History Thesis Must Avoid Ideological Landmines: Choose Wisely

A history thesis is rather intimidating to many students. Apart from capping off a degree program, history theses showcase everything you have learned in previous coursework. As an added complication, studying History in the 21st century is almost invariably an ideological exercise, and often painfully political, rather than being the serene retrieval and organization of facts about the past. Your choice of thesis will be shaped by past courses, but you still have flexibility to select an approach or a specific topic that compels your interest and also avoids conflict. This is less exhausting and stultifying.

How does your department study history?

In light of inevitable ideological landmines, it is crucial to identify and understand your department’s special emphasis. You want to either follow this same emphasis, or prepareto defend your alternate choice. Every department has one. If you are not sure, ask yourself, how do most of the professors, or the most powerful professors, in the department study history? They could, for example, be examining history at the level of, for example:

  • the individual,
  • the culture,
  • or the nation-state.


Know your professor’s or advisor’s perspective. Is he/she, for example:

  • a Marxist?
  • A feminist?
  • Post-modernist?

Research that perspective if you have not done so already. You should either

  • apply it,
  • Prepare very strong arguments to counter it – this is risky, however.

Alternatively, find a topic that avoids the professor’s pet projects and notions entirely.

Differing strategies for history theses:

  • Choose something so well researched that one search term yields a bibliography full of sources. Extending or tweaking a topic previously worked on by someone in your department ensures that sources:
    • Exist
    • Are available
    • Can be explained to you by someone close at hand
  • Choose something with primary sources so new or so difficult to access that they cannot be closely criticized by your thesis advisor or committee. Are there living people you could interview? Can you obtain hitherto unknown documents? Do your language skills open up documents unavailable to others? This does not mean faking anything – just avoiding triggering reflexive resistance from those grilling you or reviewing your paper (if that is your institution’s procedure).

Your thesis in history should shed light on something

  • Ask a question
    • What happened to individuals or groups overlooked by text books?
    • What happened between big conflicts?
  • Connect two events
  • Suggest a trend

Some guidance:

  • http://www.bowdoin.edu/writing-guides/thesis.htm
  • http://history.wisc.edu/undergraduate/researchinhistory.htm
  • http://staff.kings.edu/bapavlac/thesis.html
  • http://www.arts.cornell.edu/prh3/257/classmats/papertip.html
  • http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/soc_sciences/history.shtml

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