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Historical Change: Causes and Effects

History as a Science

Unfortunately, many people believe the discipline of history is little more than boring names, dates, and places. You know, ‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,’ or ‘Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president.’ See, there is a prevailing misconception that the discipline involves memorizing fact and little else. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

As one of the social sciences, we have to understand that history must be approached scientifically. History involves cause and effect; history requires critical thinking; history requires the testing of hypotheses; history must be constructed. Historians are actually ‘scientists’ of the past. They formulate interpretations of the past based on the evidence they find. They figure out how and why one thing led to another. Historical change is one of the central components of the discipline. Because of this, it is important that we understand what historical change is, how it takes place, and how it is classified.

Historical Change

Historical change is not a difficult concept to understand at all. Historical change simply refers to the changing of events over the course of time. It is an all-encompassing term – major events, such as wars, and the most miniscule events, such as the winning of a high school football game, are all part of historical change. Historical change happens every day – it takes place with each passing second. Historical change takes place through the process of cause and effect, or in other words, the process by which one thing leads to another, which leads to another, and so on and so forth.

By way of example, let’s look at the 1920s. Sometimes called the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ this decade was much different from the decade that came before it. There was much historical change between, say, 1915 and 1925. What led to this change?

Well, it is complex. There wasn’t one single cause, but rather a variety of causes. For example, the availability of the automobile had profound effects on society. Also, following World War I, the United States entered into a period of tremendous economic growth. Also, the decline of Victorian standards of morality brought about historical change. Of course, there are countless other causes that brought about this historical change. And remember, the changes that took place during the 1920s provided the causes for the changes (or effects) that took place in the years after the 1920s. It’s a never-ending cycle of cause and effect.

Let’s look at one more example just to make sure we understand. Now this example is overly simplistic, but just go with it. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is often cited as the cause for the outbreak of World War I. The assassination was the cause; World War I was the effect. It keeps going. World War I was the cause for the Treaty of Versailles; the effect of the Treaty of Versailles was the emergence of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Hitler was thus the cause of World War II (which was the effect). This is ridiculously simplistic, but it illustrates how one event in history can lead to others.

So, what kind of factors affect historical change? Almost any you can conceive of: religious traditions, economics, politics, cultural conventions and tastes, advances in technology, sexual mores, the physical construction of buildings, new philosophical ideas – all of these contribute to cause and effect throughout history.

Classifying Historical Change

With so many different forces at work, is there any way to classify types of historical change? Actually, there is. Historians have developed two distinct schools of thought, or approaches, to make sense of the complex patterns of historical cause and effect. They are called intentionalism and functionalism. These terms are often associated with the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, but they are also applied to the discipline as a whole.

Intentionalism is the view that historical change takes place primarily through powerful personal figures. For example, people like Adolf Hitler, Alexander the Great, and George Washington were the primary agents of historical change. The opposing view is called functionalism, or sometimes structuralism. Functionalism is the view that broader political, economic, and cultural trends are primarily responsible for historical change.

In the case of Adolf Hitler, an intentionalist would say Hitler rose to power because he possessed such tremendous leadership qualities that drew others to him. A functionalist, however, would say Hitler rose to power because the German people were politically and culturally ready for someone to lead them. It’s a bit more complicated than this, but these are the two approaches in a nutshell. Naturally, the two views work together, and it doesn’t have to be either/or, but many historians fall into one camp or the other based on which view they give more importance to.

What Is Historiography?

One parting thought. Much of what we have been discussing in this lesson is considered historiography. What? What is that?

Historiography is the history of history. In other words, it is the study of how historical views change over time. For example, during certain periods of time, the American Revolution was viewed from a certain perspective. As new information becomes available, however, new views emerge. Also, current political and social norms affect how we interact with the past. Our perception of the past is very much shaped by the present.