When you are searching for sources to help you support your argument, resist the impulse to look only for documents that pertain to your exact subject matter. Sometimes, students will be frustrated because they have searched exact terms, such as “Occupy Wall Street” AND “Facebook,” and have come up with nothing. However, remember that you are creating your own unique argument. Trying to find papers that have made exactly the same argument you want to make will nudge you towards the “patchwork” model and away from the opportunity to put together something new and interesting of your own.
Instead, look for papers on similar subjects or on the broader categories into which your specific discussion fits. Other writers interested in social media and its use in protest movements will have produced papers on the subject. Exploration of this material can be very profitable for you.
You may find material that corroborates yours. If Author A’s paper on some other protest movement’s use of social media has come to conclusions that seem to confirm your own (when you consider both papers in light of the broader subject), you might present some of Author A’s research and compare it closely to your own.
You may find material that contrasts with yours. This material is just as valuable as the corroborating material. Perhaps you can use it to explore the differences between the contexts of the two discussions (is Author B examining a different type of social media or a different variety of protest movement? Did the users approach social media in a different way? Did the protest movement originate from a different social context or cultural background? Is Author B herself working from assumptions that are fundamentally different from yours, or does Author B’s paper genuinely offer a complication you will have to take into consideration as you revise and refine your thesis?).
You may find material that contextualizes yours. Perhaps Author C has written a paper on the history of protest movements, on the way communities seem to work online, on social upheaval and the Internet, or on Occupy Wall Street’s origins and modus operandi. All four of these subjects are relevant to your paper, but they are also broader in scope. It is often very helpful to look at secondary research on the categories to which your primary document belongs. You will, for instance, be able to discuss the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page more knowledgeably if you know something about Occupy Wall Street.
Corroboration, contrast, and contextualization will all give you ways of approaching your subject matter that would remain inaccessible to you if you limited yourself to a close reading. The secondary works you consult will provide factual information you would not otherwise have, as well as analytical ideas that come from perspectives that might not otherwise have occurred to you. You do need to be careful that you are engaging with these works instead of merely replicating them.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Using Your Essay to Look Forward
Reflecting on his own considerable and influential body of work, Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” When we reflect on Newton’s output in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and physics, it becomes apparent that Newton was himself a giant whose broad shoulders are forever crowded by thousands gazing into a distance he has made visible. As Newton’s own self-assessment reveals, he became a giant not through some solitary moment of inspiration, but through joining and furthering the ongoing conversation.
Discourse—the respectful reception of other ideas and the reflective response to them—is the lifeblood of all scholarly disciplines, all universities and colleges, and all university and college courses—such as the ones in which you are currently enrolled. Your research essay, like all research essays, is a vital contribution to this discourse. Universities and colleges exist primarily as a space to foster the ideas that the works of others inspire in you, the responses to these works that you develop, and the dialogues between you and others as you consider complementary and contradictory responses.
One of the goals of this text is to prepare you to enter this conversation and make sure your contributions are taken seriously at this level. One of the key components of a meaningful essay at this level is the proper balance of your ideas, the examination of primary evidence, and the elevation of your investigation through the proper use of scholarly sources. You are using secondary sources to elevate and complicate your opinion/claim, not replace it. Your claim always drives your analysis. Your claim determines how sources are applied to your argument and what inferences you derive from that application.
In creating your research paper you are performing two essential tasks:
- Selecting a topic for closer examination
- Selecting a particular scholarly discourse to which you would like to contribute meaningfully
You make these selections because discussion of both in the light of each other will result in an elevated understanding of the topic and a useful extension of the scholarly discourse. You cannot join an ongoing discourse by waving vaguely and making generalizations. You can join an ongoing discourse by examining a specific idea in detail and in the light of how it extends and further complicates the scholarly conversation.
Joining the Scholarly Conversation: Using Your Primary and Secondary Evidence
Your essay will use several sources, but for the purposes of brevity, we are going to pretend that we have our primary claim and one scholarly secondary source.
We find that one of the best approaches for students preparing to write a research essay using evidence is to imagine taking part in a conversation—perhaps an introduction of two people you know very well but who do not know each other. In this conversation, you will have to take a leading role, but you are hoping that the people you are introducing will hit it off and begin conversing with each other as well. Two mistakes students make when facilitating this scholarly conversation are:
- Dominating the conversation to the point that neither their argument nor the secondary sources contribute meaningfully.
- Being a passive conduit and contributing very little in the hope that the sources will somehow carry the conversation all by themselves.
Dominating the Conversation
Let’s look at some examples of these mistakes and then examine ways to remedy them.
The first mistake involves acting like a domineering, interrupting, and inattentive conversation partner—the sort of person who finishes other people’s sentences, most often in ways the interrupted person did not intend. This sort of mistake most often manifests itself in essays in which the student paraphrases the sources, making them say things they are not really saying for the sake of proving their own argument, or using minimal, even one-word citations and plugging them into their own argument out of context. In this way, the writer ignores what either source is saying because the primary concern is making the conversation arrive at the desired conclusion no matter what the cost. Here is an example of this sort of “bullying” of sources using our primary claim and our secondary article:
As McCosker and Johns confirm in “Productive Provocations: Vitriolic Media, Spaces of Protest and Agonistic Outrage in the 2011 England Riots,” “aggressive, antagonistic behaviour” like the “unchecked flow of racial bigotry” and the “vitriolic expression and aggressive interaction” found in the comments section of the Occupy Wall Street Homepage demonstrate how such pages “simply give voice to and perpetuate forms of bigotry and incite hatred and further violence.” As commenters call each other “idiots” and “terrorists” and “Zionist pigs,” they demonstrate how “volatile debates erupting online” serve as “modes of incitement” for real world violence. When one commenter accuses another of having a “racist God,” or when one calls another’s religion a “fake story,” they demonstrate the “angry, adversarial and provocative speech” that fosters only divisiveness and violence. The original message and intent of the Occupy Wall Street movement is lost in the “angry tenor of speech” dominating the comments section as people reply to each other’s comments with “simple people like simple slogans” or “lol dumb post.”
Here, we see the author using McCosker and Johns’s article as if it is about the Occupy Wall Street page, which it is not, and as if it agrees with the author’s assessment of the primary evidence. This secondary source is misused to support what the author wants it to say about the subject. Also, the citations are short snippets used without context. Exactly what are McCosker and Johns referring to when they describe “aggressive antagonistic behaviour?” Exactly what are they referring to when they discuss “angry, adversarial and provocative speech?” And what is the context of each of the harsh phrases the author has lifted from the comments page? If you review McCosker and Johns’s article, you’ll see there are several times here where the author has clipped a citation to make it serve the desired argument. McCosker and Johns’ point is a little more qualified when describing the “volatile debates erupting online.” They write of the “dense and volatile debates erupting online,” implying a more nuanced reading of online discussions than simply pointing at their potential for danger. The author needs to decide how to convey the primary claim then determine if McCosker and Johns’ argument as it exists in their essay can support that point.
The second mistake occurs when the writer hopes that the sources will somehow speak to themselves and arrive at a meaningful conclusion without much help. In these sorts of conversations, the student has become a non-contributor, sitting passively as the sources speak at each other rather than speaking to each other in light of the conversation the student is trying to facilitate. This sort of non-conversation occurs in papers in which the student quotes large passages from one or several sources with minimal purpose or interaction. It is as if the student has said, “Source A, meet Source B,” then departed quickly rather than get in the way of the magic that will hopefully happen as these two sources make a meaningful connection. Using once again our primary evidence and our secondary article, here’s what happens when the student hopes the sources will speak to and for themselves:
As McCosker and Johns claim in “Productive Provocations: Vitriolic Media, Spaces of Protest and Agonistic Outrage in the 2011 England Riots,” it is the “lack of consensus, the evident irrationality and passionate individualism, as well as the intensity of emotion revolving around the continuous generation of provocation and (re)action that reveals the positive capacity of unmoderated comment spaces. That is, while not always dialogic in the strict sense of an ongoing conversation or consensus, the comment field as described here enables the emergence of ‘a ‘life politics’ able to reach the various areas of personal life, creating a ‘democracy of emotions’ (Mouffe, 2005: 15).” This can be seen in the comments on the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page, when after a series of vitriolic comments and insults, contributor Tara Lambert is able to say, “I am seeing the seeds of divisiveness being sewn within OWS and BLM. Start us fighting amongst each other and we are no threat to the power abusers, the oppressors. I am seeing those who should be natural allies, being pitted against each other and suspicion injected into activist circles. History keeps repeating itself.”
To borrow Tara Lambert’s metaphor, I think we can see the “seeds” of the argument the author of this paragraph is trying to make, but the author relies far too much on large citations from the primary and scholarly sources. Neither source is being put to use and the author’s intention is not clear. This author needs to inject purpose into this paragraph and use the evidence to support the claim.
Now that we have looked at the mistakes made most often when trying to create this sort of conversation, let’s use the same information and develop a more useful, more purposeful conversation. Remember to let these sources speak, but also that the purpose of this conversation is all yours. Secondary sources allow you to gain a richer, more informed, and complex vantage point on your primary claim. However, you must avoid relying on secondary sources to act as your “answers.” You are using secondary sources to support your claim. Your claim should always drive your analysis. Your claim determines how sources are applied to your argument and what inferences you derive from that application. Here’s an example of how we elevate our own argument by utilizing sources so that it becomes part of a larger scholarly discourse:
While it is discouraging to read the comments section of the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page and see commenters calling each other “idiots,” “losers,” and even “Zionist Pigs,” it may be beneficial to regard these debates and dialogues in the same light as McCosker and Johns regard similar online discourse in “Productive Provocations: Vitriolic Media, Spaces of Protest and Agonistic Outrage in the 2011 England Riots.” McCosker and Johns claim “[t]he kinds of provocative, often vitriolic and antagonistic but massively multiple expression acts throughout the comment fields… enact agonistic forms of contest as an alternative model of citizenship, acts that incorporate forms of passion and conflict but are no less productive for it.” While there are several instances on the Occupy Wall Street Page of people responding to posts with less-than-civil comments like “Grow up” or “lol dumb post”—as McCosker and Johns say of similarly vitriolic online discussions of the 2011 England Riots—these “modes of civic participation can be initiated in ways that might become part of legitimate public discourse, before the eruption of violent destruction in the form of riot and looting.” Such debates may be the first step in the Internet functioning as a tool for individuals to confront their own insularity and deal with difference peacefully before moving toward unification through a common goal.
In this example, there is a fine balance between this author’s intent and the sources used. Neither overwhelms the other. The author keeps an eye on both purpose and context here, using but never altering the meaning of the sources, to support and complicate a deeper reading of the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page.
You will need to keep these aspects of an academic conversation in mind as you read your own sources and prepare to utilize them in your upcoming academic, scholarly arguments.
- Image found in Write Here by Ryerson University
- 3.4 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from Write Here, Right Now: An Interactive Introduction to Academic Writing and Research by Ryerson University which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License ↵