The Cambridge A-Level historiography exam is mind boggling. What on earth do they want you to write about? Are you supposed to make your own arguments? Do you have to criticise the arguments the historian makes? And how do you structure the whole thing?
There isn’t a lot of information on this, unfortunately, which makes it quite hellish for those taking the paper in June.
I’d like to make that situation slightly less hellish. In this article, I’ll discuss the angles I used to get an A* for CIE A2 History in 2016. My approach was built off comments in the CIE mark schemes. (Get past year papers here)
First, let’s go over some basics. Then we’ll discuss specifically how to structure your essay.
1. Demonstrate Understanding and Knowledge
CIE is looking for 2 distinct things from you: your ability to show you understand the passage, and your ability to flavour your essay with relevant historical facts/contexts. From CIE, this means:
- Analyse and evaluate, in relation to historical context, how aspects of the past have been interpreted and represented in different ways. (i.e. Understanding)
- Recall, select and use historical knowledge appropriately, and communicate knowledge and understanding of History in a clear and effective manner (i.e. Knowledge)
2. For Understanding: Focus on Interpretation and Approach
What does it mean to ‘Understand’ the passage? Again, CIE is looking for two specific things: whether you understand the Interpretation, and whether you understand the Approach. From CIE again:
The interpretation is taken to be what the historian says in the given extract, the nature of the claims made and the conclusions drawn.
The approach is seen as what the historian brings to their study of the topic, what they are interested in, the questions they ask, the methods they use.
In other words, Interpretation is what the historian is saying. What are they trying to say? Are they traditionalist/revisionist/etc.? Better yet, which specific strain of traditionalism/revisionism/etc. are they arguing? (Read more on interpretations and different strains here)
Approach is how they choose to say it.
Elements of Approach to Take Note of:
Time period the historian talks about (e.g. the historian focuses on the postwar period when making their argument)
Which nation they focus on (e.g. the historian mainly analyses history from the USSR’s perspective)
The tone used by the historian (e.g. the historian adopts a scathing tone towards the USA, signaling perhaps a slighty unbalanced approach)
Advanced – how the historian models each nation’s behaviour (e.g. the historian approaches history with a realpolitik model of both superpower’s behaviour, seeing them both as Traditional Great Powers)
Advanced – the structure of the historian’s argument (e.g. the historian first explains a post-revisionist viewpoint, then in a twist proceeds to refute the said viewpoint in order to establish a more nuanced revisionist argument *note, this is from an actual exam paper)
When making your argument, do use the words Interpretation and Approach in your writing to show clearly that you are paying attention to both components.
3. For Knowledge: Make it Natural
Most students are unsure as to how to insert subject knowledge into a historiography essay. At worst, this may lead to them randomly chucking in irrelevant facts that have little to do with passage — bad! At best, subject knowledge may come off as ‘forced’ and awkwardly inserted.
So, what can you do?
Firstly, insert subject knowledge by citing examples the historian may allude to. If the historian says something like “tensions were high in the late 1950s between the USA and USSR”, when writing you can slip in subject knowledge like this: “The historian notes that tensions were high in the late 1950s, a possible reference to the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962”. This is a meh example, but you get the idea.
Secondly, cite examples that may support the historian’s argument. If the historian says “Deep distrust between both powers were forged in WW2”, you can say “The historian argues that distrust stemmed from shoddy cooperation during WW2. There is some credence to this argument — the delay of opening a second front and the end of Lend-Lease Aid arguably strained US-USSR relations in that period”.
Thirdly, point out if the historian has neglected a historical context. If the historian says “The change of leadership from Roosevelt to Truman was the main reason for the dent in USA-USSR relations…”, you can point out “The historian argues that a change of American leadership dented relations. This may be true, but it must be noted that such a leadership change took place in April 1945, where the war was already drawing to a close, straining a relationship arguably only united by the war”
Note: Do not go into lengthy evaluations of the historian’s argument. All you’re doing is pointing out the historical context behind their argument.
Things You Shouldn’t Do
Don’t make your own arguments / bring your own interpretation. The purpose of this paper is to test your understanding of a historian’s interpretation, not your ability to create original arguments. (this was mentioned in an examiner’s report, I believe).
Don’t evaluate (ish). You’re not here to judge the historian, only show that you understand their interpretation and approach. Avoid saying things like ‘this is a weak argument from the historian because…’ or ‘the historian is mistaken…’.
However, you can use your own subject knowledge to give a deeper understanding to the historical context of the historian’s argument (as I said earlier, you can point out examples to support their argument, or to show they’ve neglected a part of the historical context). Here you aren’t really evaluating as much as you are providing a deeper context. This is different from outrightly evaluating the merits of the argument.
Don’t copy paste. Simply re-writing what the historian has said isn’t going to help you much. Your task is to highlight the Big Message from the historian, reorganise/repackage their ideas to show this Big Message, highlight their approach in delivering the Big Message, and add historical context with your subject knowledge.
Structuring Your Essay
Now that you know the building blocks of a historiography essay: interpretations, approaches and subject knowledge (historical context). How do you put it together?
A-Level History is fun because no one structure is ‘correct’. You have to find what works for you. However, I will share the particular structure I used. Bear in mind that you should innovate on this structure and modify it as you see fit — it is merely a starting point.
- Main Idea 1
- Main Idea 2
- Main Idea 3
Simple right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that
Here you want to do a few things. In the order I do them:
- Identify the broad interpretation (e.g. post-revisionist) (1 sentence)
- Explain briefly what this interpretation means (e.g. historian blames neither side OR maybe they blame both!) (1 or 2 sentences)
- Highlight key approaches (e.g. time-focus, nation-focus, tone, behaviour model, argument structure of historian) (2-3 sentences)
- Identify the nuanced interpretation i.e. the 3 main ideas of the historian (e.g. specifically, the historian argues X Y Z)
- Highlight the main conclusion of the passage i.e. the Big Message that arises from the 3 main ideas
It’s okay to have a long introduction if you’re packing it with valuable information. From the very start, we identify a ‘broad’ interpretation. This is basically labelling the historian into a specific school of thought.
The next step is to briefly explain what this interpretation means — bearing in mind that it should be in the context of this specific passage. So for example, some post-revisionist historians argue both are to blame. Some argue neither is. Make sure your explanation is specific to the passage.
The next step feels slightly out of place in the whole essay, but it’s necessary to fulfill CIE’s requirements: you must talk about the historian’s approach. You can do this throughout the essay (especially for finer, more specific points), but here you want to get the broad stuff out of the way.
Next, you start setting up the main chunk of what you will be discussing next: the 3 main ideas from the historian i.e. their nuanced interpretation. Say something like “The passage has 3 main ideas. Firstly, that X. Secondly, Y…..” Sometimes you won’t be able to package it into 3 ideas. 2 will do. Maybe 4.
Finally, to end your epic introduction, highlight the Big Message. This should flow naturally from the 3 main ideas.”Overall, these 3 ideas come together to prove an overarching message, that is….”
Here’s where the meat of your essay will be. So, what do you do here?
Basically, you should have grouped 3 takeaways from the passage. Each ‘takeaway’ is given its own distinct paragraph. When reading the passage, you’ll notice that the historian isn’t saying one thing — they’re usually saying 2-4 things that are used to say one super important main thing. Your job is to explain and group those 2-4 things into separate paragraphs.
Sometimes you’ll find your Main Ideas by simply following the chronology of the paragraph. Sometimes you need to skip around and package the mess together. It depends.
And now that you have identified the Main Ideas, how do you explain them?
Firstly, start each paragraph by immediately flagging the idea “the historian’s first main idea is that both sides simply mistook the other’s motives”.
Then explain what this means. “Basically, the historian argues that defensive actions were interpreted as aggressive motives ……” Paraphrase and summarise the historian’s logic behind this idea.
Next, you can perform a mix of: analysing examples the historian mentions, adding your own subject knowledge, ‘pushing’ the argument forward by explaining/analysing the steps historian takes to reach their conclusion. “To prove this, the historian cites the example of Marshall Aid, using it to show that a well-intentioned motive was misinterpreted…” “This may be true, but it is also important to note other US policies in that era with a more aggressive anti-communist bent, for example…” “Moving on, the historian then adds to this argument by mentioning…”
Finally, conclude the Main Idea. You can even try to link it to the next Main Idea. “Ultimately, the historian concludes that misperception was one key factor behind the escalation of the Cold War. Yet the author also notes that misperception itself could not escalate the Cold War, it was merely one ingredient…. ” Then move to Main Idea 2.
Ideally, your Main Ideas should build off each other, till you reach the final conclusion.
Here, you sum up your 3 Main Ideas and tie them together to show the Big Message that you mentioned in your Introduction. You can also mention approach here as well.
“In conclusion, the historian identifies 3 ingredients that sparked the Cold War: initial misperceptions, historical grievances that entrenched those misperceptions, and strong ideological believes that tainted all actions and mistakes by the opposing superpower as deliberate acts of malice”
Good essays tend to show how everything works together neatly.
And with that, you should be fully equipped to write a killer historiography essay for your Cambridge A-Level History exam!
Read more on the Historiography paper: