A component of analyzing historical research is being equipped to evaluate the sources that will provide the evidence you gather and from which you will draw your conclusions.
Below is a recommended approach to evaluating sources, first primary followed by a set of questions for secondary sources.
a. Primary Sources:
Who wrote this document? Written historical records were created by individuals in a specific historical setting for a particular purpose. Until you know who created the document you have read, you cannot know why it was created or what meanings its author intended to impart by creating it. Nor is it enough simply to learn the name of the author. It is equally important to learn about authors as people: what social background they came from, what position they held, to what group did they belong.
Who is the intended audience? Identifying the intended audience of a document will tell you much about its language, about the amount of knowledge that the writer is assuming, even sometimes about the best form for the document to take. The relationship between author and audience is one of the most basic elements of communication and one that will tell you much about the purpose of the document. Think of the difference between the audience for a novel and that for a diary, or for a law and a secret treaty. In each case, knowing the intended audience informs your view of what to expect from the document.
What is the story line? The next question has to do with the content of the document. To learn the story line, you must take some notes while you are reading and underline or highlight important places in your text. The more often you ask yourself, “What is going on here?” the easier it will be to find out. No matter how obscure a document appears at first, deliberate attention to the story line will allow you to focus your reading.
Why was this document written? Everything is written for a reason. You make notes to yourself to remember, you send cards to celebrate and sympathize, you correspond to convey or request information. Understanding the purpose of a historical document is critical to analyzing the strategies that the author employs within it. A document intended to convince will employ logic. A document intended to entertain will employ fancy. A document attempting to motivate will employ emotional appeals. In order to find these strategies, you must know what purpose the document was intended to serve.
What type of document is this? The form of the document is vital to its purpose. You would expect a telephone book to be alphabetized, a poem to be in meter, and a work of philosophy to be in prose. The form or genre in which a document appears is always carefully chosen. Genre contains its own conventions, which fulfill the expectations of author and audience.
What are the basic assumptions made in this document? All documents make assumptions that are bound up with their intended audience, with the form in which they are written, and with their purpose. Some of these assumptions are so integral to the document that they are left unsaid; others are so important to establish that they form a part of the central argument.
Can I believe this document? To be successful, a document designed to persuade, to recount events, or to motivate people to action must be believable to its audience. Every author has a point of view, and exposing the assumptions of the document is an essential task for the reader. You must treat all claims skeptically.
What can I learn about the society that produced this document? All documents unintentionally reveal things that are embedded in the very language, structure, and assumptions of the document that can tell you the most about the historical period or event that you are studying.
What does this document mean to me? In other words, so what? Other than for the practical purpose of passing the course, why should you be concerned with historical documents? What can you learn from them? Only you can answer these questions, but you will not be able to answer them until you have asked them. You should demand the meaning of each document you read: what it meant to the historical actors – authors, audience, and society – and what it means to your own society.
b. Secondary Sources:
Evaluating these sources utilizes some of the same questions. For instance, you will want to discern the author’s purpose in writing. In addition, consider also the following:
Did the author make good use of adequate evidence? What types of sources were used and were they the best available? Did the author analyze the sources critically or simply reflect the positions/conclusions of the sources?
Were the author’s biases, prejudices, and values evident? What were they? Do they seem to have distorted the account and analysis, or did the author successfully present a reasonably balanced work of scholarship?
The word ‘bias’ deserves some consideration for it has much negative baggage today, but bias is not necessarily a bad thing. Everyone sees the world through lenses that have been shaped by values, beliefs, and experiences, and these inevitably affect how a historian interprets evidence. Be aware that a historian’s specialty is itself a bias. For example, a social or cultural historian will ask different questions and use different sources than a political or military historian.
What contribution does the work make? Does it provide readers with something important and new in either findings or interpretations? How does the work fit into larger historiographical debates? Does it provide an argument for or against a scholarly interpretation? Does it move debates in new directions?
What might be done by the author or another historian or you to fill the obvious gaps, take the next logical step in the argument, or rectify failings in the work? This step involves both identifying an author’s failings and indicating a direction for future research. Think how answers to these questions can inspire or inform your own research.
Note: Identifying an author’s failings or weaknesses is trickier than it seems at first. You should move beyond superficial stylistic concerns (“The book was too difficult/ boring) and identify more substantive issues. In addition, when the author clearly indicates that sources are not available, it is not adequate to say that he/she should have used those sources. You are evaluating the work as a historian, with reasonable expectations about the limits of a historian’s task.
Another aspect of analyzing your research data involves being able to synthesize the information, perspectives, and sources that you have collected.
History is a vast field of study that incorporates the facts and views of many people across many different chronological and cultural boundaries. As you begin to consider how you will present your research, it is important that you bring these many different facts and views together in a unique and fresh, yet credible way. Many times, students will record what the different authors have said which amounts to little more than stitching together book reports. Good synthesis considers how the facts relate to each other and pulls the information together in a manner never seen before.
Analyzing the data brings you to the point where you formulate conclusions.
You have collected information, you have discerned themes and patterns, you have evaluated your sources, you have considered how the pieces fit together, and you are ready to answer your question. Look yet again at the question, and using your research and analysis of the information, propose an answer. To what conclusion do the facts point?