W r i t i n g     L i k e     A     S o c i o l o g i s t

How to write like a sociologist, which is a reflection of your sociological imagination, is not something you are expected to know at the beginning of the semester but rather to develop as the semester and your academic career progresses. In general, as has been pointed out in other sections of these Paper Guidelines, writing like a sociologist reflects your respect for the intellectual enterprise -- most specifically, respect for the intellectual enterprise of developing a sociological imagination.  Learning how to use your mind effectively is just like learning how to use any other tool effectively -- it takes time, concentration, energy, dedication, and practice.  That means you need to be persistent, focused, and committed -- in short, you need to be engaged.  Since I have a working sociological imagination -- and I use it all the time -- what happens in the classroom, and how I participate in your online discussions, the comments I make on your Sharing Assignments, and Presentations -- including the design of this course -- all DISPLAY a working sociological imagination.  Therefore, if you are engaged only part of the time you are 'participating' in those things -- or you do those things with little persistence, focus, or commitment, your grade -- both in the course and on your papers -- will reflect that. 

The following information is some basic advice about what to avoid and alternatives to get you started on the right path. As indicated in the General Formatting section, failure to adhere to the recommendations here will result in point losses so attention detail and editing your own work are skills you'll want to develop.

Sociological Style as a reflection of Sociological Imagination

Focus your paper on social facts including social groups, social structures, norms, patterns of behavior, social institutions, and social organization. If you find yourself talking about individuals, make sure you place them in a social context; use their age, race, nationality, gender, and other relevant social characteristics (social class, occupation, education, position, etc.) to do so.  Using the example from Cites -- 'some men tip their hats when greeting women' -- the behavior (greeting) is clarified through the identification of the social characteristics of the people involved: men and women.  Social characteristics are often much more specific and indicated by factors such as age, ethnicity, occupation, or other more behavior-based characteristics such as 'attractiveness', or 'flirtatiousness' and include stereotypes 'jock', 'valley girl', 'curmudgeon', etc.  Where the behavior takes place, and when it takes place are equally important components of social facts.  Additional components of social facts define and describe the social context so time of day, and all kinds of information related to social distance between the parties involved -- how well they know each other, and factors that explain why they are in the same space at the same time or the extent to which it is a shared experience, define social context.  Social facts are NOT general or abstract; they are specific and detailed and clear.  The above provides a pretty good clarification of the level of detail you need to be dealing with in your papers; the extent to which you are able to sustain this level of detail in your papers reflects the quality of your sociological imagination.

Additionally, a focus on social facts means that you are sticking with arguments that you can support with empirical evidence.  Reliable statistics or numbers, or other information from sociological (or other reliable) sources including theoretical claims made by sociologists or relevant experts, constitute evidence required to support your argument. We will have discussed 'empirical' in class so you should know what it means.  The basic difference between empiricism and persuasive (and often morally or opinion driven writing) is that the first relies upon evidence to build an argument and the second relies upon emotional reaction to value-laden and often hyperbolic claims.  Empiricism means that you are describing events, consequences, behaviors, outcomes, results, actual observations without resorting to expressing your opinion or feelings.  Describe your position in detail, with clarity about behaviors, social patterns, etc. in terms that are both specific and empirically verifiable.  For example, 'some people believe' leaves me wondering who, how many, and how you know that. 'Child abuse is horrible' leads me to ask exactly why? 'Horrible', by the way, is both value-laden and ambiguous; it cannot be empirically verified without defining empirically what consequences constitute 'horrible' -- just discuss the consequences.  The use of value-laden and ambiguous language reflects unsupported opinion-based writing/thinking and is a poor substitute for empiricism; it reflects a poorly developed sociological imagination because it uses individual opinion in the place of clarity, detail, and precision.  It reflects a lazy mind, a willingness to take shortcuts, and a lack of intellectualism. 

Therefore, the advice is to avoid stating your opinion directly.  Sociologists do not have to rely upon hyperbole or value-based arguments -- the facts are often shocking enough to generate emotional reaction.  Your opinion -- displayed through your use of social facts and your sociological imagination -- will become clear if you craft your argument using sociological language and rely upon empirical evidence. 

Individualizing your argument is indicated by the use of the generic 'you'; since sociology is the study of people in groups, and NO sociological theory is directed at explaining INDIVIDUAL behavior, the use of the generic 'you' in papers displays a FUNDEMENTAL misunderstanding of the sociological enterprise.  Similarly, using your own personal experience as if ALL people would understand, react, act, think, feel, behave, etc. THE SAME WAY YOU DO also displays a FUNDEMENTAL misunderstanding of the sociological enterprise -- this is called Personalizing your argument.  In more sociological terms, Personalizing, as well as Individualizing, is ethnocentric, and both display a flaw in logic similar to anthropomorphism.  Essentially it indicates an assumption that all individuals are the same OR that social characteristics have no role in differences among individuals -- both patently untrue as is obvious in daily life.

Similarly, you should be relying upon sociological theory in your explanations of social facts and, for 101 students, in your explanations of your observations.

Your papers will, therefore, reflect your understanding of and ability to apply (use correctly) relevant sociological terms.  Correct use of relevant sociological terms/language in ALL instances indicates a working sociological imagination.  By extension, use of common language instead of relevant sociological terms reflects a poorly developed sociological imagination.  As indicated on your Paper Checklist, the use of generic 'man', 'American' to refer to people in the US, anthropomorphizing, moralizing, individualizing, and personalizing all indicate a poorly developed sociological imagination as well.  See Common Problems for more details on these particular language issues.

Argument Development

You are welcome to use 'I' in your papers, after all, it is your work, but avoid explaining or using individual behavior in the absence of appropriate social context. For example, if you find yourself explaining things in terms of personality you will have to rethink the sociological context and find sociological language to discuss it.  Similarly, avoid explaining individual behavior.  Sociologists deal with social behavior and behavior patterns associated with people in different social groups or classifications; don't get hung up on trying to explain why one person did something -- focus instead on dealing with how that person's behavior might indicate their particular social context including their social background, socialization experiences, social class, race, gender, age, or other social factors.  Deal with individual behavior as examples that illustrate or indicate the social characteristics of the individuals exhibiting the behaviors and thereby demonstrate the social context of the event or social facts you are trying to explain.

In general, it is a particular set of social facts, or a specific social context, that you want to make the focus of your paper.  In fact, the more specific the 'topic' of your paper is, the better you can develop your argument because it will limit the range of details you need to address to make a strong argument.  Make clear what you are trying to explain and what the focus of your paper is in your introductory paragraph.  The sentence that makes this clear is called your theme or your problem statement; it should clearly identify the social facts you are trying to explain.  Often the most logical place for your theme or problem statement is as the last sentence in your introductory paragraph.

The body of your paper should consist of multiple well-developed paragraphs each of which deals with a single sociological concept or idea.  The paragraphs should logically follow from your introduction and successively build your argument to answer the implied question of your theme or problem statement.  As discussed above, empiricism is the key to building components of a sociological argument. Sociological theory should offer you a framework for the logical development of your paper. Use the logic of sociological theory to order your paragraphs and step you -- and your reader -- toward your conclusion.  You want each paragraph to provide the base for the following paragraph; the progression of your argument through the development of theoretically connected sociological ideas in the body of your paper should lead you/your reader to a conclusion that provides a clear answer to the implied question of your theme or problem statement.  

Your concluding paragraph is your opportunity to engage in a bit of creativity (see Bloom's Taxonomy for clarification); this is the ultimate expression of a well-developed working sociological imagination.  You conclusion consists of a brief summary of your argument; it literally pulls the threads of your argument together in a nice, neat package stating, in one or two sentences, a clear answer to the implied question of your theme or problem statement.  Your opportunity for creativity is in discussing the implications of your conclusion -- keep it simple, keep it clear, keep it concise.

Throughout your paper, you need to use your sources to build your argument.  Generally this means the use of limited quotes but abundant cites indicating that you have gained a deep understanding of the issues.  Good use of sources is reflected in multiple cites from multiple sources in each paragraph; paraphrasing (as opposed to quoting) indicates that you understand the material you are dealing with.  Using multiple sources in a single paragraph indicates that you have analyzed the information in your sources and can use it to evaluate your own knowledge.  Use of multiple cites from multiple sources in each paragraph demonstrates both empiricism and your success in integrating or synthesizing information from your sources to form a coherent explanation for the social facts you are focused on.  For 101 students, a similar use of your observation is expected. 

There are exemplars of previous student work that demonstrate the qualities of good papers posted on my website.  Feel free to use these to get an idea of what a good sociology paper might look like.  Bear in mind, however, that trying to 'mimic' someone else's work is not a substitute for developing a deep understanding of a particular set of social facts.  Papers, and writing in general, reflect thinking -- a well-written, logically, empirically, and theoretically developed paper therefore reflects a working, and developing, sociological imagination.  Your goal is to demonstrate the quality of your sociological imagination by revealing the depth of your knowledge and understanding of a particular set of social facts that interest you.  And choosing social facts that interest you are key to writing good papers because your interest is what will determine the time you invest in the intellectual endeavor it takes to develop your mind and sociological imagination to the point that you can produce a good paper.