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Official documents are written within a historical and organizational context. When analyzing an official document, think about the events and issues of the time period and apply this knowledge to a close analysis of the statement and the processes that produced it. If it is a diplomatic note or a treaty, look at foreign policy issues. If it is a constitution, learn more about the domestic political history. For example, reading the pronouncements of the African National Congress, you may encounter references to proposed laws or general strikes. Learning more about the history of South Africa opens up the significance of these documents.



If this is a constitution, ask about the relationship between government and people. Does the constitution assume that “government rests on the consent of the governed”? Or does it assume that people are subjects who should be ruled for their own good or whose interests are subservient to those of the state? The key issue is how the members of that particular culture looked at the world. Is it a new government or one that has been around for a long time? Many new governments go through a process to establish a workable, long-term structure of governing. Some never achieve stability in this regard. What are the challenges confronting this government? Survival? Expansion? Economic growth? How does this government make decisions? In the name of a single ruler? On behalf of a ruling class? In the name of the people? With a process fully involving the citizenry? Answers to these kinds of questions help explain the underlying cultural assumptions and lead to deeper understanding of the document.


Most official documents are the result of a process. An understanding of the process—and the groups that participated in the process—is essential. For example, school dress codes are the result of negotiation that involves predictable steps with identifiable actors. The process usually includes school board administrators, elected school board members, parents, teachers, and (sometimes) students. In this process, an initial code is developed by administrative officials, perhaps in response to school board pressures that reflect public concerns about student fashions, such as body piercing. The proposed policy is presented at one or more public hearings for parent and community reactions, and then is modified and may be enacted as policy. The result is a policy without an identifiable author, even though teachers and school administrators are expected to enforce the policy and must reprimand students for violating “school policy.” In this case the process has produced a legally enforceable document whose initiators—those concerned with student behavior or appearance—cannot be singled out for criticism. Everyone involved in enforcement can say, “Don’t blame me, I’m only following policy.”


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