Disciplines of History

The intention of Disciplines of History is to encourage students to reflect on the changing nature of the historical discipline, on differing historical methodologies and on comparative history. In all cases they are encouraged to make use of historical material which they studied in other papers in their first year and for the Final Honours School. The paper consists of two parts: Making Historical Comparisons and Making Historical Arguments.

The aim of Comparative History is to learn more about general features of human experience, and about different periods and societies, by the process of comparison. Historical comparison highlights both the similarities and the differences between different periods and societies. It casts light by revealing wider unities and also by drawing attention to the particularities of human and social experience. Historical comparison of this kind is also a most helpful revision tool, in that it calls upon you to bring together the whole range of historical material you have covered in your studies at Oxford, and to consider it in a new light. 

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. The societies compared must have sufficient similarities to make comparison worthwhile. No-one is going to waste time comparing Nazi Germany and Northumbria in the age of Bede, since they are so obviously different. The alternative danger, of comparing two identical societies, may be practically dismissed, so long as you are correctly observing the rubric of this section and comparing historically distinct societies, separated by either time or space. Note that two principle subjects of comparison (societies or polities) are perfectly adequate. The basis of good comparison, as of all historical study, is the precise knowledge of particular cases. Using more than two or three cases makes precise and careful comparison difficult, if not impossible, and results instead in a general impressionistic haze, like laundry where all the colours have run together. 

There will be twenty questions in this section. The following list suggests a range of subject areas which the examiners might address. However, no specific topic is guaranteed to come up in any particular paper: 

  • The Arts: Visual, Drama, Music
  • Orality & Literacy, Education, Schools, Universities Crime, Punishment, The Law, Judicial Systems
  • Intermediate social organizations, Civic Society, Family, Guilds
  • Gender, Sexuality, Social taboos
  • Religion, Belief, Conversion, Persecution, Toleration
  • Aristocracy, Elites
  • Slavery, Serfdom, Underclasses
  • Economic systems, Development, Globalisation
  • Environment, Urbanisation, Town & CountryIdentities, Social, Ethnic, Geographical, National
  • Ritual, Custom, Myths
  • Political ideas & ideologies
  • Power, Government, Bureaucracy
  • Revolutions, Régime change, Riots
  • Empires, Centre-periphery
  • Diplomacy, international relations

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 theories are there about the way in which history should be approached? (Indeed both approaches can be considered at the same time, 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, motivation, context and genre. Underlying the question ‘how is history written?’ is that of ‘why?’ The writing of history must itself be historicized. History itself does not display a “whiggish” tendency to perpetual improvement, nor does historiography, and the latter must be considered as the product of a particular historical context. While much of the focus will naturally be on recent work, the questions set in this section of the paper will also enable you to discuss forms of historical writing over the last two-and-a-half millennia.

As with the first section, much of the material for your answer in this section of the paper will originate in the work you have done elsewhere in the course: your experience of deploying sources and approaches in writing a dissertation and extended essay; your observation of how sources have been used by other historians (particularly in Further and Special Subjects); and the range of different approaches in the many articles and books you have read for all your papers. Historiographical awareness is a crucial element of all the papers you take, and you should be reflecting on the nature of historians’ approaches and their sources throughout the Final Honours course. 

You will also receive some specific teaching for this section, so as to learn more about different schools of, or approaches to, history: their particular historical context, interests, methods, influences, forms and sources. Note however that serious reflection on historiography is a good deal more than mere generalised reproduction of textbook accounts of (say) the Annales school or “whig” history. Reflection on the writing of history, like reflection on history itself, stems from engagement with specific cases and sources. The basis for success in this section of the paper is to read major works of historical writing for yourself (most obviously as an extension of your work in other papers), whether it be Herodotus or Foucault. In this way your answer can cite and engage with historical writing and/or sources in authentic detail.

Here again there will be twenty questions in this section. The following list suggests a range of subject areas which the examiners might address. However, no specific topic is guaranteed to come up in any particular paper: 

  • Material Culture & Archaeology in historical writing
  • Geography and Environmental History
  • Space & Urban History
  • Economic and Quantitative History
  • Structural Social History
  • Cultural History & Historical Anthropology
  • Literature & Narrative
  • Gender, Sexuality and the Body
  • Visual Sources & Methods
  • Oral History
  • Sources for the Self
  • Intellectual History
  • Political History
  • Postcolonialism & Ethnicity
  • Global and International History
  • Statist and National Traditions
  • The Classical Tradition
  • Philosophy of History 
  • Archives
  • Genres of historical writing
  • Religious Historiography

Please note: the standard Oxford rules against overlap do not apply to either section of Disciplines of History. You may use any work you have done, including in your thesis, as sources for your arguments in the examination.

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