Exam preparation materials

The Varieties of History

History texts and many monographs and articles deal with a few areas of historical study: political, economic, social, and intellectual history. Today, many new fields have become objects of study by historians. These include ethnic history, women’s history, environmental history, and psychohistory (which seeks to explain the past by examining the motives of individuals).

The use of oral history has also become significant, both as an aid to traditional research and a field of study in its own right. The recollections of people who were involved in significant events adds greatly to the historical record. Moreover, oral history gives a voice to people who didn’t appear in history because they didn’t leave written records.

Quantitative historians practice what they call “cliometrics,” using such records as election returns, ship passenger lists, and a wide variety of other statistical sources to make conclusions about historical patterns in immigration, population movements, demography (where people live), persistence patterns (how long people live in one place), and economic status. Their work is characterized by numerous tables, charts, and graphs, which narrative historians sometimes claim makes their work unreadable. The quantitative historians reply that narrative is often inexact and imprecise when it come to the analysis of data.

History as an academic discipline in the United States is just over a century old. While most historians teach, others make their livelihood outside of the college or university community. The books of Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough have become national bestsellers. Public, or applied, history is a comparatively new field. Public historians are not based in a university but work for government agencies, private corporations, historical societies and museums, and as independent consultants. They may develop corporate archives, write a company or agency history, provide expert testimony in a lawsuit, or tackle numerous other assignments that involve the application of the historian’s research and analytical skills to real-world issues.

You should be aware that there are people who use history for their own purposes. They knowingly twist facts, make up their own, and consciously misinterpret data to convince people that history happened in a certain way. The fake historians usually take an extreme view on topics that at first glance would seem unquestionable. The most notorious example of this type of writing is the effort to “prove” that the Holocaust, the extermination of six million Jews during World War II, never happened.

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