1 What is History?

Though you have likely spent a good part of your education sitting in history classes and reading history books, you probably have not really thought deeply about how to define the subject.  In many ways, it’s easier to start with what history is not:  It is not simply a record of what happened in the past.  For one thing, clearly too much happened yesterday alone—let alone ten, one hundred, one thousand years ago—to record. People ate meals, chose which socks to wear, kissed someone new, scanned their Twitter feed, etc., etc.  History is not even a record of important things that happened in the past, because that definition raises the question of what counts as important and who gets to decide.  If those new lovers kissing for the first time were Antony and Cleopatra—whose relationship redirected Egyptian history—or if the meal inspired an immigrant activist by reminding of her roots, then those seemingly mundane actions were critical.  Deciding what is important—which among myriad of past events should be retold, the order to put them in, how to phrase stories so that they reach the right audience—that is what history is.  As historians James Davidson and Mark Lytle put it, “History is not ‘what happened in the past;’ rather it is the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past.”


Historians are tasked with finding evidence about the past and then deciding what to do with it. They research, evaluate, and write using what past actors have left behind. That means that the historical narratives scholars (including you!) create actually depend upon scholars’ interpretations of extant evidence— on what we call “primary sources.” Primary sources are those produced by the actors of the time and can run the gamut from oral histories to government documents to Hollywood films to material culture and beyond. Historians also keep in mind other historians’ writings, or secondary sources. Historians seek as many sources from as many different perspectives as possible, and scrutinize each one carefully, in the attempt to overcome any biases infusing those sources. Yet, no matter how skilled the researcher there will be gaps in the sources that require interpretation. Gaps or silences in the record merit attention, meaning that historians must consider why some perspectives are not found in archives or in published scholarship. The reason may be perfectly harmless, such as the warehouse fire in 1921 that destroyed the 1890 U.S. Census manuscript schedules (the millions of records  left by enumerators who went house-to-house with questionnaires).  The resulting silence about literacy rates among immigrants (or a number of other topics that rely on Census records) for that decade is frustrating and has certainly diminished our knowledge of the past, but historians do not need to explain the silence beyond noting this accident of history.  At other times, silences speak directly to the experience of those under study, such as the shortage of written records by enslaved peoples. In this case, the silence must be explained by the pernicious decision by White legislators to limit the literacy of enslaved Americans and is itself a part of the history of slavery.  In sum, historians must be adept at not only ferreting out sources and assessing their meaning, but also evaluating the meaning of what remains hidden. Writing history is at heart the art and science of deciding how to stitch together what remains of the past in a way that is meaningful to readers in the present.


Where does the (social) science part come from? Though gaps in the record mean that we can never know everything about the past–and thus a certain amount of art and interpretation is necessarily a part of history–historians mimic scientific processes, posing and testing hypotheses and placing weight on the use of peer review before publication. Guidelines about the value of a source, rules about how you record where you find it, and advice on how to present your findings when you present them to the public (or just your instructor) are all part of an effort to create reliable scholarship that can be replicated—the key elements of reason.  Writing and teaching history successfully depends upon your ability to understand and master those guidelines. Indeed, your obligation to take this course reflects the opinion among historians that while we know a good deal of art shapes our interpretations, we still value the role of scientific inquiry in our discipline.  You have been assigned this book because your instructor wants you to think like an historian.


The philosophy of history

It’s worth pointing out that while the present-day discipline of history is marked by shared standards of practice, historians as a group debate virtually everything, from what should be studied to the precise cause and effect of almost every event.  While historians today no longer embrace the notion of cyclical history (that time is not linear, and events reoccur repeatedly) or providential history (that God is directing all events for a particular outcome), they do sometimes accept a progressive view (that humanity is constantly improving).  Most contemporary historians, however, exist somewhat closer to a postmodern view of history—that is, that a pure understanding of the past is unknowable, but that learning as much as we can about the past from our current (changing) perspectives helps us learn more about ourselves and our own time.


These different philosophies of history are part of the long-term history of history.  In the past century though, with the rise of professional history, the history of history involves chronicling and analyzing historical debates–discussions in which some historians lobby others to revise previous interpretations of past people and events for a range of reasons.  Some of these debates stem from differences in political perspective, some emerge out of access to new sources or new ideas about how to read old sources.  Other conflicts between historians happen because of a difference in epistemology—roughly speaking, because some historians emphasize the ability of culture and ideas to shape the importance of  economic/material infrastructure, and other historians see it the opposite way around (that is, that certain geographies or other material structures  permit or promote what sort of ideas and cultural artifacts develop).

History graduate students and professional historians spend a good deal of time thinking about the implications of these different philosophies.  While the really old philosophies (cyclical or providential history) are seldom discussed, the newer ones based upon political and epistemological differences are at the heart of many  lively debates among historians.  For most readers of this text, it’s enough to understand that such distinctions exist, and to be aware of the fact that historical interpretations vary not only over time, but between competing points of view. The section below, which explains historiography, and guidance in the next part Reading Historically, will give you some tools for discerning interpretive points of view.  Awarness of differences and understanding where they come from will be among the most important critical thinking skills you develop as a history student.



Writing about the past has changed over time.  In other words, history has a history, and the fancy term for how historians recount and analyze previous interpretations of the past is “historiography.”   Historiographical change  refers to the fact that over time, historians have altered their explanations of past events, and the discipline of history keeps track of, and continuously reconsiders, these changing interpretations; writing about historians (or the history of history as opposed to the story of the past) is called historiography.

One of the easiest ways to grasp the importance of historiography involves looking at a subject such as slavery in the United States, for which the history has changed dramatically over the last one hundred years. The first professional historians of slavery wrote in the very years in which state and local governments were establishing and justifying racial segregation.  Their interpretations of the “peculiar institution” (as slavery was sometimes called) fit in with their society’s world view, and often suggested slavery was benign or at least a critical part of the process of “improving” those of African descent.  As legal segregation, the concept of eugenics, and other types of racialized thinking came increasingly under attack over the course of the twentieth century, such views were criticized and the historians of slavery more often focused on the violence and dehumanizing elements of the institution.  As the Civil Rights Movement led to the outlawing of segregated education, it opened the door to new scholars with new perspectives. Critical race studies today–scholarship that assesses the many ways that the justification of racial slavery has shaped U.S. politics and society–has a decidedly different view of enslaved peoples than did the history written in the past.  The scholarship about the history of race also actually has within it  a variety of perspectives, including differences between historians about how the global economy, technology, religion, gender and/or disability  shaped the experience of the enslaved, those who claimed ownership, and those who fought for and against the institution of slavery.

Though other historical topics may not have seen shifts as dramatic as the scholarship on slavery, every subject has experienced some shifting over time. As you read secondary sources on historical topics that interest you, try to become conversant with some of the most prominent historiographical debates for your own periods of interest. Most scholarly history essays have an historiographical section, that is a section near the beginning that notes how previous historians have approached the same topic, or ones closely related to the subject under study.  Historians touch on earlier interpretations in order to show how their own work will add to what we already know, perhaps by pointing out errors in the use of a primary source or how a particular philosophical or political assumption unfairly limited analysis. More likely for student researchers, this reference to earlier interpretations will point to a gap–by place, or era, or perspective–that the student’s research can help fill. Because it will fill a gap in what we know, the historical research presented is thus more meaningful, a positive reason to be aware of the historiography of your subject. A negative reason also exists:  Those who don’t consider current knowledge risk “reinventing the wheel” or worse, erring in interpretation because of unfamiliarity with a major finding by an earlier historian. Whatever side motivates you as a student, it’s important you attempt to learn the historiography of topics in which you hope to specialize.



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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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