The term historiography, as defined in the MSN Encarta Dictionary, has four meanings. First, it is defined as being the principles, theories, or methods of historical research or writing. It is next defined as being the writing of history based on scholarly disciplines such as the analysis and evaluation of source materials. The third definition states that historiography is the existing findings and interpretations relating to a particular historical topic. Finally, historiography is defined as being a body of historical literature.
To understand the role that historiography can play in the study and understanding of culture, the term culture must also be defined. The third reading makes the point that defining culture is one of the most difficult things to do in the field of social sciences. However, there are several ways to define the term. Traditional definitions of culture say that it is the embodiment of the best that has been thought and said in a society, that it is the sum of the most great ideas as represented in the classic works of literature, art, music, and philosophy. This is what is known as high culture.
The modern definition of culture is slightly different from the traditional one. It states that culture is the widely distributed forms of popular music, publishing, art, design and literature, or the activities of leisure-time and entertainment, which makes up the lives of the majority of ordinary people. This is what is known as popular culture. The last definition provided for culture presents it in the context of social science, stating that culture refers to whatever is distinctive about the way of life of a people, community, nation, or social group. This would be known as an anthropological definition of the term.
Culture can also refer to the shared values of a group or society. This definition has a more sociological basis to it, though it is similar to the anthropological definition. The last reading also provides three meanings for culture. First, culture is a process of cultivation and growth. Second, it is a pattern of living and a way of understanding. Finally, culture is a thing, a product, an artwork. With definitions of both culture and historiography presented, it is more evident that historiography can play a significant role in understanding popular culture.
The goal of historiography is understand and interpret trends within culture, which provides ample opportunity to do so because of its ever-changing nature. Not only are current aspects of culture used by historiography to understand it, but the past is also used to understand current culture. Several examples of this aspect are found within the various readings. In the very beginning of the first reading by Susan Sontag, she uses past theories of how art is viewed to make the point that less time should be spent on interpreting that art.
Rather than interpreting it, the artwork should be accepted as it is. In fact, her entire article is and example of historiography, as it uses references from art, literature, music, and film to prove her point. The next examples all come from the third reading, written by Stuart Hall. When Hall makes the point that people give meaning to objects, he is using an aspect of historiography, which often attaches meaning to various aspects of culture. Later in the reading, when descriptions are given of the various chapters that make up Hall’s book, two chapters stand out as examples of historiography.
The description of the third chapter focuses on using art exhibitions to demonstrate the role that objects play in conveying representation and language. The description of the fourth chapter continues the theme found in the previous chapter, but uses more contemporary popular cultural forms by examining how racial, ethnic, and sexual differences have been represented through the use of historical archives. Another example of historiography being used to study culture can be found in Raymond Williams’ article about the root of the word culture.
Within the article, he traces the history of the word culture, including how its meaning has evolved over the centuries. He also takes the time to point out the various words that can be used in place of or in tandem with the word culture. In the end, historiography is tied to culture in the sense that, without culture there would be no history to speak of. Without history, there would be no need for historiography as it was defined previously. It is culture that provides the foundation for history, and therefore, provides the foundation for historiography.