Direct and indirect sources Direct sources

In broad terms, direct sources are those that provide first-hand information about events. A radio interview with a politician in which we hear what the politician has to say about the economy is first-hand. An extensive speech delivered in Parliament by the same politician is also first-hand. A book that analyses this politician's particular views about the economy is, by contrast, second-hand. In scientific disciplines, experiments are the most common direct source; in other disciplines, surveys and interviews, or research into written and oral records of events provide direct access to information. All these sources are direct and, within the appropriate context, recognised as containing original evidence and ideas. They are a significant source of the material we need to form our arguments and explanations.

It used to be thought that these direct or 'primary' sources were somehow more 'factual' or descriptive, and that interpretation was added to them by investigators when they wrote about their research, thereby creating a 'secondary' or indirect source (see below). However, direct sources do contain values and elements of interpretation.11 The importance of the distinction between direct and indirect sources, then, is not that one is 'fact' and the other interpretation but, rather, one of context. For example, the comments made by an advertising agency director about nationalistic television commercials must be understood in relation to the person who made these comments, why, when, how, and in what situation the comments were made, and so on. If we do an experiment by measuring the biological reactions of people watching nationalist advertising under controlled conditions, then we, in effect, become the authors of that data (via the way that we establish the experiment). We would need to ask ourselves the same sorts of questions to understand the meaning of the data we gather. By doing so, we will recognise that the contexts in which this direct 'evidence' of nationalist advertising is gathered is different to that in which we use it as part of our argument.

In every case, then, direct sources can only be used effectively when we think about the context, as well as the content, of the information we draw from them. Sometimes, understanding this context involves asking questions about where and when the information was produced; by whom; for what purpose; on the basis of what knowledge; in relation to which issues. Equally, the context can be understood by thinking about our own engagement with the source. For example, scientists must check, when performing experiments, that they have established the experimental procedure properly, that there are no errors in their procedures, that they are reliable observers of the events, and so on. In each discipline, in each field of endeavour, there are basic rules that we must follow, and assumptions that we must make, when seeking to gather information from direct sources; there are also basic understandings about how to consider the context of the information. They are too numerous and complex to discuss here in detail, but two examples can be drawn from history and chemistry. In history, a standard approach is to think about the way in which a person's social position (class, race, gender, and so on) can influence and be seen in what they have said or written. In chemistry, experimental design is always used to control and maintain quality of experimental work: the information gained through an experiment is always assessed in the context of the way the experiment was performed. In general terms, we must learn the rules that are part of our context and consciously apply them so that we can use direct sources effectively.

Indirect sources

As noted above, a direct source differs from an indirect source. Indirect sources involve the reports and analysis of direct information by other people. Reports, articles, and books by scholars are the main category of secondary sources that we tend to use, especially when we are beginning to develop our knowledge about an issue. Once again, the key to using such information is always to think about the context in which it was produced. In other words, information from indirect sources is only as good as our understanding of that source itself. For example, as a result of changes over the past two decades, an academic commentary such as the one by James on advertising in the 1970s may not be precisely relevant to contemporary concerns. There is no general rule to apply to such analysis of sources, except that we must always think about the context (who obtained the information; when, where, and how the information was arrived at) as well as the text (what the information is).

For example, imagine you are watching a television program on advertising. The host makes some comments on nationalistic commercials, saying that they always produce an emotional reaction and that is why they are effective. Is this source useful for an academic investigation? If you answered no, then you would, in some circumstances, be correct. But the important question to ask is 'Why?'. Let us contrast this hypothetical television program with a more usual source: academic writing. The trustworthiness of academic writing is based on the idea that the person doing the writing is an expert in that area, through their close study of the topic, their skills as a researcher, their careful, long-term analysis, and their involvement in a system in which articles and books are published only after the scrutiny of other qualified academics to determine if they are 'right' or not. In other words, the claims are trustworthy because an institutionalised method makes them trustworthy. It is a social convention that academic work is regarded as being more 'sound' (if often more remote) than 'popular' work; it is also a worthwhile social convention because there are good reasons to accept this distinction in soundness.

The usefulness of the television program depends, however, on what exactly we are trying to find. It might be quite relevant to argue that the popular perception of nationalist advertising is very important in the effectiveness of such commercials. So, even if we distrust many of the claims that are advanced in the popular media and trust those from more scholarly work instead, we can still use as evidence the fact that people do actually make and listen to the first sort of claim. In other words, while we may not trust the television program as an indirect commentary on advertising, we could certainly use it as a direct source of popular views on advertising.

Do you see the difference? Sometimes we will want to make claims in our reasoning that convey information in the claims themselves. And sometimes we will want to make claims about the fact that a certain type of claim, or group of claims, has been made by others. Developing the latter type of writing is essential in good critical work and, thus, requires you to develop skills in knowing about sources of knowledge.

Exercise 8.3

Write a short analysis of the different direct and indirect sources that you use most frequently in your current reasoning. What questions do you need to ask about them? What rules and assumptions, stemming from the discipline or profession in which you are working or studying, underlie the identification of these sources?

Five possible outcomes

Finding information effectively is, in large measure, a matter of understanding how that information or knowledge is to be used in your own arguments and explanations. Often we simply want some basic descriptive information to serve as claims in our reasoning without wanting to provide extensive supporting arguments. For instance, we read, in relation to our nationalistic advertisements investigation, that Crocodile Dundee was one of the most popular films ever screened in Australia. We can simply state this piece of information, either quoting exactly from the original or re-expressing the information in our own words, giving an appropriate reference to it.12 We are simply taking a single claim from our 'source'.

We can also take an entire argument or explanation from our 'source'. We could quote such reasoning exactly, but usually, for stylistic reasons, we express it in our own words. For example, James's article (mentioned above) argues that nationalistic advertisements encourage consumers to purchase a corporation's products because, by being 'Australian' (even when the companies are often owned by foreign interests), the products are assumed to be better than others. We are, in effect, getting claims and links (reasoning) from the 'source' (can you see the trace of linking in 'because'?). Once again, we provide a reference in order to acknowledge our debt to the original author.

Yet very often what we want to 'take' from these sources is not that specific and cannot simply be 'found' by looking at a certain page. Instead, we can summarise the basic argument or explanation in a source that we have read (always in our own words), reducing a long text to a short series of premises and a conclusion, which we can then use in our own argument (again, with an appropriate reference). For example, Anderson's Imagined Communities is a long and detailed work on nationalism that, in part, concludes that technologies that allow humans to overcome geographical distance (for example, railways) have played a significant role in the creation of modern nations. We could include such a summary (which, of course, can be expressed in the analytical format in our notes) within our own reasoning. We are, thus, taking from the source not a specific claim, nor a specific piece of reasoning, but our understanding (analytically speaking) of the source's overall argument or explanation.

Fourth, we can take from sources a type of information that is far more indefinable than the information gained in any of the last three cases. This category can be summed up as 'positions and values'. It is usually hidden within the source and can be recovered using your judgment (based on what you read or hear) of the underlying position that the author of the source holds. This underlying position can be inferred from that person's own arguments or explanations, or the way in which the arguments or explanations have been received by others. We read, for example, in Graeme Turner's Making It Nationalll> that Australian businesses exploit national patriotism and sentiment to further their own profit-making goals. Whether we agree or disagree with this conclusion, whether we can refute it or not, we can nevertheless try to understand why he might have made such a conclusion. We can ask, what is the political and intellectual position that is implied by such claims? From the overall thrust of Turner's analysis, we judge that he is opposed to unfettered capitalism, seeking instead a greater degree of regulation in the national interest. In making this judgment, we can understand the assumptions that underlie the information in Turner's book, and the context in which it was written and presented to us. Without such analysis, you will always tend to respond to reasoning from your own point of view, without understanding why others might disagree with you. Whether or not you wish to change their minds or accept their right to be different is immaterial: neither goal can be achieved if you do not know

Finally, there are occasions on which we take nothing away from what we are reading or observing—except more questions! This outcome may be frustrating at times, but if we are seeking to be smart thinkers, we must be prepared to delve deeply into an issue and not rush too quickly to a satisfying answer. Remember analysis continues through every stage of research, but smart thinkers are aware of this and draw encouragement from the way in which a book that tells you nothing' might prompt the question 'Why does it not tell me anything?'. And, further, you can ask if the problem is with the book, with you, or perhaps with your original set

Using a long piece of written work that you are reading at the moment, practise getting each of the five possible outcomes just discussed. Make sure that, 111 each case, you express your answers in the analytical structure format (except, of course, for the last category, for which you will simply have a list of further

We have seen in previous chapters how the context in which we create our texts of reasoning are crucial in making successful judgments about the effectiveness of our arguments and explanations. In this chapter, we have concentrated on learning about the process of searching for knowledge in a way that allows us to take the information from one context (someone else's text) and put it into another context (our text). The context influences our interpretation and understanding of information, and so if we do not understand and recognise these contexts, our analysis will not be sound. Knowledge, then, needs to be understood generically, not as specific 'facts' or issues, but as a series of classes and types that relate to our research project. The sources from which it comes, again, must be analysed for the way they create and constrain that knowledge, rather than as particular books or articles or experiments. Finally, what we take away from these sources can be organised as elements of reasoning: as claims, arguments, or explanations; as assumptions and values; or simply as more questions.


The following terms and concepts are introduced in this chapter. Before checking in the Glossary, write a short definition of each term:

analysis analytical questions information knowledge source

Review exercise 8

Answer briefly the following questions giving, where possible, an example in your answer that is different from those used in this book:

a. What do we need to know to be good researchers?

b. What sorts of questions are involved in formulating a topic?

c. What allows us to classify information into five separate categories?

d. How do the four types of information compare and contrast with each other?

e. What is the difference between a direct and an indirect source?

f. What role does the 'author' and the mode of production of information play?

g. What are the important issues of context involved in using information from any source?

h. Why must we ask questions when we are searching?


1 This information, and quotes from Licklider's report, are taken from Mark Stefik, Internet dreams: archetypes, myths, and metaphors, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996, pp. 23-32.

2 Please note that my classifying of information here is just one of many different approaches which you may encounter. I have developed it because it usefully extends our smart thinking abilities and not because it is 'right' in any objective sense.

3 All these examples are drawn from the process of researching and writing that went into

M. Allen, Telecom Adverts, Telecom Networks, Telecom Australia', Australian Journal

10 These sorts of theoretical insights into the intellectual issues involved in any research or analysis often appear within more general discussions of various topics. These examples simply indicate that the purpose of looking at the two books noted was precisely to

11 There is, of course, philosophical argument about this issue. See chapter 9 for a brief discussion of the intersubjective theory of knowledge that underpins this view of direct

12 In this case, the authority is S. Crofts, 'Re-Imaging Australia: Crocodile Dundee

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