Are there theories of approaches to history, or styles of history, insofar as the subject is taught at schools and universities?

For example, E. P. Thompson seems to favour a Marxist interpretation of certain events in his work, supported by references to the works of other historians and verifiable evidence. Winston Churchill seemed more loose, almost anecdotal, in some works I have read. Bertie Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" is a well-referenced and polished, but occasionally subjective, work.

I have heard (somewhere!) that Chinese historians favour an approach where there is actual documentation or other tangible evidence.

I appreciate that history books are written to appeal to a variety of different audiences, but I am more interested in what is acceptable to other academics. Would, just for sake of example, Thompson's, Churchill's or Russell's works be harshly criticized at some academic level because they do not conform to certain (modern) standards?

  • 1
    Hi, and welcome to the site. Yes, there are (almost) as many interpretations of history as there are historians to support them! I suggest you read some historiography (History in Practice by Jordanova is one I happen to have on my shelf, but there are others). History cannot be studied in a lab or replicated; a Marxist will interpret the same events quite differently to a Liberal or right-wing historian.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 11:04
  • 2
    Excellent. Or, in short, I should start with the wiki page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography and then continue with some of the cited works.
    – Lysistrata
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 2:35

4 Answers 4


I have already submitted a few postings on related topics, however, I can highlight some of the traditional Philosophies of History within the West.

1.The Post-Modern school: This is the most recent or contemporary historiography and Philosophical approach towards History. Post-Modern History is critical of the traditional views and definitions of Objectivity and Absolutism. The Post-Modernists champion and morally defend the idea of Cultural and Historical Relativism whereby historical reality is not necessarily rooted in truthful narratives, but instead, is a product of a socio-cultural bias and "construction".

Post-Modern Philosophy, and more specifically, Post-Modern History, was pioneered by the French Philosopher, Michelle Foucault during the 1960's and 1970's,

  1. The Marxist school: The Marxist approach towards History grew in popularity beginning in the mid 1960's. The Marxists view History as a long tale of perpetual injustices and "class struggles" between the "Haves and Have- Nots"..... the wealthy elites and the working classes. This ongoing class strife was based on the Capitalist class' imposition of unequal economic policies that enriched a tiny elite, while impoverishing-(and even greatly impoverishing), the majority populace.

Though primarily economic in tone, Marxist History and Historiography has broadened its meaning to include the divisions and "struggles" between the Politically Powerful elites and the politically disenfranchised majority. However, for the Marxists, revolutions which attempt to overthrow the elitist class-(including The State), is the necessary antidote by which universal equality and historical progress/justice can only be achieved.

Karl Marx spent his adult intellectual years in London during the 19th century Industrial Revolution Age.

  1. The Hegelian/Dialectical School: George Hegel was a German Philosopher, Professor and University President during the early years of the 19th century.

He was perhaps the First true Philosopher of History and discussed the interpretation of historical reality in a more theoretically comprehensive manner than his Western predecessors. Hegel's "Philosophy of History" introduced the West-(and indeed the world) to Dialectics. The word, "Dialectics", was an Ancient Greek word that was central to the nature of language-(it literally means, "two words" or "the combination of two words"). However, for Hegel, Dialectics was not merely a conjoining of words and language, but a greater reconciliation of historical phenomena whereby a "Thesis", an "Antithesis" and a resulting "synthesis" defined the cyclical or quasi-cyclical nature of historical time and reality.

For example if one wanted to analyze the origins of the Soviet Union from a Hegelian perspective, one might position the Tsar, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church Leadership as the Thesis, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky as the Antithesis and the birth of the Soviet imperial Atheistic State as the resulting Synthesis.

Karl Marx was deeply influenced by George Hegel; in fact, the phrase, "Dialectical Materialism" was invented by Karl Marx thought it has a Hegelian connotation. The main distinction though between Marx and Hegel-(including, Marxist and Hegelian historiography), is the Atheism of Marx, versus the teleological Theism-(perhaps even Christian Theism) of Hegel.

  1. The Great Man Theory of History: This now largely discredited and untaught school of history, is one of the oldest in Modern Theoretical History. The Great Man Theory of History was pioneered by the English Writer, Thomas Carlyle, who viewed Historical Reality as the determination of "Great Men" or persons with great exceptionalism and character. Generals, Statesmen, Poets, Writers, Philosopher, Religious Leaders, Scientists, Mathematicians and Inventors, were the ones, due to their foresighted genius, as well as novel writings and inventions, who essentially defined the meaning and purpose of History.

The Great Man Theory of History is the absolute opposite of Marxism and Post-Modernism; it is very much the oldest of "Old school" style historiography and Philosophy of History.

  1. Pareto and "The Circulation of Elites": The Italian Social Theorist, Pareto-(unfortunately, I don't remember his first name), originated a concept known as, "The Circulation of Elites". According to Pareto, the movement of human history, is just that, an actual biological movement akin to ants in a colony whereby a timeless structure of Leaders and followers has been and continues to remain... unbreakable. However, in the case of the Human species, the human movement towards history, is a "circulation of elites", that is to say, a changing and shifting of elite groups from stage of history, to another stage of history.

If one, for example, looks at the history of Pareto's native Italy, specifically, Ancient Rome, one can find the classic example of a "circulation of elites". Rome began as a Monarchical elitist system, then transitioning towards a Republic/Senatorial elitist system, then evolving into the Roman Empire, an imperialistically tyrannical elitist system, which "collapsed into", a Theocratic elitist system.

Pareto's "circulation of elites" concept is more sociological in tone, though it has an important and often overlooked historical meaning that has been and is still largely underappreciated.

There are other Theoretical approaches to history with Authors, such Arnold Toynbee, Ibn Khaldun and even Nicolo Machiavelli.


As the first comment mentions, there are MANY ways to approach history. You may not notice it if you are not in a college history department, but history has many branches (and sub branches, and sub sub branches, etc.). For example, some historians would identify themselves as

  • Cultural Historians (studying the culture of past periods),
  • Social Historians (studying the behavior of groups--the Mass Man idea that @James Payne mentions above),
  • Material Culture Historians (that study the objects and tangible things from the past),
  • Marxist Historians (apply Marx's views to history)
  • Intellectual Historians (studying ideas mostly)
  • Historians of Gender
  • Historians of Sexuality
  • etc, etc
  • or a combination of the above.

Every one of these would place a high premium on using good sources and evidence. Although I am not deeply familiar with them, Thompson, Churchill, and Russell belong to an era that had different priorities. To offer a full explanation might be a completely different question (and entail another couple of pages of writing!). Regardless, their works would likely be respected, but more for their place in history and contributions to the field than for their actual content. If, for example, you wanted to write a paper about Modern Europe, you wouldn't rely on them exclusively.


The answer given is very good. There is one other that should be given briefly, and that is the question of the Great Man Theory vs the Mass Man Theory. The basic idea is that some scholars believe that history is made by great men who come along and lead, and that without these people, the Mass would just be an impotent Blob.

On the other hand, the opposing view states that history is made by people. This is the idea that the people are the motivating force in world history.

I personally tend toward the first of these views, although even I admit that cooperation from the Mass is necessary.

Traditionally, Marxists would fall into the category of Mass Man Theorists. A Tory like myself would be more for the concept of the Great Man idea.

Please note that use of the term "man" is not intended to exclude females. Queen Elizabeth I, Empress Catherine of Russia, Golde Meir, Margaret Thatcher... need I continue...

  • 1
    Ironicly (considering your last paragraph), a good way to think about it is using this question about Joan of Arc's role in the 100 years war. I'm more inclined toward a mix of the two. Yes, she likely wasn't just any old peasant girl. However, the moment required a leader, so they found themselves one. What made her important was the army that followed her, and they were there because she was leading in a direction they wanted to go.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 17:41
  • @T.E.D. She might have been a great man anyways.
    – John Dee
    Commented Sep 30, 2017 at 23:31

Prosopography is very detailed historical research. It develops the characters and relationships involved in the events. Therefore it covers specific topics. Louis Naimer is the best example. Ronald Syme is another good one:

"By stressing prosopographical analysis, Syme rejected the force of ideas in politics, dismissing most such invocations of constitutional and political principle as nothing more than 'political catchwords.'"

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