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Early history

Modern history

Recent attempts

Contemporary pedagogic periodization



Periodization attempts to impart significance to the passage of time in history by identifying and ordering chronological sequences (periods). As practiced by historians, it has a long and varied history; as a subject of study, it commands neither a formal body of knowledge nor systematic instruction. To the historian, although not to the archeologist or anthropologist, periodization serves no accepted theoretical function. For unlike the concept of period in the earth sciences or of periodicity in the physical sciences, the concept of historical period depends more on stipulation than on inference from commonly accepted evidence. As to modern philosophers of history, both the nominalistically and the neoidealistically inclined have denied that historical periods are “real“: the former because a period cannot be said to exist in the sense in which a historical event or person exists; the latter because they see all ordering of historical materials as a function of the individual historian’s mind (Collingwood 1927; Croce [1917] 1960, chapter 7).

Periodization lends itself to broad typology. In the following account of some of the principal periodization schemes in Western history, two major types, among others, are distinguished. They may be conveniently labeled lawlike (historical periods are significant as manifesting the operation of a cosmic, divine, biological, or social force) and pedagogic (historical periods are significant as didactic or heuristic devices, the concept of underlying forces being minimized or ignored).

Early history

Mythopeic and religious thought stand at the origin of lawlike periodization, specifically at the origin of the idea that terrestrial events follow time cycles. The biological birth-death cycle and the seasonal cycles of sun and moon were related to cosmic cycles of redemptive significance. Cyclical paradigms are found in virtually every ancient Middle Eastern and Far Eastern world view (Cairns 1962). Thus, alongside calendrical and astronomical periods, a variety of cosmic or divine periods were devised: the great cosmic year or divine year was a cycle of varying duration from 3,000 to 36,000 years. Classical antiquity and early Christianity adopted and transformed some of these and other mythical time divisions, thereby laying the foundation for Western thought.

In classical antiquity, the ancient myth of four metallic ages (gold, silver, bronze, and iron) was reinterpreted for the Greeks by Hesiod (c. eighth century B.C.) and popularized for the Romans in the poetry of Ovid and Vergil. The cycle itself(periodos, Gr.; periodus, L.) figured more in philosophy and cosmology than in history. But at least one historian, through whom cyclical notions came to be transmitted to Machiavelli and other classically influenced writers, utilized the idea of the cycle: Polybius (c. 203-c. 120 B.C.). Other influential classical conceptions attempted to connect mythical ages to calculable chronologies. The Roman Varro (116-27 B.C.) created a tripartite scheme: the obscure, the fabulous, and the historical periods—the last-named commencing with the first Olympiad (776 B.C.).

The two principal Christian periodizations, designating terrestrial events as successive stages of a divinely ordained rhythm, were as follows: (1) The interpretation of Daniel’s dreams of four kingdoms (Daniel 2.31 ff., 7.17 ff.), whose contents resembled the Hesiodic myth, as four successive empires or monarchies. The idea of four monarchies—Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Macedonian, and Roman—dominated historiography until at least the sixteenth century. The Roman Empire, having been designated as lasting to the end of the world, was necessarily seen as continued by the Byzantine and Frankish emperors. Hence the emphasis on dating periods within the fourth andfinalempire by dynasties and individual rulers, a chain of dating which is still routine classroom periodization for much of European history. (2) Saint Augustine’s addition of three periods to the three 14-generation periods from Abraham to Christ which are laid down in the Bible (Matthew 1.17). Augustine made it six ages in all, corresponding to the six days of creation—five ages from Adam to Christ and the sixth from Christ to the end of time. The seventh to come was the Sabbath day or millennium. This scheme not only influenced Christian chronographers and chroniclers and, since each age came to be reckoned at 1,000 years, enabled calculation of the end of the world; it also produced the modern conventions of dating. The oldest and longest-lived was by years A.M. (anni mundi), since the creation; years A.D. (anni [ab incarnatione] Domini) appeared in the sixth century and years B.C. (anni ante Christum [natum]) in at least two works published in the fifteenth century. The currently widespread belief that years B.C. first appeared in the eighteenth century is demonstrably wrong, but it was probably not much before 1700 that the idea of pure chronological reckoning, or dating by years, emancipated itself from the periodization schemes which it subserved in the Christian West.

Modern history

The renascence and development of secular learning from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, in particular the emergence of history as a discipline very nearly independent of moral philosophy and rhetoric, produced new concepts of periodization. First, contemporary scholarship in law, language, and letters created an awareness of the discontinuities in the eternal Roman Empire; postclassical Latin, for example, was obviously unlike classical Latin. A second period, a medium aevum, originally a theological notion, was posited. Christophorus Cellarius, 1634-1707, though not the first to conceive of it (Pot 1951, pp. 113-122; Bernheim 1889, vol. 1, p. 77 in the 1908 edition), enunciated the division of history into ancient history (to A.D. 311), medieval history (to 1453), and modern history. Despite continuing differences about boundary dates (A.D. 476 for 311; 1485, 1492, or 1517 for 1453), Cellarius’ tripartite division became, and has remained, the principal accepted periodization for Western history. This is undoubtedly so because historians have come to regard its significance as pedagogic, as offering easily conveyed, broad characterizations of cultural differentiation, void of metaphysical and pseudoscientific speculation. A second product of the revival of secular learning was the occasional substitution of classical ideas of the mutability of fortune for the Christian ethic. Aristotelian and Polybian in origin, this notion involved concepts of cyclical revolutions and successions of states; being almost exclusively confined to political philosophy, its impact on historiography was slight. More persistent was numerical periodization, the search for cardinal numbers whose recurrence explained the number of years intervening between significant historical events or their duration. Partly of Platonic and Pythagorean origin, it was revived by the political philosopher Jean Bodin, among others. In his Method for the Easy Comprehension of History (1566), he showed the duration of lives of famous men to be multiples of 7 and 9, and elsewhere he used numerology to establish the likely duration of states (496 years). Numerical periodization also had Biblical sanction: counting the numbers of generations to obtain chronological divisors goes back to the Old Testament.

By the eighteenth century, the new scholarship had prepared the ground for periodizations as lawlike as those of their Christian and classical predecessors but explicitly secular and socially oriented. Under the influence of scientific and geographic discovery, of the quarrel about the superiority of the moderns over the ancients, and of the spread of antiabsolutist ideas in politics and in philosophy, a variety of forward-looking doctrines had come into being. These are conveniently summed up as the idea of progress. History—past, present, and future—was to be a mirror of the working out of the successive stages of this idea. Conversely, the large accretions of historical materials coming to hand were held to be intelligible only as manifestations of the periodic and progressive development of one or more of the new, enlightened doctrines. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, histories which rose above the purely narrative or factual level tended to be written on that principle. Its earliest significant representative was the Italian Giambattista Vico, 1668-4744. He combined the older, cyclical model with the newer, progressive-stage model by positing a higher-level cyclical recurrence (ricorso) of his three-period cycle (corso). That cycle consisted of the ages of gods, heroes, and men, each age being characterized by the literary, legal, linguistic, religious, and behavioral developments appropriate to it; for example, the development of thought, which underlay the whole scheme, took the successive forms of sensation, imagination, and rationality.

Progressive French thinkers elaborated their periodization schemes by extending the intellectual vocabulary of progress to the idea of perfectibility, by showing a Voltairean disdain for the unenlightened Middle Ages, and sometimes by predicting a socioeconomic Utopia as the final period. Along these lines Turgot, 1727-1781, and Saint-Simon, 1760-1825, produced three-stage periodizations of considerable subsequent influence. Condorcet’sSketch . . . of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795) divided history in terms of the progress of knowledge: significant cultural inventions determined successive stages—for example, the fourth stage of Condorcet’s ten-stage periodization begins with the invention of the alphabet and the eighth with printing. In Germany, progressive themes were adumbrated by Kant, Herder, and Fichte. The climax was reached in the four-stage periodization scheme of Hegel’s Philosophy of History (1837). In its specific details—how the embodiment of the idea of reason, the so-called world spirit, successively realized itself in the Oriental, the Greek, the Roman, and the Germanic worlds—the scheme has not survived its author’s fame. (That was also the fate of its great French counterpart, Auguste Comte’s Positive Philosophy [18301842], which divided history into a theological, a metaphysical, and a scientific period; this was done according to positivist beliefs totally unlike those of the idealist Hegel, of whose work Comte declared deliberate ignorance.) However, Hegel’s basic thesis, that differing historical periods represent successive realizations of an identical principle, so that meaningless chronological succession has been subjected to meaningful logical (dialectical) order, is still with us. Especially in its materialist version, with economic forces in place of the world spirit (as in Marxism), it is the only species of lawlike periodization continuing to make an impact on social science.

Recent attempts

In the twentieth century, a number of schemes, most of them modifications of earlier ones, exist side by side. Classical Marxism, claiming to have substituted scientific, lawlike periodization for Hegel’s rhythm of the spirit, divides history into five periods: primitive communalism, classical slavery, Western and Asian feudalism, capitalism, and socialism (communism). These correspond to identifiable stages in the development of productive forces and the social relations they create. Contemporary Marxist scholars allow for more variety within this framework and hold that it parallels, and explains, the traditional ancient-medievalmodern periodization. Various levels of generality of periodization are admitted, including so-called private periodization within the accepted larger epochs (Zhukov 1960). This rapprochement between pedagogic and lawlike periodization does not obscure the fundamentally differing starting points of each in respect to determinism, inevitability, prediction, and other consequences of a belief in historical laws.

The other two comprehensive lawlike periodizations of our time are the works of Oswald Spengler (1918-1922) and Arnold Toynbee (1934-1961). Thematically, they hark back to the birth-death cycles common to Eastern and ancient Western cosmology and revived intermittently since. There is a finite number of historical units: 8 cultures in Spengler, 21 civilizations in Toynbee. Each undergoes—inevitably in Spengler, with qualifications and alternatives in Toynbee—four periods of development: birth, growth, aging, and death. This periodicity is morphological or physiognomic, descriptive of states of a cycle and not expressing the development of some substantive concept like economic or intellectual advance. Spengler explains differentiations within and between cultures in stylistic terms (Newton’s physics was “baroque“). Indeed, cultural historians generally, at any rate since the pioneering Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, 1818-1897, have had recourse to stylistic periodization. Identification of periods in terms of style has been used to advantage by literary and art historians. To the general historian, this has not been persistently useful. To extend such terms as “neoclassical” or “romantic” from the aesthetic phenomena of a period to social, economic, diplomatic, and political phenomena may invite verbal confusion. It may also give a period a unity it does not possess—for example, Germany in the Napoleonic period reached cultural, especially literary, peaks but was politically impotent. Not even most of the art forms in a given period are likely to be correctly characterized by applying to them stylistic terms applicable to one or two of them. [See Style.]

Numerical periodization, mentioned above, has also survived, in form but not in repute, and the life-span of patriarchs is no longer its subject. In the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century, newer versions of counting biological lifetimes to which a numerical value was assignable appeared. The once best-known was the Austrian 0. Lorenz’ “law of three generations” (1886). Three generations make up 100 years; hence centuries are the spiritual units of history; large-scale events tend to occur every 3 x 3 or every 6x 3 generations, that is, at 300- and 600-year intervals. While rival systems based detailed numerical-period calculations on the prestigious natural sciences of the day—as Henry Adams did with physics in his essay “The Rule of Phase Applied to History” (1909)—the concept of generation as the numerical key to history remained the most diligently expounded theme in the half century after Lorenz (Teesing 1949, chapter 3). Whether stated as the father-son problem, as simple psychological antitheses and coherences (as with Mannheim), or as the discovery of the number of years of duration of an intellectual generation (as with Ortega y Gasset, whose number was 15), the concept of generations as the key to bioideational periods in history has been a topic attracting much scholarly effort. [SeeGenerations.]

Contemporary pedagogic periodization

As already indicated, pedagogic periodization is the only scheme generally accepted by modern historians, however shallow and void of commitment to ultimates it may appear to Marxist and theological critics. Textbooks and college courses treat chronological divisions like national divisions: primarily as manageable and secondarily as meaningful slices of a subject that cannot be digested whole. Obviously, there are reservations in accepting the ancient-medieval-modern scheme and its many subdivisions—almost as many reservations as there are individual historians. Most of those fall into two broad classes: (1) Acceptance of convenient periodization tends to imply acceptance of established terms denoting periods (like archaic, Middle Ages, Enlightenment, Reconstruction) but not necessarily of terminal dates. Especially where terms—as period-denoting terms—are not of contemporary origin (like Elizabethan, coined two centuries later) or denote relatively miscellaneous habits of thought (like Renaissance), historians using the same terms are likely to assign different terminal dates to them. Sometimes, the terms themselves are called into question—but usually to improve terminology, not periodization (Early Middle Ages for Dark Ages, for example). (2) Specialized studies tend to substitute a time structure of their own, derived from the changes in features of the subject studied. The history, say, of price structure would not be most advantageously understood in terms of the ancient-medieval-modern or any other division designed to make large-scale cultural differentiations more manageable. Hence the fact that periodization as a scholarly pursuit is less in evidence now than in earlier times, when history was studied as nonspecialized universal history covering all known mankind and all known ages. While all specialism necessarily inhibits this pursuit by devaluing the use of larger periods, some specialism strengthens the use of smaller ones. What is perhaps most significant about pedagogic periodization today is the use of smaller units.

Concentration on shorter periods of study has widened the gulf between pedagogic and lawlike periodization. This is not the case because the former deals in decades and the latter in millennia—a generalization by no means true. It is rather that the smaller units employed nowadays make the prerequisite of lawlike schemes—namely, the assertion of a single spiritual, economic, biological, numerical, or psychological law or principle—increasingly unlikely. Recognized period designations are drawn typically from ecclesiastical history (Reformation), political history (Colonial Period), dynastic history (Victorian), chronology (Eighteenth Century), science (Darwinism), and scholarship (Humanism). This variety has strengthened the recognition of the purely conventional character of periodization. But there seems no widely recognized or epistemologically warrantable implication that current practice is subjective and lawlike periodization objective. Variety expressed in conventions that are appropriate to it suggests greater congruence between study and subject studied. Periodization as convention rather than ontological proof suggests greater congruence with scientific method. Admittedly, there is more looseness, more dispute, more disagreement on dates and other factors affecting precise delimitation of the units into which history is broken up. But if different historians with different viewpoints arrive at different configurations of periods, the presumption is that they are accurate observers rather than accurate believers. At least the presumption is greater than if they looked at the complexity which is history and turned in identical results.

George H. Nadel


[See alsoHistoriography; History; Tim E Series, article onCycles; Time,article onSocial Organization.]


Adams, Henry (1909) 1959 The Rule of Phase Applied to History. Pages 265-311 in Henry Adams, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma. With an introduction by Brooks Adams. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

Bernheim, Ernst (1889) 1960 Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie. 2 vols. Burt Franklin Bibliographical and Reference Series, Vol. 21. New York: Franklin.

Bodin, Jean (1566)1945 Method for the Easy Comprehension of History. Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies, No. 37. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Cairns, Grace E. 1962 Philosophies of History: Meeting of East and West in Cycle-pattern Theories of History. New York: Philosophical Library.

Collingwood, R. G. 1927 Oswald Spengler and the Theory of Historical Cycles. Antiquity 1:311-325, 435-446.

Comte, Auguste (1830-1842) 1896 The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau, with an introduction by Frederic Harrison. 3 vols. London: Bell. -* First published as Cours de philosophic positive.

Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat (1795) 1955 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. New York: Noonday. → First published as Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progres de Vesprit humain.

Croce, Benedetto (1917) 1960 History: Its Theory and Practice. New York: Russell. → First published as Teoria e storia della storiografia.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1837) 1956 The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover. → First published as Vorlesungen iiber die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte.

Landmann, Michael 1956 Das Zeitalter als Schicksal: Die geistesgeschichtliche Kategorie der Epoche. Basel: Verlag fur Recht und Gesellschaft.

Lorenz, Ottokar 1886 Die Geschichtswissenschaft in Hauptrichtungen und Aufgaben kritisch erortert. Berlin: Hertz.

Pot, Johan H. J. Van Der 1951 De periodisering der geschiedenis: Een overzicht der theorieen. The Hague: Stockum en Zoon. → A major modern work on the subject; it is confined to over-all world-historical periodization.

Spengler, Oswald (1918-1922) 1926-1928 The Decline of the West. 2 vols. Authorized translation with notes by Charles F. Atkinson. New York: Knopf. → Volume 1: Form and Actuality. Volume 2: Perspectives of World History. First published as Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

Teesing, H. P. H. 1949 Das Problem der Perioden in der Literaturgeschichte. Groningen (Netherlands): Wolter. → Goes beyond literary to historical periodization problems.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1934-1961 A Study of History. 12 vols. Oxford Univ. Press.

Wellek, Rene 1940 Periods and Movements in Literary History. English Institute, Annual 2:73-93. → Now called Essays.

Zhukov, E. M. 1960 The Periodization of World History. Volume 1, pages 74-88 in International Congress of Historical Sciences, Eleventh, Stockholm, 1960,Rapports. Goteborg (Sweden): Almqvist & Wiksell.

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Periodization, which became a branch of historical method and the philosophy of history in the twentieth century, has to do with the division of time's arrowthe theoretical timeline of the movement from past to present and future. In Western tradition this speculative aspect of history has its roots in myth and in the Biblein Hesiod's succession of gold, silver, and bronze ages, for example, and in the periods and generations of the nation of Israel since Creation and the Fall, which long furnished the framework for the Judeo-Christian story of humanity, within which other cultural traditions were synchronized. To these, Christian theologians added ideas of particular ages (aetates ), especially those before the law, under the law, and under grace, and later the ages of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, inspired by Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130 or 11351201 or 1202); and such messianic periodization passed also into eastern Europe, especially Poland. In ancient and medieval times, as in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo, Isidore of Seville, and the Venerable Bede, there was much speculation about the natural "ages of man"three, four, six, or seven of themwhich carried the analogy of the trajectory of human life (birth, youth, maturity, degeneration, and death) into the collective experience of nations or of humanity as a whole. Thus in the twentieth century Claude de Seyssel adapted Joachim's conceit of four ages to French history, marking infancy from the legendary Pharamond, youth to the end of the Merovingian dynasty, maturity under the Carolingians, and old age under the Capetian. On the political level the commonest way of describing the structure of history was through the biblically inspired conceit of the succession of four world monarchiesMedes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, which included the Carolingian refoundation, the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," down to its extinction by Napoleon in 1806. The notion of periods defined through political dominance was continued in the modern European tradition by recognition of Spain, France, England, Germany, and the United States (and the Soviet Union) as leading powers in their respective hours of glory.

For five or more centuries Western history has been dominated by the ancient-medieval-modern periodization, which arose from the conception of a "middle age" between ancient cultural splendor and its modern recovery by the humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and by Protestant Reformers reacting to the intellectual "barbarism" of medieval scholasticism. As Petrarch (13041374) wrote in one of his sonnets (Epistolae metricae 3.33): "Long before my birth time smiled and may again, / for once there was, and yet will be, more joyful days. / But in this middle age time's dregs / sweep around us." And "in order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages"whence the conceit of a rebirth of antiquity and the aforementioned triad of periods. Similar to Petrarch's perspective was the view of Christian humanists and reformers like Martin Bucer (14911551), who wrote of "the various periods of the church," from the purity of the primitive church to the centuries of oppression under Antichrists to his own time of a return to the true gospel in the Kingdom of Christ. The seventeenth-century notion of "a middle time between ancient and modern," fixed in the textbook tradition by Conrad Cellarius (15741636), and continued into the later period, when the "renaissance of letters" was essentialized and publicized as simply "the Renaissance" by Jules Michelet, Jacob Burckhardt, and their epigones, later became the subject of debate by twentieth-century scholars. In the nineteenth century his convention of three ages was applied by European historians also to India, China, and America.

Periodization focused first on literary and artistic change, but from the eighteenth century it attended also to the material base and, in the work of Adam Smith, Anne Turgot, and Y.-A. Goguet, developed a stadial conception of human history. "The four stages of society," wrote Smith in 1762, "are hunting, pasturage, farming, and commerce." He explained these stages and the "origins of government" with the help of the ancient theory of three constitutional forms: "In the age of hunters there can be very little government of any sort, but what there is will be of the democratical kind. The age of shepherds is that where government properly commences, followed by agriculture, property, and rule by a few rich men, and then by the emergence of chieftains, marking a monarchical government." Arts and manufactures are then cultivated, "as property arrangements and disputes are multiplied and civilized through writing" (pp. 201, 459). By the end of the century this thesis, promoted also by Lord Kames, James Dalrymple, John Millar, Lord James Barrett Monboddo, William Russell, Christoph Meiners, and others had become commonplace in Britain as well as the continent, and it had a significant impact on the ideas of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and later world historians and textbook writers.

This line of inquiry and interpretation were part of what Dugald Stewart called "conjectural history," and there were many examples of efforts at periodization in this connection, beginning with the old biblical narrative, which Bishop Bossuet (16271704) divided into twelve "epochs" from Adam and the Flood down to Charlemagne's empire. A more secular periodization was devised by Giambattista Vico, who posited a succession of three agespoetic (barbaric), heroic (feudal), and human (civil). Perhaps the most famous system was that of Marie-Jean Caritat, Marquis. de Condorcet (17431794), who, like Bossuet a century earlier, divided universal history into "epochs," but ten instead of twelve and following not Biblical chronology but rather a "reasoned" sort of history, analogous to Lockean psychology but projected onto a collective tabula rasa. Condorcet followed the improvement of social skills, technology, and the advancement of learningfrom tribal, pastoral, and agricultural society, through the ancient and medieval periods, down to the invention of printing, the rise of modern philosophy, the founding of the French Republic in the age of revolutions, and his own agenda"reason, toleration, and humanity"which he presented in the form of prophecy. So he made his transition from the ninth to the tenth epoch, which was devoted to "the future progress of the human mind" and which represented a secular version of the eschatological dimensions of Christian tradition. As humanity approaches perfection, so history becomes futurology, and this heritage was taken up by French Utopians, Socialists, Positivists, Marxists, and not a few historians in the next century, who offer a wide range of ideas of progress.

Marx continued the economic interpretation, making the primary mode of production and class conflict the criteria, and the result was the threefold division of history of (primitive) feudal, capitalist, and proletarian, which inspired research, speculation, and polemic for over a century. For Marx history begins in barbarism and its kinship relations and moves on to the higher form of feudalism, based on control of landed property and serfdom, and then, with the development of trade, commerce, and finance, to a capitalist mode of production and industrialization that, generating proletarian class consciousness, looks forward to a transition to communism. The materialist view of history, inherited by Marx from Enlightenment political economy, was taken up as well by prehistorians, who on the basis of archeological researches distinguished the ages of stone (old and newpaleolithic and neolithic), bronze, and iron, which replaced or gave solid reinforcement to the "four-stage" system of eighteenth-century conjectural history, by connecting it with more precise chronologicalthat is, stratigraphiccalibrations. In the twentieth century the Annales school shifted attention from events and periodization to structures of long duration, and historians of women have questioned the relevance of traditional periodization to the turning points in the history of women.

Systems of periodization continue to appear, but most are variations on these old themes, applying ideas of evolution and "modernization," if not decadence and decline. Of course there are lower levels of periodizing, that is designating periods, whether by centuries, decades, cultural styles (Romantic, Baroque, Gothic, fin de siècle), political domination (Elizabethan, Napoleonic, Victorian, Soviet, Nazi), or individual celebrities (the age of Shakespeare, Bach), and the like. As for the time line for the story of the human species the parallel columns started by Eusebius and filled in by later chroniclers has been vastly expanded by geographical, archaeological, and anthropological discoveries, and periodization in the old sense has been marginalized, although appending a "postmodern" age to a modern one suggests that the impulse still survives.

See also Historiography ; History, Idea of ; Periodization of the Arts .


Burrow, J. A. The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Ferguson, Wallace K. The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1895

Meek, Ronald L. Social Science and the Ignoble Savage. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976

Smith, Adam. Lectures on Jurisprudence, edited by R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein. Oxford: Clarendon, 1978.

Van der Pot, J. H. J. De Periodisiering der Geschiedenis. The Hague: W. P. van Stockum, 1951.

Donald R. Kelley

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Periodization is an intellectual process that seeks to divide a continuous time interval into parts. Periodization is most frequently used in the social sciences and humanities, especially in such disciplines as economics, sociology, history, and literature. There are two ways to proceed when forming a periodization. One is to divide an entire era into smaller periods that share some homogeneity within them. This is the most common procedure in history periodization, but it is also found in economics and other social sciences. The second procedure is to identify cycles in a historical era, then break the era into phases that can be considered a full cycle. This approach is common in economics.

The origin of the idea of periodization is rooted in the old philosophical principle that there are possible quantitative variations in most concepts associated with social phenomena. Such quantitative variations can lead to qualitative changes in some features of social reality that can be used to define different periods. For example, in a particular period, a given society can be composed mainly of peasants and landlords, but it can also have a small number of artisans. The state in such a society could be controlled by landlords, and most laws would favor the ownership of land and the relationships prevailing in rural areas, with low taxes on land and so on. If the number of artisans grows, they can end up seizing state control. Then, all laws and order could change and become biased to support artisanal production. In this example, a quantitative change in the number of artisans in the society led to a qualitative change in the structure of power and institutional order. A simple periodization in this case would be to divide the history of this society into two parts: One covers the period when political power was under the control of landlords; the second covers the period when political power was controlled by artisans.

More rigorously, suppose that social reality is composed of two sets: One is a set of beings and the other is a set of relationships among them. Any being can potentially be measured, so the relationships among them define relations among quantities of the beings involved. These relationships or beings can have threshold values that change their nature. For example, one being can have two measurable dimensions, A and B ; so that A = 0 for B B 1, where B 1 is a specific threshold value. If B > B 1, A can jump so that A = 1. This rupture of behavior clearly creates the possibility for identification of two periods.

In economics, there is an additional notion of periodization that does not necessarily involve qualitative changes. If some economic variable presents a cyclical behavior, such as a cosine function, it is possible to identify a full cycle as a period, and a periodization emerges from such a procedure. In this case, the moment identified as the beginning of any cycle is totally arbitrary. Often the date identified as the end of a period, even when the beginning is defined, is also arbitrary, as economic variables are not well behaved. Their stochastic nature jeopardizes the simplicity of cycle identification.

The idea of arbitrariness that arises from the discussion of periodization in continuous variables, which are not subject to qualitative changes, can be extended to social phenomena that contain variables subject to discontinuous behavior. Suppose that there is a set of n variables and m relationships defining a social reality, so that n > 3 and m > 3. If all the variables are subject to noncontinuous variations, any particular variable or combinations of them may be taken as parameters to define ruptures that could characterize change in periods. Therefore, different researchers could take distinct variables or their potential combinations to identify periods, and distinct periodizations would emerge.

In addition to the imprecision resulting from the selection of different criteria for the identification of periods, it is also possible for disputes to emerge concerning the moment in which one criterion exhibits enough change to lead to a period break. Measurement of many social variables is not easy, and most of the time variables have a stochastic component that makes it difficult to identify the moment they actually reached the relevant value that generated the qualitative period change.

Periodization also tends to be historically determined, as each culture and each era has its own set of most relevant social phenomena that normally serve as the basis from which to draw criteria. Such difficulty in establishing a periodization, along with the other problems discussed above, have caused some researchers to condemn the practice of periodizing history.

SEE ALSO Economic Model; Economics; Models and Modeling; Social Science


Besserman, Lawrence. 1996. The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives. New York: Garland.

Davis, Joseph H. 2005. An Improved Annual Chronology of U.S. Business Cycles since the 1790s. NBER Working Paper 11157.

Alexandre Rands Barros