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SSCI 299: SocialScienceSYE

How to think like a Social Scientist: Information is constructed.

Primary Sources: Truth, FIction, or In Between?

Question: How can primary sources be used and abused in the construction of information? 

In a recent article titled I love the Victorian era. So I decided to live in it, published on, historian Sarah Chrisman describes her research methods. As she details in her article, Chrisman and her husband Gabriel use primary sources from the Victorian era to inform their understanding of life in the time period.

The artifacts in our home represent what historians call "primary source materials," items directly from the period of study.  Anything can be a primary source, although the term usually refers to texts. The books and magazines the Victorians themselves wrote and read constitute the vast bulk of our reading materials — and since reading is our favorite pastime, they fill a large percentage of our days. There is a universe of difference between a book or magazine article about the Victorian era and one actually written int he period. Modern commentaries on the past can get appallingly like the game "telephone": One person misinterprets something, the next exaggerates it, a third twists it to serve an agenda, and so on. Going back to the original sources is the only way to learn the truth.

Primary sources can deepen and enrich our understanding of history. They are a valuable tool in the construction of information. However, Chrisman's article has generated a lot of criticism.

Read through the Victorian Vox post. You may also want to read some of the articles criticizing Chrisman. What would our understanding of history would look like if historians relied on Chrisman's method of study?

Consider these questions for your group presentation.

  • Is information constructed using primary source more accurate or more true than other information?
  • What are the benefits and dangers of relying on primary sources for your information?
  • What is the role of secondary sources in the construction of information?
  • What might I Love California Life in 2017. So I decided to live it. look like if you constructed it using the type of sources Chrisman used?
    • Use the links below and the artifacts provided to help you build your primary source world 2017.

For your group presentation be prepared to share:

  • Your specific question or problem.
  • A bit of background so that we understand the topic.
  • The major issues you discovered in trying to deconstruct the information.
  • Which sources were helpful in exploring the problem.
  • Any roadblocks or problems you encountered.
  • What information did you find beyond the links provided?
  • How did that inform your understanding?
  • What you decided as a group, or individually if you didn't agree.

I love California life in 2017. So I decided to live in it.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources:

Primary sources are documents or physical objects which were written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Primary sources include:

  • Original documents
  • Creative works
  • Physical objects or artifacts

Secondary Sources:
Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. They are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of secondary sources include:"

  • Periodical sources that interpret prior events.
  • Books that interpret prior events.

From Princeton University