1 Guzuru

Historiographical Essay Topics

Below please find several examples of historiographical essays.  What they share in common is an effort to chart changes in the questions asked by historians of a particular topic or field, or the sort of  sources they consult; they also usually seek to explain why new questions have emerged (causation) and to assess the implication of these developments.  Historiography is the history of the history of a particular topic.   Most of these examples are much larger and more extensive in scope than I am expecting of you.  Most are, in fact, historiographical essays assessing the state of a field, such as family history, or a big topic, such as Reconstruction.  You could pick some small part of a topic–say immigrant families in 19th c cities–and say you were going to assess how the study of this topic had changed since Ryan’s 1982 RAH essay.   But mostly I offer them so that you can see how you need to pick a topic that has enough literature for you to analyze (that is, look for patterns within, and take a stab at explaining why those patterns exist). I am not expecting you to read them word for word, nor will I quiz you on them in class or elsewhere.

1. Lasser, Retrospective on Eleanor Flexner’s history of women’s suffrage:  The first part of this is NOT an historiographical essay, but the second part, after the space break on 349 is.  Lasser looks at how the study of women’s suffrage has changed in the 25 year’s since Flexner’s work. 


2. Ryan, “The explosion of family history” RAH 1982http://www.jstor.org/stable/2701826

3. Foner, “Reconstruction Revisited” (this is a classic essay)


4. Helmbold and Schofield, “Women’s Labor History, 1790-1945”http://www.jstor.org/stable/2703424

5. Steele, “Exploding Colonial American History” – this is fairly far afield, but I like the way he says ~’there are three major areas in that reflect the impact of the expansion of multiculturalism…’ and I thought the Transatlantic students in the class might benefit from it.


Like this:



For topics that are of wide interest, you may be able to find an essay that reviews the literature on that topic, and that sets it in context by discussing how other historians have approached that topic. This kind of essay is invaluable when you are starting a research project. There are two easy ways to find them:

History Compass is an online journal that publishes historiographic essays. If there is an essay on your topic, it can be an excellent place to start. Caution: if you do not find what you need with your first search, you will need to scroll to the bottom of the search results page and click on Modify Search to start a new search within History Compass. Otherwise, you will need to specify that you want to search only this journal and not the entire list of Blackwell online journals

If your topic is covered, check Oxford Bibliographies Online (currently, covers Atlantic History, Classics, Criminology, Islamic Studies, Philosophy, and Renaissance and the Reformation)

America: History & Life and Historical Abstracts
In both of these bibliographic databases, "historiography" is a Subject. For example, in AHL, to find historiography on the American Civil war, do a Subject search for:
civil war historiography

Annual bulletin of historical literature
History Reference (SH). Firestone Z6205 .H65 and online

The "Blackwell Companions" are a series published both in print and online in Blackwell Reference Online. If there is one on your topic, it can be an exceptionally useful place to start reading.
Note: to find print copies of the Blackwell Companions, do a keyword search in the Main Catalog for " Blackwell companions to history," "Blackwell companions to American history," " Blackwell companions to British history," " Blackwell companions to world history," or " Blackwell companions to European history " to see if there is a volume in this series that covers your topic. Some copies circulate, and others are in the History Reference on A floor.



Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *