3 How Historians Approach History: Fields and Periodization

Writing history means much more than just re-telling old stories. Primary sources can be tricky; some contain internal references or unique vocabulary and interpreting them takes skill. Getting a handle on the vast number of secondary sources produced on many topics also requires training. While you will develop your skills with primary and second sources in this course, many of the best insights will come only with years of experience. In their efforts to build solid knowledge about the past, professional historians—those trained formally in the research and writing of history—inevitably specialize in a field of study. As experts in one or two fields, they can focus on the unique properties of their genre of historical records and put some limits on the secondary literature with which they must be familiar.

Typical fields of study focus on specific geographic areas, a single scholarly approach, and/or set time period. The list of courses offered by your history department will give you an idea of a few such fields: British Empire, History of Science and Technology, US Women’s history, Military history, and Texas, 1845-present. Below you’ll find an explanation of how scholars go about defining fields of study, including historical eras. As you read this chapter, consider not only how the definition of historical fields and periodization has shaped the history profession and your course of study as a history major, but also how the process reflects larger philosophical assumptions that undergird the discipline. Such assumptions change though—might the present era be another one in which common approaches to the past shift into new configurations?

Historical Fields

On one hand, history departments throughout the US are dedicated to investigating the totality of the human experience, or at least the past for which we have historical records. But on the other, these departments are also the product of contemporary historical forces, and so tend to be particularly reflective of the dynamics that shaped the country. To wit, Anglo cultural influence and attention to the “rise of the West” long shaped the history written by Europeans and Americans. In any given department, therefore, you will likely find plenty of faculty specializing in some element of US, European, or Atlantic history. Political and social movements during the lives of contemporary historians have also had an impact. While economic, political, and military history continue to be popular sub-fields in US history, following the Civil Rights movement, newly integrated departments (by race, gender, and sexual orientation) have increased attention in scholarship and teaching to “social” histories, or history from below. Histories of laborers, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities as well as a whole gamut of social movements have caught the interest of historians and history students alike, and the sub-fields associated with these movements have proliferated.

Of course, most major history departments around the country attempt to also have a faculty member (or sometimes two) from each of the following regional areas: Middle East/North Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Latin American, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia. In an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, comparative history has grown in importance and new fields focusing on Atlantic, Pacific, World, transnational, and borderlands history have sometimes supplanted the teaching of history focused on a nation state. With the exception of Atlantic history, which took off during the Cold War and was part of an overarching search for common ground among the allies facing down the Soviet Union, these more expansive fields have become increasingly resonant in the post-Cold War era, which has been characterized by intense globalization and its attendant global labor market, supply chain, and transculturation.

Within these geographic outlines, when pursuing research most historians specialize further in either by approach or time period, or both. Though their teaching subjects can be broader, historians might call themselves experts in the US Civil War, Modern European women’s history, or the cultural and intellectual history of the Ming Dynasty. Apart from the requirements of fluency in other languages, the differences between sources that focus on modern military developments differ quite a bit from those concerning Confucian ideology, and rarely would one historian feel comfortable working with both sorts of primary sources or try to keep track of the historiographical developments in two such divergent fields. As a result, historic sub-fields usually have thematic angles as well, including aspects of technological, economic, political, legal, military, diplomatic, environmental, social, intellectual, or cultural history. The latter fields encompass still more sub-specialties based on gender, sex, race, ethnicity, disability, and legal status. The instructor in your US women’s history class might actually be a specialist on women, gender, race, and sex in the nineteenth-century US South.

While the permutations are not endless, they do allow for some fairly narrow fields of study, as scholars sometimes need decades to develop the necessary knowledge base. Yet just because historical specialization allows ease with sources, methods, and approaches to the past, it does not follow that as a beginner you cannot contribute to scholarship. Often enough, those who have a unique perspective see connections that those long familiar with a story do not. Moreover, learning by attempting to explain the past from your perspective will bring past actors alive to you as well as assure that you grasp just what it is that historians do.

Historical Fields at UTA
  • History Majors at UTA:
    • While there is nothing wrong with becoming an expert in individual nation-state or time period (or time period of a nation state) at UTA we want to offer you a broad range of history of which to explore from professors who are proficient in various regions, periods, and types of history. We also want to encourage you to explore and so to get a major at UTA you have to take a variety of courses both nation specific as well as more broad.
    • Check out the UTA History Courses in the Undergraduate Course Catalog for a full list of courses offered by the History Department at UTA (note: not all classes are offered every semester or every year)
  • History Minors at UTA:
    • Say you love history, after all who doesn’t, but it just doesn’t fit in your class schedule, consider one of UTA’s History Minors. With curated focuses like History of Technology and Science, Geography, and Military History, or a “build your own” generic History minor, the UTA History Department offers a broad range of courses for History Minors as well.
    • Find out more about History Minors at UTA

Historical Periodization

Another significant way that historians find entry into the vast amount of human experience is to categorize it by blocks of time, or historical periods. At a basic level the names given to historical periods simply provide other options for historical study, in the same way that a historian might specialize geographically or by methodological approach. Fields such as “Nazi Germany” or “Colonial America” both illustrate how political events often define the blocks of time that historians mark for study and do so without controversy.

But more fundamentally, historians’ efforts to identify appropriate historical periods can be very controversial and is at the heart of what we do. Because the point of establishing accepted historical periods is to help facilitate historical analysis, historians hope to identify periods that have stable characteristics. For example, Victorian England, named after a monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901, marks a period of rising industrialization, the expansion of British political control around the world, and a transformation of social rules, especially those concerning women and sex. (Perhaps you’ve heard of the era when people put skirts on piano legs and pasted fig leaves on the genitalia of ancient statues.) Scholars of Victorian England suggest that the expansion of empire was in fact related to the increased prudery and expectation of restraint on the part of women. The justification for imperial control rested on ideas of racial superiority, which in turn rested upon an emerging cultural myth about “English ladies” who were ostensibly quite different from newly colonized women of color with a more casual approach to sex.

But the scholars who identify historical periods are themselves embedded in a specific point in time. Their biases or limited perspective can lead them to over- or under-estimate the importance of an invention, or cultural event, or a popular person of their own era. Indeed, scholars in the late nineteenth century—Victoria’s own contemporaries—started using the label “Victorian England” while she was still alive. Since then, some British historians have questioned the term, arguing that the characteristics we attribute to the period stretch well beyond the limits of her reign. Other historians have defended the term, emphasizing the link between Queen Victoria herself and the many new cultural and social conventions that marked the era—and so the appropriateness of referring to much of the nineteenth century as “Victorian” remains a topic of debate. Likewise, various other blocks of time—the “twentieth century” or the “Renaissance”—regularly inspire discussion about whether they designate a stable period of time or when exactly a period (such as the Renaissance) began and ended.

Another element of periodization is the effort to identify watershed moments. In nature, a watershed is a spot in a river or stream where the lay of the land forces the water to change the direction in which it flows. Watershed events are those occurrences that altered human behavior or ideology in significant ways. For example, the invention and deployment of nuclear weapons changed not only diplomacy and politics in the postwar era, but also many Americans’ sense of security and thus family priorities. Both diplomatic and gender historians see the deployment of atomic bombs in the late 1940s as a watershed moment. Or to take an example from your own lives: Adults living through the current Covid-19 pandemic are already refering to “the Before Times” as a shorthand reference to an earlier historical period, one in which our lives operated differently than they do after the spread of the virus. The lasting changes in technology and the workplace alone indicate the pandemic will be a watershed moment and that “pre-pandemic” and “post-pandemic” will almost certainly periodize the history of public health, work, and education–at a minimum–for future historians.

But like the process of defining historical periods, the identification of historical watersheds leads to a great deal of debate. Is an event identified as a watershed really the moment in which everything changed? Was one person—or their ideas about politics or technology—a “game changer”? Whereas one historian might see the increasingly insularity of 1950s family life as stemming from the fears brought on by the watershed event of the atomic bomb, another might see that development in family life as connected to rising affluence, and suggest that the true watershed moment was not the bomb, but rather the decision of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to fund research and development for American businesses after the war. Such is the stuff of history and historical debate.  After a few more tips on how to analyze historical evidence, make inferences, and avoid historical fallacies (keep reading), you will be able to join some of those debates yourself.



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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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