How to determine a source's perspective

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When analysing a source, it is helpful to know the perspective of the creator, as this helps you to accurately assess its reliability and relevance.

What is 'perspective'?

Perspective is the 'point of view' from which the creator of a source described historical events.


Every person sees and understands events differently depending on their age, gender, social position, beliefs, and values. Even modern historians have their own perspectives which can influence how they interpret the past. 


For example:

Two groups of fans at a football match will see the same game differently. Fans of the winning side will have a positive view and will usually talk about how great their team's actions were. The fans of the losing side will be quite negative and may blame the result on referees or 'cheating' by the opposing team.


How can two groups have different opinions of the same event? The answer is 'perspective': they had a different point of view.

Perspective works the same in history. Two opposing in sides in war, or politics, or social struggles, will see the same event differently and, as a result, have different opinions.


As a result, they will talk about it with different language.


Please be aware! 

Different perspectives does not necessarily mean that one side is 'right' and the other is 'wrong'. It simply means that there is a different point of view.


However, if the difference in perspective causes someone to lie or have an unfair view of events or people, which becomes bias, which is a different source analysis skill. You can learn more about bias here.  

How do I determine a source's perspective?

The most important step in determining perspective is the know who the creator was.


To do this, take the time to discover the name of the author of the particular source.


Once you know their name, you can conduct some background research about them.


Once you have sufficient knowledge about the creator the source, you are able to determine what their perspective was. 


This can be as simple as identifying the creator’s:

            - nationality (e.g., American, Japanese, etc.)

            - profession (e.g., university professor, soldier, etc.)

            - political persuasion (e.g., conservative, Communist, etc.)

            - cultural background (Egyptian, European, etc.)

            - gender (male, female, etc.)

            - religious beliefs (Christian, Muslim, etc.)

            - educational background (e.g., what university they work for)


Identifying perspective in your writing:


The Gallic Wars is written from the perspective of Julius Caesar, who was a wealthy Roman nobleman, military general, and politician.


Source 2 is written from the perspective of an American soldier who fought in the Vietnam War.


Herodotus was a Greek from Halicarnassus, so he provides a Hellenistic historian's perspective on the events. 

What do you do once you've identified the perspective?

Once you have successfully identified the perspective of the source creator, it allows you to do a few things:


1. Helps inform your source evaluation

Understanding the background of the creator allows you to more confidently evaluate the reliability of a source.


For example:

Someone writing from the perspective of an academic expert in the historical topic you're investigating is likely to be more reliable than a website written by an unknown author.


2. Helps to explain the source's opinion on a topic

When comprehending and interpreting the explicit and implicit meaning of a historical source, you are able to better understand the opinions held by the source's creator about a particular topic. As a result, the identification of the author's perspective can help you understand WHY they hold this opinion.


For example:

If a source expresses the opinion that American soldiers in the Vietnam War were "murderers", it helps to understand that it was written from the perspective of a Vietnamese farmer whose family was killed by American troops during the conflict.


Using perspective to explain a source's opinion:


Source A holds the opinion that European colonists were innocent of the murders of First Nations Australians, as it states that they were "noble explorers who sought an honest living". However, it is important to understand that this source was written from the perspective of the British governor of New South Wales at the time, who had a personal stake in covering up any evidence of misconduct by British subjects.


Anthony Smythe believes that the English Civil War was "at its very core, a class conflict between the wealthy aristocracy and the middle classes of English society". This conclusion is based upon the fact that Smythe was a member of the Socialist Party and, as a result, has a tendency to view historical events in terms of power struggles between different social classes.

Watch a video explanation on the History Skills YouTube channel:

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