Today’s term/concept is: HISTORIOGRAPHY
So, what does this word mean in the context of historical research?
Historiography usually refers to all the work on a given historical topic and/or the study of how historians have dealt with historical subject matters.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians’ methods and practices. Moreover, “historiography becomes itself historical when we recognize that these frameworks of assumptions about historical knowledge and reasoning change over time. On this assumption, the history of historical thinking and writing is itself an interesting subject. How did historians of various periods in human history conduct their study and presentation of history?" (Source)
Trent University defines historiography as “a summary of the historical writings on a particular topic … It identifies the major thinkers and arguments, and establishes connections between them. If there have been major changes in the way a particular topic has been approached over time, the historiography identifies them.” (Source)
So, to put it plainly, historiography can be understood as the the body of historical writing on a topic and the history of how historians have approached a particular topic over time.
⇒ For example, if you encounter in your readings: “The Historiography on the Haitian Revolution is very large” It usually means → ”Lots of stuff have been written about the Haitian Revolution.”
Historiography of course, does not only refer to the grouping of works on a topic, as we have seen already, it also focuses on the changes in historical methodology.
So, historiography evolves over time? Why?
Historians can rarely escape their own time. This is not to say that the historical discipline is entirely subjective, rather, this is to suggest that historians do not write in vacuums. Historiographical essays are thus important because they help us see how the methodology in studying a particular topic has changed over time.
⇒ For example, in the 1960s, most (but not all) historians favoured an approach that gave a significant importance to economy and were often interested in making Marxist and class-based analysis of History. This is not necessarily true today when many historians prefer an analysis which gives more space to culture (hence, you will often hear references to a "cultural" or "linguistic turn" in History).
Now, this change in the way historians understand events rarely means they debate over the occurrence of those events (although, it does happen), — what it actually means is that historians find that some approches highlight factors that better explain historical events than others. Historians’ major task is not simply to narrate events, their work also involves looking at the relationship between various instances (that is, their causal relationship) in explaining historical events. (To make this text more digestible, I will save you a discussion on the problems historians face with narration and causality, just remember that the two have an influence on historiography.)
So, as just mentioned, historiography helps us see how historical writing changes, in part, because historians often take different approches with time.
⇒ For example, for a long time, the dominant historiography of the causes of World War I suggested that the Great War was fought between European powers for colonies (i.e. the surproduction of goods forced European capitalist to pressure their own government to support their adventures in foreign lands in search of the new markets). Other historians, who do not necessarily completely reject the previous explanation, argue however that nationalism is better in articulating the drive to go to war. Historiography also suggests that we should not neglect the importance of the European alliance system before WWI (i.e. the “domino effect”). More importantly, most (but not all) historians who have favoured the colonies and market explanation tended to be further towards the left (Marxist, Leninist and so on) in their analysis. (Notice “tended’ is in italics.)
At any rate, historiography is a complex term, but it is necessary to understand it in order to comprehend some of the work historians do (and to grasp the real nature of most of their disputes).
To recapitulate, in most instances, historiography is:
Warning: Before using a term, always make sure you are confortable with its meaning and that it won’t be placed in your text simply as an ornament. If unsure, consult an appropriate dictionary or a Professor.