Exploring Ways of Knowing

A tool: Using Disciplinary Lenses

In this activity, learn about five disciplinary lenses and how they can be applied to explore objects from the past.

For this activity you will break into groups of five, and choose one object from either the Changing Language in China, or the Pottery in China activity of this resource kit to observe through one of the disciplinary lenses.

Each group member will choose just one of the disciplinary lenses, and fill out the next annotation activity observing this object through this lens. You can use the descriptions and questions provided below to guide your observations.

You will then export you progress and compare with your other four group members who observed the object through alternative disciplinary lenses. Make note the areas of similarity or disagreement between the information noted when observing objects through different disciplinary lenses. Also consider how ways of knowing, like through Ancestral knowledge or scientific understandings, as we looked at earlier in this resource kit, might contribute to our understandings of the objects in this kit.

You may need to do research using appropriate secondary sources to supplement the information provided in this resource kit. Use the links in the Additional Resources section of each activity to find more contextual information about each object, or consult with your teacher about what good sources might be.

Disciplines and the Questions they might ask:

Economists study the production, consumption and transfer of goods and services within and across social systems. 

  • What materials is this made of?
  • Where did the materials come from?
  • What was the exchange value of this object?
  • How was this used?
  • What other objects are related to this object?
  • What role did this object have in exchange?
  • How/where/by whom was it traded?
  • What was the demand for this object?
  • What role did rulers or leaders play in the production, consumption, or transfer of this object?

An art historian studies the past through art and artifacts from specific periods and geographical regions. 

  • What is represented in this object? Are there symbols? Representations? Graphics of any kind?
  • What is this object made from? How was it made? Did the creators need any particular skills to make this object?
  • Why was this created?
  • How does its design fit into its function? What elements are meant for design? What for function?
  • What objects are similar in design/function? How does the design of this object relate to other objects of the time? 

A historian is someone who studies the past periods, geographical regions, or social phenomenons, usually using written records.

  • How does this compare to objects from other times?
  • What did people at the time write about this object?
  • Who used this object?
  • What were their lives like?
  • What impact did this object have on society/daily lives?
  • What do earlier objects teach us about the development of this object?
  • What objects today are used for similar functions?
  • How were those objects developed? 

Anthropologists study humankind, in particular, the comparative study of human societies and cultures and their development. 

  • How was this object used?
  • How does it compare to objects from other cultures?
  • How did humans interact when using this artifact?
  • What human concern does this object answer? 
  • What cultural value does this object have?

Geographers study the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these. 

  • Where was this made?
  • What natural resources were used to make this?
  • Where did they come from?
  • What patterns exist with similar objects across places and spaces?
  • How did people use this object to interact with their natural environment?