The craft of writing in sociology
eBook - ePub

The craft of writing in sociology

Developing the argument in undergraduate essays and dissertations

Andrew Balmer, Anne Murcott

  1. 216 pagine
  2. English
  3. ePUB (disponibile sull'app)
  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

The craft of writing in sociology

Developing the argument in undergraduate essays and dissertations

Andrew Balmer, Anne Murcott

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Anteprima del libro
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This is an indispensable companion for students studying sociology and related disciplines, such as politics and human geography, as well as courses which draw upon sociological writing, such as nursing, social psychology or health studies. It demystifies the process of constructing coherent and powerful arguments, starting from an essay's opening paragraphs, building evidence and sequencing key points in the middle, through to pulling together a punchy conclusion. It gives a clear and helpful overview of the most important grammatical rules in English, and provides advice on how to solve common problems experienced in writing, including getting rid of waffle, overcoming writer's block and cutting an essay down to its required length. Using examples from essays written by sociology students at leading universities, the book shows what they have done well, what could be done better and how to improve their work using the techniques reviewed.

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Part I
Principles and practices of writing and argumentation
Reading critically and making notes
It is no accident that the somewhat old-fashioned expression in the English language for studying a subject at university is ‘reading’. In preparing your own texts for your degree course you will need to show that you have read relevant material. So you will have to incorporate into your written work reference to, and discussion of, the materials you have read. Although the requirement to cite, reference and organise your reading is most important in an essay, it is also necessary, albeit to a lesser degree, if you wish to do well in your exams. In both cases you have to weave texts (whether books, journal articles or chapters in edited collections) that you have read into your discussion to try to draw these materials together and compare and contrast them.
To be able to do this it is essential to read not only widely but also in depth, in addition to making useful notes on what you have read. Indeed, this is what constitutes much of the work of writing an essay. So the more value you place on the process of reading and making notes, the more your written work will benefit. Moreover, it is especially important that you read ‘critically’ in order to generate good notes that will help you to build the framework for your argument and enable you to shape your essays into a logical and concise structure. Here, incidentally, as elsewhere in the book, we use ‘critical’ in its scholarly sense. This involves being enquiring and open-minded and avoiding taking what you read at face value, all of which has to be coupled with dealing with concepts and using your skills of discussion and evaluation. Remember that this is different from the everyday use of the word ‘critical’ to mean being disapproving, derogatory or finding fault.
You may already have realised that in the type of focus on concepts and evaluation needed for academic work, it is important to have some sense both of what you are looking for as you read and of how to keep track of this information in your notes. In what follows we examine the key dimensions of critical reading and note taking. First of all, we look at how you can ensure you read widely, at the same time as maintaining a focus both on your topic area and on good-quality materials.
How to read widely
To read widely start with the basic reading required for your course. For most modules you will be assigned readings for your lectures and seminars. It is wise to read these as the course progresses and to keep your notes on them all together so that when the module ends you will have an organised collection of notes to get you going. However, you should make new sets of notes when preparing an essay to reflect what you have learned since you made the first notes on what you read. Essays normally focus on a particular part of the module and so it is a good idea to go over in depth the readings that were required for the lectures, seminars and workshops that covered the topic identified by the essay. An important element in understanding materials specific to the essay topic is to position them in the context of the issues dealt with in the course as a whole. So, for instance, imagine you are taking a course on ‘Race and Ethnicity’ and you are writing an essay on ‘Whiteness and Class’. Focusing on readings around whiteness and class will be important, but equally important will be understanding how those readings and this issue fit into the broader cluster of issues, questions, theories and developments in the field of race and ethnicity studies in general.
Lecturers tend to choose the key readings for a course from the major thinkers on a topic, or to select articles and chapters that include good reviews of the material in that area. The latter in particular often include references to other important books and articles in the specific field. So, to begin reading more widely, look at the bibliographies of the required readings and pick out those that seem to be most relevant to the essay question you are tackling. Reading the abstracts of articles or the introductions and conclusions of books can be a good and quite quick way to get a sense of whether the work will be relevant.
When you go through your lecture notes and the key readings for a module, you can often spot who the key contemporary thinkers are in the particular topic area you are studying – quite simply, their names keep cropping up. So make a quick list of the names of the main scholars in the field and then look for these in a search engine. Because academics are increasingly required to make their materials publicly available, there are now good repositories of articles and other materials easily available on university and academics’ personal websites. You can often find a personal or professional website for living academics on which they will have a list of their publications, sometimes highlighting their major outputs, often with a link to a free copy of an article. Reading additional material by key authors can be a good way to build your understanding of the topics and the context of the way their thinking has developed. Indeed, situating a specific book or article by one or another author in the broader body of their research and interests is often valuable for helping understand the significance of the specific piece with which you started – and it can be an effective way of opening your essay and getting to grips with its argument.
The amount of any one item you should read varies. Much of the time you will need to read the whole of a journal article, usually at least twice, to be sure you have grasped its import and to make critical notes. Now and then you may need only to skim an article or read one section. Similarly, you will sometimes need to read a book from cover to cover. Often, however, you can select chapters or sections that are most relevant – remember to check the index as well as the contents page to give you an idea of which sections to read. If you are not sure whether to read the whole text or just a selection, ask your tutors’ advice. Listen out for the criteria they use to make the decision and, if necessary, ask them what those criteria are. That way you can gradually learn to make such decisions for yourself.
As you progress through this initial, focused process of collecting materials, be sure to read and make notes at each stage. And keep re-reading those notes, thinking about which, if any, have some sort of link with others and which do not. This will help you plan and shape your continued search for relevant reading, as well as helping you decide when you have enough to go on. It also means that you can develop and extend your notes in relation to each other while you work, rather than simply collecting a haphazard bunch of materials whose relations to one another have not been considered, which risks leaving you simply feeling swamped with no idea where to start.
Once you have done this initial reading you will probably have a good sense of the central concepts and themes about the topic you are studying. These should then form the search criteria you use in internet and library search engines. Starting from course materials and working outwards towards online searches is a good way of going about things because it helps you to shape your searches in a constructive and focused way. It gives you clear lines of enquiry and leaves you with a good sense that you are making headway. There is so much material online and in libraries today that it is very easy to get lost in it all. By drawing together recommended materials first and then using these as the basis for your wider searches you will save time and greatly reduce the risk of losing focus. Use your library’s search engine, which will often allow you to find materials it holds both in hard copy and in digital form.
Be careful as you begin and progress through your reading not to fall into either of two traps. One trap to avoid is the possibility that an author may not be dedicated to the type of systematic study that is essential to academic work. Instead, an author may be presenting a particular ‘line’ or mounting a campaign, or may have a vested interest in putting forward some particular account. It is crucial not to rely on just one text to summarise a field or some other body of work. It is also crucial to refer back wherever possible to the original sources so as to check for yourself how those earlier works are being presented. The other trap is forgetting that some (often older) books, even in sociology, are written in a style that assumes consensus, or assumes that there is a single truth to be revealed and that the given text has discovered it. Such consensus less and less frequently holds and you should remember to read the ‘voice’ of a text as just one possible position on the subject, against which you might compare and contrast other voices, including your own. A helpful tip for spotting this kind of ‘bias’ is to check whether the author has adequately presented alternative viewpoints and made an argument in reference to other scholarship. Failure to do so can indicate that a view is being presented as fact.
Summarising and locating the text
When reading a text and using it in your essay it is very helpful to be able to quickly summarise and locate that particular text in its scholarly context.
Summarising the text
Some texts that you will deal with in an essay form the primary focus or source through which you will develop your argument, so they will need additional, special attention. In order to summarise a text such as this you should identify its main argument. Think about what its main subject matter is and then break it down into a series of more specific claims. So, for example, we might say that Goffman’s book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is concerned primarily with the way people manage face-to-face interaction in given situations. To add to this basic kind of summary it can be useful to reflect on a number of elements that most texts have, and how they are related. In short, you could consider how the methods, main arguments, theories and data are related. Looking out for these connections and mapping them out in relation to your major sources for your essays can be a useful way of organising some of your critical reading and note taking. You should also be looking for the evidence used to justify the arguments made in a text.
Try answering some of the following questions about the main texts that you deal with in your essays.
1.At what level of social organisation does the text conduct its analysis? Some examples could include:
a.Macro structures such as social institutions, e.g. family and kinship, religion or education;
b.Micro structures, e.g. social interaction, or forms of relationship, e.g. studies of friends, colleagues or acquaintances.
2.How do the methods and methodology relate to this level of social organisation? We can break this broad question down into two separate questions:
a.Which method has been used for the study and what kinds of social phenomena can be studied using this method? For example, a social survey is most appropriate to enquire about patterns in society at the level of macro structures, as is the case with statistical analyses of social class.
b.How does the methodology relate to the question posed by the text? For example, such a statistical examination of class is liable to assume a positivist methodological outlook and so will highlight concerns of validity, reliability and generalisability.
3.Is it a largely empirical or a theoretical work? If it is both, how are data and theory related to one another?
a.Where do the data come from and what form do they take?
b.How well do the data support the conclusions?
c.Are there possible interpretations of the data which have been overlooked?
d.Are the theories developed based on the data?
e.Are new theories being justified on the basis of the data?
f.Are existing theories being used to interpret the data?
g.Would other possible theories have been more useful to interpret these data?
h.Is there more than one theory at stake?
By answering some of these questions you can begin to categorise the texts you are using in a more substantial manner and thereby make them more pertinent to a particular question. For example, exploring these questions in the case of Goffman’s book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we might summarise it thus:
The book is concerned primarily with how people manage face-to-face interaction in given situations, which is explored through what Goffman terms the ‘dramaturgical method’. By invoking dramaturgy he draws a comparison between everyday life and the theatre. He uses this approach to explore the microstructures of everyday interaction, both those he observes in a range of situations first-hand and picked up from other sources. Based on these data of everyday life Goffman proposes a theory of social interaction as being made up of strategically managed performances.
By summarising the texts according to the way their methods, main arguments, theories and data are related, you can write concise statements about the way a given text could be useful to respond to the question you are tackling. For example, if you had to answer a question about gender you could relate Goffman’s book to this topic by highlighting the way in which his dramaturgical analogy can be used to cast gender as a performance, the presentation of self, conducted in specific social situations as part of a strategic interaction between actors. In other words, answering some of these questions in your summaries allows you to point to the value of the text in approaching the question and can in turn lead your reader in the direction that your essays indicate. Indeed, summarising texts can often be a good way to begin essays (see Chapter 3).
Moreover, drawing out such relations between the various features of a sociological text can be a valuable way of learning how to compare the works of different thinkers. Comparing (and contrasting) texts is a good way of developing your ability to think critically. For example, looking at these features you might discern that a difference in argument between two thinkers perhaps arises as a consequence of their using different methods to approach the subject or comes about because they draw on data from different types of source. This illustrates a type of good, critical point to make and will allow you to articulate how different arguments have been developed by other thinkers and thus help you build your own argument alongside theirs by virtue of your pointing out those differences. We will consider these kinds of critical approaches to argument later in this chapter and in the following chapters.
Locating the text
When summa...

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Stili delle citazioni per The craft of writing in sociology

APA 6 Citation

Balmer, A., & Murcott, A. (2017). The craft of writing in sociology (1st ed.). Manchester University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)

Chicago Citation

Balmer, Andrew, and Anne Murcott. (2017) 2017. The Craft of Writing in Sociology. 1st ed. Manchester University Press.

Harvard Citation

Balmer, A. and Murcott, A. (2017) The craft of writing in sociology. 1st edn. Manchester University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Balmer, Andrew, and Anne Murcott. The Craft of Writing in Sociology. 1st ed. Manchester University Press, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.