It is not only once or twice that I have been reminded that historiography is irrelevant, marginal, and disconnected from the “real” history – whatever that may be – and is mostly concerned with esoteric topics. I have also been told that historiography is a territory that is occupied by philosophers who have never entered an archive, held an unpublished record, plus lack any training and experience about hands-on research. Anyone with real ambitions in history should cautiously abstain from historiographical pursuits. Although some of this may have been said only half-seriously, someone who has spent more than a decade for exploring nineteenth-century historical practices may no longer find this amusing, but simply ignorant and conceited. Since the claim that historiography is marginal and irrelevant surfaces too often, it might be time to explain why at least I think very differently about the matter.
A major reason for misunderstanding the nature of historiographical research derives from the confusion on what historiography actually is. I was once told by a fellow history graduate student who was trying to hit on me in a bar that historiographical research is so easy and unambitious because all that historiographers do for a monograph is to read a few old books and that’s it. Needless to say, I was unmoved both by the argument and the attempt. If we put the worst ever pick up line aside, there is indeed a rather common assumption that historiographers focus narrowly on published texts without paying too much attention to the historical context of the text. There is certainly some truth in this because historiographers have tended to prioritize published texts as their source material. That being said, the recent cultural turn in historiography is certainly expanding it towards a more inclusive understanding about the field. History of science and book history have both influenced historiographers who are now exploring, among others, the research and publishing process of history books, social construction of learned communities, motives behind historical pursuits, and the ways historians have defined themselves and their discipline. Because of this broadened scope of interests, “reading a few old books” is certainly no longer sufficient and the introduction of new source material has brought along many new nuances to the conventional account of history of history writing. Historians’ correspondence, diaries, publishing records, ephemeral writing, photographs, notes, lectures, and any many other traces they have left behind form now a valuable set of sources for exploring the history of our craft.
Historiography has also been blamed to be suffering from elitism because it ignores the history writing taking place outside the academia. This is confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary which defines historiography either as “the writing of history, written history” or as “the study of history-writing, esp. as an academic discipline.” These both are rather misleading in their restrictiveness. The past decades have witnessed unforeseen growth in historiographical studies that problematize issues such as gender, race, and class. It is now widely recognized that white academic men have not held a monopoly on interpreting the past and producing and presenting historical knowledge, or that a textual mode is the only right format to transmit historical accounts. Furthermore, the past decades have produced detailed accounts on how history has been used and manipulated to serve various ideological purposes. However, this type of research is not always counted as historiography because it does not correspond with the traditional definition of the field. These clarifications hopefully show why historiography should not be dismissed as “irrelevant” to anyone who is interested in history and historical research. After all, recognizing the cultural and political implications historical knowledge may have contributes significantly to a broader understanding of history as well.
Since it is nowadays pivotal to pinpoint in the funding applications the societal impact of the proposed project, I suggest that historiographical research ticks this box, too, because it provides tools for increasing professional awareness. My confidence in historiography’s usefulness was further enhanced by a course I taught this spring about the nineteenth century as the “century of history.” The course allowed me to integrate various strands of historiography from the founding of history as an academic discipline to women using history as a means to indirectly participate in political and social debates of their age. Or, from diagnosing the archive fever to the use of history in late-Victorian soap commercials. In spite of the temporal gap, the students found many of the themes we covered both recognizable and relevant in 2017 as well.
Indeed, historiographical knowledge is useful because it inspires students to reflect their own “scholarly persona.” How are they socialized to a historian’s craft during their studies, what is expected of them as specialists in history in terms of skills and qualities, and how history should be narrated and does it actually matter how we write history? This is just a small sample of the questions that were discussed during the course and should be enough to illustrate how historiography can provide a fruitful framework for addressing questions that are highly relevant for a professional growth.
Furthermore, identifying the nuts and bolts of a historian’s craft and outlining their historicity provides students with a temporal perspective to their own discipline. Learning for example about the German historian Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915) and his impact on young Finnish-speaking historians answers partially to a question why social history has dominated – and continues to do so – in Finland. This is the kind of information that helps students to understand where their discipline comes from and where they are situated in the scholarly traditions in the field of history.
And last, but certainly not least, historiography can provide inspiration and role models. As I have written before (here and here) young women particularly find it encouraging to discover that women have participated in historical pursuits already for centuries. Since academia is still a long way from gender equality and women and gender are neatly compartmentalized as topics to be treated in specialty courses on “women’s history”, it is not difficult to see why it tends to come as a surprise that nineteenth-century women actively endeavored to contribute to historical research. Because of these gendered practices, it is crucial to continue to remind students about the fact that women have had opportunities use their voice in managing and molding historical narratives and that these voices deserve to be heard even today.
Although many of these aspects may appear to have minor impact or relevance because they derive from the disciplinary context, but considering the role history continues to play in modern day societies they should not be judged as insignificant. It certainly matters how the future historians are trained because history and historical knowledge are so deeply embedded in modern societies. Thus it should be evident that an awareness of the mechanisms behind the use and misuse of history is crucial. Furthermore, strong professional integrity is something that should not be overlooked or ignored. Even if historiography does not provide ready answers or solutions, it offers guidance on these questions. And lastly, even an elementary knowledge about historiography and its methods should teach students not to question or underrate the topic; this knowledge may save them in a bar when they try to pick up a historiographer.