On writing history: A mini-course

Ross Woods, Rev. 2019

Part I: What is History

What is history?

Many definitions are possible, but the following might be most helpful for current purposes: History is the analysis of literary sources in order to make meaning of the past. This has the following elements:

  1. It refers to the past.
  2. It uses documents inlcuding archeological reports. The documentary basis include oral sources, beucase oral language has fundamental similarilities to written language. (Analysis of non-documentary sources is archeology.)
  3. Its purpose is to make meaning, not just establish a series of events and their dates of occurance.

Historiography is the study of the philosophy of the ways in which history is written. This introduction does not claim to be a representative summary of historiography. It simply aims to be a useful window into historiographical issues for the student with no prior knowledge of the subject.

Bias and persepective

The raw data of history are those surviving documents that are accessible to scholars. Each document represents the particular viewpoint of a particular person or group. For example, someone might want to write a history of an hypothetical major bank. Each of these kinds of people would describe the bank in very different ways:

  1. holders of savings accounts
  2. rank-and-file employees
  3. the bank's chief executive officer
  4. the manager of a local branch
  5. shareholders.

The bank then went bankrupt. Other people would add different perspectives on the bank:

  1. The Finance Minister in the Federal Cabinet
  2. The Director-General of the taxation department
  3. The bank's chief accountant
  4. A newspaper reporter
  5. A newspaper editor
  6. The bank's competitors
  7. The judge heading an official inquiry
  8. The police fraud squad.

Similarly, the church also has many different perspectives, whether in its normal working or in time of crisis, and many lend useful insights into the past.

Bias can be honest and justified, but it is unavoidable. Even if every person in the example of the bankrupt bank were completely honest (which is unlikely), their accounts of what happened would still be different. Both documents of history and academically responsible inquiries reflect their authors' idiosyncrasies, purposes, and personal conclusions. Bias is also evident in a document's limitations, in its selection and interpretation of sources, and in its social, cultural, and linguistic context.

As far as possible, the historian needs to identify the particular viewpoint of each document and assess its reliability; some documents contain only sketchy or inaccurate accounts. Sometimes only one account is available. However, information from several viewpoints, if available, gives a more accurate and balanced picture of what happened and why. A comparison of accounts from all the participants in the bankrupt bank would yield a more detailed and accurate account.

But bias is wrong whenever somebody uses sources irresponsibly, or when the conclusion is not justified by evidence, or when events are used as a way to rationalise an a priori conclusion, as is the case when political regimes revise history books to legitimise their positions.

Theorizing in history

Like scholars in any kind of inquiry, historians construct and compare theories, test hypotheses, and perhaps sometimes produce new theories.

The historian needs to make sense of a mass of information by sorting it into a justifiable pattern, which in one sense is a theory. The "pattern'' can also be shown to be inaccurate, in which case a better theory would need to be formulated. This also applies to historical causes; the mass of information needs to be sorted into defensible hypotheses.

History is a science in that it is possible to have contrasting conclusions and theories requiring debate, evaluation and further inquiry. Also like any other field of study, the historian must select and limit his topic so that he can study it more effectively.

That is, historical study is usually oriented towards defining and solving problems, and this has several ramifications:

  1. The problem helps in determining what is relevant or not to the investigation. A writer that tries to include everything about his topic easily becomes aimless, long-winded, and purely descriptive.
  2. Every academic study needs to argue for a particular thesis.
  3. Any one study can only respond to a particular problem; a study which tries to solve many problems should be re-written as many separate pieces of written work.
  4. Investigating a problem helps identify its central issues; consequently, the direction of research changes while it is in progress.
  5. No historical study has the final word; each can be revised and possibly improved.

History and meaning

History is more than making notes about what happened in the past. Indisputable factual information is called technical history; it comprises the sort of data one can look up in a book. Archival studies is the keeping of archival documents so that they do not deteriorate with time. Neither of these are strictly historical studies in an academic sense, although the latter relates to library studies. History is a way to convey ideals and ideas.

Children at school study their national and ethnic history to gain an identity of their race or nation. In some countries, governments censor the textbooks and course descriptions, deleting references to viewpoints and events which shed their country in a poor light, and taking a nationalist view against the colonists who "oppressed'' them.

The authors of Judges and Chronicles selected and interpreted Jewish history according to Yahwist religion. Marx's values were very different, but he also used historical study to reinforce his philosophical paradigm.

Present trends in history are especially value-laden, focusing on the experiences, lifestyles, relationships, and worldviews of ordinary people. "Data'' are viewed as subject to the vagaries of interpersonal communication. This tends to subjectivise and relativise the value of sources and the nature of historical events, and to create multiple co-existing paradigms.

Part III: On Analysis in History

Cause and effect

Any Why? question demands an identification of cause and effect, but this is much more difficult than it sounds. Nevertheless, this question is one of the main differences between an academically responsible history and a memoir. Demonstrating causality is difficult enough; as historical information is always limited to surviving sources, it often seems possible that the true causes of anything can no longer be identified. Unfortunately historians easily tend to assume that causes are identifiable from current evidence, whereas that may not be the case. Besides, it cannot be assumed that causes and effects are singular and linear or that they are all of equal weight. Sources may undervalue important information, or express it in ways that have become difficult to understand. Some sources have developed their own opinions about causes and effects.


  1. When can the writing of history be only descriptive?
  2. How does change happen in society and in individuals? What changes easily? What resists change? Why?
  3. Why are things like they are? How did denominations develop their identifying characteristics?
  4. How could you justify dividing history into eras, or into geographical areas? What are the relationships between different eras and geographical areas?


You will probably classify people, eras and place so that you can talk sensibly about your subject. However, your classifications are something that you artificially construct. People are all different, and history is so fluid that it doesn't divide into unconnected eras and places very well.

In many cases, you might need to justify or qualify your classifications of social-political-cultural groupings, eras, and, geographical areas.

What are the limitations of that classification system? (E.g. Why would you separate one era from another?)

Make explicit and give examples of the relationships between different eras and/or geographical areas. Explain the relationships between different eras and geographical areas.

Describe each social-political-cultural group from an insider's viewpoint. Be explicit and give examples of the workings of each.


Make explicit the relationship between the raw data of history and written histories, and base your discussion on concrete examples. For example, identify any examples of how people are influenced by their concept of the past, and infer concepts of personal identity that result from historical factors.

Are there any underlying patterns that people are using to interpret what happened? (Sometimes people borrow or adapt ideas from other sources.)

Dynamics of change

What factors in the context contributed to change? How did causation work in history? Basically how did change happen? What were the dynamics? Identify causes and contextual factors contributing to change. Consider:

  1. What were the cause and effect patterns? Demonstrate historical causality and its limitations
  2. What variations were there in change patterns?
  3. What roles did influential institutions take?