In simple language, context means the setting of an event. You can think of context as all the information you need to know to truly understand something.
For example, when you watch a movie from the very start, you learn about the names of the characters, where the movie is set, and what the plot line is. You can follow the movie’s storyline because you’ve learned about the context.
But when someone walks into the movie half-way through, they don’t really know what’s going on. They don’t know the characters’ names, the storyline, where it’s set, or what the relationships between the characters are. They’re confused because they don’t understand the context of the movie.
Often times, when thinking about the context of a situation, it’s a good idea to think about what you’d need to explain to an alien about a situation to get them caught-up on what’s going on.
Everything you need to tell the alien forms the context of the situation.
This article takes a look at a variety of examples of contexts, including social contexts, cultural contexts, historical contexts, political contexts, and educational contexts.
Social Context Examples
Social contexts are all about society and what you need to know about your society in any situation. Society has rules around behavior and interaction.
Many people in a society will have different cultures, but we all generally agree on a way to behave in society that’s usually based on the dominant culture in that society.
1. At School
School is a social context. It has its own rules and policies that inform how we should behave. Think about what you’d tell the alien in this situation. You might have to tell the alien that this school requires students to wear school uniforms. You could also tell them which teachers are mean and which are nice. Actually, you might even need to tell them what a teacher is and why all the students seem to be obeying what the teachers say!
2. In a Supermarket
A supermarket context is very different from a school context. If there are children in a supermarket, they’re probably not all playing together like at school. It might seem a little more disorganized. People are moving about in family groups and taking things off the shelves. Imagine what you’d explain to the alien here. You might have to tell them how to use a shopping cart, how to stand in a line to pay a cashier, and what currency you need in order to pay.
3. At a Backyard Barbecue
A backyard barbecue is also a very different context to a school. At school, the children are probably given structured tasks to complete. The adults are all working hard and focusing on educating the children. And sometimes there are bells ringing to tell everyone to change their activities. But, at the backyard barbecue, the children are all playing while the adults are all talking to one another! The adults might also be drinking beer and wine, something that they certainly wouldn’t be doing in the school context.
4. At Church
The church context seems to differ depending on the church. There are some similarities: everyone is talking about God. There is a priest or minister who is conducting proceedings, and there might be a lot of people praying. But there are also many differences: some charismatic churches might be boisterously singing while solemn Catholic churches might be more silent and reflective. What is the context of your church?
5. On the Bus
Think about the sorts of things you need to know in order to ride the bus. One thing might be that you should wait in an orderly line before boarding. You might also need to know how to pay. In one society, you might have to pay with a special transport card while other societies might require you to pay using cash. Here, riding the bus differs depending on the context. There are also cultural contexts involved here, such as the cultural idea that you should stand to allow elderly and pregnant people to get a seat.
Cultural Context Examples
Cultural contexts are all about what your own culture expects of you – its beliefs and values. It’s different from social context because it’s specific to you and your family’s values, not the values of your society as a whole.
While you might live in a society, your values might differ from those of your society. You might be culturally Christian (cultural context) but your society is secular (social context), for example.
Cultural contexts often inform and underpin social contexts. The dominant culture’s values are often part of the social context, so, these two things overlap a lot. But remember, cultural contexts are about values and beliefs while social contexts are about rules and expectations that everyone in society must follow.
6. In a Sacred Space
Some cultures have very sacred spaces. An example is a cemetery or gravesite. A place where your relatives are buried is probably really important to you. You want to respect their memory. Similarly, a military cemetery is respected by many Americans because those people died for your freedoms. So, you wouldn’t make a lot of noise here or have a party. Native Americans also have sacred places for their cultures, such as places for traditional ceremonies. This cultural context is a reason why we might choose not to develop new buildings in these sacred locations.
7. In a Holy Space
A holy space has religious significance. Of course, the most famous of these is Mecca, a holy space for Muslims. Holy spaces like Mecca have certain rules, like the fact that only Muslims are allowed in Mecca, and you must dress modestly. You need to understand the cultural context of Mecca (specifically, that you must adhere to Islamic cultural practices) before you go there. Muslims might need to teach the Islamic cultural context to non-Muslims to help them understand what it’s like to be in Mecca.
8. Conservative Cultural Context
A conservative cultural context is a situation where the dominant cultural group in a space is conservative. You can think of societies like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia as places with much more conservative cultural contexts than the United States or England. Think about what you might need to teach the alien before they go to Saudi Arabia. You might be reminded that there are certain rules for women’s behavior, dress codes, and when you’re allowed to drink alcohol.
9. Liberal Cultural Context
A liberal cultural context, by contrast, is going to be very different. The United States, as one of the most liberal places in the world, protects your freedoms to practice your own cultural and religious beliefs. You’d need to explain to an alien coming to the USA about how you’re allowed to behave in the US, and how you shouldn’t. But, you’d also need to explain that different cultures within the US will also have their own cultural contexts, governing their own personal behavior.
10. A Western Context
A western cultural context is the cultural context that underpins western places like Europe and the United States. In a Western cultural context, you’d traditionally be expected to fit into western cultural norms within western countries. The cultural context in the West includes beliefs in individual freedom and freedom of religion. These cultural contexts inform social contexts in many Western countries, like the rules of behavior and laws of the nations. In other words, the western culture (cultural context – underlying beliefs and values) informs the western society (social context – rules and interactions between people).
11. In the United States
There are many different cultural contexts in the United States. Go to the conservative South and people may be much more polite and religious. Go to liberal Seattle and people might be much more open-minded. So, you need to know the cultural context of where you’re going. But this is all underpinned by an overarching social context – the rules of behavior in America. (See also: American Taboos).
Historical Context Examples
Historical contexts are all about what was unique or specific about a certain time in history. This can include cultural and social contexts that are now in the past.
Think about what you’d need to tell an alien about the following times in history to help them understand what was happening. Sometimes, different moments in time had different cultural and social contexts to today – so when talking about historical context, consider the social and cultural factors that were dominant at a specific time.
12. During the 1990s
When you watch a TV sitcom from the 1990s, they’re very different from today’s sitcoms. There’s a lot less racial and gender diversity in sitcoms like Friends than in newer American sitcoms, for example. We can deduce that in the 1990s there were some cultural context factors specific to that era, and they’ve changed now. All those factors are now considered historical contexts.
13. During the 1950s
The 1950s was even more conservative than the 1990s. Looking at the historical context of the USA in the 1950s, you’ll notice that its social and cultural factors were very different then. There were less women in the workforce, a lot more people attending church, and a lot of babies being born (we call them the ‘baby boomers’).
14. In the Middle Ages
Looking way back to the Middle Ages, life was very different. There wasn’t any electricity, for one thing! Societies weren’t industrialized, and many people didn’t know how to read. This means that information was mostly shared by word of mouth. Religion was much more important to life than it is in today’s Western countries. And society was ruled by kings and queens! All these factors influenced the historical context.
15. The Spanish Inquisition
During the Spanish Inquisition, there were several social and cultural factors that together form the historical context of the Inquisition. For the social context, Spain was ruled by Kings and Queens who had ultimate power. For the cultural context, the rulers of the society was deeply Catholic and they wanted to purge non-Catholics from the country. All these factors influenced our memory of that time in history.
Political Context Examples
Political contexts describe what you need to know about the politics of a situation.
16. A Capitalist Society
A capitalist society’s political context involves characteristics like: freedom to start a business, low taxes, and minimal government intervention. Of course, there are different types of capitalism so you can dig even deeper into this political context to describe exactly what sort of capitalism is active in a society at any point in time.
17. A Divisive Political Context
A ‘divisive’ political context might describe a situation where people in society don’t see eye to eye on political issues. You could describe America’s political context as very divisive because Republicans and Democrats seem to be fighting about things all the time!
18. A Communist / Socialist Society
A communist society is the political context in Cuba and China. It’s where the government has a lot of control over the means of production and doesn’t let you start a business. It usually also involves authoritarianism and control over the media. You’ll also not be able to vote for a new leader every few years like in democratic societies, which tend to be more capitalist or social-democratic.
19. A Social-democratic Society
A social-democratic society explains societies in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some South American and Asian nations. This is a society where there is a mix between socialism and capitalism. The government will often allow people to start businesses but will also pay for healthcare, childcare, and education for everyone to try to increase access and fairness.
Educational Context Examples
Different educational institutions in different places and at different times have different contexts. The setting or background details need to be explained to understand the educational context wherever you are.
20. University Contexts
A university will usually have an educational context that is far different to that of a high school. Chances are that people will be coming and going rather than staying all day like at compulsory schooling. You might have a class in the morning then no more classes until the evening. Traditionally universities were also research focused and allowed people to discuss dangerous and taboo topics that might not be allowed to be discussed in high school.
21. Early Childhood Contexts
Early childhood contexts are usually very focused on child safety and play-based learning to help children grow. Think about all the things that have to be done in an early childhood center that will be different to a university. For starters, the ages of the people there will be different! The context will involve everything you’d have to describe to someone who has never been into an early childhood center.
22. Private School Contexts
A private school context will be very different to a public school context. In private schools, you’ll likely have to wear a school uniform and follow stricter rules. The children’s parents are also paying to send the children to the school. Most private schools have a set of underpinning values (which may be understood to be the cultural context of the schools), such as a religious doctrine or a special way of teaching, such as Montessori education.
23. Public School Contexts
Public schools in most countries allow any child to attend. So, they’re usually not tied to religious belief systems and often don’t have a dress code policy. However, public schools in the UK do have uniform policies. So you can see here that even within public schools there might be different contexts. What other differences could you think of between UK and US public schools that could be parts of the different school contexts?
The above examples of contexts are just a few of the countless examples. Anything that explains the background information and can help shed more light on a situation can be considered a ‘context’. One of the best ways to identify what is a context is to simply think about everything you’d need to describe and explain to someone in order for them to understand a situation. Think about all the hidden rules and knowledge you’d need to catch up on what’s going on in society, a movie, or whatever else you’re describing.