I. Genealogy of American Studies

II. Myth and Symbol

III. Interpretive Social Science Theory

IV. Marxisms

V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories

VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability

VII. Historical Theories & Methods

VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

IX. (British) Cultural Studies

X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories

XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)

Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?


VII. Historical Theories & Methods

While the problem of historical theory and method is obviously of great interest to professional historians, this category is an interdisciplinary one in that the problem of "historicizing" one's subjects and objects of analyis is faced by virtually all fields and is certainly central to the interdisciplinary field of AS. With specific regard to AS, one of the most important contributing fields of professional history writing has been social history, and social history has itself been largely an interdisciplinary project drawing at points heavily from the social sciences as well as from the interpretive humanities. I've included here work that combines empirical methods drawn from the social sciences with those favored by historians, as well as innovative work in historiographic theory that challenges the empiricist tradition. The "new social history" that emerges in the late 1960s and early 70s, work recovering/creating the history of American "minorities," women, gays, workers, and others marginalized historically and historiographically, carried with it an implicit and sometimes explicit critique of historical method as it claimed to work "from the bottom up" rather than downward from elite figures and groups. In addition to retheorizing what counts as history, this approach has been extremely inventive at the level of method, using quantitative and qualitative techniques drawn from sociology, anthropology and other human sciences.

Most US social historians have preferred to place their theoretical and methodological reflections within their texts rather than publishing them separately. Thus some theoretical reflections and observations on method in social history can be found in the major works of social history by practitioners such as Eugene Genovese, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Sean Wilentz, Cathy Davidson, and Herbert Gutman. Here I've grouped a few reflective pieces, as well as pieces by major European social historians like E.P. Thompson and Fernand Braudel. Similarly, important reflections on theory and method in the related field of "new cultural history" can be found in the works of Alan Trachtenberg, Warren Susman, and T.J. Jackson Lears.

In addition I've included what one might call the "textualist" school of historiography, those critics who reflect on the fact that whatever else historical writing is it is a form of writing and as such subject to various generic conventions and other putatively "literary" determinations that shape what can be said about the past. More recently a trend of combining forms of textual analysis drawn from literary studies with traditional kinds of social history has produced some exciting work (cf. Cathy Davidson's work cited in section VIII).

Online resources:

  • Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream.Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990. A richly thorough analysis of various ideas and ideals of "objectivity" as they have been theorized and as they have structured the actual practice of historians; it serves also as a history of the history profession in the US. Offers an excellent, one might almost say "objective," sense of the contending views of what historians do and various competing paradigms of historical truth and method. See also the forum on That Noble Dream in the American Historical Review96.3 (1991):675-708.

  • Tosh, John. In Pursuit of History.New York: Longman, 1984. A good basic survey of empirical methods in history that also discusses challenges to traditional empiricism from both theory and social science.

  • Wise, Gene. American Historical Explanations.Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1973 Examines major paradigm shifts in 20th century US historiography.

  • Abelove, Henry et al. eds., Visions of History.New York: Radical History, 1984. A number of Anglo-America's most prominent social and intellectual historians reflect on their craft and the politics of writing the past.

  • Braudel, Fernand. On History.Trans. by Sara Mathews. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980. Braudel is a key fingure in the annales school of social history. This collection includes some of most important essays on the theory and method of the school's longue duree approach to history with its emphasis upon those elements of everyday life that outlast the vicissitudes of political transformations.

  • Gordon, Linda. "What's New in Women's History" in Teresa deLauretis, ed., Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ., 1986. Thoughtful essay offering a brief history of changes in the writing of American women's history over last 20 years, and relating questions of theory and method to mainstream history.

  • Scott, Joan W. Gender and the Politics of History.New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988. See especially, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," a brilliant essay using postmodern theory to reconceptualize the centrality of gender in historical writing, and providing a method for using the concept to illuminate not just traditionally defined "women's spheres" but the whole panoply of political, cultural and social life.

  • ---. "The Evidence of Experience." Critical Inquiry17.4 (1991): 773-97. A lucid, extremely important critique of untheorized notions of "experience" as they have limited the writing of social history.

  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Body Politic" in Elizabeth Weed, ed.,Coming to Terms. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. An intriguing essay on the use and limits of a post-structuralist notions in analyzing the body politics of the New Woman era.

  • ---. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America.New York: Knopf, 1985. See espcially Part I which imaginatively theorizes routes to lost elements in the history of American women's culture.

  • ---. "Writing History: Language, Class and Gender" in Teresa deLauretis, ed.,Feminist Studies/Critical Studies.Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univ., 1986. Rethinks the emergence of a new middle class in 19th century America with help from Bakhtin's notion of cultural dialogism and polyphony.

  • Henretta, James. "Social History as Lived and Written," American Historical Review84.5 (1979): 1293-1322. Reflects on theory and method in the writing of social history via a survey of Foucault, Geertz, the annalles school, and neo-Marxism in relation to the writing of US historians.

  • Lloyd, Christopher. Explanation in Social History.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Lloyd analyzes the theories, methods and in particular the notions of causality peculiar to social history.

  • Raab, Theodore, and Robert I. Roberg eds. The New History: The 1980s and Beyond: Studies in Interdisciplinary History.Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982. Useful collection of essays from the Journal of Interdisciplinary History; see especially the sections on anthropology, and intellectual history.

  • DeBolla, Peter. "Disfiguring History," Diacritics16 (1986): 49-60. Thoughtful review of the literary-historical theories of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra (see below).

  • Toews, John. "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn" American Historical Review92 (1987) 879-907. Mediates interestingly between the rhetorical turn in recent intellectual history influenced by White and LaCapra and more traditional notions of historical writing.

  • White, Hayden. The Content of the Form.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1987.

  • ---. Tropics of Discourse.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1978. White has been the most consistently provocative theorist of historiography in the last two decades. These two collections contain most of his important essays on the writing of history as inevitably subject to "literary" conventions and linguistic determinations.

  • Gearheart, Suzanne. "History as Criticism: The Dialogue of History and Literature," Diacritics17 (1987): 56-65. A review of Dominick LaCapra's work that provides a good introduction to the issues he raises in intellectual history.

  • Jacoby, Russell. "A New Intellectual History?" American Historical Review97.2 (1992): 405-24. A harshly critical but appreciative survey of the work of White, LaCapra and others, immediately followed by a reply from LaCapra.

  • LaCapra, Dominick. Criticism and History.Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985. LaCapra has continued and extended the critical work of Hayden White on the writing of history, particularly with regard to questions raised by post-structuralism. See especially the chapters, "Rhetoric and History," and "History and the Novel."

  • ---. "Intellectual History and Its Ways." American Historical Review97.2 (1992): 425-39. Written partly in reply to Jacoby (see above), this essays eloquently defends the linguistic turn in recent historical theory and discusses recent work in cultural history influenced by new theoretical paradigms.

  • --- Rethinking Intellectual History.Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983. A collection of essays on a variety of 20th century theories and theorists (including Sartre, Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, Jameson) as they challenge the fields of intellectual and cultural history.

  • ---. Soundings in Critical Theory.Ithaca, NY: Cornel Univ. Press, 1990. LaCapra attempts to define a "dialogical" concept of historiography that rejects both the extremes of objectivism and relativism, that acknowledges both the otherness of the past and the inevitable intrusion of contemporary theory and politics into the process of historical reconstruction. The first and last chapters are of most general interest.

  • Bennington, Geoff and Robert Young eds. Post-structuralism and the Question of History. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987. See especially the essays by Bennett, Wordsworth, and Spivak.

  • Boucher, David. Texts in Contexts: Revisionist Methods for Studying the History of Ideas. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff 1985. Compares traditional and revisionist theories and methods in intellectual history.

  • Hunt, Lynn, ed., The New Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Fine collection of essays on recent theoretical trends in cultural/intellectual history as influenced by Foucault, Geertz, White, LaCapra, the annales school and others.

  • Best, Steven.The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, Habermas. New York: Guilford, 1995. Searching examination of relations and tensions among three profound historical thinkers.

  • Jenkins, Keith, ed.The Postmodern History Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Includes a variety of essays for and against "postmodern" approaches to historiography. Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Lynn Hunt, Jean Francois Lyotard, Bryan Palmer, Hayden White, Lawrence Stone and Robert Young are among the essayists featured.

  • Berkoffer, Robert. Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1995. Draws on literary, rhetorical, multiculturalist, and feminist theories, and addresses the essential practical concerns of contemporary historians confronting post-structuralism, the New Historicism, the New Anthropology, and the New Philosophy of History. Calls for more wide-raging modes of historical writing that both honor and question more traditional types of hi/story-telling. See also the American Quarterly50.2 (1998): 340-375 for a lively forum on The Great Story.

  • Brown, Jennifer S. H., and Elizabeth Vibert, eds., Reading Beyond Words: Native History.Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995. Interesting collection of essays that try to capture indigenous modes of passing on "history" that differ with and challenge Western modes of history writing.

Return to Top