Social Sciences, as the name suggests, can be thought of as an attempt to use a ‘scientific method’ to investigate social phenomena. There is a recognition that applying the strict rules of the level of proof required in science subjects is not appropriate when studying complex social phenomena. But, there is an expectation of as much rigour as is possible to achieve in each investigation.
Consequently, there is a huge variation in the types of essays that can be found within the social sciences. An essay based on the carbon dating of human remains within Archaeology is clearly very different from an essay based on the application of an ethical framework in Human Resources Management. The former is likely to be much more like a science essay, whilst the latter may edge towards a Philosophy essay, which is part of arts and humanities.
Key features of social science essays
- They are evidence-based. It is crucial to use the evidence in a way that shows you understand how significant the evidence used is.
- They require the interpretation of evidence. By its nature, evidence in social sciences may be less definite than in sciences, and so interpretation is required. When you interpret evidence, this too must be based on evidence, rather than personal opinion or personal observation.
- They often require the application of abstract theories to real-world scenarios. The theories are ‘clean and clear and the real world is ‘messy and unclear’; the skill of the student is to make plausible judgements. For example,
- The level of detail and breadth of knowledge that must be displayed varies greatly, depending on the length of the essay. 1000-word essays need concise wording and for the student to limit the breadth of knowledge displayed in order to achieve the depth needed for a high mark. Conversely, 5000-word essays require both breadth and depth of knowledge.
- They should show criticality. This means you need to show uncertainty in the theories and ideas used, and how ideas and theories interact with others. You should present counter-facts and counter-arguments and use the information in the literature base to reach supported conclusions and judgements.
Example extract of a social science essay
Essay Title: Who Gets What in Education and is that Fair?
‘Education in the western world has historically favoured men in the regard that women were essentially denied access to it for no other reason than their gender (Trueman,2016) and even though it would seem there is certainly “equality on paper” (Penny, 2010,p1.) when looking at statistics for achievement and gender, the reality is that the struggles facing anyone who does not identify as male require a little more effort to recognise. An excellent example of this can be found in the 2014 OECD report. In the UK women significantly outnumbered men in their application for university places- 376,860 women to 282,170 men (ICEF,2014)- but when observed closer men are applying for places at higher ranking universities and often studying in fields that will eventually allow them to earn better salaries. The same report praised women for the ability to combine their studies with family life and having higher aspirations than boys and therefore likely as being more determined to obtain degrees (ICEF, 2014), yet in reality women have very little choice about coping with the stressful burdens placed on them. The concepts of double burden and triple shift where women are expected to deal with housework and earning an income, or housework, raising children and earning an income (Einhorn, 1993) could in this case relate to the pressure for women to work hard at school to allow them to be able to provide for their families in future. Even women who do not necessarily have their own families or children to care for must face the double burden and triple shift phenomenon in the workplace, as women who work in the higher education sector almost always have the duty of a more pastoral and caring role of their students than male counterparts (Morley,1994).
Education is a social science subject. Some studies within it follow a scientific method of quantitative data collection, whilst others are more qualitative, and others still are more theoretical. In the case of this extract, it is about gendered effects in university applications. This is an inevitably complex area to write about, intersecting as it does with social class, economic status, social norms, cultural history, political policy… To name but a few.‘
The essay is clearly based on evidence, which in places in numerical and in places is derived from previously written papers, such as ‘triple shift where women are expected to deal with housework and earning an income, or housework, raising children and earning an income (Einhorn, 1993)’, where the concept of triple shift is derived from the named paper. It is this interleaving of numerical and concrete facts with theoretical ideas that have been created and/or observed that is a typical feature in social sciences. In this case, the author has clearly shown the reader where the information is from and has ‘controlled’ the ideas to form a narrative that is plausible and evidence-based.
When compared to science writing, it can appear to be wordier and this is largely due to the greater degree of interpretation that is required to use and synthesise complex ideas and concepts that have meanings that are more fluid and necessarily less precise than many scientific concepts.
Good social science essay writing is…
- Based on evidence sources,
- filled with clearly articulated thinking from the mind of the author,
- well structured to guide the reader through the argument or narrative being created,
- focussed on answering the question or addressing the task presented,
- filled with carefully chosen evaluative language to tell the reader what is more and less significant,
- readable – sounds simple, but is difficult to achieve whilst remaining precise,
- rewarded with high marks.
Common mistakes in social science essay writing
- Speculating beyond the limits of the evidence presented. It is important to limit your interpretation to that which is supported by existing evidence. This can be frustrating but is essential.
- Using complex words where simpler ones will do. It is tempting to try to appear ‘clever’ by using ‘big words, but in most cases, the simplest form of writing something is clearer. Your aim is to clearly communicate with the reader.
- Giving your personal opinion – this is rarely asked for or required.
- Not answering the question or fulfilling the task. This is possibly the most common error and largely comes from letting one’s own ideas infect the essay writing process.
- Not being critical. You need to show the limits of the ideas used, how they interact, and counter-arguments and include evaluation and analysis of the ideas involved. If you find yourself being descriptive, ask why.
- Using lots of direct quotes, particularly in first-year writing. Quotes should be rare and used carefully because they are basically photocopying. Use your words to show you have understood the concepts involved.