Histories and Stories: Narration in Historiography

The place and credibility of narrative history is often questioned within the historical discipline. This discussion, however, stems from a far older, still ongoing dispute. While examining the existing scholarship one can recognise a common belief that the opposite of narrative history is scientific history. As societies progress through time, their perception of the past changes – and so does the perception of history. The question of whether History is to be classified as a scientific or an artistic discipline has plagued academics for at least two centuries. It is necessary to acknowledge the complexity of the term ‘science’ as its inherent meaning have changed over time. In this essay, the history that is referred to as ‘scientific’ is regarded as concise, factual, and following firmly established methodological and epistemological principles. Rather than discuss this long-disputed question I shall phrase it less diplomatically and offer my perspective upon it.

What is it about narrative history that academic historians find problematic?

This article will attempt to respond to the found problems. I shall discuss the semantical differences between the key concepts and examine the relationship of each to the historical discipline. I will also examine the nineteenth-century German model of history and the linguistic turn. I propose that the most problematic aspects of narrative history involve primacy of interpretation, ‘invention’ andemplotment. Emplotment can be summarised as identifying a connection between a sequence of events (simply put, developing a plot), and the question of ‘feeling’ and ‘emotions’. I will argue that these elements donot contribute a substantial disadvantage.

Narrativity: Semantics

In the English language there is a clear distinction between the words ‘history’ and ‘story’, so it is often taken for granted that these terms are at least different if not opposite. The Russian language, however, does not offer such a visible distinction: the word istoriya means both ‘history’ and ‘story’ and is used extensively in both contexts. The Spanish word historiaworks in a similar manner. Even if this is a purely linguistic issue and there is no specific reason for a clear contrast between these words, it nonetheless makes one consider their meanings. Moreover, in the Russian language there is no difference between the words ‘science’ and ‘humanities’ in the semantical sense. The technical sciences are evidently namedtekhnicheskiye nauki, while the humanities are called gumanitarniye nauki, i.e. humanitarian sciences. The word for ‘science’ (nauka), therefore, applies both to the humanities and the technical sciences. The English word that would be the closest in its meaning to the science=humanities would be ‘studies’. Thus, the difference between the concept of ‘history’ and ‘story’ are not uniform when applied to several languages.

Narrativity: Distinctions

After examining the application in foreign languages, it is therefore logical enough to discuss the meanings of the terms in the English language. A story may be fictional and involve a clear narrative with a beginning and an end. History, however, is considered an academic discipline, where most believe that even if there is a beginning and an end, they are inconceivable to humanity. Nevertheless, while the English language treats the two terms as substantially different, there are certain aspects in each that correspond and overlap with each other, thus undermining the criticism of narrative history as a methodology or a subdiscipline.


Personen / Gelehrte / Deutschland / Ranke / PortrŠts

Portrait of Leopold von Ranke

Narrativity in history is directly linked to interpretation. This corresponds with the scientific/artistic discipline dispute. Leopold von Ranke, for example, wrote in the nineteenth century: ‘A strict presentation of the facts, contingent and unattractive as that may be, is the highest law’. He stressed the significance of facts – and yet for him historical truth could be discovered through intuition and interpretation: ‘History must be science and art at the same time’. While he was considered ‘the father of scientific history’, he nevertheless believed that ‘re-creation’, so essential in historical methodology, made history an art. Johann Droysen shared Ranke’s belief in the essentiality of intuition. However, he encouraged scholars to pursue moral judgements and apply them to their society; subjectivity was necessary. Therefore, while scholars of the ‘German model’ of the nineteenth century have attempted to proclaim history as ‘scientific’, they found it difficult to refrain from ideological judgements in the context of German nationalism, undermining the concept of a purely factual and ‘true’ history.

Interpretation: metahistory, metanarrative

Scholars of the twentieth century continued the dichotomy discourse. The emergence of cultural history initiated by the Annales school diversified methodological processes. The Annales historians searched for a scientific method to analyse human behaviour and claimed narrative history to be ‘non-scientific’ and ‘ideological’. The linguistic turn reinforced the discussion regarding the place of narrativity in historiography. For example, Robert Berkhofer writes that “normal” history’s objective is to produce an “accurate representation of an actual past”and compares such to maps and photographs. Neither of these, however, can ever provide an accurate representation. Depending on the scale, a map only represents a portion of the wider reality; a continent map does not show the suburbs, suburban maps do not show the continent. A photograph is merely a fragment separated from its surroundings. Similarly, history cannot represent ‘an actual past’ as there is no clear metanarrative, no universal explanation and interpretation of life that we have agreed upon. Hans Kellner argues that to comprehend history, one must look for a ‘crooked’ rather than a ‘straight’ picture; contemplation broadens the horizon. He states that narration frees history from ‘the legitimating authority of factuality’. Thus, the absence of a clear subject in history (‘an actual past’), in contrast to science, encourages historians to create a narrative, developing new interpretations and perspectives.

Narrativity: emplotment

The discourse leads to the issue of emplotment. For Hayden White, to acknowledge the plot of the historical narrative is to acknowledge the issues raised by the discourse. If one dismisses narrative history’s significance, one also dismisses the impact literature and poetry (culture) have upon the perceptions of reality. Roland Barthes agrees with White that with no narrative, history would be a collection of unrelated facts, like annals. For White, a purely ‘scientific’, value-free language of history is void of attempts to analyse culture’s shaping of perceptions. In history, events are value-free; interpretation is not. Narrativity connects unstructured events through allegory and encodation(providing the information with a meaning). Therefore, the plot contributes to the search for ‘truth’ for history through interpretation, which is a fundamental aspect of historical methodology and therefore should not be discouraged within the discipline.

Narrativity: Emotion and Feeling

Perhaps no one will be willing to deny that one of the main components of an engaging story is conflict. In relation to narrativity, conflict is an antithesis of stagnation. It is a constant catalyst that moves the world and its characters forward. What, then, is the other essential component without which any story would be a lifeless accumulation of events? Without any doubt, that would be emotion. There is plenty of conflict throughout history, that no one will refute; one must merely note the amount of scholarship written concerning war or any political, social, or religious turmoil. Emotion, however, has a much more complex position within the historical discipline.

Most academics are anxious to explore emotions of the past and fear that their arguments would not be substantial and will be treated with scepticism by fellow historians. ‘Biased’, ‘subjective’, ‘speculative’ – these are the words one might associate with involving the study of emotion in history. It is common knowledge that a historian cannot be affected by emotions and must remain objective in their analysis. The overall perception of emotion in history became negative once historians emphasised the essentiality of objectivity.

Moreover, the history of emotions is often dismissed as too speculative or circumstantial. This further relates to an issue of involving literary sources as evidence in historical research. Literary research concerns not only emotions, but also such complex terms as honour, shame, or beauty. The belief that fictional evidence cannot be used deteriorates the research significantly and limits the possible perspectives and interpretations. Neither secondary nor primary evidence can be studied separated from surrounding historiographical context. Literature forms an essential part of the culture and can provide fundamental information regarding contemporary ideology, intellectual thought, popular culture, esoteric writing, or social, economic, and political culture. One must learn to interpret such texts and apply them to discovered historical evidence. Therefore, interpretation forms a highly significant part of historical scholarship and thus cannot be disregarded as a disadvantage of narrative history or of history in general.


It is thus evident that narration constitutes a fundamental quality of the historical discipline, whether it is ‘scientific’ history, narrative history or, for example, microhistory – a relatively recent subdiscipline in which narrativity plays an essential role. Since the nineteenth century scholars have been struggling to proclaim history as purely factual and scientific. Even Ranke acknowledged the primacy of interpretation for the discipline. Interpretation became more complex with the emergence of new studies. Modern Joint degrees and interdisciplinary courses allow students to explore new epistemology and methodology. History coupled with Sociology might be more scientific than coupled with English.

Additionally, it became increasingly challenging to establish an all-applicable methodology with the emergence of such subdisciplines as history of emotions or of mental health. This further provided a wider scope of possibility and flexibility in applying interpretation. Narrativity, in turn, became essential to the interpretation to ‘connect the dots’ and provide numerous unique perspectives. One must be aware that the historical ‘search for truth’ has no visible termination point. History has no expiration date: there is no universal truth to be found. It is thus a continuous and constantly reshaping development that historians should embrace.

Written by: Vera Ratnikova 


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Image Credits:

Cover Image: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/xir232802fre/portrait-presumed-to-be-etienne-delafons-xir232802-fre/

Portrait of Ranke:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jebens,_Adolf_-_Leopold_von_Ranke_(detail)_-_1875(dot)jpg