Mapping twentieth-century history: PhD theses defended between 2010 and 2018 in Portugal1

Maria Inácia2


In Portugal, twentieth-century history has benefited from greater public visibility and recognition, boosting the publishing industry and enjoying a regular presence in the media. Despite this popularity, little attention has been paid to the dynamics of history teaching and research at higher education institutions, especially at the PhD level. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of the PhD dissertations defended at Portuguese universities between 2010 and 2018. Presented under the scope of the considerable number of PhD programs offered by different universities, these theses are characterized by the diversity of the methods applied, the different areas of expertise and the range of topics covered. Despite the limitations of our inquiry, we hope to present some clues for a broader and deeper understanding of recent trends in Portuguese historiography.


Twentieth-century history; Portugal-PhD theses; Portuguese historiography; PhD programs; Portuguese universities


Em Portugal, a história do século XX tem beneficiado de grande visibilidade e reconhecimento público, impulsionando a indústria editorial e desfrutando de uma presença regular nos meios de comunicação social. Apesar desta popularidade, tem-se dado pouca atenção à dinâmica da investigação e do ensino da História nas instituições de ensino superior, especialmente no nível do 3.º ciclo. Este artigo procura fornecer uma visão de conjunto das dissertações de doutoramento defendidas nas universidades portuguesas entre 2010 e 2018. Apresentadas no âmbito do considerável número de programas de doutoramento oferecidos por diferentes universidades, essas teses caracterizam-se pela diversidade dos métodos adoptados, das áreas de especialização em que se desenvolvem e pela variedade de temas abordados. Apesar das limitações da nossa análise, esperamos lançar pistas para uma compreensão mais ampla e profunda das tendências recentes da historiografia portuguesa.


História do século XX; Portugal-teses de doutoramento; Historiografia portuguesa; Programas doutorais; Universidades portuguesas

The emergence of Twentieth-Century History as a distinct academic discipline in Portugal is a recent phenomenon. Before the overthrow of the longstanding Portuguese dictatorship (1926-1974), the number of studies devoted to it was scarce, and we had to wait until the beginning of the 1980s to witness a decisive methodological and conceptual renewal. The new political environment of that decade (which marked the end of the period of democratic transition and consolidation) provides a good explanation for this turning point, to which we can also add the urgent need to explain, interpret, and understand a recent past.

It would be unfair to ignore the previous attempts that were made to break away from the dictatorship’s predominantly historiographical framework through the publication of such books as Joel Serrão’s Dicionário de História de Portugal (1963-1971) or Oliveira Marques’s História de Portugal (1972). Together with the thematic and conceptual innovativeness of these works, it should be emphasized that it was due to Marques’s research that Contemporary History first began to gain visibility. Nevertheless, it may be said that, before the 1980s, the history of the twentieth century remained a great unknown in Portugal, especially the history of the period between May 28, 1926 and April 25, 1974.

Bearing in mind this urgent desire to open new frontiers, it should not be forgotten that the study of the recent past, which was, in many ways, a contentious period, encountered several obstacles and met with great resistance. One of the most important battles was to overcome the prejudice which considered that recent history was not an academic discipline, but instead a form of journalism, as its concerns were so closely rooted in the present and historians were too close to (and perhaps themselves too deeply involved in) events to be able to make suitable historical judgements. It should be noted that, although we may consider this debate to be somewhat outdated, it is not yet fully closed, as has been shown by the recent controversy over the proposed Salazar museum.

There is much evidence illustrating the progressive recognition of Contemporary History in Portugal. It can be seen not only in the dynamism of the publishing market and the regular presence of historians in the media, but also in the burgeoning number of research centers (which played a leading role in the process) and in the many Master’s and PhD degree programs in Modern and Contemporary History.

First of all, however, we should bear in mind that, unlike some countries where Contemporary History is taken to mean the period following the end of the World War II, in Portugal this concept encompasses not only the early twentieth century, but also the nineteenth century. We will focus our attention here only on the former.

With this article, we intend to present a broad overview of the PhD dissertations defended at Portuguese universities from 2010 to 2018, considering those whose central scope was the history of the twentieth century. Involving a corpus of 185 PhD theses, the analysis proved to be quite problematic given the diversity of methods used, the different areas of expertise, and the wide range of topics covered, which made systematizing the information a rather difficult task. Furthermore, we had to deal with the absence of certain information (relating to abstracts and keywords) and the impossibility of accessing the full text of some of the theses. Despite these limitations, we hope to provide a sufficiently clear overview to be able to identify certain trends in recent Portuguese historiography.

We must also make one final caveat: even taking into account the limits and specificities of the question that we intend to analyze, this study would clearly benefit from the inclusion of other data which we were not able to obtain and evaluate. Firstly, the number of PhD students who have benefited from a scholarship or an FCT research contract; next, the number of theses that have been published by either academic or commercial publishers; and, finally, the total number of PhD students who, after completing their theses, went on to pursue an academic careers, both as teachers and/or as researchers. These data could help us to paint a more accurate picture of the role played by the different universities and their doctoral programs in both the establishment and the renewal of this field of study.

Doctoral Programs

When studying the evolution of any discipline, it is useful to monitor the progress of the institutions that support and promote it, considering the strategies that they have adopted and assessing their ability to attract and train students. The number of programs that they offer, as well as the number of PhDs awarded, are somewhat superficial, but nonetheless useful indicators in this domain.

As far as the first aspect is concerned, it should be noted that the 185 theses under analysis were presented under the scope of forty PhD programs offered by twenty-two faculties, departments or institutes of twelve universities.

In regard to these figures, we must bear in mind that one of the programs-the Inter-University PhD Program in History: Change and Continuity in a Global World (PIUDHist)-is based on an inter-university consortium.3 Launched in the academic year of 2008-2009, this program is a good example of a recent trend in Portuguese PhD programs; the assumption of an evident interdisciplinarity.

It is obvious that History is inherently interdisciplinary. Nevertheless, even though most of the PhD programs clearly present themselves as being in the field of History (56%), those that openly adopt an interdisciplinary profile are beginning to gain important ground (24%). Yet, in other ways, this tendency is also evident in the fact that some of the theses originated in programs whose core is not History, not only displaying the importance of History in the study of subjects such as Communication, Economics, Education, Law, Theology, and Medicine, but also showing that the teaching of History and historical research are not limited to the faculties of arts and Humanities.

Interdisciplinarity is to be found in the topics that were covered, the methodologies that were adopted, and the perspectives of analysis, and it is also to be noted in the structure and objectives of doctoral programs. Although we have no actual statistical data to support this statement, our analysis enables us to conclude that interdisciplinarity is increasingly common and that History is no longer viewed as a unitary discipline. Of the disciplines that most often intersect with History, we draw attention to the close dialogue that this subject now enjoys with Sociology, Literature, Political Science and International Relations, Anthropology, Law, Journalism, and Economics, among others.

A glance at the overall data could lead to the conclusion that an average of twenty to twenty-one PhD theses were defended each year. Nevertheless, this calculation can be misleading, given that in the period under review, certain programs were ended while other new ones were created.

Notwithstanding, this general assessment allows us to conclude that there was an almost steady growth in the number of theses until 2015, and that this figure began to fall and stagnate immediately thereafter. The negative legacy of the 2010-2014 financial crisis is obvious-uncertainty about the future and the difficulty in obtaining funding are two aspects that may have dictated the decrease in the number of theses that were defended in the aftermath of the crisis.

Furthermore, the available data also allows us to draw some conclusions regarding the success and vitality of the different doctoral programs. In fact, considering the overall figures for the period under analysis (and not taking annual fluctuations into account), it can be seen that only 33% (four out of twelve) of the universities involved were able to secure at least one thesis per year during the period considered (eight out of forty, if we consider PIUDHist to be just one single program). This number falls sharply to 5% if we consider the data regarding each and every program-meaning that only two programs were able to present results in each of the years covered.

In relation to the eight programs that managed to present at least nine theses during the period under review (2010-2018), we should highlight the good results obtained by the History program offered by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto (U. Porto)-an average of three theses per year, although these were produced without any great regularity; Contemporary History, as well as History, offered by the School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (UNL); Modern and Contemporary History and History, Defense and International Relations, offered by the School of Sociology and Public Policy of ISCTE-IUL (ISCTE); Education: History of Education and Modern and Contemporary History, offered by Universidade de Lisboa; and, finally, the above-mentioned History: Change and Continuity in a Global World (PIUDHist).

Taking the first program mentioned (History at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto) as an example, we can see that this program has a generalist syllabus, focusing on methodological and research/procedural issues.4 The structure of the program -offering seminars on subjects such as “Historical Questions,” “Thesis Design,” or “Theoretical and Methodological Questions”-is not very different from the one offered by other institutions and programs, notably those adopting the general title of “History.” Although this has been a long-term trend in Portuguese universities, it is possible to detect an increasing shift towards diversification and specialization.

In fact, over the period of 2010-2018, some programs can be identified that present a curricular structure offering specialized thematic seminars and which clearly demand areas of expertise in displaying their goals: societies and cultures; science, health and society; social dynamics and political structures; intellectual and socio-cultural movements; etc. Given the tendency for curricula and programs to be redesigned with a view to their modernization, this trend will be reflected in the increasingly inter-thematic scope of doctoral programs and in the wide range of subjects studied, as we shall see later on.

Time and Space

Scholars tend to argue that longer-term analyses provide better accounts for most studies of the recent past. However, it is not easy to determine the ideal time lapse for conducting such analyses, particularly if we take into consideration the specificities of some research objects, problems, or perspectives of analysis.

Although we are pursuing a very debatable criterion-the concepts of time are far from being consensual-we considered five groups in this area.

It is possible to detect a certain balance in the choices that were made, since the percentages of theses focusing on cycles of ten, twenty-five and fifty years were very similar, and, taken together, these represented 68.4% of the total. On the contrary, a smaller number of theses revealed a preference for longer periods (long-term history, longue durée), dealing with long-term patterns and trends: the theses covering periods of fifty to one hundred years represented 22%, while those covering periods of more than one hundred years amounted to only 9%. However, given that we have an interesting set of theses covering periods of more than fifty years (31.4%), it should be concluded that the “short” twentieth century is becoming much longer.

It should, however, be noted that it is difficult to draw further conclusions in this area, especially if we consider the widespread differences between the initial and the final chronological milestones adopted for the various theses.

Taking into consideration only the first aspect, our immediate conclusion is that present-day history has only a minimal expression in the general scheme of things, as the percentage of theses focusing on the post 1989/1991 period is scarce (2.7%). The distribution of theses among the other categories considered is relatively regular: 39.5% of theses present as their initial milestone the pre-World War I period; 24.9% deal with the interwar period; and, finally, the rest (33%) deal with the Cold War years.

Finally, we present some data relating to the geographical scope covered. Europe is the predominant continent, as 88% of the theses focus on mostly European realities and only 11% are concerned with other geographical areas (Latin America, Middle East, South Atlantic, Africa, Asia). Most surprising (or perhaps not) is the enormous share of theses dealing with strictly national history (nation-state-based history that has Portugal as its central core), since about 74% of the theses deal exclusively with Portuguese history.

From National to Global History? How to Categorize such Theses?

The economic historian Pedro Lains explains the previously noted tendency in these terms: “If it is written within national borders, it is because the sources are mostly of a national kind or because of language barriers and political interests.” Bearing in mind that “History is by nature an international topic,” Lains points to the internationalization of historical research as a way forward, or as “a natural movement” to “overcome the constraints imposed by sources, language and politics” (Lains, 2003: 1).

While recognizing the validity of the arguments proposed, there are other explanations for the predominance of a nationally centered history. These include the progressive opening up of important public and private archives from the 1980s onwards, which provided historians with a wealth of new sources that could not be ignored. Two of the most striking examples have been the gradual access to the documents of the dictatorship’s political police (Police for the Defense of the State-PIDE) and the opening up of the Salazar Archive, both of which are now available at Torre do Tombo (the Portuguese National Archives).

We therefore accepted the challenge of organizing our corpus into three main methodological categories: nation-state history; regional and local history; other (including comparative, transnational and global history, or even connected history/histoire croisée) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of theses defended per year by university

Figure 2: Temporal scope covered

Figure 3: Theses by method/scale

Figure 4: Theses by area/field

The conclusion could not have been more obvious and was exactly as we expected: nation-state research is the most prevalent form of historical study.

As far as regional and local Portuguese history is concerned, the theses produced in this area were mainly studies whose chronologies resulted in broad time periods spanning the history of the Constitutional Monarchy, the First Republic (1910-1926), the Military Dictatorship (1926-1933), the Estado Novo (New State) (1933-1974) and even the period of democratization. Those focusing on the context of a specific regime were scarce, tending to favor the period of the First Republic and the Estado Novo.

The categorization of theses by field of study is probably one of the most challenging tasks. Firstly, because there is no agreed definition in this area and some categories often seem to refer to a method rather than to a field of study. Other categories seem to overlap with the categorization of theses by topic. The keywords provided do little to solve this problem, denoting the complete absence of any kind of “thesaurus” or criterion. Without limiting the specificity of each work, greater uniformity in the use of keywords would be of tremendous benefit, enabling us to group these theses together by themes, areas of interest, and/or expertise.

Running the risk of oversimplifying matters, we could start by considering the “classical” typology, inherited from the tradition of the Annales school, which considers the following categories: political history; social history; economic history; cultural and mentality history. It was indeed this typology that was found to underlie the curriculum of the History courses that were introduced in 1978 and prevailed for decades. Conceived by a team of notable historians, such as Oliveira Marques, Magalhães Godinho, and José-Augusto França, this reform established a curriculum in which three major areas/fields/approaches (it is difficult to say which description is most accurate) were considered: Institutional and Political History; Economic and Social History; Cultural History and Mentalities.

Trying not to misrepresent the principles that governed this typology, we dared to introduce new categories, such as Science History, given the actual content of the studies under review. Others, such as Diplomacy/History of International Relations or Media History/Communication History, were also considered, due to their specificities and their normally interdisciplinary character. The large proportion of the first (diplomacy/history of international relations) should also be emphasized.

The main conclusion is that the “cultural turn” led, in particular, by American, French, and British scholars in the 80s and 90s also affected the Portuguese academic world. Although it is significant and evident, the representativeness of cultural history (in which we have also included the cultural history of intellectual practices) may arouse some controversy, given the somewhat blurred nature of its boundaries. Peter Burke’s synthesis in this regard is quite enlightening:

[P]olitical historians, (…) were once the most traditional members of the profession, concerned with events, “great men” and the government’s point of view (Freeman, 2008). In the wake of scholars in departments of politics, political historians discovered “political culture” in the sense of the attitudes and values that underlie political action (Chicangana-Bayona and Ortega Martínez, 2011). They now study “parliamentary culture”, for example (Mergel, 2002). On the other side, cultural historians have become increasingly interested in the politics of culture, including public patronage of the arts (Poirrier, 2000; Hoock, 2003). Law (Wormald, 1999) and diplomacy (Rosen, 1980; Mösslang and Riotte, 2008) are also discussed by some scholars from a cultural point of view, while a number of military historians have made their cultural turn and study topics such as “the Great War in European cultural history” (Winter, 1995). (Burke, 2012)

It is obvious that political history remains a popular field of study, especially if we take into account the fact that some of the categories we chose to segregate (such as diplomatic or military history) were traditionally included under the umbrella of political history.

On the other hand, it must be stated that political history is no longer a narrative and/or survey of political events, leaders, ideas, movements, organs of government or political institutions and organizations. Indeed, it has undergone a profound renewal in terms of methods, scope, and thematic options. The trend detected by Baiôa, Fernandes, and Ribeiro (2003: 10) in this same journal almost two decades ago has come to be confirmed: “Some experienced researchers and a new generation of historians, trained in the 1990s, have been able to restore the discipline of political history to its rightful place in academic life, thus providing a new boost - in terms of quality and quantity - to Portugal’s historiographical output.”

Preferred Topics in the Study of Twentieth-Century History

Finally, we attempt to provide an overview of the topics most frequently covered by PhD theses, as well as the new trends detected in this area. Once more, as previously noted in relation to other aspects, the main trend detected was the greater divergence in the themes studied.

We hoped to obtain some help in our quest from the thematic criteria proposed by the recently restructured PhD courses or by those who present themselves as the pioneers of a renewal in the historiographic field. This proved to be a somewhat misleading idea. We therefore chose to build our own thematic grid, taking into account the specificity of the studies in question.

By grouping together those categories that produced only a few completed theses (i.e. three or less), we reached a total of twenty possible topics. Among these, four themes stood out as being the most popular.

In first place was “empires, colonialism and postcolonialism” (15.1%), a subject that has also attracted great attention outside national borders in recent decades. Covering a broad time span (from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the 1970s-1980s), this topic includes studies on Portuguese colonialism under different regimes (such as the First Republic, and, mostly, the Estado Novo dictatorship) and on a variety of aspects (political, economic, social and cultural points of view), as well as on the decolonization process set in motion by the revolution of April 25, 1974, its impacts, and its consequences. While sharing this same thematic area, the studies considered under this category are also characterized by their diversity and their crossovers with other themes, encompassing, for example, the social history of decolonization, the diplomatic and political history of the Estado Novo’s overseas policy, politics and ideology viewed from both a cultural and political perspective, public policies, nationalism and political identities, etc. The emergence of studies focusing on the perspectives of the former colonial dominions should also be noted, even though this phenomenon is still at a relatively incipient stage.

As far as education is concerned (representing 12.4 % of completed theses), above all the studies in this area adopted a perspective of cultural and intellectual history without excluding, albeit on a smaller scale, social history and the history of science. These were mainly studies produced at the Institute of Education of the Universidade de Lisboa (program: Education: History of Education) and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto (program: History), and, to a lesser extent, at institutions such as the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of the Universidade de Coimbra, among others. Teacher training, pedagogies, curricula and programs, education under Salazarism, history teaching, and scientific outreach magazines and publications were among the most popular topics.

Politics and ideologies was also an appealing topic (12.4%). It is understandable that, after several decades of great visibility and of playing a leading role in twentieth-century Portuguese History, this topic has lost some of its attractiveness. Nevertheless, Salazar’s Estado Novo (its origins, its nature, its institutions, and its durability despite the increasing internal and external opposition with which it was faced) continues to feed studies, increasingly taking on fresh perspectives, such as the comparative study of authoritarianism/fascist regimes and transitions to democracy.

A reference should also be made to studies on “Science, Technology and Health.” Programs such as the History and Philosophy of Science (Institute for Advanced Studies and Research of the Universidade de Évora), History, Philosophy and Heritage of Science and Technology (Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa), History: Contemporary History (School of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and History (Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the Universidade do Porto) have played a leading role in the promotion of these research fields. Despite its youth, this field has proved to be a topic with increasing attractiveness and an ever-greater capacity for mobilization, allowing for the adoption of an innovative analytical approach to the study of historical phenomena. While, for decades, the History of Science was considered to be a form of intellectual history, even though it was usually studied in autonomous departments, our analysis reveals that there has been a tendency to take it beyond this reality.

Among the most studied aspects, we find the history of science, scientific management and policies, scientific education, scientific practices and networks, science and technology, communication of science, philosophy and sociology of science, and health policies. This is an increasingly dynamic field of study with an ever-greater capacity for internationalization, which promises to fill an important gap in Portuguese historiography in the near future.

In order to illustrate the range of themes covered, we should also consider topics such as the following: bilateral and multilateral relations and diplomacy; social and labor movements; modernity and innovation; history of historiography; Church-State relations; memory policies; culture, arts and literature; security and defense; migrations and trade; public policies; religion and society; strategy and war; and tourism.

Finally, it is interesting to note that themes which, at the outset, might seem very appealing, did not arouse great enthusiasm. The 2010 commemorations of the centenary of the Portuguese First Republic (1910-1926) gave rise to a multitude of initiatives and greatly mobilized the academic world. This should have meant that the number of theses on the republic and republicanism, or on other topics specifically relating to the First Republic, would grow exponentially. However, this was not the case.

A similar situation was to be noted in relation to the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the revolution of April 25, in 2014. Once again, it is clear that the celebrations of historical events are not very successful in Portugal.

A Bird’s Eye View

PhD theses can be considered to be important expressions of research findings, providing a virtuous picture of scientific and methodological trends as well as of the scientific agenda of a specific field of study. As far as twentieth-century history studies are concerned, the survey that was carried out shed some light on the research interests and dynamics of Portuguese universities.

Involving a large number of universities and an even wider range of PhD courses, twentieth-century history is currently in a healthy state and attracts a considerable number of candidates.

Of course, historiography is closely linked to the historical conditions of the time and space in which it is produced, and is thus in tune with each country’s specific political moment. The serious economic crisis of 2010-2014 had an unavoidable impact in this area, just as it did on the humanities in a broader sense. Nevertheless, this does not seem to have affected the efforts made to ensure the renewal and internationalization of such studies, since it would appear that there is ever more research being undertaken in this field that is open to new perspectives and involves the study of themes from transnational and comparative history, which is less focused on strictly national cases.

It could be argued that one might expect more in terms of expanding the historical research agenda, that the “global turn” (meaning a growing trend towards writing global, transnational, and international “connective” histories) seems not to have particularly affected Portuguese academic study; or that other trends, such as the “material turn”-inspired by archaeologists, art historians, and anthropologists-are barely visible.

Nevertheless, the establishment of new fields of study (such as the History of Science) and new topics (such as Colonial and Imperial History) has opened a window of opportunity for comparative, transnational, and global history that cannot be ignored. Although many may regard this as a rather slow-moving trend, revealing that there are many important gaps that still remained to be filled, the prospects for the future are nonetheless encouraging.




Appendix 1: Chronological landmarks

Appendix 2: Keywords


Please see the (Accompanying Annex)




Baiôa, Manuel, Fernandes, P. Jorge, and Meneses, F. Ribeiro de (2003). “The Political History of Twentieth-Century Portugal.” e-Journal of Portuguese History, vol. 1, no. 2, Winter 2003: 1-18.

Burke, Peter (2012). “Cultural History and its Neighbours.” Culture & History Digital Journal 1(1): e006. Available at: http://cultureandhistory.revistas.csic.es/index.php/cultureandhistory/article/view/7/25#sec0005 [accessed August 20, 2019].

Lains, Pedro (2003). “The Internationalization of Portuguese Historiography: The View from Economic History.” e-JPH, vol. 1, no. 2, Winter 2003: 1-2.

Marques, A. H. de Oliveira (1972). History of Portugal, 2 vols. New York: Columbia UP.

Pinto, António Costa (2003). “The Internationalization of Portuguese Historiography.” e-JPH, vol. 1, no. 2, Winter 2003: 1-2.

Readman, Kristina Spohr (2011). “Contemporary History in Europe: From Mastering National Pasts to the Future of Writing the World.” Journal of Contemporary History 46 (3): 506-530.

Santos, Rui (2003). “The Internationalization of Portuguese Historiography: Basic Data and Educated Guesses.” e-JPH, vol. 1, no. 2, Winter 2003: 1-12.

Serrão, Joel (1963-1971). Dicionário de História de Portugal, 4 vols. Lisboa: Iniciativas Editoriais.

Torgal, Luís Reis, Mendes, José Maria Amado and Catroga, Fernando (1998). História da História em Portugal, Séculos XIX-XX, 2 vols. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores.




1 With an accompanying annex prepared by the editors of e-JPH with the assistance of Elsa Lorga Vila (Graduate of University of Evora; Master’s Degree in History-Nova University of Lisbon).
2 School of Communication and Media Studies (ESCS-IPL) & Institute of Contemporary History (IHC-UNL). E-Mail: [email protected].
3 For further information, see https://www.ics.ulisboa.pt/en/post-graduation/phd/history.
4 Please visit https://sigarra.up.pt/flup/en/CUR_GERAL.CUR_PLANOS_ESTUDOS_VIEW?pv_plano_id=2109&pv_ano_lectivo=2010&pv_tipo_cur_sigla=&pv_origem=CAND



Received for publication: 11 September 2019
Accepted in revised form: 20 October 2019
Recebido para publicação: 11 de Setembro de 2019
Aceite após revisão: 20 de Outubro de 2019

Copyright 2020, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol. 17, number 2, December 2019




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