What is historiography?

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What is historiography?

Historiography is a complex part of the VCE History (Revolutions) course that many students struggle to understand and lack confidence in discussing. This essay makes some attempt to explain what historiography is, how it's relevant to your course, and ways of approaching it. There are many different theoretical, academic and 'dictionary' definitions of historiography ... let's start with a definition that is directly relevant to students of VCE History. Historiography is:

1. Different ways of understanding or interpreting historical events, groups or leaders. 
2. Understanding the reasons why these different interpretations and theories exist.

There are literally thousands of books on the American, French and Russian revolutions or specific aspects of them, written over decades and centuries, from the conclusion of each revolution onwards and continuing today (there were more than 40 American Revolution-specific texts released in 2004 alone). Obviously this massive pool of knowledge, evidence and theory isn't static, nor is it consistent or stable in its assessments. There are many different observations, theories and interpretations stemming from each revolution: some are negative, some positive, some seemingly neutral or objective. These different perspectives exist for several reasons that will be explored later in this page. 

It is the task of the VCE student to be familiar some of these different perspectives and understand why they exist. That is not to say that you need to read numerous texts on one revolution to acquire this knowledge; in a semester-long unit that is impractical. What you can do is to learn about different historians, their books and their perspectives; you should be able to build up a picture of each historian through short readings (reading introductions, conclusions and 'dipping into' books) and activities (such as quote-harvesting and extract analysis), as well as discussion with your teacher and fellow students. 

Why are there so many different interpretations? There are three reasons for this:

You've probably heard the terms left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative and Marxist before ... they are political perspectives that reflect different views of the world, contrasting values and beliefs about what is important, and differing opinions about the roles of the individual, the state and the economy. Everybody has a political perspective, nobody is immune; usually they are shaped by your upbringing and the views of your parents, although they may change later as you experience different things and read more widely. Generally speaking, those with left-wing or Marxist views believe the following are important: economic equality; an end to war, class exploitation and misuse of government power; greater community-based cooperation to solve social and individual problems. Those with right-wing or conservative views favour economic opportunity; a naturally occurring social hierarchy, a focus on law and order; the rights of business and the importance of employers. In the middle of these two schools of thought are liberals, who consider individual freedoms and rights to be paramount over all other considerations. 

A left-wing history, for example, will usually focus on the economic and class-driven forces that create and shape the revolution. A liberal or right-wing history will generally concern itself with the issues of political and social liberty, and how well those concepts were protected or furthered. A historian's view of a revolution is inextricably shaped by his or her political views and values - what roles government and society have, how they are structured and how they should be in the future. The body of writing on any significant historical event is always going to be a dialogue between opposing political perspectives; there is no 'truth', only viewpoints.

To understand more about political perspectives and to learn more about your own, visit Political Compass on the Web and complete the questionnaire, which takes about 10-15 minutes. You will be provided with a full assessment of where your views fit into the spectrum of different political perspectives.

  • Historians reach different conclusions because they see different things as significant

As well as the political perspectives that shape assessment and interpretation of events, there are also technical aspects to the writing of history that differ from writer to writer. There are fundamental questions that help individuals define the study of history as a whole: what is history, what purpose does it serve, who is it for and how should it be written. Because different historians have different views about history, consequently they will construct their research and writing in different ways. Some focus on the actions of great individuals: leaders, military commanders, activists or philosophers. Other historians see groups and broader movements as being more important: political parties, unions, revolutionary groups, the ubiquitous 'mob' or street crowds. Some see history as being driven by great forces, others see it as a series of responses to challenges, others as the product of economic struggle. For more information on this, visit this page.

  • History is always being re-written, consequently it changes over time

There are many reasons for this, some linked to the first and second points made above. As time changes so do the views and values of society; as different people - academics, writers, teachers, even students like you - take custodianship of history, they apply these changing views and values to the past so that they can make sense of it. This process is called revisionism and the historians who practice it are called revisionists because they revise, challenge and reform existing understandings about particularly historical events, even if there may have been a general consensus about them. The 1900s was a fertile period of revisionism as universities were opened up to more people, information was exchanged more freely and left-wing ideologies became more prominent; Marxist interpretations of revolutions and other historical events became more popular (this is still the case today in most Western universities).

Another factor that leads history to be rewritten is the location and availability of new evidence. Sometimes new documents, previously lost, are located by historians and shed new light on previously-formed conclusions. Governments and archives often release documents after long periods of secrecy; this was particularly the case with the Soviet Union, which since the 1980s has allowed access to many sources that were locked away for decades.  




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