Understanding a Source's Strengths and Weaknesses

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll evaluate sources as they are used in the social sciences. We will identify various types of sources and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.

The Function of Sources: What Do Sources Tell Us?

Do you remember learning in school about the Nazi invasion of New York City during World War II? You know, when the Nazis stormed Long Island and leveled the city? Hopefully you don't because this never happened. How do we know what happened in the past and what didn't? How do we know what exactly took place during the Boston Tea Party, or what Napoleon Bonaparte said in a particular speech? One word: sources. Sources are our key to understanding what happened in the past. In the context of history and the social sciences, a source is basically the origin of factual information. It is the place where our knowledge about the past comes from.

Newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books, photographs, eye-witness accounts, film footage, and historical artifacts can all be sources. Sources are vitally important to historians and other experts in the social sciences. Without them, we really would have no way of assuring what happened in the past is factual. Without sources, some people might very well believe that the Nazis invaded New York during World War II.

Primary and Secondary Sources: A Refresher

There are two main types of sources. Maybe you've learned this already, but let's review. Primary sources are sources that were created during the time period being examined. Primary sources contain first-hand knowledge or information. For example, a propaganda poster from the 1930s would be a primary source. Other examples of primary sources would include: film footage from WWII, a sword from the Middle Ages, an anti-British political pamphlet from the American Revolution, a piece of the Berlin Wall, and a personal interview with a Korean War veteran about his experience in the war.

Written by Thomas Paine, this anti-British pamphlet titled Common Sense is an example of a primary source.

Secondary sources consist of second-hand accounts. Usually they are in the forms of books, magazine articles, or other text written by an expert who was not involved in the event being described. So if a professor wrote a book about George Washington or Napoleon Bonaparte, that would be a classic example of a secondary source.

Evaluating Strengths and Weaknesses in Sources

So obviously primary sources hold more weight, or are more authoritative than secondary sources. Think about it: an account about the American Revolution written by John Adams or Thomas Jefferson is more authoritative than an account written by a professor. An interview with a World War II veteran about what happened during the Battle of Berlin is going to reveal information that even a well-educated historian may not know. So whenever possible, it is always best to go right to the original, primary source. If you want to learn about the Civil War, read the memoirs written by Civil War generals, or read some of the newspapers that were printed at that time. These are the strongest types of sources.

But even primary sources must be evaluated critically. Government issued pamphlets or posters can sometimes contain elements of propaganda. Propaganda , as we know, is any type of communication specifically designed to encourage viewers to adopt a certain perspective. Not all propaganda necessarily contains falsehood, but some does. For example, Nazi Germany quite often printed newspapers, posters, and other types of material that contained misinformation. Today scholars have to be very discerning when reading this kind of material. They have to ask themselves 'What was the purpose of this material being printed?' When looking at a textual source, it is very important to analyze the author's intent. Just because a scholar finds a Nazi pamphlet telling how humane and well-treated Jews were inside 'displacement' camps, doesn't mean it was true.

What is the purpose of this poster? This British propaganda poster was intended to foster feelings of support for an American-British alliance.

Photographs and film footage are generally strong sources, but even they can contain weaknesses. For example, in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, leader Joseph Stalin often manipulated photos for propaganda purposes. This was basically photoshop before Photoshop.

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