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HIS 423/HIS 489: Historiography Assignment

This guide is intended to assist students in HIS423 and HIS489 as they are taught by Professor Edward Shorter.

Historiography Basics

What is Historiography? 

A historiography is a summary of the historical writings on a particular topic - the history of eugenics in America, or the history of epidemics, for example.  It sets out in broad terms the range of debate and approaches to the 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.

Unlike a research paper, a historiography paper is not a study of a historical subject; instead, it is an analysis of the way in which historians have interpreted that topic. 

How to Write a Historiography?

The most important step in writing a historiography is to become familiar with the history of your topic in broad terms. A good historiography is written from a position of authority on a topic.

A historiography is best situated early on in an essay, preferably in the introduction in order to familiarize the reader with the topic and to set out the scope of previous work in broad terms.

Your historiography should establish:

  • the major thinkers on the topic, and
  • their main arguments (or theses).

Your historiography may also explain:

  • the perspective from which the authors are writing (e.g. Marxist, feminist, postmodernist, structuralist, etc.)
  • the type of history they have written (e.g. political, social, cultural, economic, etc.)

A good historiography will present this information in a way that shows the connections between these major works. For example, does one work respond to an argument set out in another? Does it expand on that argument or disagree with it? A good historiography will also situate the author's work within the dialogue, explaining whether his or her thesis builds on or rejects the work that has come before.

Still a little unsure of what a historiography is? Check out these great examples or get help

Adapated from:

What is Historiography?

Clear, quick video defining historiography. 

1. Start With What You Have

The following may refer you to important works, thinkers, or schools of thought on your topic. 

They can also help you identify relevant authors, concepts, works, or keywords for searching the library cataloguehistory databases, or specific history of medicine journals.  

2. Find a Historiographical Essay Related to Your Topic

There are lots of ways to find historiographical essays. Here's one strategy: 

Did you know when a bibliographic database (ex. America: History & Life or MEDLINE) receives an article, indexers apply a certain number of SUBJECT HEADINGS to an article to describe the article's content? Did you know that those subject headings are searchable? Did you know that Historiography is a subject heading? 

The following sample search strategies in 3 databases of history secondary sources available in EbscoHost (ex. America: History & Life; History of Science Technology and Medicine; Historical Abstracts) are a quick way to find historiographical essays. 

1. DE "Historiography" AND (psychiatry OR psychoanalysis OR psychosurgery)

2. DE "Historiography" AND social AND medicine

3. DE "Historiography" AND (eugenics OR social darwinism)

What's going on here? 

DE "Historiography" -> searches Historiography as the SUBJECT of the article. The DE code tells these particular databases to search the subject field. Other databases use different codes (ex. CINAHL uses MH). Library databases all have helpful HELP features that tell you which code searches which field. 

DE "Historiography" is combined with keywords on a topic (ie. psychiatry OR psychoanalysis OR psychosurgery)

This query is applied to three databases, and results that have Historiography in the subject field AND psychiatry OR psychoanalysis OR psychosurgery in the text fields are retrieved. 

Now try to make a search strategy of your own!

Want more HELP with databases? 

3. Search for Specific Article & Cross-Ref

Use a citation database like SCOPUS or WEB of SCIENCE to search for a specific article, and use the database features to find its references, see who has cited it, and search for any related citations. 

For example, if I search SCOPUS for 'Grand Narrative and Its Discontent: Medical History in the Social Transformation of American Medicine' in the Article Title field, I see that it has been cited 7 times in the SCOPUS database and that there are 5,113 other citations that share references with my article. I can also easily link to the full-text or catalogue records for each of the author's references.