What is a Synoptic Essay and How Do I Write One?

Student Guides

By Melanie Jones, published 20th June 2010

Writing the synoptic essay

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Part of the A-Level History course now involves a synoptic element. This involves examining change and reasons for change over a fixed period of time. This is usually around 100 years. If you are writing a synoptic essay, a slightly different approach is needed.  You will need to give an overview of your understanding of the major themes studied in the unit/subject (and within the context), often indicating how your understanding of the themes has developed over time. This can be quite difficult to get right. 

How do exam boards describe the synoptic element?

Synopticity is:

'Approaching history in the way a professional historian would' by drawing together knowledge, ideas and arguments to show overall historical understanding. (QCA's definition)

Essentially, we are looking for breadth of understanding (an ability to see beyond the obvious and to see the deeper implications of questions), together with a relevant linking of ideas and arguments across the topic / period of the question.

It mixes breadth of understanding (an ability to see the key underlying themes of the period the 'drivers' bringing change; the degree of continuity; the relationship between state and people), with depth of example and understanding of the importance of precise supporting detail.

At A2, essays are likely to have more than one focus; more than one issue to discuss and more than one viewpoint to analyse. The question itself invites a 'synoptic response' so a good conventional essay answer will do all these things.

A synoptic essay will usually ask you to examine "how far" or "how valid/convincing". In order to approach a synoptic well, it is good practice to organise your themes FIRST. This will make the essay easier to write.

Examples of synoptic style questions

  • How far was the personality cult of Adolf Hitler responsible for the success of the Nazi party?
  • 'Between 1547 and 1559 England was almost torn apart by religious revolution.' Assess the validity of this view.

Both of these questions are synoptic. They are asking you to examine the events/people in the context of other long and short term themes. 

Example: "How far was the personality of Adolf Hitler responsible for the success of the Nazi party?"

In this question, you are expected not only to be able to assess how important Hitler was to the Nazis, but you are also expected to set the Nazis in the wider historical context of the time and examine other long/short term factors that may have aided their success.

In the long-term, the following factors could be said to have aided Nazi success:

  1. The legacy of the Bismarckian system - the nature of authority and rule, as well as the legacy of policies such as Kulturkampf.

  2. The outdated autocratic regime in Germany under the Kaisers (Kaiserreich)

  3. Difficult relations with Britain, France and Russia. The whole power struggle of the time - especially the growing confidence of Russia against Austria-Hungary and the difficult family ties between ruling families.

  4. World War I and Germany's loss.

  5. The Treaty of Versailles and the 'stab in the back' myth.

  6. The weakness in the set-up of the Weimar Republic 

In the Shorter-term...

  1. The personality of Adolf Hitler and his election to the leadership of the NSDAP.

  2. Failings made by the politicians of the Weimar Republic

  3. The Instability of the Weimar Republic

  4. The Nazi part machine - i.e. organisation

  5. Nazi party tactics - i.e. putsches, propaganda, rallies, use of SA etc...

  6. The Wall Street Crash and depression, growth in anti-semitism.

  7. The mistakes of Hindenburg, Von Papen and Von Schleicher.

This is not an exhaustive list of reasons for the success of the Nazi Party; however, it should highlight to you that the personality of Hitler as suggested by the question was just one of many short and longer term factors that helped the Nazis to become successful.

In a synoptic essay you would need to weigh this up in the light of the other factors at play, whilst at the same time displaying your understanding of the entire period and actually how much change took place. Some would argue for example that some of Hitler's policies were more extreme versions of Bismarckian policies, for example, Bismarck's' Kulturkampf deliberately persecuted Catholics in Germany; Hitler, in a far more extreme way, persecuted Jews.

Some may also argue that because Bismarck and the Kaiser had ruled in an absolute way, that this was the kind of rule that Germans were used to; perhaps they weren't ready for the democracy that was offered by the Republic, so when Hitler came along offering a return to the traditional absolute style of rule, it seemed familiar to Germans.

Of course, the validity of these views is very open to question, but that is the point of the synoptic essay. You are required to think more deeply about the question and read between the lines. The REAL question at play in this example is: "Why were the Nazis successful?"

A good way to organise your themes might be as follows:

  1. Introduction that includes very brief setting of the scene and states your line of argument.

  2. Discuss the theme that is asked for by the question (in this case the personality of Hitler) - how important was this?

  3. Discuss the other short-term themes that were also important to the period/event and evaluate significance. Then compare the significance of these other factors in comparison to the initial factor.

  4. Finally, here comes the synoptic analysis, you then need to examine the longer term themes at play and examine their role - how important were they in comparison to the shorter term factors. Were there many shifts or changes? How much continuity was there? How did any changes or continuity affect the situation?

  5. Conclusion - how important was the factor as stated by the question? Set it in light of the wider context of the time and re-assert your point of view.

*N.B. Where appropriate once again you need to include the historiography and views of historians throughout.