Concepts Embedded in Historical Narratives: Relevant Characteristics for Conceptual Change

In the last decades there have been numerous studies on historical concepts (Barton, 2008; Carretero & Lee, 2014; Limon, 2002; VanSledright & Limon, 2006; Voss & Wiley, 2006). As we have already seen, one of the specific characteristics of historical concepts is their relation to narrative knowledge. Most of the time first order concepts are embedded in historical narratives (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Von Borries, 2009). Thus, when focusing on the characteristics of historical concepts we have to take into account the relationship between concepts and the narratives they are included in. If we talk about the concept of ‘neutron’ we could find a single definition for this concept on which most physicists agree. However, when talking about historical concepts such as ‘nation’ or ‘democracy’ it is more difficult to find single definitions on which historians agree. Instead, in everyday life, people are used to argue about and discuss historical concepts such as nation or democracy, producing a specific narrative supporting a specific meaning for these concepts. These narratives provide an intuitive meaning for historical concepts and constitute people’s prior knowledge about historical concepts (Carretero & Lopez, 2010). Therefore, when talking about historical concepts, not only people’s ideas and beliefs concerning specific concepts but also on the narratives in which the concepts are used should be taken into account. As we have seen, prior knowledge is usually constructed in an intuitive way. Therefore, many times these narratives and their historical concepts have an intuitive nature. However, as scholars such as Wineburg or Lowenthal have pointed out, historical knowledge is far from being intuitive or commonsensical. Wineburg (2001) characterizes historical thinking as an unnatural act and for Lowenthal The Past is a Foreign Country (1985). Therefore, if we want our students to change their intuitive take on historical concepts and foster this unnatural and historical way of thinking we have to deal with their prior historical narratives and the concepts that are supporting these narratives.

In the case of historical concepts, conceptual change could be even more difficult than in the natural sciences due to some features of these concepts. First, the verbal labels of historical concepts are generally closer to everyday language than those of natural science concepts (Carretero & Lee, 2014), making it difficult to distinguish between common sense and historiographical meaning. For instance, ‘nation’, ‘country’ or ‘state’ are frequently found and used in everyday language. However, they are often used synonymously and meaning something different to what historians mean with these concepts. Secondly, as was already mentioned, there are no single definitions for most historical concepts. Historical concepts are abstract and diffuse and, even more intriguing, the meaning of historical concepts changes over time and contexts (Carretero, Castorina, & Levinas, 2013; Koselleck, 1996; Limon, 2002). Koselleck’s work (2004) is especially relevant in this regard. Considered one of the most insightful contributions to conceptual history, his work emphasizes the intrinsically changing nature of historical concepts. He has studied how historical concepts’ meaning change throughout different periods of time and how they have been used in different moments, making an essential contribution of their effective meaning. For instance, when analyzing the first order concept ‘democracy’ it can be discovered how its meaning has changed from Ancient Greece to the present, and how it has been used in many different contexts, obtaining many different meanings. Thus, when it comes to historical concepts students have to deal not only with abstract and diffuse ideas, but also with dynamic and contextualized meanings.

A third relevant characteristic of historical concepts is related to identity and moral issues (Lopez & Carretero, 2012). Many historical concepts are strongly related these issues (Rusen, 2004). When discussing history and historical concepts people often encounter themselves arguing about moral issues. Historical concepts are frequently charged with moral issues and history is often used to provide moral guidance (Barton & Levstik, 2004). In this sense many historical concepts embedded in historical narratives are morally charged. We are thinking of concepts such as ‘discovery’, ‘invasion’ or ‘reconquest’ among others. For instance, the concept of ‘discovery’, when talking about the narrative of the so called ‘Discovery of America’, promotes and supports a very specific narrative about this historical event. The historical narrative could be very different if the concept ‘encounter’ is used instead.

Related to this moral issue are the identity issues that many narratives and historical concepts deal with. Following the Discovery of America example, the concept of ‘discovery’ could be valued very differently from a Mexican student’s point of view than from a Spanish perspective. There is no doubt that many historical concepts relate to peoples’ own identity. This can make it harder to question or challenge the meaning of some concepts, as this would involve challenging or questioning our own social identity. When trying to foster historical second order concepts such as perspective taking or multiperspectivity this could be problematic (Carretero, Lopez, Gonzalez, & Rodrfguez-Moneo, 2012). However, it is precisely because of this identity link between ‘us’ and history that many people find history meaningful and useful. Thus some authors have discussed whether identity should be seen as a burden or a benefit for history learning (Hammack, 2010).

Finally, it is important to take into account how historical concepts are socially and politically used in and out of school. People usually develop misleading meanings and uses for many historical concepts in their everyday life, as we have seen also in the field of natural sciences. In this field it could be an ingenuous process. However, in the case of history these misleading uses of historical concepts are not so ingenuous. The social practices that can be commonly found in many western societies of teaching historical contents in and out of school are mostly political and ideologically biased (Billig, 1995; Evans, 2004). As Koselleck pointed out, history not only deals with the past but also with present and future. This is the reason why political and ideological uses of the past produce and reproduce misleading meanings for historical concepts and ahistorical narratives: not in order to critically understand the past, but in order to legitimate the present and promote certain futures. A clear example would be the concept of ‘national identity’. Although many historians have pointed out how ‘national identity’ is a modern and socially constructed concept developed in the late nineteenth century (Anderson, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1997; Smith, 1991), an ancient and natural essence of national identity is sustained for political use. It is clear that in this case political and historiographic uses and meanings clash. Interestingly enough, students are exposed many times to political and ideological uses of historical concepts -both in and out of school- and at the same time they are asked to develop a historical understanding of these concepts. This is something that we should take into account when dealing with conceptual change of historical concepts.

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