HOW TO ANALYZE YOUR DOCUMENT
PURPOSE OF THE ASSIGNMENT
Document analysis is a key skill in historical interpretation. It is not a mere summary or
description of the contents of a document (defined broadly as any type of historical
source, including written documents, paintings, photographs, sound recordings, films,
etc.). Instead, it is an analysis of the motivation, intent and purpose of a document
within a particular historical context. The purpose of a document analysis paper is to
allow students to learn, practice, and showcase their skills in original historical interpretation.
HOW TO ANALYZE YOUR DOCUMENT
A good document analysis paper will focus on both the text itself (with attention to the specifics and nuances of language and/or imagery used) and the context (the broader picture of the history of that period that informed the document’s creation and reception). It is this dual approach that separates the methods of historians from those of other disciplines, such as literary criticism or other social sciences (e.g. sociology or political science).
In analyzing your primary source, you should concentrate on discovering both themeaning and the significance the source as a piece of historical evidence. In analyzing the meaning, you are trying to understand what the intention of the document was and how it might have been understood by the historical actors in that era. An analysis of the significance focuses on the source’s importance or impact within its historical context, what it illustrates about the time period in which it was produced, and how the evidence contributes to a particular interpretation of past.
Good historians are always making connections, or finding relationships between the historical evidence they discover and the existing scholarship on the topic concerned. In a similar fashion, you should draw upon secondary sources (i.e. articles and books written after the events in question, usually by non-participants, especially historians) to help you analyze the meaning as well as the larger context and significance of the document.
You need to use a minimum of one secondary source (and a maximum of three) to help you contextualize and analyze your document. You should try to find one that is directly relevant to your document. (For example, if you choose a document like SNCC’s founding declaration of principles, you should find a source that discusses SNCC’s founding or at least SNCC, rather than one on the Civil Rights Movement that does not say much if anything about SNCC.)
MAKING YOUR ARGUMENT
Your essay should have a clear introduction that ends with your thesis (a succinct statement, preferably one sentence, of your overall argument);; a well-organized body,including logically-placed supporting arguments/points and paragraphs with strong topic sentences;; and a clear conclusion that briefly reviews the main arguments of the paper and restates the thesis.
You may be wondering, “how am I going to come up with a thesis about a document”? Easy. The most straightforward thesis would be a clear statement of your major conclusions arising from your document analysis.
Taking the example of the SNCC analysis above, you might write: “SNCC’s statement of principles, issued during a period in which young activists were increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change, placed it within the non-violent tradition of mainstream Civil Rights organizations, such as the SCLC. However, SNCC’s founding principles also signalled activists’ intentions to pursue even more militant direct action and to couple it with the more substantial community organizing that the believed was necessary to sustain lasting civil right gains in the South.” You could probably make it much more succinct than that, but that will give you the general idea.
Examples of Questions to ask when analyzing a Primary Source:
(Note that your essay must not simply be an answer to this list of questions. It should be
an essay, i.e. an extended analytical argument about the source.)
1. What is the nature of the source?
• What type of source is it?
• Where and when was the source produced?
• Who was the author and what was his/her position?
• Does it provide information about experience, ideology, and/or behaviour?
• Is it prescriptive, i.e. does it tell people how to behave (e.g. sermons, guide books,
• Or is it evidence of lived experience (e.g. oral history interviews, autobiographies,
• Does it tell you about ordinary people or elites?
2. Who is/was the intended audience?
• Was the source produced for public consumption?
• Or was it originally intended to be private?
• How might this affect the presentation of the material and your understanding of it?
3. What is the meaning of the source?
• What was the purpose of the source? Why was it created?
• What does a close reading of the source tell you about the author’s intentions?
• How does the source construct meaning through language, visual imagery, or music?
• What important metaphors and symbols does it use?
• Is the source accurate? Does it contain deliberate distortions or omissions?
• What silences are there in the source? What does the author leave out that is
4. What is the historical significance of the source (is it significant?)?
• What larger questions can you address by using the source?
• What questions can’t be answered?
• What other sources could be used to supplement this one?
KNOW YOUR SOURCES
In case you’re uncertain about which sources are primary and which are secondary, here’s a quick refresher:
Primary sources are:
• first-hand accounts of an historical event or a person’s life or work
• original documents, records, data created at the time of a particular historical
• documents created at a later time by a participant or eyewitness to an historical
event (e.g. autobiographies or memoirs)
• raw data
Letters, autobiographies, contemporary newspaper articles, posters, diaries, archival materials, and photographs are examples of primary sources. Primary sources can be in their original format or reproduced in a different format (e.g. book, microfilm, or on the Internet).
Secondary sources are:
• works (books, journal articles) written later about a subject
• usually written by those who were not participants or eye-witnesses to the
• works that interpret, analyze and debate primary sources
For example, the introductory essays written by the authors of the Brief History with Documents series are secondary sources;; the documents in the rest of the book are primary sources.