Analysing a cartoon



Analysing a cartoon

by Brian Blumfield


Prominent newspapers often feature a cartoon that offers commentary on a particularly pertinent issue.  You may be aware, for example of the recent uproar over the Zapiro cartoon featuring, amongst others, Jacob Zuma.  [To view the cartoon, and an associated commentary on the uproar, see: (online).]


As part of your studies, you may be required to analyse and offer commentary on a cartoon.  Your response will be dependent on your:

Ø       knowledge

-          what do you know about the issue?

-          how informed are you?

(This will, to a large degree, depend on how much you read and view the news.)

Ø       skills

-          do you have the skills to critically analyse what you see?

Ø       values

-          what stand do you take on the particular issue?

(This will be based on your cultural assumptions and value judgments about the image and the situation it portrays.)


Your ability to analyse a cartoon depends firstly on your knowledge of the surrounding issues.  You cannot hope to analyse a cartoon fully if you are not aware of the historical background to it.  You will then use your skills to analyse the cartoonist’s message: what is s/he saying about the particular issue; and how is s/he saying it.  Your values become important when you are asked to give personal opinions. 


Steps in analysing a cartoon


1.         Carefully study the cartoon.  What do you see?  What / who is the cartoon about?

(e.g. corporal punishment, education mismanagement in schools, departmental corruption, non-delivery of school textbooks)

2.         What is the cartoonist saying in his / her cartoon? (What is his / her message?)

            (Look at visual and verbal clues.

- Visual clues are the pictures that you see – pay attention to detail.  Don’t take anything for   granted! 

- Verbal clues are what is said, and any other words included in the cartoon.  These words may include labels, names of people, dates etc.)

3.         How does he / she get his point across? 

            (Very often satire [and hence irony] is used.  Do you know what this means?)

4.         Decide if s/he is successful in getting this point across?


As you will see, the analysis of a cartoon makes use of a qualitative methodology.  What is meant by this?  Qualitative is the opposite of quantitative.  A qualitative approach uses words to describe a phenomenon.  (A quantitative approach, by way of contrast, uses numbers and statistics.) A qualitative approach also tends to be more subjective, i.e. offering one’s point of view.  Nevertheless, don’t be under the illusion that you can ‘just say anything’.  Any pronouncements need to be clearly substantiated, using reliable and credible evidence.  Such evidence will be what you see, what you infer (work out) from what you see, and from what you have read (i.e. historical contextual information). 


In questions on cartoons, you will often see the word 'SUBSTANTIATE'.

This means that you need to support your answer with evidence that will prove your answer.  You will find this in the cartoon BUT you will also need to rely on your knowledge of history of education. 


Further commentary


The cartoon will often be used as a ‘springboard’ to facilitate further discussion.  You may be required to discuss the contents of the cartoon, with the context of South African History of Education.  Clearly, if you are not well-read, you will encounter problems.  In addition to studying your material, it is advisable to read beyond it: the UNISA library affords you a world of possibilities.  (If you live in a remote area, remember that UNISA will post you books as well!)


Equally important is the ability to make predictions about the future.  How do you think future policy will be shaped by current contextual factors?        


Remember the following about the cartoonist:


1.   S/he is ONE voice, a voice which often takes a dissenting view to the mainstream

2.   S/he will often deliberately provoke his / her readers into expressing his / her views.

3.   S/he will often FORCE people to reflect on their own / others’ actions.

4.   Remember: a picture (cartoon?) paints a thousand words.  They are often succinct social commentaries are very pertinent issues.


Think about the value of a cartoonist if s/he assumes the party line (does his / her work have any

perceived value)




Permission is being sought to use cartoons on this website.

More to follow soon …