Discussion: Historical Lenses
In this discussion, you will consider how historical lenses can affect the study of a historical topic. Select one of the secondary source articles from your research. After reading that article, write a discussion post about which of the following lenses you believe the article is using: social, political, economic, or other. Use at least two quotes from your source to justify your choice of lens. Your post title should also indicate which topic you have selected.
Here is an example discussion post from another classmate:
Natalie Farah posted Sep 19, 2019 5:28 AM
In my article they are using multiple lenses but I believe the main one to be social. The article covers how the homelands came about all the way till how they are today. It discusses how people were split and looks into how they kept their racial borders. The authors state, “Like Afrikaners and English (along with Asians and coloreds) they had equal right to self-determination and to express their own culture in their own territory”. It continues on to discuss how people are still living in the old homelands still today. Even after the apartheid ended over 20 years ago. It says,” Rather than focusing on the edifice of empire – or apartheid – as a thing of the past, we need to explore how those who remain make a life out of what has been given them. Also, for the people that got out of South Africa will their kids or grandkids ever go back?
Jensen S, Zenker O. Homelands as Frontiers: Apartheid’s Loose Ends – An Introduction. Journal of Southern African Studies. 2015;41(5):937-952. doi:10.1080/03057070.2015.1068089.
As you have discovered in earlier learning blocks, historians not only ponder “what” happened regarding historical events, but also “why” those events happened. “Why” is difficult to prove, however, and historians often differ on the connections between events. Historians approach topics from different perspectives. These different perspectives can be said to be the result of looking at a topic through different lenses. Just like colored lenses or prescription lenses can change the way a person views the world, historical lenses can change the way a historian views a topic. While a historian may choose any number of lenses, they fall into three basic categories: social lenses, political lenses, and economic lenses. In good historical writing, these lenses will overlap.
Often, the choice of a primary lens will simply reflect the historian’s personal interests or priorities. A historian who is interested in military strategy may not be interested in technological innovations except for those with battlefield applications. A historian who is interested in environmental history may not be interested in business practices except for when those practices affect the natural landscape. As these examples show, however, one can rarely use a lens in isolation. Most research projects will employ multiple lenses in order to tell more complete stories. It is useful to study the different types of lenses to be able to recognize the different perspectives and priorities that historians bring to a topic.
While there are any number of lenses a historian may choose, they fall into three basic categories: social lenses, political lenses, and economic lenses.
Social Lens: This lens focuses on people and their interactions with others. It explores areas of ethnicity, class, and gender. Examining the actions and behaviors of how different groups of people interact with each other—and within their own group—provides historians with a great deal of insight into the past.
This is perhaps the widest and most all-encompassing of the three categories of lenses. Through it, historians have examined all manner of interaction—including German immigrants adjusting to their new home in nineteenth-century United States, class disputes within African American women’s clubs in the twentieth century, and disagreement among different churches about whether or not to support the gay rights movement. The social lens includes the elite as well as the working class, the rich and the poor, and men, women, and children. It seeks, as do the other lenses, to answer the questions of who were these people, how did they think and what did they think about, and how did their thinking drive their actions and behaviors.
Political Lens: Not focusing solely on politicians and governments, the political lens looks at the relationship of those who have power and those who do not. Historians using a “political lens” seek answers about the ways in which legislation and law influence the lives of individuals. How do individuals (and groups of individuals) react and respond to these? What methods do they employ to create and/or change the “rules” under which they live?
Political history can be as simple as the recounting of organizing a community to repeal an unpopular law, or as complex as the behind-the-scenes interactions that propelled an individual to the presidency. It can examine the treaties that ended World War I, or explore the “gerrymandering” of congressional districts to maintain one party’s political control of Congress.
Economic Lens: This lens focuses on the local, national, or international economy, all of which are central to the lives of every living person. While it conjures images of corporations and economic systems, the economic lens also focuses on government regulation of businesses, the relationships between capital and labor, business strategies such as marketing or horizontal integration, and the relationships between business and consumers.
Historians use the economic lens in a number of different ways. Often, it is used to explore the growth and development of labor unions, the effect of the loss of small businesses on a community, or the havoc wrought upon farmers by price changes in the international agricultural and commodities markets. It can also be used to examine the effect of redlining on suburbs and ethnic neighborhoods, or even the effect of the Industrial Revolution on artisans and craftsmen. Economic history can provide insight into the wage differences between men and women—and the effect they have on the development of family wealth and status.
Other Lenses: Falling somewhere in between these three broad categories, or perhaps overlapping one or more of them, are other lenses available to historians. Each of these lenses helps clarify a specific area of the human past: the environment, the military, science and technology, and so forth.
This brief list is in no way complete—there are about as many lenses as there are people and events. Focusing first on a broad category and then narrowing the lens helps historians focus their research. Once a historian has identified a question to be resolved, he or she researches in primary sources and the secondary literature to determine which lens will best help answer the research question.