University Level Compare And Contrast Essay Introduction

Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).

In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.

Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.

Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.

Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.

Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:

Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.

Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.

Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.

  • In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
  • In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.

If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.

You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.

Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).

As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.

Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

Comparison and contrast are processes of identifying how ideas, people, or things are alike (comparison) and how they are different (contrast). Although you have probably been writing compare/contrast papers since grade school, it can be a difficult form to master.

Such assignments require you to move beyond mere description by thinking deeply about the items being compared, identifying meaningful relationships between them, and deciding which qualities are most significant. This process involves evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing your findings and presenting them in a meaningful, interesting, and logical way.

Structure

There are two general formats for compare and contrast papers:

1. The block, divided, or whole-to-whole format

Evaluates Subject A in its entirety and then Subject B in its entirety. This format can result in two separate papers, joined by an awkward transition. Follow the tips below to develop a seamless and unified paper using the block format:

  • Provide a clear introduction and thesis that not only spells out the major similarities and differences you will be discussing but that answers the question, “So what? ”
  • “Pepper” references to both topics throughout the paper, where appropriate.
  • Link the two sections with a strong transition that demonstrates the relationships between the subjects. Remind the reader of your thesis, summarize the key points you have made about Subject A, and preview the points you will be making about Subject B.
  • Conclude the paper by summarizing and analyzing the findings, once again reminding the reader of the relationships you have noted between Subject A and Subject B

2. The alternating, integrated, or point-by point comparison

Explores one point of similarity or difference about each subject, followed by a second point, and so on. Some pointers:

  • Provide a clear introduction and thesis that not only spells out the major similarities and differences you will be discussing but that answers the question, “So what? ”
  • To avoid creating a glorified list, synthesize and organize the material in a logical way.
  • Conclude the paper by summarizing and analyzing the findings, once again reminding the reader of the relationships you have noted between Subject A and Subject B.

Brainstorming

When we first begin thinking about a subject, we generally start by listing obvious similarities and differences, but as we continue to explore, we should begin to notice qualities that are more significant, complex, or subtle. For example, when considering apples and oranges, we would immediately observe that both are edible, both grow on trees, and both are about the size of a baseball. But such easy observations don't deepen our knowledge of apples and oranges. An interesting and meaningful compare/contrast paper should help us understand the things we are discussing more fully than we would if we were to consider them individually.

Selectivity: Sharpening the Focus

As you approach a compare/contrast paper, ask the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the assignment?
  • Which of the similarities and differences that I have observed are relevant to the assignment and the themes of the course? In an economics course, it might be appropriate to consider how the markets for apples and oranges have changed, which is more popular fruit and why, which is more expensive to produce, and so on. In a humanities course, it might be fruitful to consider why we seem to have so many more cultural references to apples than to oranges.
  • What is the most interesting basis of comparison for this topic? Of the similarities and differences that I have noted, which are obvious or merely descriptive, and which are significant? Which will lead to a meaningful analysis and an interesting paper?

Recognizing the Compare/Contrast Assignment

Some assignments use the words “compare, ” “contrast, ” “similarities, ” and “differences. ” Others may not use these terms but may nevertheless require you to compare and/or contrast. Still others may require comparison and/or contrast as only part of the assignment. Some examples:

  • Select two fast food chains and discuss the approaches they have used in gaining entry into the global marketplace.
  • How do the authors we have studied thus far define and describe racism?
  • Choose a theme, such as fellowship, faith, or hope, and consider how it is treated in the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
  • The analysis in Ronald Rogowski's book Commerce and Coalitions ends in the 1980s. Extend his analysis to two countries, Canada and a country of your choice, from 1990 to 2000. Using Rogowski's theory, predict how the change in exposure to international trade should affect political conflict in Canada and the country you chose.
  • Analyze the various data security options available to online businesses and recommend one to your boss, Sally Simple, President of Simply Simple, Inc.
  • I want to invest in satellite radio. Which is the better choice: Sirius or XM?

Transitional Markers to Indicate Comparison and Contrast

Transitional markers are words or phrases that show the connections and relationships among ideas. They are often placed at or near the beginning of a sentence or paragraph. There are many such words, but here are some of the most useful terms:

Words to indicate comparison: in comparison, similarly, likewise, in the same way, parallel to, correlate, identically, akin to, consistent with, also, too, analogous to, correspondingly

Words to indicate contrast: in contrast, however, on the other hand, nevertheless, although, counter to, on the contrary, conversely, rather than, in opposition to, opposite of Sample Introductory Paragraph

Below is a sample of an introduction from a literary compare and contrast paper written by student Kate James: (Some of the terms she uses to indicate comparison and contrast are in boldface.)

Because America itself is still a relatively young nation, its poetry, too, lacks the years of history and growth that have defined the voices of other nations. However, within the past century, American poetry has developed into a distinctive and accomplished art of its own. The creation of this poetic voice is often attributed to Walt Whitman, who has been coined “the father of American poetry.” His revolutionary style and untraditional subject matter, exemplified in his renowned poem “Song of Myself,” have paved the way for future generations of American writers. Furthermore, his unique use of the line and breath has had a great influence on many poets' own work, particularly the writing of the more contemporary poet Allen Ginsberg, whose controversial poem “Howl” echoes many of the characteristics of Whitman's verse. However, while the form and content of “Howl” may have been influenced by “Song of Myself,” Ginsberg's poem signifies a transformation of Whitman's use of the line, his first-person narration, and his vision of America. As Whitman's sprawling lines open outward in the voice of a cosmic speaker who creates a positive view of America, Ginsberg's poem does the opposite, using long lines that close inward to mimic the suffocation and madness that characterize the vision of America that he presents through the voice of a prophetic speaker.

*Thesis Statement

After she developed the introduction and thesis, Kate had to decide which format would be most effective for organizing her argument and proving her thesis. One way to decide which structure to use is to create outlines that visually organize the information:

Sample Block Format Outline

  1. Introduction/thesis
  2. Poets' Use of Line
  3. Voice of First Person Speaker
  4. Vision of America
  5. Discussion/analysis
  6. Conclusion

Sample Integrated Format Outline

  1. Introduction/thesis
  2. Whitman's “Song of Myself”
    • Use of Line
    • Voice of First Person Speaker
    • Vision of America
  3. Ginsberg's “Howl”
    • Use of Line
    • Voice of First Person Speaker
    • Vision of America
  4. Discussion/analysis
  5. Conclusion

In this case, Kate decided that the integrated format would be more effective because it allowed for the side-by-side analysis of passages that illustrated the three primary qualities that she noticed in the poems.

Sample Paragraph in the Block Format

In the following paragraph from “American Space, Chinese Place, ” writer Yi-Fu Tuan fully discusses space in America before turning to an analysis of place in China:

Americans have a sense of space, not of place. Go to an American home in exurbia, and almost the first thing you do is drift toward the picture window. How curious that the first compliment you pay your host inside his house is to say how lovely it is outside his house! He is pleased that you should admire his vistas. The distant horizon is not merely a line separating earth from sky, it is a symbol of the future. The American is not rooted in his place, however lovely: his eyes are drawn by the expanding space to a point on the horizon, which is his future. By contrast, consider the traditional Chinese home. Blank walls enclose it. Step behind the spirit wall and you are in a courtyard with perhaps a miniature garden around a corner. Once inside his private compound you are wrapped in an ambiance of calm beauty, an ordered world of buildings, pavement, rock, and decorative vegetation. But you have no distant view: nowhere does space open out before you. Raw nature in such a home is experienced only as weather, and the only open space is the sky above. The Chinese is rooted in his place. When he has to leave, it is not for the promised land on the terrestrial horizon, but for another world altogether along the vertical, religious axis of his imagination.

--from DiYanni, Robert and Pat C. Hoy. Frames of Mind. Thomson Wadsworth. 2005. p. 260

Sample Paragraph in the Alternating Format

In the book Oranges, author John McPhee wanted to help readers appreciate the difference between Florida and California oranges. Here's a sample paragraph from the book:

An orange grown in Florida usually has a thick and tightly fitting skin, and is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement. The differences from which these hyperboles arise will prevail in the two states even if the type of orange is the same. In arid climates, like California's, oranges develop a thick albedo, which is the white part of the skin. Florida is one of the two or three most rained-upon states in the United States. California uses the Colorado River and similarly impressive sources to irrigate its oranges, but of course irrigation can only do so much. The annual difference in rainfall between the Florida and California orange-growing areas is one million one hundred and forty thousand gallons per acre. For years, California was the leading orange-growing state, but Florida surpassed California in 1942, and grows three times as many oranges now. California oranges, for their part, can safely be called three times as beautiful.

--from DiYanni, Robert and Pat C. Hoy. Frames of Mind. Thomson Wadsworth. 2005. p. 260

Fran Hooker & Kate James, Webster University Writing Center, 2007

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