Sources, i.e. records from and of the past, form the basis of historical research by providing historians with the evidence which enables them to make claims about the past. Since every source has a past of its own, historians must first examine the history of their sources (a process known as source criticism) before turning to source interpretation. Source criticism was originally developed in relation to written sources, but can also be adapted to other source types, such as image or audio sources.
Source criticism, which represents a first analytic step in your engagement with a source, is an attempt to acquire the relevant background knowledge which you will ultimately need to assess a source’s validity and its significance for your own research question. The key questions to consider here are: “Under which circumstances and with which intentions was the source created? Which information might it or might it not convey? Which leanings and biases is it likely to betray?” Only once these aspects have been considered can a source be made to “speak for itself”.
Methods of source criticism are outlined in numerous introductory guides for history students, where they are occasionally also illustrated in diagram form. In this section, the recommended approach to source criticism is introduced via a series of example questions on various topics. Source criticism, of course, does not involve working your way through every question on this list one by one. Some questions may already be answered in the introduction, annotations or footnotes of a published source or source edition, while others may not be relevant to every source or research question. For example, the name of the clerk who transcribed a legal document is usually of limited historical significance, but contextual knowledge about the author of a diary is always imperative for its interpretation.
- Archival History: How has the source been handed down over time: as an original or as a transcription? Was it altered in any way in the process? In which archive(s) and collection(s) has it been held?
- Authenticity: Is the source genuine? A falsification is not without value; it can provide clues as to when and why the original was forged.
Source Context and Content Description
- Text Type: What type of text is it (official document, letter, chronicle, legal document, etc.)? Which function did or does it fulfil?
- External Characteristics: Out of which material is it made? Which format does it follow? Is it handwritten or printed?
- Authorship: Who wrote the source? What do we know about this (or these) person(s)? In which capacity did the author compose it? Was he/she an eyewitness or a contemporary witness? Remember to distinguish between the author’s “horizon” (what could he/she have known?) and his/her “standpoint” (what did he/she want to report?).
- Time and Place of Creation: When, where and under which circumstances was the source written? Undated sources can be roughly dated by formal criteria (e.g. handwriting, paper) and/or substantive criteria (e.g. references to historical events, etc.).
- Context: What role did the historical (social, political, economic) context in which the source was written play in its creation?
- Objectives and Intentions: Which practical objectives and intentions underlie the source? Which personal interests permeate it?
- Target Audience: To whom is the text addressed? What is known about this readership?
- Reception (cf. Source History): What do we know about the source’s reception, impact, dissemination and treatment over time?
Language and Content
- Linguistic Features: Do you understand the source’s content and language? If not, consult contemporary and/or specialist encyclopaedias and dictionaries.
- Which persons, institutions and circumstances are mentioned in the source? What is known about them? Biographical literature is especially useful for finding details about historical figures.
- Content (adhere as closely as possible to the text without interpreting it): What are the source’s key claims (formulated in your own words)? How is the text structured? Which passages are particularly striking? Which sections are unclear?
After the source criticism stage, your next step is to interpret the source by relating it to your own research question. As such, the passages which are most relevant to your research should be subjected to particularly close analysis. Any background knowledge obtained during source criticism should serve as the basis for your analysis here: for example, you can expect that a chronicle written on behalf of a city government will attempt to portray the local authorities in the best possible light. Source criticism thus serves as an initial means of evaluating the historical accuracy of a claim and of situating a source in its historical context. For you to arrive at a sound interpretation of a source, however, it is important that you go on to compare it to other sources as well as to relevant secondary literature, taking care to identify any similarities and differences. Other texts can add to – or even explain – the claims made in a source; however, they can also shift the focus on to other aspects or refute its claims. Similarly, you should also use relevant source interpretations provided by other researchers in secondary literature to critically reflect upon and evaluate your own interpretations.
As a researcher, you will often find that your interest in a source does not correspond to its author’s original intentions, as may very well have already become clear during the source criticism stage. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to find answers to your specific questions. For example, trivial comments recorded in an interrogation protocol may be of more relevance to your research question than those statements which address the actual offence. As such, source interpretation represents a quest for hidden, implicit meaning.
To this end, it is important that you consider the following aspects:
- Key Concepts: What are the central concepts employed in the text?
- Language and Rhetoric: Use of tropes (metaphors, metonymies, etc.), figures of speech, symbolism, technical terms and expressions, etc.
- Patterns of Argument
- Gaps, Omissions and Rejections: What is not mentioned? What is refuted? Always bear in mind the following rule which applies to every text: “To write is to silence”.
In recent years, more and more sources have been made available in digital form. The result is that researchers now have access to more sources than ever before, with historians spending less time working in archives. Analysis of digitised sources, however, should not necessarily be approached any differently.
Nevertheless, digitisation does allow for new forms of source analysis which are no longer based on conventional hermeneutics. These often involve (statistical) analysis of large, digitally accessible text collections. These approaches all fall within the emerging field of “digital humanities”.
Analytic approaches based on the methods of digital humanities include:
- Quantifying the use of certain words and concepts (word field analysis, semantic analysis, text mining). These approaches all form part of the already well-developed field of computational linguistics.
- Using georeferencing and cartographic representations to identify spatial patterns.
- Depicting relationships in the form of networks and subjecting these to statistical analyses (historical network analysis [HNA]).
- Simulating historical processes using mathematical models.
Many of these approaches are not completely new. However, digitalisation and the development of specialist software now make them much easier to carry out, thereby ensuring that they are available to a much wider research community.
Nonetheless, electronic sources – whether created in genuinely digital form or subsequently digitised – do come with their own drawbacks. Their instability presents a particular challenge for source criticism, since they can be altered at any time in ways which are barely detectable. A further danger is that the proliferation of digital sources may encourage researchers to neglect non-digitised sources, even if only because the latter are more difficult to access.
Written records are not the only sources which can be subjected to source criticism and source interpretation. Both techniques can also be applied in appropriately adapted forms to non-written sources such as images.
When describing an image, begin by specifying its type (painting, photograph, cartoon, etc.). Then identify its format as well as the technique used by its originator (for paintings: watercolour, oil etc.; for photographs: colour slide, daguerreotype, etc.). Also consider whether it is an original image or a reproduction (if so, what type?). You should also seek to find out more about the technical and economic conditions in which it was produced as well as its subsequent history as a source. An approach developed by the art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), which distinguishes between pre-iconographic description, iconographic analysis and iconological interpretation, is helpful when describing the visual content of images.
Pre-iconographic description, which assumes a certain degree of general and practical knowledge on your part as the observer, focuses on how you perceive and identify the objects, figures and motifs in an image and the way in which these are expressed by the artist. Iconographic analysis, which aims to reveal deeper themes, ideas, motifs or allegories in an image, requires a profounder knowledge of similar works, motifs and styles. It examines the composition of an image (its foreground, background, centre, perspective, use of light and shadows, etc.), juxtaposing individual sections or elements in relation to each other and the image as a whole. Iconological interpretation attempts to relate the intended meaning or the content of an artwork to its historical context.
Example: Describing a Cartoon
A female figure is in the foreground. Her eyes closed, she is holding a broken scale. A large, domed building stands in the background, from the windows of which two women and five men look out, laughing.
The woman with the scale is Justitia (Lady Justice). The building in the background evokes the Federal Parliament in Bern; the seven-member Swiss Federal Council currently comprises two women and five men.
Justice in Switzerland has been damaged or even destroyed, but the Swiss government appears indifferent or at least has not let this dampen its mood. Some aspects remain unclear: Why is the scale broken? Is the government responsible for the pursuit of justice? Is the cartoon trying to say that the government is jeopardising the independence of the judiciary?
The Humphrey Winterton Collection of East African Photographs: 1860-1960. Photographs from the colonial period, East Africa.
BM Archives. Visual and cartographic material from the Basel Mission Archives, 1550-2000.
Oral history involves historians interviewing contemporary witnesses about their past experiences, thereby generating new sources. The benefit of this method is that interviewees can provide information which may not be available in any written documents. Moreover, a lot more is known about the context in which an oral history source is produced than is the case for most archival sources. (Indeed, this contextual knowledge must be taken into account when interpreting oral history sources!) The challenge of interpreting an oral history source lies less in the subjective nature of a contemporary witness’s account – all testimony is subjective after all – than in the amount of time which may have passed between the oral report and the events which it purports to describe. Source criticism for oral history must thus also always engage with both individual and collective forms of memory. If, in addition to serving as a means of investigating memory processes, an oral history interview is also meant to clarify historical facts, it is essential that you not only test the coherence and plausibility of your interviewee’s statements but also compare them to the testimony of other contemporary witnesses and/or the claims of written texts.
Südwestdeutsche Archivalienkunde - LEO-BW. The site presents types of archival records and sources from the early Middle Ages to the immediate present from southwest Germany.