Glossary

Comparative Approach/History “A specific method of historical explanation in which developments in one social situation are explained by comparing them to developments in other social situations.”[1] For example, a historian may choose to compare the genesis of the French Revolution to the American Revolution. This comparison may help him/her to observe differences as well as continuities in the events that led to the beginning of a major process of social and political change in those societies.

Historiography This word has two main meanings among English-speaking historians: 1) to refer to the writing of history in general or to the act of writing history; 2) the way in which a particular subject (i.e. slavery, labor, women, French Revolution, etc) has been studied by other scholars in the past by paying attention to when the work was published, what each author’s argument was, and how she/he used sources and methodologies. By looking at all of those works produced for that particular subject either in a chronological, thematical, or regional way, the historian can evaluate:

  • how the scholarship of that particular subject has developed in the past; how the findings and arguments made by scholars on that subject have progressed through time
  • how historical writing relates to the currents of thought of the time in which it was produced
  • how his/her own research interests are related to larger currents of thought and/or to a broader body of works on a particular subject

Methodology A set of research techniques and/or theoretical orientations used to evaluate and interpret historical evidence. For example, in the 1980s it was common among some historians to use demography to analyze family organization and relationships. Other researchers used Marxist theory (theory created by 19th century German political theorist and historian Karl Marx that emphasized a materialist interpretation of history) to understand broader economic and political relationships. More recently, in the late 1990s, some historians are using oral interviews to know more about a particular event and ultimately understand how people remember the past. All in all, methodology refers to the “plan of attack” that the researcher followed to handle, evaluate, and interpret her/his sources.

Primary Sources A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact. Examples of primary sources include:

personal correspondence and diaries
works of art and literature
speeches and oral histories
audio and video recordings
photographs and posters
newspaper ads and stories
laws and legislative hearings
census or demographic records
plant and animal specimens
coins and tools

Secondary Sources A secondary source, in contrast, lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented on, analyzed, or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original. History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, interpretive journal articles, and book reviews are all examples of secondary sources. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources.

Sources The materials, evidence, or data used in your research are known as sources. As foundations of your research, these sources of information are typically classified into two broad categories—primary and secondary.


Harry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986) 55.