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Historiography and Historical Methods

Week VIII discussion questions


Ernst Breisach, Historiography:  Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 2nd edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Chapters 26-Epilogue

Chapter 26

What was the aim of the Progressive historians?  In other words, what did they see as the public purpose of history and as the public rule of historians?  And how was their view of US history linked to their view of the future?

The most famous progressive historians focused on the connection between politics and economics; how did progressive historians like Parrington explain intellectual history?  Here again, how was the progressive approach linked to the Progressive vision of the future?

Since the Progressive believed in the power of human rationality and in progress, they had a hard time dealing with the brutal history of the US Civil War.  How did Beard explain the significance of the Civil War?

In the early post WWII years, a number of "revisionist" historians criticized Beard's approach to the Civil War:  what were their main criticisms, and why (according to B) did this version of revisionism fade so quickly?

B points out that, for all of their focus on conflict in American life, there is one entire aspect of American history--an aspect stepped in conflict--that the Progressives almost completely ignored.  What was this "forgotten conflict" and why, according to B, did the Progressive not give attention to this issue?

Did the fact that the Progressives ignored the history of race in America mean that there were no historians writing about Black history in the early 1900s?  Explain.

B makes the point that the approach to social history pioneered by A. Schlesinger Sr. was very different from that of the Beards and the other Progressives.  How was Schlesinger's approach different?

B makes the point that the study of "sections" or "regions" of the United States has outlived F. J. Turner's thesis about "sectionalism."  What about Turner's "Frontier Thesis"?  Have historians generally found that Turner was correct?  Explain.

How did the founders of the French Annales "school" (Bloch, Febvre, etc.) understand the scope of history (what the study of history includes and how it relates to other disciplines)?

B briefly discusses the concept of structuralism.  What are the basic ideas associated with structuralism, and how did the Annales historians adapt these ideas?

What are B's main criticisms of the Annales school?

The great Annales-influenced historian Braudel argued that historical change occurred at three levels, or in three different "rhythms"--what are these and what do they mean?  Explain.

Since 1945,  Annales historians have dealt with issues beyond (or in addition to) demographics and economics, such as the history of mentalit;  what does this term mean?

For B, what is the greatest strength of modern French social historiography?


Chapter 27

B beings this chapter by telling us that Whig historiography has not fared well in the post 1945 period--why not?

B claims that there was a "quasi status-quo" in German historiography in the period 1918-1933 (the period of the Weimar Republic).  A) what does this mean?  B) on what idea or point did the status quo agree?

According to B, what were the main characteristics of historiography in Fascist Italy, and did the Italian fascists have a systematic theory of history (or view of history)?

B makes the point that, for all of their similarities, Nazi historiography differed in fundamental ways from Fascist historiography--how and why?

The Nazis sought to completely dominate German-language history writing in the 1930s--how did they go about trying to achieve this, and did they succeed?  Explain.

After 1945, one of the most powerful debates among Germany historians has been over the question of the "Sonderweg"; what does this term mean, and what different version of the Sonderweg thesis does B explain?  Has the explanation of Germany's supposed "separate path" changed over time?

B compares the Annales social historians in France to the Historische Sozialwissenscraft approach in Germany--what are the basic differences, and how would you explain the reasons that these differences exist?

What was the Historikerstreit, and what issue were German historians debating?  How would you sum up the two basic sides in this debate (e.g., Nolte vs Habermas)?

In the US after 1945, what became of the approach taken by the Progressive historians and why?

According to B, what characterized the approach of "Critical Liberal" historiography in the US after 1945?  Explain.  How did these historians relate to the sort of historical debates that had been taking place in Europe since the late 1800s, and how did they conceive of the historians' public function?

According to B, what constituted the main shared ideas or perspectives of "so-called Consensus historiography" in the US?  Explain at least 2 of B's examples of consensus historiography.

What does B describe as the main shared characteristics of "New Left" historiography?  Explain, for instance, the main points made by W. LeFeber and W. A. Williams.

According to B, how did the New Left historians understand their public role as historians?

Were the New Left historians marxists? Explain.

What does B identify as the main trends in US historiography since the 1970s?


Chapter 28

At the start of this chapter, B identifies a "problem"--what is this problem, and what three approaches to World History will he discuss in this chapter?

What does B describe as the main shared characteristic of "progress models" of world history?  And what problem does he see with such models?  How, in particular, have historians tried to explain Western dominance in modern history?

What does B describe as the main shared characteristics of "multiple cultures model" world histories? 

Explain the basic differences between Spengler's theory of history and that of Toynbee (this requires that you first explain their two theories!).

What does B describe as the main shared characteristic of "world systems theories" of world history?

Explain the basic differences between modernization theories (like Rostow's) and dependency theories (which is how B defines the view of Wallerstein).  And how, according to B, does the systems theory approach of William McNeal differ from modernization theory and dependency theory?

B closes by discussing recent efforts to build a modified Christian view of world history--what seems to be his main point here?



B is convinced that we can learn a great deal from studying the history of historiography.  For instance, he says that we learn that historians have shared one basic, over-arching function in all western societies (he says that this is one of the continuities we can see despite all of the historical changes during the past 4,000 years)--what is this basic public function?  Explain.

B argues that after WWII, the study of history in western cultures faced a shared problem or challenge (in the Soviet bloc, history had its own problems)--what basic problem did the study of history face after 1945, and why did the public role of historians seem to fade away in the late 1940s-early 1960s?

B argues that historians and historiography have faced new problems since the early 1970s.  What were these?  Put differently, according to B, why was there now a greater public need for historians and why were historians finding it hard to fill that need? 

In this book, B has argued that since the late 1800s historians have basically chosen one of two basic philosophical approaches to the question of what historians actually do (what is history?)--what are these two approaches?

If "scientific" history has not really panned out (according to B), then are historians doomed to "hopeless relativism"?  What is B's solution to this conundrum?  How can the study of the history of historiography help us?

If, for B, avoiding relativism is one of the two great challenges facing historians today, what is the "second task"?  Explain!  How can the study of the history of historiography help us?

Do you think that B believes in Progress?  Explain.

B concludes that the study of history is of extreme importance for all cultures, including our own.  WHY?


You've spent almost two months reading and thinking (I hope) about this book.  Now, be prepared to spend some time in class discussing, and perhaps writing about (hint hint) your own theory of history...