Disciplines of History

Disciplines of History, the general paper in Finals, has one broad and two specific aims. It is in part a mechanism for drawing together all your work over three years and reflecting on it from different perspectives. To this extent it functions partly as a revision tool which will widen and deepen your understanding of all your individual papers. Specifically, you learn the art of historical comparison, so that material from different societies becomes mutually illuminating; and you add a layer of comprehension to the reading you have done throughout the course by contextualizing it in the history and theory of historical writing. The rules of overlap are suspended for this paper so as to encourage you to draw on all the historical work you have done. The paper is divided into two sections.

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On the face of it, Comparative History might seem to have a universalizing function, to highlight features of human experience which seem constant and unchanging over long periods and in very different societies. On closer inspection, however, it is hard not to discern differences between societies even in what might seem to be basic human experiences. Comparison therefore offers a tool for thinking about why societies differ, especially when in many ways they appear similar: differences become the more noticeable against the background of many similarities.

Preparation for this paper is thus more a matter of technique than of new information. In the first instance you should concentrate on deploying your pre-existing knowledge in order to make effective comparisons, although once you have started on a comparison it may, of course, draw you into additional reading as gaps in your knowledge appear. The art of comparison lies in identifying both the bases of similar features in the societies under comparison, and the variable factors which produce differences. Choosing your examples is therefore crucial, and the logic behind this is something that is worth being explicit about in your essays. The societies compared must share certain identified qualities or experiences in order to be a useful basis for comparison.

Choosing examples that are widely disparate from each other in time and space can make it more challenging to find meaningful points of comparison – but equally might produce more unexpected conclusions. The rubric of this section asks you to compare historically distinct societies, separated by either time or space. How far they are separated is up to you and excellent results can be obtained from a close scrutiny of neighbouring societies. However, students who draw on the full range of their papers may find that they arrive at more imaginative conclusions: remember that the assessment criteria specifically reward the ‘effective and appropriate use of historical imagination and curiosity’. As for the number of case studies, there is a balance here to be struck between including enough diversity to allow interesting conclusions to emerge and allowing enough space in order to properly introduce and analyse your cases. Some students find they prefer working with two cases, others with three. Students should also feel free to make remarks indicating a broader frame of reference. Note, however, that the basis of good comparison, as of all historical study is the precise knowledge of particular cases.

Topics covered may include: The Arts: Visual, Drama, Music; Orality & Literacy; Education; Crime; Punishment; The Law; Judicial Systems; Family, Marriage & Household; Gender & Sexuality; Body & Disabilities; Religion: Belief, Conversion, Persecution, Toleration; Ritual, Custom, Myths; Class & Status; Slavery, Serfdom, Underclasses; Globalisation & Development; Markets & Consumerism; Environment, Urbanisation, Town & Country; Identities: National, Ethnic, Geographical; Political Ideas & Ideologies; State-Building: Government, Bureaucracy; Revolutions, Régime Change, Riots; Empires, Centre-periphery; Diplomacy & International Relations; Science, Technology & Medicine; Migration & Diaspora; Ethnic Violence & Genocide.


The second section of the paper is historiographical. It requires you to reflect upon the question ‘how do historians make history?’ This question can be approached both from below – how are sources used in historical writing? – and from above – what views have historians held about the way in which history should be approached? Indeed these angles can be considered together, given that particular approaches to history often privilege particular sources. The focus of this section is therefore on the great variety of ways in which history has been and is written, in terms of different subject-matter, sources, genre, motivation and historical context. The writing of history must itself be historicized, over as much as two-and-a-half millennia. (First-year Historiography and Foreign Texts may come in useful here.) Moreover the influences on history from other disciplines and theories will feature significantly, especially in more recent history: first-year Approaches can be developed in this context.

You will receive some specific teaching so as to learn more about different schools of history – their historical context, interests, methods, influences, forms and sources. But it is essential that as well as reading about these approaches you read examples of them; exam essays that offer generalised reproduction of textbook accounts of (say) the Annales school or ‘whig’ history will score poorly. Moreover, the real aim is to sensitize you to the kinds of influences which have shaped all the historical writing you have encountered through the course. By the end of three years you will, after all, have read many many books and articles, and this, as with the first section, will therefore provide much of the material for thinking about this section of the paper. And again, this will feed back into your specific papers by increasing the sophistication of your awareness of why historians write as they do. You will also develop your ability to integrate sources into historiographical analysis as you deepen your contact with them through the Further and Special Subjects and your thesis.

Topics covered may include: Space & Place; Environmental History; Marxism; Economic & Quantitative History; Social History & History of Everyday Life; Historical Anthropology & Microhistory; Cultural History; Literature in History; Gender & the Body; History of Sexuality; History of Emotions; History of Science, Medicine & Technology; Race & Postcolonialism; Visual Sources & Methods; Memory & Tradition; Oral History; The Self; Intellectual History; Religious Historiography; Political History & Political Culture; Global & International History; Atlantic History & European History; National Traditions; Public History; The Classical Tradition; Genres of Historical Writing; Archives.

Assessment: This paper is examined with a 3-hour written examination in which you must answer two questions, one from each section of the paper.