What is a Social Science
The structure of a basic social science essay
What is distinctive about a social science essay?
Common errors in essays
Four golden rules for writing a social science essay
Why an essay is not a report, newspaper article or an exam answer
In this chapter we consider what is distinctive about essay writing and, in particular, essay writing in the social sciences. To start with, we look at the structure of social science essays.
2.1 The structure of a basic social science essay
There are different types of social science essay, and essays of different lengths require slightly different approaches (these will be addressed later). However, all social science essays share a basic structure which is common to many academic subject areas. At its simplest, a social science essay looks something like this:
Every essay should begin with the title written out in full. In some cases this will simply be the set question or statement for discussion.
The introduction tells the reader what the essay is about.
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good essay writing
•• Main section
The main section, or ‘body’, of the essay develops the key points of the argument in a ‘logical progression’. It uses evidence from research studies (empirical evidence) and
theoretical arguments to support these points.
The conclusion reassesses the arguments presented in
the main section in order to make a final statement in
answer to the question.
•• List of references
This lists full details of the publications referred to in the text.
2.2 What is distinctive about a social science essay?
As you are no doubt aware, essay writing is a common feature of undergraduate study in many different subjects. What, then, is distinctive about essay writing in the social sciences? There are particular features that characterize social science essays and that relate to what is called the epistemological underpinning of work in this area (that is, to ideas about what constitutes valid social scientific knowledge and where this comes from). Among the most important of these characteristics are:
•• the requirement that you support arguments with evidence, particularly evidence that is the product of systematic and rigorous research (see Sections 6.1 and 8.2);
•• the use of theory to build explanations about how the social world works (see Section 8.2).
Evidence is important in social scientific writing because it is used to support or query beliefs, propositions or hypotheses about the social world. Let’s take an example. A social scientist may ask: ‘Does prison work?’ This forms an initial question, but one that is too vague to explore as it stands. (This question might be about whether prison ‘works’ for offenders, in terms of providing rehabilitation, or re-education; or it might be about whether it ‘works’ for victims of crime who may wish to see retribution – or any number of other issues.) To answer the question in mind, the social scientist will need to formulate a more specific claim, one that can be systematically and rigorously explored. Such a claim could be formulated in the following terms: ‘Imprisonment reduces the likelihood of subsequent reoffending’. This claim can now be subjected to systematic research. In other words, the social scientist will gather evidence for and against this claim, evidence that she or he will seek to interpret or evaluate. This process of evaluation will tend to support or refute the original claim, but it may be inconclusive, and/or it may generate further questions. Together, these processes of enquiry can be
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what is a social science essay?
Figure 1 The circuit of social scientific knowledge
Source: Sherratt et al., 2000, p. 18.
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