Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand.
2. Primary sources
These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.
3. Secondary sources
The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.
4. Defining questions
When evaluating primary or secondary sources, the following questions might be asked to help ascertain the nature and value of material being considered:
- How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
- Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
- Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?
Ultimately, all source materials of whatever type must be assessed critically and even the most scrupulous and thorough work is viewed through the eyes of the writer/interpreter. This must be taken into account when one is attempting to arrive at the 'truth' of an event.
In conducting research, you can normally find both primary and secondary sources that can be used. It is important for students to recognise the difference between a primary and a secondary source and know how to use them appropriately.
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A primary source, as the name implies, is a primary or original document or physical object that was written or created:
• at the time the situation under study happens; or
• by a person who experienced or witnessed the situation directly or has direct knowledge of it.
Examples of primary sources include:
• Personal documents: diaries, novels, speeches, letters, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand stories, emails
• Documents from research studies: theses, experiment results, reports, data or findings
• Original documents: original manuscripts, government documents, maps, photographs, newspapers
• Artificial works: paintings, films, music.
Primary sources are commonly used when studying history as they are raw and original and they are from the points of view of people who have direct experience of the past. However, as they are the direct and firsthand sources, sometimes written by a particular person, it is possible that primary sources contain the biases, prejudices, concerns, worries or personal opinions of the authors, and this information will need to be analysed carefully before being referred to in your essay or thesis.
A secondary source, in contrast to a primary source, is a sources that generalises, analyses, interprets, synthesises, evaluates, cites, comments on or discusses the original sources or situation under study.
Examples of secondary sources include:
• Publications: books, textbooks, magazines, encyclopaedias, records
• History-based documents: historical movies, historical textbooks
• Reviews: book reviews, peer-reviewed articles
Through the analysis of many primary sources and the generalisations of the writers, secondary sources can help readers understand the topic more clearly. However, secondary sources are not created by people who have direct experience of the situation under study. Therefore, there can be inaccuracies and some information might be too general or to narrow. It is also important to remember that bias and personal opinion is often present in secondary sources as well. Not all researchers are objective. Students need to be careful when using secondary sources and always confirm the information by checking multiple reliable sources.
It is important to remember that whether or not a source is primary or secondary depends on who created it and when it was created, not the form of the source. For example, a magazine article can be a primary source if it is written by a person who has direct knowledge of the situation under study. It can also be a secondary source if it is an analysis of what someone else has found.
The best way to research is to use both primary and secondary sources together. This will help you to gain a clearer and more in-depth understanding of what you are studying.
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