8.1.4 Different kinds of historical explanation

Back to 8.1.3

Unit 8 Contents


The exercise on 8.1.2 asked you to try to write down a list of historical events since 1776, and the response to it there gave such a chronology.  However, serious study of history is much more than learning what took place and in which order – because it involves offering explanations of why particular events happened the way they did.

In fact, trying to explain historical events, not just describing them, is the main thing historians do.  Learning the chronology of events is only the prerequisite for that.  (But it is necessary: it’s no good arguing that the reason event X took place was Y, if Y is something that happened after X!)

So historians address such questions as:

  • Why did what we call the Industrial Revolution occur when it did?
  • What were the factors that led to the issuing of Rerum Novarum in 1891?
  • What were the causes of the First World War?  (This question is an old chestnut and you might well have studied it at school, for example for GSCE history.)
  • Why did economic liberalism revive in the 1970s and become so influential in the 1980s?
  • What were the causes of the collapse of Communist regimes in Europe in 1989-90?
  • Why has the number of divorces risen so much in the UK since the mid-1960s?

Of course such questions are often far from easy.  This is partly because there is, almost always, a complex range of factors that contribute to particular outcomes.  Beyond this, such questions are difficult precisely because historical events are particular, i.e. unique.  History never really repeats itself, even if sometimes different events show striking similarities.  Therefore historical explanations are a different kind of thing from scientific explanations worked out on the basis of controlled experiments.  You can’t test your theory of why the First World War happened by setting up identical circumstances in a laboratory.

Even though historical events are unique, there are a number of schools of thought in the study of history, each of which stands for a different kind of historical explanation.  It is well worth being aware of these main approaches, and this will be useful background for looking at the encyclical that marked the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.

What do I mean by different kinds of historical explanation?  Here is one significant contrast.  Is it the few people in positions of great power and influence, such as presidents, government ministers, generals and popes, who determine most of what happens?  Or is it fact, in the end, the great mass of people who are the real agents of historical change?

The first of these two kinds of historical explanation can be called ‘elitist’ because it holds that it is people at the top of various social structures – the political, military, economic and religious elites – whose actions make the most difference.  Oversimplifying a bit, this approach sees history in terms of the deeds of leaders.  In reading Centesimus Annus (CA), we shall give some attention to the unexpected events that brought an end to Communist regimes in Europe in 1989-90.  Did these take place because President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher had found the Soviet Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, someone they could “do business with” (as Thatcher put it)?  What about the role of the Polish pope, John Paul II: was this also, as some have argued, very significant or even decisive?

Or was it, by contrast, the desire for change of millions of people in the Communist countries that caused them to rise up and bring it about – a great wave on which the leaders merely rode?  Here is what Pope John Paul himself wrote in Centesimus Annus:

Among the many factors involved… the decisive factor which gave rise to the changes was the violation of the rights of workers. It cannot be forgotten that the fundamental crisis of systems claiming to express the rule and indeed the dictatorship of the working class began with the great upheavals which took place in Poland in the name of solidarity. It was the throngs of working people which foreswore the ideology which presumed to speak in their name…  (Centesimus Annus, #23)

Here John Paul II is rejecting a narrowly elitist explanation.  Instead he is claiming that it was the “throngs of working people” whose actions were the most significant in bringing about those events.  Labels that are used for this kind of historical explanation are ‘history from below’ and ‘people’s history’.

It would be foolish to insist that only one of these two approaches is right.  As the quotation from CA emphasizes, there are many factors involved in major historical changes.  However it is valuable to be aware of both of those kinds of explanation, not least in order to raise questions if you come across historical accounts that seem to emphasize only one of them.



If you have time, look back at the chronology of events in the Response to the Exercise on 8.1.2.  Try to identify, on one hand, some events for which it seems likely that what a few leaders did was decisive and, on the other hand, some that are probably best explained in terms of actions by a large number of ordinary people.


Let us look briefly at a second contrast, which also is pertinent for Centesimus Annus.

Maybe the main factor that meant Communism collapsed was a purely economic one.  If you studied Unit 5 on economic life, you will recall the powerful argument made by Friedrich Hayek about knowledge in markets (5.1.5).  This was that markets are in practice a better way than state bureaucracies of getting most kinds of goods to people who can benefit from them, simply because of the wide distribution of relevant knowledge among participants in markets, a quantity of knowledge that can never be acquired by state bureaucrats.

On the basis of this argument, someone might hold that the main reason for the end of Communism is that the attempt to run state-controlled economies had, by the 1980s, proved disastrous, because bureaucracies simply can’t manage economies effectively.  The system collapsed from within, under the weight of its own incapacity.  In CA, not long after the quotation given above, John Paul II said: “The second factor in the crisis was certainly the inefficiency of the economic system” (#24).

This is an example of economic or ‘materialist’ historical explanation.  I have illustrated this kind of explanation with Hayek’s argument against Communist economics, but it was in fact Marxism which saw historical change as always driven by economic factors. As we saw in Unit 4 on working life, Marxism claimed that history was determined by conflict between classes, each of which was defined in terms of its relationship to ‘the means of production’ (i.e. to land and capital).  For Marx, this economic conflict was fundamental: to be human was to be defined by class membership.

Materialist or economic explanations can be highly illuminating and should by no means be dismissed or ignored.  Both great economic wealth and economic hardship are certainly significant in many ways in driving historical events.  But Marxism saw all historical change in terms of economic relations and many would agree that this was reductionist.  The ‘materialist theory of history’, as the Marxist view is called, gave an inadequate explanation because it was too simplistic: you need a larger number of factors than just economics to give a convincing historical account of pretty much any event in human society.

The kind of explanation that contrasts with materialism is called ‘idealist’.  In terms of the study of history, this word refers to an account that emphasises that it is ideas – people’s beliefs and what they think – that are most significant.  To some extent the outline I gave in Unit 2 of the historical background to modern CST takes an ‘idealist’ approach.  I say this because it emphasised the shift in the seventeenth century to a mechanistic world-view – in other words, that it was what people assumed and believed about the world that lay behind many other historical changes.  Perhaps that outline can be criticised for giving a one-sided account; I leave this to you to judge.

In CA, Pope John Paul emphasises ‘idealist’ factors.  Immediately after referring to the great significance of economic inefficiency in bringing down Communism, he says that that is “not to be considered simply as a technical problem”.  Rather, he says, such inefficiency is itself a consequence of the false conception of the human person in Marxist Communism and, beyond this, the atheism to which Communism was wedded.  He says:

But the true cause of the new developments was the spiritual void brought about by atheism, which deprived the younger generations of a sense of direction and in many cases led them… to rediscover the religious roots of their national cultures, and to rediscover the person of Christ himself as the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life.  (CA, #24)

So this second contrast is between materialist and idealist kinds of historical explanation.



Again, if you have time, go back to the chronology of events in the Response to the Exercise in 8.1.2.  Can you identify events which you think could be explained well in terms of material/economic factors?  Can you identify others that strike you as having taken place thanks largely to what people thought and believed, that is, to idealist factors?


This screen has simply introduced four different kinds of historical explanation.  These fall into two pairs of contrasts:

  • elitist history / ‘history from below’
  • materialist history / idealist history.

One main reason for introducing these is simply that the module has taken a historical approach – and this could not be done adequately if we paid no attention to issues about historical explanation.

A second reason is that this gives some useful background for the next part of this final unit, namely working through Centesimus Annus.


End of 8.1.4


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