The first “scientific” political history was written by Leopold von Ranke in Germany in the 19th century. His methodologies profoundly affected the way historians critically examine sources.
An important aspect of political history is the study of ideology as a force for historical change. One author asserts that “political history as a whole cannot exist without the study of ideological differences and their implications.”
Studies of political history typically centre on a single nation and its political change and development. Some historians identify the growing trend towards narrow specialization in political history during recent decades: “while a college professor in the 1940s sought to identify himself as a “historian”, by the 1950s “American historian” was the designation.”
From the 1970s onwards, new movements sought to challenge traditional approaches to political history. The development of social history and women’s history shifted the emphasis away from the study of leaders and national decisions, and towards the role of ordinary citizens; “…by the 1970s “the new social history” began replacing the older style.
Emphasis shifted to a broader spectrum of American life, including such topics as the history of urban life, public health, ethnicity, the media, and poverty.” As such, political history is sometimes seen as the more ‘traditional’ kind of history, in contrast with the more ‘modern’ approaches of other fields of history.
Ranke conceptualized history as a rigorous science which should abstain from metaphysical speculations and value judgments. He further emphasized that the historians must put the sources to philological criticism in order to determine their veracity. In contrast to the Contain positivism, Ranke stressed the uniqueness of the events and not their universality.
For him, it was important to look for the exact details and not for the general laws. By 1848, all German-speaking universities had adopted the Rankean method for writing history. And after 1870, in most European countries, the United States and Japan, the Rankean model was adopted for historical studies.
Journals began to be published in several languages to promote scientific history. Thus, the journal Historische Festschrift began publication in German in 1859. It was a trend-setter. It was followed by Revue Historical Review in 1886, the American Historical Review in 1895 and several similar journals in many languages and countries.
The Rankean approach to history writing can be summarized as follows:
(i) Ranke believed that the past should be understood in its own terms and not those of the present. In his opinion, the historian should avoid the present-centric concerns while studying the past and should try to understand what issues were important to the people of the age he/she was studying.
(ii) Ranke also believed that the knowledge is derived only through the sense experience. Thus, the historian should rely only on the material available in the sources instead of taking resources to imagination or intuition.
(iii) Ranke advocated the hierarchy of the sources. Thus, the precise dating of all sources became a matter of prime concern.
(iv) Ranke also emphasized the importance of providing references. That way, all the assertions and statements could be supported by giving full details of sources from which they were derived.
(v) Ranke differentiated between facts and interpretations. He emphasized on the primary of facts which were supported by the evidences based on the sources the historians’ job is to first establish facts and then interpret them.
Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the nineteenth century German historian, is generally considered as the founding father of the empirical historiography. A completely new tradition of history writing started with him. It is still the predominant mode of historiography today. He wrote several multi-volume books, the best known of which include: The Ottoman and the Spanish Empires in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, The Popes of Rome, their Church and State, in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and History of Reformation in Germany.