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Sensitive Reading of Historical Documents

Assess the cultural sensitivity of the historical accounts provided.

Outcomes References Related Resources

Suggested Activities

Students learn to recognize the ways in which deep-rooted cultural assumptions influence perspectives of other groups by assessing the cultural sensitivity of selected historical documents that involve judgements about cultures.

When judging other cultures, it is helpful to be aware of two potential pitfalls:

  • cultural superiority–using our superior standards to judge other cultures because whatever we do is always better
  • cultural relativism–believing that no culture's practices are better or worse that another culture's practices, that is, whatever any culture does is acceptable.

See Examining Cross-cultural Observations (Modelling the Tools) for the resources mentioned in this challenge and for instructions on teaching the tools to help students read historical documents with cultural sensitivity.

Introduction to Thévet's account of First Nations people
Select a relatively simple example of an historical account of a culture offered by someone outside that culture. Consider the following account of First Nations people written in 1681 by André Thévet (see References):

America is occupied by marvelously strange and savage people without faith, without laws, without religion, without any civilities, but living like unreasoning beasts as nature had produced them, eating roots, men as well as women remaining ever naked, until perhaps such time as they will be frequented by Christians, from whom they will little by little learn to put off this brutishness to put on more civil and humane ways.

Ask students to comment on what seems wrong with this early anthropologist's explanation. In the course of the discussion, draw out that this anthropologist is on the outside of the culture: he does not see their practices from the perspectives of those who live within the culture. In other words, he does not understand what these practices mean to the people within that culture.

Explain that anthropologists have a particular challenge in this respect. Because they are concerned with understanding cultures other than their own, anthropologists must be especially careful that their own belief systems do not interfere with their interpretations. They need to be sensitive to cultural differences and to suspend the tendency to judge and interpret everything through their own cultural lenses. In short, anthropologists must use cross-cultural sensitivity.

Introduction to potential pitfalls in judging cultural practices
Introduce students to the problems in judging cultures. As explained below, cultural superiority and cultural relativism are two ends of a continuum, and cross-cultural sensitivity occupies the middle ground between these two extremes. Discuss these key concepts and ask students to identify examples within the categories below.

Judging Cultural Practices

Cultural Superiority

Cross-cultural Sensitivity

Cultural Relativism

  • Our cultural ways are superior.
  • We can legitimately apply our own values whenever judging practices in another culture.
  • Recognizes cultural differences.
  • Is aware of dangers of judging a culture using values from outside a culture.
  • Is careful to make judgements only when those values are fairly applied to the culture.
  • No culture's ways are better or worse than any other's.
  • Everything is relative.
  • Only those values held by the culture can be used to judge behaviour in that culture.

As Thévet's account suggests, the historical contact between First Nations people and the French and English created considerable confusion as they struggled to understand a culture so different from their own.

Ask students to assess the cultural sensitivity of the early anthropologist's account of contact between the French and English and First Nations people. Encourage students to answer this question: Which words or phrases are clues to the author's location on the continuum? You may want to provide a chart similar to the one above so that students can locate their assessment on a continuum.

Assess cross-cultural sensitivity in historical documents
Provide students with relevant historical documents that you have assembled or use documents on early contact in New France from Examining Cross-cultural Observations (Modelling the Tools).

Ask students to work independently to assess each writer's cross-cultural sensitivity in judging cultural practices. Warn students that this task is a challenging one and ask them to do their best at applying the terms to the examples.

Provide a range of perspectives to avoid creating stereotypes about First Nations-European relations. For example, the following account published in 1762 by Nicolas Denys, the first permanent French settler of Cape Breton Island, describes the health of the Aboriginal populations he encountered (see References):

They were not subject to disease, and knew nothing of fevers. If any accident happened to them, by falling, by burning, or in cutting wood through lack of good axes, theirs being unsteady through failure to cut well, they did not need a physician. They had knowledge of herbs, of which they made use and straightway grew very well. They were not subject to gout, gravel [kidney stones] fevers or rheumatism. Their general remedy was to make themselves sweat, something which they did every month and even oftener.

Share assessments of cross-cultural sensitivity
When students have completed their assessment of the historical account, direct them to work in pairs to reach consensus about the extent of the writer's cross-cultural sensitivity. Ask students to post their findings around the room.

Analyze and evaluate other historical accounts
Provide students with additional historical accounts to evaluate. It is best to use short, simple accounts, but even then it may be necessary to rewrite the anachronistic terms used in the historical documents. You may want to abridge the passages and rewrite them or insert language that will capture the spirit of the remarks but be more accessible to students.

Introduction to interpretation and generalization pitfalls
Two other sets of potential pitfalls are discussed in Examining Cross-cultural Observations (Modelling the Tools).
When making interpretations of other cultures, two pitfalls are:

  • ethnocentrism–inappropriately applying our concepts and beliefs to explain another group's practices
  • radical uniqueness–the impossibility of explaining another culture because no one other than those in the culture can understand anything about its practices.

When making generalizations about other cultures, two pitfalls are:

  • stereotypes–the oversimplification or exaggeration of the practices of a group
  • radical individualism–the impossibility of generalizing about a culture because each person or event is so individualistic.

To meet diverse learning needs, teachers may want to introduce these two sets of concerns as they encounter additional historical documents. The key is to start with and perhaps limit exposure to very obvious examples of these pitfalls and to work through them as a class until students grasp the concepts.

Extension: Analyze cultural sensitivity in other resources
Ask students to analyze the cultural sensitivities of passages in the textbook or in other resources.

This lesson is based on Early Contact and Settlement in New France edited by Ruth Sandwell, Catriona Misfeldt and Roland Case. Richmond, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2002, pp. 33–60.

Last updated: May 30, 2008 | (Revision History)
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