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An important part of research writing (and many other kinds of writing) is identifying when sources are “speaking” to each other. When researching a particular topic, you will likely collect many sources that seem to discuss the same thing. Sometimes the authors of these sources will explicitly know about each other and reference one another in their own texts. This is common in academic writing, where explicit conversations between different scholars are expected and valued. A long works cited page in an academic article might indicate that the author is having a long conversation with many other authors of other sources, some of whom might not still be publishing. For instance, there are many scholars over many generations who have conversed with each other in print about Hamlet, and each new author adds a unique perspective to the conversation, even though some of the speakers can no longer respond. However, not all conversations in which sources “speak” to each other can be identified so easily, and instead might be seen as “speaking” to each other indirectly. Sometimes it is up to a researcher who is reading all of these sources that seem to talk about the same thing to identify when that is happing and to explain it to an audience. This is one of the primary goals of academic research—to identify conversations between sources and to show how they might interact with each other.

Many Speakers and Conversations

When writers mention “conversations” and sources “speaking” to one another, they are referring to the ways that many voices shape how communities see a topic. For instance, there are many writers today who are having a conversation about the topic of global warming, even if they don’t actually know all the other writers who are part of the conversation. Climatologists, meteorologists, ecologists, sociologists, politicians, bloggers, priests, and corporate CEOs are all kinds of people involved in a written conversation on the topic of global warming. Of course, there are many smaller textual conversations within this larger one, as well as smaller groups or communities of speakers within this larger group. The climatologists, meteorologists, ecologists, and sociologists might be said to encompass part of an academic community conversing about global warming through scientific research, while the others might make up different groups. Even further, the climatologists, meteorologists, and ecologists might be said to encompass a certain kind of scientific conversation group more interested in the natural processes of the Earth, while the sociologists might be part of a different kind of academic group that focuses on human activity. Because of this fracturing of conversation groups—called “discourse communities”—and the many mini-conversations going on, it is sometimes the goal of a researcher like yourself to bring them together in one written work that puts them “in conversation” with each other.

For example, if you were interested in writing a paper about workplace inequalities between men and women, you would have many different speakers and conversations to look at. For instance, you might find that newspaper reporters, lawyers, psychologists, and government researchers all published various documents (stories, court proceedings, research, reports, etc.) about this topic. And, since writing can be preserved over long periods (unlike a face-to-face conversation), you are also dealing with speakers from across time. You might, for instance, want to discuss the ways different scientific writers saw the role of women in America in the 1950’s and today. Scientific research on gender in the 1950’s, as we know, is not the same as it is today. As a researcher, you might imagine yourself putting an author of a source on gender from the 1950’s and an author of a source on gender from today in a room together. They would have different things to say about gender and the workplace, to be sure. The researcher from today might complicate the work of the researcher from the 1950’s, or build on it, or disregard it. In addition to different speakers in the conversation, there would also be many different smaller conversations going on within the larger one of gender inequalities in the workplace. For example, some authors might write about salary inequalities in higher education, while others might focus more on cases of sexual harassment at work. Although both topics are related to the conversation of gender inequalities in the workplace, your paper might not need to address both subtopics (or mini-conversations).

Putting It All Together

Sometimes your role as a researcher is to figure out when and how sources seem to be dealing with the same thing, and decide how that changes what you know about the topic. When what you know about a topic changes because of how two sources talk about the same thing, writers might refer to that as a “conversation” between the two authors that you read. That change can be explained for your audience to show a “conversation”—an interaction—between two sources that might be separated by decades, miles, discourse communities, or even languages.

There are many ways to put sources together to make a conversation. You might think of it like a puzzle, except that you have some control over how the pieces are shaped. The above example of a research paper on gender inequalities only puts two sources in conversation, and they are both scientific puzzle pieces. However, there are many other voices in the conversation on gender that might fit into the puzzle. Deciding what kinds of sources are speaking to each other about a topic dictates the kind of puzzle you are building. Since it is probably impossible to identify all the conversations on a topic, you must make decisions about which ones are pieces in your puzzle, and which ones aren’t. As a rule of thumb, you’ll probably want to look for speakers whose topics are very closely related. However, you may also want to keep in mind that as a researcher you have the ability to build a puzzle that mobilizes science, art, history, and your aunt Jean into a new kind of conversation about a topic. As long as you can show your audience how each speaker changes what you know about a topic—as long as you can show the “conversation” between them—the puzzle is yours to design. Your audience, though, will determine its credibility, and so you will want to make sure you consider how they would build the puzzle themselves. If, for instance, you ignore in your research paper (your puzzle) a long conversation between many respected authorities on your topic, you should have a good reason for doing so, or your audience may find you lacking credibility.

It is important to remember that some authors have already put themselves into conversation with other sources, and some have not. When authors refer to other works, they are building a conversation puzzle in their own writing. Many times, this should act as a signpost to you as a researcher, directing you towards a conversation going on between sources. Other times, though, some sources will discuss the same topic and have never heard of each other. This happens often in large conversations where many different discourse communities with many different values all talk about the same thing. For instance, a scientific researcher might not be interested in responding to a blogger on the effects of global warming, since they might value different things or belong to communities that only want to talk to other members of that community. As a researcher, you might identify all of the conversations within one discourse community—for instance all of the scholarly discourse about Hamlet—or show how many communities all say something about a given topic—say, global warming. Identifying which sources are in conversation with each other is not enough though. As a researcher, you will also have to explain how they are in conversation. Do they challenge each other? Complicate? Extend? Ignore? Support? These are the kinds of questions you should seek to answer when putting your puzzle together. Deciding on these questions will require that you are familiar with many works on your given topic, and how they are all voices in a conversation that is taking place in your research.