Contextualization & historicization: 2 academic must-haves
Two key ingredients of scholarly writing, found none too frequently in college essays, are contextualization and historicization. These techniques allow scholars to provide perspective on (and even self-evaluate) their claims and conclusions.
Ever wonder how scholars can write 20 or 30 pages (or a 400-page dissertation) on a topic that is so narrow and obscure that you feel you could squeeze out a paragraph, and even that would be an epic achievement?
If you read a scholarly paper, you’ll see that much of those many pages aren’t filled with specific details from the chosen topic, or even direct analysis of those details.
But don’t details and analysis make up the substance of any good academic essay, you ask? They do, but scholars feel there’s plenty else to do, too.
Scholars spend a lot of time “positioning” their argument, as they like to say, explaining why what they’re saying is important, and trying to see the bigger picture within that very obscure topic.
And to do that, they contextualize and historicize. To contextualize something means giving important perspective by citing similar examples or relevant background.
To historicize something is to explain the topic’s social environment in history and speculate how this environment may have shaped the topic.
Some techniques to consider using in your next scholarly paper:
- compare your primary topic of analysis to others like/unlike it (e.g., a film analysis of “Saw IV” could mention similarities and differences between contemporaneous horror films)
- expose how your social/economic/political background might shape how you look at the issue (e.g., growing up in a post 9/11 America, your analysis of Hugo Chavez’s governmental practices will likely differ greatly from a non-American born a generation earlier)
- explain briefly what historical circumstances led up to the topic you’re discussing (e.g., comic book creator of “Plastic Man,” Jack Cole, first started cartooning for Boy’s Life and the American Can Factory, which may have influence his style)
- explore how your analysis fits into a larger discussion about a field (e.g., what does your analysis of “The OC” contribute to how scholars should go about analyzing Orange County, California?)
- cite other scholars who have recently contributed to the field you’re working in (if you’re analyzing teen behavior in a film, cite a recent scholar in child psychology).
All of these things are contextualization and/or historicization, and they’re done by scholars all the time. Here’s how:
Look at this example from an essay that analyzes the development and trends of Disney films in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In the below excerpt, scholar Peter Kramer stops analyzing the films themselves and instead explores their financial context:
What about the performance of Disney’s feature films (as distinct from its theme parks and merchandising)? Even Janet Wasko, Disney’s most knowledgeable analyst, describes the 1970s as a period of crisis for Disney’s feature film division.
--Peter Kramer, “The Best Disney Film Never Made: Children’s Films and the Family Audience in American Cinema since the 1960s” (2002)
While Kramer’s focus in this section about the 1970s is on Disney films like Robin Hood (1974) and The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), he again pauses to mention non-Disney films and give the reader some perspective on Disney’s period of crisis:
With rentals of $10-20 million, Disney’s hits performed well below the blockbuster business of The Godfather (1972, 86.3 million), The Exorcist (1973, $82.2 million) and Jaws (1975, $121.3 million). Yet it is important to note that the studio consistently produced new hits.
The thing I want to draw your attention to is not just the historical research, snazzy statistics, or scholarly name-dropping, but the way those things connect to the point of the essay: Kramer follows the statement of earnings by films like The Godfather with “Yet it is important to note that [Disney] consistently produced new hits.” Kramer doesn’t provide history for history’s sake. He shows that the financial low-point of Disney films in the 70s didn’t seen to affect the studio’s popularity or creativity.
This concept grew out of the feeling that many scholars analyzed texts and art in a vacuum, ignoring the important influences of historical situation. Instead of assuming that Shakespeare’s plays are full of universal, timeless themes, these new, historically-oriented scholars would say that Shakespeare was a product of his environment and would match themes in the plays to concerns and developments in Elizabethan England.
Take this example of historicization:
As Priscilla Wald recently reminded us, American Studies developed in the Cold War decades alongside other area studies, such as Middle East Studies or Eastern European Studies, and, like those, took upon itself the production of specialists with a broad knowledge of a particular region or nation’s language, culture, history, and political, judicial and economic systems.
– “Foreigners Within and Innocents Abroad: Discourse of the Self in the Internationalization of American Studies,” Milette Shamir (2004)
Here, Shamir is historicizing a few things. He mentions that Wald “recently reminded us,” pointing to the historical progression of scholarship on a subject. He then paraphrases Wald’s observation about how a field of academia, American Studies, formed during the Cold War. Part of Shamir’s point, that is, is to show that fundamental approaches of American Studies is shaped by the Cold War mentality it was born into.
This brings up another common facet of scholarly writing worth mentioning. Instead of just analyzing, say a given film or text, scholars always try to answer the question “how does my analysis of a given text teach us scholars more about our field?” On a paper that analyzes a film set in Orange County, California, for instance, a scholar would ask how the film expands our method for film studies or our way of analyzing place.
Historicization doesn’t just mean looking at the social environment of your topic, however. It also means exploring how your own background gives you, the scholar, biases and ways of thinking and looking at the world. So, another thing you’ll see scholars do is reveal their ideologies:
While I now find myself located in what some hundred and fifty years ago was called the northern frontier of Alta California, I spent the first half of my life and the mouth of the Rio Grande in South Texas. My quest for a new mapping of American Cultural Studies necessarily worries about the politics of location….The purpose of these brief personal remarks is not to demonstrate a Manichean clash of identities and affiliations, but rather to begin mapping out the phantasmatics of Nuestra America’s borders at our own complex fin de siglo.
–Jose David Saldivar’s “Nuestra America’s Borders: Remapping America’s Cultural Studies” (1997).
But you’ve been doing this all along, you argue. Well, maybe not revealing your own sociopolitical ideologies. But your essays include historical facts and other examples.
And in a sense, you’ve been historicizing and contextualizing your writing. This is nothing new, true. But by knowing what academics call it, why it’s done, and seeing examples of how academics integrate it into their scholarly writing, perhaps you’ll do it better in the future–and find better ways to fill up an 10-page scholarly assignment.