nl en

Historical Research Methods



HD:Methods, HI:Methods, WP:Methods

Admissions requirements

Birth of the Modern World or another history course.


This course introduces students to the theories and methods of history as a field of knowledge. It guides them through independent historical research projects on a selected topic within the broad theme of democratic pluralism.

At first sight, democracy and pluralism seem intrinsically related to each other. After all, democratic polities allow different groups of citizens to live together in harmony. However, a closer look will reveal relevant tensions between democracy and pluralism throughout history:

  • A democracy might not offer enough diversity, if the majority imposes its will upon the other ethnical, religious and cultural groups.

  • Conversely, too much diversity might endanger the democracy, if the fragmented groups don’t feel at home in the political bodies.

  • And even if we assume that a democracy offers diversity, this raises another dilemma: some groups claim the right to being heard in a pluralistic democracy, but deny others that same right. What to do with them? How much tolerance do the intolerant deserve?

In this course, you will tackle these issues from an historical perspective. In doing so, you will be invited to think as an historian. Short assignments and example essays will give you an idea of the questions historians ask, their narrative style, sources, methods, their assumptions about historical causation and their views on ethical dilemmas. You will see that historians reflect upon the past, instead of passing a verdict. We will discuss how the critical analysis of democracy and pluralism in the 19th and 20th century can prepare you for a normative debate on current challenges on democratic diversity.

Moreover, you will learn to conduct individual historical research. You will write a 3000 word final essay on a topic that is related to the general theme. These could range from the way democracies have reacted to their varied population (for example in Belgium or South Africa), to the problems of democratization in fragmented countries (like Eastern Europe), to the intolerant political movements (these include Islamic terror groups, but also populists) and to the way these movements have been treated by the authorities. You will apply historical methods and theories to your own research question. You will gain experience in narrowing down a topic, devising a research question, synthesizing historiographical literature, identifying and interpreting a body of sources, keeping track of and organizing data, and 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

After successful completion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify, explain, and employ the aims, philosophies, and methodologies of historians (with an awareness of how these overlap with and depart from other approaches in the humanities and social sciences).

  • Reflect on the use of historical insight as a starting point for current normative debates

  • Devise a substantial independent research project and see it through to completion

  • Skillfully analyze and synthesize both primary and secondary sources

  • Explain the tensions between democracy and diversity in the 19th and 20th century


Once available, timetables will be published here.

Mode of instruction

Research seminar, in which the students will be expected to participate actively.

  • At home, you will read example essays and you will do short assignments to familiarize yourself with the historical craft.

  • In class, we will discuss these texts and assignments.

  • At home, you will write different stages of your paper, culminating in the final version.

  • In class, you will present your research. You will gain feedback by your fellow students and the teacher.

  • We will also be taking several field trips to historical archives.


Class participation (10%)
Historiographical review (1000 words) (10%)
Research proposal (10%)
Individual presentation (20%)
Outline and initial draft (1000 words) (10%)
Research paper (3000 words) (40%)


There will be a Blackboard site available for this course. Students will be enrolled at least one week before the start of classes.

Reading list

Gerrits, A.W. M. (eds.), Political democracy and ethnic diversity in modern European history (Stanford 2005).

Other literature will be mentioned on blackboard.

Students will be required to do substantial reading on their own research topic.


This course is open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Registration is coordinated by the Curriculum Coordinator. Interested non-LUC students should contact


Joris Gijsenbergh