What are the disadvantages of secondary sources

Source studies made easy

What is source studies?

Especially in the course of a historical scientific work, as a student of historical sciences, you have to be well versed in source studies. As the name suggests, this deals with the precise observation and research of one Source.

These are consulted by researchers, especially students, when they investigate a scientific question. In particular, if the source is a historical artifact that originates from the time to be examined, you can draw scientifically valuable conclusions from it. In doing so, they go into more detail about the properties and contents of the sources, which they can analyze and criticize in the next step in a source interpretation. Also note that the formatting should not be ignored for correct scientific work.

Sometimes the researchers also differentiate between primary and secondary sources, which, depending on the time, are more or less close to the event to be investigated. Primary sources that provide more detailed information on the research event are particularly important. But secondary sources can also be relevant. This is especially the case when there is no primary source. In addition, the secondary sources serve to contextualize an event.

When it comes to source studies, a distinction is also made between those sources that can be divided into “tradition” and “overriding rights”. This means the intentional and unintentional transmission of the sources. The sources therefore also include diaries, objects, traditions and other written records.

In the following we explain in more detail what is meant by a source.

What is a source anyway?

At the center of a historical consideration in the bachelor thesis or master's thesis are in Bulk mostly one or more sources. They are historical documents, that is, they were created at the time that the researcher would like to deal with in his work. In contrast to this, literature is considered to be “scientific representations that describe, analyze and evaluate historical processes or events on the basis of sources” (Freytag / Piereth 2004: 15). Also Specify book sources needs to be properly learned in addition to source knowledge.

The first historian to define the term source was Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884). According to him, a source was an oral or written tradition that was supposed to serve the purpose of providing historical knowledge (Droysen 1974: 50). For Droysen it was important that the source was once produced consciously for the preservation of posterity.

Today, however, historians agree that things that were not explicitly created for the preservation of posterity can serve as sources and use them forscientific work. "Sources we call all texts, objects and facts from which knowledge of the past can be gained," says Paul Kirn today (1968: 29).

Learn to differentiate between the types of sources for the bachelor thesis and master thesis

According to this understanding, everyday objects (e.g. items of clothing, jewelry or kitchen utensils) are also considered historical sources. In order to better classify this amount of possible source material, historians according to Ernst Bernheim (1850-1942) differentiate between two types of sources: the “remains” and the “tradition” (Eggert 2010: 24-44).

This subdivision is still widely used today, but only appears really relevant if one wants to ask about the so-called "transmission intentions" of a source. The explain more about thisInformation from the University of Koblenz to distinguish between remains and traditions.

The remains: unintentional but valuable

Sources that emerged directly from a historical event or epoch, but were not explicitly created for the purpose of being passed on to posterity, are therefore considered to be remains. Instead, they are more likely to be "left over by accident." According to the classical understanding, remains can appear in the following forms:

  • Remnants of property are mostly objects (e.g. architecture, works of art, handicrafts)
  • abstract remains they are usually not tangible, but have shaped their time in a special way (e.g. institutions, customs, manners)
  • written remains or records (e.g. private or business correspondence, files, documents, business books)

The purpose and use of the source are particularly important when working with remains. Because they were passed on unintentionally, their author never prepared them for use by posterity. As a rule, remains do not provide any historical information of their own. Instead, it is the historian's job to make his own Research question to put to the remains and thus to make them a source. By the way: Arm yourself against violations of this when writing your thesis copyright!

The tradition: born to last

Unlike a remnant, a tradition is consciously created for posterity. As a rule, traditions arise at those moments that a society thinks that they have a historical character and could be of importance for posterity. Political speeches or addresses as well as biographies and memoirs are therefore part of the traditions.

In contrast to the remains, the purpose and use of the source are congruent in one tradition. At the same time, this also hides the decisive disadvantage of tradition. After all, traditions always want to influence the thinking of posterity in a certain way. Accordingly, they often only reflect one side of the truth. It must therefore be viewed particularly critically.

Moreover, a tradition only shows what its originator considered important at the time it was created. Historians do not necessarily have to share this focus of interest. On the contrary: a researcher may be interested in what tradition does not show. Depending on theme and one has to do this for the question Source analysis concerns.

Differentiation between primary and secondary sources

In addition to the type of sources, their temporal proximity to the historical event is important for source studies. Researchers should always work with “primary sources” whenever possible. In contrast to the so-called “secondary sources”, the time of origin of these sources is closer to the event under consideration.

A primary source can therefore be a diary, for example, while a secondary source can be an autobiography that looks back at certain events from a distance in time. Further examples for differentiating between primary and secondary sources are also offered by the Information from the University of Regensburg.

Secondary sources can be particularly important when an interesting primary source has been lost over time. This is all the more likely the further back the time one wants to investigate. Even if a primary source is to be placed in a larger historical context, secondary sources can be of great value as they look at the primary source from a new perspective.

To note for the Source work However, it is always the case that secondary sources can already be faulty, i.e. they cannot correctly reproduce the content of a primary source. Here, however, the researcher should also ask himself whether this falsification, if known, was brought about consciously or accidentally.

Careful handling of source studies is the be-all and end-all of any historical work, in addition to a good one Literature researchand Reference management, cleanexcerpt the sources and a perfectscientific writing style. The differentiation of the source type gives the researcher information about whether the source was passed on to posterity intentionally or unintentionally. This assessment can help to decide how critically the content of the source needs to be reflected.
The closer the researcher wants to be to a historical event, the more he should work with primary sources. Secondary sources, on the other hand, can serve to observe development processes or to look at the primary source from a new perspective, especially when considering a longer period of time.