ON ANALYZING DOCUMENTS
Historians can use an almost infinite variety
of sources in their work. These include physical remains, literary works,
works of art, film and pictures, as well as the sorts of things we traditionally
consider to be documents. These are primarily theoretical treatises
excerpts from them) as in the writings of Beccaria, Mazzini, and others,
accounts, and most especially documents of an immediate nature,
formal or otherwise.
Documents of various types can be analyzed
with different emphasis and methods, but there are some basic methods common
Why was the document composed? Creating documents
takes effort and time. Surely there must have been a reason for devoting
the time and energy required to create the document under study. Is it
intended to inform? Convince? Entertain? Motivate?
What is the context of the document? What
things were happening when the document was being created? What was the
temper of the times?
Who wrote the document? An individual? A group?
Who is the intended audience? Who is supposed
to receive the message? Answers to such questions can explain the form
and the style of argument in the document. They can also lead you to look
for the assumptions of the author (s) about the audience.
What is going on here? What actors or institutions
are at work? (Institutions include any group with a defined constituency,
membership, having sources of income and a sense of survival: a nation,
a legislature, a political party, labor unions, Student Senate, or individuals
representing or speaking for such institutions.) What is the relations
between the institutions? Who is trying to do what to whom?
Less obvious questions
What type of document is this? Formal? Spontaneous?
What does the form say about the intended purpose and audience?
What assumptions and values pervade the document?
Sometimes values and assumptions are explicitly stated; usually they are
not, and must be inferred. To find them, look for concepts the author thinks
the audience shares, emotion-laden words, superlatives, and so forth in
order to get an idea of the values and assumptions of the author (s) and
Can I believe this document? Are the claims
or assumptions made in it true?
What can I learn from this document? Does
it have any meaning or significance for me, personally?
These are usually designed to convince,
and contain arguments constructed logically from beginning to end. For
this reason, it is preferable to read the entire document, but that
is often impractical. You have to hope that the editor has excerpted the
most important parts and has presented them within the proper context.
But you must always understand that such choices reflect the editorís values
and ideas, and these may not be yours.
Identify the authorís purpose. How
does he propose to accomplish it? Is the author an idealist or a realist?
Identify any unresolved inner conflicts.
Is the treatise consistent and coherent, or does he change his mind or
opinion in the process of creating his arguments?
Indicate the authorís underlying values
and assumptions. Do they seem to contrast with or contradict
his explicit arguments?
Examine the authorís choice of vocabulary.
Does he use emotionally charged words? Does he refer to certain concepts,
people, or institutions positively? Negatively? Does this reveal something
about the authorís ideology?
What does the treatise tell you about the
These can be well thought out (by committees
or individuals) or can be spontaneous reactions to current (and sometimes
Identify the actors. What institutions
or people are in play here?
Discus the policy. What is the stated
aim of the document? Who is doing what to whom? Who is being manipulated,
constrained, or influenced? For what purpose? Is there any unstated policy?
Sometimes, especially when the authors want to disguise their motives,
some things are intentionally left unclear. Look for vagueness, when you
might expect precision.
Pick out the values and assumptions
of the author (s)? Do they conflict with the stated policy of the document?
Look for any signs of social change. Is reference
made to changed conditions within society? Have changes in different social
classes or groups called forth a new policy or governmental measure?
These sets of guidelines should help you
squeeze the most out of the historical documents you encounter in this
course. It is a process that at first involves discipline and work, but
it is a worthwhile endeavor. After a while it comes to be a natural and
It is necessary to emphasize that not all
of these elements will always appear in the same document. You should look
for them anyway. Their absence might be as important as their presence.
And when you write your document analyses,
you should not use the above hints as an outline. A document analysis,
like every other paper, should have an introduction where the thesis is
clearly expressed, a body where the information is brought to bear and
the evidence evaluated, and a conclusion. Each part should flow smoothly
into the other. Work at smooth transitions.