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How Do You Analyse Sources in Academic Writing?: A Useful Guide for Highschoolers and Undergraduates

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

So for starts: what are sources?

So for starts: what are sources?

What Are Sources?

Those who study history are called historians. They look at things that happened in the past and try to find reasons why things happened the way they did. Sources are vital for creating and contributing to our understanding of the past.

The main category of sources is split into primary and secondary.

Primary sources are evidence such as a document, an artefact, diary, autobiography, etc., created around the time you are studying.

Secondary sources are sources created some time after the event being studied. This can include websites, books, newspaper articles, television shows, youtube videos, etc.

Types of Sources You Can Come Across

You can come across theories that explore the core ideas in a discipline. There are expert sources that talk about a key practitioner's work. There are research materials that are the result of work done in a specific field. Hard evidence usually includes scientific, empirical or quantitative data. Primary sources are original works or texts. Secondary sources are commentaries on an original idea or text.

Literary texts are original works of fiction or poetry and can include films. Context materials provide background information on certain topics. Reliable sites offer useful, well-founded information. Refereed papers are texts created for a specific discipline and published in a journal in which peers check and offer opinions on the work.

What to Look For in Sources

Meaning: Look for what is indicated or implied in the text.

Assumptions: What is taken for granted within the text?

Context: Look at when the text was created. What is the cultural or historical location of the text? What is the author's background? What discipline does it fit into? Who was the text published by?

Premise: Look at what is the basis of the argument.

Flaws in the argument: there are different things to look for in texts to point out a text's flaws, such as causal links (does one element cause another?), correlation (is there a relationship between the things the author claims is there?), conditions (does all the evidence add up?), analogies (is contrasting one thing to another helpful?), deflection (was there any need to evaluate the argument?), unwarranted leaps and emotive language (bias could be present in the text).

Here are examples of secondary sources.

Here are examples of secondary sources.

Establishing the Usefulness

When analysing a historical source, markers normally ask for you to examine the usefulness and reliability of the source. The way to do this is by addressing the source's origin, context, motive, audience, usefulness and perspective.

The usefulness can be determined by the source's usefulness in answering the question you're addressing or the subject you're looking at. For example, if you're studying the Roman Empire, a book about bedsheets will be completely unuseful. However, if you're looking at a book about the Roman Empire, you can class that as useful.

The next step would be to explain why the source is useful. This could be for several reasons. Here are a few common ones:

  • It allows the audience to be informed about a historical event.
  • It can highlight the change in perspectives over time.
  • It can show you what technology was present in that time frame or the media that historians now use to capture evidence of the past.
  • It can reveal certain facts, opinions of the past, etc.
  • It can reveal the perspective and the motives of the creator of the source.
  • It can reveal the origin and context of the source.

You can also explain who this is useful for by establishing the main audience for that particular source. How useful the source is determines how much the source tells you.

For example, if the source only shows you a picture of a Roman aqueduct, that will be useful in showing the water systems that the Romans created. However, the usefulness of that source would only be limited to what the aqueducts can reveal. It doesn't provide insight into the Roman civilisation as a whole.

Photographs, paintings and archaeological evidence are rendered mute as they need a historian or a piece of written evidence to determine what the source is. Establishing the limits of a source is a good way to show how a source can be unuseful.

Reliable and Unrealiable

The reliability of the source establishes how trustworthy the source is. Different factors that can determine this include examining the source's author, the facts, the motive and the age of the source.

The source's motives play an immense role in determining the source's reliability. For example, if the source is a piece of propaganda from Nazi Germany, it presents a distorted view of history in that period. The source would be helpful in providing insight into how the propaganda machine worked and can be reliable in the way it can portray what Nazi citizens believed during the time period, but it can be unreliable for presenting facts.

What Makes a Source Unreliable?

A way to determine what makes a source unreliable is by looking at what the source is missing. A lack of a date and origin of a source makes a source unreliable as it makes it unclear as to where the source came from, making it difficult to determine what the author's motive was in creating this source.

Reliability of Primary Sources

Determining whether the source is a primary or a secondary source can be used to establish whether a source is reliable. Most historians would consider that a primary source is reliable since it presents a perspective of participants in the time frame you're studying.

However, the fact that the source is a primary source can act as a doubt edge sword as it also means that the source can be affected by contextual bias. For instance, if the source was a letter made by a person in Britain in early World War One, chances are that the source would be patriotic towards the war.

This is because the participants of the time period would have been swayed by the propaganda and atmosphere created by the war. This then makes the source unreliable as it presents a limited snapshot into that time period and doesn't represent all perspectives during the time.

 An example of a primary source: WWI Patriotic Postcards, Camp Dix New Jersey 1918

An example of a primary source: WWI Patriotic Postcards, Camp Dix New Jersey 1918

Reliability of Secondary Sources

Many history students would regard secondary sources as less reliable than primary sources since the secondary source wasn't created during the time period that is being studied.

However, secondary sources have the benefits of hindsight, more accessibility to resources, archaeological research, etc., which can deem the source as far more reliable.

Despite this, secondary sources can still be susceptible to bias. For example, suppose a Neo-Nazi was to create an article about Nazi Germany. In that case, it is likely they would provide a positive evaluation of Hitler, while a historian with Left-Wing beliefs would provide a critical, negative evaluation of Hitler.

Reliability of Photographs

Photographs can be considered reliable as they show a snapshot of the past. When it comes to photographs, you need to consider the date, photograph and the small details you would find in the photographs.

However, photographic sources can be considered unreliable. For example, if you're looking at photographs of World War One, there are chances that soldiers were made to pose for the camera away from the battlefield. The photographs could have then been used to convince their home fronts that the war was going well or inspire patriotism, as they could have been conveyed as real photographs. This can create an unreliable portrayal of the war.

You should also use your knowledge to pick up on contradictions in the photograph.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.