what is a critical source analysis
The aim of the exercise is a critical source analysis. This is not a research essay or an exercise where you need to do further research. We don’t want you to go and
do more research to back up what you say. YOU DO HAVE TO ANSWER THE FOCUS QUESTION. However, you do so by a very close reading of the sources – secondary and primary.
*We want to see you use the primary source in particular*.
So – choose 1 focus question from the first 6 weeks topics and answer that question by using the sources provided, keeping in mind that the aim is to demonstrate your
analysis, interrogation and utilisation of the sources – particularly the primary. I agree that this is challenging. It is more usual to have an essay question for
which you do research and then construct your response from that research. Indeed – you would probably be marked down for relying on the two secondaries provided for a
1500 word essay. This is not a research exercise, however. The purpose of this exercise is to get students thinking reflectively about sources.
So – the big question is – what is a critical source analysis? I would direct you to the link I provided on reading and using primary sources on the homepage under my
instructions for this exercise.
For secondary sources you might want to consider the following:
Argument – what is the core argument of the writer? Is there one key argument and several sub-themes?
Evidence – do they back up what they say? Is the evidence convincing?
Style/language – is the writing accessible?
Purpose – closely relates to argument. What fuels the author’s interest?
Provenance – that is, is the article part of a larger project or book, or is it a stand-alone academic article? Does it sit within a wider field of research and/or
historiography? Is it symptomatic of the period it was written in?
Is it convincing? If so, why? If not, why not?
Focus Question Options:
Pick one of the following questions as the focus question. Then find the primary secondary sources under the question (in the unit reader attached). These are the only
sources you need.
1) Focus Question: How did Europeans believe Enlightenment values would manifest in colonial Australia? How did the Macquarie era reflect these values?
readings for this question:
Extracts from Lachlan Macquarie, Journals of his Tours in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land 1810 -1822, Journeys in Time 1809-1822 project, Macquarie University
John Gascoigne, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne 2002, ‘Introduction’.
Grace Karskens, The Colony, Melbourne University Press 2009, ch.7, ‘Landscape Artists: the Macquaries in Sydney’, pp.189-208.
2) Focus Question: How did the law underpin the acquisition of British sovereignty in the first decades of non-Aboriginal settlement in New South Wales and Tasmania?
readings for this question:
Lisa Ford and B Salter, “From Pluralism to Territorial Sovereignty: the 1816 Trial of Mow-watty in the Superior Court of New South Wales”, Indigenous Law Journal, 7,
Leonie Stevens, “The Phenomenal Coolness of Tunnerminnerwait”, Victorian Historical Journal, vol.81 (1), 2010, 18-40.
3) Focus Question: How did clothes enable people to reveal their national identity OR their social status in nineteenth-century Australia?
readings for this question:
Margaret Maynard, ‘Australian Dress: Perceptions and Stereotypes’, Journal of Australian Studiesi, 18:41, 2009, pp. 1-11
Tanya Evans, ‘The Use of Memory and Material Culture in the History of the Family in Colonial Australia’, Journal of Australian Studies, 2012.
4) Focus Question: What was the impact of migration on mid-19th century Australia?
readings for this question:
J.Hammerton, ‘Without natural protectors’: Female Immigration to Australia, 1832-36’, Historical Studies, 16:65, pp. 539-566.
Daivd Fitzpatrick (ed), Oceans of consolation: personal accounts of Irish Migration to Australia, Cornell Uni Press, 1994.
Laila Elmoos, Hyde Park Barracks in the Dictionary of Sydney 2008, http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/hyde_park_barracks
5) Focus Question: Did the Eureka Stockade reflect a movement for democratic rights, or simply a protest over mining fees? How did the gold rushes change colonial
readings for this question:
Ballarat Reform League charter, 11 November 1854: http://web.archive.org/web/20140623015131/http://www.eurekaballarat.com/media/209230/reform_league.pdf
Lieutenant Governor Hotham’s report on a serious riot and collision at the Ballarat Gold Field, 20 December 1854:
John Molony, Eureka, Melbourne University Press, Carlton 2001, ch.7, ‘Bakery Hill’.
Jan Kociumbas, Possessions, The Oxford history of Australia, v. 2. 1770-1860, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1986, ch.11, ‘All That Glitters’.
6) Focus Question: How was Aboriginal protection manifested in late nineteenth century Australia?
readings for this question:
Katherine Ellinghaus, “Regulating Koori Marriages: The 1886 Victorian Aborigines Protection Act”, Journal of Australian Studies, 67, 2001, 22-29.
Regina Ganter and Ros Kidd, “The Powers of Protectors: Conflicts Surrounding Queensland’s 1897 Aboriginal Legislation”, Australian Historical Studies, 25 (101),
October, 1993, 536-554.
Reading primary sources: An introduction for students
A step- by- step guide for students examining primary sources, with specific questions divided into five
layers of questioning.
By Kathryn Walbert ( http://www.learnnc.org)
So how do I approach primary sources?
In order to fully understand a primary source, you’ll want to identify it, contextualize it, explore it,
analyze it, and evaluate it. The questions below will help you do all of those things, and understand
why it’s s o important to do them.
1. Identify the Source
What is the nature of the source?
You’ll want to know what kind of source it is — a newspaper, an oral history account, a diary entry, a
government document, etc. — because different kinds of sources must be considered differently. For
example, you might think about a description of a Civi l War camp differently than you would think
about a photograph of one, or you might have different questions about census data regarding poverty
in the 1930s than you would about oral history interviews with people who were poor during the
Depression. Knowing that type of source you’re dealing with can help you start to think about
Who created this source, and what do I know about him/her/them?
Knowing something about who created the source you’re using can help you determine what biases
they might have had, what their relationship to the things they described in the source might have been,
and whether or not this source should be considered credible. Keep in mind that someone doesn’t have
to be famous or need to have played a dramat ic role in history to be a credible source — in terms of
understanding the experience of World War I, for example, the writings of a regular soldier in the
trenches may be as valuable or even much more so than the recollections of President Wilson or a
Knowing who wrote the source can also help you figure out the angle or perspective that the source
will convey. For example, the description of a Revolutionary War battle might be very different if it
was written by a soldier in the Continential Army, by George Washington himself, by a British soldier,
or by an American loyalist. You might wonder different things about the account depending on who
wrote it, so knowing the author would definitely help you start to ask the right questions.
When was the source produced?
Knowing when the source was produced can help you start to put it into historical perspective. A
discussion of women’s rights in America, for example, would obviously be very different in the 1820s
(one hundred years before women could vote), the 1920s (when women first got the vote), the 1970s
(when the feminist movement was thriving and the Equal Rights Amendment was debated), and 2004.
If you don’t know when a source was written, you can’t start to put it into its historical context and
understand how it connects to historical events.
If you’re using a first – hand account that was written some time after the events that it describes, you
might also take the passage of time into account in your later analysis. For example, you might view
the diary of a settler moving west in the 1870s that was written during her travels in a different way
than you would view the memoirs of that same settler written fifty years later for her grandchildren.
Where was the source produced?
Just as it is im portant to situate the source in time, it’s also important to identify the place where the
source was produced. If you found an editorial in a newspaper discussing the Montgomery Bus
Boycott, for example, you would want to know where the newspaper was publ ished — a newspaper
from Montgomery might be considered very differently from one published in Boston, Massachussetts,
Mobile, Alabama, or Washington, D.C.
2. Contextualize the Source
What do you know about the historical context for this source?
Once y ou know when, where, and by whom the source was created, you can start to place it in its
historical context . What was going on in the place and time that this source was created? What
significant local, regional, or national events might this source relate to? You can look for information
about the historical context for your sources in many places. Sometimes sources are packaged along
with descriptive information that can help you contextualize them — this is often true of web – based
collections of resources in which the website compiler might provide you with a written introduction to
the sources to help you place them in context. Similarly, libraries and archives often provide collection
descriptions or finding aids for their materials that can provide context. You can also consult secondary
sources to learn more about the time and palce in which the source was created.
What do I know about how the creator of this source fits into that historical
Once you know the historical context of the sour ce, you’ll want to think further about the person(s)
who created the source. How were they connected to that historical context? If it’s a source about the
Civil Rights Movement, for example, you may have already figured out the person’s location, their
ra ce, their sex, and some other basic information — but what do you know about his connection to the
Movement? Was he an activist? Was he opposed? Was he involved in the race riot that he describes in
the source and, if so, what was his role? Figuring out ho w this person fit into their historical context,
individually, can help you think more critically and creatively about what he or she had to say.
Why did the person who created the source do so?
You’ll also want to know the motivations of the person who wrote the source, which may be easier to
guess after you know their historical context. Do you think this source was created as a private
document, or was it intended for others to view? How do you know that? If there was an intended
audience, who was that audience? Family? The general public? “Future generations?” What did the
creator of the source intend for that audience to get out of it? Was she trying to persuade people to a
particular point of view? Was she simply recording daily events? Was she intentionally trying to
deceive the audience? Was she trying to make herself look good?
3. Explore the source
What factual information is conveyed in this source?
Some sources can provide us with valuable factual information about what happened in the past. As
you read, think about what information in the source is presented as fact. But, of course, things that are
presented as fact are not always accurate, so you w ill also want to think about whether the facts
presented in the source can be verified. Where else might you look to check and make sure that those
facts are accurate? How will you decide whether you believe this person’s accounting of the facts to be
What opinions are related in this source?
Since primary sources are first- hand accounts that often convey only a single person’s point of view,
they will likely contain a fair bit of opinion. Identify sections of the source that seem to be opinion and
ask yourself why the creator of the source might hold that opinion. Who else might share that opinion?
Is it an opinion that you find compelling? Why or why not?
What is implied or conveyed unintentionally in the source?
People don’t always spell out what they are thinking when they write a letter, a diary entry, or a
newspaper column. Intentionally or unintentionally, there may be ambiguities or vagueness in the
source — places that require the reader to “fill in the blanks” and use the author’s tone , rhetorical
strategies, and attitude to make inferences about meanings that are not spelled out. For example, in a
letter to the editor in a newspaper criticizing a particular politician, the author may never spell out his
or her beliefs about the role of government or how the government should handle particular kinds of
issues, but based on their criticisms, you can probably infer or make an educated guess about those
What is not said in this source?
Sometimes what isn’t said in a source can be as interesting as what is said. Ask yourself, what did I
expect to have seen here that I didn’t see? For example, it would seem odd to find a letter written the
day after the attack on Pearl Harbor that didn’t mention that event — you might wonder, “Why didn’t
this person write about the Pearl Harbor attack? Did she not know about it? Was it not important to her
or to her audience? Was it so much on everyone’s mind that she didn’t feel a need to write about it?”
You may have no good answers to these questions, but thinking about what seems missing can help
you imagine the writer’s frame of mind and motivations a bit more clearly.
What is surprising or interesting about the source?
Once you know what is and isn’t in the source, take a minute to think abo ut what was interesting or
surprising. What did you learn that you didn’t know before? What details were interesting to you? Was
the perspective revealed by this source one that you hadn’t thought about before? What did you not
expect that you found here — and what did you expect that wasn’t here after all?
What do I not understand in this source?
Are there words that were unclear to you? Are there events or people referred to that you aren’t
familiar with? Does anything not make sense? Think about where you might go to clarify these issues
so that you can understand the source fully. You might look up unfamiliar vocabulary in the dictionary
or do an online search to find some basic historical information about an event that the source writer
described. Do ing these simple things can help you make sure that you get the most out of each source.
4. Analyze the source
How does the creator of the source convey information and make his/her point?
Sometimes it’s important to not only think about what the author said, but how he said it. What
strategies did the writer/artist/etc. use to convey information? In the case of written or oral sources, did
he use humor? Sarcasm? An appeal to patriotism? Guilt? An appeal to religious principles? Logical
arguments? Tugging on heartstrings?
How is the world described in the source different from my world?
Think about the time and place in which this source was created. What did the author and people
around her believe? What was their world like? What significant difference s are there between that
world and your world today? How would you feel if you were in the author’s shoes? What would be
reasonable to expect of the author, given his or her historical context?
How might others at the time have reacted to this source?
Would the ideas and perspective revealed by this source have been universally accepted by others?
Would certain individuals or groups have disagreed with the account in this source? Why or why not?
Imagine an individual who might have disagreed with something in this source — how would that
person’s account be different? What might they convey in their own source, and how? (For example, if
you’re reading the diary of a plantation owner, how might a source giving the perspective of an
overseer, an abolitionist, the owner of a bigger or smaller plantation, or a slave be different?)
5. Evaluate the source
How does this source compare to other primary sources?
Have you read other sources like this one? What did they say? Does the account in this source seem to
mesh will with those, or does it depart dramatically? Remember that if your source doesn’t say exactly
what other sources say, it may still be entirely truthful. It could be that the other sources were wrong. It
could also be that all of the authors of yo ur sources told the truth as they saw it, but that their own
individual perspectives gave them different views and therefore different accounts. It may also be that
the author of your source had a unique experience that wasn’t like most people’s experience s, but it
happened that way just the same. For example, some people remained very wealthy during the Great
Depression — they were not in the majority, to be sure, but their stories are still true and can offer
valuable insights into the diversity of experi ences during that era in American history. Consider all of
the possible reasons why this source may differ from other primary sources before you decide to reject
any of your sources as “untrue” or “useless.”
How does this source compare to secondary source accounts?
You’ll also want to think about how your source compares to secondary sources that you have read
such as your textbook and accounts written by historians. Does this source seem to fit with the
interpretations presented in those secondary works? In what way s does it fit and in what ways does it
differ? Keep in mind that just because it differs from what your book says, that doesn’t mean that the
source isn’t accurate. It may be that this source offers an insight that the secondary text authors didn’t
know about. It may also be that this source presents information that the secondary source authors
weren’t interested in or chose not to include for a variety of possible reasons. Consider all of the
possible reasons why this source may differ from the secondary source account before you decide to
reject one or the other completely.
What do you believe and disbelieve from this source?
Based on everything you know about the historical context and from reading other accounts, what
elements of this source do you take as credible and believable? What does the weight of the evidence
suggest to you about the believability and historical usefulness of the information and attitudes
conveyed in this source? Does anything in this source seem unbelievable, exaggerated, deceptive, or
simply mistaken? Think about why you are willing to believe certain parts of the source but not others
— what are your reasons for accepting some evidence and rejecting other evidence? If you found some
parts of the source to be less than credibl e, do you think that this assessment in any way taints other
parts of the source?
What do you still not know — and where can you find that information?
After assessing your source thoroughly, you’ll want to take stock of what you do and don’t know after
reading it. What are you still wondering about? What gaps did this source leave in your understanding
of the topic at hand, and what new questions did it raise for you? Think, too, about where you might
turn to find out what you still don’t know. What kinds of primary sources would help you fill in the
blanks, and what kinds of secondary sources might you consult to answer some of your broader
Instructions for Assignment 1 – Critical Source Analysis
The first piece of assessment is a Critical Source Analysis due on September 12th, 2014 at 5pm. To be submitted by turnitin (a link is provided on the homepage). It is
1500 words long.
You are required to choose one of the topics we’ve covered between weeks 1 – 6. Your task is to answer the focus question by using the sources as set. So, for example,
if we take last week. You would be answering the question: How did the law underpin the acquisition of British sovereignty in the first decades of non-Aboriginal
settlement in NSW and Tasmania? You would answer the question using the two secondary sources and, more importantly, the primary source.
This is a critical source analysis so what we are looking for is a critical reading and use of the sources. So, we want you to think carefully about the secondary
sources and the historians arguments. How does each deal with the question of law and sovereignty? What angle do they take? What is their central argument? A critical
reading is one that doesn’t just utilise the secondary material simply to mine it for relevant information that will answer a question but one that reflects on it as a
source, as a body of opinion, as a set of ideas and a constructed argument.
Even more important, however, is your use of the primary source. This is where you get to be the historian and your aim should be to use the source thoughtfully and
critically to support your argument. Mine it for information. Think about it as a source. Think about how it might help answer the question. Are there limitations to
its use? Are there things missing? Is it reliable? Are there silences or gaps?
Under the link to this page I have put up two others which should assist as you put your response together: a rubric for the essay and a short guide to reading and
using primary sources. I would suggest reading it before or in conjunction with doing the assignment.