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The Nine Cs of Historical Thinking

May 3, 2013

[Note: As of June 10, 2016, this post has been updated—once and for all—to 12 Cs. You can find the update at this link. – TL]


With apologies to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, who first Many-Csintroduced me to their “Five Cs of Historical Thinking” through a January 2007 column in AHA’s Perspectives magazine, I have developed a modification of their mnemonic that may be useful to my colleagues in history. I think this may be particularly helpful for introducing the field to new students—to those first-year undergraduates who think about “social studies” rather than history. In addition to Andrews and Burke, I also want to acknowledge Sam Wineburg for his classic work on this subject, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001).

Rather than just “Five Cs,” I think we should add four more and emphasize the ‘s’ such that the mnemonic becomes “The Nine Cs.” It’s a bit of cute wordplay, but I think it gets a larger, improved set of points across to those being introduced to historical thinking.

By way of review, here’s a cheat sheet I developed in relation to Andrews’ and Burke’s column—to their 5 Cs:

1. Historians see change over time. This means growth, decay, continuity, and trends. The authors say this is the easiest to grasp of their “Five Cs.” But I think one must also consider the rate of change, as well as the feeling of change—both in relation to past actors and in relation to present readers.

2. Historians interpret the past in context. They interpret materials from the perspective of the world in which documents (words, pictures, sounds, etc.) were created. They avoid presentism. I think of context as situating—of putting and imagining historical events and people in their own time. Contextualizing is about creating a web of connections in the past. Again, this is an important theme in historical thinking because it helps fight the parochialism of the present.

3. Historians are interested in causality. They look to understand why an event happened the way it did. They always look for multiple causes even when one appears dominant. Historians assess and weigh causes against each other in research.

4. Historians are concerned with contingency. What might have happened? This involves imagination in relation to potential causes and effects. From the article’s authors: “To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on.” Things were not foreordained to happen as they did. They add: “To assert that the past is contingent is to impress upon students the notion that the future is up for grabs, and that they bear some responsibility for shaping the course of future history.” I see it this way: Asking questions involving contingency sometimes assures the historical thinker that her/his argument of causality is a good one.

5. Historians appreciate the complexity of the past. History is messy, complicated, and not easily summarized. It’s not so complex as to be unexplainable, yet it also lives on its own terms. Assessing complexity involves rigor. The authors assert that seeing complexity helps present-day thinkers avoid nostalgia, myth-making, and other traps of historical thinking.

Now for my five additions:

6. Chronology: Marking time matters because it provides fundamental sign posts. This differs from change because this is more nuts and bolts—about the preparation for evaluations of change and causation. Cataloguing events in relation to dates is necessary baseline work. It’s about ordering and the sense of order. One needs to imagine or see some kind of order before changing or reassessing it. This point goes toward the ‘selection’ half of the old maxim about “selection and emphasis” mattering the most to historians.

7. Citations: Historians care about sources, whether archival and primary, or secondary. This also involves thinking about past histories (i.e. historiography). With this point we remind readers that historians take careful notes in relation to evidence offered in one’s story. As with chronology, this too involves selection. Citations help others understand how history is a social science.

8. Conjecture: Historians make a case. They argue points in theses using evidence selected and arranged. This conjecture can be tentative (i.e. hypothesis) or tested and reliable (i.e. thesis). This underscores the ‘emphasis’ half of the “selection and emphasis” maxim.

9. Characters: Historians always, or should always, emphasize the persons and the humanity within their groupings. This may involve representative anecdotes or, in some cases, more intense historical biographic portraits. The characters we ponder in the context of historical thinking remind others that history has a strong foothold in the humanities.

10. Storytelling: Historians try to write narratives that attract readers even while they argue, and seek to exemplify, the points of historical thinking outlined here. This means thinking about one’s potential audience, in all their range of reception. Historians stylize to emphasize their arguments and themes. Flannery and Burke subsume this under context, but I believe that contextualization and telling (or conceptualizing) a good story are separate themes within the larger thrust of thinking historically. Storytelling definitely involves imagination, but contextualizing does not necessarily.

There are your “Nine Cs.” What do you think?

[Updated: 5/6/2013, 11:30 am]


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  1. John Haas permalink

    Excellent. Historians also appreciate c-notes. lots of them is better.


    • Thanks! C-notes are indeed handy. You might say that they are indicative of the “cash value” of our ideas. 🙂


  2. Paul permalink

    Nice Tim! I wonder about perspective, might that be included somewhere? Maybe you could call it conviction. I always like it when an author clearly states his/her point of view in the introduction or the first chapter. Maybe this gets conjoined with conjecture which brings me to another issue. What if the history that is written has no thesis other than to present events? Yeah I know, shades of old time objectivism?


    • Paul: Conjecture/argument is precisely where I’d add perspective. As for those histories that seem to offer no thesis, well, shame on them! Just kidding, but I usually tell students that they can construct one based on the presentation (i.e. selection and emphasis) of events even when a thesis seems absent. In sum, the subjective argument is always there somewhere. – TL


  3. L.D. Burnett permalink

    Very nicely done Tim — and plenty timely too.


    • I normally open every history class—whether survey or upper-level—with a “What is history?” lecture. In that lecture I define terms, present quotes about the nature of history from famous people, and spend time talking about the points above (e.g. the nature of historical thinking). I have found the lecture to be useful even for older students who have had prior history courses. Those students either confirm some of the points above (thereby legitimizing your endeavor to their peers) or want to argue a bit about some of them, which is great. – TL


  4. Susan Pearson permalink

    I love this, Tim! I might steal this, I mean use with citation!


    • Thanks Susan. To me, “thievery” is the highest compliment a colleague can give in a situation like this. So please, do use the post as you see fit.


  5. christopher miller permalink

    Just a question; why are there 10 “c’s”?


  6. christopher miller permalink

    ah, it’s my bad sense of humor, I read that but didn’t “get” that. I tried to read over before asking. 🙂


  7. Jonathan Dresner (@jondresner)made an excellent comment on Twitter that he’s allowing me to reproduce here—with my (@t_lacy) reply, consolidated from three Tweets.
    JD: Honestly, I’d drop S. It’s not a widely shared ideal. Some historians consider it important, but not all scholarship works this way.

    ME: Thanks Jonathan. I can see that. It’s clearly a personalized list. In one iteration I had 8 Cs and made the ‘s’ = sources. But then I decided that thinking historically does involve thinking about narratives. So storytelling added something. It added an element of subjectivity, of style, that I felt to be important in the end. – TL


  8. Reblogged this on Running In My Head and commented:
    Excellent ideas; some of which I will be incorporating into my lesson plans next year.


  9. Donna D. permalink

    I like this a lot! I am a doctoral candidate through Piedmont College in Georgia and am in the early stages of formulating my research around the topic of historical thinking in upper elementary classrooms. Maybe you would be interested in chatting sometime?


  10. After several months of reflection, I’ve decided a new C is necessary: competition.
    Competition: The notion of competing narratives is essential to historical thinking. It is especially related to complexity and conjecture. Narratives compete for our attention most obviously in politics and in family memories. But the principle is also at work in reading and constructing histories generally. The “winning” narrative usually displays the best integrated and plausible storytelling, for people are fond of comprehensiveness in their histories (even while generalists understand the importance of narrowed and specialized historical inquiry). That said, no one story can ever integrate everything. And changing one or two elements (citations/sources) can change the perception and slant of a historical narrative. As such, a good historical thinker always knows that other legitimate narratives exist.


  11. This post has been updated, once and for all, to 12 Cs. You can find the update at this link. – TL


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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