Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Historiography is the study of the methods and methodology used by historians.

explanatory context

Historiography is used as an alternative term for history by some writers. This is misleading. The term 'historiography' really has more precise referents.


Historiography, most accurately, refers to the study and analysis of history-writing. This includes the methods used, the methodology adopted, the presuppositions and epistemological underpinnings.


Historiography is sometimes used as a term for the history of history writing.


Historiography is sometimes used to refer to the pursuit of official historians, i.e of a royal court, etc.

analytical review

Little (2012) stated:

...We should begin by asking the basic question: what is historiography? In its most general sense, the term refers to the study of historians' methods and practices. Any intellectual or creative practice is guided by a set of standards and heuristics about how to proceed, and “experts” evaluate the performances of practitioners based on their judgments of how well the practitioner meets the standards. So one task we always have in considering an expert activity is to attempt to identify these standards and criteria of good performance. This is true for theatre and literature, and it is true for writing history. Historiography is at least in part the effort to do this work for a particular body of historical writing. ...

Historians normally make truth claims, and they ask us to accept those claims based on the reasoning they present. So a major aspect of the study of historiography has to do with defining the ideas of evidence, rigor, and standards of reasoning for historical inquiry. We presume that historians want to discover empirically supported truths about the past, and we presume that they want to offer inferences and interpretations that are somehow regulated by standards of scientific rationality..... So the apprentice practitioner seeks to gain knowledge of the practices of his/her elders in the profession: what counts as a compelling argument, how to assess a body of archival evidence, how to offer or criticize an interpretation of complex events that necessarily exceeds the available evidence. The historiographer has a related task: he/she would like to be able to codify the main methods and standards of one historical school or another.

There are other desiderata governing a good historical work, and these criteria may change from culture to culture and epoch to epoch. Discerning the historian's goals is crucial to deciding how well he or she succeeds. So discovering these stylistic and aesthetic standards that guide the historian's work is itself an important task for historiography. This means that the student of historiography will naturally be interested in the conventions of historical writing and rhetoric that are characteristic of a given period or school.

A full historiographic “scan” of a given historian might include questions like these: What methods of discovery does he/she use? What rhetorical and persuasive goals does he/she pursue? What models of explanation? What paradigm of presentation? What standards of style and rhetoric? What interpretive assumptions?

A historical “school” might be defined as a group of interrelated historians who share a significant number of specific assumptions about evidence, explanation, and narrative. 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? Under this rubric we find books on the historiography of the ancient Greeks; Renaissance historiography; or the historiography of German romanticism. Arnaldo Momigliano's writings on the ancient historians fall in this category (Momigliano 1990). In a nutshell, Momigliano is looking at the several traditions of ancient history-writing as a set of normative practices that can be dissected and understood in their specificity and their cultural contexts.

A second primary use of the concept of historiography is more present-oriented and methodological. It involves the study and analysis of historical methods of research, inquiry, inference, and presentation used by more-or-less contemporary historians. How do contemporary historians go about their tasks of understanding the past? Here we can reflect upon the historiographical challenges that confronted Philip Huang as he investigated the Chinese peasant economy in the 1920s and 1930s (Huang 1990), or the historiographical issues raised in Robert Darnton's telling of the Great Cat Massacre (Darnton 1984). Sometimes these issues have to do with the scarcity or bias in the available bodies of historical records (for example, the fact that much of what Huang refers to about the village economy of North China was gathered by the research teams of the occupying Japanese army). Sometimes they have to do with the difficulty of interpreting historical sources (for example, the unavoidable necessity Darnton faced of providing meaningful interpretation of a range of documented events that appear fundamentally irrational)....

associated issues


related areas

See also




Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research section 1.6.8


Darnton, R., 1984, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, New York: Basic Books.

Huang, P.C., 1990, The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350–1988, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Little, D., 2012, , 'Philosophy of history', in Zalta, E.N. (Ed.) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), first published 18 February 2007; substantive revision 28 September, 2012, available at, accessed 13 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Momigliano, A., 1990, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Sather Classical Lectures), Berkeley: University of California Press.

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