Political history

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Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, leaders and entities.[1] It is very interrelated to other fields of history such as Diplomatic history, social history, economic history, and military history, as well as constitutional history and public history.

Generally, political history focuses mainly (but not only) on decisions made by the leadership of nation-states. 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[edit]

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[edit]

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 sought to challenge traditional approaches to political history. The development of social history and women's history shifted the emphasis away from the study of leaders and national decisions, and towards the role of ordinary citizens; "...by the 1970s "the new social history" began replacing the older style. Emphasis shifted to a broader spectrum of American life, including such topics as the history of urban life, public health, ethnicity, the media, and poverty."[9] As such, political history is sometimes seen as the more 'traditional' kind of history, in contrast with the more 'modern' approaches of other fields of history.


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.[10]


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[edit]

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 qualitative assessments of cultural history, also undermined the centrality of diplomatic history to the historical discipline.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Brunner, Borgna, "The History of Women's History"
  10. ^ Readman (2009)

Further reading[edit]

  • Swirski, Peter. (2011). American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge.
  • Elman, C., & Elman, M. F. (2001). Bridges and boundaries: historians, political scientists, and the study of international relations. BCSIA studies in international security. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Readman, Paul. "The State of Twentieth-Century British Political History," Journal of Policy History, July 2009, Vol. 21 Issue 3, pp 219-238
  • Sreedharan, E. (2007). A manual of historical research methodology. Trivandrum, Centre for South Indian Studies.
  • Sreedharan, E. (2004). A textbook of historiography: 500 BC to AD 2000. New Delhi: Orient Longman.

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