James Ford Bell Library

Putting Sources into Historical Context

In order to fully understand a source, you must place it within the context of the time period in which it was produced. Contextualizing a historical source involves paying attention to the people who produced it, the time in which they worked, what was going on during that time, and how what was going on may have influenced the production of the source. It also involves understanding how the source's language, concepts, and terms were used within that historical context, since meanings change over time. In short, contextualizing a source increases a writer's credibility since it demonstrates the writer’s willingness to understand the source and its time period on its own terms.

Analyze rather than judge.

When you present evidence, even of horrible acts, try to analyze rather than judge it—especially by present-day standards or “hindsight." Don't dismiss behaviors or attitudes as “obviously wrong,” and therefore unworthy of deep examination; instead, try to communicate an understanding of the evidence within its context.

Some questions to consider when contextualizing a source:

  • Who produced the source?
  • What is the genre of the source? How might this shape its content and viewpoint?
  • When was it produced? How does the timing of its production relate to other events?
  • How might political, social, religious, or economic events occurring at the same time have influenced the production of the source?
  • How might common beliefs or trends during this time period have influenced the production of the source?
  • What terms or phrases are unclear? Is this because of the time period?
Monkeys of Surinam: By John Gabriel StedmanMonkeys of Surinam:
By John Gabriel Stedman

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