What is the difference between 'opinion' and 'perspective' in historical sources?
A common question that students and teachers ask when studying History is about the distinction between the terms ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ when analysing sources.
For many, there is the assumption that these terms mean the same thing. In fact, in typical everyday discussions, people do indeed use these words interchangeably. For example, in a meeting, someone might say that they want to hear your ‘opinion’ on a topic, or they could say that they want to hear your ‘perspective’ on the topic. Regardless of which term they use, they are essentially meaning the same thing.
However, due to the fact that common parlance uses ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ interchangeably, it has introduced unfortunate confusion in the History classroom.
In the study of History, there is an important distinction between ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’.
To help clarify what ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ mean in History when reading historical sources, teachers often define ‘perspective’ as the “point of view from which the author sees a historical event”. Understanding what 'point of view' means is the first step in understanding 'perspective' and 'opinion'.
The difference explained simply
An easy place to start when clarifying the confusion is to examine the definitions of the words, 'perspective', 'opinion', and 'point of view'.
Firstly, the Collins Dictionary offers a clear distinction between the terms ‘point of view’ and ‘opinion’.
It states that we should not “refer to what someone thinks or believes about a particular subject as their 'point of view'”. Instead, it stresses that we should “refer to it as their ... opinion”.
In comparison, it states further that a ‘point of view’ is the position FROM which a person views a situation, which is what is meant by the term ‘perspective’.
As a quick summary of the distinction:
- Opinion is the ideas expressed by a person
- Perspective is the point of view from which they view a situation
Now that we’ve looked at the simple answer, let’s explore each in more detail.
Perspective explained further
A person’s experience of, and how they describe, an event is influenced by the position they are viewing it FROM. Their position can be an ideological position, a national position, or a professional position. These positions are referred to as the author's perspective.
In a similar way, universities explain that even academic sources have perspectives that “is determined by [their] political bent or by the use of social theories”, and can be identified with such terms as “Marxist, liberal, conservative, feminist”, etc.
Two different people in the same World War One battle will view the experience differently based upon their perspectives. One could have a soldier’s perspective, while the other might be an aircraft pilot. Or, one could be a German, while the other might be British. Alternatively, one could be a firm believer in communism and the other might be an ardent nationalist. Any of these descriptors help you to state their perspective.
To help you know that you are talking about ‘perspective’ you often use the preposition “from” when writing an answer to a ‘perspective’ question. For example, you can say that “Source A is written FROM the perspective of a German soldier”.
The best way to identify a source’s perspective is to conduct some background research on the author of the source. This will help you discover their nationality, professional, ideological and/or political points of view, or even their personal relationship with the people or events they describe.
When conducting a historical research task, it is important to find sources from a variety of perspectives in order to develop a balanced understanding of an issue. In The Princeton Guide to Historical Research, it stresses that “if all of your books are from white, male history professors at research universities in a single country” you are only getting a homogenous perspective (pg. 49). Notice how they stress the background of the authors in identifying the point of view of their sources.
Opinion explained further
As the Collins Dictionary pointed out above, ‘opinion’ is what someone believes about a topic, or their individual thoughts about something.
A source’s opinion is most clearly expressed by their particular choice of words when describing their thoughts. They language choices usually include positive and negative adjectives, which allows you to determine their personal attitudes or values regarding the topic they’re discussing and, in some cases, any potential bias the author holds.
Therefore, in order to correctly understand a source’s opinion about a historical event, you need to carefully read the ideas they have expressed in their writing. Often, it takes time to do close reading of a source in order to understand its opinion correctly.
To help you know that you are talking about an ‘opinion’, you often use the words “believe”, “say” or “argues”. For example, you can say that “Source A believes that the German nation was duty-bound to fight in the First World War”. Alternatively, you could be asked to identify the opinion "in" a source, which indicates that you need to read the words IN the source carefully to find the ideas expressed by it.
To help you know that you are talking about 'opinion’ you often use the preposition “about” or “regarding” when writing an answer to an ‘opinion’ question. For example, you can say that “Source A believes ... about ...”.
How opinion and perspective are related
Even though this blog posts seeks to explain the clear difference between a source’s opinion and its perspective, the two concepts are closely related.
In fact, a source’s opinion about a topic is directly influenced by the author’s perspective.
It is often crucial in the History classroom to find out someone’s perspective in order to understand why they hold the opinions they have expressed.
Two different sources could express conflicting opinions about a historical person named John. For example, Source A could say that John was “a gentle and generous person”, while Source B could express the opinion that he was “a violent criminal”.
Clearly, these two opinions are different. But, in order to explain why Source A and Source B hold different ideas, it is worth identifying their perspectives.
After some background research, you discover that Source A is from the perspective of John’s own mother, and Source B is from the perspective of a police officer who arrested him during the act of committing a crime.
As a result, understanding each source’s perspective helps explain why they have contrasting opinions about the same man.
To illustrate this further, in the following article by historian Michael Wood, he specifically identifies “5 perspectives” about Ancient China. The five perspectives are identified according to their ideological or professional background (e.g. ‘soldier’, ‘historian’, etc.), but then he shows how these perspectives influenced their opinions.
|Definition/ Explanation||The ideas expressed in the source||The ideological, political, professional, national, background of the source’s author|
|Also known as...||Beliefs, values, ideas, interpretation, message, meaning||Point of view|
|Associated prepositions||About, regarding, in||From|
|How to identify this||Close reading of the words of the source, including comprehension and interpretation of specific vocabulary||Conduct background research on the author of the source|
|Example exam questions:||What does Source A believe about...?||From what perspective is Source A written?|
Additional Information 1: Why is ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ confused in History classrooms?
The reason that the terms ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ are conflated in the History classroom in high school is because the high school subject of History draws upon the academic theories of two separate fields of study: the academic discipline of History, and the academic discipline of Education. Unfortunately, those two realms have different uses for the term ‘perspective’. Depending on where individual teachers spent the majority of their university studies (either in a dedicated History program, or an Education program), they would become comfortable with one of these usages over the other, often without realising the alternate usage.
In the academic field of History, professional historians use ‘opinion’ and ‘perspective’ as outlined in this blog post. As a way of illustrating this, here are a number of quotes from the profession historian, Mary Beard, from her book, SPQR. Beard has a background in the tertiary discipline of History, as a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University over many decades:
“What is missing is the perspective of those outside this exclusive group: the view of the ordinary soldiers or voters, of the women or … the slaves”.
“I shall take care also to look at Rome from the outside, from the point of view of those living in the wider territories of the empire, as soldiers, rebels or ambitious collaborators”.
“Roman accounts of this period, largely written from a senatorial point of view...”
As you can see, when Beard talks about perspective, it is identified with the social, political, economic, or gender backgrounds of the sources.
However, in contrast to History, the tertiary academic field of Education uses ‘perspective’ to mean ‘opinion’. It does this because this discipline is more focused on developing students’ ability to interpret written information and to use their understanding to either classify data, or to demonstrate an appreciation of different opinions. In the field of Education, the stress is upon teaching students how to comprehend explicit meaning, and to interpret implicit meaning, particularly in written texts.
An example of this is shown clearly in the activities created by Stanford History Education Group, which asks students the following question:
“How does the document's language indicate the author's perspective?”
What is clear in this question is that this is actually using ‘perspective’ to mean ‘opinion’, since it is requiring the student to demonstrate an understanding of the text's language choices.
The curriculum and resources from the by Stanford History Education Group are based upon the academic work of people like Sam Wineburg, who are experts in the field of Education, rather than the discipline of History.
It must be stressed that neither field is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in their usage of ‘perspective’, because they are separate fields of study with their own nomenclature. The problem only arises when high school students encounter the conflicting terminology in their research. Unfortunately, assessment tasks at high school usually draw upon Educational theories when using ‘perspective’, but when students read professional historians as part of their research, they will encounter the alternate usage.
This places teachers in a difficult position of helping students navigate through these two different worlds.
Additional Information 2: Decoding exam questions
The confusion regarding the different definitions of 'perspective' becomes most important when students are faced with unseen exam questions. It is crucial that students know which of the two uses of 'perspective' are being required in a specific question.
This is where an awareness of the prepositions that were mentioned earlier can be beneficial.
Exam questions that use the prepositions 'in', 'about', and/or 'regarding', are asking the students to identify and explain the source's opinion by extracting meaning from the information in the source.
Example exam questions about 'opinion':
- How do Sources A and B differ ABOUT the Vietnam War?
- Explain the opinion IN Source C REGARDING the Persian Wars.
In contrast, exam questions that use the preposition 'from', are asking the students to identify and explain the author's 'perspective' by stating their background, including their ideology, culture, profession, gender, etc.
Example exam questions about 'perspective':
- FROM what point of view is Source A written?
- Explain the different perspectives FROM which Sources B and C are created.