Hints for Writing a Historiographical Essay

Sep 2018
A historiographical essay is an essay which analyzes the way a single historical topic or issue is treated by a number of authors. A historiographical essay is usually problem-centered, unlike a book review, which is centered on a single publication (even though a book review does normally make some reference to other works related to the book being discussed). For example, a historiographical essay on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust might look at the differing definitions of resistance offered by Hilberg, Bauer, Gutman and Paulsson, their differing conclusions about the extent of such resistance, and their opinions about its impact. In addition to pointing out areas of agreement and disagreement in the work on this subject, a good historiographical essay should discuss the reasons for these differences and their implications for the understanding of the subject. Whereas book reviews usually deal with full-length books, historiographical essays are more flexible and often discuss articles as well as books.

There is no single formula for organizing a historiographical essay. Like all interpretive and argumentative essays, a historiographical essay should have an introduction defining its subject and offering a preview of the following argument, and it should end with a conclusion in which you look back over what you have said, summarize your most important findings, and leave the reader with a significant thought to carry away from the piece. The introduction and conclusion should be separate paragraphs or sequences of paragraphs; if you combine them with paragraphs that are really part of the body of your paper, you have probably not devoted enough time and effort to them. In between, however, there are several different ways to organize your material. The best approach will depend on the nature of the issue discussed in your readings and the nature of the readings themselves. Some of the various approaches that are possible are:

1. The “historiographical-evolution” approach: This usually works best if you are comparing a series of more or less comparable secondary works that deal with closely related questions and that show a clear evolution of viewpoints over time. Such essays usually begin by discussing a fundamental book that set forth important theses on a historical topic and then looking at subsequent publications that challenged those theses, perhaps substituting a new general interpretation that was subsequently revised in its turn. Thus, if you were reviewing the historiographical literature on what Holocaust historians call the “intentionalist-functionalist debate” (did Hitler and the Nazis have a clear plan for dealing with the Jews when they came to power in 1933, or did their measures evolve as they encountered new aspects of the problem?), you might begin with Hilberg’s thesis that they knew what they wanted to do from the start, proceed through the works of historians like Schleunes, Mommsen and Broszat who claimed that there was no initial plan, turn to Fleming’s counterargument that Hitler knew all along what he wanted to do, and perhaps conclude with S. Friedlaender’s and Ian Kershaw’s attempts to find a kind of middle ground on the issue. In an essay of this sort, you tend to treat each successive publication as a response to the earlier ones; your job as historiographical analyst is to show how this conversation among historians proceeded and what ending point it finally reached. In such an essay, you would usually discuss each book in turn, normally in chronological order.​
2. The “rival-schools” approach: You may find that your readings reflect differing approaches to a subject, but that they do not fall into the pattern of assertion—challenge—synthesis—new challenge that is characteristic of the “historiographical evolution” essay. In this case, it may make more sense to present the major interpretations of a problem as examples of competing historiographical or ideological approaches. In this case, the chronological order in which works appeared may be less important, since you may be suggesting that different interpretations have co-existed with each other over time, rather than one replacing the other. One might, for example, contrast the “German national character” approach to perpetrator mentality, found in Goldhagen’s work, with the “conformity/pressure of circumstances” interpretation in Browning and the “working-toward-the-Fuehrer” explanation offered in Kershaw. Here your emphasis would be on explaining the logic of each explanation and its strengths and weaknesses.​
3. The “different aspects of the problem” approach: Sometimes one constructs a historiographical essay by treating the different works you read, not as competing attempts to explain a single central problem, but as different perspectives that add up to a larger whole. This type of essay would be appropriate, for example, if you were examining different types of primary sources, as we did in the readings on the experience of Jews in the Polish ghettos. It does not make much sense to treat Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, Chaim Kaplan’s diary, Adam Czerniakow’s journal, and Janina David’s memoir as a series of publications leading to a synthesis, or as representatives of differing schools of interpretation. It would make more sense to talk about the different kinds of information one can extract from each of these sources, and how they may complement or undermine each other. While such an approach would be natural in dealing with primary sources, it may also be used in discussing secondary literature. An essay on the Final Solution in the countries of western Europe might cover the two books on France by Marrus/Paxton and Poznanski, along with Bob Moore’s monograph on Jews in the Netherlands and Suzanne Zuccotti’s book on Italy; in this case, you would be looking at the similarities and differences of the Holocaust in three different societies that shared some common features, and suggesting a general picture of the situation in western Europe that could be constructed from these more limited studies.​
4. The “thematic” approach: in the three schemes of organization discussed above, the essay would normally be organized as a succession of sections, each discussing a particular book, held together by an introduction explaining why you are discussing these books and a conclusion recapitulating the argument you have made about how they are related. A completely different approach would start by defining several issues or themes that are found in all the books you have read, and then discussing each issue in turn, comparing and contrasting what each of your authors says about it. In an essay on Jewish resistance, for example, rather than proceeding book-by-book, you might decide that the important issues are the way in which different authors define resistance, the motives they attribute to resisters, and the way in which they measure the success of resistance efforts. In this case, your discussion of any one book will be broken up into sections dealing with the way your themes are treated in it.​

As these remarks indicate, a historiographical essay may look somewhat like a series of separate book reviews strung together (or, in the case of the thematically organized review, several book reviews combined in a blender). Try not to think of your historiographical essay in these ways, however. The success of a historiographical essay depends on showing how the materials you are discussing relate to each other, rather than just evaluating each one on its individual merits. While a historiographical essay may, and often does, include comments on the sources used in each book discussed, the organization of the book, and the author’s style, these issues, which are often central in book reviews, should be subordinated to the more general arguments that link the books together. A book review is often trying to answer questions such as “Is this particular book worth reading? What does it say that is new? Does it make its point clearly?” In a historiographical essay, we usually take it for granted that the books being discussed have already proved their worth, and the bigger question is “How does what we read in this book compare with what we find in other, related works? What is the significance of the differences and of the things the books have in common?” Think of it as the difference between painting an accurate picture of an individual subject (book review) and writing a play with several different characters who interact (historiographical essay).

Source: Professor Jeremy D. Popkin, Department of History, University of Kentucky, United States.

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