Historiography

I hope our class meeting today helped you think about the task of writing about historiography. Here some some points we discussed and more to consider that I hope might be useful as you familiarize yourself with the literature on your topic.

Purpose of Historiography Essays (or sections of essays)

  • The purpose of historiography essays (or sections of essays) is to review what has been written about a topic.
  • This YouTube video explains the purpose of historiography well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pB3xb1_gp4Y
  • Familiarizing yourself with what has been written on your topic is the only way you can know if you are making an original argument or an original contribution.

Some Tips and Things to Consider

  • Good historiography discussions inform the reader about the most important books, articles, and essays, explain the key arguments and debates among scholars, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the existing scholarship.
  • Historiography sections trace the development of the scholarship over time.
  • Most times it’s best to organize your discussion chronologically. (Start with the oldest publication and work to the most recent.)
  • However, some topics are better structured topically or thematically.
  • Pay attention to the key question and purpose of each source, the author’s central argument, methodology, sources, use of theory, assumptions, biases, and the like.
  • Compare and contrast different authors. Remember that a book is not supposed to be published if it merely repeats what has been said previously. Authors must try to explain why their work is original. Pay attention to these statements.
  • It’s best to read as much of the source as possible. Read introductions and conclusions closely. Read enough of the chapters to understand how they help advance or prove the argument.

The Funnel Approach

  • Many of you have done a good job focusing on a narrow topic. You might think of it as the narrow end of a funnel.
  • First, identify sources that write on your exact topic specifically. For example, let’s say you’ve chosen to study the Agricultural Wheel in Arkansas, which was a farmers’ union active in the 1880s. You would start by identifying who has written on the Wheel and learning the key debates and arguments about the organization. Part of your historiography section should discuss these sources.
  • Just reading and writing about the narrowest part of the funnel is only part of your job. As you read you’ll quickly discover that the Agricultural Wheel was part of a much larger, national political movement of farmers called Populists. In this example, they would represent the larger end of the funnel because they were the broader, more significant, historical movement.
  • Your next step, then, is to Identify the most important sources on the populists so that you can gain a better understanding of the broader social movement.
  • When it came time to write the historiography, you would start with the broad end of the funnel and work to the narrow end thereby concluding the historiography with your specific topic and providing a transition to your explanation of why your study is important or how it fits with other sources.

Thoughts on Sources

  • Accumulate a healthy list of secondary sources–a minimum of 15.
  • Your list should reflect a diverse array of sources that includes monographs (books), journal articles, and essays in edited collections.
  • Collect sources published over a wide range of years. (The best historiographies discuss how the scholarship changes over time. You cannot discuss change over time if all of your sources are from one decade or from a small range of years.)
  • Try to collect the most relevant sources on your topic. Privilege sources written by scholars and published in academic presses or reputable presses on scholarly topics.
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