Understanding the past appears to be a universal human need, and the "telling of history" has emerged independently in civilizations around the world. What constitutes history is a philosophical question (see philosophy of history).

Michelet was one of the first historians to shift the emphasis of history to the common people, rather than the leaders and institutions of the country. He had a decisive impact on scholars. Gayana Jurkevich argues that led by Michelet:

I shall relate how the new settlement was ... successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how ... the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; ... how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance ... the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.

An eminent member of this school, Georges Duby, described his approach to history as one that

relegated the sensational to the sidelines and was reluctant to give a simple accounting of events, but strived on the contrary to pose and solve problems and, neglecting surface disturbances, to observe the long and medium-term evolution of economy, society and civilisation.

In covering the Civil War, Charles and Mary Beard did not find it useful to examine nationalism, unionism, states' rights, slavery, abolition or the motivations of soldiers in battle. Instead, they proclaimed it was a:

Diplomatic historian Melvyn P. Leffler finds that the problem with the "cultural turn" is that the culture concept is imprecise, and may produce excessively broad interpretations, because it: