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University Writing Center
September 21, 2014

Making an Historical Argument

Writing history requires much more than simply rearranging information. Even a straightforward history assignment, such as writing a book review, requires the writer make an argument, developing it with a variety of history tropes. In the case of a book review, the argument might be about any number of things: the value, veracity, thoroughness, or quality of research in the book being reviewed. Even if the reviewer tries to remain completely objective—a valuable stance for historians—selecting some information for inclusion in the review and passing over other information reveals a specific perspective on the material. Every writing assignment will require the writer to make an argument, that is, take a perspective.

When most people hear the word argument, they immediately think about political debates or disagreements with friends or colleagues over any number of issues, both trivial and significant. These kinds of arguments are polemic arguments. They involve individuals or groups who have a vested interest in the outcome. Often, the people involved in polemic arguments are trying to convince someone else to do something (in a political debate, politicians are trying to convince you to vote for them) or persuade someone that the cause or idea they are advocating is the right (the same politicians often try to persuade voters that the policies they advocate will solve the nation’s problems and that the policies of the other party will make things worse.) Polemic arguments are thus advocacy arguments. People engaged in polemic arguments make no pretense at objectivity. Some examples of polemic/advocacy arguments are

The arguments made by the prosecutor and defense lawyer in a trial;

  • The bumper sticker showing a fetus with the caption: “Life is not a choice!”;
  • Televised election debates;
  • The op/ed page in the newspaper; and
  • Even some arguments in history, such as those put forward by Holocaust deniers, are more polemic than historical.

Historical arguments, academic arguments based on scholarship, have different goals and use different strategies than polemic/advocacy arguments. Central to the difference between academic arguments and polemic arguments is the audience. In all of the examples above, the individuals making arguments, often called interlocutors, aren’t trying to persuade opponents, but a general audience that lacks expertise on the topic being debated. In academic arguments, the audience is composed of other experts, scholars who are often at least as knowledgeable about the field as the writer is. Even when a historian locates a primary document in some attic or archive that no one has every come across, part of writing about that document is to explain how it changes the way the discipline, composed of other experts, thinks about an event.

Historians are seeking to enter into the ongoing conversation that is history, to engage in the give and take of historical argument, to persuade each other, in order to contribute to the knowledge base of the academy in their discipline. In order to enter this conversation, historians recognize that they must analyze, synthesize, and interpret the historical record. 

Analysis: requires an object to be analyzed, in history, usually a text, though historians might analyze an archeological artifact, a photograph or film, or even statistics. To analyze these, or any other object, means to make a judgment about its quality or value with detailed explanations based on concrete evidence that explain the reasons for that judgment. A thorough analysis will break the object down into its constituent parts, then carefully examine those parts as evidence. The analysis is based on the evidence, not the presumptions of the historian.

Object of study: More often than not, you will be asked to analyze the work of other historians, for instance, in a book report. Such analyses are a critical part of the work historians do. Historians are also called on to analyze primary texts in order to judge their contribution to the historical record, that is, to decide if these primary documents are reliable historic records. For an example of one such analysis, see “Does The Camera Ever Lie?” at the Library of Congress Civil War Photographs Home Page.

Breaking it down: Careful analysis requires breaking the evidence down into its parts and examining the parts in detail. Our current model of analysis actually started with the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who broke down all biological life into classifications, such as order, family, genus, species. Aristotle categorized animals according to recognizable similarities such as live birth or laying eggs, fur or skin. Two caveats:

Caveat 1: First, care should be taken when breaking an object down in order to study it, not to simply borrow previous classifications without considering how well they fit. For instance, when Nineteenth Century biologists first sent specimens of the Duck Billed Platypus back to England from Australia, they were accused of fostering fakes on the public because the platypus didn’t fit neatly into their classification scheme. There are two lessons to be learned from this example: the object itself should determine criteria for breaking it down, and classification can sometimes obscure the evidence rather than clarify it. 

Caveat 2:  Breaking an object down into its parts is only the first step. Analysis requires that the historian examine the parts carefully in order to put them all back together in order to craft an explanation of the whole. Historians have developed a set of criteria for analyzing historical events and documents. You may have encountered one or more of these means of doing history in one of your classes.

Narrative History is probably the most common model for writing history. When J.H. Hexter wrote that history is a “patterned, coherent account of the human past intended to be true,” he was thinking of narrative history. This model of history examines the stories history tells in a specific way, how historical events change the flow of history and impact on society. A narrative history is chronological, exploring cause and effect. Narrative history proposes to tell us how specific historical events lead to other events, as well as the trends in the historical narrative and the progression of history, and tends to focus on the crises and turning points in history.  

Social History covers the same historical events found in narrative history using a different “pattern.” The same crises and turning points can still be found in social history. However, now those events are told with a focus on, and often from the perspective of, cultural, social, and ethnic groups who were largely left out of narrative history.

Oral History refers to the stories told by participants in historical events, often orally, though just as often recorded. If narrative history concentrates on the sweep of history, and social history tells how historical trends affect society, culture, and ethnic groups, oral histories often tell the stories of individuals caught up in history itself. Oral histories often focus on what it is like to experience history. Since these stories are often limited to the experiences of a single individual, it isn’t until they are collected into anthologies, or used as a part of social or narrative history, that they enter the historical record.   

Revisionist History doesn’t so much revise history, that is, change the facts, as it reinterprets those facts. Often, revisionist histories argue that some facts that make up narrative history are not facts at all, but interpretations, or even outright fabrications. Social history is often identified as revisionist history because it reinterprets the historical record from the perspective of marginalized groups. The best known example of revisionist history is Hitler’s War, by David Irving, a holocaust denier. His work is critiqued by Deborah Lipstadt, in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Lipstadt argues that revisionism is a legitimate historical method, an argument that must be made because the best known revisionist histories, such as holocaust deniers, are often controversial and deny responsibility for historical wrongs. 

Historiography is the study and development of historical research methods.

The Longue Duree, French for “long term,” was coined by the Annales School, a movement or school of thought, rather than a university. Historians following this model typically examine the way trends that spread over generations or centuries affect the stories told in narrative history. Though some longue duree historians might bristle at the suggestion, they search for alternate narratives to explain historical change. An example of this approach to history would be Moreno, Alfonso Moreno’s Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, which explores how fluctuations in the Athenian grain supply may have affected politics, in particular the growth of democracy, in Athens.

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