Principles of Historical Analysis: Change and Continuity


Watch on a chain moving main time and continuity

Historians use “continuity and change” to refer to aspects of life or society that have remained the same (continuity) or developed over time (change). History is not merely about dates, events, or famous people. The story of our past is a mixture of change and stability. Sudden turning points are rare. History is much more about a careful examination, using various perspectives, of life over time. 

A Simple Understanding Of History 

History is the story of our past. Many people have a simplistic understanding of history. 

For instance, some people consider history as the study of a bunch of dates. When was the Declaration of Independence signed? When was the Civil War? Others think of history as a bunch of famous people or events. Who was George Washington? What was Manifest Destiny?

People think the past is like the present without computers or modern plumbing. Others believe history is a simple matter of events that suddenly changed things. Adulthood does not suddenly change everything. Some things stay the same even after events that we label “revolutions.”  

Continuity and Change 

If we look at the history of a person, place, or idea over time, we will see many things that change and things that stay the same. 

Consider your own life. Many things change as you grow up. You have new classes, siblings are born, and your body undergoes changes. Meanwhile, things stay the same. You can live in the same house. You have the same friends and parents.  

Historians use “continuity and change” to refer to aspects of life or society that have remained the same (continuity) or developed over time (change). 

Continuity 

Historical continuity focuses on what stays the same. 

It does not have to be precisely the same. Consider a person whose weight fluctuates a little over a year. The weight stays basically the same. 

Continuity provides a sense of stability over time. It refers to things that consistently influence events over a long period. For instance, marriage stayed the same in multiple ways. Men and women married about the same age for the same reasons.  

Different things that continue over time are traditions and cultural values, political and societal systems, and economic policies. The United States had the same three branches of government for over two hundred years. Ancient Romans believed in many gods over a thousand years.  

Change 

Historical change focuses on what became different. Examples are climate change, immigration, new ideas and inventions, and technology. 

Change is always happening. We might not see it. We might say, bored with how dull everything seems, “Nothing is happening.” Look closer. 

Change often happens over time. A turning point (such as the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery) occurs suddenly. Meanwhile, things remain the same. The end of slavery did not mean the end of racism. A family will stay the same in various ways after a divorce.  

Marriage has changed over time. Men and women had different roles, sex before marriage became more accepted, and divorce increased. The three branches of government act differently. Presidents had much more power in the 20th Century.  

Change results for a variety of reasons. Modern warfare and technology helped to expand presidential power. Other factors include natural disasters and environmental changes (often a factor in the end of empires), social movements (women’s movement), and economic developments. Socialism developed partially because of changing economic events.  

Discovering Continuity and Change

One helpful way to examine continuity and change is to break down historical events. 

Four basic categories are political (government), economic (money), social (everyday life), and technology (inventions). For instance, the women’s movement and the growth of communism are ways we can examine change over time. 

We can also break down history into different periods. The study of the 20th Century is often done decade by decade (“the 80s”). If we pinpoint a small period, it is harder to understand what changed and stayed the same. It is easier if we compare now and a hundred years ago.

Brainstorming 

Students of history also should answer basic questions. What stayed the same or changed? Why did that happen? What lessons can we learn? What types of things can we look for to predict stability or transformation? What are the limits of change? Why did that happen?

These are big questions. Do not let that overwhelm you. Think about what you know. Examine different sources and perspectives. Take notes and summarize what you learned.  

Discuss the matter with others. People will provide competing insights about the degree of change, including regarding different people and regions.  Are the changes positive or negative? 

The final result will provide a more complete account of the complexity of history.

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.

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