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Common Assignments: Writing in the Social Sciences

Basics

Although there may be some differences in writing expectations between disciplines, all writers of scholarly material are required to follow basic writing standards such as writing clear, concise, and grammatically correct sentences; using proper punctuation; and, in all Walden programs, using APA style. When writing in the social sciences, however, students must also be familiar with the goals of the discipline as these inform the discipline’s writing expectations. According to Ragin (1994), the primary goal of social science research is “identifying order in the complexity of social life” (para. 1). Serving the primary goal are the following secondary goals:

  1. Identifying general patterns and relationships
  2. Testing and refining theories
  3. Making predictions
  4. Interpreting culturally and historically significant phenomena
  5. Exploring diversity
  6. Giving voice
  7. Advancing new theories (Ragin, 1994, para. 2)

To accomplish these goals, social scientists examine and explain the behavior of individuals, systems, cultures, communities, and so on (Dartmouth Writing Program, 2005), with the hope of adding to the world’s knowledge of a particular issue. Students in the social sciences should have these goals at the back of their minds when choosing a research topic or crafting an effective research question. Instead of simply restating what is already known, students must think in terms of how they can take a topic a step further. The elements that follow are meant to give students an idea of what is expected of social science writers.

If you have content-specific questions, be sure to ask your instructor. The Writing Center is available to help you present your ideas as effectively as possible.

Main Idea

Because one cannot say everything there is to say about a particular subject, writers in the social sciences present their work from a particular perspective. For instance, one might choose to examine the problem of childhood obesity from a psychological perspective versus a social or environmental perspective. One’s particular contribution, proposition, or argument is commonly referred to as the thesis and, according to Gerring, Yesnowitz, and Bird (2004), a good thesis is one that is “new, true, and significant” (p. 2). To strengthen their theses, social scientists might consider presenting an argument that goes against what is currently accepted within that field while carefully addressing counterarguments, and adequately explaining why the issue under consideration matters (Gerring et al., 2004). For instance, one might interpret a claim made by a classical theorist differently from the manner in which it is commonly interpreted and expound on the implications of the new interpretation. The thesis is particularly important because readers want to know whether the writer has something new or significant to say about a given topic. Thus, as you review the literature, before writing, it is important to find gaps and creative linkages between ideas with the goal of contributing something worthwhile to an ongoing discussion. In crafting an argument, you must remember that social scientists place a premium on ideas that are well reasoned and based on evidence. For a contribution to be worthwhile, you must read the literature carefully and without bias; doing this will enable you to identify some of the subtle differences in the viewpoints presented by different authors and help you to better identify the gaps in the literature. Because the thesis is essentially the heart of your discussion, it must be argued objectively and persuasively.

Method

In examining a research question, social scientists may present a hypothesis and they may choose to use either qualitative or quantitative methods of inquiry or both. The methods most often used include interviews, case studies, observations, surveys, and so on. The nature of the study should dictate the chosen method. (Do keep in mind that not all your papers will require that you employ the various methods of social science research; many will simply require that you analyze an issue and present a well reasoned argument.) When you write your capstones, however, you will be required to come to terms with the reliability of the methods you choose, the validity of your research questions, and ethical considerations. You will also be required to defend each one of these components. The research process as a whole may include the following: formulation of research question, sampling and measurement, research design, and analysis and recommendations (Trochim, 2006). Keep in mind that your method will have an impact on the credibility of your work, so it is important that your methods are rigorous. Walden offers a series of research methods courses to help students become familiar with research methods in the social sciences.

Organization

The APA manual (see sections 2.01-2.11) provides a useful outline of how a social science paper is to be organized. Do keep in mind that you may not need to use this format for every paper you submit at Walden. Research papers that follow the APA style are divided into the following sections: title, abstract, introduction, literature review, method, results, discussion, references, and appendices. Note that the presentation follows a certain logic: in the introduction one presents the issue under consideration; in the literature review, one presents what is already known about the topic (thus providing a context for the discussion), identifies gaps, and presents one’s approach; in the methods section, one identifies the method used to gather data; in the results and discussion sections, one then presents and explains the results in an objective manner, acknowledging the limitations of the study (Dartmouth Writing Program, 2010). One may end with a presentation of the implications of the study and areas upon which other researchers might focus.

Objectivity

Although social scientists continue to debate whether objectivity is achievable in the social sciences and whether theories really represent objective scientific analyses, they agree that one’s work must be presented as objectively as possible. This does not mean that writers cannot be passionate about their subject; it simply means that social scientists are to think of themselves primarily as observers and they must try to present their findings in a neutral manner, avoiding biases, and acknowledging opposing viewpoints.

Language

It is important to note that instructors expect social science students to master the content of the discipline and to be able to use discipline appropriate language in their writing. Successful writers of social science literature have cultivated the thinking skills that are useful in their discipline and are able to communicate professionally, integrating and incorporating the language of their field as appropriate (Colorado State University, 2011). For instance, if one were writing about how aid impacts the development of less developed countries, it would be important to know and understand the different ways in which aid is defined within the field of development studies.

References

Colorado State University. (1997-2011). Why assign WID tasks? Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/com6a1.cfm

Dartmouth Writing Program. (2005). Writing in the social sciences. Retrieved from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/soc_sciences/write.shtml

Gerring, J., Yesnowitz, J., & Bird, S. (2004). General advice on social science writing. Retrieved from http://people.bu.edu/jgerring/documents/Adviceonessaywriting.pdf

Ragin, C. (1994). Construction social research: The unity and diversity of method. Retrieved February 7, 2011, from http://poli.haifa.ac.il/~levi/res/mgsr1.htm

Trochim, W. (2006). Research methods knowledge base. Retrieved January 31, 2011, from http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/