Death on the River: Solving the Mystery through Analysis of Primary Sources

By Benoit, Bob | Social Studies Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Death on the River: Solving the Mystery through Analysis of Primary Sources


Benoit, Bob, Social Studies Review


Two groups meet and clash. There is smoke, the report of a gun, and people die. One side cries "Murderer" while the other claims self-defense. Each day in courts of America witnesses take the stand and juries attempt to sift through claims and counter claims to arrive at some understanding of the truth. The historian is like a detective. There are many mysteries and incidents in history to unravel and the historian becomes both detective and jury in constructing and then detailing a "truthful" view of events.

Historians rely on primary sources to conduct their investigations of events of the past. The scientist examines the physical/biological world and uses physically observable phenomena (even if microscopic) to make hypotheses about the world. The social scientist must examine the mind of humans and human phenomena to try to investigate history and hypothesize as to whom and why as well as when and where. It is through the examination of primary sources that the historian often constructs meaning of the past. One might look at the difference between the detective and forensic scientist in a murder mystery. The forensic expert looks for physical clues: fingerprints, blood analysis, bones, dirt composition, to construct an understanding of the case. A detective must use questioning and documents as well as relevant physical information to make a case and to get into the mind of the suspect.

Primary Sources include written documents, images, and artifacts from the period being studied. A primary source is a piece of living history. It may be defined as any artifact that provides first hand or direct information about the past. Primary sources may include first person accounts such as oral histories, diaries, memoirs, correspondence, documents (correspondence, treaties, laws, and speeches), and images (e.g. maps, photographs, drawings, and paintings). In this article we will focus on written sources.

Historians analyze historical sources in different ways. First, historians think about where, when, and why a document was created. They consider whether a source was created close in location and time to an actual historical event. Historians also think about the purpose of a source. Was it a personal diary intended to be kept private? Was the document prepared for the public? Some primary sources may be judged more reliable than others may, but every source has its own point of view or frame of reference. As a result, good historians read sources skeptically and critically. They also cross-check sources against other evidence and sources for corroboration.

We will examine the question of how historians carefully read and analyze primary sources in order to arrive at some semblance of the truth. How do we ensure that historical (or student) hypotheses about history based on documents are credible? What are the means by which historians analyze primary source documents and make judgements? How can we have students carefully consider a document if there is not an exact counter point document or evidence?

ANALYZING PRIMARY SOURCES

Historians have a set of techniques to analyze documents. Two of the rules are the (1) Time and Place Rule and (2) the Bias rule. Historians look at when and where the primary source was written relative to the event. Secondly, historians are concerned about possible bias.

Time and Place Rule

This rule indicates that proximity to the event ensures some credibility. This may be balanced by a possible bias or myopia by the person writing the document. This bias may not be conscious, but still may be bias. Certainly a soldier in World War II writing home about the Japanese might not only have a limited view, but one biased by fear and propaganda intended to motivate him to fight. This happens even at the high school sports level where the opponent is demeaned and demonized in some cases to inspire performance in a game. The time and place rule assumes that those closest to the event have the best view. …

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