Writing in the Social Sciences

Writing in the social sciences is an evidence-based endeavor that expands our knowledge of the world around us and helps policy makers, citizens, etc. make effective decisions about critical issues. Although social scientists are passionate about the work they do, they strive to provide empirical data in an objective manner that is as free from bias as possible. Your mission as a writer in the social sciences is to convey the evidence and knowledge you have acquired in a clear, precise fashion that is objective and well-supported by data and scholarship.

While each discipline (i.e. anthropology, criminal justice, political science, and sociology) will address writing in a slightly different fashion, there are basic tenets to writing in the social sciences that apply across all disciplines. Overall, the key to being an expert writer in the social sciences is being able to write in a clear and precise style in a well-organized fashion that addresses a topic within the scope of your project and employs thorough and logical analysis in order to reach evidence-based conclusions. Remember, just the facts!


Clear and Precise

The clarity and precision of writing in the social sciences is paramount. Clarity refers to a variety of elements of your writing. First and foremost, you want to provide empirical evidence and/or citations for every claim that you make. Writing in the social sciences is not opinion based; you cannot say “Crime is decreasing across America” without providing empirical evidence for this claim, whether it is from a primary or secondary source. Furthermore, you want to be precise with your claims and language. If poverty is rising for women under 30, make sure to include this demographic information in a precise fashion. Additionally, do not use synonyms when they do not have the same meaning—use the specific terminology for the topic.

Writing in the social sciences also relies on paraphrasing more than direct quotations. Whenever possible, paraphrase or summarize your sources. You should only use a direct quotation if the exact words are crucial to your line of reasoning and argument. Remember that paraphrasing does not involve merely shifting words or finding synonyms. You need to take the material and rephrase it in your own words. A helpful tip for doing so is to read the information and then put it out of sight. From there, write about what you engaged with in your own words without looking at the original source text. When you are finished, you can compare the two for accuracy. Remember, too, that a paraphrase needs a citation even though it uses different language than the source. You are drawing upon the work of someone else.

Regarding precision, writing in the social sciences is not creative writing. Avoid flowery, emotional language; cut excess adjectives and adverbs. Platitudes such as “This came to light” or “It is general knowledge that…” should not be used.


Organization is highly valued within the social sciences. While your organizational structure will vary with the genre of your writing assignment, there are general rules you will want to follow when organizing your writing assignments. The first key is to lay-out your organizational structure in your introduction and then follow that organizational structure within your text. If you mention that you will address a, b, and c, you need to address a, b, and c in that order.

There are some other general patterns to follow. You should have a clear and direct thesis statement in your introduction. Afterward, you need to present your evidence, summarizing and reviewing your research. In the body of your text, avoid moving from one topic to another. Stay with each topic until you have developed it thoroughly and sufficiently. Once your evidence has been addressed, you want to conclude your text with a strong, solid statement—the takeaway for your readers. When dealing with a research assignment, the conclusion often addresses areas for future research, yet the manner in which you approach the conclusion will vary from assignment to assignment.

Within the Scope of the Project

Narrowing a topic so that it is manageable within the scope of the project is essential. If not, the text can either fail to address key issues of the topic (if the topic is too broad) or the text will not have enough depth for the scope of the project (if the topic is too narrow). Due to the extensive scholarship available on most topics, it is usually better to narrow your topic.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to narrow by geographic region and certain demographics (age, ethnicity, education-level, etc.) or other specific information like type(s) of crime, type(s) of punishment, or program (especially in criminal justice). Another effective method is to narrow toward the focus of the course by reviewing the syllabus and learning outcomes for the course. Using a variety of search terms will allow you to see the sources available on your topic.

Thorough and Logical Analysis

Strong analysis is vital to writing in the social sciences. The core of a strong analysis is in breaking down a topic into its major components and then exploring those components in-depth. Overall, a social scientist conducting an analysis wishes to break a topic into its major components in order to analyze them to form larger conclusions about the whole.

Although the method for analysis can vary according to the particular discipline and project, in general, you will want to start by identifying the issue. From there, you will want to inform the reader about the main facets of the issue and then move into a review of the research. Once you have reviewed the research, you can then form conclusions predicated on the research. Provide your readers with the main takeaways that an analysis of the research offers.

Pro Tips: Constructing a Literature Review

Literature reviews are a common genre in the social sciences. Here are some expert tips for how you can handle a literature review.

  • Do not approach a literature review as an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography provides the APA or ASA reference and a short description of the source. A literature review delves more deeply into the sources and places them in conversation with one another. Annotations discuss sources in a separate fashion; literature reviews discuss sources in relation to one another.
  • Compare and contrast the articles in a literature review. Place them in conversation with one another.
  • Remain balanced. Focus on demonstrating knowledge about, and a comprehensive understanding of, the topic.
  • When applicable, use the literature review to identify a research question (or questions) that needs to be answered. The literature review adds to the body of knowledge in the field and serves to establish the need for future research by demonstrating a gap or highlighting critical issues within the topic.

Pro Tips: Finding and Integrating Sources

Finding credible, impactful sources does not need to be challenging. Use these expert tips to help find the best sources and weave them into your research.

  • Use scholarly sources primarily. Sources outside of academia should only be used as support for the primary sources.
  • In general, a scholarly source is something that was written by an expert in a field or discipline, undergoes some level of peer or editorial review, and provides citations for all sources used.
  • Substantive, reputable news sources (e.g. The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, etc.) can be used in the social sciences as well, yet they should not take the place of peer-reviewed sources.
  • Draw information from websites that end in .gov or .org when possible. However, make sure to investigate the site—.gov and .org sites are not reliable 100% of the time. Some of these organizations exist to promote research for the purpose of selling us a product or service or promoting a political ideology or political agenda.
  • Do not cite Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.
  • Remember to cite, especially when you paraphrase. If the idea is not your own, it needs to be cited even if you placed it in your own words.
  • Cite every major claim. Do not make a claim without providing evidence for it. Where possible, go to the original source. Try to avoid citing indirect information.
  • Contact the University Library if you are struggling to find sources—they are here to help!

Helpful Resources

Purdue OWL APA
American Political Science Association Website
Introduction to Scholarly Sources
Advice for Writing a Literature Review
Academic Phrase Bank

Virtual Advisor