For all those people about to write their very first university-level analysis of an image or a piece of text, here’s some advice.
The Three Building Blocks of Analysis
Analysis is about two main elements: spotting things in the source (whether that’s an image, a bit of writing, or something else), and talking about the effect of those things. There’s a third component too, which tends to win you extra marks: making connections with other sources.
1. Spotting things
What things should you look for in a source?
Well, here you might want to think about three categories: context, form and content.
Context: when was the source created? What was going on at the time? Can you see anything in the source that is typical of its place of origin or time period – or anything that would have been seen as innovative or old-fashioned at the time? What details can you pick out that allow you to talk about the society of the time and place?
Context sometimes requires you to do a bit of wider reading. You might want to search for the artist or writer who created your source, to find out more about them and the world they lived in.
Form: what is this source? If it’s a piece of text, you might want to think about its genre: is it poetry or prose, fact or fiction, or part of a speech intended to persuade an audience? You need to focus here on details: try to pull out some features of the text that are strikingly poetic, perhaps, or persuasive, or pedantic. Think about the choice of words, and the way the words are placed. Does the genre come with any limitations (rhyme or rhythm, for instance)?
If it’s an image, you need to consider how the form of the image affects the choices that its creator has made. Is it big or small? Has the artist chosen a key moment from a story, or combined several moments, or taken an abstract approach? Was the image intended to be viewed publicly, or owned privately? What details can you pull out, to show how the form has affected what we are being presented with?
Content: here we really start to focus on what is present in the source. There are a LOT of things you could talk about! Usually, though, you’ll need to be selective because of your word limit. So your choice of what to discuss should be driven by this question: do I have anything interesting to say about this? If the answer is ‘no’, you should miss that point out!
For text, you can find a list of possible features here: Critical Appreciations Step by Step. It doesn’t cover everything, and not everything on the list will be relevant to your piece of text – but it might give you some ideas of what to look for.
For images, this might help: Art Appreciation Step by Step. Again, it doesn’t cover everything – but it might suggest some things you could look for in your image.
2. Talking about the effect
Simply spotting interesting features is unlikely to gain many marks. To make your observations count, you need to accompany them with some discussion of why this feature matters.
So… You might spot a lot of characters in a painting. That’s good. But if you write, ‘It is interesting that there are a lot of characters in this painting’, you’ve only done half the job. What you need to write is something like this: ‘There are a lot of characters in this painting, and this gives the viewer the impression that many things are happening all at once.’ Here you’ve spotted something and talked about its effect.
You should never talk about something being ‘interesting’ without telling your reader why you think it’s interesting. Your reader may be looking at the same source you have in front of you, but they might take a very different view of it, so you need to explain your thoughts.
3. Making connections
This is the point where you look up from the source in front of you, and look around at other things. It allows you to show off your wider knowledge.
Let’s go back to our hypothetical painting with lots of characters in it. You could compare it to a painting by a different artist which also has lot of characters in it, and talk about how that achieves a similar effect. Or perhaps you could look at a painting of the same subject with only one character in it, and talk about how that has much more of a sense of stillness. Or you could draw on some scholarship which analyses the effect of multiple characters within paintings.
All of these things would allow you to look beyond the source in front of you, to talk about its relationship to other material. You should quote from books, or cite other sources: you can even include images if you want to! This is a really important stage, because it shows that you’re able to extend your ideas and use what you’ve learned so far.
These are the three building blocks of analysis. If you can master those, your analysis will be observant, critical and scholarly.