Asking Historical Questions

Properly engaging with history is an interactive process. You are not simply to memorize dates, names, and events (though that can be a very important part of the process), you are to ask historical questions. This is not the same as raising your hand to ask a yes or no question in class.

How to Ask Historical Questions: The Short Version

Don't ask what happened. Ask why it happened. Ask why that's the reason that it happened. Then ask "why?" a couple more times. Think in terms of social, economic, political, and environmental dimensions. Find the answer, and then find out why the answer is the answer. Keep going.

How to Ask Historical Questions: The Long Version

There are a myriad of systems of thought on historical thinking. The American Historical Association developed the five C's, the College Board (responsible for all of those AP classes that some of you are taking) developed their set of five themes for World History. Let's compare them below.

American Historical Association's Five "C's"1 AP World History Reasoning Skills2
  • Change Over Time
  • Causality
  • Context
  • Complexity
  • Contingency
  • Contextualization
  • Comparison
  • Causation
  • Continuity & Change Over Time


These are remarkably similar (contingency is the only real difference, which we will discuss later). 


History is not static. It seems so because you can flip to a page in a history textbook and it always has the same words on it. However, you would not look at today and yesterday and say that everything is the same without a lot of willful ignorance about what's going on in the world. What makes history interesting and relevant is the study of what changes over time, and why we think that change occurred. 


Every effect is preceded by a cause. Nothing simply happens. Whether or not we understand the cause is the question.

Determining the causes of historical events and patterns requires rigor and research. Consulting sources, both primary and secondary where available, creates a foundation upon which we can build understanding. We must not simply take sources or events at their face value. Everything has a simple explanation, but it is rarely enough to fully understand.


History is a collaborative and creative process. We understand history not simply as facts, but as arguments about what events mean. Not only that, every event has as many perspectives as there were people involved. Respecting that complexity is a core component of historical research and responsibility.


People and events are, to a degree, products of their environments and their contexts. When asking a historical question, it is imperative to consider the surrounding conditions. When asking why a historical thinker wrote what he or she did, to actually understand you must look into their society, their personal lives, their economic status, and the types of thinking running alongside theirs. Nothing happens in a vacuum.


This concept simply states that everything happens in a deeply interconnected world. To quote the AHA in Perspectives magazine:

[Contingency] offers a powerful corrective to teleology, the fallacy that events pursue a straight-arrow course to a pre-determined outcome, since people in the past had no way of anticipating our present world.3

This is where the "what if's" come into play as well; what if Hitler had been admitted to the College of Fine Arts in Vienna? What would have happened to Tesla if Edison had died early on? These touch on contingency, or the understanding that causes and effects are not simple straight lines. They are messy and they overlap.

Forming a Question

Actually forming your question is the hard part. Here is a good template:

"Why did such-and-such undergo change at a certain time, and what determined the kind/rate/direction of change?"4

Look into every factor you can think of, and through those, find more to address. If you find a short, quick, clear answer somewhere, the odds are it's not respective enough of the Five C's to be usable. 

Your question needs to be:

  1. Researchable. There needs to be a reasonable amount of data and sources available to you to fully and responsibly research the subject at hand.
  2. Specific. Many students errantly believe that a broader question gives them more to write about and will help them reach their word count. Wrong. A vague question will actually give you no direction and you will be prone to very basic, non-rigorous research and thesis statements. The more specific a subject is, the more in-depth you can go, and the more you have to write. Do not ask what caused World War II; instead, ask what factors led to the rise of Germany as a post-WWI power and why its leadership was able to act seemingly unchallenged by other European powers until it was too late.
  3. Flexible. You will find through researching that sometimes, your question either needs to be reframed or wholly adjusted to fit the realities of the available evidence. If that's the case, don't refuse to adapt it because you're unwilling to rewrite the intro you already completed. A better paper or project is definitely worth redoing the introduction.

What to do if you don't know what to ask

Start reading.

If you're not sure what you want to ask about the subject that your assignment concerns, it's time to start reading until something piques your interest. Find those primary sources, read through a few historical websites, find a scholarly article or two. Especially in searching through scholarly articles, you might find areas of research that you didn't know existed. Perhaps you don't much care for the military aspect of the Civil War, but the ways that the press covered the conflict in the North and South fascinates you. (Maybe you're a journalist at heart. Look into that.)

Get interested. Then ask about what you're interested in. Then get on to researching.