Explanatory paradigms: an introduction to historical theory

Course date(s): 
25 Apr 2018 to 27 Jun 2018
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 rationale for this course is to provide an outline of some of the main debates around historical usage of key concepts such as class, gender, race, power, space, memory, narrative and archive since the 1960s. It will, in other words, provide a kind of pre-history of our contemporary uses of such terms and enable students to see how they developed out of arguments and historical interpretation. At the same time, it will introduce students to a series of seminal texts. So this course will be a mapping of a conceptual terrain and an intellectual journey.

In Explanatory Paradigms 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), as follows (TO BE CONFIRMED):

April 25            Explanation in history: an introduction (JT)

May 2               Marxist historians and radical social history (SA)

May 9             Feminism and women’s history (SA)

May 16             Race and racialisation (JS)

May 23             Gender and masculinity (JT)

May 30             Freud (SA)

June 6               Space: Foucault and the city (JS)

June 13             Linguistic turns (JS)  

June 20             Interrogating the archive (JT)

June 27             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.