Explanatory paradigms: an introduction to historical theory

Course date(s): 
14 May 2014 to 16 Jul 2014
Course tutor(s): 
Professor John Tosh
Dr John Seed
Professor Sally Alexander


This course aims to provide a critical introduction to some of the most influential frameworks of explanation in historical work today. Taught on Wednesday evenings (5.30-7.00) by Professor John Tosh, Dr John Seed and Professor Sally Alexander,  Explanatory Paradigms will explore one explanatory approach each week in depth through a combination of a lecture and seminar discussion based on the students’ own reading.

Course details

The aim of this short course is to provide a critical introduction to some of the most influential frameworks of explanation in historical work today. It is intended for those beginning a research degree in history. The days are long past when a technical orientation to source criticism was considered sufficient training for PhD/MPhil students. Today most of the key controversies in historical scholarship turn on the credibility of contrasting explanatory paradigms. Hence some familiarity in this area is a prerequisite both for evaluating the secondary literature, and for determining the direction of the research itself.

In this course three historians examine specific paradigms. John Seed considers the continuing importance of Marxism, both in its classical materialist form and in its rendition as ‘history from below’. He then examines the implications for history of recent theories of ideology and discourse. Sally Alexander evaluates the growing salience of psychoanalysis in historical enquiry. John Tosh assesses the claims of gender not only to uncover new subject matter, but to provide a powerful explanatory tool. John Seed returns to consider some of the theoretical implications of narrative, through the work of Paul Ricoeur. In a concluding session we will discuss how these theoretical positions have influenced our own scholarly work.

The course is organised as a term of ten weekly sessions to be held in the IHR on Wednesday evenings (5.30 - 7.30). Sessions will be as follows:

  • 14 May: Explanation in history: an introduction (John Tosh)
  • 21 May: Discourse and power: Foucault (John Seed)
  • 28 May: Memory, narrative and history (John Seed)
  • 4 June: History from below, and other variants of Marxism (Sally Alexander)
  • 11 June: Psychoanalysis I (Sally Alexander)
  • 12 June: Psychoanalysis II (Sally Alexander)
  • 19 June: Gender I (John Tosh)
  • 26 June: Gender II (John Tosh)
  • 3 July: Postmodernism and history (John Seed)
  • 10 July: Theory meets practice (Students and the teaching team)

There is no formal assessment for this course, but students are recommended to keep a study journal from week to week, and to use it as the basis of their contribution to the discussion in the last two weeks. Students who would like written feedback from a tutor are invited to submit their reflections on how the theories covered in the course have affected their work (1000 words max.)

The course is open to postgraduates and all who are interested in exploring historical theory.