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Narrative History and Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Eileen H. Tamura*
University of Hawai'i


I am a narrative historian. By narrative, I mean the telling of a story to explain and analyze events and human agency in order to increase understanding. As a narrative historian, I have not made extensive use of theory in my analysis of past events. In fact, in the past I consistently rejected theory, considering it more of a hindrance than a help.

The historian Geoffrey Roberts stated, “History is frequently labelled an idiographical discipline as opposed to a nomothetic one, that is, a discipline whose knowledge objects are particular, individual, and specific rather than classes of phenomena which are abstracted and subsumed in generalisations about trends, patterns and causal determinations.” In this vein, it was my view—as Peter Burke noted—that history examines particulars and “attend to concrete detail,” while theory attends to “general rules and screen[s] out the exceptions.”

Copyright © 2011 by the History of Education Society 

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1 Roberts, Geoffrey, “History, Theory, and the Narrative Turn in IR,” Review of International Studies 32 “2006“: 703–14; Burke, Peter, History and Social Theory, 2nd ed. “Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005”, 3.Google Scholar

2 Burke, History and Social Theory, 16–19, ix–x; Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession “New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988“, 620–21. See, for example, Geertz, Clifford, The Social History of an Indonesian Town “Cambridge, MA: M I T Press, 1965”; Kirch, Patrick V. and Sahlins, Marshall, Anahulu: The Anthropology of History in the Kingdom of Hawaii “Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992”; Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans, from the French by A. M. Sheridan Smith “London: Tavistock Publications, 1972”; Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Holquist, Michael, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist “Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981”; and Pierre Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson “Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990”.Google Scholar

3 Tamura, Eileen H., ed., The History of Discrimination in U.S. Education: Marginality, Agency, and Power “New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008“.Google Scholar

4 White, Hayden, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory 23 “August 1984“: 1–33. In my literature search, I found that most of the articles discussing the value of narrative in history were published in the 1980s.Google Scholar

5 Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., trans. Si&ân Reynolds “New York: Harper & Row, 1972; French edition 1949”; Appleby, Joyce, Hunt, Lynn, and Jacob, Margaret, Telling the Truth about History “New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994”, 83.Google Scholar

6 Braudel, Fernand, Ecrits sur l'histoire “Paris: Flammarion, 1969“, 11f, 21, quoted in Carr, David, “Narrative Explanation and Its Malcontents,” History and Theory 47 “February 2008”: 25–26; Appleby, Jacob, and Hunt, Telling the Truth about History, 82–84; White, “The Question of Narrative,” 8–10.Google Scholar

7 Carr, “Narrative Explanation and Its Malcontents,” 23.Google Scholar

8 Carr, “Narrative Explanation and Its Malcontents,” 26; Appleby, Jacob, and Hunt, Telling the Truth about History, 83; Lawrence Stone, “Reflections on a New and Old History,” in The Narrative and History Reader, ed. Geoffrey Roberts “London: Routledge, 2001”, 283.Google Scholar

9 Mink, Louis O., “Everyman His Own Annalist,” in On Narrative, ed. Mitchell, W.J. Thomas “Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981“, 238–39; Carr, David, “Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity,” History and Theory 25 “May 1986”: 119–20.Google Scholar

10 Norman, Andrew P., “Telling It Like It Was: Historical Narratives on Their Own Terms,” History and Theory 30 “May 1991“: 119–35, uses the word “impositionalists” as a contrast to the narrativists; White, Hayden, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism “Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978”, 81–100, quote from p. 95; White, Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe “Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973”, 1–42, explains his ideas of three levels of historical explanation: emplotment, argument, and ideological implication; his notion of historiographical styles, which combines modes within these three levels; and his theory of tropes.Google Scholar

11 Roth, Paul A., “Narrative Explanations: The Case of History,” History and Theory 27 “February 1988“: 1–13; White, Hayden, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in On Narrative, ed. W. J. Thomas Mitchell “Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981”, 23, emphasis mine.Google Scholar

12 Norman, “Telling It Like It Was,” 119.Google Scholar

13 Carr, “Narrative and the Real World,” 121–22, 126, 131, emphasis mine.Google Scholar

14 Lorenz, Chris, “Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, and the ‘Metaphorical Turn,’” History and Theory 37 “August 1998“: 326–27, italics in original.Google Scholar

15 Carr, “Narrative Explanation and Its Malcontents,” 21–22, 25.Google Scholar

16 Mazlish, Bruce, “The Question of The Question of Hu,” History and Theory 31 “May 1992“: 143–52. Mazlish uses “analysis” instead of “theory.”Google Scholar

17 Roberts, “History, Theory, and the Narrative Turn,” 703.Google Scholar

18 Rury, John L., “The Curious Status of the History of Education: A Parallel Perspective,” History of Education Quarterly 46 “Winter 2006“: 592.Google Scholar

19 Burke, History and Social Theory, 1; Burke, History and Social Theory, 26, defines “model” as “an intellectual construct which simplifies reality in order to emphasize the recurrent, the general and the typical, which it presents in the form of clusters of traits or attributes.”Google Scholar