The Document Based Question (DBQ)
This is a type of essay that requires you to use the information from the documents you are given to answer the prompt. Many students enjoy these greatly because they feel they have a cheat sheet for the answer in these documents. Your job in this essay is to analyze the documents you are given, rate their credibility, and synthesize this information into an answer to the prompt. These documents are chosen to represent a number of ideas that were believed at the time though. So your ability to rate these articles based on bias or point of view (POV) will be a necessity.
It is important to remember that the emphasis of a DBQ is your ability to analyze and synthesize the given documents. Your knowledge of the time period will be a huge use in analyzing these documents, but this essay is not written as a historical narrative. You must always keep a clear focus on answering the question, not writing a story about what happened. It is also important to remember that all basic essay rules from this class apply to this essay. Make sure you stick to those as much as possible.
Why Use Documents
These essays are created this way so that you can practice doing what actual historians do. When a historian is trying to decide what happened in the past he uses as much evidence as he can find to help with that decision. They often use scientific information from a host of other fields, but most often they use primary source documents that were written at the time of (or soon after) an event happened. Generally speaking, the closer ties the document has to the event in question, the more reliable that document is viewed. This is because as time progresses the true history starts to turn into something more closely resembling legend. So the job of the historian is to analyze these documents for reliability in every way possible. Part of this is making informed judgement calls about which of the document authors is most reliable and then using that judgement to write the history of the era.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
A primary source is a document that was written around the time of the event, preferably from a person who was either present. People who use these documents to write about what happened in history are creating a secondary source. Historians tend to put more emphasis on primary sources unless the person who wrote it had a reason to lie about what they wrote. Deciding which document is more reliable is a large part of the job of a historian, and will be a large part of your job in any DBQ. Textbooks are often seen as secondary sources; however, they do not represent the creation of a person who actually read the documents. Instead, these books are often created by a person who has read a great deal of secondary sources. In this regard, they are poor sources for specific information, but tend to give a broad overview of history.
Point Of View
The hardest part of reading primary source documents is reading them as a skeptic. While reading you are expected to debate the credibility of this document based on what you know about history, and who the person is who wrote it. The first thing we must do with a new document is to check the date of this document. This gives us an idea of how reliable we can expect it to be based on how closely the date of writing matches the date of the event in question. Again, in general we assume that closer the document is to the time of the event, the more reliable it could be. Then we analyze the person who wrote it in every way we can. Was he/she at the event or was this hearsay? Does the person have a possible bias in how he might think of the event? For instance, if you ask a man about the woman’s rights movement, how likely is it that you will get an answer that is not the complete truth based on his wants and desires. Or if you spoke to a democrat about how great one of his republican congressmen was. How likely are you to get the full truth about that person? You must always use this type of analysis while reading documents.
It is your job in a DBQ to decide how credible you think the source is. The credibility level of each of these sources will drive what you think about answering the thesis. Maybe you find 6 of the 8 documents to be credible, but feel the other two are too heavily biased to be believable. Then you must write your essay using the information found on the believable documents. Remember, these documents are pieces of evidence and not absolute fact. Treat them as such at all times.
Tips For Analyzing Point Of View (POV)
1) Who created the source and why?
2) Did the author have first-hand knowledge of the event, or did they report what others saw or heard?
3) Was the author a neutral party or did they have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was written down?
4) Did the author have any reasons to be honest or dishonest?
5) What cultural and historical influences of the period need to be considered? How does the author’s role in society, in this culture, at this time influence the author?
How To Write A DBQ
1) Read the question carefully: Make sure you are aware of what it is asking you to do. Check the list of vocab words that can be found on the “Answering the Question” page for more information.
2) Brainstorm outside information you can use: Do it before you read the documents so that you aren’t swayed by the documents.
3) Read the Document and take notes: Do this quickly and only take notes on concepts that will help you answer the question. In the margin of the documents, make notes which add to or embellish your brainstorm list.
4) Use these notes to draw conclusions: Remember that readers want you to be able to draw conclusions using the documents, not simply paraphrase of quote them.
5) Group the Documents: Try to decide which documents (or parts of them) could be used to support which parts of the essay prompt. This will be used in organizing your ideas into paragraphs.
6) Organize your essay: take 10-15 minutes to make a prewriting activity on your essay. These activities take many forms and you may use whatever form you would like for this.
7) Write you thesis: This is done now to make sure that the entire essay is based around the thesis. You must answer the question with a solid statement about your attitude toward the topic (based largely on the documents).
8) Write your essay: This essay should be 5 paragraphs and deal with the issues from the question in the same order that the question gives them. Remember to use as many facts as possible in writing this essay, but MUST focus solely on answering the question. No other material matters.
9) Organize your Conclusion: This should coincide with the essay rules found in the page on conclusions.
Body Paragraph Skeleton
1) Introduce the main idea or subtopic that you are proving
2) Support that main idea with outside information that you knew before reading the documents.
3) Support your outside information with references from the documents.
4) Identify the need for additional document and explain (in detail) why it would help.
5) Write a concluding sentence that relates the paragraphs topic back to the thesis.
6) Write a transitional sentence that introduces your next topic.
Body Paragraph Example
Prompt: Based on the following documents, analyze the responses to the spread of Buddhism in China.
Historical Background: Buddhism, founded in India in the sixth century B.C.E., was brought to China by the first century C.E., gradually winning converts following the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 C.E. Buddhist influence continued to expand for several centuries. Between 220 C.E. and 570 C.E., China experienced a period of political instability and disunity. After 570 C.E., the imperial structure was restored.
(1) Also in China, there was a negative backlash to Buddhism in the royal court where many believed that embracing the faith in China was a negative form of cultural diffusion that would only corrupt the masses and China itself. (2)Han Yu tells the ruler that Buddhism goes against everything China has stood for and goes against Confucian philosophy that many in China believed was to be followed. He claims that (3) Buddha was a foreigner who had nothing to do with China and the Chinese, so his message does not apply here. He also says that worshipping Buddha’s relic goes against the Confucian principle on keeping ghosts and spirits far away, another example of Buddhism breaking the rules of Confucianism. (doc 4). The Chinese Emperor finally responded to these claims and (4) issued an edict strongly against the faith enforcing much of what Han Yu had to say. (3) The Emperor claimed that Buddhism distracted the people and was detrimental to the economy as well as destroying marital relations (doc 6). (4)This edict looked at Buddhism as an evil to get rid of and strike down anything that was in favor of keeping the faith.
Does the paragraph have a topic sentence that is relevant to the prompt?
Also in China, there was a negative backlash to Buddhism in the royal court where many believed that embracing the faith in China was a negative form of cultural diffusion that would only corrupt the masses and China itself.
- Does the paragraph analyze Chinese responses to Buddhism?
Han Yu tells the ruler that Buddhism goes against everything China has stood for and goes against Confucian philosophy that many in China believed was to be followed
- Does the paragraph use evidence from more than 1 document to support the argument of the writer?
Buddha was a foreigner who had nothing to do with China and the Chinese, so his message does not apply here. He also says that worshipping Buddha’s relic goes against the Confucian principle on keeping ghosts and spirits far away, another example of Buddhism breaking the rules of Confucianism. (doc 4). The Emperor claimed that Buddhism distracted the people and was detrimental to the economy as well as destroying marital relations (doc 6).
- Does the paragraph show analysis (POV/Tone) of the speakers in the documents and relates it to the prompt?
Chinese Emperor finally responded to these claims and issued an edict strongly against the faith enforcing much of what Han Yu had to say. This edict looked at Buddhism as an evil to get rid of and strike down anything that was in favor of keeping the faith.
- Budget your time: don’t spend too much time on this essay. You have other ones to write so you must do this on a time limit.
- Do NOT ever simply make a list of your interpretations of the documents. We want analysis, not a laundry list of information.
- Always use factual evidence not fluff
- Try not to give quotes from the document. You want to show your analysis of the document, not use the document itself to try to help you.
- Cite documents using parentheses: Any time you use information or analysis on a document you want to site that document like this: (Doc A). Avoid writing a sentence that refers to the document specifically like “Document A proves…..”
- Acknowledge points that disagree with yours: Ignoring points that are opposite of your opinion doesn’t help. You want to try to disprove or minimize these ideas in some way.
- Always cite as many of the documents as possible: Not doing so will hurt your grade.
- Do not let the documents completely drive your essay. Your essay should show your analysis, with the documents being there for supporting evidence.
- Make sure to explain POV well in the essay. This is a common mistake.
- Write neatly: Whether it is on the rubric or not, studies show that neatness counts when people are grading.
- Always use past tense in essays.
- Always keep your own bias in check while reading these. Don’t use your 21st century beliefs to judge these people.