to Look For
One way to think about analyzing these sources and keeping a critical
distance is to follow three steps:
1. Identify the Message
2. Mark the Trail
3. Slice Up The Material For Analysis
We will discuss each step, and then look at some questions that help
you at each stage. For help on each step, click on the heading.
Step One: Identify the Message.
First look at the big picture and discover the source's message. In a secondary
source, this is likely to be a thesis or
"argument" that the author is trying to make. The author believes that
she has something to say that will change our opinion of how the world
works. She seeks out the experiences, words and thoughts of others, interprets
them and then writes about the collected material in a way that supports
With a primary source, rarely is the
thesis "a point" that a writer first constructs and then attempts to support.
More often it is "the message" that the artist divulges over the course
of the entire work. So if you are reading a book, you'll have to keep asking
yourself about the message as you read but you probably won't have a strong
opinion until you're finished. A novelist sometimes will have no "answer"
but seek only to investigate a particular question and its nuances. Or
a painter will seek to evoke a feeling rather than prove a point. In this
case, the thesis becomes the creator's main question and what she considers
the important parts of the question to consider. A key part of discovering
the message is to ask yourself why the book or diary or photograph was
Questions to help with Step One
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Step Two: Mark the Trail.
Both artists and scholars take you on a journey. Novelists and filmmakers
create scenes that tell a story. In a secondary source, scholars
buttress their argument by leading you through the rationale,
or body of ideas, that proves their thesis. Either way, you need to keep
track of the path. Ask yourself how the author supports his claim. What
are the specific points that underpin the thesis? In a primary source,
ask what significant events occur. Who stars in the book, film or photo?
What events did the artist use to highlight qualities of the main character?
Equally important: why are they significant and to whom?
Questions to help with Step Two
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Step Three: Slice Up The Material
For Analysis. Here you examine the material
from every angle you can think of. You are not dealing with minor detail
here. You want to take on the work's big ideas and crack them open to see
what makes them tick. Try to isolate the things that the author thought
important to making the argument or telling the story. These are the concepts
-- or the tools -- that either you or the author believes are import to
his analysis. We will call them angles
of analysis. These angles can be
what the writer, filmmaker or painter thinks about important issues, like
the status of women, the importance of race, the role of the laborer or
the responsibilities of the government toward the common person. In the
end, what do the observations, interpretations and other knowledge contained
in the source say about the times? How and specifically what do they contribute
to understanding the overall period, or context?
What is their relevance to the topic at hand? Create headings for each
new angle as you read and constantly re-evaluate them. Constantly ask yourself:
Why is this significant?
Questions to help with Step Three
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For examples of how various writers have analyzed fiction, non-fiction,
photography, and even clothing and tables, click
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