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Narrative history is the practice of writing history in a story-based form. It tends to entail history-writing based on reconstructing series of short-term events, and since the influential work of Leopold von Ranke on professionalising history-writing in the nineteenth century has been associated with empiricism. The term narrative history thus overlaps with the term histoire événementielle ('event-history') coined by Fernand Braudel in the early twentieth century, as he promoted forms of history-writing analysing much longer-term trends (what he called the longue durée).
Though history is considered a social science, the story-based nature of history allows for the inclusion of a greater or lesser degree of narration in addition to an analytical or interpretative exposition of historical knowledge. It can be divided into two subgenres: the traditional narrative and the modern narrative.
Traditional narrative focuses on the chronological order of history. It is event driven and tends to center upon individuals, action, and intention. For example, in regard to the French Revolution, a historian who works with the traditional narrative might be more interested in the revolution as a single entity (one revolution), centre it in Paris, and rely heavily upon major figures such as Maximilien Robespierre.
Conversely, modern narrative typically focuses on structures and general trends. A modern narrative would break from rigid chronology if the historian felt it explained the concept better. In terms of the French Revolution, a historian working with the modern narrative might show general traits that were shared by revolutionaries across France but would also illustrate regional variations from those general trends (many confluent revolutions). Also this type of historian might use different sociological factors to show why different types of people supported the general revolution.
Historians who use the modern narrative might say that the traditional narrative focuses too much on what happened and not enough on why and causation. Also, that this form of narrative reduces history into neat boxes and thereby does an injustice to history. J H Hexter characterized such historians as "lumpers". In an essay on Christopher Hill, he remarked that "lumpers do not like accidents: they would prefer them vanish...The lumping historian wants to put all of the past into boxes..and then to tie all the boxes together into one nice shapely bundle."
Historians who use traditional narrative might say that the modern narrative overburdens the reader with trivial data that had no significant effect on the progression of history. They believe that the historian needs to stress what is consequential in history, as otherwise the reader might believe that minor trivial events were more important than they were.
- A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, ed. by Michael Payne and Jessica Rae Barbera, 2nd edn (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), s.v. 'Braudel, Fernand' (p. 90).
White, Hayden (1 March 1984). "The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory" (PDF).