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Challenging Conventional History: A Look at Two Modern Historical Theories

Updated on February 21, 2018

The telling of history has always been surrounded in controversy as historians and historical theories clashed. The older and more conventional historical theories and narratives included empiricism, which believed that history should be told only by objective facts, and Marxism, which taught that history is motivated by class struggle leading to a revolution. Recently there have been more and new theories of how to tell history that contrasts and challenge the older conventional styles. Two of these theories are gender history, which studies how and why societies create gender and how it relates to the societies history as a whole, and post-colonial history, which is a rethinking of a former colonized country’s history from the perspective of the indigenous people. These new styles of history challenge the former by providing new insight on how or why certain events happened, or even by rewriting the history of an entire nation.

Gender History

Gender history is defined as the study of a society’s creation of gender. While many people may believe that gender is created by biology rather than society, they are thinking of a person’s sex. Gender is defined as the standards and rolls society places and expects from the different sexes. Since gender rolls and standards are created by society, they vary from place to place. Historical theorists such as Joan Scott study and explain gender history by studying the discourse that surrounds gender in certain societies. Discourse refers to the study of the surrounding discussion of a topic; how people talk about things or their word choice as seen in historical documents or simply by talking about the subject[1]. This vastly challenges Marxism as it suggests that history could be motivated by forces besides class struggles. Marxists believe that a person’s actions is dictated by their class, and therefore they don’t really have any free will; any action they do is the result of their class or the revolution. Discourse allows historians to peer into the minds of the people and try to figure out why a certain topic is discussed in a certain way. For gender history, discourse provides an explanation on not only why societies create gender rolls and standards, but also why peoples’ experiences vary while in the same society.

Post-Colonial History

The second and probably the biggest challenge to conventional theories of history is post-colonial history. Post-colonial history is a fairly new historical approach as it began being noticed around the 1960s, as people began discovering the stories of the indigenous people who were once colonized. As the natives fought for their independence and began telling the history of their country from their view rather than the imperialists. This rethinking and retelling of an entire countries history vastly contrasts the conventional empiricist telling of history. Where empiricists attempt to find unbiased facts to tell history, they cannot accurately do so when telling the history of people who are or were colonized. Until recently, history has been taught from western narratives that focus on the colonizers and on modernization and economic development. When the colonized people began to have their voiced heard, they broke those so called objective facts and told their true history which focused on their culture and their peoples’ agency[2]; both of which have been excluded and violated by the colonizers and their empirical western narratives. The empiricist motto “history is written by the victor” has ultimately proven not only completely biased, but also been proven wrong as the indigenous people rejoice in the opportunity to have their voices heard as they retell their own country’s history, which may be more objective than the empiricists care to think.

History is told in many ways with many different stories. One historian may argue that all history is the history of class and revolution, while another may object with the view that history should be studied by studying the mentalite and discourse surrounding a topic. As history evolves as a field of study and as time goes on to create and reveal more history to be told, the debate between historians will always continue. While some theories may seem outdated, they can still hold potential as the job of the historian should not be debating on which theory has the most merit, but rather historians should focus on telling and teaching what truly happened in the past. No matter the school of thought or the historian and his theory, there will always be some kind of challenge to their recollection of the past, as there is always two sides to a story.


[1]Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory. Pg.257

[2] Green, Anna, and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory. Pg. 278

The Houses of History

The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory
The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory

This book is very valuable in my research as it goes over the different theories behind historians writings, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in studying history as well as the reasons why historians write their history in the style that they do.



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