Stepping Back

This move entails just what its name suggests: stepping back from the particularities of a case study or research topic in order to establish its overall significance.

This move is often (but by no means always) flagged by phrases such as “In sum, I argue that...” or “in this paper, I have examined...” Here we take up another passage from Jeff Leopando’s paper on the Arnold Arboretum, where stepping back is conjoined with another move, namely countering: 

Arnold Arboretum offers an interesting case for analysis because, in contrast to many other natural spaces that anthropologists have studied, it is a site where the myths of “wilderness” and “ahistorical” nature are dispelled rather than reproduced. At the Arboretum, nature is presented as domesticated rather than wild, and deeply intertwined with human history rather than divorced from it. 

Here, Leopando steps back from his subject to situate it in a body of litera- ture on the anthropology of the environment (“natural spaces that anthropologists have studied”) that deals specifically with how cultural artifacts elaborate ideas of nature. He also reiterates the significance of his case study, which challenges (i.e. counters) some of this literature’s central ideas.

Stepping back may also take the form of qualifying, in which an author acknowledges the limits of his or her claims (e.g., “I do not mean to imply that...” or “I am not suggesting...”). These qualifications are not copouts but positive statements that help define the overall scope and significance of what the writer has accomplished. Consider the final example in our discussion, a passage taken from an article by Larry Hirschfeld: 

Systems of racial thinking vary considerably across cultures and historic time. My proposal neither denies this variability nor implies that it is trivial. Nor am I suggesting that racial thinking is impervious to the cultural and political environments. Indeed, racial thinking is literally unthinkable in the absence of such environments. Something, and typically it is a system of cultural belief, channels an abstract set of expectations about human difference onto a specific range of differences and a specific way to viewing them. 

Here Hirschfeld qualifies the scope of his argument by anticipating two likely misinterpretations of his ideas and denying that these are in fact implications of his argument. In this way, he clarifies the relationship of his argument to widely held anthropological views on race.