HSS 521 - Asian History: Historiography

What is a Historiography?

A historiography (noun) or historiographical paper is an analysis of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past historians. 

  • Specifically, a historiography identifies influential thinkers and reveals the shape of the scholarly debate on a particular subject.
  • You can think of this as a narrative description of the web of scholars writing on the same or similar topics. A historiography traces how scholars' understanding of historical events has evolved and how scholars are in conversation with each other, both building on and disputing previous works. The process is similar to that used for creating literature reviews in other disciplines. 

The major purpose of writing a historiographical paper is to convey the scholarship of other historians on a particular subject, rather than to analyze the subject itself.

  • A historiography can be a stand-alone paper, in which case your paper examines the work completed by other historians. 
  • Alternately, a historiography can act as an introduction to a major research paper, in which you will go on to add your own analysis.

Thus, a good historiography does the following:

  • Points out influential books and papers that exemplified, shaped, or revolutionized a topic or field of study.
  • Shows which scholars were most effective in changing the scope of the discussion/debate.
  • Describes the current trends in the field of study, such as which interpretations are currently in the mainstream.
  • Allows the writer (that's you!) to position themselves in the discussion for their analysis.

Historiographical Questions

Questions of historiography include the following:

  • who writes history, with what agenda in mind, and towards what ends?
  • how accurate can a historian ever hope to be, analyzing past events from the vantage point of the historian's present?
  • does the historian's own perspective, impacted as it undoubtedly is by gender, age, national and ideological affiliation, etc., contribute to an "agenda" that the historian's work is playing into, unwittingly or consciously?
  • what about the types of sources, both primary and secondary, an historian chooses to base their work upon? Do they too contribute to the above-mentioned "agenda"?
  • does the very selection of sources (and, by extension, the decision to exclude certain other sources) prejudice the outcome of the historian's work in certain ways? et cetera...

As you can tell, the underlying sentiment of historiography is one of skepticism. This is due to the recognition that historians do have agendas and do select sources with the intent of "proving" certain preconceived notions. History is therefore never truly "objective," but always a construct that presents the historian's view of things.

Writing a Historiography

Parts of a Historiography


  • presents the issue or event at stake, then introduces your sources and articulates, in brief, their authors' perspectives and their main points of (dis)agreement. 

Main Body

  • elaborates upon and develop your introduction, pulling out specific points of (dis)agreement, juxtaposing quotes (and/or paraphrasing arguments) and subjecting them to analysis as you go along. As you do so, ask (and answer) why you think the authors of your various sources disagree. Is their disagreement a product of personal or professional rivalry, ideological incompatibility, national affiliation? 


  • briefly summarizes your findings and, more importantly, assess the credibility of your various sources, and specify which one(s) you find to be most compelling, and why. In final conclusion you might articulate in brief the insights you have gained into the event or issue at stake, the sources you have used, and the implications for the scholarly discussion about your topic/historical event overall.

Sample Historiographies