Using sources to function in these roles is how you enter into the scholarly conversation with all the other research and writing that has covered your topic before.

In the next few pages, you’ll learn more about each role by analyzing how sources are used in the pop culture essay cited below. Seeing how the essay’s author puts his sources to work in their various roles should help you envision how you can do the same in your own papers. The essay discusses how pop culture affects American (and global) values.

Example: Manufacturing Taste

Booker, M. K. (2012). Manufacturing taste: The culture industry, children’s culture, and the globalization of American values. Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO.


BEAM: Background Sources

Background sources should be noncontroversial—the author accepts information from these sources as being authoritative (and expects readers to, as well). In other words, the sources (and the information gleaned from them) are generally trusted or undisputed. That information can serve as the incontestable foundation for your claims.

Background information is common knowledge (e.g. the sky is blue) and not necessary to cite. It’s recommended that you cite a background source if you’re unsure if it’s common knowledge. It can be difficult to make this determination, so it’s always a good idea to consult your professor.

Let’s look at a statement in the first paragraph of the pop culture essay:

Thus, the corporate giants of the American Culture Industry (themselves now mostly multinational conglomerates) clearly must pay attention to the demands of audiences around the world in formulating, producing, and promoting the specific films, television, music, and other artifacts that are the stuff of popular culture.

How do you know that the “corporate giants are mostly multinational conglomerates” as stated in the first sentence? Or that the items listed are indeed the stuff of popular culture? These are examples of common knowledge.

Looking a little deeper…

Without context, this paragraph could also be the conclusion of a paper about what corporations should do (demonstrating the ongoing nature of knowledge itself). But the paper is not about making recommendations to the American Cultural Industry. This is an assertion that the author uses to help set up his different arguments and is meant to be taken at face value. So it’s an example of how the same source can play different roles in different written assignments—all depending on how writers use them.

There is more about background sources at Background Reading.


BEAM: Exhibit and Evidence Sources

Generally, exhibit and evidence sources are works of literature (or other media), collected data, or some observed phenomenon, etc. that you have been asked to write about. They are what you analyze or interpret.

Looking again at the pop culture essay, the exhibits being examined are pop culture and American (as well as global) values. Specifically, the essay is examining the relationship between the two:

On the other hand, the international success of Toy Story 3, a film that deals with anthropomorphized toys and is thus essentially a consumerist fantasy of commodities come to life, also suggests that global distribution of the products of the American Culture Industry is beginning to have an impact on the tastes and values of audiences even outside the United States.

Exhibit sources are not limited to examples in the humanities; they could also be data that was collected in a scientific experiment or by a website’s user survey. They can also simply serve as examples that help support a claim.


BEAM: Argument Sources

Argument sources provide you with the other voices in the academic conversation about your topic. Who else has done similar research, and how should your paper respond to what they’ve said? Does your paper refine or extend an existing hypothesis someone else has tested? If so, those sources belong in your paper.

Sometimes the purpose of including an argument source is to disagree with it and definitively indicate a different direction.

From our pop culture essay example:

Althusser’s work remains compelling, despite the fact that theorists such as Michel de Certeau and John Fiske have argued that individuals actually have a considerable ability to resist and oppose the messages conveyed to them by official ideology, in popular culture and elsewhere.

The author is taking part and taking a stand in the ongoing scholarly discussion of culture, although this endorsement of Althusser’s work could possibly be considered a method source if the argument in the article went in a different direction.


BEAM: Method Sources

While argument sources help you frame your paper within the larger scholarly discussion about your topic and exhibits provide a focal point, method sources help provide underlying and sometimes implicit assumptions for your argument or analysis.

For some research, these are literally the methods you use to collect data like a focus group or a particular statistical analysis, and they provide justification for them. In other research, your paper might reveal a leaning toward a major attitude or school of thought within a discipline.

As a persuasive piece of writing, the essay has this intrinsic thread of caution and warning that is summed up in its conclusion:

The children’s film industry might not be quite as sinister as the tobacco industry, with its efforts to addict children to cigarettes. […] Meanwhile, the lives of those audiences are now being increasingly saturated by popular culture, making it more and more difficult for individuals to form attitudes, opinions, and values that are independent of the messages promulgated by the Culture Industry.

While this is a subtle example, you would generally cite or at least credit your methods and theories that frame your analysis in your bibliography.

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Critical Thinking in Academic Research by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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