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Major Approaches to Interpreting History


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Title: Major Approaches to Interpreting History

Major Approaches to Interpreting History
  • Dr. John F. Chuchiak IV
  • rev. by Javier Ergueta
  • December, 2013

  • Historians commonly recognize that, by
    themselves, individual historical facts are not
    particularly meaningful.
  • Such facts will only become useful when assembled
    into an interpretive whole, and different
    approaches to assembling evidence are understood
    as particular historiographical schools.

Political History
  • Diplomatic history
  • Whig history
  • Great Man theory

  • Political history is the narrative and analysis
    of political events, ideas, movements, and
  • It is usually structured around the nation state.

  • Diplomatic history focuses on politics,
    politicians and other high rulers and views them
    as being the driving force of continuity and
    change in history.
  • This type of political history is the study of
    the conduct of international relations between
    states or across state boundaries over time.
  • This is the most common form of history and is
    often the classical and popular belief of what
    history should be.

  • Whig historiography perceives the past as a
    teleological progression toward the present.
  • In general, Whig historians look for and favour
    the rise of constitutional government, personal
    freedoms and scientific progress in any
    historical period.
  • The term is often used pejoratively to denote any
    historian that adopts such positions, but it also
    connotes a specific set of British historians who
    embodied Whig ideals.

  • The Great man theory is a theory held by some
    that aims to explain history by the impact of
    "Great men", or heroes highly influential
    individuals, either from personal charisma,
    genius intellects, or great political impact.

  • For example, a scholarly follower of the Great
    Man theory would be likely to study the Second
    World War by focusing on the big personalities of
    the conflict Sir Winston Churchill, Adolf
    Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Delano
    Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Hideki Tojo, etc. and
    view all of the historical events as being tied
    directly to their own individual decisions and

  • It is often linked to 19th century commentator
    and historian Thomas Carlyle, who commented that
    "The history of the world is but the biography of
    great men."
  • The Great Man approach to history was most
    popular with professional historians in the 19th
    century a popular work of this school is the
    Encyclopedia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1911)
  • This heroic view of history was also strongly
    endorsed by some philosophical figures such as
    Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spengler, but it fell out
    of favor after World War II.

Social History
  • Marxist/marxian
  • Quantitative/Cliometrics

  • Social history is a area of historical study
    considered by some to be a social science that
    attempts to view historical evidence from the
    point of view of developing social trends.
  • In this view, it may include areas of economic
    history, legal history and the analysis of other
    aspects of civil society that show the evolution
    of social norms, behaviors and more.
  • It is distinguished from political history,
    military history and the so-called history of
    great men.

  • An example of social history can be seen in the
    American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and
  • Typical history would focus on the who, what,
    when and where whereas social history focuses on
    the causes of the movement itself.
  • Social historians would pose such questions as,
    "Why did the movement come about when it did?
  • This approach is favored by some scholars because
    it allows for a discussion of sometimes less
    studied aspects.

  • Marxist or historical materialist historiography
    is a school of historiography influenced by
  • The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are
    the centrality of social class and economic
    constraints in determining historical outcomes.
  • Marxist historiography has made contributions to
    the methodology of history from below, and the
    history of the working class, and oppressed

  • Strict Marxist history is teleological it posits
    a direction of history, towards an end state of
    history as classless human society.
  • Its aim is to bring those oppressed by history to
    self-consciousness, and to arm them with tactics
    and strategies from history it is both a
    historical and a liberatory project.

  • Historians who use Marxist methodology, but
    disagree with the mainstream of Marxism, often
    describe themselves as marxist historians (with a
    lowercase M).
  • Methods from Marxist historiography, such as
    class analysis, can be divorced from the
    liberatory intent of Marxist historiography such
    practitioners often refer to their work as
    marxian or Marxian.

  • Quantitative History is an approach to historical
    research that makes use of quantitative,
    statistical and computer tools.
  • It is considered a branch of social history and
    has favorite journals, such as Historical
    Methods, Social Science History, and the Journal
    of Interdisciplinary History.

  • Cliometrics refers to the systematic use of
    economic theory and econometric techniques to
    study economic history.
  • The term was originally coined by Jonathan R.T.
    Hughes and Stanley Reiter in 1960 and refers to
    Clio, who was the muse of history and heroic
    poetry in Greek mythology.

Cultural History
  • Art history
  • Annales School

  • Cultural history (from the German term
    Kulturgeschichte), at least in its common
    definition since the 1970s, often combines the
    approaches of anthropology and history to look at
    popular cultural traditions and cultural
    interpretations of historical experience.

  • Jacob Burckhardt (1818 1897) was a Swiss
    historian of art and culture, fields which he
    helped found.
  • "The great discoverer of the age of the
    Renaissance, he first showed how a period should
    be treated in its entirety, with regard not only
    for its painting, sculpture and architecture, but
    for the social institutions of its daily life as
  • Burckhardt's best known work is The Civilization
    of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

  • Cultural history overlaps in its approaches with
    the French movements of histoire des mentalités
    and the so-called new history, and in the U.S. it
    is closely associated with the field of American
  • Most often the focus is on phenomena shared by
    non-elite groups in a society, such as carnival,
    festival, and public rituals performance
    traditions cultural evolutions in human
    relations (ideas, sciences, arts, techniques)
    and cultural expressions of social movements such
    as nationalism.

The Annales School
  • The Annales School is a school of historical
    writing named after the French scholarly journal
    Annales d'histoire économique et sociale where it
    was first expounded.
  • Annales school history incorporated social
    scientific methods into history.

  • The Annales was founded and edited by Marc Bloch
    and Lucien Febvre in 1929, while they were
    teaching at the University of Strasbourg, France.
  • These authors quickly became associated with the
    distinctive Annales approach, which combined
    geography, history, and the sociological
    approaches to produce an approach which rejected
    the predominant emphasis on politics, diplomacy
    and war of many 19th century historians.

  • Instead, they pioneered an approach to a study of
    long-term historical structures (la longue durée)
    over events.
  • Geography, material culture, and what later
    Annalistes called mentalités, or the psychology
    of the epoch, are also typical.
  • Georges Duby, wrote that the history he taught
    was reluctant to give a simple accounting of
    events, but strived on the contrary to observe
    the long and medium-term evolution of economy,
    society and civilization."