What is Historiography?

Klaus Strasser
Klaus Strasser
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Historiography is the study of how history itself is written or handed down throughout the ages. It takes into consideration the various means by which a historical source is formed, such as the credibility of the sources used, the motives of the author composing the history, and its authenticity. Historiography can be regarded as a form of meta-history.

The word history comes from the Ancient Greek "historia," which means "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation." The existence of historical sources provides valuable information concerning the past. Historiographers tend to differentiate these sources in terms of written and oral histories. Oral history is a more dynamic because it is spread by word of mouth, while written history is fixed and emphasizes the recording of facts.

Historiography tries to place these various sources into a specific context. This means that the historiographer does not merely accept the content of a source at face value, but traces the source looking for various motifs in its formation. One can understand a historical source as conceived from within a certain perspective and with a precise objective tied to its very production. Historical events can be seen as biased by the particularities of their recording and presentation. The historiographer acts like a history detective, seeking to unravel the logic of the production of history.

One of the questions the historiographer must ask is how some facts remain included or excluded from a history. Inclusions or exclusions can be found by comparing different accounts of a single event. In contrasting these sources, one can understand not only the event from a less biased perspective, but identify the precise perspective of the composer of the source.

According to this perspectivism, historiography delineates the influence of cultural or ideological tropes within any given source. Historiographers can thereby classify history in terms of categories such as a Christian historiography or an Ancient Greek historiography. This allows the historiographer to look for trends in historical writing within a certain framework that illuminates a particular way of writing history. For example, Christian history tends to suggest that there is some great plan to historical events in its emphasis on the existence of God, while Marxist history suggests an appropriation of history as a history of class struggle. Historiography therefore does not conceive history as the objective recording of events, but as a medium which elucidates the way of life of the producer of the historical source.

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Discussion Comments


We could call it propaganda if the author is purposely distorting facts or excluding evidence. However, this is most often not the case. History is a very subjective discipline, and there's a lot of room for disagreement. We wouldn't say the first author is a failure, per se, merely that he/she opened a dialog about the issue for other historians to revise and critique.

Some people may stick with the old viewpoints, but most will accept new evidence as it is introduced and revise their beliefs accordingly. That doesn't mean we should throw out older accounts, since there's always something we can learn from them.


The thing that i want to know is if the historian writes about a particular event and then people believed what he was writing, and later on another historian comes with a different evidence about one and the same event, would you regard the first author as a failure because he did not come up with sufficient evidence meaning it's hard to believe what he had written? Would you call his/her work propaganda?

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