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Anthropology: Evaluating Sources

A Critical Skill

Knowing how to find information is only half the battle.  Once you have a list of results - whether it is webpages, books, videos or magazine articles - being able to pick the ones that will effectively and efficiently answer your research question is the skill you will need next.

Questions and Answers

The first thing we are going to talk about are criteria.  What are the elements on which we are going to judge our sources?  It may help to think like a reporter and ask yourself Who, What, Why, When, and Where?

  • Who wrote it?
    What authority does this person or organization have to speak on this topic? Are they open about who they are? Is their name or affiliation available?
  • What are they saying?
    How reliable is this information? Is it backed up with facts, research, citations? How does it compare with other things you have read on the topic?
  • Why are they writing this? 
    ​Is the information objective or is there any evident bias? Are they attempting to influence you to take some particular action (i.e., buy something, vote a particular way, etc)? Some bias is obvious, some is subtle. Not all bias is inherently bad, but you need to be able to identify it so that you can ask important questions about what they may not be saying and seek out further information that they may not provide.
  • When was it written?
    Is the information current? Remember, "old" is a relative term here depending on your topic and how fast things change in that area. News may become old in days or weeks, the latest discoveries in genetics may be old in a couple of years, an essay on a historical topic or piece of literature may have a shelf life of decades.
  • Where does this fit into my paper? 
    Even a book or article that is current, authoritative, reliable and unbiased may not be the best choice for you if it simply fails to answer your research question. Even though you may really like it, trying to squeeze something into your paper that doesn't really fit will probably cost you more effort than just finding a more appropriate source. Plus you run the risk of looking unfocused and disorganized in your final product.