Interpreting Your Source


Interpretation begins even before reading a source. Before diving headlong into the words of a historical text, historians first think deeply about where a source was found (archive, library, etc), why it was preserved, by whom, and why such a source was created in the first place. Once we begin reading, we further contemplate who created the document, for what audience, and for what purpose. We want to understand the full context of a document’s creation in order to adequately assess what information we can trust it to supply.

Take, for instance, a report on the conditions of slaves on such-and-such plantation. At first, we might find that the document states that the enslaved Africans were “happy, well-supplied, and obedient” and “quick to adopt Christian religion.” However, then we notice that the author was brother of a big-time slave owner and that the author was writing to the king for the expressed purpose of convincing the king to allow the expansion of plantations into the nearby rainforest. Then we realize that the report was written five years after a major slave uprising in the region and that the author’s brother was particularly renown for mistreating slaves. Surely, then, we must be skeptical about the report.

Your first interpretive task is to assess (to the degree possible looking only at the source) the context of your source. This may be wide-ranging (slavery in the Americas) or very specific (written by a slave-owner’s brother).

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Through States of Belonging we are asking: What are nation-states good for?  Do they have a future?  To look for answers in the past, we need to redefine these questions.  Our overall research question for States of Belonging is historically, what have been Latin American peoples’ relationship with the nations that claim them as citizens and the states that claim to govern them?  This, however, is too broad of a research question to apply directly to your source.

To help you make sense of our sources, I’ve defined three areas of interpretation: 1) the idea of the nation; 2) popular politics; 3) state power.  Most sources will speak primarily to a single one of these themes, although it is possible that some sources will be germane to more than one.  See the elaborations below to help you formulate the questions to drive your analysis.

The Idea of the Nation: 

Around 200 years ago, some people in Latin America began stating that they were part of a “nation.”  The idea of the nation was the idea that a certain group of people belong together, are naturally kin to one another, and have the right to collective self-determination.  At first, very few people agreed with this fanciful notion; over time, however, more and more Latin Americans agreed that “yes, I’m Costa Rican,” for instance.  Nonetheless, Latin American societies were rife with competing interpretations of what that meant, and your source may help us unpack these ideas.  If so, you might read it and ask: who counted as part of this author’s idea of the nation and who was not included?  What did s/he think held these people together as a common people?  What did they think the nation would achieve through their unity?  What did s/he imagine was the nation’s relationship with the colonial past?  What special problems, virtues, characteristics, or social forms defined the nation in their mind?  What did the author imagine should be their nation’s relationship to the rest of the world?

Popular Politics:

As we consider the political activism of individuals and groups, we must always be very conscious of whose activism we are witnessing.  This is because different sectors of society always had distinct demands upon the state (i.e. national government).  A wealthy copper mine own, for instance, had very different purposes for the national government than, say, the urban working class.  If this theme is relevant to your source, begin with asking political action and intentions are your witnessing.  What did they want from the government?   How were they making their demands — by what technologies, what tactics, what expressive forms?  Why these methods?  What social identity did the activists believe they were a part of and why?  How did wider social, political, and global contexts shape this activism?  Why did these activists seek change at the country-level (in other words, why not appeal to local governments, or international bodies)?  How did legacies of racism and patriarchy shape political activism in this context? 

State Power:

By 1900, national governments (what social scientists call a state) were the most powerful force of the land in most Latin American countries.  They had standing armies, massive infrastructure projects, laws, education programs, police forces, and so much more.  All of this power, however, could be used evil as much as good.  We’ll be considering state power in two main ways: social reform and state violence.  The first concerns how governments have tried to reform their populations.  Although often well-meaning, such reforms also frequently entailed many forms of cultural violence, such as suppressing native languages, forcing populations to relocate, and institutionalizing marginalized peoples.  The second aspect, state violence, concerns when and how states use their armed forces against their own people.  This has taken the form of counter-insurgency; genocide of native groups; suppression of Left, student, and labor movements; paramilitary terrorism; and much more.  Our primary research questions in this regard include: What drives states to exercise violence against their own citizens?  When and why do well-intentioned reform efforts become oppressive?  What mechanisms have helped states avoid violating the rights of their people?  How have populations fought back against oppressive states?