Enhancing Your Historical Analysis: Techniques and Tips


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Historical analysis is a detailed examination of historical events. We carefully examine our sources of information. Source analysis involves selecting, evaluating, and describing evidence. Historical analysis also examines how events tell us about historical periods and continue to affect us today. We can summarize the factors we use by thinking of the “Five Cs.” They are causes, contingency, context, complexity, and change over time. 

Historical Skills 

History is the study of our past and present. We learn about fascinating people and events. 

There is also an additional step, which is very important for a historian. It involves explaining what happened. Why did it happen? How do people and events over time relate to each other? 

Historical skills provide the tools to make sound arguments and express them clearly and in a convincing fashion. Analysis is a fundamental historical skill.

You will also apply this skill when you take tests. Let’s make sure you do a good job! 

Historical Therapy 

An analysis is a detailed examination of the elements of something. A person goes to a therapist to analyze their problems. Historians are also concerned with the “how” and “why.” 

Historians try to discover the reasons why. Why did the power of the American president change over time? For instance, what role did modern warfare and technology play? 

Historical analysis examines the evidence. It also studies how sources describe the evidence. The analysis includes a series of judgment calls. A therapist’s couch is optional. 

Source Analysis 

Types

Sources are documents and objects that provide information. They have creators and audiences. An author is a creator of books. Students are the audience of school textbooks. 

Books, websites, articles, movies, speeches, and cartoons are written and visual sources. Paintings and sculptures also can be sources. 

Primary sources are firsthand accounts. Secondary sources view events through people not present. An autobiography is a primary source. A biography is a secondary source. Tertiary sources are collections of material. A book of quotations is a tertiary source.

Points of View

Sources have points of view and biases. Generals on opposite sides of the Civil War interpret the same battle differently. Likewise, soldiers and noncombatants have different perspectives. A person’s view about women and minorities will change over time. 

They have a specific purpose in writing. Different sources appeal to separate audiences. Why did the primary source decide to tell their tale? Does the research book have a feminist leaning? History is often a subject of debate. Historians view the same events in many ways. 

People often think history involves simply studying events. It would not matter what sources we use to investigate them. Points of view underline this is wrong. Different teachers will handle the material differently. Likewise, sources will frame the same material differently. 

Analysis

Source analysis involves selecting, evaluating, and describing evidence from various sources. 

If possible, do not use a single source. Different sources will provide more likelihood of determining what information is accurate. What do the sources agree on?

The final judgment determines source usefulness, reliability, and significance. 

Causes and Effects 

We can summarize the factors we use to judge the cause and effects of history by thinking of the “Five Cs.”  They are causes, contingency, context, complexity, and change over time. 

There are short and long-term causes (reasons) and effects. The short-term cause of World War I was an assassination. Nationalism was a long-term cause.  

Contingency is the one thing that might have made a difference. The Battle of Gettysburg turned on certain decisions.  Sources often disagree on contingencies.  

Historical context is the political, social, cultural, and economic setting for a document, idea, or event. The specific time and place add a unique spin to history. 

Complexity reminds us that history does not always fit on a bumper sticker. A team wins or loses a game for a variety of reasons. An inning in a baseball game involves a complex chess match. A presidential election, a war, or a social movement will have many interrelated parts. 

Historians use “continuity and change” to refer to aspects of life or society that have remained the same (continuity) or developed over time (change). 

Relevance 

A historical essay examines people and events to analyze their relevance to specific criteria. We can analyze events to understand the past and present.  

Emily Dickinson provides insights into 19th-century America. We study the details of her life to understand the world she lived in. What does it tell us about women’s place in the world in the mid-19th Century? How does she fit in the development of American poetry?

Historical analysis also examines how the past shapes the present. The New Deal led to the expansion of the federal government and increased the social welfare state. 

Analysis Guidelines 

Historical analysis examines accuracy and trustworthiness. 

A good historian carefully evaluates their sources. They do not make rushed assumptions. 

Be tentative. Historians continuously find more information and change their minds. 

Historical analysis weighs and balances facts to form conclusions. There is usually not one final answer. If you carefully make your case, your analysis will be successful.

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.

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