5f- Summarizing Sources

After you have selected your secondary source material and followed our suggestions for “eating a book” or article, it is extremely important to take time to “digest” each source, to figure out the relevance of that source to your larger project.  In this sense, the digestion itself might be viewed as another kind of translation, a revisioning of the text, not in terms of itself, but with respect to your own thoughts, ideas and observations.  This translation is also known as the evaluation of a text, an assessment regarding its utility and viability in relationship with your own research.

You probably already know that summaries generally do not directly, quote the source, they don’t worry about ideas at the sentence or even the paragraph level.  Production of the summary is the practice of translating the whole of an article or book into a short, general statement, usually no longer than a paragraph. However, since the entire point of reading secondary sources is to assess their value in terms of your ethnographic project, the goal here will be to make sure that your summaries of sources remark on the connections between the source and your own project.  The summaries may find form as a specific writing assignment—an Annotated Bibliography or a Literature Review—or they may just enable you to write your final essay in a more effective way.  Regardless of whether your instructor requires an annotated bibliography or a literature review as a separate writing assignment, it is a good idea, for every research project in college, to practice the following techniques to enable effective resource evaluation:

  • Make note of and keep track of the details.  Anyone who has ever engaged in a research project has had the experience of losing track of a source, of seeing or reading something somewhere and then being unable to find it again.  The best way to prevent such a tragedy is to keep careful track of the details of your secondary research and to keep these details.  For each source, record full bibliographic information:
  • Author(s) name(s)
  • Title of article/chapter/book
  • Title of book or journal
  • Date published
  • Volume number (if applicable) and page numbers of ideas or quotes you record
  • Publisher
  • City of publicationIn an electronic publication (an article published only in an electronic journal, not the library database you access a print article through), record the full url (address) and the date you accessed the site.
  • Keep track of the details all in one place, in the same form. Index cards used to be the preferred way to organize research ideas and keep track of the details.  But now, computers make this process much easier.  One file that includes the details for each entry, in addition to a summary and specific quotations including page numbers can save a great deal of time when it comes to writing an essay:  cut and paste will reveal itself as an amazing time saver.
  • ALWAYS summarize the author’s ideas.  OK, this may be obvious since this is where this discussion began. Nevertheless, you should review the advice below on how to write an effective summary.
  • Refer to the ideas through the name(s) of the author(s), rather than talking about “the book” or “the article.” You need to begin to think about these sources as the words and ideas of individuals. It is the individual—the author—who makes a claim, not the book or source.  The book is an inanimate object.  It cannot say anything.
  • Highlight the most important ideas you found in the article/chapter/book and provide some context for those ideas. These are the ideas that you particularly engaging in relation to you research. Which ideas can you see yourself addressing, responding to, commenting on, or expanding upon?
  • Record any particularly relevant or pithy quotations that you think you might want to return to for consideration, explanation, or expansion in your own writing. Be sure to note the page numbers of any quotes your record and identify quotations with quotation marks – this will allow you to differentiate your summary and the author’s actual words later.
  • Start the process of secondary research as soon as you can!  Certainly, it’s difficult to begin secondary research before you’ve been to your site, or written any fieldnotes—how would you know what to look for?  But, the fact is that since this process requires so much time, you do want to begin sooner, rather than later, and make sure that you don’t leave all of this work to one weekend or, worse yet, to one night!  The process of recording these details, of typing the best quotations, of writing the summaries will help you develop your thoughts about the project overall, as well as prepare you for the larger task of writing an ethnographic essay.