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.