Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Working with different voices

Introduction

In academic writing, it is often necessary to make it clear to your reader what opinion you hold or what your position is with regard to a certain issue. This is often called your "voice" or your "position" or your "claim". Your position may be based on other people's research (eg, Smith & Jones), but the conclusion you have come to is your own.

As a student, it is not enough to simply describe a situation or recall the facts, you need to take a stance or position yourself in relation to the situation or the facts. This is particularly important in assessment when you have to answer a question. Of course, you need to know and reproduce the information, but you also need to use the information to give an answer to the question, to give YOUR answer to the question.

It is therefore useful to be able to recognise the different voices in a text and learn how to make yours clear.

Recognising different voices

Read extract 1 and try to identify the different points of view contained in it.

Extract 1

It is important not to assume that merely because a practice is associated with low-income levels that it is necessarily inferior. Helen Icken Safa (1967) has shown, for example, that high-rise public housing destroys the sense of community and patterns of neighborly cooperation that frequently exist in established slums and shantytowns. Betty and Charles Valentine (1970) stress the resourcefulness, sense of humor, and informality of black ghetto culture. Oscar Lewis's (1961, 1966) remarkable documentaries of ghetto life, as told in the tape-recorded words of the people themselves, show that many individuals who are trapped in poverty nonetheless achieve a great nobility of spirit.

(Marvin Harris, Culture, people, nature: An introduction to general anthropology, Harper & Row, 1975)

I think you will find the following:

  • a cultural practice that is associated with low-income levels is not necessarily inferior
  • high-rise public housing destroys the sense of community
  • cooperation among neighbours often exists in slums and shantytowns
  • black ghetto culture is resourceful, informal and has a sense of humour
  • many individuals trapped in poverty achieve a great nobility of spirit

Try now to see where these points of view have come from.

I think you will find the following:

  • a cultural practice that is associated with low-income levels is not necessarily inferior - comes from Marvin Harris, the author of the book
  • high-rise public housing destroys the sense of community - comes from the writing of Helen Icken Safa
  • cooperation among neighbours often exists in slums and shantytowns - comes from the writing of Helen Icken Safa
  • black ghetto culture is resourceful, informal and has a sense of humour - comes from the research of Betty & Charles Valentine
  • many individuals trapped in poverty achieve a great nobility of spirit - comes from the work of Oscar Lewis

So we can clearly associate the ideas with the different voices of the people we have identified.

Point of viewVoice of
a cultural practice that is associated with low-income levels is not necessarily inferior Marvin Harris, the author of the book
high-rise public housing destroys the sense of community Helen Icken Safa
cooperation among neighbours often exists in slums and shantytowns Helen Icken Safa
black ghetto culture is resourceful, informal and has a sense of humour Betty & Charles Valentine
many individuals trapped in poverty achieve a great nobility of spirit Oscar Lewis

So the writer of the paragraph - Marvin Harris - is supporting his claim that cultural practices associated with low-income levels are not necessarily inferior by drawing on the work of others. These others are Helen Icken Safa, Betty & Charles Valentine and Oscar Lewis.

In extract 2, the author's claim that the human impact on the environment has been central to some Western historical geographers' studies is supported by the voices of 4 other researchers: Darby, Sauer, Williams and McKnight.

Extract 2

The theme of the human impact on the environment has, however, been central to some Western historical geographers studying the evolution of the cultural landscape. The clearing of woodland (Darby, 1956), the domestication process (Sauer, 1952), the draining of marshlands (Williams, 1970), the introduction of alien plants and animals (McKnight, 1959), and the reclamation of heathland are among some of the recurrent themes of a fine tradition of historical geography.

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

These examples contrast with the single voice of the author in extract 3. As we are not provided with any other evidence, we conclude that it is Goude's opinion that three basic questions have been asked::

Extract 3

In the history of Western thought three basic questions have been posed concerning the relationship of people to the habitable earth. The first of these is whether the earth, which is plainly a fit environment for humans and other organic life, is a purposefully made creation, made perhaps by God for humankind. The second is whether the climates, relief and configuration of the continents have influenced both the moral and social nature of individuals and the character and nature of human cultures. The third question seeks to find out whether, and to what degree, humans have during their long tenure of the earth changed it from its hypothetical pristine condition.

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

In many of the above examples, the voices of the other writers have been heard mainly though summaries of their work.

However, in extract 4 you can hear the direct voice of Kemper directly though the use of his actual words in a quotation. Again, there are two clear voices in the extract: the voice of Paul Wright, the author, claiming that the differences between engineers and technologists is not clear, and the voice of Kemper - in a quotation - providing support for this claim

Extract 4

The functional differences between technologists and engineers are likewise blurred. Kemper (1982: 87) explains:

Technologists are supposed to work in that part of the engineering spectrum which lies between the engineer and the technician, in the routine aspects of product development, manufacturing planning, construction supervision, or technical sales. However, as is often the case, individual human talents may prove to be more important than the intentions of educational programs, and it has been observed that many persons educated as technologists have actually emerged in industry functioning as engineers. Since their educations bear strong resemblances to those of engineers, such a development should not be especially surprising.

(Paul H Wright, Introduction to engineering. John Wiley, 1989)

Finding your own voice

See: Writing Functions 24: Stance

Exercise

Try this exercise: Exercise 1

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