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Historiography: Definition and Mission Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022

Researchers might still argue about the meaning of the term “historiography.” It appears to be closely connected to history, which states what has happened. Historiography, in its turn, is the study of history. Tucker, referring to Goldstein, mentions, that “Historiography is what historians write as historians, not what they say or do” (Goldstein, 1996, p. 256). If we address, for example, the Encyclopedia Britannica, it will state that “… the writing of history, especially the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particular details from the authentic materials in those sources, and the synthesis of those details into a narrative that stands the test of critical examination” (Vann, 2014). Thus, historiography presupposes not describing facts, but analyzing them.

It is evident that the past influences the present. Knowledge of history may help to prevent or avoid mistakes in present-day life. Nevertheless, the influence of modern social norms and fads on judging the past events is not always considered. Still, it is certain that the past events look different in the contemporary light.

Generally speaking, the contemporary world perception is critical, people try to explain past processes from the modern point of view. Earlier, history itself was not well-developed; it depended much on the church and religion. Any event could be explained as “God’s will, ” and no one would doubt it. On the whole, today’s society is more curious both about present and past events. People are eager to discuss what was happening some centuries ago.

Let us look, for example, at the period of the Gilded Age. People tried to educate Native Americans and the newly-arriving immigrants, teaching them to read and to write in English. They believed it was for good and would contribute to their assimilation in the new surroundings. At present, on the contrary, many people think it was the violation of the locals’ rights and interference with their authentic culture and traditions. A similar situation nowadays would probably lead to a revolution.

The other example of old times perception can be the Victorian era. It is known that during the reign of Queen Victoria the key virtues for a woman were motherhood, respectability, and concentration on the family. The only suitable place for a lady was her home. Thus, women were far from the social life, being family-centered. It looks rather weird for a modern woman because the feminist movement promotes the equality in social life and work. Thus, something that was good, acceptable and even adorable two centuries ago, is strange now.

When the next century comes to an end, historians get a set of tasks to solve. They are to find a place for their science and be honest about the events they transfer to the future generations. Ernst formulates the task of historiography as “no other endeavor fits as well as history does with the peculiar needs of human beings, to whom the temporality of life allots the roles of emigrants from the past, inhabitants of the present, and immigrants into the future” (2008, p. 410).

Summing up, it can be concluded that historiography is a link of generations’ knowledge. It interprets the past for the present, makes the people rethink the ideas in the modern contexts. At the same time, it prepares the knowledge of today for the coming times. It is like a lens which helps to see better, still, if it is not clear, the picture will be vague.


Ernst, B. (2008). Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tucker, A. (2014). Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Vann, T.R. (2014). . In Encyclopedia Britannica online. Web.

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