Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies
Department Chair:
Greggor Mattson

Department Email:

Phone: (440) 775-8923
Fax: (440) 775-6698

Rice Hall 29
10 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH, 44074

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources



Primary sources are defined by the way in which they are analyzed. Examples include, "materials on a topic upon which subsequent interpretations or studies are based, anything from firsthand documents such as poems, diaries, court records...."* Primary sources also include organizational newsletters, photographs, interview transcripts, maps, memoirs, novels, and bylaws, among other things.

*From Hairston, Maxine and John J. Ruszkiewicz. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. New York : HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996, pg. 547.


Secondary sources are efforts by scholars, social critics, and others who use primary sources as the basis for their analyses of the topic. Secondary sources are generally produced by authors who are themselves removed from the event or topic under analysis. An article that discusses media coverage of child abuse is a secondary source that relies on primary materials (television broadcasts, newspaper articles, etc.) to generate a critical analysis of media representations. Secondary sources include: dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books and articles that interpret or review research works.


There is more ambiguity in distinguishing primary and secondary sources than may at first seem apparent. These distinctions are best understood in the context of how one uses the material. A textbook for instance, is most often used as a secondary source, as a source of reliable data that scholars will use to provide additional data, relevant background information, etc. However, textbooks can also be used as a primary source. For instance, a study of medical textbooks can demonstrates how gender ideologies shape the supposedly objective teaching of medicine. Another example is an ethnographer who is a member of the group she is studying. She may be both an analyst and a participant.

Why do these distinctions matter?

No one scholar can do all of the research in any given project, nor is it always necessary to "reinvent the wheel." Thus, scholars use secondary sources to provide theoretical or empirical support for their analyses of primary sources. It is important, however, to use secondary resources with critical attention to their foci (What is present? What is absent? How are the important issues framed?), assumptions, arguments, and theoretical and methodological strengths and weakness. This is what makes your research, even when it is based on secondary sources, analytical, unique, and (one hopes) interesting.

For more information on primary and secondary sources, see: