The Art Of Sociology Essay Writing

This document is intended as an additional resource for undergraduate students taking sociology courses at UW. It is not intended to replace instructions from your professors and TAs. In all cases follow course-specific assignment instructions, and consult your TA or professor if you have questions.

About These Assignments

Theory application assignments are a common type of analytical writing assigned in sociology classes.  Many instructors expect you to apply sociological theories (sometimes called "perspectives" or "arguments") to empirical phenomena.[1]  There are different ways to do this, depending upon your objectives, and of course, the specifics of each assignment. You can choose cases that confirm (support), disconfirm (contradict),[2] or partially confirm any theory.   

How to Apply Theory to Empirical Phenomena

Theory application assignments generally require you to look at empirical phenomena through the lens of theory.  Ask yourself, what would the theory predict ("have to say") about a particular situation. According to the theory, if particular conditions are present or you see a change in a particular variable, what outcome should you expect? 

Generally, a first step in a theory application assignment is to make certain you understand the theory! You should be able to state the theory (the author's main argument) in a sentence or two.  Usually, this means specifying the causal relationship (X—>Y) or the causal model (which might involve multiple variables and relationships). 

For those taking sociological theory classes, in particular, you need to be aware that theories are constituted by more than causal relationships.  Depending upon the assignment, you may be asked to specify the following:

  • Causal Mechanism: This is a detailed explanation about how X—>Y, often made at a lower level of analysis (i.e., using smaller units) than the causal relationship.
  • Level of Analysis: Macro-level theories refer to society- or group-level causes and processes; micro-level theories address individual-level causes and processes.
  • Scope Conditions: These are parameters or boundaries specified by the theorist that identify the types of empirical phenomena to which the theory applies.
  • Assumptions: Most theories begin by assuming certain "facts." These often concern the bases of human behavior: for example, people are inherently aggressive or inherently kind, people act out of self-interest or based upon values, etc.

Theories vary in terms of whether they specify assumptions, scope conditions and causal mechanisms.  Sometimes they can only be inferred: when this is the case, be clear about that in your paper.

Clearly understanding all the parts of a theory helps you ensure that you are applying the theory correctly to your case. For example, you can ask whether your case fits the theory's assumptions and scope conditions.  Most importantly, however, you should single out the main argument or point (usually the causal relationship and mechanism) of the theory.  Does the theorist's key argument apply to your case? Students often go astray here by latching onto an inconsequential or less important part of the theory reading, showing the relationship to their case, and then assuming they have fully applied the theory.

Using Evidence to Make Your Argument

Theory application papers involve making a claim or argument based on theory, supported by empirical evidence.[3]  There are a few common problems that students encounter while writing these types of assignments: unsubstantiated claims/generalizations; "voice" issues or lack of attribution; excessive summarization/insufficient analysis.  Each class of problem is addressed below, followed by some pointers for choosing "cases," or deciding upon the empirical phenomenon to which you will apply the theoretical perspective or argument (including where to find data).

A common problem seen in theory application assignments is failing to substantiate claims, or making a statement that is not backed up with evidence or details ("proof").  When you make a statement or a claim, ask yourself, "How do I know this?"  What evidence can you marshal to support your claim? Put this evidence in your paper (and remember to cite your sources).  Similarly, be careful about making overly strong or broad claims based on insufficient evidence.  For example, you probably don't want to make a claim about how Americans feel about having a black president based on a poll of UW undergraduates.  You may also want to be careful about making authoritative (conclusive) claims about broad social phenomena based on a single case study.

In addition to un- or under-substantiated claims, another problem that students often encounter when writing these types of papers is lack of clarity regarding "voice," or whose ideas they are presenting.  The reader is left wondering whether a given statement represents the view of the theorist, the student, or an author who wrote about the case.  Be careful to identify whose views and ideas you are presenting. For example, you could write, "Marx views class conflict as the engine of history;" or, "I argue that American politics can best be understood through the lens of class conflict;"[4] or, "According to Ehrenreich, Walmart employees cannot afford to purchase Walmart goods."

Another common problem that students encounter is the trap of excessive summarization.  They spend the majority of their papers simply summarizing (regurgitating the details) of a case—much like a book report.  One way to avoid this is to remember that theory indicates which details (or variables) of a case are most relevant, and to focus your discussion on those aspects.  A second strategy is to make sure that you relate the details of the case in an analytical fashion. You might do this by stating an assumption of Marxist theory, such as "man's ideas come from his material conditions," and then summarizing evidence from your case on that point.  You could organize the details of the case into paragraphs and start each paragraph with an analytical sentence about how the theory relates to different aspects of the case. 

Some theory application papers require that you choose your own case (an empirical phenomenon, trend, situation, etc.), whereas others specify the case for you (e.g., ask you to apply conflict theory to explain some aspect of globalization described in an article). Many students find choosing their own case rather challenging.  Some questions to guide your choice are:

  1. Can I obtain sufficient data with relative ease on my case?
  2. Is my case specific enough?  If your subject matter is too broad or abstract, it becomes both difficult to gather data and challenging to apply the theory.
  3. Is the case an interesting one? Professors often prefer that you avoid examples used by the theorist themselves, those used in lectures and sections, and those that are extremely obvious.

Where You Can Find Data

Data is collected by many organizations (e.g., commercial, governmental, nonprofit, academic) and can frequently be found in books, reports, articles, and online sources.  The UW libraries make your job easy: on the front page of the library website (, in the left hand corner you will see a list of options under the heading "Find It" that allows you to go directly to databases, specific online journals, newspapers, etc. For example, if you are choosing a historical case, you might want to access newspaper articles.  This has become increasingly easy to do, as many are now online through the UW library.  For example, you can search The New York Times and get full-text online for every single issue from 1851 through today!  If you are interested in interview or observational data, you might try to find books or articles that are case-studies on your topic of interest by conducting a simple keyword search of the UW library book holdings, or using an electronic database, such as JSTOR or Sociological Abstracts.  Scholarly articles are easy to search through, since they contain abstracts, or paragraphs that summarize the topic, relevant literature, data and methods, and major findings.  When using JSTOR, you may want to limit your search to sociology (which includes 70 journals) and perhaps political science; this database retrieves full-text articles. Sociological Abstracts will cast a wider net searching many more sociology journals, but the article may or may not be available online (find out by clicking "check for UW holdings").  A final word about using academic articles for data: remember that you need to cite your sources, and follow the instructions of your assignment.  This includes making your own argument about your case, not using an argument you find in a scholarly article.

In addition, there are many data sources online.  For example, you can get data from the US census, including for particular neighborhoods, from a number of cites. You can get some crime data online: the Seattle Police Department publishes several years' worth of crime rates.  There are numerous cites on public opinion, including There is an online encyclopedia on Washington state history, including that of individual Seattle neighborhoods ( These are just a couple options: a simple google search will yield hundreds more.  Finally, remember that librarian reference desks are expert on data sources, and that you can call, email, or visit in person to ask about what data is available on your particular topic.  You can chat with a librarian 24 hours a day online, as well (see the "Ask Us!" link on the front page of UW libraries website for contact information).

[1] By empirical phenomena, we mean some sort of observed, real-world conditions. These include societal trends, events, or outcomes. They are sometimes referred to as "cases."  Return to Reading

[2] A cautionary note about critiquing theories: no social theory explains all cases, so avoid claiming that a single case "disproves" a theory, or that a single case "proves" a theory correct. Moreover, if you choose a case that disconfirms a theory, you should be careful that the case falls within the scope conditions (see above) of the given theory. For example, if a theorist specifies that her argument pertains to economic transactions, it would not be a fair critique to say the theory doesn't explain dynamics within a family. On the other hand, it is useful and interesting to apply theories to cases not foreseen by the original theorist (we see this in sociological theories that incorporate theories from evolutionary biology or economics).  Return to Reading

[3] By empirical evidence, we mean data on social phenomena, derived from scientific observation or experiment.  Empirical evidence may be quantitative (e.g., statistical data) or qualitative (e.g., descriptions derived from systematic observation or interviewing), or a mixture of both. Empirical evidence must be observable and derived from real-world conditions (present or historical) rather than hypothetical or "imagined".  For additional help, see the "Where You Can Find Data" section on the next page.  Return to Reading

[4] If your instructor does not want you to use the first-person, you could write, "This paper argues…"  Return to Reading

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?


Barrett, Stanley. CAnthropology: A Student's Guide to Theory and Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

___. The Rebirth of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Flower, Linda, Wallace, David, Norris, Linda and Burnett, Rebecca. Making Thinking Visible: Writing, Collaborative Planning and Classroom Inquiry. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE, 1994.

Giltrow, Janet. Academic Writing: Writing and Reading Across the Disciplines. Toronto: Broadview Press, 1995.

Johnson, William, Rettig, Richard, Scott, Gregory, and Garrison, Stephen. The Sociology Student Writer's Manual. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Redman, Peter. Good Essay Writing. London: Sage Publications, 2006.

Ritzer, George and Goodman, Douglas. Sociological Theory. Montreal: McGraw Hill, 2004.

The Learning Commons. Writing In The Arts & Social Sciences. The University of Guelph, 2005.

The Learning Commons. Learning Commons Fast-facts Series (Various Topics), The University of Guelph, 2004. Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Arguments. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

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