Periodization

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Periodization is the attempt to categorize or divide time into named blocks. The result is a descriptive abstraction that provides a useful handle on periods of time with relatively stable characteristics. However, determining the precise beginning and ending to any "period" is often a matter of debate.

Contents

General

Most disciplines that attempt to talk fruitfully about the past find it helpful to break up what has happened in various ways, and to give these smaller units names. The names are valuable to the extent that they aid analysis and description. Periodization from the sciences includes the geologic Cretaceous or Jurassic periods, while examples from human history include the Zhou Dynasty, the Baroque Period, and the Harlem Renaissance.

To the extent that history is continuous and ungeneralizable, all systems of periodization are more or less arbitrary. Yet without named periods, however clumsy or imprecise, past time would be nothing more than scattered events without a framework to help us understand them. Nations, cultures, families, and even individuals, each with their different remembered histories, are constantly engaged in imposing overlapping, often unsystematized, schemes of temporal periodization; periodizing labels are continually challenged and redefined. One historian may write a new history of the Renaissance in Europe; another may claim that there was no such thing as the European Renaissance.

Usage

Not only will periodizing blocks inevitably overlap, they will often seemingly conflict with or contradict one another. Some have a cultural usage ("the Gilded Age"), others refer to prominent historical events ("the Inter-War years: 1918–1939"), yet others are defined by decimal numbering systems ("the 1960s", "the 17th century"). Other periods are named from influential or talismanic individuals ("the Victorian Era", "the Edwardian Era", "the Napoleonic Era").

Some of these usages will also be geographically specific. This is especially true of periodizing labels derived from individuals or ruling elites, such as the Jacksonian Era in America, the Meiji Era in Japan, or the Merovingian Period in France. Cultural terms may also have a limited reach. Thus the concept of the "Romantic period" may be meaningless outside of Europe and European-influenced cultures. Likewise, "the 1960s", though technically applicable to anywhere in the world according to Common Era numbering, has a certain set of specific cultural connotations in certain countries. For this reason it may be possible to say such things as "The 1960s never occurred in Spain." This would mean that the sexual revolution, counterculture, youth rebellion and so on never developed during that decade in Spain's conservative Roman Catholic culture and under Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime. Likewise it is possible to claim, as the historian Arthur Marwick has, that "the 1960s" began in the late 1950s and ended in the early 1970s. His reason for saying this is that the cultural and economic conditions that define the meaning of the period covers more than the accidental fact of a 10 year block beginning with the number 6. This extended usage is termed the "long 1960s". This usage derives from other historians who have adopted labels such as "the long 19th century" (1789–1914) to reconcile arbitrary decimal chronology with meaningful cultural and social phases. Similarly, an Eighteenth Century may run 1714–1789. Eric Hobsbawm has also argued for what he calls "the short twentieth century", encompassing the period from the First World War through to the end of the Cold War.

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