The contextual analysis essay is a kind of work that disintegrates a piece of writing into small parts, analyzing each one separately. This allows us to point out the true intentions of the author, and analyze the whole context. Almost anything can be a subject of such an analysis – a book, a play, a magazine article, etc., but how to write such an essay? It would be quite an easy task, if you are a pro, but what about the newbies?
The introduction is based upon what happens in the piece you are analyzing. It will make people understand that you’ve found its context. You can complete your analysis by including some other pieces, if they fit into the same concept. Keep in mind, that context is a framework, which defines all the specific parts of the piece you analyze. So be careful while taking something out of the context, as you can be easily misunderstood.
After moving on to the body of the piece you are writing about, describe the style, it’s written in, the theme, etc. Describe characters of the piece if there are any, or a problem postulated in it. Also, there is no harm in additional research to see what other people think of this. Maybe you can include some citations in your article (which is beneficial). Try using trustworthy sources, or get advice from someone with experience.
What is the main theme of the piece you are analyzing? Express your opinion on how the author influenced you through his creation, and what you think is the main response he originally intended to create. An important part is pointing out whether there is a specific statement in the context of the piece.
Describe the style of the piece by pointing out some important elements. Does the author use first-person interaction? Describe whether it is a plain narrative, or if it is dialogue based. Describe the imagery and artistic methods that the author used, and the effect he is trying to achieve.
The conclusion is the part where you express your opinion on whether the author achieved his goal. Try pointing out whether the piece has a dramatic impact, and whether it fully expresses the depth and the value of the topic discussed. For a literature piece, for example, there can be some discussion about the cultural value of the piece and its impact on the creativity of future authors.
- Genre: Contextual Analysis
- Audience: educated, curious readers
- Length: 1500-1750 words
- Sources: minimum of eight credible sources, at least four of which come from peer-reviewed scholarly publications, and one book
- Background: St. Martin’s e-Handbook: choosing topics (12); conducting research (13); integrating sources (15)
It is likely that in WRD103 you were asked to work on a textual analysis or a rhetorical analysis that looked closely at an isolated text and you interpreted it with descriptive language from that text. This is a good intellectual exercise that will always result in a particular kind of meaning, based solely on that isolated text.
A contextual analysis is a different intellectual exercise altogether: by putting an issue into context, you will create a new kind of meaning; for our purposes, a phenomenon or an issue can only be properly understood within the context it occurred. Your contextual analysis will tell us what that meaning is.
- A contextual analysis depends on a contextual framework to view your issue from a broader perspective in order to see things you wouldn’t notice if you analyze only textual or rhetorical features. The frameworks might derive from historical, theoretical, biographical, cultural, social, ideological or political-economic information. Research and analysis based on an identifiable contextual framework helps academic writers establish credibility because they are writing with a method, with perspective, and with analytic authority.
- A contextual analysis puts sources into conversation with each other, where we can compare and contrast writers’ values and rhetorical strategies.
- A contextual analysis has powerful explanatory featuresand capabilities because you are analyzing writers’ positions, rhetorical strategies, attitudes toward readers, and values; the sum of those inquiries should tell us something about the nature of the issue you choose to explore. Context and a point of view bring meaning to knowledge; your contextual analysis will tell us what that meaning is.
By this point in the term, and after an individual conference with me, you should have identified an issue from reading the New York Times that interests you for further inquiry. An “issue” is different than a “topic” because with an issue we can identify places where reasonable people can have different perspectives and take different rhetorical positions; an issue is debatable, and a topic is not.
Your challenges for this project are to  first spend some time in inquiry mode, asking questions — to whom does this issue matter? Why? What is interesting about it? What is important about it? What is at stake? —  to research and analyze your issue via some contextual framework and,  to compose your contextual analysis based on your research.
These examples are meant to show the possible scope of a contextual analysis project; I will negotiate yours with you, and will encourage you to invest this time on an issue that you genuinely care about, and for which you want to make compelling, successful arguments. Also note that these representative examples are based on inquiry — not on a thesis or based on argument — and that is where we will start: with questions.
- Brainstorming Inquiry Questions: Week 3
- Preliminary Inquiry Question: Week 4
- Project Proposal & Map: Week 4
- Online Library workshop: Week 4
- Library Workshop: Week 5
- Project First Draft: Week 5
- Project Second Draft (workshop & peer review): Week 6
- Project Third Draft: Proofreading Draft: Week 7
- Project Final Draft & Self Assessment: Week 7
- Op-Ed Essay: Week 8
Examples of contextual-analysis essays
* “Do Birds Have Emotions?”
“Emotions, feelings, awareness, sentience, and consciousness are all difficult concepts. They are tricky to define in ourselves, so is it any wonder they are difficult in birds and other nonhuman animals? Consciousness is one of the big remaining questions in science, making it both an exciting and a highly contentious area of research.”
You can see the writer’s contextual-analysis map: “Biologists, psychologists, and philosophers have argued over these issues for years, so I cannot hope to resolve them. Instead, I have adopted Darwin’s approach—thinking about what might be going on in a bird’s head and imagining a continuum, with displeasure and pain at one end and pleasure and rewards at the other.”
*9/11 Museum in New York City: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” (Op-Ed) and Letter.
Update (4/2/2014): “An Inscription Taken Out of Poetic Context and Placed on a 9/11 Memorial”
* And the best one-sentence example comes from this NYT article on public confusion surrounding the rhetoric and the science of climate change (“Climate Experts Tussle Over Details. Public Gets Whiplash”) NYT, July 29, 2008: