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Historical Research Methods: The Environment


Admission requirements

Required course(s):


Recommended course(s):

  • Birth of the Modern World

  • Historical Approaches: Environmentalisms Rich and Poor


This course offers an introduction to the theories and methods of history as a form of knowledge, with a thematic focus on human-nature relations. Students will receive an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of environmental history and will have an opportunity to design historical research projects that investigate the ways that humans have lived, worked, and thought in relation to the natural world through time.

We will begin with an exploration of what distinguishes history from other disciplinary ways of knowing. We will touch upon various historiographical traditions, with a particular focus on the unique contributions of environmental historians. From here, we will critically examine the ways historians have written about our chosen theme. Working with a handful of example essays, we will consider such questions as: the words historians use; their narrative style, sources, methods, organization, and framing; their assumptions about historical causation and human nature; and their application (or avoidance) of social-scientific theory.

We will also work with primary sources. First, we will get experience locating such sources, using online and traditional archival repositories. Then we will hone our skills of analysis. What methods should we use to interpret documentary, visual, or oral evidence? Why, where, when, and how were various sources created, circulated, and received—and why does it matter? How can we read for and interpret silences and omissions? Why are certain sources collected, while others evade preservation?

Along the way, students will pursue independent projects in which they will apply historical methods and theories to their own research questions. They will gain experience in narrowing down a topic, devising a research question, synthesizing historiographical literature, identifying and interpreting a body of sources, managing notes and data, and, finally, putting it all into writing. In this respect, our seminar will function as a workshop, where students will present on their progress and share ideas about the challenges, joys, and frustrations of historical research.

Course Objectives

This course will help students develop 1) general knowledge about the field environmental history; 2) detailed familiarity with the historiography of environmentalism; and 3) practical skills in historical research.

Successful completion of the course will enable students to:

  • Identify the various aims and methods of historical scholarship, with a particular eye toward environmental history

  • Effectively navigate online and archival repositories of primary sources

  • Skillfully analyze and synthesize both primary and secondary sources

  • Devise and justify the design of a substantial research project

  • Practice the skills required for writing a capstone proposal in history


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2022-2023 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

Methods courses have a reputation for being demanding because they require quite a lot of independent work beyond the shared readings of the syllabus. This course is no exception, but this should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a burden: you will have a chance to design a research project that is fully your own, and to develop skills that will serve you well in writing your capstone. Each week, we will strike a balance between shared readings and research skills development. We will also go on excursions to historical archives both in The Hague and in Amsterdam – using one Wednesday afternoon for that purpose. This is always one of the most fun and satisfying elements of the course: getting to rifle through old historical documents and to experience the thrill of discovery.

Assessment Method

  • Class participation (10%)

  • Preliminary proposal (20%)

  • Weekly research journal, submitted as a portfolio (30%)

  • Final project (40%)

Reading list

Readings will be made available digitally.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Ann Marie Wilson,