History is a narrative of past events, while historiography is the study of “the history of history”. In this article, we delve into what this difference means in practice.
History is an endeavour to know the objective past. It requires a belief in the ideas that the past is knowable and unalterable. There are remnants of the past left over (primary sources) and the careful historian can fully understand what actually happened before her time. Though we cannot access the past tangibly, we can know real things about it. But how can we find out about it? How accurate can our interpretations of it be? Do our interpretations of the past change the past? These are some questions that are central to the study of both history and historiography.
What is possible for us to know about the past is limited by things about us such as our conscious and unconscious bias, language, and culture. But these obstacles can be in large part overcome if one approaches the discipline with the compassion and respect it deserves. Central to this is mastering the critical perspective historiography offers to the historian.
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The differences between history and historiography are many, let us dive into them one by one.
History vs. Historiography
“History” is an academic discipline but it is also a commonly used word that does not necessarily denote academia. “History” can be used colloquially to refer to any ‘passed’ span of time or a set of stories associated with it. The word “historiography” did not come into common usage within scholarly circles until 1979 through the work of Stanford University Professor Lawrence Stone. “Historiography” is rarely used conversationally outside of academic circles.
Humanities and Social Sciences
Even though historiography is a sub-discipline of history, they fall into different discipline-types because of their methodology. History falls into the humanities because of its emphasis on philosophy, art, literature, and other non-sciences. Historiography offers a social scientific approach to history. Social sciences encompass the human element of the humanities plus the empiricism of the sciences.
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Historian vs Historiographer
Historians dedicate themselves to the research, analysis, and interpretation of historical texts and records. They usually specialise in some particular historiographical current and focus on a specific historical period or some aspect that distinguishes it.
The work of a historian consists of finding out and procuring all the possible sources about the period or aspect of interest. With the information obtained and interpreted, the historian puts together a cohesive account to understand past events. This is the process behind the history books we read or the subject curricula offered in the schools.
The historiographer picks up from here and does an analysis of the interpretations of a specific topic written by past historians. Historiographers examine the work of these historians to ensure the accuracy of the history they record. Their main purpose is to analyse the scholarship of other historians on a particular subject, rather than to analyse the subject itself. A historiographer’s focus is to scientifically test the veracity of the history, examine it, and ensure it is as accurate as possible. One of the ways they do this is to check how the history was acquired and documented.
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All Modern Historians are Historiographers
However, in modern academic practice, all historians are historiographers as it is unlikely that any work of academic history will be published if it does not show engagement with existing interpretations.
This is also the case here at the African History Project. Our courses and research tick all these boxes. We have an incredible set of researchers that examine primary and secondary sources to deliver the very best and most accurate work.
Students on our Foundation Certificate not only take a course in historiography, but they are encouraged to engage in historiographical analysis in all of their work. In this way our students learn how to engage with Africa’s unique and varied methods of recording history and documenting events. By studying historiography as part of the Foundation Certificate, students gain an understanding of the place of history in African societies, what Africans and others have written about African history from antiquity to the present day, and how historians engage with African historical narratives today.
Interested in learning more about Pan-Africanism? Our Foundation Certificate in African History is a year-long course that includes a module on Pan-Africanism and Nationalism. To find out more about studying with us, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message using the form below.