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Why we need Contextual Thinking

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Instead of saying “consider the source” when we hear something strange, we could also say “consider the context. While the first option takes us to the speaker’s story, the second one takes us to their situation. In a way, it’s the difference between a psychological and a sociological approach. Or, between an individualist and a systemic interpretation.

There are certainly white racist men, but there is also a white male social world—a context that allows white men to get away with things. Non-whites and many women know this social world because they experience it as having expectations and perceptions that are different than theirs. Contextual thinking allows us to pay attention to these differences.

Contextual thinking sees persons as participating in a social world, a world that is created and maintained by particular patterns and ways of doing things. An obvious example would be a burial at a grave site. For most of us, it’s fairly clear what clothes to wear, what is said and not said, even how we touch and look at each other. Some attendees may rebel, and maybe for good reasons, but few would fail to know “where we are.”

Another prime example is a session in a courthouse. I remember sitting in the back row with my classmates when I was in high school. I guess I was messing around a bit, which I stopped immediately when the judge announced that talking was not allowed and if we continued, we need to leave. In such cases, the appropriate behavior was not based on character, but on the situation—the context.

Knowing the context, of course, is not always that easy. We all learn about it as we grow up and as we enter new contexts. We usually watch and listen to see what is appropriate. It gets fairly complicated as we move from one context to another. In some cases, it’s about fitting in, or being invited, or belonging. There are also cases where we resist conforming to the context because we feel unseen or are asked to be someone we are not. Perhaps what is most difficult is when you believe the context needs to be changed, but just as you did not create the context by yourself, it’s probably impossible for you to change it.

You could just avoid it. Pretending things just are, existing in thin air, so to speak. A shining example of this approach are fundamentalist Christians who read the Bible as though it was not written in particular times and places, for particular purposes in response to particular audiences and so on. It’s a shame that so many Christians know so little about the Bible’s historical contexts, which for me made it more accessible than reading it as though it belonged to our world today.

Living in our pluralistic multi-cultural world today makes contextual thinking necessary and difficult. It may not seem necessary for those of us who are privileged in live in a world that benefits us at the expense of others. That’s not a bad definition of privilege: taking advantage of how a context favors us without admitting it. There are cracks in this frame, however, such as the continuing destruction of the planet as our habitat, the pandemic, and the rising number of city “villages.”

It’s not a bad idea to assume that most of us do the best we can, given our circumstances, or at least, most of us do what we think is right, given the world we think we live in. If that’s the case, then it’s the context that deserves our attention. Sometimes, it’s easier to recognize the context of others than our own. That’s especially true for those of us who count our accomplishments as things we did, as though our context didn’t make a difference.

My argument is that the context that has preserved American prosperity is a climate of injustice. This context emerged from the Atlantic commerce of Europeans enslaving, killing, and displacing millions, and it has never been corrected. If we want a viable future for our children and grandchildren, we have to change the direction of American prosperity, and to do that, it is necessary that we engage in contextual thinking.

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