Critical Summary

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"Siby Reading History", part of the Bismarck Memorial in the Tiergarten in Berlin. Image by Couleur. Used under Creative Commons CCO. Source:

Some research tasks, particularly the source investigation, require you to write a summary of your research findings. This is most commonly required when you don’t need to write a full essay after your research.


What is a 'critical summary'?


A critical summary is a series of short paragraphs that provide an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the sources you found. The primary task of your summary is to highlight how well your sources helped you answer your research questions.


Please be aware that you are not simply giving your opinion about whether you liked your sources or not: you need to draw upon what you said in your source analysis and evaluation section in order to justify your conclusions.


Required elements:


Structuring your critical summary


There are a number of different ways that you can structure your critical summary. Depending upon what you can say about the usefulness and reliability of your sources and how you intend to answer your research questions, you can follow any of the following approaches.


Regardless of which approach you choose, ensure that you still fulfil the ‘required elements’ listed above.


Approach 1: Compare primary and secondary sources

Paragraph 1: What information did your primary sources provide?

Paragraph 2: What information did your secondary sources provide?

Paragraph 3: Based upon your research, how would you answer your Key Inquiry Question?


Approach 2: Answer each sub-question

Paragraph 1: Based upon your research, how would you answer your first sub-question?

Paragraph 2: Based upon your research, how would you answer your second sub-question?

Paragraph 3: Based upon your research, how would you answer your third sub-question?

Paragraph 4: Based upon your research, how would you answer your Key Inquiry Question?


Approach 3: Group by evaluation skill

Paragraph 1: Which sources were the most useful sources in answering your sub-questions

Paragraph 2: Which sources were the most reliable?

Paragraph 3: Based upon your research, how would you answer your Key Inquiry Question?



Using Approach 1

The archaeological and written sources indicate that Roman propaganda stressed the importance of military victories in establishing imperial legitimacy. However, these sources were clearly created by and for members of the social elite and, as a result, only reflect the perspective of these people. Whilst the purpose of the statues and histories were to influence the loyalties of wealthy aristocrats, we have no way of knowing what effect they had on the rest of the people in the city, as their thoughts are not preserved in the extant sources. Regardless, Tacitus is crucial to answering my two sub-questions about senatorial and military understandings of imperial rule, especially when he outlines the failings of previous emperors in the eyes of the various social groups in Rome (Annals, IV.39). His comments about “staged performances” is corroborated by the scenes on the Arch of Titus. As both of these sources are contemporaneous with the imperial system, they are a particularly reliable source of the perspectives of the Romans themselves. 


What I found most useful, specifically when researching information on the views of the non-Romans about emperors' attempts at justifying their power were the works of modern historians. Cambridge University classicist, Mary Beard provided substantial detail about the use of statuary in Egypt and the Levant which provided a counterweight to the ancient sources (2012, 165-8). Her overall point, that the propaganda didn’t effectively filter down into the lower classes of provincial society was far more convincing than the limited critique offered Brewer. I found Brewer to be less useful, even though he is a professor of Ancient History, since he focused more on the actions of the emperors themselves, rather than on broader sections of society (1977, 40). As a result, I found the academic works of modern historians most useful in providing a critique of the Roman perspective of the ancient sources.


Based upon the evidence I have gathered from ancient and modern sources, I concluded that the Roman emperors believed that military victories were the primary mode of establishing imperial legitimacy to their subjects, despite the fact that only the upper classes of society were influenced by it.



Using Approach 3

The sources that I have chosen at the completion of my research have all been incredibly useful in answering my research questions. In particular, evidence from Shirer proved invaluable in answering my sub-question about how the Nazi party came to power, since the author took part in many of the events he describes (1951). What proved particularly helpful to me was how much Greiger, emeritus professor of political history at Harford corroborated the finer details provided by Shirer (1997). While I found the two Nazi propaganda articles in the Der Stürmer helpful in answer my second two sub-questions, I found the level of antisemitic bias difficult identify in every instance. Despite this, I could confidently answer my first sub-question by showing that print media was central in manipulating public opinion during the Nazi rise to power.


The academic works by Greiger (1997) and Stanton (2000) proved to be the most reliable. This is firstly due to their credentials as history professors with a combined fifty years of research experience between them. What made Stanton so much more trustworthy is that he was fluent in German as well as English and went into detail about the different nuances of the German words used in Hitler’s speeches (2000, 12-5). This gave me a lot of confidence to then go back to the political posters and cartoons, particularly those I found on the Holocaust Museum website, and identify specific word choices that helped me answer my final two sub-questions. Therefore, I have concluded that Goebbels invested heavily in radio and visual forms of propaganda to further the Nazi party’s agenda. 


Based upon the information provided by my sources in my research, I am drawn to the conclusion that it was the Nazi party’s manipulation of all forms of available mass media that played a central role in their ability to change the opinions of the German population during their rise to political dominance.



Need a digital Research Journal?

History Skills has a ready-to-use Research Journal that follows these 9 steps and provides links back to the website to help you at each stage of your research. You can grab it here.

History Research Journal
A ready-to-use digital student research journal that follows the same 9-step research process from the History Skills website. Each research stage has explanations, blank tables and hyperlinks to examples to aid with the completion of essay ... (Read More)