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Explanatory Paradigms: An introduction to historical theory


Course Information

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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 Code


Course Dates

26th April 2017 – 28th June 2017

Course Leader

Prof John Tosh

Course Fee

Course Description

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 are likely to include the following:
• Explanation in history: an introduction
• Discourse and power: Foucault
• Memory, narrative and history
• History from below, and other variants of Marxism
• Psychoanalysis I
• Psychoanalysis II
• Gender I
• Gender II
• Postmodernism and history
• Theory meets practice

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.