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.

Making Historical Comparisons

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 section is more a matter of technique than of new information. You can draw upon all the history you have done in order to think comparatively. Once you have started thinking your way through a comparison, you may realize that you need more information, which you can then acquire in a focused and targeted manner. Comparison also exposes the differences between historiographies: issues which you find addressed on one society do not appear in the literature on another, similar one. Thus comparison generates new questions which can deepen our understanding and might lead to new research.

The art of comparison lies in identifying both the similar features in the societies being compared and the variable factors which produce differences. Choosing your examples is therefore crucial. The societies or polities chosen must have sufficient similarities for their differences to be explicable through comparison. That said, even societies far apart in place or time may have enough similarities in some particular respects for comparison of their differences to be viable: but you will need to demonstrate these similarities in order to set up the analysis. It may be simpler to compare two societies that are closer to each other, whether different polities in the same period, or the same society in successive periods. In these cases the similarities are more obvious (not least in the former case if the societies are in contact), which may highlight more clearly where they differ: this then provides a secure basis for identifying the variable factors which cause these differences. Note that two principal subjects of comparison (societies or polities) are perfectly adequate. The basis of good comparison is a good knowledge of the cases involved. Adducing more than two or three cases makes precise and careful comparison difficult, if not impossible, and results instead in a general impressionistic haze.

Topics covered may include: The Arts: Visual, Drama, Music, Crime, Punishment, The Law, Judicial Systems, Family, Marriage & Household, Religion, Belief, Conversion, Persecution, Toleration Ritual, Custom, Myths, Class & Status, Slavery, Serfdom, Underclasses, Globalisation & Development among many others.

Making Historical Arguments

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.

Topics covered may include: Material Culture & Archaeology, Space & Place, Environmental History, Historical Anthropology & Microhistory, Gender & the Body, History of Sexuality, History of Science, Medicine & Technology, Race & Postcolonialism among many others.


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. 

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