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Lecturer's advice

Cathi Lewis, Lecturer In this section, one of your lecturers - Cathi Lewis - answers Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about researching and writing of essays in first-year Sociology.

FAQs: Click on those topic areas that are of interest to you, or that you need to know more about.

  1. What exactly is a "sociological perspective"?
  2. What are the main writing difficulties students have?
  3. What constitutes "evidence" in Sociology and how should I use it in my essays?
  4. What makes a good essay?
  5. How much should I read for an essay?
  6. What if the text I am reading is too difficult?
  7. What writing style should I adopt?
  8. What final piece of advice do you have?

1. What exactly is a "sociological perspective"?


  • Using sociological theories to understand your social world
  • Questioning assumptions and viewing your social world as the object of scientific study
  • Using sociological concepts and terminology

Taking a sociological perspective means being able to stand outside your social world and looking at it as though you have never seen it before, examining it as an object of scientific study. In doing so, you will use sociological theory to understand social phenomena; you will question your own preconceived ideas and assumptions; and apply sociological concepts to familiar phenomena.

Using sociological theory

To have a sociological perspective is to look at your social world in terms of the major sociological theories. Generally speaking, there are three main strands in Sociological theory: Functionalism, Marxism and Critical Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism (there are also subgroups and combinations of these). Sociologists generally examine social interactions and institutions in terms of social power and the political (in the sense of who has power over others, who controls what, who doesn't have it) and how these social factors shape or determine to some extent this group or this individual's behaviours. A sociological perspective looks at the impact of social factors such as age, gender, ethnic group, socioeconomic group, cultural group, national group, geographical location, occupational group, education, and so on.

Questioning assumptions

The other part of acquiring a sociological perspective is to break the set of assumptions we have about our social world. You need to be able to stand outside your own ideological frameworks and see the everyday and the ordinary as unfamiliar and the object of scientific study. Students often have difficulty with this because they are dealing with familiar material, and may think it is simpler that it is. In many ways, it is much easier for an anthropologist to make objective observations about a culture because it is a culture that is foreign to them; they sit outside it. This is probably the key problem for our students; that is, to be able to reflect on what is familiar.

Using sociological concepts and terminology

There are a series of concepts that are specific to Sociology that students have to come to grips with. For example, most students would not previously have come across the concept of "anomie", a sociological term that means an absence of rules of behaviour (or norms). Now, there are no layperson's terms for these concepts, so students have to acquire an understanding of them in the sociological context before they can explore a particular question.

In addition to the terms that are exclusive to the discipline of Sociology, sociologists have also appropriated certain common everyday words and given them different meanings. They are specific jargon to the discipline so students have to unlearn and reuse words in new ways.

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2. What are the main writing difficulties students have?


  • Trying to write it like an "issues" essay, with an argument between two sides
  • Simplification of the issues
  • Problems with conclusions
  • Definitive statements

Students tend to think that an argument involves only two sides; however this is a simplification. By exposing students to a diversity of views, we are trying to give them the ability to complicate their thinking rather than simplify their thinking. It is very tempting to slap on a label and try to explain our world in the simplest possible way - a way that just fits our particular predispositions and prejudices anyway. In Sociology, however, we need to look more objectively and in a culturally relative way at phenomena. Examining a range of theorists enables students to look at a social institution in more complex ways. There are never only two sides, but rather a multiplicity of positions.

We're not looking so much for you to make a definite or finalising conclusion. Rather we're trying to get students to ask questions. For example, the topic 'Is mass media integral to popular culture?' is a prompt to get students to think about popular culture and where it comes from, who owns the means of production, who decides what is seen, and so on. So we're not actually looking for a definitive answer to that question, but rather to find that there are problems in trying to answer the question.

So in looking at these problems and issues, you need to read a number of theorists, for one theorist is not likely to have all the answers. While Mr. X has said this and Ms. Y has said that, neither of them has seen the whole picture. So your conclusion is more likely to be something along the lines of "In this situation under these conditions that part of theory has validity, while, however, it is not useful in explaining ABC".

So what this means is that students really need to spend a lot of time on the conclusion because that's really where they are drawing all of the threads together.

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3. What constitutes "evidence" in sociology and how should I use it in my essays?


  • use theory, empirical studies, and example
  • use a number of theroists and studies for different perspectives on the same topic

I would expect students to substantiate specific points by drawing on the theorists, and also on empirical evidence from studies. I would also expect them to use examples to illustrate their points.

Engaging with the theorists often involves critiquing one theorist and then bringing in another theorist to develop an area that wasn't sufficiently scrutinised or not dealt with at all by the first theorist. So you use theorists like a box of tools for carpentry. In carpentry, you use a hammer for the nails and a screw driver for the screws. In sociology, use whichever theorist you need in order to examine a particular problem, and another theorist for a different problem. (Also, take note that being "critical" doesn't necessarily mean being negative; it means to analyse something terms of its strengths and weaknesses.)

Students should also reflect on the issues themselves, imagining situations and using their own experiences (but not relying on them). So the anecdote or the example that you have encountered can be used to illustrate the point you are making with the theory and empirical studies. It won't substantiate your argument, but it adds to it. You should use anecdotal examples sparingly, however. You can use your reflective processes to UNDERSTAND the concepts, but not use them as evidence for your essay.

So, theorists, empirical studies, and examples are the tools which you would use (not to argue one line of argument) but to critically EXAMINE an area, to scrutinise a social institution from a range of perspectives.

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4. What makes a good essay?


  • Demonstrated understanding of concepts
  • Application of theory and concepts to sociological phenomena
  • Attention to the technical aspects of good writing

A good essay will demonstrate a solid understanding of the sociological concepts and terminology. To help you come to grips with the terminology, it is very useful to have your own copy of the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. The basic Sociology text reinforces the central concepts at the end of each chapter. Take note of how the authors of the text use the jargon.

A good essay will also be able to APPLY these terms to social institutions and phenomena. You are not just looking at - or just describing - phenomena, but actually trying to INTERPRET it using the sociological theory and concepts you have learned. You need to show your ability to REFLECT on what you are reading, and EVALUATE sociological interpretations of phenomena that you have read about.

Students will need to read and evaluate previous and current research and be able to critique it. That's where the student's own originality comes into the essay. To be original, you do not have to devise your own social theory. You do need to respond to the theories and empirical studies you have read and evaluate them according to how accurate they are or how useful they are in understanding social phenomena. For example, is a theory useful across all societies, or just in this particular society, or in just this segment of society and so on. You don't have to come up with something startlingly new, but you do need to demonstrate that you've been thinking for yourself and that you can actually evaluate and integrate the existing research.

A good essay will also pay attention to the technical aspects of writing an essay. It should have a well-developed logical structure, and the writing should be precise and as free of errors as possible. Students are in practice to be professionals. In three years' time, they are going out into the workplace and acting as professionals. Students should be attempting to master the art of essay writing and communicating effectively in their first year.

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5. How much should I read for an essay?


  • For a major essay, 15 references
  • The internet is of limited use

You actually have to do a lot of reading for Sociology. Don't stick to one or two theorists. You should have a diversity of aspects from which you explore the topic. Read at least 15 references for a major essay (a reference can include just one chapter out of a book; you don't need to read the whole book). You need to read for the specific topic, but in Sociology it is often highly beneficial to read around the topic as well, as that is often how you make interesting connections between ideas. There is an interrelatedness between social phenomena and institutions; for example, when you are talking about the family, you can link it up with popular culture, and so on. Remember this when researching; for example, if students are given a topic on "media and gender", they will often look for something on "media" and something on "gender" and they won't look for anything on "gender and media". The course may be divided up into concepts of family, gender, and so on, but that is for convenience of discussion only; in reality, they are all intimately related.

The internet is generally not a useful resource for Sociology. Generally speaking, the information that is provided for free is quite often wrong. It is difficult to authenticate sources and resources. You should use the internet only to find academic journal articles.

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6. What if the text I am reading is too difficult?


  • Use a dictionary of sociology
  • Get another introductory text from the library
  • Practice reading strategies
  • Join a study group
  • Write notes

First of all you should have a dictionary of sociology with you as you read.

Go to the library and pull out another introductory text to see if the language is easier. All introductory texts will cover the same issues (e.g. gender and mass media) so they'll have those same kinds of chapters in other texts, but they may be explained in a different way that you find more understandable. Read around the topic areas and it will help you when you go back to the prescribed text.

Try to get a sense of the overall structure of the argument in the chapter, by first reading the introduction and the conclusion, and from that you can probably start to draw out the main themes. Then scan through the chapter first, just to get a sense of the issues, reading just the topic sentences and looking for key words. And then finally go back and read really closely, sentence by sentence, and with a dictionary and a dictionary of sociology. Take the time and trouble to work it out, even if it takes a while. Once you've done that for one passage of the text, it's much easier for the rest of it.

Study groups are helpful. Talk over the issues; practise explaining the concepts to each other.

Use the books you have purchased as resources; write in them, annotate them, highlight them. Do not worry about the resale value of the book; these books should be thoroughly and utterly a rag by the end of it. You should do a lot of work in the text first and then write notes on paper and have those notes well referenced. You will only be able to learn and understand the information if you write notes. You cannot digest the material just through reading.

One of the things you can do as you are reading is to write down questions that you might like to ask the tutor in the tutorial.

A note of caution: When taking notes be careful to distinguish between what are the exact words from the text (use quotation marks) and what are your summaries or paraphrases of the text. If you don't do this, you may inadvertently incorporate the author's words as though they were your own in your essay. See the Department policy on Plagiarism for further advice.

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7. What writing style should I adopt?


  • Formal, nonjournalistic style
  • Avoid emotive and judgmental language
  • Assume an intelligent, well-educated reader is your audience

Because Sociology deals with current affairs, students are sometimes tempted to adopt a journalistic style of writing. This is not appropriate for an academic paper, which should be written in a formal style of writing that avoids emotive and judgmental language. (See the section on Academic Language in the Skills for Writing module of this tutorial).

Sociology deals with social institutions and social rituals and norms of behaviour from your own popular culture, and so the issues involved can be emotionally charged. However, the aim of Sociology is to get you to stand outside your immediate emotional responses as much as possible and to be a critical observer whose judgment is based on a dispassionate assessment of the evidence.

Many students ask if they can use the first-person pronoun " I" in their writing. The views about this among Arts faculty lecturers are mixed. Some social theorists argue that the use of the "I" should be considered acceptable in academic writing. However, traditionally, the "I" is avoided in academic writing. My view is that undergraduate students should practise not using "I" in their writing. One of the main difficulties that students have is a tendency to write "I think" and "I believe" when what we are trying to get them to do is to suspend their unsubstantiated opinions and beliefs and assess theories and concepts objectively, using evidence.

You should assume that your audience is an intelligent, well-educated reader, with knowledge of sociological terms. Do not start with basic definitions from a standard dictionary; start from where you have got up to in class. For example, do not define "popular" and "media" and "mass culture" from a standard dictionary. Start your essay from what we have been talking about in class about the sociological meaning of "mass media" and "popular culture". You should examine the matter beyond what you have learned in lectures and tutorials. We want you to go beyond that and into the readings. You will need to demonstrate that you understand the readings and that you have reflected on the readings; that you can understand and use the ideas; that you can apply the ideas.

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8. What final piece of advice do you have?


  • Read as much as you can
  • Evaluate theories
  • Think of concrete examples


  • Do lots of reading - as much as you can stash in your brain! For writing the assignment, start back at least four weeks before it's due and read your head off.
  • Be exposed to current issues. You also need to be reading the newspapers and listening to reputable current affairs programs (ABC and SBS). Get to know your social world.
  • Discuss your reading - bounce ideas around and debate with anybody. It is also a good idea to write down your intellectual activity in a diary as you are going, because to do so requires a lot of thinking and will help you come to a clearer understanding of the issues.

Evaluating the theory

  • Explore alternative ideas - always think of the opposite to what the theorist is saying and test it out.
  • When you are evaluating a theory - always think about different cultures and different eras from your own culture and try to test it there. Try to think outside of your own country, your own time, your own sociocultural group.
  • Try to understand the particular social context of the social theorist you are reading - if the theorist lived in the 19th Century, it is useful to know something about that period and to imagine what they would have seen and experienced in their daily life.

Concepts and concrete examples

  • In dealing with sociological concepts, try to think of a concrete example. For example, when you are talking of alienation, visualise an actual social situation.

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