The Nebulous and the Open-Ended:
Pitfalls of the “Short Long” Essay
There are, of course, many other types of arguments in anthropological writing, although most will fall loosely into these categories.
Just because a paper assignment does not provide you with a specific question to answer does not absolve you of the need to come up with one.
Imagine that you are asked to write a paper of 5-10 pages on some theme (say, the relationship between gender and globalization) without being provided with a specific question to answer or otherwise given much guidance about how to approach the assignment. Alternatively, imagine an assignment that provides a question, but one that is overly broad and does little more than suggest a topic or theme.
Faced with such an assignment, the first thing you should do is verify that the assignment is indeed as open-ended as it appears to be. Sometimes instructors provide a nebulous paper prompt but in fact have a specific question or set of questions in mind that they would like students to address in the essay. It’s best to ask about this.
If the assignment is truly open-ended, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that a topic is not yet a question or problem that you can usefully address in an essay. You cannot write a paper about gender and globalization, which is a huge and ill-defined area of inquiry; rather you need to identify some specific question or problem under the broad heading of gender and globalization that can be tackled in your paper. How then do you arrive at a problematic or question to address in the paper?
A good place to start is often your instructor’s presentation of the material you are writing about, or issues that have come up during class discussion. Often class discussions will gravitate toward ‘live’ or contested issues, research problems, or scholarly debates that might form the basis of a specific paper problematic. The readings assigned for the relevant part of the course might also suggest debates, contradictions, puzzles or tensions that could form the basis of a question.
Even when the paper assignment is quite vague, your paper still needs to take a specific argumentative form. There are several broad argument types in anthropology that you might consider as you try to figure out an approach to a thematic or nebulous paper assignment, including:
- Intervening in a scholarly debate. Here you stake out an original position in a scholarly debate by weighing the plausibility of various other positions and making the case for one point of view or, even better, formulating your own hybrid or novel position.
- Testing a theory with evidence. You can take a theoretical framework and test it by putting it to work on ethnographic or some other sort of cultural evidence. The basic question for this sort of essay is: Does the theory produce the insights that it is supposed to produce? If not, how would the theory need to be revised in order to work better?
- A lens essay. The lens paper is a variation of the test-a-theory paper in which you take a theoretical or interpretive framework (Goffman’s notion of a ‘frame,’ say) and apply it to new material. The lens paper differs from a test-a-theory paper in that the emphasis is less on evaluating the theory (whether ‘frame’ is a useful analytical concept) than on interpreting the evidence in a new way.
- Comparing theories, methodologies, texts, or approaches. In this sort of essay you attempt to reveal non-obvious relationships between theories, texts, etc. by comparing them along some relevant dimension. You might find, for instance, that although two texts advance contradictory claims, they make similar underlying assumptions..
- Questioning the assumptions of an argument or text. Any argument assumes some things to be true and not in need of defense or analysis. You can identify the assumptions embraced by a particular argument and scrutinize them. In doing so you can uncover non-obvious implications of an argument or text.
- Recontextualizing a theory or claim. Anthropological writing often draws on arguments made in one particular social context and extends them to new cultural material.
The crucial thing to keep in mind is that the nebulous paper assignment should not be treated as license to write a nebulous paper. Your paper still needs to articulate a specific question or problematic and a specific, arguable thesis that addresses the question.