What distinguishes Sociology papers from the papers you might write in other courses? Perhaps the biggest challenge lies in identifying evidence and decoding arguments that result from research on the structure of human society.
Unlike biologists, who might look for the answer to the human condition in our DNA, or historians, who might look for answers in events and texts from our past, sociologists look for answers in the way humans interact. Say, for example, that you are interested in learning why so many college women have eating disorders. If you are a biologist, you might look for the answer in brain chemistry, or in an "anorexic gene." If you are an historian, you might examine trends in body image that have evolved over the last century. However, if you are a sociologist, you'll want to observe and chronicle the behavior of women with eating disorders. You'll want to survey them. You'll want to understand their behavior in the context of the society in which they live.
Your arguments will take shape after you examine the evidence at your disposal and see if the explanations for behavior meet the standards of the discipline.
Many pre-writing strategies for Sociology papers will be the same as with other subject areas. For example, it's always a good idea to pick a topic that interests you. Professors say that students write much better papers when they choose topics that excite them. (See Coming Up With a Topic.) After you have a general idea for a topic, do some preliminary research - read articles, scan some books, and search the Internet for information.
After preliminary research, you'll need to narrow your topic. This step is often difficult for students. Remember: you're not alone. Professors are your best resources for helping you to narrow your topic. John Campbell of the Sociology Department says, "The best advice I can give about writing a paper is to talk to the professor before you start writing."
If your work requires that you distribute a survey, you'll want to put a lot of thought into the survey's design. Behind every successful survey is a good question. Forming that question is tricky, because your question can't be too broad or too vague. For example, the question - "What makes for a happy college experience?" - will draw too wide a variety of responses. These responses will also be very hard to quantify.
So how do you focus the question? First, consider your assumptions. What assumptions do you have about college that you're trying to prove? Perhaps you hope to argue that college students equate happiness with their social well being rather than with their academic achievements. Once you're clear about your assumption, you can begin to craft better questions: What factors contribute to a happy college experience? You'll want to create a list of these contributing factors, and ask students to evaluate them in some way. Only then can you measure the importance of social well being to students' happiness.
When you draft the actual survey, you'll find that you have several choices in crafting your questions. For instance, you might list the several factors important to happiness, and ask students to rank them. You might present the students with several statements and ask them if they strongly agree, strongly disagree, and so on. You might include an open-ended question, where students will have to write their own short responses. (Open-ended questions have the advantage of pointing to elements you haven't thought of when creating your survey; however, you need to remember that the answers to these questions are hard to quantify.)
Don't ask too many questions - just enough to find out what you need to know. Also be sure to choose a sample size that's appropriate. What percentage of college students will you need to survey in order to prove your assumption? Also think about the composition of your sample group. Is it important to you to note the differences among races? Between men and women? Greeks and independents? If so, you'll want to make sure that these students are appropriately represented in your sample.
Finally, a word about using human subjects in your research: if you are conducting any research where "human subjects" are involved (for example if interviewing or surveying students), you must gain approval from the Human Subjects Committee. For more information on this process, consult your professor.
Dartmouth Sociology professors say that the biggest problem with the student papers they see is that they are not adequately analytical. Too often students merely summarize information from other sources, or review information in superficial ways.
You should think analytically when you sit down to write a paper in Sociology. If you're doing a review of the literature on a certain sociological topic, you'll want to begin by considering the biases of the writers. What is the writer's position? What is he or she trying to prove? In other words, an article on gun violence written by a board member of the National Rifle Association undoubtedly will have a different slant than one written by someone from the Center for Gun Control.
After you've considered the writer's biases, analyze the argument itself. Using the evidence at your disposal, ask yourself how well the writer's argument or methodology achieves its stated purpose. Critique the writer's theoretical models, accessing their strengths and weaknesses. Learn to ask tough questions of the materials you read. These questions will often lead you to a position of your own - and to a great paper topic.
For additional general writing advice, see our other Materials for Students.
In your Sociology classes at Dartmouth, you'll be writing a variety of kinds of papers. These papers will usually incorporate approaches from among five categories:
To "review" the literature is not to offer a "thumbs up/thumbs down" response. Rather, to "review" literature means to read it carefully, to summarize it thoughtfully and succinctly, and to evaluate it according to sociological criteria.
Summarize books or articles in the same way you would summarize materials in any course.
Evaluating materials is more difficult, and more discipline-specific. You'll want to ask the following questions:
If you're asked to review not just a single article or book, but to do a review of the literature, be sure to ask these comparative questions:
If you consider these questions carefully, you'll have more than adequate material for a review of the literature. Remember: in many of Dartmouth's Sociology classes, you'll be asked to review a book, or the "literature" on a subject, as only part of a larger research project. You'll therefore want to get in the habit of summarizing and evaluating your sources concisely.
Sometimes you'll be asked in your Sociology courses to consider social issues. In these instances, you'll want to consider the social, political, even economical forces that contribute to or influence these issues.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Social Issues Paper is finding a topic that is interesting and appropriate. Your class discussions and course materials should help. If, for example, your course is concerned with the effects of WWII on women's lives in industrial America, you'll want to choose a topic that's relevant.
Be sure that your topic is sufficiently focused. The Sociology Student Writer's Manual (182-183; see references) has some good advice on narrowing topics for Social Issues Papers. They recommend that you consider thinking about your topic in the following ways:
Sometimes in your Sociology classes you'll be asked to take a close look at an individual social group or unit, and to identify:
When you begin your case study or ethnographic research, be sure that you focus your topic. For example, you'll want to discuss not every relationship between people in that group, but certain relationships - say, the relationship between mothers and sons in single-parent/single-child households.
When doing your case study, make sure that the facts you collect are solid. Observe your subjects carefully. Be meticulous in your collection of data.
Once you have your data, remember: interpretation of data is risky, because it's subjective. Avoid being simplistic in your interpretation. In other words, don't settle for the first interpretation that comes to mind. Try out several theories, and challenge each one of them. Only then can you be confident in your interpretation.
Sometimes your Sociology professors will ask you to go to the library, do some reading in the field, and write a research paper on your findings. This sort of assignment is a "General Research Paper." These papers do not differ much from those you will do in other disciplines.
For more information, see Researching Your Topic. Also, talk with your professor. She is sure to have requirements and expectations specific to her course.
When you write with data - for example, when you're providing the results and analysis of a survey you've done - you'll want to make sure that your paper contains the proper formal elements, and that you know how to create the necessary charts and graphs. (A full, more general discussion of these elements follows.)
Formats will vary slightly among the different kinds of Sociology papers. Most Dartmouth professors will explain which format is appropriate when they make the assignment. If they don't, ask.
In general, Sociology papers include the following elements:
Centered on the page, the title page should announce: the title of your paper, your name, the course's name and number, the instructor's name, the name of the college, and the date.
Your title should announce clearly the paper's topic. Titles should neither be too broad, nor too "cutesy." "Corruption in Post-World War II Chicago Politics" is much clearer than a paper entitled "Corruption" or "Chicago Politics." And while "Windy City Favors" may be a nice title for a movie, it is not an appropriate title for a Sociology paper.
Abstracts are brief summaries, no longer than 150 words, that summarize your paper's topic, research methods, results, and conclusions.
While many Dartmouth professors will not require you to write an abstract, abstracts are standard in professional writing in Sociology. When researchers are scouring hundreds of articles for information, abstracts help them to decide whether or not a paper contains information that they will find useful. Indeed, as you do your own research you'll find that abstracts are enormously helpful.
If you've done research of your own, you'll want to include a section on methodology. This section describes how you conducted your research. Did you use a survey? Conduct interviews? If you created a questionnaire, you'll want to include that in an appendix.
Again, this page is necessary if your paper includes data generated from your own research. Here you'll provide the reader with any data generated by your study. You may need to include tables or graphs. These might also be placed in appendices.
The text of your paper should follow the standard format for margins, spacing, fonts and so on. These standards can be found in style guides published by the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), or the American Sociological Association (ASA). Ask your professor which format she prefers.
Tables, charts and graphs help your reader to draw conclusions. Such graphical information should say something new and be able to stand on its own without further clarification from the text; it should not restate the content of the text. Number your tables, charts, and graphs consecutively, and either place them in the text where the appropriate data is being discussed or place them after the text in appendices.
The reference page and its citations can follow the guidelines of the MLA or APA. The American Sociological Association (ASA) also has its own system. Consult with your professor to find out which system she prefers. Sources also provides assistance in creating your reference page.
Appendices appear at the end of a paper. They help answer questions raised in the text. Often scholars prefer to place maps, charts, tables, and so on at the end of the paper rather than inserting them in the text. If you have multiple appendices, label each with a letter (e.g. "Appendix A," "Appendix B," and so on).
When conducting research, it is important to consider the validity of your sources. An article in Time does not carry the same "weight" as an article in an academic journal like American Sociological Review. Magazines like Time might provide an interesting "lead" to more scholarly articles, but it's up to you to find the article or study the original source to review it for yourself.
The Internet too often leads to sloppy research. Just because information appears on the Internet doesn't mean the information is accurate. The Internet has no standards for posting information. So beware.
Sociology professor Deborah King has some simple but important advice for students. She says, "You should be able to walk over to Baker or another library and actually touch the source you are using." If you find useful information on the Internet, make sure a source is cited. If the Internet source makes reference to another study, find that study for yourself.
Last Updated: 7/11/08