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Political history

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Political history

Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, organs of government, voters, parties and leaders.[1] It is interrelated to other fields of history especially Diplomatic history, as well as constitutional history and public history.

Political history studies the organization and operation of power in large societies. By focusing on the elites in power, on their impact on society, on popular response, and on the relationships with the elites in other countries. The field often involves the deconstruction of myths and received wisdom. The political historian has the constant responsibility of doing justice to the leadership of the past.[2] According to Hegel, political History "is an idea of the state with a moral and spiritual force beyond the material interests of its subjects: it followed that the state was the main agent of historical change"[3] This contrasts with social history, which focuses predominantly on the actions and lifestyles of ordinary people,[4] or people's history, which is historical work from the perspective of common people.

In two decades from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of professors of history in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%.[5] In the history departments of British and Irish universities in 2014, of the 3410 faculty members reporting, 878 (26%) identified themselves with social history while political history came next with 841 (25%).[6]

Political world history

The political history of the world is the history of the evolution of the political events, ideas, movements, leaders and entities, and the way these elements shape society as a whole; Special importance is their crystallisation into political entities such as republics, empires and so on; and the study of the international relations between them. Together with this descriptive analysis, the history of political thinking narrates the evolution of the political ideas and philosophy, and goes back to antiquity. Political history, and thus the history of political thinking throughout human existence stretches though up to Medieval period and the Renaissance. In the Age of Enlightenment, political entities expanded from basic systems of self-governance and monarchy to the complex democratic and communist systems that exist of the Industrialied and the Modern Era, in parallel, political systems have expanded from vaguely defined frontier-type boundaries, to the definite boundaries existing today.

Aspects of political history

The first "scientific" political history was written by Leopold von Ranke in Germany in the 19th century. His methodologies profoundly affected the way historians critically examine sources; see historiography for a more complete analysis of the methodology of various approaches to history. An important aspect of political history is the study of ideology as a force for historical change. One author asserts that "political history as a whole cannot exist without the study of ideological differences and their implications."[7] Studies of political history typically centre around a single nation and its political change and development. Some historians identify the growing trend towards narrow specialization in political history during recent decades: "while a college professor in the 1940s sought to identify himself as a "historian", by the 1950s "American historian" was the designation."[8]

From the 1970s onwards, new movements challenged traditional approaches to political history. The development of social history shifted the emphasis away from the study of leaders and national decisions, and towards the role of ordinary people, especially outsiders and minorities. Younger scholars shifted to different issues, usually focused on race, class and gender, with little room for elites. After 1990 social history itself began to fade, replaced with postmodern and cultural approaches that rejected grand narrative.

United States: The new political history

Traditional political history focused on major leaders and had long played a dominant role among academic historians in the United States. These studies accounted for about 25% of the scholarly books and articles written by American historians before 1950, and about 33% into the 1960s, followed by diplomacy. The arrival in the 1960s and 1970s of a new interest in social history led to the emergence of the "new political history" which saw young scholars put much more emphasis on the voters' behavior and motivation, rather than just the politicians.[9][10] It relied heavily on quantitative methods to integrate social themes, especially regarding ethnicity and religion.[11] The new social science approach was a harbinger of the fading away of interest in Great Men. The eclipse of traditional political approaches during the 1970s was a major shock, though diplomatic history fell even further. It was upstaged by social history, with a race/class/gender model. The number of political articles submitted to the Journal of American History fell by half from 33% to 15%. Patterson argued that contemporary events, especially the Vietnam War and Watergate, alienated younger scholars away from the study of politicians and their deeds. Political history never disappeared, but it never recovered its dominance among scholars, despite its sustained high popularity among the reading public.[12] Some political historians made fun of their own predicament, as when William Leuchtenburg wrote, "the status of the political historians within the profession has sunk to somewhere between that of a faith healer and a chiropractor. Political historians were all right in a way, but you might not want to bring one home to meet the family."[13] Others were more analytical, as when Hugh Davis Graham observed:

The ranks of traditional political historians are depleted, their assumptions and methods methods discredited, along with the Great White Man whose careers they chronicled.[14]


Readman (2009) discusses the historiography of British political history in the 20th century. He describes how British political scholarship mostly ignored 20th century history due to temporal proximity to the recent past, the unavailability of primary sources, and the potential for bias. The article explores how transitions in scholarship have allowed for greater interest in 20th century history among scholars, which include less reliance on archival sources, methodological changes in historiography, and the flourishing of new forms of history such as oral history.[15]


In the course of the 1960s, however, some German historians (notably Hans-Ulrich Wehler and his cohort) began to rebel against this idea, instead suggesting a "Primacy of Domestic Politics" (Primat der Innenpolitik), in which the insecurities of (in this case German) domestic policy drove the creation of foreign policy. This led to a considerable body of work interpreting the domestic policies of various states and the ways this influenced their conduct of foreign policy.


The French Annales School had already put an emphasis on the role of geography and economics on history, and of the importance of broad, slow cycles rather than the constant apparent movement of the "history of events" of high politics. It downplayed politics and diplomacy. The most important work of the Annales school, Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, contains a traditional Rankean diplomatic history of Philip II's Mediterranean policy, but only as the third and shortest section of a work largely focusing on the broad cycles of history in the longue durée ("long term"). The Annales were broadly influential, leading to a turning away from political history towards an emphasis on broader trends of economic and environmental change.

Social history

In the 1960s and 1970s, an increasing emphasis on giving a voice to the voiceless and writing the history of the underclasses, whether by using the quantitative statistical methods of social history or the more postmodern assessments of cultural history, also undermined the centrality of politics to the historical discipline. Leff noted how social historians, "disdained political history as elitist, shallow, altogether passe, and irrelevant to the drama of everyday lives."[16]

See also


  1. ^ Politics: The historical development of economic, legal, and political ideas and institutions, ideologies and movements. In The Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
  2. ^ Stephen J. Lee (1996). Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995. Psychology Press. pp. 1–2. 
  3. ^ John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (2nd ed. 1991), p. 74
  4. ^ Parthasarathi, Prasannan, "The State and Social History
  5. ^ Diplomatic dropped from 5% to 3%, economic history from 7% to 5%, and cultural history grew from 14% to 16%. Based on full-time professors in U.S. history departments. Stephen H. Haber, David M. Kennedy, and Stephen D. Krasner, "Brothers under the Skin: Diplomatic History and International Relations," International Security, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), pp. 34-43 at p. 4 2; online at JSTOR
  6. ^ See "History Online:Teachers of History" accessed 1/21/2014
  7. ^ Freeman, Joanne B., "Founding Bothers"
  8. ^ Richard J. Jensen, Historiography of American Political History. In Jack Greene, ed., Encyclopedia of American Political History (New York: Scribner's, 1984), vol 1. pp 1-25
  9. ^ Allan G. Bogue, "United States: The 'new' political history." Journal of Contemporary History (1968) 3#1 pp: 5-27. in JSTOR
  10. ^ Allan G. Bogue, "The new political history in the 1970s." in Michael G. Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (1980) pp: 231-251.
  11. ^ Robert P. Swierenga, "Ethnocultural political analysis: a new approach to American ethnic studies," Journal of American Studies (1971) 5#1 pp: 59-79.
  12. ^ James T. Patterson, "The Persistence of Political History" in Richard S. Kirkendall, ed. The Organization of American Historians and the Writing and Teaching of American History (2011) pp 67-74; his statistical estimates appear on pp 70, 72
  13. ^ William Leuchenburg, "The Pertinence of Political History: Reflection on the Significance of the State In America," Journal of American History (Dec. 1986) 73:585-600 in JSTOR
  14. ^ Hugh Davis Graham, "The stunted career of policy history: a critique and an agenda." The Public Historian (1993): 15-37. in JSTOR
  15. ^ Readman (2009)
  16. ^ Mark H. Leff, "Revisioning US political history." American Historical Review (1995) 100#3 pp: 829-853, quote p 829. in JSTOR

Further reading

  • Bogue, Allan G. "United States: The 'new' political history." Journal of Contemporary History (1968) 3#1 pp: 5-27. in JSTOR
  • Elton, G. R. The practice of history (1968), British emphasis.
  • French, John D.. "Women in Postrevolutionary Mexico: The Emergence of a New Feminist Political History," Latin American Politics and Society, Summer 2008, Vol. 50 Issue 2, pp 175–184
  • Huret, Romain, “All in the Family Again? Political Historians and the Challenge of Social History,” Journal of Policy History, 21 (no. 3, 2009), 239–63.
  • Jensen, Richard J. "Historiography of American Political History" in Jack Greene, ed., ;;Encyclopedia of American Political History (Scribner's, 1984), vol 1. pp 1–25
  • Pasquino, Gianfranco. "Political History in Italy," Journal of Policy History July 2009, Vol. 21 Issue 3, pp 282–297; discusses political historians such as Silvio Lanaro, Aurelio Lepre, and Nicola Tranfaglia, and studies of Fascism, the Italian Communist party, the role of the Christian Democrats in Italian society, and the development of the Italian parliamentary Republic.
  • Ranger, Terence. "Nationalist historiography, patriotic history and the history of the nation: the struggle over the past in Zimbabwe." Journal of Southern African Studies 30.2 (2004): 215-234.
  • Readman, Paul. "The State of Twentieth-Century British Political History," Journal of Policy History, July 2009, Vol. 21 Issue 3, pp 219–238
  • Smith, Anthony D. The nation in history: historiographical debates about ethnicity and nationalism (UP of New England, 2000)
  • Sreedharan, E. A manual of historical research methodology. (Trivandrum, Centre for South Indian Studies, 2007
  • Sreedharan, E. A textbook of historiography: 500 BC to AD 2000 . (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2004)
  • Swirski, Peter. (2011). American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge.

External links

  • Documents of Diplomatic History
  • Fletcher School at Tufts International Relations Resources
  • A New Nation Votes: American Elections Returns 1787–1825
  • (French) French Website of the Comité d'histoire parlementaire et politique (Parliamentary and Political History Committee) and Parlement(s), Revue d'histoire politique, published three times a year. It contains a lot of information about French political history, including about 900 references of scholarly political history studies and a bibliography of parliamentary history.
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