The Art of Document Analysis: Understanding Source Bias and Perspective

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Bias is a one-sided, usually unfair, preference toward a point of view.  A perspective is a point of view influenced by such things as nationality, religious belief, or location. A perspective is often not biased. Two different perspectives can both be correct in different ways. The full story involves different perspectives. Analysis of historical sources involves examining their biases and perspectives, which they all have in some way.

A Fun Find 

You go to a garage sale and buy a desk.  There is an old letter in one of the drawers. Fun!  You enjoy history and like to learn new things.  You put the letter on the desk and start to read.  

But, wait, didn’t your history teacher say something about analyzing your sources with care?  Yes.  It is important to determine bias and perspective.  What are they again?  

What Is Bias? 

A bias is a one-sided, usually unfair, preference or tendency toward a point of view.  

A common term used when talking about biases is prejudice, which is a type of pre-judging something without fairly looking at all the information.  A person can be prejudiced about a range of things including racial groups, religions, or political beliefs.  

Bias is a human trait.  We are not robots or emotion-free aliens.  We all have some biases based on our experiences, knowledge, and upbringing.  The trick is to control and recognize biases.  

If a source is mostly not biased, it is called a balanced source.  The honest thing to say is that all sources are at least somewhat biased.  But, some sources are mostly balanced sources.  

Conscious and Unconscious Bias 

A bias can be conscious or unconscious.  A conscious bias is one that you are aware of.  “I do not like Jewish people” (without having a good reason) is a bias you are conscious about.  

An unconscious, implicit, or subconscious bias guides your beliefs while you are not aware of your biases.  For instance, you might have an assumption about something, and unintentionally only pay attention to things that confirm it.  This is called “confirmation bias.”  

A familiar example of confirmation bias is when a person only pays attention to the good or bad things another person does.  If the person dislikes Samantha, for instance, the person might only focus on her mistakes.  The person might not even realize they are doing this.  

Does Bias Mean A Source Is Wrong? 

A biased source can still be accurate in many respects.  For instance, a person can be biased toward one side in World War I and still accurately talk about the new technology used there.  

The writer of a historical essay on the development of airplanes can accurately do so even if they are biased toward the British or German side.  Nonetheless, a bias is much more likely to result in some mistaken information even on that sort of subject.  

How To Determine Biases

Does the source use overly positive or negative language about specific people, beliefs, political causes, and so forth?  Napoleon was the “perfect” leader. 

One side in a conflict is always a “hero” while the other side is always the “villain” or “coward,” even if they are doing the same thing.  There might be a bias, an assumption that the cause of one side should be praised, so whatever one side does is worthy of high esteem.  

Note that you can objectively determine whether a person or cause is good or bad without being biased.  Napoleon was a very good and successful leader in various respects.  The problem comes when your bias prevents you from evenhandedly treating all the facts.  

A source can leave out information that a neutral source would include or make blatant errors that favor one side.  For instance, the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case provided a biased view of the history of slavery.  Key information is left out or explained incorrectly. 

A source can be simply mistaken about something. A person who knows little about a subject can write a paper that is filled with errors.  But, it is not biased in one direction.   

What Is A Perspective?  

A perspective is a point of view.  It is a way of seeing something.  A perspective is often not biased.  Two different perspectives can both be correct in different ways.  

An author might provide a perspective that is not their own.  For instance, a “devil’s advocate” considers the opposite point of view, one they often personally do not support.  

A historical work can also provide the perspective of the people covered.  But, the author still has a personal perspective.  So, they can not totally “stand above it all.”  

Types of Perspective 

Every person sees and understands events differently depending on age, gender, social position, beliefs, and values.  Each quality of a person is a different perspective.  

A jury shows how different perspectives can provide a more complete view of the facts.  A criminal jury usually has twelve people from a cross-section of the community.  The individual jurors obtain and consider the same evidence but each juror brings a different perspective.  

How Do You Find Perspective When Analyzing a Document? 

A perspective is the point of view of the creator of a document.  The perspective of a letter is that of the author.   The perspective of a painting would be that of the artist.  

If you want to know the perspective of a source, it is important to learn details about its creator.  Some important characteristics to look for are gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, political views, age, class, occupation, and educational background.  

Some of these things might be found by looking at the source itself. For instance, in ancient times, very few people were able to read and write.  

You also will sometimes have to do background research on the creator of the document.  

The perspectives of documents written during and about the Cuban Missile Crisis were influenced by experiences.  Research can determine relevant details of the writer such as their military service.  Two documents by different people from the Soviet Union might have different perspectives if one person had military service.  

Empowering Accurate Learning: Tips for Teaching Bias in History

Bias and Perspective 

The newspapers of the opposing baseball teams after a game will provide different perspectives.  The feelings of Mets players might be more of a concern of the New York Daily News.  This does not necessarily mean the papers will provide inaccurate information.

Different perspectives need not be biased.  A point of view only becomes biased when it is unfair.  But, a limited point of view can be in danger of becoming biased, intentionally or unintentionally.  It is something to keep in mind when you are analyzing your sources.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.