Guidelines for Writing a Critical Analysis of a Primary Document
The process. In the process of critical analysis, a student closely examines a single text (in this case, a primary document) written by a single author in an attempt to understand why the author wrote the particular text, in a particular way, to a particular audience, and for what purpose. Thus, the student seeks to determine: 1) what the author argued or described, 2) how the author presented his/her argument or interpretation, 3) why the author chose that method of presentation and persuasion (in other words, what did the author view as the evidence and arguments that would most likely persuade his/her audience, what assumptions did the author expect his/her audience shared, and what assumptions did the author challenge), and 4) what the author ultimately hoped to achieve by writing the text.
A critical analysis might be considered the first step in reading a document that might later be used as evidence in a research paper. A student engaged in critical analysis probes for underlying assumptions, perceptions, values, and biases—elements that are present in all texts. Once the author’s perspective, method, and purpose have been identified, a scholar can determine how those shape the “evidence” (the author’s descriptions, ideas, concerns, arguments) that the text presented. Some texts present a “narrative” rather than a clearly defined argument. Yet even those texts are influenced by particular values and concerns, and most offer some message, whether implicit or explicit.
In the process of critical analysis, the student is not evaluating or judging the accuracy, the validity, the logic, or the persuasiveness of an author’s evidence, ideas, or interpretation. Since the student is not the author’s intended audience--the author was writing to an audience of his/her contemporaries--the analysis does not focus on whether the author has convinced the student of the argument and/or ideas presented, nor should the student search for present-day relevance in the text. Similarly, this is not a research paper. Instead of considering and using the information that the document contains as “evidence” to explore broader historical issues or contexts, the student’s focus stays squarely on the author and the text.
A critical analysis presents a careful examination of one author’s rendition of an event, an experience, an issue, an argument, or some aspect of his/her society. The analysis should not attempt to recreate the author’s experience or to establish whether the author was “representative” of his/her society. Indeed from one document alone you cannot make such generalizations about either the author or the larger society. Finally, the student engaged in critical analysis attempts to determine how the author viewed and understood his/her society, rather than explore “the reader’s” perspective about or reaction to that society. The text itself does not provide evidence of how the author’s contemporaries read and responded to it. Rather than focusing on your reactions as a reader, use your reactions as you read the text to lead you to new questions about the author’s purpose and perspective.
The essay. Try to choose a text (a primary document) that has a clear argument or message. (While some primary documents offer intriguing evidence or insights into the writer’s thoughts or experience, these documents might be more difficult to subject to critical analysis.) After you have carefully read and analyzed the text, you should be ready to write the first draft of your essay. More than likely your first draft will be preliminary, for only in the process of writing do most students finally commit themselves to an argument and interpretation about the author and text. Indeed, as you write, you may find that your argument becomes clearer and more persuasive. In either case, you should revise the first part of your essay to reflect the discoveries you have made by the end of your essay.
Begin your essay with a sentence or two about the author, the date and title of the text, the occasion for which the text was written, and the general subject of the document. In a footnote or endnote, provide a full citation for the text (see below). You might offer a very brief statement about the author at the time during which the text was written. In your introductory paragraph, present a brief summary of your interpretation of the author’s perspective, method, and purpose in writing the text. The summary might contain a series of statements that lead up to your thesis statement. You do not need to describe the process of critical analysis; your essay should present the results of that process.
In the body of your essay, you may find that the most efficient and effective way to discuss and analyze the text is to move step by step through the text. After all, that is how the author intended the text to be read or heard. As you present the points that the author makes (offer quotations from the text as evidence for your discussion), begin to construct your analysis, and continue to build and develop your interpretation as your essay progresses. In your essay, use the simple past tense to describe what the author wrote: this serves to remind both you and your readers that the author wrote for an audience of his/her contemporaries. Whenever possible, use sentence constructions with the active voice rather than passive voice (the verb “to be”). Active verbs reiterate the author’s active role in creating the text and the argument, and they encourage you to make connections and draw conclusions about the author and the text.
* * * * *
Optional: After you complete and conclude your analysis of the text, you should have a clear understanding of the assumptions, perceptions, and perspective that shaped the author's discussion and argument (whether explicit or implicit), as well as the author's method of persuasion. How might you use this text as evidence in a research paper about the era? For what questions about historical issues or contexts might this text provide answers? In this optional section, you are welcome to discuss your evaluation of the accuracy, the validity, the logic, or the persuasiveness of an author’s evidence, ideas, or argument. You may also present your understanding of the larger historical context in which the author wrote the text.
Citations. Historians use either footnote or endnote citations, following the Chicago Manual of Style format for Notes and Bibliography, rather than parenthetical citations and Works Cited pages. For most of the primary documents selected for critical analysis, the first citation of the source will contain reference information for two sources: the primary document and the collection (the secondary source) in which it is reprinted (see footnote 1 for example). The reference information for subsequent citations (e.g., quotations from the document) should be shortened, using the last name of the author of the document and an abbreviated title, followed by the page number (see footnote 2 for example). When you cite information or commentary written by the editor of the collection, cite that author and text (see footnote 3 for example). In general, place the footnote reference number at the end of the sentence; it should follow all punctuation marks (see footnote 2 above). If you need to provide a footnote in the middle of a sentence for reasons of clarity, place the reference mark at the end of a clause and its punctuation.
- Mary Rowlandson, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God . . . Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (Boston, 1682), reprinted in Charles H. Lincoln, ed., Narratives of the Indian Wars, 1675-1699 (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1913), 122.
- Rowlandson, Sovereignty, 125.
- Charles H. Lincoln, ed., Narratives of the Indian Wars, 1675-1699 (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1913), 120. (shorten for subsequent citations: Lincoln, Narratives, 120.)
For additional information on citations:
- Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide from the Chicago Manual of Style
- Bowdoin Library Chicago Quick Guide for the Notes and Bibliography style.
- Mary Lynn Rampolla, A Pocket Manual to Writing in History, 3rd ed.
- Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th ed.
- Diana Hacker, Research and Documentation Online (Bedford/St. Martin's Press).
- H-Net, A Brief Citation Guide for Internet Sources in History and the Humanities.
- Andrew Harnack and Eugene Kleppinger, Online! A Reference Guide to using Internet Sources (Bedford's/St. Martin's Press, 2003).
Food for Thought:
[Giles:] “But don’t you see, Gwenda, that the way we must look at it now, we can’t depend on anything anyone says.”
“Now I’m so glad to hear you say that,” said Miss Marple. “Because I’ve been a little worried, you know, by the way you two have seemed willing to accept, as actual fact, all the things that people have told you. I’m afraid I have a sadly distrustful nature, but, especially in a matter of murder, I make it a rule to take nothing that is told me as true, unless it is checked. . . . You believed what he said. It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.”
Agatha Christie, Sleeping Murder (New York, Bantam: 1976), 252.
The bread and butter of studying history is the use of primary sources. So it’s no surprise that a common assignment in a History degree is to write a source commentary or analysis. So what does writing this sort of assignment entail?
Alternative assignments of this sort can be worrying, since they’re self-evidently rather different from a standard essay. However, whether a source analysis or a review assignment, there are some similarities with the usual essay. For one thing, you still need to put in the same amount of effort. These are not easy-option assignments and the most common reason for students being surprised by a low mark, especially early on in their studies, is simply not working as hard on this as they would for an equally-weighted essay. It’s also worth keeping in mind that you still need to back up each point you make with evidence. The difference is merely that your supporting evidence will mostly be drawn from one place – the source you’re writing about. However, you still need to read around each topic or issue you raise. For this reason you might read less than usual, but that wider reading is still important.
Some of the differences are simply because this is typically a shorter assignment. For example, the introduction and conclusion might be far more brief than for a standard essay. If you’re asked to write under 1,000 words, you really don’t have room for standalone opening and closing paragraphs. Instead, you want one or two sentences. The opening sentence needs to make it clear what source is under review. More than naming it, this means identifying the type of source it is. The closing sentence needs to wrap up the discussion by giving a clear answer to the question. Don’t be fooled – there is a question and that question is always ultimately the same. We’ll return to what exactly it is.
Over the course of your source commentary, there are five things you need to make sure you do. As ever, the advice of the tutor setting and/or marking your work trumps all else, but here’s my checklist:
1. Identify and summarise the source. So often, students jump straight over the basics to get to the important stuff. You do need to establish what your source is, when and why it was produced, by whom, and what form it takes – as well as the basic content, the central message and perhaps the structure of the source – to give you a platform for the following commentary. Skipping this will leave you on shaky ground.
2. Consider the particular type of source. There are particular challenges and opportunities offered by private or official writings, even when the author is the same. A campaign speech or the posthumously published diaries of the same politician, for example. Likewise, quantitative or visual sources need to be handled appropriately. There’s a wealth of methodological literature on many different source types, so make sure you’re aware of what the issues are with the source in front of you. And if you’ve been set something to read for seminars that addresses this, don’t miss the chance to bring it in.
3. Put your source in context. This means asking three questions, each of which will mean drawing upon your wider reading:
- What do we need to know about the broader picture to make sense of this source? The author, the environment (political, social, cultural backdrop), the time and the key issues each have their own history. What would we struggle not knowing? These are the sorts of things you often find mentioned in a brief preface to a source extract in anthologies.
- What does this source tell us about the broader picture? We piece together our wider understanding one source at a time. So what does this source add, that we might not be aware of or have evidence for otherwise.
- How does this source compare to others? It’s not just secondary sources that give us our wider understanding, but other primary sources too. How might other primary sources you know of answer questions raised by this one, show a different side of the same happenings, corroborate or call into question what we see here?
4. Consider the limitations of the source. Rarely will the source be an outright forgery, but you should still question the validity, reliability and representativeness of the source. What can’t it tell you? This is where questions of bias might be brought in. However, I would advise against using the term bias. Labelling a source as biased may not be wrong but it is redundant, since every source is biased in some way. Saying so can often mask the need to ask how. Better toidentify the perspective from which events are described.
5. Answer the question: How useful is this source to historians? Although it might be implicit, this is always ultimately the question. Depending on the particular assignment, we might add: in relation to our particular issue. An easy mistake would be to offer some general thoughts on the source, perhaps doing all of the above, but not to really answer this question.
You might answer these questions in a number of different ways or orders, but they will usually fall broadly into the structure of description then commentary. The exact schema of your assignment will depend on the nature of the source. Remember, there is no one form for a primary source. We might often think of letters, official documents, photographs and maps – but it could literally be anything. An increased consideration of material culture in recent years has made this more true than ever. That said, not every historian will use every kind of source.
It would be unrealistic to expect one source to provide the answer to every question. If that was the case, historical research would be a lot quicker. Yet students often complain of exactly that. Remember, the question is not: Is this source useful to historians? Rather, it’s: In what ways is it useful? Everything around us will be of interest, it’s just a matter of matching up the right source with the right historian, asking the right question. In the future, this blog post will be of little use to the historian interested in explaining the outcome of the 2015 general election. However, for the historian seeking to understand how university students were taught History in the early twenty-first century, it fits.
I like to think of this as: If this is the answer, what’s the question? What sort of historian, trying to understand what about the past, would find this source useful? If you can answer that, the rest is process.