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The Contextual Turn

In the last generation we have seen what might be called a "contextual turn," on the analogy of so many other turns in intellectual history. One sign of change is the increasing use of terms such as "contextualism," "contextualization," and "de-contextualization." In the case of theology, the "contextual reinterpretation" of religion has been under discussion. In ethics, a movement known as "situationism" has effectively revived casuistry under another name. In philosophy, John Austin's analysis of the "occasion" and "context" of utterances remains influential. In educational sociology and psychology, the work of Basil Bernstein and Jerome Bruner on "context-dependent" and "context-independent" learning illustrates the trend.

In literary criticism the idea of placing a poem "in context," or even "in total context," was defended by the Cambridge critic F. W. Bateson and denounced by F. R. Leavis, who argued that "social context" meant merely "one's personal living."

In the 1950s and 1960s, sociolinguists such as Dell Hymes and William Labov noted that the same people speak differently according to the context or situation. Even in the case of the law, concerned with general rules, the rise of "context sensitivity" has been noted. In sociology, Anthony Giddens described "locale" as essential to what he calls the "contextuality" of social interaction, while feminists such as Donna Haraway revived and revised Mannheim's concept of "situated knowledge."

A concern with situation and performance has become increasingly visible in recent decades in musicology and art history. Thus the phrase "performative context" has come into use to refer to the adaptation of music to suit a certain place, occasion, and audience. In art history, where an artist's style was once taken to be an expression of his or her personality, it is now interpreted as a kind of performance. A movement for a "contextual archaeology" has made its appearance.

In intellectual history the concern with context is even more explicit, above all at Cambridge University. In the 1950s, Peter Laslett argued the case for placing Locke's Second Treatise of Government in a "revised historical context." In his Barbarism and Religion (1999) J. G. A. Pocock, a student of Butterfield's, set out "to effect a series of contextualizations" of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). Quentin Skinner's work relies still more on the idea of context, whether linguistic, intellectual, or political. In the philosophy and history of science, the foundation of the journal Science in Context, in 1987, offers another example of context-consciousness, at once an attempt to emulate the historians of political thought and a response to a continuing debate over the status of scientific knowledge, universal or local.


Boas, Franz. "Museums of Ethnology and Their Classification." Science 9 (1887): 587–589.

Burke, Peter. "Context in Context." Common Knowledge 8, no. 1 (2002): 152–177.

Collingwood, R. G. "Outlines of a Philosophy of History." In The Idea of History, edited by Jan van der Dussen, 426–496. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Giglioli, Pier Paolo, comp. Language and Social Context. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.

Leites, Edmund, ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mannheim, Karl. Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge. Edited by David Kettler, Volker Meja, and Nico Stehr. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. Translation of Das Konservative Denken.

Thomas, William I. "Situational Analysis" In W. I. Thomas on Social Organisation and Social Personality, edited by Morris Janowitz, 154–167. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. New York, 1990.

Tully, James, ed. Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1988.

Peter Burke

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContext - Texts In Context, The Rise Of Cultural Context, The Discovery Of Situation, The Contextual Turn