22 Thoughts on the Power of Context

Context is everything—knowledge of it can give deeper meaning to your reality and insight into what’s coming next.

I became acutely aware of the importance of context as a student of history and architecture.  When you learn to make sense of the environment in which events take place and can see the factors that can influence your work, you have the ability to shape how the future unfolds.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines contexts as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.”

As an architect and designer, I view context as the physical, social, economic, and technological forces that affect the form of our built environment and the interactions between people.

From a leadership perspective, when people have a sense of how their actions can have an impact on their organization, no matter where they are working, they are more inclined to step forward and take initiative. Context is especially helpful when employees are expected to be self-motivated and relatively independent in their decision-making.

Understanding context means that you will have a better sense of the opportunities they face, they will be empowered to offer new ideas, and they will work together better because they sense how others perceive the group’s issues and challenges.

Below are 22 thoughts on the concept of context from authors, scientists, filmmakers, and artists.  Whether you are working to design, disrupt, innovate, or lead, their words will broaden your view and help you see your work differently.

{*}  In archaeology, context is everything. Objects allow us to reconstruct the past. Taking artifacts from a temple or an ancient private house is like emptying out a time capsule.” — Sarah Parcak

{*}  Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.” — Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

{*}  For me context is the key – from that comes the understanding of everything.” — Kenneth Noland

{*}  You judge people in the context of their time, not in the context of ours.” — Dennis Prager

{*}  Making mental connections is our most crucial learning tool, the essence of human intelligence; to forge links; to go beyond the given; to see patterns, relationships, context.” — Marilyn Ferguson

{*}  Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.” — Anthony Bourdain

{*}  Swing is extreme coordination. It’s a maintaining balance, equilibrium. It’s about executing very difficult rhythms with a panache and a feeling in the context of very strict time. So, everything about the swing is about some guideline and some grid and the elegant way that you negotiate your way through that grid.”  — Wynton Marsalis

{*}  There comes a point in your life when you realize how quickly time goes by, and how quickly it has gone. Then it really speeds up exponentially. With that, I think you start to put a lot of things into context; you start to see how huge the world is, and really, the universe.” — Michael Keaton

{*}  Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” — Ani Difranco

{*}  Sometimes your greatest strength can emerge as a weakness if the context changes.” — Harsha Bhogle

{*}  Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context.” — David Byrne

{*}  Critics have a responsibility to put things in a cultural and sociological or political context. That is important.” — Annette Bening

{*}  There are certain sounds that I’ve found work well in nearly any context. Their function is not so much musical as spatial: they define the edges of the territory of the music.” — Brian Eno

{*}  A dinosaur out of context is like a character without a story. Worse than that, the character suffers from amnesia.” — Jack Horner

{*}  The world isn’t fast-paced, it’s frenetic. People have to be managers of themselves. Time has been managing itself for 15 billion years; we have to manage ourselves in the context of time.” — Tony Buzan

{*}  I think you always have to find where the boundary is in relation to the context in order to be able to kind of articulate how you want the space to interact with the viewer.” — Richard Serra

{*}  The better we understand how identities and power work together from one context to another, the less likely our movements for change are to fracture.” — Kimberle Williams Crenshaw

{*}  We are in a tech-heavy society, plunging headlong into an unknown future. Science fiction is what allows you to stand back and analyze the impact of that and put it in context of how it affects people.” — J. Michael Straczynski

{*}  Life’s the adventure. You don’t have to drop your bundle and go bush. It’s about being brave within the context that you’re in.” — Robyn Davidson

{*}  If there were a science of human beings it would be anthropology that aims at understanding the totality of experience through structural context.” — William Dilthey

{*}  I think young people are the most creative and the coolest – people that we should be learning from. Even when I’m at a party, I’m analyzing it and thinking about it in the context of how I would write about it. That side of me never switches off.” — Lorde

{*}  We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.” — Christopher Alexander