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Critical Assessment of Primary and Secondary Sources

Secondary sources

As a quick refresher:

Secondary sources offer an analysis, interpretation or a restatement of primary sources. They usually involve generalizations, synthesis, interpretation, commentary and/or evaluations of primary sources as a means of the author proving their argument.

Part of the research process is identifying which secondary sources will support your argument, and critically assessing them to ensure that your research isn’t relying on arguments that are outdated and/or unsubstantiated. To this end, it is important to:

  • Be aware of over-relying on a single critical source. Your secondary source materials should discuss various critical viewpoints on your topic;
  • Ensure that the background reading you do informs your own interpretation and critical analysis of the primary texts, but does not replace your own views;  
  • Read secondary texts critically. You, as the researcher, have the ability (and responsibility) to use or reject secondary material. Secondary sources are not infallible, and as such you should not automatically assume that all secondary sources meet scholarly research rigor.

Your critical reading of secondary texts should attempt to answer the following questions:

  • Who is the author? Are they a scholar in the field?
  • Was the book/ journal published by a scholarly publisher?
  • What is the purpose of the text or motive for writing it?
  • Does the writer have an obvious bias?
  • Does the book/ article have an extensive bibliography?
  • What are the primary sources referred to by the author?
  • What secondary sources are used by the author?
  • Does the text have citations enabling you to check the author's sources?

This text is based on Use of secondary critical sources and Why use secondary sources

 

Legal Executions in New England

When looking for secondary sources that speak to criminal executions in Massachusetts, the large volume Legal Executions in New England is one of the only texts that are currently available. Click on the cover of the book to read the entry for the Retkovitz case. 

Problems with Legal Executions in New England

Drawing on what you've already learned about this case, did you find any problems with the entry?

Some of the questions that immediately came to mind include:

  • Where did the author learn of the backgrounds of the accused and the victim?
  • Where did the author find the variation of the victim's name that he uses?
  • Why did the author emphasize the relationship between the victim and the accused and not the actual crime that was committed? 
  • Why did the author not provide more information about the two trials (which were an unusual occurrence)? 

Look at the critical assessment questions mentioned in the top box. Between the actual entry, the bibliography (see below) and a quick Google search using the author's full name, would you consider this a critical secondary source?

Other secondary sources

Below are some other secondary sources that would be helpful if you were to be researching this case:

Alan Rogers. "The Death Penalty and Reversible Error in Massachusetts", 6 Pierce L. Rev. 515 (2008)

Lane, Roger. "Urbanization and Criminal Violence in the Nineteenth Century: Massachusetts as a Test Case." Journal of Social History 2 (1968): 2.

Miller, Holly Ventura. Routledge Handbook on Immigration and Crime. Routledge, 2018.