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POL 200: Analyzing Politics: Thinking About Sources

A Way to Think About Sources

"Sources are people talking to other people." Doug Downs

Things to Ask

Who wrote it? A journalist? An academic scholar? A person who has expertise of some sort? 

When was it written? What effect does its age or currency have on its value to you?

Why was it written? What audience did the author have in mind? What are they trying to do with this document - persuade, inform, further our knowledge by publishing new research findings? 

Where did they get their information? What evidence do they present? Do they explain the sources of their information?

How did they arrive at their conclusions? Did they use appropriate methods to get there? Did they misunderstand anything or leave something important out?

What have other people said about this topic? How does this source fit in with the larger conversation?  

Comparing Sources

Each group will have three sources to look at (a book and the two links or PDF files below the book). Most have at least one author in common. Be prepared to discuss these questions:

  • Which are scholarly? How can you tell?
  • What kind of evidence does each source present in their argument?
  • How does each source tell you where they got that evidence (source information) or how they gathered it (methods information)?
  • If you were writing a research paper that required you to only use scholarly sources but you came across a nonscholarly source that discusses your topic, what are some ways the nonscholarly source can still be helpful?

 

Sources Are . . .

Sources have different functions for your research (BEAM)

  • Background sources – Wikipedia, textbooks, specialized encyclopedias, review articles
  • Exhibits –poll data, transcribed interviews, text of public laws or court opinions, historical documents
  • Arguments – works that propose a thesis and develop it with evidence
  • Methods – works that propose how to think about something; theory or methodology is the focus

There are different authors of information

  • Journalists and other professional writers who report the news or write books and articles about topics from a non-specialist perspective
  • Experts who write for other experts (a scientist, a historian) and sometimes for non-experts
  • Artists who create tangible expressions of their ideas
  • Members of the public who interpret and express ideas publicly  

There are different audiences for publications

  • General readers who want to know factual information about a topic
  • General readers who are interested in opinions and commentary
  • Members of a particular profession such as teachers, lawyers, or engineers who share common interests
  • Scholars and scientists who want to know the latest research findings (and reviews of research)

There are different packages for information

  • Books (scholarly or commercial)
  • Chapters in books (especially common in scholarly publications)
  • Journals, magazines, newspapers
  • Individual articles in journals, magazines, newspapers
  • Websites
  • Pages within websites
  • Audio and video files
  • Conference papers (sometimes published as books, published online, or unpublished)
  • Laws (statutes, court opinions, regulations)
  • Data sets
  • Unpublished records (e.g. things you would find in the college's archives, stuff in your desk drawer, a box of records taken from an office by investigators)
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