Source analysis: contemporary world history

In lieu of my usual wise and witty posting I thought some of you might be interested to see what I’m up to lately in meatworld. The following is a repost from a blog (hidden from search engines) I set up for my current Contemporary World History class. We’ve been rambling our way through the analysis for the last few meetings; at the moment how the map and the poster go together is starting to click.

Please do play along if you’re so inclined!

*Here are a few sources for us to analyze. Take a look at them and see what you can figure out about what they tell us. We will discuss them in class, and that discussion will go better the more thinking you’ve done in advance. Of course comments here and/or on your own blogs are welcome!

The first source is a map of the ethnic zones of Kenya, a country in East Africa formerly under the colonial rule of Great Britain.

Ethnic map of Kenya

This next image is a Chinese propaganda poster from the Vietnam War:

Resolutely support the American people in their resistance against American imperialist aggression in Vietnam

The final document is the first page of a declassified CIA analysis of options to destabilize the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. As with each of these documents, find out more by clicking on the image.

CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals 1952-1954

Bonus: this is current, funny, and thought-provoking. Find the Telegraph’s report on it here.



  1. Very quick first impressions

    1. Map – Absence of population figures. From this map alone, it would be hard to infer that the Kikuyu are far and away the largest tribal group, the major source of opposition to British colonialism, and the tribe of Kenya’s first native prime minister, anthropologist Jomo Kenyatta (see his book, Facing Mount Kenya). An overlay showing the relatively fertile area once known as the White Highlands and the thinly populated desert areas would also be helpful. Ditto for an indication of the Rift Valley, for those with a deep, prehistorical interest.

    2- Poster – The overall racial mixture and the black man in front are, of course, striking. On second look, it is remarkable how healthy and clean-cut all these representatives of oppressed minorities are. No long-haired hippies here. No flower-power either. The poses, raised fists and all, are very Socialist Realist, classic “Workers of the world unite!” stuff.

    3- Sickening, but familiar to anyone who grew up in those times. I wonder if kids these days can even begin to comprehend how the feeling of being constantly on the edge of nuclear war, living through McCarthyism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the FBI chasing Commies on prime time TV, and all that other good stuff made this kind of thing seem forgivable to people in power at the time.

  2. You’re right about the map, and the same could be said of the poster. What’s depicted and offered as significant is gross diversity, without magnitude. Of course what to represent on a map is just a function of what questions you want it to be able to answer (a road map, a topo map, a climate map, etc.)

    It’s the gross diversity I was getting at, though, and the questions have to do with the history of imperialism, colonialism and globalization. I see the two images as essentially the same in depicting the political demography of colonial nation-formation.

    As for the third, I would like to teach the students to suspend their first reaction to it, whether that be to find it sickening or to celebrate the CIA’s defense of liberty at whatever cost. We’ve begun to analyze the document in terms of its authority and credibility, noting its production after both the fall of the USSR and the passage of the Freedom of Information Act. Once we get into what it actually says, the Cold War context you mention will become critical and will require further perspective-shifting for the students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s