Approaches to Evaluating a Document or Source Author John Tosh outlines in his book ‘The Pursuit of History’ two approaches to evaluating a document or source. These are namely an External Criticism and an Internal Criticism (Tosh, 1984. 58) The Oxford School Dictionary defined a criticism as the expression of disapproval of something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes. (Oxfords School Dictionary, 2003. 109) By applying this these criticisms to any historical source or potential source a historian can identify whether or not the source is worthy of use.
An external criticism is one that firstly tests a sources authenticity, it questions the origins, date, author and other key factors against what is already known and proven of the time in question. This process can identify any discrepancies or forgeries, yet the source should not be discarded. Some of the most famous sources in history have questionable authenticity such as the Bixby Letter whose author is widely debated (Abraham Lincolns Most Notorious Forgers, n. d*).
By establishing a sources’ credibility the historian can determine the weight it holds or the reasoning behind such falsified documentation, then seek to question the motives of the forger. (Tosh, 1984. 62) This method in itself holds some problems, as a document could be externally sound but the content can be tainted. Thus an Internal criticism must be applied. This is analysis of the content itself. A historian must account for a larger variety of factors that led to the creation of the document.
New Criticism vs. Reader-Response A piece of work can be evaluated in plenty of ways. Critique methods such as Reader-Response, Deconstructive Criticism, New Criticism, and many others act as examples of literary evaluations. All of the critique methods share similarities, but differ in other ways. Reader-Response and New Criticism, for example, share characteristics but they are also two very ...
Whether the author was a first hand witness, the mind-state of the author, take into account prejudices, bias, suppression, political influences, intentions and self-interests. This approach deals directly with the subject matter and delves into its complexity. (Kent, 1941. 67) An example is the Han Emperors of China from 206 BC who took interest in history and thus developed a branch of government with the sole purpose to write history. (Brownlee, 1991. 27) In this regard a political influence or bias towards a certain leader may lead to a one sided history, the source will therefore lack purity. This questions its dependability.
No source can be one hundred percent objective. It is therefore up to the historian to sift through the relevant sources and weigh them up. Determine each sources validity and legitimacy by applying these two approaches amongst other skills. These should be applied to all sources regardless of how authentic it may appear. As a general rule of thumb for all historians, one must never accept anything at face value. We do not understand the circumstances under which sources were created, but must not fully discredit them. A historian must therefore weigh them up as half-truths in the pursuit for something concrete.