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2.2 Consulting Other Sources

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how consulting research may inform and expand our analysis.
  2. Discuss effective ways to find sources.
  3. Discuss how to evaluate and incorporate relevant sources.

To return to Burke’s parable at the beginning of this chapter, consulting sources is how we invite authors into the mini parlor discussion of our essay where their ideas may support our own or provide points of contrast. Looking at what others have to say may help you to extend and clarify each aspect of analysis. For example, relevant biographical and cultural background can help you to form more thoughtful assertions, especially on the more obscure aspects of your subject. Your explanations will also become clearer and more thorough as you compare and contrast your perspectives with those of others. Finally, looking at other sources can help you to see new dimensions of significance as you learn more about the issues that relate to your subject—issues that were central at the time the subject was formulated or took place as well as issues that we still struggle with today.

I recommend that you begin your research with a detective mindset; be organized and deliberate but also open to the unexpected. And like a good detective, be prepared to take plenty of notes in which you consider both the content and your initial reactions, using the reading/observation journal discussed above. Thinking about the sources as you examine them will save you time down the road when you incorporate them into your analysis. And just as detectives ask for help in conducting investigations, don’t hesitate to consult experts about which sources might be the most useful and where to track them down. In all the years I have been doing research, I have yet to find a librarian who was not happy to assist me. Furthermore, as a detective lets clues lead to new clues, so you should let the sources you examine lead you to new sources. Look at the bibliographies and notes of the essays you consult to see which ones they rely on, and especially look for those that are cited in more than one piece.

Gathering information has become much easier in recent years; in fact, sometimes we often feel buried in it. If I wish to consult secondary researchResearch based on what others have written about a subject., pieces written by others, I can stroll over to a library where I can glance at more texts than I can read in fifty lifetimes, visit a local bookstore to browse through bestsellers and magazines, or stop at a newsstand and flip through papers from almost every major city in the world. And thanks to the Internet, I do not even have to leave the house, but can do a Google search for up to the minute news or visit any number of academic websites to see what my fellow scholars have written about my subject. And I do not need to rely just on what others have already written, but can also turn to primary researchResearch conducted directly by the author of the essay, including personal interviews, surveys, and visits to particular locations., information that I gather for myself. I can conduct interviews, send out surveys, visit relevant locations, and even set up experimental studies (as long as they conform to proper ethical guidelines). Having so many options, we can sometimes feel like the proverbial donkey that starves to death because he can’t choose which bundle of hay to eat from first.

To return to the opening parable, once you have gathered enough research on your subject, you can now participate in the on-going discussion about it. As Burke suggests, you might begin by simply listening to what experts have already said by reviewing the background information that provides a fuller picture of the subject and the circumstances out of which it emerged. You might consult (but do not rely on) a few websites that are specifically devoted to the subject to familiarize yourself with the main issues connected to it. You might then want to examine more specific historical or biographical texts to read about the prevalent issues and concerns for the author or key people involved at the time the event happened or the piece was created. You might also look at interviews and correspondence with these people to learn what they had to say about their influences, affiliations, and concerns.

Once you understand the general circumstances out of which your subject arose, you can more directly examine what critics and scholars have written about it. If your subject is a creative work, then you might want to peruse reviews that came out at the time of its release as well as examine more recent perspectives published in scholarly books and journals in the humanities. If you are analyzing a non-fiction person or event, then you might consult contemporary newspapers, op-eds, and political documents, along with more recent books and journals in the social sciences. When reviewing these, you will soon discover that critics, pundits, and scholars often disagree with each other; keep in mind that if they all held the same opinions, then neither they nor you would have any reason to continue to examine your subject. Finally, you should not only examine the research that focuses directly on your subject but also explore research that focuses on the surrounding significance. For instance, if you were analyzing the diary of a runaway slave from the 1840s, then you might want to read about the debate over slavery during that period. You could consult current historical perspectives as well as documents from the period, such as congressional debates, or testimonials from both slave owners and abolitionists.

After examining several sources, you can begin to formulate more specific research questions. For instance, if you were to analyze the current state of the economy, you might ask the question: Are we on the verge of an economic recovery? Keep in mind that you might get several answers to this question and you shouldn’t rely on any one of them to do your thinking for you by picking out one or two of the leading economic indicators and drawing the obvious conclusions from them. Let’s say that you look at the New York Stock Exchange and see that it has risen a thousand points in the past six months. You might be tempted to see this as evidence that the economy is strong overall, though this may only be true for a small segment of the population. Likewise, if you were to look at only the national unemployment rate and see that it has risen during this period, you might conclude that the economy is weak overall, though, again, this may be true for only certain types of workers and in specific parts of the country. For a more complete analysis, you should consider both statistics, and explain why you think the economy could be strong in one area and weak in another in light of both current circumstances and historical precedence. Also, you should not rely on others to explain these statistics for you, but reveal why you agree or disagree with their opinions. For instance, it would probably not be enough to write, “The stock market has risen substantially, a sign, according to Wall Street expert Joe Dollars, that the economy is doing well as a whole.” Instead you should add your perspective to both the statistics and expert opinion: “While the stock market has risen substantially, leading some experts like Joe Dollars to conclude that the economy is doing well, the number of unemployed continues to increase in key services throughout the country, leading me to believe that the recession is far from over.”

The temptation to rely on a singular source becomes even stronger when we come across an author whose point of view is similar to our own. For example, suppose that you are a vegetarian and are analyzing the rise of obesity in the United States. If you read an article on how meat consumption has increased in recent years, you might be tempted to immediately put the two together and argue that the meat industry is solely responsible for this unhealthy trend. But if you stop your research there, you could miss out on a plethora of other causes, such as how technology keeps us from getting adequate exercise. In doing background reading on your subject, you should examine a variety of sources, especially those that take positions that are antithetical to your own. In doing so you show that you are participating in a general discussion as opposed to merely focusing on those whose ideas agree with your own. And if, after examining all of these sources, you are still having trouble formulating more precise research questions, you might try utilizing some of the invention exercises suggested in the next three chapters. These will help you to both read your sources more critically and consider their implications more fully.

Whichever sources you decide to include, make certain that you acknowledge them, even when writing a draft. PlagiarismTaking credit for another’s ideas without proper acknowledgment or citation., the attempt to pass off another’s ideas as your own, is something that could not only earn you an F on a paper or in a class, but also get you expelled from your school. And many teachers make no distinction between unintentional plagiarism (simply forgetting to cite a source in an early draft) and intentional plagiarism (purposely taking credit for another’s ideas). To be on the safe side, you should cite any ideas that you come across in your reading that are not common knowledge. Though sometimes this may be difficult to assess if you are not well versed in a particular field, you can always ask your teacher when you are in doubt (just make certain that you do so before you hand in your paper). You should also ask your teachers which format they want you to use when citing your sources. The APA, Chicago, and MLA manuals reveal different ways of going about it, so you should consult their respective publications and websites to learn more about their formats and procedures.

Make certain, too, that you integrate these sources into your essay, and that you do not let the authors speak entirely for you. If you do not show what you think, you might leave the impression that you randomly tossed in a few sources simply to fulfill a research requirement, which can be especially problematic if you rely on information that comes from questionable sources. Instead you should incorporate sources as if you were a moderator in a discussion (recall again the opening parable), responding to each and showing how they inform or provide points of contrast to each other and to your own views. To determine whether you should include a particular piece in your essay and if so, how to integrate it, ask yourself the following questions:

When was the piece published?

Using up-to-date sources in your essay is important because they show that you are at the forefront of the academic conversation. You should especially keep this in mind when examining disciplines that are constantly being updated due to recent discoveries or advancements in technology, such as genetic engineering or computer programming. However, it is not necessary to refer only to analyses that were published in the past twenty years as long as you take into account that your source might be limited by outdated cultural attitudes or obsolete scientific theories. In fact, sometimes you might wish to quote a misguided statement as an example of what some people thought about the subject during a particular era, but try not to set it up as the final word on how we should continue to see it today. For instance, you might quote a nineteenth century professor who viewed Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as being a demented fantasy of a psychotic woman who doesn’t know that her place is in the home, in order to show how unenlightened critics interpreted the novel at the time. You should not, however, allow such sexist biases to limit your understanding of the piece today.

What is the author’s area of expertise?

Usually at the beginning or ending of an article or book, you can find a summary of the author’s special background, education, or training that gives her opinion a sense of weight and authority. Though you should make certain that most of the people you quote or paraphrase are experts in a field relevant to your subject or its implications, you might also include opinions of others so long as you qualify how and why you choose to include them. For instance, if I were writing an analysis of how Americans were affected by the Second World War, I might quote my mother, who was a child when it occurred, to show the effect it had on someone who was not fully cognizant of its broader implications.

What are the author’s possible biases?

An author may have a certain perspective not only because he wrote at a particular time and place or because of his expertise, but also because of his beliefs and affiliations. Sometimes authors are blatantly upfront about their political, moral or religious agendas, and other times they strongly imply them through their choice of words or the way they shape their analysis. In either case, it’s always a good idea to qualify what they have to say by acknowledging the one-sided or overly opinionated nature of their views and/or by including contrasting perspectives. You do not have to pretend to be objective yourself (I don’t believe such a state is possible), but you should leave the impression of a reasonable and thorough scholar who has explored different points of view before arriving at your own opinions.

Even when citing authors who demonstrate more informed, reasonable, and enlightened perspectives, you still need to reveal to what extent you agree or disagree with them and why. Sometimes your opinion will be implied by the way you set up their perspective, especially when the author’s point of view echoes your own: Huckleberry Finn has had an enormous influence on other authors, for, as Ralph Ellison argues, “No Huck and Jim, no American Novel as we know it.”Ralph Ellison, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn, ed. Michael Patrick Hearn (New York: Norton, 2001), backcover. Other times, you may need to explain why and to what degree you disagree: Tom Wolfe’s famous definition of the 1970s as being a “me generation”Tom Wolfe, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” in Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1976). has a certain amount of validity, but he fails to take into account that historically nearly all people have been motivated by their own selfish interests and are not overly concerned with the welfare of future generations.

As you may have noticed, I chose to quote the source in the first case and paraphrase it in the second. Which method you decide to use when you incorporate a source has mostly to do with how much you like the specific words the author uses and how succinctly they are stated. In the first case, I thought that Ellison summed up the influence of Twain’s novel in such a clear, definitive, and succinct manner that I wanted to use his exact words, but in the second, Wolfe’s notion of the “me generation” is explored throughout his entire essay, and my response focused less on a specific way he sees this attitude manifested and more on a perspective that he doesn’t take into account. If you choose to quote a source, make certain that you put quotation marks around it when it is four lines or less and, when longer, set it off through indentation and spacing.

When incorporating long quotes, use them sparingly and follow them up with almost equally long explanations to justify why you needed to include all of the words, as opposed to providing just a summary of the main ideas. For instance, when I opened this section with a quote from Kenneth Burke, I did not just leave it hanging there for the reader to consider but attempted to integrate it into the main issues I wanted to cover, pointing out that we are all part of an ongoing conversation whenever we choose to do research, and that neither you, me, nor anyone else will ever get the final word. I also chose to quote the parable in its entirety because I like the way Burke invites us into his metaphorical parlor to consider our place within history. Usually, however, you can paraphrase the gist of an author’s ideas and reserve direct quotes only for places where his choice of words is especially striking or significant.

Exactly how much you choose to quote or paraphrase will also depend on your subject and the reason you have for writing on it. Just make certain that your finished essay does not seem like a research report (like those forms you filled out in the sixth grade to prove that you read a book) or like a pastiche of long quotes with only a few brief statements tying them together. Instead, your own considerations should primarily drive your essay, with other sources used mainly for support or as catalysts for further reflection. Still, though your research should not completely replace your initial considerations, it most certainly will modify them as it helps you to discover insights that would not have occurred to you had you only analyzed the subject on your own.


Think of a person or place that is important to you but is not widely known. First, look over what you may have already written about this person or place in the form of letters, e-mails, or diaries. Next, write down a list of people whom you might wish to interview to find out more about your subject, for instance family, friends and colleagues if it is a person, or frequent visitors and caretakers if it is a place. List the main questions you would like to ask the people involved and consider possible follow up questions you could ask depending on their initial answers. Now, consider some of the main issues that you associate with the person or place. Look for a few secondary sources that might help you learn more about these issues.

Key Takeaways

  • It is important to understand and acknowledge personal influences and experiences before beginning an analysis.
  • Research can help us learn new perspectives on a subject and engage in a wider discussion about how we see it and why it is relevant.
  • Always acknowledge research, even when writing initial drafts, and incorporate it gracefully into the essay.
  • Carefully review the research for relevance and bias before introducing it in an essay.
  • Research should always supplement but never dominate an essay, and special care should be taken before incorporating long quotes.