Some historians appear to practice history professionally, in the sense that they produce histories that are accepted by other historians as "real" and "full." In this sense there is a profession of sorts, and exclusive body of persons who determine who may enter into appropriate practice.

However, there are many persons who lack this stamp of legitimacy who happen to speculate about, read about, or write about the past. Some appear to publish major works of non-fiction that HarperCollins might claim is a history. How can the difference between the amateur and the professional be detected when professionals also publish in HarperCollins (for example).

What are the criteria of professionality in history and which are fundamental?

  • 1
    Doesn't it usually come down down to education (as in "professional" education), like a degree in history? IMO this gives you most of the answer, although what is considered "good" education changes with place and time (e.g. a history degree from former East Germany not much worth in Germany these days). Now there are also gifted amateurs, of course (e.g. Winston Chuchill), but you were not asking about those.
    – Drux
    Commented May 29, 2013 at 8:18
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    I think you can differentiate between the two groups by checking for the existence of papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Commented May 29, 2013 at 8:32
  • 5
    What's the difference between a serious (professional) historian and a celebrity (professional) historian. Hint: fancy academic affiliations and even peer-reviewed articles won't be much help in making the cut IMHO (e.g. Niall Ferguson, ahem :)
    – Drux
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 9:24
  • 2
    A professional performs for profit; and an amateur performs for pleasure. There is some overlap. Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 19:37
  • 1
    If you want a historical answer to the question (that is, how did these distinctions develop over time) there's a book I've often see referenced called The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England. I haven't read it yet myself (though it's been on the list for a while), otherwise I'd summarize.
    – Random
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 3:42

3 Answers 3


What are the criteria of professionality in history and which are fundamental?

First thing you need to look for is the bibliography and endnotes/footnotes. Archival research is a must for professional historians when they are writing their dissertation, which eventually becomes their first manuscript/book. As well, they have to discuss and incorporate theory and methodology. Later in their careers they can, if they so choose, write books mainly based on secondary literature. Such books can do one of two things; they can challenge an accepted narrative/paradigm or simply create a general history for those interested in a specific subject. Most authors who write about history but have not been educated at the graduate level in history will not have a good grasp of theory and methodology and will, unfortunately, add little to nothing to our understanding of specific historical events/ideas/people/etc. that they choose to write about.

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    The notion that being a professional inherently implies that one is better educated, more intelligent, or more disciplined is ridiculous. One becomes a professional by being paid, and the standards of the performance say much more about the employer than the employee. Lots of crappy work gets done by professionals, and much of significant value is done for the sheer love of it by amateurs. Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 19:41
  • You point out very valid criteria for judging the quality of the product, but I dispute that this is at all related to being a professional, as in receiving pay for one's work. Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 19:44
  • @PieterGeerkens but you are stickying to the letter of the question, while the spirit was clearly quite different.
    – o0'.
    Commented Dec 22, 2013 at 20:38

I consider myself an amateur historian. I have published a breadth and scope of answers on this site that a professional historian might well envy. For all that, I lack a few attributes to be "professional."

Some people might define a professional historian as someone who has a PhD and a list of publications. I have a BA in History (and Economics), one published work in "economic history," and an unpublished World War II manuscript.

The latter work (entitled "Axis Overstretch,") illustrates why I am an amateur rather than a professional. In early 2003, I submitted it to Williamson Murray, my favorite college professor, who reviewed it and offered an opinion that it had "a number of insights not generally found elsewhere." That was the good part. The bad news was that my bibliography was lacking in breadth and depth. He offered to cure this by sending me a reading list and then reviewing the revised product. Sadly, the Persian Gulf War intervened, and the Defense Department had greater need of his services than I did, so the book was never "finished."

  • If its worth anything, I agree wholeheartedly with the second sentence. Oh, and as someone who was raised by an editor, if you submit something to someone to look over, they will feel compelled to find things wrong to point out. Certainly listen. Everything can be polished, but don't take it as meaning the work is itself inferior.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 14:55
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    @T.E.D.: Professor Murray didn't consider my work "inferior;" instead he praised it as "highly original." But he did point out that it didn't meet "professional standards" and suggested a "cure" (a better bibliography), which he was unable to send.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 15:16

This is actually a very good question, but it is important to distinguish between the term "Professional Historian" and the question of professional standards in history.

As others have already pointed out, a Professional Historian is simply one who is paid for working as an historian. The term does not, of itself, imply anything about the standard of that person's work.

Professional standards, on the other hand, are all about the quality of the work carried out by historians, whether they are working as paid professionals or unpaid amateurs.

To illustrate the point, David Irving has written a number of books and articles as a paid professional historian. However, his reputation as a reputable historian was discredited when he was shown to have deliberately misrepresented historical evidence in order to promote Holocaust denial. This was a gross breach of professional standards.

A number of organisations have published guidance on professional standards for historians, and I suspect that this might be what you were looking for when you asked about

"criteria of professionality in history".

In general, research that meets these standards is considered to be of professional quality, regardless of whether that research was carried out by a paid professional historian or an unpaid amateur historian.

To quote a few examples, there are published standards available online from:

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