Here at 301 we run a workshop on Paragraphing and Using Academic Sources. Its really good! Anybody who is unsure exactly when to paragraph, how to reference, and how to use sources, should attend! You should try it!
But when is a source not a source? When is a source saucy? When are sources sore or sour?
This is content not in the workshop. This information is less useful if you’re struggling with how to write an essay. But if your interest runs deeper, if you are wondering about the why’s and ethics of using academic sources, I’m your guy.
So, what kind of sources should you use? In terms of secondary sources, you should reference journal articles, academic books and/or monographs. In terms of primary, anything about the topic you are studying could be useful…
HOWEVER (this is where you should think more closely about your sources), just because you have cited a source to back up your argument, that doesn’t mean you argument is completely proven. Because that source could be SOUR!
What is a sour source? Well, its something which you might not necessarily get marked down for using. But it is something you might be marked up for questioning!
For example, imagine you are writing a paper on public perceptions on the sweetness of different fruit. You want to know what fruits people think are the sweetest, regardless of scientific measurements of sweetness.
You might think simply referencing a study where all participants believed that apples are the sweetest fruit might be enough. But you should question it before you reference it. You should ask some basic questions. How many participants took part in the study? Where were the participants from? What questions were they asked? Were they asked to choose from a list of fruits, or were they asked to think of a sweet fruit off the top of their heads? Were they sampling a selection of fruits in the study?
Why is this important? Because if only 10 people participated in the study, then that’s not a very representative sample of the public. You can’t make a claim that people from the UK think that apples are the sweetest, because you have only sampled 10 people. A sample of a few hundred, and you might be able to make that claim.
But there are other factors to take into account. For instance, the area they were from. If they are from a deprived area, or an area where varied fruit is often not delivered, then they are likely to not have tried more exotic fruit. This might mean that people from the UK don’t think apples are the sweetest fruit out there, they just haven’t yet tried whatever the sweetest fruit might be. Does this change the validity of your data, or not? It depends what statement you are trying to make.
Also, if the 10 people are from a deprived/unvaried fruit-selling area, then they might not be representative of the UK either. Finally, if they were given a list of fruit to choose from, they might not voice the fruit they actually think is sweetest. But if they are thinking off the top of their head, they might not remember the sweetest fruit they have had!
There is obviously thus a lot of things to consider. But should this matter? Well, if you question the methodology of the sources you use, you are likely to get higher marks (depending on your mark scheme!). You should find a variety of sources which support your claim if some of the other studies have better methodology.
But there is a wider ethical question. Often when starting an essay, at least as a history student, I will have an idea of what I want to argue before I start writing the essay. I will thus search out the evidence I need to make that point. In doing so, I might be avoiding evidence which states otherwise. I might include evidence which states otherwise, but the evidence might be weak, so I use it simply to prove my better point. But could I have chosen better opposing views?
When you get this meta, you have to realise that you probably only have a limited word count to say all these kind of things. If you want to prove a point in 2000 words, you don’t want 1000 words supporting your argument and 1000 words against it. That won’t allow your argument to develop if you’re only listing the pro’s and con’s. What I ask of you is to simply be aware, that just because some sources state an opinion, doesn’t mean it rights. A little bit of critical thinking about this, whether it be in support of defiance of your point, can win you a lot of marks. But just don’t be too bogged down in the ethics or metaphysics of it all. That’s for PhD students.