What is the nature of questions that can be answered by historical sources and methods?

What is the nature of questions that can be answered by historical sources and methods?

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What is the nature of questions that can be answered by historical sources and methods?

  • Pay attention to the qualities of sources that inspire the nature of valid historical questions.
  • Pay attention to the qualities of methods that inspire the nature of valid historical questions.

Are there third fonts for the nature of valid historical questions?

Historical sources and methods are targeted at answering contextual questions about the meaning and nature of human behaviour and experience over time on the basis of the documentary record of the past.

Questions must be timely: they must deal with change and continuity. They must deal with the situation in time.

Questions must deal with the documentary record of the past: history is fundamentally a textual pursuit. Even when historians construct, for example, wage-price series in economic history they are reliant upon the textual records of the past. This question can become problematic when the documentary records of the past are recent in origin (for example: evidence supplied by archaeologists).

Questions must deal in human practices and behaviours: while we can observe evidence for climatologists or botanists from the documentary record of the past, these activities then become biology or ecology. History itself is concerned with the human world of meanings and experiences. Many things which may not appear to initially be human meaning or experience (boat construction) actually are: the science, craft and practice of building boats is an intensely social and meaning driven endeavour.

Questions must deal in context and meaning: Historians typically answer questions about meaning, rather than volume. While answers may be available for questions such as "How many soldiers were in a division in Germany?" a historian will seek to answer, "Why did Germans choose a certain divisional structure?" As such, many things that people wish to know about the past cannot be answered by historians, as the questions are not meaningful or contextual: a practice may be an irrelevancy, or the sources may not record the practice in a way (or at all) that allows it to be contextualised.

This is because historians deal with the documentary record of the past, which tends to be documents that people cared about preserving (or did not seek to deliberately destroy). These records tend to be about the meaning of human social practices. Additionally, as historians read meaning from texts, the methods of reading meaning produce limitations on the answerable questions. The use of empathy or historical economic statistics reduce the number of produceable meanings.

Thirdly, this is because mostly people want meaning and context questions about the past. "What was it like to be… ?" rather than "How many nails in a hob nailed boot on average in 14th century Florence?" and the funding agencies support the former but not the latter question.

History: Assessing the historical value and significance of sources

In judging the significance of a source in informing what happened in the past, students often fail to take appropriate account of the influence of context, contemporary insights and hindsight in evaluating the interpretation which the source offers.

This lesson aims to help students to critically evaluate a range of sources in terms of their significance (i.e. their value and usefulness to historians). In the activity students are asked to use contextual knowledge to reach substantiated judgements about the significance of each source in illuminating the question, bearing in mind

  • the date authorship, audience, perspective and motives of each source
  • that sources may be significant at the time or have significance attributed to them subsequently by historians
  • that the degree of significance is a matter of interpretation, often related to the value systems of the period in which the interpretation was produced.


Students are divided into small groups and presented with a selection of different sources of commemoration of the Home Rule crisis, for example:

  • A poem by Rudyard Kipling called “Ulster 1912” commemorating the Ulster Covenant
  • A panel commemorating Home Rule from a Decade of Anniversaries exhibition in City Hall Belfast or Home Rule memorabilia on eBay site
  • A wall mural commemorating the Ulster Volunteer Force and or the Easter Rising 1916.
  • A podcast (YouTube) of a lecture by modern historians on the commemoration of significant events during the decade of anniversaries.
  • A selection of other modern historians views on Home Rule

(Visit Resource section of website for more examples of sources)

Students examine the sources and discuss

  • What types of sources are these?
  • What is being commemorated?
  • What is the contextual background?
  • What are the key messages from the sources?
  • In what ways may these messages/ purposes relate to contemporary events?


Each group will begin to examine the reliability/motivation of the sources using two sets of criteria

Students will begin by examining each source by using a set of criteria called DAAMIT.

A – Audience

  • What was the author’s purpose/motive?
  • Was it to entertain/inform/persuade/mislead?
  • How might these motives have influenced the interpretation/perspective offered by the source?
  • What might the author want to happen as a result of this work?

I – Information

  • What form does the source take? ( poem/song written)?
  • What information it provide?
  • Where is the information drawn from? For example:Is the observation first hand?
  • what other sources of information were used to produce it?
  • Is it produced in a way that we would expect a source of its kind to be produced?
  • How reliable is it likely to be?
  • What is the perspective and tone offered by the source?
  • What insight does this give into the views and standpoints of the author?
  • How reliable is it likely to be in light of previous considerations?

Teachers may wish to help pupils probe:

  • What are the key words in the source? What do they mean?
  • What key ideas is the author trying to communicate?
  • Does the author provide evidence to support these ideas?
  • What underlying assumption and values do the sources reflect?
  • What issues do the sources raise?
  • Can you relate these issues to the historical context?

Students share information and compare answers, highlighting similarities and differences.

Students then use a second set of criteria (the Five ‘R’s) to assess the value to historians of each source.

  • Remarkable – the event/ development in the source was remarked upon by people at the time and/ or since
  • Remembered – the event / development in the source was important at some stage in history within the collective memory of a group or groups
  • Resonant – people like to make analogies with the event, it is possible to connect with experiences, beliefs or situations across time and space
  • Resulting in change – The event had consequences for the future
  • Revealing – of some other aspect of the past

After using both sets of criteria, each group rank orders the sources according to which, in their view, are the most and the least value to historians and why. They should be encouraged to consider also:

  • If the most significant sources are the only ones of value?
  • What might the other sources tell us?
  • How typical is this source for this period?
  • How widely was this source circulated?
  • What evidence supports your conclusions

In light of all of these questions, how significant is the source in terms of the insight it offers about events, actions, motives and values at the time and subsequently?

Making judgements about the relative value of the sources

A ‘source auction’ strategy (Diana Laffan 2009) can be used to help students decide which of the sources would be of most value to historians when investigating the commemoration of Home Rule.

About This Article

A history test will often ask a question about a historical source, such as a fact, quote, or image. To answer one of these questions, be direct and get straight to the point by starting with a sentence that addresses the prompt. To substantiate a point, support your answer with proof from the source by either using a direct quote or fact to provide context. Use your strongest evidence first, then add lesser points that support your overall answer. You can then explain why the source is important or valuable so you demonstrate your grasp of the facts. For tips from our Education co-author about how to make good use of time when you’re answering a source question in history, keep reading!


Source criticism (or information evaluation) is the process of evaluating the qualities of an information source, such as its validity, reliability, and relevance to the subject under investigation.

Gilbert J. Garraghan and Jean Delanglez divide source criticism into six inquiries: [1]

  1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?
  2. Where was it produced (localization)?
  3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?
  4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?
  5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?
  6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

The first four are known as higher criticism the fifth, lower criticism and, together, external criticism. The sixth and final inquiry about a source is called internal criticism. Together, this inquiry is known as source criticism.

R. J. Shafer on external criticism: "It sometimes is said that its function is negative, merely saving us from using false evidence whereas internal criticism has the positive function of telling us how to use authenticated evidence." [2]

Noting that few documents are accepted as completely reliable, Louis Gottschalk sets down the general rule, "for each particular of a document the process of establishing credibility should be separately undertaken regardless of the general credibility of the author." An author's trustworthiness in the main may establish a background probability for the consideration of each statement, but each piece of evidence extracted must be weighed individually.

Procedures for contradictory sources Edit

Bernheim (1889) and Langlois & Seignobos (1898) proposed a seven-step procedure for source criticism in history: [3]

  1. If the sources all agree about an event, historians can consider the event proven.
  2. However, majority does not rule even if most sources relate events in one way, that version will not prevail unless it passes the test of critical textual analysis.
  3. The source whose account can be confirmed by reference to outside authorities in some of its parts can be trusted in its entirety if it is impossible similarly to confirm the entire text.
  4. When two sources disagree on a particular point, the historian will prefer the source with most "authority"—that is the source created by the expert or by the eyewitness.
  5. Eyewitnesses are, in general, to be preferred especially in circumstances where the ordinary observer could have accurately reported what transpired and, more specifically, when they deal with facts known by most contemporaries.
  6. If two independently created sources agree on a matter, the reliability of each is measurably enhanced.
  7. When two sources disagree and there is no other means of evaluation, then historians take the source which seems to accord best with common sense.

Subsequent descriptions of historical method, outlined below, have attempted to overcome the credulity built into the first step formulated by the nineteenth century historiographers by stating principles not merely by which different reports can be harmonized but instead by which a statement found in a source may be considered to be unreliable or reliable as it stands on its own.

Core principles for determining reliability Edit

The following core principles of source criticism were formulated by two Scandinavian historians, Olden-Jørgensen (1998) and Thurén (1997): [4]

  • Human sources may be relics such as a fingerprint or narratives such as a statement or a letter. Relics are more credible sources than narratives.
  • Any given source may be forged or corrupted. Strong indications of the originality of the source increase its reliability.
  • The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.
  • An eyewitness is more reliable than testimony at second hand, which is more reliable than hearsay at further remove, and so on.
  • If a number of independent sources contain the same message, the credibility of the message is strongly increased.
  • The tendency of a source is its motivation for providing some kind of bias. Tendencies should be minimized or supplemented with opposite motivations.
  • If it can be demonstrated that the witness or source has no direct interest in creating bias then the credibility of the message is increased.

Eyewitness evidence Edit

R. J. Shafer offers this checklist for evaluating eyewitness testimony: [5]

  1. Is the real meaning of the statement different from its literal meaning? Are words used in senses not employed today? Is the statement meant to be ironic (i.e., mean other than it says)?
  2. How well could the author observe the thing he reports? Were his senses equal to the observation? Was his physical location suitable to sight, hearing, touch? Did he have the proper social ability to observe: did he understand the language, have other expertise required (e.g., law, military) was he not being intimidated by his wife or the secret police?
  3. How did the author report?, and what was his ability to do so?
    1. Regarding his ability to report, was he biased? Did he have proper time for reporting? Proper place for reporting? Adequate recording instruments?
    2. When did he report in relation to his observation? Soon? Much later? Fifty years is much later as most eyewitnesses are dead and those who remain may have forgotten relevant material.
    3. What was the author's intention in reporting? For whom did he report? Would that audience be likely to require or suggest distortion to the author?
    4. Are there additional clues to intended veracity? Was he indifferent on the subject reported, thus probably not intending distortion? Did he make statements damaging to himself, thus probably not seeking to distort? Did he give incidental or casual information, almost certainly not intended to mislead?

    Louis Gottschalk adds an additional consideration: "Even when the fact in question may not be well-known, certain kinds of statements are both incidental and probable to such a degree that error or falsehood seems unlikely. If an ancient inscription on a road tells us that a certain proconsul built that road while Augustus was princeps, it may be doubted without further corroboration that that proconsul really built the road, but would be harder to doubt that the road was built during the principate of Augustus. If an advertisement informs readers that 'A and B Coffee may be bought at any reliable grocer's at the unusual price of fifty cents a pound,' all the inferences of the advertisement may well be doubted without corroboration except that there is a brand of coffee on the market called 'A and B Coffee.'" [6]

    Indirect witnesses Edit

    Garraghan says that most information comes from "indirect witnesses", people who were not present on the scene but heard of the events from someone else. [7] Gottschalk says that a historian may sometimes use hearsay evidence when no primary texts are available. He writes, "In cases where he uses secondary witnesses. he asks: (1) On whose primary testimony does the secondary witness base his statements? (2) Did the secondary witness accurately report the primary testimony as a whole? (3) If not, in what details did he accurately report the primary testimony? Satisfactory answers to the second and third questions may provide the historian with the whole or the gist of the primary testimony upon which the secondary witness may be his only means of knowledge. In such cases the secondary source is the historian's 'original' source, in the sense of being the 'origin' of his knowledge. Insofar as this 'original' source is an accurate report of primary testimony, he tests its credibility as he would that of the primary testimony itself." Gottschalk adds, "Thus hearsay evidence would not be discarded by the historian, as it would be by a law court merely because it is hearsay." [8]

    Oral tradition Edit

    Gilbert Garraghan maintains that oral tradition may be accepted if it satisfies either two "broad conditions" or six "particular conditions", as follows: [9]

    1. Broad conditions stated.
      1. The tradition should be supported by an unbroken series of witnesses, reaching from the immediate and first reporter of the fact to the living mediate witness from whom we take it up, or to the one who was the first to commit it to writing.
      2. There should be several parallel and independent series of witnesses testifying to the fact in question.
      1. The tradition must report a public event of importance, such as would necessarily be known directly to a great number of persons.
      2. The tradition must have been generally believed, at least for a definite period of time.
      3. During that definite period it must have gone without protest, even from persons interested in denying it.
      4. The tradition must be one of relatively limited duration. [Elsewhere, Garraghan suggests a maximum limit of 150 years, at least in cultures that excel in oral remembrance.]
      5. The critical spirit must have been sufficiently developed while the tradition lasted, and the necessary means of critical investigation must have been at hand.
      6. Critical-minded persons who would surely have challenged the tradition – had they considered it false – must have made no such challenge.

      Other methods of verifying oral tradition may exist, such as comparison with the evidence of archaeological remains.

      More recent evidence concerning the potential reliability or unreliability of oral tradition has come out of fieldwork in West Africa and Eastern Europe. [10]

      Anonymous sources Edit

      Historians do allow for the use of anonymous texts to establish historical facts. [11]

      Once individual pieces of information have been assessed in context, hypotheses can be formed and established by historical reasoning.

      Argument to the best explanation Edit

      C. Behan McCullagh lays down seven conditions for a successful argument to the best explanation: [12]

      1. The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data. (We will henceforth call the first statement 'the hypothesis', and the statements describing observable data, 'observation statements'.)
      2. The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject that is, it must imply a greater variety of observation statements.
      3. The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject that is, it must make the observation statements it implies more probable than any other.
      4. The hypothesis must be more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject that is, it must be implied to some degree by a greater variety of accepted truths than any other, and be implied more strongly than any other and its probable negation must be implied by fewer beliefs, and implied less strongly than any other.
      5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.
      6. It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false.
      7. It must exceed other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.

      McCullagh sums up, "if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true." [13]

      Statistical inference Edit

      McCullagh states this form of argument as follows: [14]

      1. There is probability (of the degree p1) that whatever is an A is a B.
      2. It is probable (to the degree p2) that this is an A.
      3. Therefore, (relative to these premises) it is probable (to the degree p1 × p2) that this is a B.

      McCullagh gives this example: [15]

      1. In thousands of cases, the letters V.S.L.M. appearing at the end of a Latin inscription on a tombstone stand for Votum Solvit Libens Merito.
      2. From all appearances the letters V.S.L.M. are on this tombstone at the end of a Latin inscription.
      3. Therefore, these letters on this tombstone stand for Votum Solvit Libens Merito.

      This is a syllogism in probabilistic form, making use of a generalization formed by induction from numerous examples (as the first premise).

      Argument from analogy Edit

      The structure of the argument is as follows: [16]

      1. One thing (object, event, or state of affairs) has properties p1 . . . pn and pn + 1.
      2. Another thing has properties p1 . . . pn.
      3. So the latter has property pn + 1.

      McCullagh says that an argument from analogy, if sound, is either a "covert statistical syllogism" or better expressed as an argument to the best explanation. It is a statistical syllogism when it is "established by a sufficient number and variety of instances of the generalization" otherwise, the argument may be invalid because properties 1 through n are unrelated to property n + 1, unless property n + 1 is the best explanation of properties 1 through n. Analogy, therefore, is uncontroversial only when used to suggest hypotheses, not as a conclusive argument.

      History is a way of organizing and explaining the past. One cannot come to know history by merely learning overviews of the past, nor by simply learning the skills of history in terms of analyzing historical sources. Learning history means learning how to engage in the process of historical inquiry.

      Engaging in historical inquiry, in order to develop an understanding of the broad picture of the past, is a cyclical process that begins with the asking of guiding historical questions. These questions are investigated by locating and analyzing traces of the past &mdash historical sources. It is vital to recognize that these records and relics, primary and secondary historical sources, are:

      leftover remains and traces from the past, and that we do not have access to every single record, relic, or artifact from the past

      products of very different times and contexts from today, and we must make every effort to try to understand the people, places and times that produced these sources and

      not always developed to serve as intentional evidence of the past, but they can still be analyzed in an attempt to draw credible and worthwhile inferences and claims about the past to help answer historical questions (Lee, 2005, p. 58).

      The systematic and sophisticated process of analyzing these historical sources in the light of guiding questions results in historical evidence. This historical evidence, which at times can often be complex and contradictory, is then used to construct credible claims/narratives about the past, or in other word, historical interpretations, that seek to provide answers to the guiding historical questions. These interpretations often open up new avenues for the development of further historical questions and mysteries to be explored.


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      Primary Source Research

      When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand past events than by examining the sources that people from that period left behind (e.g., whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies).

      Each historian, including you, will approach a source with a different set of experiences and skills, and will therefore interpret the document differently. While there is no one right interpretation, interpretations should still be supported by evidence and analysis. If you do not do a careful and thorough analysis, you might arrive at a wrong interpretation.

      In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself and the era from which it comes. You can base your knowledge on class materials and other credible sources. You'll also need to analyze the document itself. The following questions may be helpful for your analysis of the document as an artifact and as a source of historical evidence.

      Initial Analysis

      1. What is the physical nature of your source? This is particularly important if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, written on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
      2. What is the source's purpose? What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across? Is the message explicit? Are there implicit messages as well?
      3. How does the author try to convey their message? What methods do they use?
      4. What do you know about the author? This might include, for example, race, ethnicity, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, or political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
      5. Who was or is the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
      6. What can a careful reading of the text/artifact tell you? How do language and word choice work? Are important metaphors or symbols used? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

      Evaluating the Source as Historical Evidence

      You'll also want to evaluate how credible the source is and what it tells you about the given historical moment.

      1. Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?
      2. Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
      3. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?
      4. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
      5. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
      6. If we have read other historians' interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

      Remember, you cannot address each and every one of these questions in your presentation or in your paper, and I wouldn't want you to. You need to be selective.

      Credit: Thank you to Carleton College's History Department for permission to adapt their resource "How to Analyze a Primary Source." (Minor additions or changes made to the original text). Original text created by Molly Ladd-Taylor, Annette Igra, Rachel Seidman, and others.

      Answering the Question

      So, you are confident that you have understood the question and have carried out a preliminary analysis. It is now time to bring them both together and formulate your answer.

      The temptation when you are writing under timed conditions is just to start in the hope that somehow, you will produce an answer worthy of a good mark. Examiners, when marking papers, are looking for answers that demonstrate clearly that you have engaged and understood the source and can demonstrate and understand its relevance to the period in question. Time spent planning your answer at this stage can make this an achievable goal and help to focus your answer, resisting the temptation to go off-topic and prevent you from forgetting a key fact that could alter your grade. How you plan your answer, whether by producing a mind map or just noting keywords is up to you. Even if you should run out of time, the presence of a plan would give the examiner some indication of where your answer was heading and you may be awarded points as a result.

      One of the most common problems experienced by students when answering a source-based history question is knowing how to start. What should the introductory passage say? The best way to overcome this is to incorporate the question into your answer. For example:

      ‘Source A opposes Kaiser Wilhelm II. How do you know?’
      First sentence:
      The opposition to Kaiser Wilhelm II is evident in Source A through…

      In approaching the question this way you are demonstrating to the examiner your understanding of what is expected of you and at the same time provide a focus for your writing, making it less likely that you will go off-topic.

      Your first paragraph should then be followed by incorporating the strongest evidence you have to support your argument backed by direct reference to the source. Much of source-based analysis is interpretative. If you can support the points you make throughout your answer by referencing the text and by demonstrating both its value and relevance to the period and themes you have studied, you can avoid the fate of the unsupported, generalised source-based answer scoring the lower grades.

      The following is a model answer provided by the AQA examination board. The student was required to analyse and evaluate a cartoon of Edward Jenner giving the smallpox inoculation to patients at St. Pancras Hospital, in terms of how useful it would be to a historian studying vaccination:

      Source A
      Source A shows society’s negative reaction to Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccination. The cows sprouting from people’s bodies are a representation of the unnatural effects people believed they would develop if they got vaccinated.
      This is useful because it is a reminder that although the discovery is significant today, it was rejected by a lot of people around the time it was found. The origin of this source states that it was drawn in 1802 by James Gillray only three years after Jenner’s discovery. As the vaccination was still relatively new in 1802 many people did not trust it, especially as Jenner had no way of explaining the effects of his work as germs had yet to be discovered. Therefore, the person drawing this may have set out for it to be portrayed negatively so that people may revert to more common treatments such as inoculation. This would stop many doctors going out of business as they weren’t familiar with Jenner’s practise and didn’t trust it. The purpose of this source is to shine a negative light on Jenner’s vaccination so that people would not rely on his methods of treatment. At this time inoculation was something widely practised by many doctors throughout Britain. This is useful as it can give us a further explanation as to why his discovery did not take off as quickly as we would presume. This being because if Jenner’s vaccination became popular enough, many doctors would lose money from performing inoculations, hence them spreading rumours such as those seen here. The source is a cartoon and this impacts on its utility as cartoons tend to be exaggerated and for comedic effect thus decreasing their utility to historians. They must be used in combination with a variety of other source types.

      The examiner’s commentary to this answer discusses the student’s complex evaluation of the source. How the student demonstrated and utilised sustained judgement and specific textual and historical knowledge, whilst also recognising its purpose and value as a source. It achieved a level 4 grading.

      Watch the video: Dual Nature of Radiation and Matter NEET important questions. class 12 chapter 11