An Ode to Historiography

By Robert Westlake

Historiography, historiography, historiography. Marxists, Whigs, revisionists, post-revisionists, social, political, economic and cultural historians – and many more. Loosely defined as the study of the methodology of historians, or more snappily as the “history of history,” historiography is immensely interesting for students and academics alike.

History invariably differs to a great extent, depending on the context in which it is written. Trying to understanding exactly why a historian drew the conclusions they did can be of great use. Context is often used as a weapon to delegitimise historical interpretations. For example, “of coursetraditional Soviet historiography is going to idealise and mythologise the Russian Revolution. On the other side, Western interpretations, written during the Cold War and therefore shaped by its prejudices, are “obviously” going to be fundamentally hostile to Communism.

After all, there is never a “right answer” in History, and this means that historiography, at times, can become a bitterly contested matter. Many historians are constantly undermining their opponents in a sort of historiographical “warfare”- even revisionists can be revised. Was England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 the first modern revolution? Well, Steven Pincus would think so, but a quick peek at JSTOR would suggest that many of his peers completely disagree, and have been openly critical of his ideas.[1]

Another point of interest regarding historiography is that sometimes newly uncovered pieces of evidence or research can come to light, which completely change how certain events are seen. Consider, for example, the ‘Great Terror’. As more and more archives in the USSR have opened up and become accessible to historians, different interpretations of it have been offered. Some argue that that the cause of the purges had everything to do with Stalin himself, and his personal psychological state. Others, on the other hand, deny that they were not preconceived or planned at all, but were simply caused by weaknesses in the Communist Party itself.

Was the historian writing with a particular agenda in mind? When was their work written? What was their source-base like? And what effect do such factors have on their conclusions? The study of historiography is just as interesting as the study of history itself. It is constantly changing, depending on the context in which it is being written – the interpretation considered the “best” answer twenty years ago, may now have been completely revamped. To us, this is just part of the essence, and fun, of the subject.

 

[1] Steven Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, 2009), pp. 3-6.

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