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GSW 232 Body and Sexuality (Bakhmetyeva)

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are documents or physical objects created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Examples include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.  Examples include: Textbooks, journal articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedias (e.g. Do Patents Have Gender? or Women Inventors in America). 

Breast Supporter
 US Patent no. 494397A (circa 1893)

Analyzing primary sources

Exercise 1: Interrogating a single primary source
When reading a primary source it is important to look at not just its contents, but an item's physicality.  Here are some guiding questions to answer as you examine a primary source:

  • Look at the physical nature of your source. What can you learn from the medium of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil? Typed?) What does this tell you?
  • Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  • What do you know about the author? Race, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  • Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? 
  • Is it prescriptive (telling you what people thought should happen) or descriptive (telling you what people thought did happen)?
  • What historical questions can you answer using this source? 
  • What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?

Exercise 2: Interrogate a set of primary sources 
Consult with each person in the group to examine all of your items as a set to answer the guiding questions below.  

  • What questions do I have from examining these materials as a set?  What are the similarities? How do they differ? What greater inferences can be drawn about the about historical context from the set?
  • What questions or further research might you have? (e.g. Are there thoughts or ideas that could be defined or explained? Is there specialized language or jargon? Are there references to places, events, or people, culture, etc?).
  • What other primary sources might I look for to help round out the story behind the sources you currently have?
  • What ideological theories or philosophies can be applied to the item?
  • How might I compare these sources to other readings, lectures, discussions and assignments in this course?