, well-defined narrative or bundle of facts that can be memorized, but a terrain of contestation between competing and evolving interpretations whose influence is as much shaped by time and place as by any given set of facts.[2]

Historians face seven methodological problems: how to address a past holistically, given the inevitable process of excluding certain peoples from our accounts and the issue of absent social categories; generalizing from fragmentary evidence; understanding causality; establishing differences and similarities; social constructionism; presentism and appropriate concepts; and evaluating competing explanatory accounts.[3] The main source of information are written texts, mainly from political, ceremonial or bureaucratic sources. Other kinds of sources include memoirs, oral interviews, newspaper accounts, and works of art. Historians distinguish "primary sources" (written sources created by participants), and "secondary sources", which is the interpretation of history by scholars.


For more information, see: History (etymology).

The Greek word ἱστορία, historía, means "knowledge acquired by investigation, inquiry". In this sense it is used in antique expression "natural history".

In English the word went into two different directions: "story", or chronologically-structured narrative, and "history", or discourse on human events.


Historians of note who have advanced the historical methods of study include Leopold von Ranke, Lewis Bernstein Namier, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard and E.P. Thompson.

In the 20th century, academic historians avoided epic nationalistic narratives, favoring more specialized studies looking as social, economic, political or intellectual forces. Demographic historians introduced quantitative history, using census data to track the lives of average people. French historians were prominent in the establishment of cultural history (such as the "histoire des mentalités"). In the U.S. "Progressive" historians following Frederick Jackson Turner emphasized the frontier and sectionalism, while those following Charles Beard and C. Vann Woodward looked for conflicts of economic interest. After 1950 intellectual history replaced the older Progressive models. After 1960 neoabolitionist historians inspired by the American civil rights movement emphasized moralistic stories, with racism as the evil that triumphed or was defeated. The "new social history" in the 1970s took a comprehensive approach to include every man, woman and child, often using census, court and tax records. After the 1970s some postmodernists have challenged the validity and need for the study of history on the basis that all history is based on the personal interpretation of sources. This approach came under blistering attack by historians such as Granatstein (1998) in Canada, and Windschuttle (2000) in Australia, leading to lively debates.


Comparative historiography

Herodotus (5th century BC) was a world historian as well as founder of Greek historiography.[4] [5] His History presents insightful and lively discussions of the customs, geography, and history of Mediterranean peoples, particularly the Egyptians. However, Thucydides promptly discarded Herodotus's all-embracing approach to history, offering instead a more precise, sharply focused monograph, dealing not with vast empires over the centuries but with 27 years of war between Athens and Sparta. In Rome, the vast, patriotic history of Rome by Livy (59 BC-17 AD) approximated Herodotean inclusiveness[6]; Polybius (c.200-c.118 BC) aspired to combine the logical rigor of Thucydides with the scope of Herodotus.[7]

Divine intervention

Chinese, Muslim, Indian and Christian traditions of learning emphasize that God determined history and humans played only supporting roles.

Thus in China Ssu-ma Cheng-chen c. 100 BC presented a model of Chinese history that assumed Heaven chooses virtuous hereditary rulers, then arranges events so that they were overthrown when a ruling dynasty became corrupt. Each new dynasty begins virtuous and strong, but then decays, provoking the transfer of Heaven's mandate to a new ruler. The test of virtue in a new dynasty is success in being obeyed by China and neighboring barbarians. After 2000 years Ssu-ma Chen's model still dominates scholarship, even among westerners who do not hold the Taoist belief that the ruler's personal virtue assures divine support.[8]

While the Chinese, Muslim, and Indian traditions continued their theocentric historiography, there was a radical challenge to it in Christian Europe during the Renaissance. Historians such as Machiavelli downplayed divine intervention and stressed that men made their own history, and that rulers should study history in order to shape the future. European scholars began a more systematic study of history. One Arab scholar, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) broke with traditionalism and offered a strikingly modern model of historical change in Muqaddimah, a brilliant exposition of the methodology of scientific history. Ibn Khaldun focused on the reasons for the rise and fall of civilization, arguing that the causes of change are to be sought in the economic and social structure of society. His work was largely ignored in the Muslim world. Otherwise the Muslim, Chinese and Indian intellectuals held fast to a religious traditionalism, leaving them unprepared to advise national leaders on how to confront European imperialism as it reached into Asia after 1500.

Leading historians

see History/Catalogs

Field of History by period and place


Chinese historiography was developed by Ssu-ma Ch'eng-chen, whose model of regime virtue and divine intervention led to thousands of historical studies along exactly the same lines.



  • Medieval History: Deals with the Middle Ages (between ~500-1453) especially in Europe and the Middle East. Major themes include the Church, the Holy Roman Empire, agricultural change, the Crusades, and intellectual and cultural trends.



Atlantic History: a recent trend; studies the interaction of Europe, Africa and North America and South America, especially before 1800


Contemporary History, on 20th century, since 1945

Schools and Fields of History


  • Cultural history has become the dominant style since the 1980s. It uses linguistic and cultural evidence to explore the inner psychology of societies. This became a dominant theme in the 1960s, especially influenced by careful analysis of exactly how key words were used, for example, the study of Republicanism. There is no separate society or journal for cultural history. Fields which have adopted cultural history have been said to have made a "linguistic turn." Cultural history is heavily influenced by postmodernism, cultural anthropology, and literary criticism. It turned away from the social scientific approach of Social history.

Important influences in cultural history came from French cultural critic Michel Foucault, American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, British labor historian E. P. Thompson and American intellectual historians Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra.

Critics have complained that cultural history tends to over emphasize race, class, and gender analysis, while slighting empirical archival research and losing sight of larger issues.[9]


  • Social history includes history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life, history of social organization, and history of social movements and deliberate attempts to induce social change, whether from the top down or from the bottom up. It exploded on the scene in the 1960s, quickly becoming one of the dominant styles of historiography. The French version, promulgated by the Annales School influenced much of Europe and Latin America. It is the study of the lives of ordinary people. It was revolutionized in the 1960s by the introduction of sophisticated quantitative and demographic methods, often using individual data from the census and from local registers of births, marriages, deaths and taxes, as well as theoretical models from sociology such as social mobility. The New Social History emerged in the 1960s to dominate professional scholarship in the U.S.[10] and Canada.[11] see also Social History, U.S.. There is no society for social history, but the field is covered in the Journal of Social History, edited since 1967 by Peter Stearns.[12] It covers such topics as gender relations; race in American history;

the history of personal relationships; consumerism; sexuality; the social history of politics; crime and punishment, and history of the senses

U.S. Demographic History, Fertility (demography), Mortality (demography), Infant mortality and

    • See Frontier thesis, for Turner's theory of how the frontier shaped American values
    • Ethnic history covers the history of American ethnic groups (usually not including blacks). The Immigration and Ethnic History Society was formed in 1976 and publishes a journal for libraries and its 829 members.[13]
      • The American Conference for Irish Studies, founded in 1960, has 1,700 members and has occasional publications but no journal.[14]
      • The American Italian Historical Association was founded in 1966 and has 400 members; it does not publish a journal [15]
      • The American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic society, founded in 1892; it has 3,300 members and publishes American Jewish History[16]
    • African American history studies blacks in the United States. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History was founded by Carter G, Woodson in 1915 and has 2500 members and publishes the Journal of African American History; since 1926 it has sponsored Black History Month every February.[17]
  • Labor history, deals with labor unions and the social history of workers. See for example Labor Unions, U.S., History The Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History was established: 1971 and has a membership of 1000. It publishes International Labor and Working-Class History.[18]

Women, gender, family

Annales School of social history

Annales School, the French approach to Social history, emphasizing geography, long durations, quantitative data and "mentalités"; focus is pre-1789; highly influential in Europe and Latin America.


Comparative history looks for similarities and differences between societies or civilizations; Arnold J. Toynbee made it fashionable in 1940s, but has been in decline ever since as historians prefer specialized research topics


Political History: It is the study of political institutions, voter behavior, legislative behavior, leadership and practical politics. Since the 1980s much of political history in the U.S. has migrated to Political Science.

    • In 1929 English historian Lewis Namier, in The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929), revolutionized the field. He rejected the "Whig interpretation" that said a two-party rivalry of Whig and Tory, underpinned a constitutional monarchy in Britain, which had a modern cabinet system based on a party majority in the House of Commons. Namier, by looking at all the individual MP's, argues the king conducted his role within the limitations of authority permitted by the constitution, while the Whig historians claim that the king fomented turmoil against the constitution.[22]

Diplomatic and military

Diplomatic history: deals with international relations. Both historians and political scientists are involved.

Military History: The study of military practice and theory; wars and battles; military engineering & technology; organization of armies, leadership and soldiers; also Naval History. Non-academics and amateurs contribute most of the writings in this field, but there are some specialist programs in research-oriented history departments (see Society for Military History).

Economic and Business

Economic History: Covers topics from agriculture, technology and business organization, and includes population studies and the reconstruction of economic indicators (like GDP). One important new branch is Business history. Since the 1970s much of economic history, as well as History of economic thought, has migrated from history departments and journals to economics. Railroad history is often a cross-over field of business history, history of technology, and labor and cultural history.

Rural and Agricultural history

The "Agricultural History Society" was established in 1919 and has 1200 members who focus on the history of rural life, especially in the U.S.[23] Since 1926 its journal Agricultural History has been the journal of record which publishes articles on all aspects of the history of agriculture and rural life with no geographical or temporal limits.[24]

Intellectual History

History of ideas is a field founded in U.S. by Arthur Lovejoy, dealing with the inner ("internalist") history of ideas. It contrasts with the intellectual history promoted by Merle Curti that stresses the links between ideas and external social and economic forces.[25]

Science, Technology, Environment, and Medicine

The history of science began as a distinct discipline in the early part of the twentieth century. It concerns itself with the development and evolution of scientific thought and practice. It also initially included the history of technology, but that field began defining its own distinct disciplinary boundaries in the 1950s.

Environmental history, began in the 1970s, like the modern environmental movement itself. It includes many long-term studies of climate and, especially, changes in the land caused by society.[27] Begun in 1996, Environmental History is co-published by the Forest History Society (which was founded in 1946) and the American Society for Environmental History, founded in 1977. The latest online bibliography includes 40,000 titles.


Urban history deals with the development of cities, suburbs, and urban spaces and became of importance in the 1960s.


Religious history covers the world's religions, and is split between academic history departments and theology schools. The American Society of Church History, founded in 1888, has 1600 members and publishes the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.[28] The American Catholic Historical Association, established in 1919 at a time when most Catholic historians were affiliated with Catholic colleges, has a membership of 1,015 and publishes the The Catholic Historical Review.[29]


World History, a teaching field (rather than a research field), developed by historians of Asia and Latin America to provide a counterpoint to the "Western Civilization" emphasis that dominated history teaching after 1920. In interpretations of world history, the most influential scholars were Oswald Spengler in the 1920s, Arnold J. Toynbee in the 1950s, and William H. McNeill in the 1970s.[30]


Local history. The American Association for State and Local History, established in 1940 has 5,997 members, and is based in state and local historical societies in the U.S.[31]

  • Antiquarianism uses historical data without the theoretical structure of historiography, to look at topics that happen to interest the amateur because of proximity, age and accumulated myth. It is not well regarded by academic historians, but finds a place in local historical societies and draws attention from the media.

National debates

Historians inside a nation often engage in extended debates about the nation's history, and how to teach it. In the case of teaching Japanese history in the schools of Japan, other countries (especially China and South Korea), have officially complained.


The Historikerstreit.[32]


The pioneering cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) wrote The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) and "Homo Ludens" A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1935), both of which expanded the field of cultural history and foreshadowed the historical anthropology of younger historians of the Annales School. He was influenced by art history and advised historians to trace "patterns of culture" by studying "themes, figures, motifs, symbols, styles and sentiments."[33]

Jan Romein (1893-1962) created in the 1930s a "theoretical history" in an attempt to reestablish the relevance of history to public life during a time of immense political uncertainty and cultural crisis. In Romein's view, modern history had become too inward-looking and isolated from other disciplines. Romein felt that history must contribute to social improvement. At the same time, influenced by the successes of theoretical physics and his study of Oswald Spengler, Arnold J. Toynbee, F. J. Teggart, and others, he spurred on the development of theoretical history in the Netherlands to the point where it became a subject in its own right at the university level after the war.[34]


Revisionism is a reversal of opinion, and generally is used for historians who reverse the old "orthodox" or standard interpretation. The first "revisionist" debate came in the 1920s when a new group of historians rejected the thesis that Germany was "guilty" (primarily responsible) for causing the Great War, a proposition that was included in the Treaty of Versailles.[35]

Popularly, "revisionism" is often used derisively as if all history is not a revision of some point or argument of a previous historian. But, it is a truism of the discipline that each generation re-writes the past according to its own themes and concerns.

Meta questions?

Does history repeat itself in cycles? Are there long-term patterns? Are there patterns that cover the rise and fall of entire civilizations? Are there lessons to be learned. Historians often claim that the study of political, military and business history teaches valuable lessons with regard to past successes and failures of leaders, military strategy and tactics, and business success and failure.

The use of history to study the rise and fall of nation-states or civilizations, in the style of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), or Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), has fallen out of fashion, as most no longer have faith that such a project is possible. However William H. McNeill (1917- ), a Toynbee student, has tried his hand at it, and World History is in fashion.

Since the 1970s the postmodern sensibility has prevailed in historiography, forcing most (but not all) historians away from "big" questions and grand themes, and focusing them on small topics that are approached from many directions, often with ambiguous results.


Spanish philosopher George Santayana commented, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Many historians have echoed the line. The German philosopher of history Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel remarked that "What history and experience teach us is this: that people and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it." Hegel was paraphrased by Winston Churchill, who said "The one thing we have learned from history is that we don't learn from history." Ortega Y Gasset (1883-1955), Spanish philosopher and humanist, wrote in a similar vein: "We have need of history in its entirety, not to fall back into it, but to escape from it."

Further reading

For a detailed guide see History/Bibliography

  • Arnold, John H. History: A Very Short Introduction (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Bass, Herbert J. The State of American History (1970), essays by scholars excerpt and text search
  • Bentley, Michael. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. (1999) online edition
  • Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century (2008), 544 pp; covers Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, through Gibbon, Macaulay, Michelet, Prescott and Parkman to Butterfield, Trevelyan and Toynbee. ISBN 978-0-375-41311-7 excerpt and text search
  • Cantor, Norman F. Inventing the Middle Ages. (1993)
  • Carr, E. H. What Is History (1961), a famous interpretation of historiography.
  • Fischer, David H. Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970) 368pp; influential and entertaining guide by a leading scholar excerpt and text search
  • Foner, Eric. ed. New American History (1997)
  • Gilderhus, Mark. History and Historians: A Historiographical Introduction (6th ed. 2006), 160 pp, textbook
  • Howell, Martha C., and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (2001), 207pp excerpt and text search
  • Iggers, Georg G. Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Kelley, Donald R. Frontiers of History: Historical Inquiry in the Twentieth Century (2006) excerpt and text search
  • Ritter, Harry. Dictionary of Concepts in History (1986) excerpt and text search
  • Spiegel, Gabrielle M. The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography 1999) excerpt and text search
  • Spiegel, Gabrielle M. ed. Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Stokes, Melvyn. The State of U.S. History (2002) online edition
  • Storey, William Kelleher. History: A Guide for Students (2nd ed 2003), 128pp excerpt and text search
  • Thompson, James Westfall, and Bernard J. Holm; A History of Historical Writing (1942) vol 1: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Seventeenth Century online edition vol 2: 18th and 19th centuries online edition; detailed discussion of the work of major historians
  • Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past, (1960) online edition


  1. R. G. Collingwood, (1946) The Idea of History. Oxford University Press, pp. 9-10
  2. E.H. Carr, What is History? (1961)
  3. Miles Fairburn. Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods. (1999).
  4. K.H. Waters, Herodotus the Historian (1985)
  5. Note: 'Historiography' refers to the writing of history, and, in a second sense, to the study of written history.
  6. Patrick G. Walsh, Livy: His Historical Aims and Methods (1961)
  7. Frank W. Walbank, A Historical Commentary on Polybius, (3 vols. 1957-82)
  8. S. Y. Teng, "Chinese Historiography in the Last Fifty Years," The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Feb., 1949), pp. 131-156 in JSTOR
  9. On the linguistic turn see Gabrielle M. Spiegel, ed. Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing (2005) excerpt and text search; Lynn Hunt, ed. The New Cultural History (1989)
  10. See Olivier Zunz, ed. Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History, (1985) online edition
  11. See Michael S. Cross, "Social History," Canadian Encyclopedia (2008) online
  12. See [1]
  13. See Immigration and Ethnic History Society
  14. See American Conference for Irish Studies
  15. See American Italian Historical Association
  16. See American Jewish Historical Society and journal
  17. See ASALH
  18. See Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History
  19. See American Women's History: A Research Guide
  20. see Teresa A. Meade and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, eds. A Companion to Gender History (2006)
  21. see Journal of Family History, quarterly since 1976
  22. Peter Thomas, "Reappraisals in History," Institute of Historical Research (2002) online edition
  23. See Agricultural History Society
  24. See Agricultural History
  25. Donald R. Kelley, "Intellectual History in a Global Age," Journal of the History of Ideas 66#2 (2005) 155-167 in Project Muse; Donald R. Kelley, ed.,The History of Ideas: Canon and Variations (1990); Donald R. Kelley, The Descent of Ideas: A History of Intellectual History (2002).
  26. See American Association for the History of Medicine and Bulletin of the History of Medicine
  27. J. Donald Hughes, What is Environmental History? (2006), excerpt and text search; J. Donald Hughes, An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life (2002) excerpt and text search
  28. Issues since 1932 are in JSTOR. See [2] and [3]
  29. See [4]
  30. See William H. McNeill, "The Changing Shape of World History" (1994) online version
  31. See [5]
  32. see Jane Caplan, et al. "The Historikerstreit Twenty Years On." German History 2006 24(4): 587-607. Issn: 0266-3554 Fulltext: Ebsco
  33. Peter Burke, "Historians and Their Times: Huizinga, Prophet of 'Blood and Roses.'" History Today 36 (November 1986): 23-28. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: EBSCO; William U. Bouwsma, "The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga." Daedalus 103, no. 1 (1974): 35-43; R. L. Colie, "Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History," American Historical Review 69, no. 3 (1964): 607-630; Robert Anchor, "History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics," History and Theory 17, No. 1 (February 1978), 63-93.
  34. A. C. Otto, "Theorie En Praktijk in De Theoretische Geschiedenis Van Jan Romein" [Theory and Practice in the "Theoretical History" of Jan Romein], Theoretische Geschiedenis 21, no. 3 (1994): 257-270.
  35. See Samuel R. Williamson Jr. and Ernest R. May, "An Identity of Opinion: Historians and July 1914," Journal of Modern History (2007) Volume 79, Number 2, 335-87