• Summarize the main points of China in World History by Paul S. Ropp.
  • Does the author show bias either for or against the subject of the book, or do you feel that the author stays pretty neutral, showing both positives and negative sides of the subject? Please back up your opinion with at least two examples.
  • Who is the intended audience for the book?
  • Would you recommend this book to next semester’s students who want to know more about the book’s subject matter? Why or why not?

Expert Answers

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The author of China in World History, Paul Ropp, is a university professor, and the book was published by Oxford University Press. When evaluating secondary literature in the field of History, it is important to recognize that historians undergo thorough training in graduate school. This training includes acquiring the mind of the field, which includes buying into a quest for objectivity. Historians also learn that their arguments are only as good as their evidence, the effective analysis of that evidence, and the ability to synthesize convincing arguments from the analysis. In other words, historians who earn a PhD generally provide fairly balanced evidence-based accounts without glaring biases. The quality of scholarship is also ensured by a blind review process used by academic presses, including university presses. Peers in the field provide anonymous feedback on manuscripts to help ensure that a press publishes scholarship of high quality. Taking all this into consideration, the qualifications of the author and the caliber of the press provide us with at least a sense of how objective the work might be.

That said, when trying to detect biases, one might look for subjective adjectives (e.g., "good," "bad," etc.), especially when not backed by much substance, and tendentious interpretations of the evidence. Is the author infatuated with a civilization or perhaps the opposite and prone to vilifying it? Does the author make broad generalizations that push in one or the other direction? Biases sometimes come up more in recent history because it is harder for an author to distance oneself from issues or events that happened not too long ago.

Historians also adopt different methodologies, or approaches, and these might produce certain tendencies in their research and writing. These might lead to certain strengths and certain weaknesses. For example, if a historian adopts a social historical perspective, the importance of political factors might be overlooked or underemphasized, and vice versa. A summary of the book at the publisher's site, the book's introduction, or a review of the book in a scholarly journal (if you have access to electronic databases like JSTOR or a university library), will all help reveal a historian's approach. Note that publishers also often provide tables of contents on their websites, and these provide an overview of the topics covered.

Ultimately, when evaluating a scholarly book, one needs to decide if the author provides a compelling argument or set of arguments. Are you reasonably convinced that the arguments are accurate? Style is also important. How readable is the book, and how accessible is it for the target audience? Oxford histories are generally aimed not at specialists but at a broad readership, which would include undergraduates and those in the general public with an interest in the topic. Such books are intended to be scholarly but also fairly concise and accessible. Has the author achieved this goal?

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