GUIDELINES ON HOW TO WRITE A SOCIAL SCIENCE ESSAY
The importance of structure in an essay cannot be over-stressed. It lends comprehension to the reader and also provides a useful tool in allowing the author to see the logic of his/her work.
As a rough guideline, an essay should always begin with an introduction. The introduction is often the most important section of subject area of the essay and justifies the student’s concentration on this topic. In addition, it may tell the reader what the student intends to argue, why the argument is so important, how she/he intends to proceed methodically through this argument and introduces the layout of the essay.
The main body of the essay should be broken into logical sub-divisions as suggested by either the topic in question or the argument being presented. It may be useful to use sub-headings to clarify where these sections are. When producing a complex argument, it may be necessary to periodically remind the reader – in the main body of the text (see below on “logical consistency”) – where the argument has progressed so far and where the author intends to proceed, together with justification for this direction.
Finally the conclusion. This should present a summary of the main thrust of the argument presented in the essay. Remember, the conclusion should not appear to be an afterthought but is an important component of any good essay. It is also a good idea to refer back to the essay question at this stage and show that you have answered the question that has been asked – not simply written a general description of the topic area.
The student should strive to keep the exposition as simple as possible. This means more than simplicity in written expression (a difficult enough task in itself – but generally aided by keeping sentences short and to the point). It also means not using technical concepts and “jargon” unless they are explicitly defined, and restricting the use of theory to a minimum necessary to lay the analytical basis of the main argument (unless the essay question has specifically asked about theory).
The student should pay close attention to justifying each main strand of the argument, through such mechanisms as sourcing, citing data, referencing, providing logical justification (don’t assume that something that makes sense to you will always make sense to a reader without an extra sentence or two of explanation or evidence) etc. Thus the argument should avoid the use of unsubstantiated assertion as much as possible, hence minimising its susceptibility to criticism on the grounds of subjectivity.
An associated point is the importance of being seen to take objectivity seriously. Two common mistakes that students make are first, to argue by weight of quotation in the erroneous error that the greater the number of quotes the stronger the argument, and secondly, to append a blanket reference to an argument without telling the reader where in the text the appropriate support is coming from (i.e. page numbers) and what is the nature of this support. Crude referencing of these types serves to detract from the power of the argument and hence from the quality of the work.
A final point here relates to one’s own personal values which usually (some would argue, inevitably) impinge in a variety of subtle ways and can often vitiate the overall persuasiveness of the essay. There is nothing wrong with having personal values concerning an issue – however, readers want to see an essay which has engaged with the issues rather than a polemical tract! Two general rules to attempt to deal with this problem are a) to make a conscious effort throughout the writing of the text to abstract from one’s own value position (however personally painful this may be) and b) to state one’s own value position and how this may impinge on the essay at an early point in the text (although this may not always be practicable). The former is an aid to intellectual development while the latter gives a clear signal to the reader on where the writer stands on these points.
By this it is meant that the essay should be written in such a way that each strand of the argument is consistent with the preceding and succeeding strands. The greater the attention paid to this, the better the overall flow of the argument will be. One useful technique to adopt to this end is to append a brief conclusion at the end of each section summarising the argument at this point and anticipating the development of the succeeding section. This makes life much easier for the reader. It also pays to ask yourself at the start of a new paragraph `how does this link with the paragraph I’ve just written?’
A second sense of the term logical consistency relates to the development of the written argument where the capacity to write logically is of great advantage. Here the main problem many students (and faculty) have is that of avoiding `non-sequiturs’ and other forms of illegitimate argument.
Every attempt should be made to make points in the shortest possible way consistent with adequate treatment. Avoid un-necessary repetition (apart from that required for logical consistency) and general “waffle” that is not making any particular point.
Supporting data should be handled carefully in the sense that they say clearly what you want them to say and not be subject to different interpretations.
The above attributes should be seen as objectives to aim for. Sometimes they will seem to contradict each other. For example, the amount of necessary detail may preclude economy of exposition. The art of good essay writing lies in the ability to achieve the necessary balance consistent with the overall objectives of the essay.
How to reference a piece of work
There is a distinction between the terms bibliography and references. References can be taken to relate to
those authors whose work you have directly referred to in your text. This may be directly (a quote, statistic, research finding) or indirectly (paraphrasing an argument or idea). The bibliography, however, is an acknowledgement of the general literature which you have read and which influenced your thinking on the topic being addressed. Some texts separate the two but you may prefer to incorporate your references into the bibliography.
Most essays require only a list of references at the end and references in the text (i.e. no bibliography).
The aim of referencing is to enable a reader to trace back to the author’s original sources. Hence enough information needs to be provided to facilitate this. However, there are many conventions and they tend to vary. Because of this, I have merely provided a rough outline of some basics. The main thing is to be consistent in your format.
A good reference on referencing is the Chicago Style Manual. Or search online for specific referencing systems e.g. Harvard Referencing or Chicago Referencing
It is an offence called “plagiarism” to pass off another author’s ideas as your own. Your work will be rigorously checked for instances of plagiarism and, if found, you will be severely penalised – so it is as well to familiarise yourself with the conventions of referencing at an early stage.
If you refer to another author’s ideas in your essay you should immediately acknowledge this by stating the author’s name, the date of publication and the page(s) from which the reference was gleaned.
(Jones, 1991, pp 295-296)
This reference should then be cross-checked in the reference/bibliography section at the end of your essay.
If you refer to one author who is, in turn, referring to another: for example if Jones (1991) is referring to the work of Smith (1989), the following reference should be made in the text:
(Smith 1989, cited in Jones 1991, p 200)
Then both Smith and Jones should be referenced in full at the end of the essay.
These conventions apply equally for direct quotes and for summarized arguments. Direct quotes of longer than couple of lines should also be indented on the page.
The format for:
A book reference is:
surname, initial, title, (publisher: town, country)
using the punctuation and underline conventions shown. If you have a word-processor, the title can be printed in italics. So for example you might reference as follows:
Clark, N (1985), The Political Economy of Science and Technology (Basil Blackwell: Oxford UK).
A Journal article:
surname, initial, (date), “title of article”, title of journal, volume, number, pages
Mowery, D and Rosenberg, N. (1979), ‘The Influence of Market Demand Upon Innovation: A Critical Review of Some Recent Empirical Studies’, Research Policy vol. 8, pp 103-53.
(In this example no number is relevant so it is excluded)
Unpublished or “in-house” papers
surname, initial, (date), “title of paper”, address of institution
Freeman, C. (1987), Information Technology, Structural Change and the UK Economy, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, UK.
There are fewer conventions governing how you reference a web address. However, you should include: the full web-address; the title of the web page (or organisation who owns the page); the date you last visited it.
Miscellaneous Hints and Tips on Essay Writing
(In no particular order)
_Make sure you answer the question set. A general essay on the topic will not get good marks. Always re-read the question before writing the conclusion.
_Leave time between finishing your reading and starting writing to think over the issues involved.
_Make an essay plan. Imagine the essay as a series of headings (you can even use sub-headings if you really want) – what sort of order should they come in? Think of your essay as a guided tour, with you as the guide: there is no one best way to show visitors around, but whatever way you choose should make sense to both you and the visitor.
_An essay should have an introduction and conclusion but you don’t necessarily have to write them in that order. Cut and paste later on.
_The introduction should set the topic in context e.g. why is it important? DON’T start by assuming the question i.e. “This question can be approached by discussing…” is a horrible opening sentence.
_Your essay should have a clear line of argument – you’ve been asked a question and you should be prepared to provide an answer. Whatever form of words you actually use in the essay, always ask yourself to complete the sentence “I intend to argue that…” as a thought exercise. You should generally outline what you are going to cover during the essay in the introduction.
_Make sure your paragraphs link – don’t suddenly jump from one topic to another without making some sort of connection.
_Make sure you reference your sources – not just direct quotes but also when you paraphrase someone’s argument or describe a case study, statistics or other investigation.
_Use quotations sparingly. Make sure your quote is making a particular point – ask yourself whether you are letting the quote do all your work for you. Longer quotes should always have some of your own commentary or analysis after the quote to make the reader sure (a) that you’ve understood the quote and (b) understood why you are using this particular quote.
_Make sure you make at least one re-draft.
_Leave time to read your essay out loud to yourself. Hearing what you’ve read is more like approaching the material as the reader.
_Don’t assume that the reader knows what you are thinking, or knows how much you know or what you’ve read. Write as if you were explaining the topic to one of your peers.
_Avoid jargon. Define it whenever you use it.
_Avoid plagiarism, or even the appearance of plagiarism.
GUIDELINES ON HOW TO WRITE A SOCIAL SCIENCE ESSAY
Please write a social science essay based on the attached guidelines and choose ONE from the following topics:
1. Briefly outline the main features of ‘big science’. What is the significance of the Manhattan Project in understanding the development of ‘big science’?
2. How should public spending priorities on science, technology and innovation in the UK be decided?
3. Research funders now promote inter- and transdisciplinary research as a response to societal problems such as climate change. How does the idea of ‘Mode 2’ knowledge production explain this trend in research policy?
4. Is the conduct of science governed by Mertonian norms?
5. What are the limits of risk assessment when it comes to risks produced by science and technology?