Disrupt

Gordon S. Wood. In Defense of Academic History Writing, Perspectives on History, April 2010.

Academic historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. Instead, most of them have purposefully chosen not to tell stories; that is, they have chosen not to write narrative history. Narrative history is a particular kind of history-writing whose popularity comes from the fact that it resembles a story. It lays out the events of the past in chronological order, like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Such narrative history usually concentrates on individual personalities and on unique public happenings, the kinds of events that might have made headlines in the past. Since politics tends to dominate the headlines, politics has traditionally formed the backbone of narrative history.

Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, have chosen to write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations. Recent examples include an account of artisan workers in Petersburg, Virginia, between 1820 and 1865; a study of the Republican Party and the African American vote between 1928 and 1952; and an analysis of the aristocracy in the county of Champagne in France between 1100 and 1300. Such particular studies seek to solve problems in the past that the works of previous historians have exposed, or to resolve discrepancies between different historical accounts, or to fill in gaps that the existing historical literature has missed or ignored. In other words, beginning academic historians usually select their topics by surveying what previous academic historians have said. They then find errors, openings, or niches in the historiography that they can correct, fill in, or build upon. Their studies, however narrow they may seem, are not insignificant. It is through their specialized studies that they contribute to the collective effort of the profession to expand our knowledge of the past.

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