A -level history examinations often contain questions that focus on the concept of causation (or the reasons for past events). Students often fail to do themselves justice with their answers due to a tendency to drift towards writing in a descriptive, narrative-based manner. Such an approach usually leads to irrelevance and, therefore, responses that score low marks. This article looks at how to maintain focus on the demands of causation questions. Before considering the practical aspects of answering questions it is helpful to look at some theoretical underpinnings of the concept of causation.
In his book, What is History?, the historian E. H. Carr claims, ‘The great historian – or perhaps I should say the great thinker – is the man who asks the question “Why?” about new things or in new contexts.’ When Carr wrote this in the early 1960s, he was challenging the popular view that history was about narrative – that is, it involved providing a well-told story, based on facts, about the past. Carr implied that narrative, in the form of descriptive writing about what happened in the past, was a low-level skill. His view was that interrogating the facts by asking why something happened or why somebody carried out a certain action was far more challenging than stating what happened.
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