Decoding Historical Context for a Deeper Understanding of History

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Historical context is the political, social, cultural, and economic setting for a particular document, idea, or event. Context involves questions such as who, what, when, where, and why. History understanding involves stepping into the shoes of the people and times involved.  Context is basic to understanding the meaning of how things happened. 

Let’s Avoid Confusion!

Historical context is an important part of understanding history.  The study of history without understanding context is the road to confusion.  And, the world has enough of that already.  

Let’s Talk About Context 

A useful way to attack novel terminology is to break down the words or phrases into smaller parts.  History is the study of past events.  The history of Ancient Rome is the study of the many events that occurred during the Roman Empire.  There is a lot of history to learn.

Context is the specific setting of something.  It is the time, place, and other details that give special meaning to an event. The event would be quite different if these details change.  Context is fundamental to truly understanding things.  

Let’s say a teenager is outside on a farm during the day in the middle of April.  We need to know some more details to get a better sense of things.  Do teens at this time and place normally work on the farm instead of going to school?  Is it during slavery times?  Then, we would be quite interested in the teen’s race.  Or is it merely a field trip to a farm? Just a class trip?  

Historical Context 

Historical context is the political, social, cultural, and economic setting for a particular idea or event. It is basic to understanding the meaning of how things happened. 

Politics concern governmental matters.  Social issues involve community activities.  Culture is the basic way of life in a community.  Economics concern money and business.  

Context is useful in a range of areas.  For instance, when you study literature, teachers will explain how a story fits into a certain context.  Historical context involves historical matters.  

The Importance of Historical Context 

If you want to understand history, you need to understand the specific context of the time and place you are studying.  If you want to understand why American colonialists fought a war of independence, you need to know the time and place, the context, the setting, of the events.  

The study of history without understanding the context will lead you astray.  Many people have an artificial view of history, perhaps encouraged by watching movies.  Different time periods seem mostly the same, perhaps with somewhat different clothing and technology.  

Not true.  The same is true when you try to understand something a historical character has written.  A letter to someone’s spouse, a political essay debating a cause, or a system of laws.  We cannot truly understand such things without context.  

Historical context makes us aware that different people understand things differently.  It is a form of empathy, an ability to step in the shoes of others.  We need not agree with the attitudes of the past or the people we study.  We should, however, understand them.  

How Do You Determine Historical Context? 

The “5Ws” are helpful when determining context.  Who, what, when, where, and why. 

Let’s consider a letter.  Who wrote it?  Is it a man or a woman?  Is the person rich?  What religion or political views do they have?  What else do you know about the person’s life? 

The very fact the person is literate might be notable if being literate was a rare thing.  For instance, in the time of Jesus, maybe one in ten people could read or write.  This shows that knowing when something was written is important.  Also, people had different beliefs about let us issues such as the place of women and the acceptance of slavery.  Views change over time.  

The fact it is a letter (the “what”) is also important.  A letter has a specific purpose.  The nature of the document helps to clarify the context.  Is it a constitution? An opinion piece? 

The place (where) the letter was written also matters.  During colonial times, different regions had many differences.  If you read a letter from New England, it would sound different in various ways than if you read one from the South.  Context matters.

Why was the letter written?  Is it a personal letter?  Or, is it more of a formal letter to an important person?  For instance, in the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes “letters” that are both personal and have a teaching function.  A letter can have different purposes. Different “whys.” 

Some Examples 

We learned that historical context involves political, social, cultural, and economic settings. When we apply the five Ws to historical events and documents keep this in mind.  

For instance, why did Thomas Jefferson feel it acceptable to speak of “Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence? We need to understand how race was understood at the time.  

What were the different contexts of the American and French Revolutions?  The different social, economic, and political situations led things to go down quite differently.  

Why did the Soviets act as they did during the Cold War?  We should not simply assume they were “evil” and that settles things.  The context affected how each side acted the way it did.  

Understanding Context Helps Avoid Bias 

Historical context is important in understanding history.  And, passing history tests
It also helps to avoid bias.  We all have our personal biases, being a product of our times and communities.  This makes understanding the historical context that much more important.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.