Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

5.3 A ‘circle’ of understanding

It may seem as if analysing, interpreting and evaluating a text are ‘stages’ we go through, one after the other. But it's nothing like as mechanical as that. You do not analyse a text into separate parts, then ‘add up’ those parts to produce some interpretation of the whole, and then evaluate it. Rather, analysis–interpretation–evaluation are overlapping processes. They are different kinds of activity, as we have seen by looking at them separately. But when you try to understand a text you are unfamiliar with, what you actually do is ‘circle around’ it in the following sort of way.

  • As you read, listen to or look at the text for the first few times, you form some impressions of what kind of text it is and what it is ‘about’. And of course you respond to it, emotionally, in your imagination and intellectually.

  • These perceptions help you find ‘ways into’ the text, and you start to analyse parts of it carefully.

  • Then you draw back and have a think about how the whole thing looks now.

  • Guided by that, you go back into the detail of another part of the text – draw back again, and see how that further analysis affects your view of the text's meanings as a whole.

  • Meanwhile, you are beginning to make judgements about the text, which you also revise as you go along.

And so on, back and forth between the parts of the text and your conception of it as a whole, shifting your attention and revising your interpretations and judgements as you go. What we did in Section 4.3 (‘Analysis and interpretation’) comes closest to this process.

You do this circling around as you engage actively with the text and make meaning of it in your mind. ‘Meaning’ is not a thing; it is not just ‘inside’ the text, waiting to be ‘uncovered’ when you apply certain analytical techniques to it. Making meaning is a process. What you do is more like ‘communicating’ with the text – looking at and ‘listening’ to it, as it were, and ‘talking back’ to it. The last things you firm up are your judgements: of the values the text represents, and its value as the kind of text it is. After all that, you are ready to communicate your interpretations and judgements to other people.

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