Book Review: A Companion to the Study of History by Michael Stanford

Topic & Content

Published in 1994, this book is about the theoretical and philosophical concepts behind the study of history as past events and the writing of history (AKA historiography). The book is broadly organized as follows:

  • 1. History as Unity
  • 2. History as Action
  • 3. History as Outlook
  • 4. History as Discourse
  • 5. History as Knowledge
  • 6. History as Relic
  • 7. History as Event
  • 8. History as Sequence
  • 9. History as Theory
  • 10. History Transcended: Metaphysics, Marx, Myth and Meaning

Thesis

Stanford writes that the purpose of this book is to explain why history is important and how it can be understood.

Author’s Background

The late Michael Stanford was a Senior Lecturer of history at the University of the West of England. Holding degrees in philosophy and history, he published a number of works in those fields.

Critical Observations

Positives

This is essentially a book on the theory of history, both as a study of the past and as it’s written (i.e. as in history books & articles). Despite the book being largely about theory, Stanford’s writing doesn’t succumb to a lot of the stodgy language that many other theoretical works tend to do. Rather, much of the language is very straightforward and provides the reader with a solid grounding in many of the ideas and concepts that underpin the field of history. Speaking of which, much of what this book does is put into words what you perhaps couldn’t find the words for previously. As if to say, “I want to say ____ about history, but just don’t know how to describe it.” Well, Stanford gives you the language to explain your thoughts. In many instances, the book leaves the reader with far more questions than answers, but that simply illustrates that the field of history is so broad. Given this breadth, it gets the reader to think and Stanford at least provides the reader with some guidance on how to narrow down those questions and come up with their own answers. Put another way, it shows that there are few “hard” answers in history, and there’s much room for interpretation.

The book delves into many of the common questions related to the field of history and how it can be approached from so many different perspectives. A few examples are:

  • What are the uses of history and how can history be abused?
  • What makes a history book “good” and what constitutes “bad” history?
  • Is history a social science and how does it relate to other fields like sociology?
  • What is historical significance and why are some events chosen for inclusion in history books versus others that aren’t?
  • Why does history bore us in school but fascinate us later in life?
  • How do historians explain causation (i.e. the causal dynamics) in history?
  • How do readers determine truth and objectivity in history if all we have to go on is the word of the author?
  • How do historians use evidence and what are some things to consider when choosing evidence?

The list goes on, but those are some good examples of the deeper questions Stanford attempts to address.

Bear in mind that this isn’t a book on practical skills related to studying or writing history (as in, say, Furay and Salevouris’s book The Methods and Skills of History), but the reader may be able to glean some useful pieces of information in relation to the practical application of those historical skills. In fact, I would argue that Stanford’s book serves as a great complement to the aforementioned text because it provides a deeper discussion on the general theory of history which the reader can then further apply in their research and increase the rigor in their methodology. In other words, this book can help readers get into a better mindset of thinking historically as they work to practice history.

Each chapter is organized the same way; as it’s own separate essay. Within each chapter, an introduction to the topic is followed by a list of common questions related to that topic. Stanford then outlines how the chapter is divided up topically and a discussion of relevant ideas and concepts is what follows. The chapter is then concluded with a summation of the main ideas, followed by a list of suggested titles for further reading. It’s clear that Stanford knows his field, because the bibliography in this book is extensive. I had no idea that there were so many books out there on the field of history, either as a philosophy (epistemology), or as a discourse (how it’s written).

Negatives

While the language thankfully isn’t that pretentious, it can get a little wordy at times. Furthermore, since each chapter can be read (more or less) in isolation, it can seem a little jarring to move from one to the next with very little overt connection between them. The reader may also find some chapters less useful than others, but that’s largely a matter of personal preference.

Recall that this book was published in 1994, so there’s no discussion on how the internet or digital technology has influenced the study and writing of history. However, that’s no fault of the author since they couldn’t have possibly predicted how the internet would’ve changed the way we communicate. That being said, perhaps a discussion on how advances in technology have increased the speed of information sharing (all the way from the printing press) would help readers gain a better appreciation of how our understanding of historical knowledge and how history as a discourse has changed.

In my opinion, the book ends on a fairly weak note. The final chapter has a lengthy section devoted to a discussion on Karl Marx and Communism. While I have nothing personal against Socialism or Communism, and Stanford does point out the weaknesses of Marx’s philosophy, a discussion on this particular political theory seems almost out of place in a book about history (despite the historical import of Marx’s ideas). Throughout the book Stanford makes numerous references to various philosophers, but up to that point, there’s almost no discussion on politics and it’s relation to history. Thus, it seems a bit strange to throw this political discussion in at the last chapter.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Overall, this is a great book for gaining a deeper understanding of the theory behind what history is and how it’s written. A lot of great questions are raised concerning the nature of history which are very thought-provoking. These questions further demonstrate the sheer breadth of the field of history and the multitude of ways it can be approached. While not so much a practical guide, a careful reading of this book can certainly give the reader some useful skills to improve the rigor of their research. While some chapters may not be very useful and the connections between them are occasionally tenuous, that shouldn’t stop anyone from finding something useful in this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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