Writing in Sociology and Anthropology

Part of the process of obtaining an undergraduate degree in a particular discipline is becoming enculturated into the academic environment- the way these disciplines privilege some beliefs and values, establish methods and habits of research and patterns of thinking, and are influenced by particular theorists. This inter-disciplinary way of behaving changes with time as new attitudes and ideas are espoused. Another way to consider this point is to think of a discipline as a community of researchers who share a common language of expression, a discursive practice that constitutes a particular way of interpreting the world. You demonstrate this enculturation when you exhibit some competency 'speaking' the language of the discipline. This guide attempts to make explicit some of the most salient features of scholarly writing in sociology and anthropology.

Writing an Argumentative Essay

More often than not, the most significant piece of writing you will be asked to undertake in sociology and anthropology at the undergraduate level is the argumentative essay, or thesis-based paper. There are of course many other genres of writing that you will likely come across throughout your program, and many of these, too, will require the development of an argument. If you move on to graduate studies, you will soon realize how argumentative essays are the basic building blocks for longer, more complex and sophisticated endeavours. In any case, the ability to write a thesis-based paper is an important skill to develop and essential for producing any kind of scholarly work across all the disciplines. The reason for this of course, is that in university you are expected to articulate and defend a credible position, idea or insight –be it empirically or theoretically based— rather than regurgitate passively the ideas of others. This is what makes academic writing different from many other genres. To complicate matters further, each discipline has developed its own unique body of theory, methodology, relevant vocabulary and even appropriate referencing format, all of which has an important impact on how you go about constructing an argument.

Before moving on to discuss some helpful insights for improving disciplinary specific writing skills, it is perhaps useful to recap quickly some of the fundamentals of essay writing. You may also find it useful to go over some of our other guides, including:

Generally speaking, the thesis statement is the single most important component of the argumentative essay. Without one, your paper lacks a point of view and sense of direction, and because of this, does not have a rationale or purpose for existing. Another way to think about this is to consider your thesis as the centralizing focus of the paper. The thesis brings coherence to the various lines of reasoning introduced throughout the text. Once you have a clear sense of purpose and direction, you are well poised to begin crafting your essay according to the conventions of your respective discipline.

A Quick Checklist: Planning an Argumentative Paper

  • Do you have a clear and concise thesis (purpose statement)?
  • What's the big picture? Have you established a coherent focus and sense of direction?
  • Have you thought about the most appropriate structural organization and chronological sequencing of your ideas?
  • Have you gathered enough 'evidence' to support the position taken?

Writing an Argumentative Essay in Sociology or Anthropology

One of the most common mistakes of undergraduate essays in disciplines like sociology and anthropology is to adopt a narrative style that seems to imply that all matters within the chosen topic area are well established and agreed upon. Often enough, these papers are overly descriptive and superficial, lacking clear engagement with core sociological/anthropological questions and concerns.

As we pointed out in the first section, writing within a disciplinary perspective is like joining in a pre-existing conversation with a community of researchers. As we listen to these researchers we become aware of several things. They don't always agree; they don't always look at a problem through the same lens or from the same perspective; and the issues they talk about as well as the dominant theoretical perspectives change over time as some debaters leave the room and new ones enter.

As a student, you are expected to learn what the scholars in your discipline are speaking about and as you read and listen you will become more and more familiar

with the vocabulary of this new sub-culture. You too will begin to speak the language of sociology or anthropology. You will see that not only is there a common style, an acknowledgment of a shared tradition, but that there are current trends in the way people think. In order to be accepted into the group and to serve out your apprenticeship, you will have to learn to adhere to the common styles, traditions, and be aware of the current trends.

The best way to do this is to listen carefully to the way your professor talks, to examine how s/he reasons through a problem, and to get a sense of what has been done, what is current, and where future research possibilities lie by reading books and journal articles in the field. Then when you write, instead of writing a descriptive narrative, you will be able to articulate and sustain an argument by drawing upon a relevant body of theory and literature to support the position you have taken.

What is Sociology? What is Anthropology?

At the most basic level, for instance, both sociology and anthropology seek to examine and understand human interaction and social processes as socio-cultural constructs rather than products of biologically determined phenomenon. Historically, sociologists have tended to focus on interpersonal dynamics and processes of social change in modern industrialized nation-states, while anthropologists, sharing similar epistemic concerns, have typically devoted their attention to traditional non-industrialized societies. In more recent years, however, the line separating these disciplines has blurred considerably, though important differences in regard to theoretical ambitions, methodological approaches and relevant foundational canon nevertheless continue to distinguish the two areas of study.

So, what is a sociological theoretical perspective or appropriate research methodology? If you recall from your sociological theory class, theoretical perspectives are interpretive frameworks which allow researchers to make certain assumptions about the world in order to facilitate social analysis. If sociologists are able to agree upon anything, it is that social analysis requires a plan – interpretive framework - to help begin making sense of the immense complexity that is characteristic of our social world. Researchers never conduct their work with a mental blank slate. Within sociology, three major traditions dominate the discipline: (i) Functionalism, (ii) Conflict Theory and (iii) Symbolic Interactionism. Each of these is associated with key founding figures and countless numbers of subsequent disciples and acolytes, including for instance, Emile Durkheim (Functionalism), Karl

Marx (Conflict Theory), and George Herbert Mead (Symbolic Interactionism), to name only a few examples. If theory can be understood as the lens we apply to social inquiry, then methodology refers to the underlying philosophical assumptions associated with the techniques of investigation, which is conceptually tied to the actual method/s deployed. Although most undergraduate essays are based on a secondary analysis of the literature, this does not preclude the student writer from engaging in a discussion on the principles and rationale used to obtain and examine "data."

As previously mentioned, socio-cultural anthropology shares many similarities with sociology, including intellectual origins that trace back to the likes of E. Durkheim and K. Marx. There are also important differences that distinguish the two disciplines as well, particularly as one looks back to the early development of the discipline of anthropology. Throughout this early period, the study of anthropology was influenced significantly by close dialogue between the discipline's four main sub- fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, socio-cultural anthropology and linguistics. Although some anthropology departments continue on with this four- field approach, it is not uncommon today to see many departments focus exclusively on one of these fields. For much of anthropology's history, three main theoretical orientations prevailed: (i) evolutionism, (ii) historical-particularism, and (iii) structural-functionalism (Barrett 1996). More recently, and influenced by current trends in social theory, other theoretical perspectives –namely feminism and post- structuralism— have contributed to redefining the anthropological imagination. In terms of methodology, anthropology is well known for a commitment to first-hand, empirical research. The goal for anthropology students writing essays, just as it is for those in sociology, is to be able to engage with this disciplinary tradition and offer new insight going forward.

When writing an essay from a disciplinary-based perspective, it is important to consider your audience. In most cases, it will consist of your professor, a graduate teaching assistant, or perhaps a peer; each will have varying degrees of socialization into the discipline. With this in mind, particularly at the senior undergraduate level, it is crucial to be able to go on and connect your chosen topic and formulated thesis with an appropriate theoretical perspective (or perspectives) grounded in the tradition of your respective discipline. Likewise, you should also discuss the methodology deployed in your study (or that of those you are examining if you are undergoing a secondary analysis of the existing literature). Theory and methodology reflect the lenses and techniques researchers draw upon in order to go about uncovering and making sense of what they study. Good research makes this clear and allows conclusions drawn to be considered as outcomes of reasoned inquiry rather than speculative opinion.

A Quick Checklist: Applying Theory and Methodology in Your Essay:

  • Are you able to identify what theoretical perspective(s) and methodological approach(es) is (or are) pertinent to your examination?
  • Do you discuss how such research strategies impact your chosen topic of interest?
  • Can you explain and justify the assumptions, limitations, alternatives, and presumably, advantages to your choice of theory and methodology?


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