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How to Analyze Political Cartoons

Historians have traditionally priviledged textual evidence over other types of sources. Despite this, a number of non-textual resources contain a wealth of information that could help us find answers to important historical questions. Working with primary sources like cartoons, drawings, paintings, and photographs can sometimes prove to be challenging, particularly if you have little experience analyzing images. Political cartoons, for example, appear in newspapers across the country everyday, but they cannot be "read" in the same way as editorials and other articles. If you know how to examine them, however, there is much they can tell you about the world in which they were created. This tutorial will provide you with some basic information which should help you as you learn to "read" non-textual sources. Although it focuses specifically on political cartoons, some of the concepts it examines could be applied to other non-textual sources as well.

Jonathan Burack created a short checklist with some useful tips to keep in mind as you begin your analysis. First, since cartoons are non-textual sources, they often use symbols or metaphors to convey information rather than words. As part of your analysis you should therefore try to identify these symbols and what they might mean. You should also pay attention to how objects and symbols are depicted (particularly if they are distorted) as the way something is drawn can tell you a lot about the artist’s intent. In addition, as irony, caricature, and stereotyping are other common strategies utilized by political cartoonists, you should make a note of them when and if they are used. Finally, keep in mind that artists often adopt these techniques in order to make an argument. If possible, you should try to recognize not only the strategies themselves but also how these strategies are being used. In other words, what is the central point of the cartoon? What argument is the cartoonist trying to make? Similarly, you should always remember that, while cartoons can tell you a lot about prevalent attitudes, emotions, and political ideologies from the period in which they were created, they do NOT necessarily reflect the “Truth” about the situations or people they depict. As previously stated, cartoonists do have an agenda and this must be taken into consideration when cartoons are used as historical evidence. (Burack)

If you are still having trouble getting started, it may also be helpful to utilize the SCIM-C Technique. Although the step-by-step approach detailed on the site is fairly general, it can certainly be adapted (see below) to the specific study of political cartoons. 

Step 1: Summarizing

At this stage of your analysis, you should focus on basic information about the cartoon you are examining. Who or what is depicted in the cartoon? What is it about? Can you identify any common symbols? Is there any text and, if so, what does it say? Who drew the cartoon and in what newspaper did it appear? Who was its intended audience? Does it have a clear message or agenda? (Historical Inquiry)

Step 2: Contextualizing

Once you feel that you have a good understanding of the basics,you should begin to think about the time and place in which the cartoon was produced. You must consider the perspective of the source’s creator as well as its original audience in order to ensure your interpretation is historically sound. Although some images in eighteenth and nineteenth century political cartoons remain common today (such as the Republican Elephant and Uncle Sam), symbols and styles do change over time. If you make assumptions based on modern interpretations,you might soon find that your ideas are contradicted by additional evidence. In order to better understand these issues, you should ask yourself a number of different questions. Where was the cartoon first printed and how widely did it circulate(was it in a local paper, a state paper, etc.)? What date was the paper issued? Were there any important events going on at the time that might explain the subject matter of the cartoon? What other articles are printed in the paper and what topics do they discuss? The answers to these questions might help you determine why an illustrator chose to draw a particular cartoon when he or she did. (Historical

Step 3: Inferring

In the third stage of your analysis,you should use the basic and contextual information you have previously considered to broaden your understanding of the source. Although it might be tempting to assume that you have finished your work once you have described the image and placed it in its historical context, by looking more closely at the cartoon you can uncover hidden meanings that you missed when answering more basic questions. What do some of the images or symbols in the cartoon suggest? How is the subject matter portrayed (i.e. is the subject being mocked or praised)? Whose viewpoint is being represented and, by extension, who is being left out? Why might this be? Is there evidence to suggest that the paper (or the cartoon)supported a particular party or interest group? Remember, political cartoons often have an agenda and an important aspect of analyzing them involves uncovering what this agenda might be. To that end, you should ask yourself what the artist was trying to say in the cartoon you are examining. Why, ultimately,did he or she create it?  The answers to these types of questions bring you closer to answering larger historical questions that you might have about the cartoon or its subject. (Historical Inquiry; Burack)

Step 4: Monitoring

At this stage in your analysis, you should pause and think about the work you have done thus far. What questions have you been unable to answer about the cartoon and where might you go for more information? Are there symbols or individuals that you cannot identify? If you are examining the cartoon as part of a research project, it may also be a good idea to ask how the source can help you reach your goals. Are you making the best possible use of the source? Does it help you answer your larger question or should you move on in order to find something more appropriate to your research? (Historical Inquiry)

Final Step: Corroborating

Once you have finished your initial analysis, it is time to begin comparing the cartoon to other sources so that you can construct a historical argument. In order to determine where the image fits in your research you should examine how it is both similar to and different from your other sources and why. In other words, how does the cartoon highlight or contradict information provided by other textual or visual sources and, just as importantly, what can you learn from these similarities and contradictions? If you find conflicting interpretations, do not be afraid to investigate the matter further. Additional research might shine a light on any discrepancies and, perhaps, open new avenues for investigation. (Historical Inquiry)



How to Analyze Political Cartoons