Historical Context

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything we do is surrounded by people, places, and events. To fully understand something, you need to identify the things that surround it, the context

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    For historical topics, it helps to identify the historical context. Historical context is defined as the setting in which something takes place. This setting gives your topic meaning. Characteristics like social norms help you understand why a topic is important.

    Historical Context Definition

    Historical context is the setting in which a historical event, idea, or object takes place.

    In writing, historical context includes the social, economic, cultural, and political influences that shape your primary sources.

    Historical context helps you understand your topic fully. When analyzing a text, historical context helps you understand how and why a text was written. Historical context helps you identify key influences when explaining a concept or event.

    Historical Context Characteristics

    Think of your topic as the center of a circle. Your topic is surrounded by everything happening around it. Historical context includes a bunch of things that might have influenced your topic (characteristics). Identifying these characteristics is important to decide what matters to your topic.

    Characteristics That May Influence Your Topic

    • When it took place (date)
    • Where it took place (location)
    • Major events that took place at the same time as your topic
    • Religious conditions of the era
    • Cultural traditions and beliefs of people in the same location
    • Social norms of the time and place in which it happened
    • Political landscape during the time it happened
    • Economic structure of the place in which it happened

    Historical Context What is Historical Context? StudySmarterFig. 1 - Historical context.

    Your topic is at the center of all of this context! Historical Context shows you how your topic fits into each of these things.

    Importance of Historical Context

    Historical context is important for writing about how your topic fits into a historical era. It shows you the big picture. Think of your topic as one puzzle piece. Historical context provides other puzzle pieces needed to complete the picture. Without these pieces, you cannot see the entire picture.

    Historical Context A Puzzle diagram showing the Pieces of Historical Context StudySmarterFig. 2 - The puzzle of historical context.

    Historical Context: Seeing the Whole Picture

    When you can see the whole picture, you can write much more interesting things!

    Historical Context Can Help You Understand:

    • The purpose and motivations of a writer, speaker, or artist
    • Values or feelings that influenced a speech, text, or work of art
    • The intended audience of a speech, text, or work of art
    • Feelings caused by an event, experience, or object
    • The importance of an event, experience, or object
    • Connections between different sources

    Historical Context Examples

    Examples of historical context show how each characteristic can influence your writing. Historical context affects how you analyze texts and explain concepts.

    Here are some examples of each characteristic of historical context in action.

    Historical Context: Political Landscape

    You are analyzing the use of satire in Gulliver's Travels. You decide to learn about the political landscape of Swift's time.

    The political landscape includes the ideas and structures that relate to government.

    You learn Swift wrote the novel during Queen Anne's reign. While researching the politics of Queen Anne's reign, you learn the Whigs were in power. You see similarities between the political beliefs of the Whigs and the attitudes of Swift's characters. You now understand that Gulliver's Travels is not just an adventure story. It is a satire of Whig politics in Swift's lifetime.

    Historical Context: Major Events

    You are comparing two articles with different viewpoints on gun control. The first article supports stricter gun restrictions. The second article opposes strict gun restrictions. You identify major gun-related events that influence their opinions. You conclude that school shootings motivated the first writer's solution. You also decide that shootings caused by mental illness motivate the second author's call for alternative approaches.

    Historical Context: Social Norms

    You are arguing a position on school dress codes. You research the history of fashion for men and women. You learn early American men wore high heels, wigs, and makeup. You feel that social norms for men's and women's fashion change a lot over time. You argue school dress codes should not be divided by gender because gendered fashion norms always change.

    Historical context. Woman wearing a hat low over eyes. StudySmarter.Fig. 3 - Historical context is always changing.

    Historical Context: Religious Conditions

    You are writing a rhetorical analysis of John Winthrop's City Upon a Hill sermon. You research the history of the Puritans traveling with Winthrop. You learn they were hoping to establish a colony founded on Puritan beliefs. You also learn Puritan teachings suggested English Protestantism was immoral and ungodly. You conclude Winthrop appealed to their dislike of England's religious conditions by challenging them to be religious models in the New World.

    Historical Context: Economic Structure

    You are explaining the concept of "success." You discuss how success looks different depending on one's position in an economic structure.

    Economic Structure refers to how goods and services are produced and used.

    You explain how "success" for the CEO of a company means earning profits for the company. You also explain how "success" for labor unions means achieving fair working conditions for their communities. You conclude that success looks different for everyone depending on who benefits from that success.

    Historical Context: Cultural Traditions and Beliefs

    You are analyzing Phyllis Wheatley's poem, "On Being Brought From Africa to America." You learn Wheatley was taken from Africa as a child and sold as a slave in America. You remember the American Constitution was founded on the principles of freedom and equality. You argue that Wheatley appeals to American beliefs in freedom and equality to challenge slavery in America.

    Determining Historical Context

    To determine historical context, put together all the information you have. Consider how your subject fits into all of it. Then, draw conclusions.

    Historical Context Questions to ask for Determining Historical Context StudySmarterFig. 4 - Determine historical context.

    You can determine historical context by asking yourself the right questions. Consider what interests you the most about your subject. Is it how social norms influenced an author's writing? Or how different religious beliefs shaped the evolution of a major holiday? Think about what matters most to you.

    Questions to Determine Historical Context

    Here are some questions you should ask yourself to determine the historical context.

    Historical Context: When did it happen?

    Find out which historical era you are dealing with. If you are analyzing a text, look for a date of publication. When was the text you are analyzing written? When was the concept you are explaining first used?

    Historical Context: Where did it happen?

    Find out the location of your topic. Where did the author live? Where did the term originate? Where did it all begin?

    Historical Context: What else was going on at the time?

    Do some research. Use the characteristics of historical context to guide you. Focus on just one or two characteristics. This will help you stay focused. For example, you might look up major events of the time. Or you find out the political structure of the era you are studying.

    Historical Context: What beliefs influenced people at the time?

    Look up famous writings and works of art from the time period. What do they have in common? Consider how they reflect what people believed about the world around them. What cultural values shaped their thinking? What common fears influenced their actions?

    Historical Context in Communication

    To communicate historical context, introduce your topic, set up the historical context, get specific, and bring it all together. Stay focused on your chosen characteristics throughout the essay. Use evidence from sources to support your claims.

    Steps for Communicating Historical Context

    Use the steps below to write your essay's main point (aka the thesis statement).

    1. Introduce the Topic

    Introduce the specifics of your subject. Make it clear what you will be talking about in your essay: who, what, when, and where.

    Television (what) has influenced American (where) voters (who) since the 1950s (when).

    2. Set up the Context

    Let the reader know which characteristics you will be examining. Broadly explain how this characteristic influenced your subject.

    Political Structure & Cultural Beliefs: American politics have been influenced by cultural attitudes toward television over time.

    Historical context. Surreal red TV sits in a wheelbarrow. StudySmarter.Fig. 5 - Attitudes create historical context.

    3. Get Specific

    Now, it's time to get specific. Name the key events, attitudes, or other influences you are writing about. Be clear about how they influenced your topic.

    Carefully produced television campaigns, political ads, and televised debates have influenced voters' perceptions of political candidates.

    4. Bring It All Together

    Now, bring all of these ideas together into one main point. Include the subject details and your specific ideas in one sentence.

    Since the 1950s, American voters' perceptions of political candidates have been influenced by carefully produced television campaigns, political ads, and televised debates.

    Quick Tip! Repeat these steps for any point you want to make about the historical context of your subject! Don't stop at the thesis statement. Use these steps to write the subpoints that support the thesis statement too!

    Tips for Communicating Historical Context Effectively

    Here are some helpful tips for communicating historical context. These tips will help you stay on track, support your arguments, and communicate clearly.

    • Stay focused.

    As you write the body paragraphs of your essay, be careful not to lose focus. There may be many historical influences on your topic. Good writers focus on just one or two characteristics they think are most important.

    Support your ideas as you explain the connections between your topic and its historical context. Use evidence to back your claims. If you are analyzing a text, use quotes and examples from that text as evidence. If you are explaining a concept or historical event, use evidence from sources you found in your research. Remember, for every claim you make, you must provide proof.

    • Write in the past tense.

    Remember, you are exploring the influence of past events and attitudes. When communicating historical context, it's important to write in the past tense. These things have already happened!

    • Avoid generalizations.

    When writing about history, it can be easy to assume things that do not quite apply to everyone. Avoid generalizations about large groups based on your research.

    Generalizations are assumptions made about a large group based on a small set of examples.

    For example, when studying World War II, you find out the Nazi party was popular in Germany. You quickly assume all Germans supported the Nazi party. However, this is not true. Avoid assuming things you cannot know. Stay specific. Focus only on what you know to be true.

    Historical Context - Key Takeaways

    • In writing, historical context includes the social, economic, cultural, and political influences that shape your primary sources.
    • The characteristics of historical context are: date, location, major events, religious conditions, cultural traditions and beliefs, social norms, political landscape, and economic structure.
    • Historical context is important for writing about how your topic fits into a historic era. It shows you the big picture.
    • To determine historical context, put together all of the information you have.
    • You can determine historical context by asking yourself the right questions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Historical Context

    What is historical context?

    Historical Context is the setting in which a historical event, idea, or object takes place. In writing, historical context includes the social, economic, cultural, and political influences that shape your primary sources.  

    What is the importance of historical context?

    Historical context is important for writing about how your topic fits into a historical era. It shows you the big picture.  

    What are examples of historical context?

    Some examples of historical context are: 

    1. You analyze the use of satire in Gulliver's Travels. After learning about the politics of the time, you decide the novel is a satire of Whig politics.

    2. Analyzing a Phyllis Wheatley poem, you argue she appeals to American beliefs in freedom and equality to challenge slavery in America.

    How do you use historical context in a sentence? 

    You use historical context in a sentence to explain how the setting impacts your topic. For example: The historical context of Phylliis Wheatly's poem reveals how she appealed to American values to challenge slavery.

    What is the impact of historical context? 

    Historical context impacts your understanding of a topic. It also impacts your ability to describe why your topic matters. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are some of the characteristics of historical context?

    What can historical context help writers  understand about their subject?

    What questions can a writer ask to determine the historical context of a subject?


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