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How to interpret historical sources

Historians attempt to understand and explain past events. The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

An Essential Question:

How do historians learn about

the past.

How to Interpret Historical Sources:


Vocab
Vocab The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

  • Primary Source

  • Secondary Source

  • Historical Context

  • Archaeologist

  • Anthropologist

  • Geographer

  • Point of View

  • Frame of Reference

  • Bias


How to interpret historical sources1
How to Interpret Historical Sources The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

Important Ideas

Historians use primary and secondary sources to study the past. All of our knowledge about the past can eventually be traced back to primary (original) sources.

To analyze a document, historians consider its historical context, and the author’s point of view and frame of reference.

To judge its validity, they look at its language, compare it with other texts, and consider information about its author.


Primary and Secondary Sources: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.In a sense, a historian acts like a detective gathering clues. To find information about the past, historians rely on two kinds of sources:

Secondary Sources are the writings and interpretations of later writers who have reviewed the information in primary sources. Essentially, secondary sources are one step removed from the original event. Secondary source material interprets, assigns value to, reflects on, and draws conclusions about events reported in primary sources.

Secondary sources, such as textbooks, and encyclopedia articles, often contain convenient summaries of information found in primary sources. These summaries also reveal a writer’s interpretation or viewpoint. Secondary sources can also include a review analyzing a play, poem or short story: a magazine, newspaper article, or scholarly journal giving information about an event or person; and political commentary analyzing an election or politician.

Primary Sources are original records or first-hand testimony of an event under investigation. They include eyewitness reports, official records from the time of the event, letters by people involved in the event diaries, speeches, photographs, oral histories and surviving artifacts (objects). Artifacts include building, clothing, furniture, jewelry, and pottery. All historical knowledge about past events can eventually be traced back to primary sources.

APPLYING WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED

Suppose you find a website on the internet about ancient Rome. Which of the following materials on the website are primary and which are secondary sources?


Other types of Social Scientists: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.Not only historians, but other types of social scientists also analyze different types of evidence to learn about the past:

INTERPRETING WRITTEN SOURCES

To reconstruct the past, historians most often rely on written texts. In interpreting any written document, you must be a critical reader. Sometimes a document will give you information about its writer’s background or position. This information can often help you understand how the writer’s position in society or purpose in writing may have affected his or her ideas. The following are questions you should always ask yourself when reading any written document – whether it is a primary or a secondary source:

When and where was the document written?

What do I know about the author?

Why was the document written?

Being a critical reader

What is the main idea of the passage?

What facts does the writer present to support his or her views?

What is the tone of the passage?


Determine Meaning: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.Sometimes you may encounter unfamiliar words or phrases, especially in historical documents. People in the past sometimes used words or expressions we no longer use today. Context clues can help you figure out what they mean. The surrounding words and sentences often provide clues to help you discover meaning.

Part of Speech:from the words in the sentence, can you guess what part of speech the unfamiliar word is - adjective, noun, verb, or adverb.

Substitute Words:can you guess the meaning of the word from the tone or meaning of the rest of the passage? What other words would make sense if you substituted them in place of the unfamiliar word?

USING CONTEXT CLUES TO FIND THE MEANING

Related Familiar Words:Is the word similar to any other words you already know? Does that help you to figure out what the word means? Can you determine what the word is by breaking it up into parts – such as prefix, word stem, or suffix.

Bypass the Word:can you understand the main idea of the sentence without knowing the meaning of the unfamiliar word? If so, it may not be important to spend time trying to figure out its meaning?

For example, read the primary source below. It presents several of the sayings of Confucius (551-479 B.C.) a famous teacher who lived in ancient China. His teachings are known primarily through the Analects, a collection of his discussions with his followers that were put together after his death. His sayings and teachings influenced many later generations. Confucian teachings became the “standard curriculum” for educated Chinese for the next several centuries.

  • “Having only coarse food to eat, plain water to drink, and a bent arm for a pillow, one can find happiness. Riches and honor required by unrighteous ways are to me as drifting clouds.”

  • “By nature, men are pretty much alike. It is learning and practice that set them apart.”

  • “Tzu Kung asked: ‘is there any one word that can serve as a principle for the conduct of life?” Confucius replied: ‘Perhaps the word reciprocity: Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.”

  • “To govern is to set things right…If a ruler himself is upright, all will go well without orders. But if he himself is not upright, even though he gives orders, they will not be obeyed.”

    • - Confucius, The Analects in W. Theodore de Bary (ed) Sources of Chinese Tradition


Suppose you did not understand the word The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.unrighteous in the first of Confucius’ sayings. Following is a way to unravel the meaning of the word:

Are there any context

clues?

Confucius seems to prefer coarse food, plain water and sleeping on his arm as a pillow to honors and riches required by unrighteous ways. This indicates a negative view of unrighteous ways. To Confucius, it is clearly something bad.

Is the word similar to any other words you know?

“Unrighteous” appears to have the word “right” as its root. Something that is right or righteous is good. The prefix “un” means “not.” Unrighteous must be something that is not right – such as unfair, bad, or evil.

Can you substitute other words for the unknown word?

If you replace “unrighteous” with such words as “bad” or “evil” in the sentence, then it makes sense. However, if you put the word “good” or anything else positive, then the sentence no longer makes sense.

Historical context: Now consider the historical context of the document. The historical context is the background – the conditions or events taking place at the time the document was written. Knowing the background helps us to make sense of the document. You can better understand what the author is writing about.

Point of View: The point of view refers to the author’s opinion or view of the project. Usually an author’s viewpoint is shaped by his or her upbringing, education, or social position. For example, a peasant or noble warrior might look at events very differently than Confucius did. The point of view expressed in a document may also influenced by the author’s purpose in writing.

When and where was the document written?

These sayings were written down in ancient China, during the time of Confucius. When you study ancient China, you learn that Confucius lived at the time of turmoil and war.

What do you know about the life of the author and the historical context?

Confucius urged people to follow traditional ways and to be more gently towards others in order to restore social harmony and peace to Chinese society.

What is the viewpoint held by the author?

From the document, we can see that Confucius is concerned with proper behavior and kindness to others. Confucius shows us that he believes that strength of character, not riches, is the key to happiness.

Frame of reference: Historians sometimes consider a frame of reference – the assumptions under which a person, action or historical document must be understood. For example, in these saying, Confucius always refers to men or to male leaders: “…men are pretty much alike; or, “if a ruler himself is upright…” We must understand that in Confucius lifetime, people in China did not believe women had the same abilities or roles as men. Women enjoyed few rights. Although such views would be condemned today, most people in China held these views 2,500 years ago. It would therefore be wrong for us to ignore Confucius because he shared some of these beliefs about women. We have to understand his “frame of reference.”


Acting as an amateur historian
ACTING AS AN AMATEUR HISTORIAN The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

Examine a newspaper or magazine article about a current event. Describe the historical context, frame of reference, and point of view of the author.

  • Article Title:__________________________________________________

  • Source:______________________________________________________

  • Summary:________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Historical Context:______________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________

  • Frame of Reference:_____________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________

  • Author’s Viewpoint:____________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________

    ____________________________________________________________


Detecting Bias in a Source: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.Each Source is always influenced by the point of view of its author. A bias is a point of view based on pre-existing beliefs. Bias is a form of prejudice or opinion unsupported by facts. Often our biases prevent us from understanding the true nature of events. An author may be biased because of his or her upbringing, experiences, social class, race, religious beliefs, or gender.

To determine the bias or point of view of an author, look at:

What does the author choose to write about?

Does the author appear to like or dislike what he or she describes?

What does the author leave out or fail to include?

Does the author use positive or negative words?

Does the author seem sympathetic to the people he or she writes about?

Are there any similarities between the author and the people being described?

APPLYING WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED


Finding the main idea and summarizing
Finding the Main Idea and Summarizing: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

When you read a document, be sure to grasp the main idea that the author is trying to show. To support the main idea, the author usually provides facts, examples, and other details. To identify the main idea, first determine the topic (or subject) of the document. Then determine what the author has to say about that topic.

Sometimes it helps to make a summary, or short restatement, of a text you are reading. To make a summary, restate the main ideas of the passage while leaving out less important information. Rewrite in your own words to make it shorter. Combine sentences expressing the same general idea. Other sentences, with less essential information, can just be omitted.

APPLYING WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED

Read this paragraph from The Story of Africa, a book based on a television series, and write its main idea below:

“Armed with iron smelting technology, the Bantu of west and central Africa spread across the continent, changing its languages and cultural landscape A number of theories have been put forward to explain this migration. One theory is that there were waves of migration, one moving through the east of Africa and another making its way through the center of Africa. In Zambia, there is evidence of at least three migration routes - from the Great Lakes, the Congo forest and Angola.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


Evaluating the Validity of a Source: The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.Often historians compare several sources to uncover what happened in the past. They evaluate the validity of each source to determine which descriptions are the most trustworthy or valid. To evaluate the validity of a source, historians consider:

The language of the source?

Information about the author?

Corroboration with other sources?

The Language of the Source: The text itself gives hints. Does the author use facts and specific examples to support any general statements? Are the author’s points logically connected? A source is less likely to be valid if the author makes unstated assumptions, simply appeals to emotions, includes irrelevant information, oversimplifies, states half truths, or presents opinions as facts.

Corroboration with other Sources: To corroborate is to confirm with other sources. One common way to check if information in a source is valid is to check for support from other sources. For example, if a source describes a fire on an island but no other sources describe the same event, one might question the accuracy of the first account. Maybe the author saw something, like a sunset on the horizon, and mistook it for a fire. If, on the other hand, other sources reported the same fire, then it is more likely that the first account is also accurate.

Information about the Author: Historians also evaluate the validity of a source based on information they have about the author. Was the author an eye-witness to a described event? Was the author qualified to write a document? For example, a reader might find an engineer’s report about the factors that contributed to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 more reliable than an analysis of that event by someone without such training.

Opinions:general statements and conclusions are supported by facts.

The source:was created at the time of the events it reports.

Characteristics of a reliable source

Facts:can be corroborated by the use of other sources.

The author:is recognized as being knowledgeable and impartial.


Chapter study cards
Chapter Study Cards The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

Types of Social Scientists

  • Historian: Studies the past

  • Geographer: Studies Earth’s surface features, where people live, and how people interact with their environment.

  • Archaeologist: Studies artifacts to learn about ancient societies. Carbon dating helps archaeologists determine the age of artifacts they are studying.

  • Anthropologist: Studies human culture. Some anthropologists specialize in studying the lives of prehistoric humans.

Types of Sources

  • Primary Sources: sources created by witnesses at the time of an event

    • A letter from a soldier in WWII

    • An ancient map of a battle plan

  • Secondary Sources: These are sources that are based on interpreting and analyzing primary sources.

    • A recent history book on WWII

    • A biography of a famous person

Examining Historical Sources

  • Historical Context: The background (time, place, beliefs, events) behind the creation of the source.

  • Point of View: The author’s opinion about the subject. An author’s point of view is often shaped by the author’s education, life experiences, or social position.

  • Frame of Reference: These are generally – held assumptions at the time that the source was created.

Validity of a Source

Historians and social scientists evaluate the validity of a source based on:

  • Language of the Source: Is it objective, factual and logical, or emotional and contradictory?

  • Corroboration with the other Sources: Do other sources confirm the existence of the same facts?

  • Information about the Author: Is the author an eye-witness? Does the author have special qualifications? Does the author seem objective or biased?


Checking your understanding
CHECKING YOUR UNDERSTANDING The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

Directions: Place the letter that best answers the question

Use the passage and your knowledge of social studies to answer the following question.

“After we crossed this bridge, (the Aztec Emperor) Montezuma came to greet us. With him came two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in different costumes, but also very rich…They came in two columns, pressed close to the walls of the street, which is wide and beautiful.” --Hernan Cortes, Spanish Noble

  • How did Hernan Cortes and Montezuma differ in their points of view of their encounter, as expressed in these accounts?

  • Cortes marveled at Aztec wealth, while Montezuma focused on the tragic events of the encounter.

  • Cortes’ felt the Aztec nobles mistreated the peasants, while Montezuma believed their wealth was justified.

  • Cortes’ described events he witnessed, while Montezuma made up his facts to rally support among his people.

  • Cortes thought the Aztecs were safe from disease, but Montezuma felt they were at great risk from European diseases.

“My people were devastated by diseases brought to our land by Cortes and his men. Entire villages were destroyed. We have never seen such horrible diseases. My people lacked all resistance to these diseases, and many people died.” --Montezuma, Aztec Ruler


Checking your understanding1
CHECKING YOUR UNDERSTANDING The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

  • How did Hernan Cortes and Montezuma differ in their points of view of their encounter, as expressed in these accounts?

  • Cortes marveled at Aztec wealth, while Montezuma focused on the tragic events of the encounter.

  • Cortes’ felt the Aztec nobles mistreated the peasants, while Montezuma believed their wealth was justified.

  • Cortes’ described events he witnessed, while Montezuma made up his facts to rally support among his people.

  • Cortes thought the Aztecs were safe from disease, but Montezuma felt they were at great risk from European diseases.

Examine the Question: This question asks how the view of Cortes and Montezuma differ.

Recall what you know. You might recall that Cortes came to Mexico in the early 1500’s with soldiers in search of gold.

Apply what you know:

Choice B is wrong since Cortes does not mention mistreatment of peasants.

Choice C is wrong since Montezuma did not make up these facts.

Choice D is also wrong since Cortes does not mention diseases in his account of the events.

Choice A is the best answer. Cortes is awed by Aztec wealth, while Montezuma describes the effect of diseases on his people.


Checking your understanding2
CHECKING YOUR UNDERSTANDING The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.

Directions: Place the letter that best answers the question

Now try answering an additional question with the same reading passage on your own.

“After we crossed this bridge, (the Aztec Emperor) Montezuma came to greet us. With him came two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in different costumes, but also very rich…They came in two columns, pressed close to the walls of the street, which is wide and beautiful.” --Hernan Cortes, Spanish Noble

2. Which best explains why these two accounts focus on different aspects of the same encounter?

  • Only one of the authors was telling the truth.

  • Cortes brought diseases with him in order to destroy the Aztecs.

  • Each author had different motives, concerns and perspectives.

    j. Montezuma was too proud to ask Cortes for help.

“My people were devastated by diseases brought to our land by Cortes and his men. Entire villages were destroyed. We have never seen such horrible diseases. My people lacked all resistance to these diseases, and many people died.” --Montezuma, Aztec Ruler


Checking for understanding now try answering some additional questions
Checking for understanding… The study of history helps a society remember what it is and where it is going. Just as your own life would become meaningless if you had no memory of who you were or what you had done, each society looks to its history for a sense of its identity.Now try answering some additional questions.

3. These actions are most preformed by

  • An anthropologist

  • An archaeologist

  • An historian

  • A geographer

    4. Which document would be considered a primary source?

  • An encyclopedia article about Confucius

  • Modern textbook with a chapter on ancient China

  • A recent biography of Confucius

    j. A letter written by Confucius

  • Analyzing the design of a Shang bronze pot

  • Deciphering the writing of an ancient artifact

  • Examining the fabric of an ancient Japanese kimono


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