Writing an analytical or interpretive composition


An essay, according to Webster’s, is an analytical or interpretive composition, usually dealing with its subject from a limited point of view. It is an initial tentative effort, the result or product of an attempt, or of an experimental effort to perform—an act of weighing, of engaging in a struggle to test or try out something. This is your opportunity to express your own thoughts about what we have read and discussed throughout the course, to say something about what you learned, what you liked and disliked—and why—and how you think you might make use of what you learned.

To help ensure your success, complete the activities outlined below step by step. Be diligent and thorough: do not skip over anything. If you leave steps out, or try to take shortcuts, you are likely to learn less and enjoy your experience less—and you risk reducing the overall quality of the outcome. On the other hand, use your own experience with what works best to adapt specific suggestions for writing the essay.

Aims and Abilities

  • Confirm that you have come to understand culture as a way of interpreting experience, and that culture informs both social life and individual psychology, shaping and coloring how people perceive and act in the world.
  • Demonstrate that you grasp the social scientific principles and reasoning involved in ethnography, and that you recognize the value, limitations, and ethical implications of this way of making sense of social conduct.
  • Show that you have acquired an informed awareness of other cultural worlds—an appreciation of other ways of being human—of believing, behaving, and belonging, including kinship organization and ritual, economic, and political practices.
  • Show that you have learned to see your beliefs, values, attitudes, and conduct—including kinship organization and ritual, economic, and political practices—from the perspective of people with different ideas about the way the world works.
  • Demonstrate the ability to think soundly and to communicate effectively in writing.

Preparing to Write the Essay

  1. Read the instructor’s introduction to the lesson.
  2. Choose one of the questions listed below.
    1. In what specific ways do you plan to think or live differently or to carry out your personal or professional roles differently as a consequence of this course? (If you do not plan to make any changes, then discuss what previous plans have been reinforced, and why.)
    2. How has your awareness of other cultures—your appreciation of other ways of being human—of believing, behaving, and belonging—changed as a consequence of this course? In what ways have your learned to see your personal beliefs, values, attitudes, and conduct from the perspective of people with different ideas about the way the world works?
    3. Write a review of either Number Our Days or The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. What do you like and dislike about the book, and why? What are its strengths and weaknesses—approach, methods, and presentation? What did you learn—about culture as a way of interpreting experience, and about the social scientific principles and reasoning involved in ethnography, for instance? How might you apply what you learned—about how culture informs both social life and individual psychology, shaping and coloring how people perceive and act in the world; or about the value, limitations, and ethical implications of ethnography as a way of making sense of social conduct, for instance—in your personal and professional roles?
    4. Imagine that it is your responsibility to recommend manuscripts to a major publisher. Suppose, now, that you must choose between the manuscripts of two ethnographers who both claim that their work pursues local knowledge and makes sense of social conduct from an inside perspective, representing the natives’ point of view. How you would choose between the two manuscripts? What would you look for? What criteria would you use to identify which manuscript would make the best book? Discuss why these criteria are important to you, illustrating with examples from course readings, especially Number Our Days and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.1
    5. Discuss the potential practical uses of ethnography for understanding so-called social problems and for developing more effective public policies in light of the cases presented in Number Our Days and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. What can sustained attempts to make principled sense of diverse forms of social conduct, to figure out what people are up to when they engage in various private and public practices, contribute to a more informed political process?
    6. What do course readings, especially The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, teach us about how to face a complicated, troubling, and heart-rending set of circumstances and yet resist rushing to judgment, determining causes, finding fault, and solving problems before fully understanding how the primary participants see what is happening?
    7. Some would argue that an attitude of tolerance and respect for cultural differences goes a long way toward handling if not solving the challenges of complex, multicultural societies. Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not? What do course readings, especially Number Our Days and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down suggest about how someone might develop such an attitude?

Think about what an effective answer might entail.

  1. Review Lessons 1-5 with your chosen question in mind.
  2. Look for material that will help you develop an effective response to your question.
  3. Review the reading assignments.
  4. Review your simulated correspondence.
  5. Review the discussion material.
  6. Review the Speedback questions.
  7. Make notes as you review and think.
  8. Study the Performance Checklist—Essay (Appendix C).

Review The Elements of Style, looking for specific ways to improve your writing.

  1. Introduction (in The Elements of Style, xiii-xviii) An Approach to Style (in The Elements of Style, 66-85)
  2. Elementary Principles of Composition” (in The Elements of Style, 15-33) Elementary Rules of Usage (in The Elements of Style, 1-14)
  3. A Few Matters of Form (in The Elements of Style, 34-38)
  4. Words and Expressions Commonly Misused (in The Elements of Style , 39-65)
  5. Choose a time and place that allows you to concentrate on your work.
  6. Arrange for a place and time free from distractions.
  7. Plan sessions long enough to allow you to relax, work hard, and make some progress before you need to quit.
  8. Plan sessions of at least 60 minutes. Otherwise you will need to stop just as you are ready to go forward—virtually wasting your time. It’s like cooking vegetables—if you shut the water off before it boils, then turn it on again later, they’ll never cook, no matter how many times you heat the water.


1. Question adapted from Keith H. Basso’s course on Language and Thought in Native American Cultures, Yale University, 1984.

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