Understanding Basic Historical Terms & Concepts

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about basic historical terms and concepts. We will define them, and draw examples from history to see what these terms and concepts look like in 'real life.'

Speaking the Language of History

Every specialized field has its own language, if you will. For example, computer experts deal with terms likes 'megabytes' and 'HTML,' while biologists speak of Mitochondria and cell membranes. Like other disciplines and other areas of specialization, when we take an in-depth look at history, we find there are certain key terms and concepts that pop-up over and over. To properly understand history, we need to be aware of these essential terms and concepts. Let's take a look!

Conflict, Continuity, and Change

The dictator of Fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini, once said 'Blood alone moves the wheels of history.' This statement is debatable, but what he meant by it is that conflict is a powerful theme affecting the course of history. This is certainly true. Think about some of the history classes you've had. Chances are you probably studied about wars quite often, whether it was the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, World War I, or World War II. Conflict is an essential theme in history and has existed for as long as humans have.

Conflict is a driving force affecting the course of human history.

For our purpose, we will define conflict as violence or severe tension between two or more groups of people. We usually think of conflict in terms of war, and this is certainly a common manifestation of conflict, but the term is incredibly broad and can also be applied in a host of ways. For example, in 16th century Europe there was tremendous conflict between Catholics and Protestants. We pay so much attention to the theme of conflict because it is dramatic, and it often has profound effects on people and society. Nations have risen and fallen, and new ideas have been born because of conflict.

Continuity refers to like patterns throughout the course of history, or the way that two events or themes are similar. For example, there is a degree of continuity between the French Revolution in the 18th century and the Russian Revolution in the 20th century. Both revolutions began among the common people, and both revolutions sought to replace conservative regimes with liberal governments. Similarly, there are continuities between economic conditions in America during the 1920s and 1950s. Both decades followed a world war, and economic prosperity was significant in both decades.

Change is kind of like the opposite of continuity. Change refers to the way things develop over the course of history in a new or unique way. For example, when the American colonists rebelled against Great Britain, waged a revolution, and declared a new Republic, that was obviously a change. In one sense, history consists of many changes strung together.

Nation-State and Interdependence

The Unite States is a nation-state. A nation-state is a sovereign state in which its people share many commonalities, such as a common language and a common system of laws. In Medieval Europe, some regions consisted of independent city-states. Other times, empires ruled over a variety of different groups of people who were given varying degrees of autonomy. These would not be nation-states. Nation-states usually have clearly defined borders and an organized and unified government structure. France, Germany, and Great Britain are all examples of nation-states. In Europe many nation-states came into existence during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The United States of America is a nation-state.

Interdependence refers to the reliance of people on goods, services, resources, knowledge, and technology from other regions, states, or parts of the world. For example, the American Colonies were initially dependent on Great Britain for imported goods and technology; likewise, Great Britain depended on the American Colonies for resources and economic benefits. Especially in modern history, we see interdependence among many nation-states.

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