Writing A Historiographical Essay Examples

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:



There are two common uses of the term "Historiography."


The historiography (general descriptor) of a topic is the sum total of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past and current historians.

  • For example: "The historiography of the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima changed over the years as new research questioned the former consensus view that the decision to drop the atomic bomb was predicated on the necessity to save American lives."

Thus you can talk about "the state of the historiography" at a point in time, or you can "add historiography" to a paper to make it more complete.


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. 

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 field of study.
  • Shows which scholars were most effective in changing the scope of the debate.
  • Describes the current trends in the field of study, such as which interpretation is currently in the mainstream.
  • Allows the writer (that's you!) to position themselves in the field for their analysis.

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