Background sources are one of the most common types of academic citations, and often the first kind students learn to include in researched writing. These sources are used to present information and data (as opposed to ideas or arguments). You might think of them as suppliers of “facts and figures” like statistics, dates and other historical truths. For example, a writer might use a background source to report the date of a company merger, the details of proposed legislation or the results of a survey.
In her essay “WANTED: Objects of Desire. Black Girls Need Not Apply,” student writer Sherley Jean-Pierre includes many different background sources. All of them offer the same type of information—those facts and figures—but they don’t always serve the same function in supporting her analysis and argument. In fact, background sources can help you to execute a number of different writerly moves. Let’s look at three of the most common, all from Jean-Pierre’s essay, which explores interracial marriage and the devaluing of black women.
In her first paragraph, Jean-Pierre cites a USA Today article by David Crary as a background source. She writes:
For over four hundred years in the United States, a combination of law, social restriction and cultural taboo has discouraged interracial marriages from taking place. Up until 1967, most states had laws prohibiting interracial marriages. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that all such laws were unconstitutional….(Crary, 2007).
In this example, Jean-Pierre uses Crary to provide general background for the specific inquiry her own essay will investigate. She wants the reader to know something about the early history of American interracial marriage in order to ground her analysis of more contemporary partnerships. This is one way background sources can support an analytical claim—by lending necessary context.
To Provide Concrete Evidence
Background sources can also help writers support claims by offering concrete evidence of a trend or phenomenon. Below, Jean-Pierre uses two background sources (Nicholas Kristof and Steve Sailer) in this role:
Interracial marriage is not limited to black men and white women, as white men are marrying Asian women at a rapid rate. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (2002) notes that “[a]bout 40 percent of Asian-Americans and 6 percent of blacks have married whites in recent years.” Journalist and blogger Steve Sailer (2003) analyzed the 2000 U.S. Census data and concluded that “18 percent of Asian wives have white husbands.”
Both background sources provide statistics about the prevalence of marriages comprised of an Asian American and a white partner. Jean-Pierre uses these figures in support of her own claim, asserted in the first sentence: “Interracial marriage is not limited to black men and white women, as white men are marrying Asian women at a rapid rate.” Without the concrete evidence in the background sources, that claim would be much less convincing.
To Raise Questions
Writers often need to explicitly state questions they wish to pursue. These can be large scale, central inquiries that define the essay or paper, or they may be smaller, guiding the work of a single paragraph.
In one section of her essay, Jean-Pierre explores how Michelle Obama lends status to her husband, especially in the minds of other black women. In order to introduce this analysis, Jean-Pierre cites a background source—an article written for the Washington Post by Dan Balz and Jon Cohen. Balz and Cohen help her to raise the question she poses immediately after quoting them at length:
In pursuit of the presidency, Obama encountered the same challenges to his authenticity that he faced during the 2000 Congressional campaign. Somehow, he was able to meet the authenticity challenge and win the confidence of black voters. A subsequent Washington Post article discovered that:
Clinton’s and Obama’s support among white voters changed little since December, but the shifts among black Democrats were dramatic. In December and January Post-ABC News polls, Clinton led Obama among African Americans by 60 percent to 20 percent. In the new poll, Obama held a narrow advantage among blacks, 44 percent to 33 percent. The shift came despite four in five blacks having a favorable impression of the New York senator. (Balz & Cohen, 2007)
How did Barack Obama manage to wrestle away black support from Hillary Clinton, whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, had acquired so much political capital in the black community during and after his presidency?
Balz and Cohen provide evidence that black support for Barack Obama’s campaign took time to develop. Jean-Pierre in turn asks what accounted for that development. With the guiding question for the section established, Jean-Pierre is able to move into analysis concluding that Michelle Obama played a major role in turning the black community in her husband’s favor.
Jean-Pierre, Sherley. “WANTED: Objects of Desire. Black Girls Need Not Apply.” Lexington Review, 14 Dec. 2014, https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/lexingtonreview/journal/wanted-objects-of-desire-black-girls-need-not-apply/.