We are assuming here that you have been assigned to write a traditional term paper, that is, a paper which compares and critically evaluates the work of several authors. If it is for a lower division course, your paper may consist of no more than a synthesis of the current state of knowledge on a subject. If it is for an upper division course, you need to use the works to create and defend some kind of a thesis, or at least an evaluative point of view.
As one no-nonsense author of a writing guide put it (Cuba 1988: 39), a classic social science-style introduction should,
1. Situate your work within a larger field or body of work or theoretical approach. Let's illustrate Cuba's first point by using a make believe paper which begins: "Recent feminist scholarship in North American prehistoric archeology has pointed out the extent to which women have been either absent from or understudied in the literature (Jane 1997; Doe 1999). This underrepresentation, it is claimed, is now being rectified by research which focuses more exclusively on women's place in the archeological record."
2. Your introduction should also state what it is you are going to do and then how it is you are going to do it. This usually takes the form of a thesis statement (or at least a guiding idea, or point to be made, or description to be undertaken) combined with some further explanation (again, for our purposes, the make believe paper continues: "However, a feminist approach requires that attention be paid to the politics of gender relations, both as revealed by the data and as represented in the literature. By analyzing half a dozen major contributions to the field, this paper will argue that many so-called feminist works in archaeology often fall short of the mark because they fail to highlight issues of women's relational power vis-à-vis men. This study concludes that focusing on women's material culture, use of space, and provisioning activities are not sufficient in and of themselves to be labeled 'feminist archeology'."
Note: Fulfillment of these two introductory requirements may consume a couple of paragraphs, it isn't necessary to condense it all into just two or three sentences.
Here are some examples of ways to build introductions using various rhetorical devices.
1. The straight forward introduction.
This approach sets out the larger context within which the research is located and then describes what the paper will accomplish (or vice versa). For example:
Collective rights is a topic of considerable recent discussion by philosophical liberals and experts in international law. Philosophers have provided arguments, both for and against collective (or group) rights, that center on moral status of groups and the rights-relationship between groups and individuals. Their approaches are generally framed by the question "Are collective rights compatible with liberalism's emphasis on individual, that is, human rights?" Discussions in international law have been more pragmatic and concern ongoing debates on group rights among various United Nations subcommittees and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the extent to which collective rights are established in international agreements.
The purpose of this article is to acquaint more anthropologists with the philosophical and legal discourses on collective rights and provide a model of group rights that might encourage anthropologists to address rights issues in their ethnographic writings. (Thompson 1997: 786)
Here is another example of the straight forward approach to framing a paper topic only this time the topic is elaborated upon by means of a series of posed questions to be answered by the paper:
This chapter addresses the issue of whether human gender differences or hierarchies have their roots in biology and evolution. In so doing, it examines anthropological assumptions surrounding three interrelated issues: a sexual division of labor, dominance and aggression, and sexual dimorphism. First, is the sexual division of labor in present-day human societies an outcome of an ancient hunting way of life or an extension of behaviors already existing in apes? The evidence for hominid hunting during human evolution and observed sex differences in foraging and feeding activities among chimpanzees provide a basis for addressing this question. Second, to what extent are dominance and aggression influenced or determined by biological sex? Finally, what problems are associated with characterizing sexual dimorphism in the fossil record? The issues are multi-faceted and must be approached with attention to their complexity. (Zihlman 1993: 32)
2. The point-counterpoint introduction.
Cuba points out that this method traditionally begins "with a general statement assessing the history of research devoted to a particular topic," followed by the author taking "exception to this general assessment of the field or of a body of research, using it as a foil against which to present the thesis of the paper." This may take several forms. For instance, "The thesis may call attention to the omission of an important variable from previous research...or the thesis may challenge the assumptions of previous research...or it may question the methods employed in previous research..." (1988: 39). Below is an introduction that approximates the point-counterpoint format, but with a twist in that the exception to received wisdom kicks in immediately, and then the two are juxtaposed throughout:
How "Native" is a native anthropologist? How "foreign" is an anthropologist from abroad? The paradigm polarizing "regular" and "native" anthropologists is, after all, part of received disciplinary wisdom. Those who are anthropologists in the usual sense of the word are thought to study Others whose alien cultural worlds they must painstakingly come to know. Those who diverge as "native," "indigenous," or "insider" anthropologists are believed to write about their own cultures from a position of intimate affinity. Certainly, there have been scattered voices critiquing this dichotomy. Arguing that because a culture is not homogeneous, a society is differentiated, and a professional identity that involves problematizing lived reality inevitably creates a distance, scholars such as Aguilar (1981) and Messerschmidt (1981a: 9) conclude that the extent to which anyone is an authentic insider is questionable. Yet such critiques have not yet been adequately integrated into the way "native" anthropologists are popularly viewed in the profession.
In this essay, I argue against the fixity of a distinction between "native" and "non-native" anthropologists. Instead of the paradigm emphasizing a dichotomy between outsider/insiders or observer/ observed, I propose that at this historical moment we might more profitably view each anthropologist in terms of shifting identifications amid a field of interpenetrating communities and power relations. The loci along which we are aligned with or set apart from those whom we study are multiple and in flux. Factors such as education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer duration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we associate with insider or outsider status. Instead, what we must focus our attention on is the quality of relations with the people we seek to represent in our texts: are they viewed as mere fodder for professionally self-serving statements about a generalized Other, or are they accepted as subjects with voices, views, and dilemmas & emdash; people to whom we are bonded through ties of reciprocity and who may even be critical of our professional enterprise? (Narayan 1993: 671-672)
Cuba. L. J.
1988 A Short Guide to Writing about Social Science . Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Illinois.
1993. How Native Is a "Native" Anthropologist? American Anthropologist 95 (3): 671-686.
Thompson, R. H.
1997 Ethnic Minorities and the Case for Collective Rights. American Anthropologist 99(4):786-798.
Zihlman, A. L.
1993 Sex Differences and Gender Hierarchies among Primates: An Evolutionary Perspective. In Sex and Gender Hierarchies, edited by B. D. Miller, pp. 32-56. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.