Prof. Sammy Basu

Department of Politics

Willamette University




Printable version


Mainstream History


‘Historical empiricism’

‘History for its own sake.’

‘Just the Facts, ma’am.’

The assumption is that the Scientific method applied to historical facts enables historians to re-present the past objectively and accurately.


More specifically,

1.               the rigorous examination of historical evidence verified by sources

a.               Rely on primary documents originating at the time of the event to ‘write what actually happened’

2.               impartial research, i.e. historian operates under no presumptions or prejudices

3.               inductive reasoning, from particular to general, ie no grand theorizing a priori


In practice, such historians tend to focus on:

Political leaders and literate elites

The great men who make history

Canonical great thinkers

The fundamental political institutions

War and territory

Intellectual canon


e.g. V.H. Galbraith, Geoffrey Elton, Leopold von Ranke








Problems with 1:

1.               records or artifacts that survive may be incomplete or partial

2.               what survives may be the view of the winners and survivors

3.               too much material to be encompassed by historian


Problems with 2 and 3

1.               facts do not speak for themselves, selection must occur, prior categories relied upon

2.               claims about causation or motivation have to be attributed to actors since we never really know their minds.

3.               multiple interpretations/narratives of same facts by historians


In practice then,

typically, either such historians are allowing the dominant self-understanding of the age (which may or may not reflect what is actually going on) dictate how they read the evidence,

or they are imposing on the evidence their own contemporary concerns and interests.










Historiography is the history of history, or the study of history, or the study of what historians do, on the grounds that what historians go looking for affects what they find.  More specifically, it involves the dual recognition: (1) that there are a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches to history, and (2) that because these approaches respond differently to the methodological and philosophical questions involved in doing history they have their particular insights and blindspots.





History of Western philosophy


history of ideas


intellectual history




We will focus on four of the most influential theories/approaches/schools of historical practice:

1.               Whig History

2.               Marxist history

3.               Gender history

4.               Postmodern history


Whig History


History is seen as the increasingly triumphant march of particular ideas or the progressive emergence of values and institutions, and is written as a series of right steps or missteps.  The ideas, values and institutions singled out happen to coincide with the status quo self-description of modern Anglo-American constitutional representative democracies.  They include variously freedom, individualism, rights, democracy, free markets, science, and technology. 

Although Whig historians don’t generally admit that they are writing in this manner, many, especially those who write for public or popular audiences tend to write history so as to explain the triumphant successes of the present.

In a sense, whig history is a secular version of Christian linear history.

Ideas and texts are understood in terms of their role or contribution towards advancing or obstructing liberal-democratic ideas and institutions.



Key concept: expanding freedom (Richie Havens, 1969; (G. Michael) or N. Minaj



Liberal-democratic progress

e.g. J.H. Plumb, E.H. Carr


Emergence of nation-state

e.g. Herbert Butterfield, Daniel Boorstin








EugŹne Delacroix. Liberty Leading the People (28 July 1830). 1830. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France





Marxist history


History is seen as a series of epochs in which the fundamental structure of the material conditions affects cultural life in general and intellectual thought in particular.

Marxism, more specifically, focuses on the circumstances of economic production, and the resulting class struggle or dialectic (in terms of their relationship and roles to production) that affects thought.

Technological change determines material conditions and thereby affects thought, especially so under transition from feudalism to capitalism, but also in other broad epochs.

Ideas and texts are understood as cultural or intellectual manifestations of the underlying economic system which are typically working ideologically to legitimize the economic system and its necessary social hierarchies, and which are, regardless, always conditioned by the author’s location, status, and hence interests in the socio-economic system.

Marxist historians are concerned:

(1) to expose and critique dominant intellectual positions as ghost stories that variously rationalize, obfuscate or distract from the
material realities of oppressive economic systems


(2) to recover and celebrate ideas and texts that reflect those at the greatest distance from economic power, including  especially the "working class."

(3) to highlight the ways in which the myths of self-made men, owners and entrepreneurs obscure and dismiss the real creative power of the masses of laborers and workers


e.g. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eugene Genovese



Key concept: class struggle (Rage Against the Machine: No Shelter, 1998; see game)



-       ‘History from below’: which assesses critically the achievements of these historians in uncovering the lives of slaves, labouring men and women, ordinary soldiers, and upstart sectarians.

o  the New Left historians of the 1960's


-       ‘the Annales School’: rejected the traditional emphasis on the narrative of events and high politics in favor of problem-oriented analysis, the study of mentalities, and total geographic history.

o   Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch













Gender history


History is seen as a record of gender politics in which gender categories, principally male and female, are constructed and manipulated to generate particular sorts of norms and expectations around behavior that is masculine or feminine.

Ideas and texts are understood as cultural or intellectual manifestations of the underlying gender politics of the society which are typically deliberately or unconsciously reproducing and rationalizing the social constructed constraints and hierarchies on the differential meanings and capacities of the genders.


Feminist historians are concerned:

1.               to expose and critique the exclusion of women philosophers from history

a.               W are omitted and/or devalued

b.               Historically, often did not have access to same education and were not expected or permitted to write in formal genres

2.               to recover and celebrate women philosophers

3.               to expose and critique the generally negative or misogynist ways in women are discussed in canonical male texts is

a.               Explicit misogyny and construction of gendered hierachies

b.               Gendered interpretation of particular key concepts, ie metaphors, concepts e.g. liberty

                                         i.     intrinsic

                                      ii.     extrinsic

c.                Synoptic gender bias, i.e., entire philosophical tradition, especially in its view of reason and the individual, is male


Key concept: dualism or binary imposition (Nancy Sinatra, J. Simpson)


e.g. Joan Kelly, Sheila Rowbotham, Gisela Bok










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Postmodern History


Postmodern, post-structuralism, deconstruction

History is seen as a complex, diffuse phenomena requiring multiple lines of stories rather than a single meta-narrative.  Whereas structural theories assumed closed, formal and predictive systems (of knowledge and language) which could be recognized by an external observer and applied to a given text or set of ideas, ‘pomo’ historians highlight the open and multiple possibilities of these texts and ideas.

They undermine claims of historical objectivity inasmuch as all history writing is a kind of fiction.

Instead, they engage in archaeology or genealogy of ideas.


Postmodern historians are concerned:

1.               to expose and critique the exclusion of alternate forms of knowledge or belief from history, the silencing or erasure of the losers.

2.               to recover without romanticizing or celebrating necessarily the différance, i.e., what is different or marginalized or absent. 

a.               Focus on origins, discontinuities, breaks, local social history, microhistories.

3.               to expose and critique the easy assumptions made by most historians including:

a.               the self; Pomo regards the emergence of human subjectivity as itself a product or effect of history

                                         i.     self is itself being invented and designed

                                      ii.     de-emphasizes the historically situated authorial consciousness.

b.               power, and the view that it involves one group against another; instead power/knowledge are mutually reinforcing phenomena.



Key concept: rhizomatic formations (rhizome) (David Bowie: Heroes)


e.g. Michel Foucault, Roger Chartier


-       The New Cultural History: examines patterns of everyday life, highlights meaning in rituals, events and language in low or popular culture.  Call attention to management of violence, sexuality, common sense, and the meanings of literacy.














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Other theories of history:



Author’s intention and meaning is a function, not always intentional, of factors lodged in the author’s own psychological makeup.

Focus on

1.               infancy and childhood is primary determinant of adult behavior

2.               stages of development to maturation process of everyone

3.               adult behavior is deeply affected by unconscious

4.               internal psychological conflicts and tensions drive adult life.

Esp. psychoanalytic theory and Freud.




Authors and eras are the stage upon which ideas, which are assumed to have a certain coherence and logical shape, play themselves out.





(On reserve at the Hatfield Library)


Green, Anna and Kathleen Troup. (Eds.). 1999. The Houses of History: A critical reader in twentieth-century history and theory. NY: NYUP.


Tosh, John. (Ed.) 2000. Historians on History. NY: Pearson Education.