Contextual Analysis: Definition & Goals + Contextual Analysis in History

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Contextual analysis is a type of writing that studies an object and its environment. It can be a painting, a movie, a text, or any other concept or process. If you analyze an art object, the goal is to connect it with the author and cultural setting.

Not only historians deal with this type of paper. It is a common task for students who study literature, linguistics, and art. Follow this guide to find out how to write an analysis using our experts’ tips and examples.


  1. 📍 What is Contextual Analysis?
  2. 🚧 How to Conduct Contextual Analysis?
  3. 📜 Contextual Analysis in History
  4. 🎭 Contextual Analysis: Art
  5. 🖼️ Contextual Analysis Example

📍 Contextual Analysis Explained

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In this part, we will define the concept and its main goals.

Contextual Analysis Definition

A contextual analysis is used to evaluate an item in historical and cultural contexts. It studies the issues from political, economic, and philosophical angles.

Let’s choose a famous painting by Vincent van Gogh “Cafe Terrace at Night.” You should start by mentioning that the artist lived in Arles in the second half of the XIX century and that he represented the post-Impressionism art movement. This elementary background information explains the many features of the painting.

Goals of Contextual Analysis

  • Explaining complex works of art.
  • Bringing attention to the creator and their identity.
  • Discussing a particular subject to uncover its value.
  • Analyzing historical events from a new perspective.
  • Boosting critical thinking.

Context Analysis VS. Contextual Analysis

Students often confuse contextual analysis with context analysis.

Context analysis is a method for studying the environment of an object. Usually, business students use context analysis to examine a company on the macro level. Context analysis focuses mainly on the external factors in this case.

On the opposite, contextual analysis connects the historical and social setting with the object and its peculiarities.

🚧 Conducting a Contextual Analysis in 4 Steps

Writing a contextual analysis might seem challenging, but in reality, it takes several steps. We’ve prepared a guide on how to develop excellent contextual analysis and what to include in it.

Step 1. Learn About the Author

Information about the author might give you many insights and show the object from a new perspective. Learning a creator’s biography is also crucial. It can help you understand some details that you could have missed.

When writing a contextual analysis, answer these questions about the author:

  • When and where was the person born?
  • What was their life like? Did they have special education or training?
  • What were their values and beliefs?
  • Who or what inspired the creator?
  • What were their impressions of the work they created?

Step 2. Discover the Historical Background

Historical context is as important as the information about the author. Historical events, religion, and philosophy have always inspired writers, painters, and movie directors. The work’s historical setting hints at the creator’s original intentions.

Consider these questions when exploring the historical background:

  • What was the political situation when the object was created?
  • What were the key historical events at that time?
  • What was the economic situation in those years in that country?
  • Was religion important to the people of that time?
  • Which art forms were popular at that time?

Step 3. Detect the Style

A style is a tool for broadcasting a personal vision. There are unique features in any art, literature, music, or cinematography style, including form and colors. A combination of shapes, colors, and other details reflects a philosophy, which helps understand art better.

What you should consider when analyzing a style:

  • What are the striking features of the form, colors, and composition?
  • How does this style differ from other artworks of that time?
  • Does this style involve any cultural or religious symbolism?
  • Does this style belong to any art movement?
  • What other artists created in the same manner?

Step 4. Explore the Audience’s Reaction

Audiences’ reactions will help you understand the impact of the object. Research if an artwork has any awards or has taken part in exhibitions. Remember to check official reviews and the impressions of ordinary people.

To help you investigate an audience’s reaction, answer these questions:

  • Was the artwork famous when it was created?
  • What was the first public impression when it appeared? Did it change?
  • What characteristics do critics highlight?
  • Does the object have any rewards or prizes?
  • Were any other artworks inspired by the one you analyzed?

📜 Contextual Analysis in History

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History is full of bright events which inspire authors of paintings, books, and movies. Analyzing the context in the field of history is crucial for expanding your thinking. It is a great tool allowing us to learn the lessons of the past.

Contextual analysis in history includes:

Interpretation of the philosophical ideas and religious beliefs of that time.
Profile of the key historical figures and analysis of the contributions they made.
Numerical analysis of the economic environment and its influence on people’s life.
List the most influential discoveries, innovations, and new technologies.
The analysis of written documents, letters, newspaper articles, and speeches.
Data comparison on major conflicts, causes, and effects to find the truth.
Critical analysis of fashion and critical pop-cultural phenomena.

🎭 Contextual Analysis: Art

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All artworks exist in a context or multiple. The background details of these contexts help us understand what a work of art meant when it was created. A successful contextual analysis of artwork includes this information about:

  • The creator.
  • The time when it was made.
  • Its cultural contribution.

Here are step-by-step instructions on conducting a contextual analysis of art objects.

  1. Choose an art object you want to analyze. If it is not stated in the assignment, choose the one that will inspire you through the whole process of writing.
  2. Explore the critical information about the author. It can be a person or a group of artists.
  3. Analyze the historical and cultural background. Consider the key events that took part at that time. Study their causes and effects.
  4. Move on to the purpose of the art object and its significance. Think about the original meaning the artist wanted to convey.
  5. Describe the style features of a work of art you have chosen. Pay attention to forms, colors, and composition. Highlight what makes this style stand out.
  6. Look for the visual metaphors and symbols the object has. Think of the original meaning the creator tried to convey.
  7. Explore the audience and share your observations. Define people’s reactions and opinions and how they changed.

🖼️ Contextual Analysis Example

Vincent Van Gogh – Self Portrait, 1889.

Van Gogh was a well-known post-Impressionist painter. He was born in 1853 in the Netherlands and grew up in a pastor's family. Van Gogh decided to become an artist only at 27. He moved to Paris to go for his dreams. There, he met other famous artists and started drawing.

His contemporaries described Vincent as a complex and stubborn person. His main goal was to experience life in all possible ways. Van Gogh got inspired by observing people and nature. He spent the majority of his time in the province. The painter enjoyed the sunlight and warm climate there. Van Gogh didn't have academic education in art. Yet he was very demanding of himself and his paintings.

Van Gogh was a part of the post-Impressionist art movement. It was known back then as the philosophy of "modern life." The movement was popular in Europe at the time. Various exhibitions presented and promoted it. Van Gogh supported public ideas about the freedom of expression and emotions.

Van Gogh painted the last self-portrait only months before his death. The chaotic ornament of the background refers to his stay at the mental hospital. The colors of his face are yellowish, contrasting with the blue background. Face features are in shadow. It creates an impression of illness and unhappiness.

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