Rarely—if ever—do ideas develop in a single mind. Humans are by nature responsive creatures who react to environments. Our thoughts are catalyzed by what we observe, hear, read, or otherwise experience. Even our opinions are typically not ours alone. Instead, we inherit them from those around us, or reject others’ beliefs. In either case, some variety of social encounter (conversation, reading, listening, etc.) stimulated us to accept or disavow something. A significant part of our lives are spent sorting through what others say and do, and our intellectual lives are not exception.
It is not surprising, then, that the majority of the academic enterprise—running experiments, commenting on worldly phenomena, interpreting texts, calculating data—is, in one way or another, a social affair. Researchers often operate in teams, or are members of cohorts, or join think tanks, and participate in schools of thought. But the social dimension of academic work is even more fundamental than these interpersonal groupings suggest. Nearly all academic writing adheres to a single seminal feature: it makes use of and responds to the work of others. An academic writer situates her present work (data collection, interpretation, analysis, or reporting) within (or against) work previously carried out by others. Linguists call this combination of the writer’s work with references to the work of other intertextuality—the interleaving of two discourses.
Every academic writer faces an interesting challenge: how to make use of the work of others while not crowding out her own findings or argument. Typically, academic writers want to welcome others’ positions into their essays and reports. They want to honor what’s been thought and said. But more than this, they know that their own arguments will thrive if they indicate their genealogy: What previous thinking am I responding to? What’s the general nature of my response? Who do I align with, and who do I disassociate from? Academic writing is conversational in nature. As a researcher, you effectively enter a conversation that may have been unfolding over many centuries, or it may be a discussion that recent and fresh. When you begin your reading or research to prepare for creating your own analysis or making your own argument, you first locate the conversations in order to listen in to them: What have others said about my subject? How do I differentiate their various remarks? What parts of the conversation do I find most interesting or important?
As a researcher, much of your time is spent listening and lurking, always with your antennae up, ready to hone in particular findings, special ways of defining key terms, prior conclusions to be inventively scrutinized. This close observation allows you to synthesize and summarize well, but it also is crucial to both getting your bearings and finding your own direction. Sometimes that means charting a course through the thicket of others’ data and discourse in order to discover a pathway to your own claims. At other times, you may be guided on your pathway by one or more previous writers, whose findings you adapt to suit your own purposes.
As an academic writer in training, you will learn to tell the story of the sources you refer to. Various disciplines tell this story in various ways. Some will ask you to compose a literature review, others will require an annotated bibliography, while still others will prefer that you condense the conversational history into a single paragraph or set of sentences. Among other things, this shows that you have “done the homework,” are aware of a history of research into your subject, and provides a launching point for your own take on the matter. Perhaps the most important question to ask while you are assembling this material and planning your own argument is this: Am I using the sources, or are they using me? It’s easy for a collection of sources to “flood out” your own pathway of thinking. Sources can drown out your own voice, or crowd out the space needed to build your case. Even without our explicitly knowing it, we can grow attached to a source, or become beholden to another’s approach. Certainly, other writers influence us and help us—in sometimes circuitous ways—find our own way. They can guide and support us, and we credit them for their formative influence. But we should not put them in the position to speak on our behalf. If you are like most students, you will grow more and more confident in taking what might best be called an “informed position,” making a claim that is both indebted to prior research and adds to this history in a refreshing way.