How to Read & Interpret Social Studies Texts

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

Whether it is a history textbook or an economic analysis, being able to properly read and interpret social studies texts comes down to following a few easy steps.

Social Studies Texts

Whether it is a high school student reading a text on civics and local politics or a professor sitting down with a prized first-hand account of a long-ago event, being able to read a social studies text is a valuable skill. In order to get the most out of a text, there are a number of questions that should be asked before the first word of the source is even read. Many of these questions depend on what type of social studies text is being read, such as history, government, or economics texts. Let's start with history texts.

History Texts

For much of your high school career, as well as a considerable amount of any general education classes you may take in college, history texts will often be the most common form of social studies texts that you encounter. When reading a history text, it can help to keep in mind what kind of source a document is, as well as if it is biased.

One of the most important questions you can ask yourself about a social studies text is if it is a primary source or secondary source. Remember that primary sources are witnesses to an actual act being described; they can be anything from an autobiography to a diary to a photograph of an event. By comparison, secondary sources are written by people who were not there for the event at hand. Textbooks are quintessential secondary sources; so are biographies and newspaper stories published after an event happened.

As a rule, primary sources tend to interject a bit more emotion and excitement, while secondary sources can be more sedate. Also, secondary sources can take into account other events that were not seen by the witnesses that produced the primary source.

The second major question that must be asked before proceeding with a social studies text is whether or not there is bias in the text. Remember that bias exists when an author wants us to feel one way or another about an event or issue.

For instance, imagine different people writing about the outcome of a football game. The winners may have a somewhat different account of the events than the losers, right? Historical sources, especially primary sources, may also view a single event through different lenses. Historians have to watch out for these biases lest they find their way into their own work. After all, historians are looking for the facts of the situation, not the sore feelings or bragging rights of the participants. Still, those can make good stories as well, so biased sources shouldn't be completely ignored, but only managed.

Government Texts

When studying the United States, examples of government texts and reports that you may come across can include census information, General Accounting Office (GAO) reports, public policies, and state of the union addresses. Key pieces of information typically found in government reports that can provide you with some clues about their content include the name of the government agency issuing the report, such as the U.S. Department of Education, name and number of the report, and publication date.

In some instances, government texts, such as those produced by a controversial foreign country, may also have some sort of bias, so you'll want to compare government texts with other sources on the same topic. This is because different governments may present different arguments about the same topic, such as human rights. For example, a February 2014 report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights discussed how political prisoners in North Korea were executed and mistreated, among other human rights violations. In response, the North Korean government published its own white paper in which it accused South Korea of having the poorest record among all countries in the world when it came to human rights, for which the North Koreans held the United States responsible.

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