Academic Essay Writing – A formula to be considered

Academic Essay Writing – A formula to be considered…. (and dismissed?)
What is provided here is a possible formula for writing academic essays. Please remember there is no definitive way to write an essay; just as the Social Sciences do not provide a definitive account of how we are in the world and what reality is. Think of your essay as a 3-part exploration and explanation of how the social world works, i.e., i) in theory, ii) with reference to empirical research evidence and, iii) a critique of both of i) and ii). It is a matter of exploring the validity of various (sometimes contradictory) perspectives on key issues. Your own style, experience and ability might well be capable of improving on this formula, or indeed totally disregarding it.
An essay is best approached as an intellectual argument that develops from the ideas, issues, theories, concepts, methodologies, etc., you have been taught within the module for which it is the final assessment. It is most important therefore – even as you begin and then progress through the module – that you are clear about the fundamental perspectives, values and assumptions underpinning the course’s main themes and topics as they are being presented to you in lectures and seminars. Remember no theory or perspective has the whole picture. All accounts of the world are partial and biased from a particular understanding of how we are human and what society is. Such-and-such a view is only the case under certain conditions. A prime purpose for an essay is to critique particular ideas, pointing out how explanation A might be more useful and valid than B in these circumstances. In the conclusion of your essay, on the other hand, you might want to point out that in other contexts (social, cultural, eras, etc.) there may be other factors that need to be considered. Do these limit or question the weight of claims you have made in the development of your current argument?
Key questions before you embark on writing your essay.
• Have you identified clearly the key issue the essay question wants scrutinised?
• Have you checked the command word in the question – e.g. explain means give details about why a certain perspective can be advocated; evaluate means make a critical appraisal of the worth and validity for a particular explanation of how the world seems to work.
• In the development of your main argument, will you take a particular position that views the key issue from within a certain theoretical perspective? If so, this theory provides you with an analytical ‘tool box’ - (check the different possible ways of thinking about an issue in your course documentation). How do these particular ways of thinking require you to view the world, especially the nature of relationships between different individuals and groups? Who are the key thinkers in this area? What evidence do they call upon to support their theories? What predictions are there, in theory, for what you should find as an expression of the issue in different contexts?
• Maybe, though, you will take two slightly different positions within this overarching perspective (again check your lecture notes for these). Or perhaps you will choose to tackle the question from two contrasting perspectives? If so, is there anything that is common for how the social world is being understood and explained in these differing views? Plus, of course, what is contrastingly different? Are there contextual factors (isolate them) that cause social institutions or constructs, which are often thought of as having universal meaning, to be experienced differently (e.g., marriage, policing, gender)? Or are the fundamental assumptions in alternative theories about the way the world works so radically distinct from each other that they are presenting completely different models of reality?
The Formula
This formula (of 8 paragraphs) assumes that your essay has a limit of 1700-2000 words. For longer assignments the breakdown of sections is similar, but scaled up for the number of paragraphs you feel you need to realise each part.
Para 1 – Introduction
Main Text: Paras 2 and 3 – Theoretical overview and general comments relevant to the perspective you are going to employ in the following section
Paras 4 and 5 – Discuss in closer detail, possibly including the use of empirical data and case studies, how the perspective(s) discussed in Paras 2 & 3 help to examine the key issues raised in the title of the essay as they are experienced in specific contexts
Paras 6 and 7 – Critique the argument you have just made, including a discussion of the limits and constraints of the claims the theory and supporting evidence can provide. Are you going to offer an alternative view (with supporting evidence) or are you going to speculate on how the existing perspective needs to be refined? Sum up to a closing position.
Para 8 – Conclusion.
A useful way to open your essay is to consider some, or all, of the following,
1. rewrite, and expand on, the essay title using your own different words (this helps you to identify the essential CLAIM/ASSERTION in the question and provides an easy to read opening to the essay)
2. PROBLEMATIZE the whole or parts of the question (is there an element of the question which can be contested?)
3. CONTEXTUALIZE the main issue (how have these issues/concerns come about, and in what circumstances?)
4. suggest a PERSPECTIVE(S) you have selected as being of possible use for framing the argument you are going to develop in the main section, (i.e., what theoretical approach(es) are you taking, and as a result what concepts and analytical tools are available for you to examine ‘reality’ – check your module notes for these)
5. possibly (especially in a longer essay) you might even SUMMARISE the argument you intend to make
6. you can even HINT AT THE CONCLUSIONS you will reach. (Introductions are thought about early on in the essay writing process, but usually written afterwards.)

Main Text (paras 2 and 3)
Identify, using properly attributed references, the key thinking of the named authorities and researchers you are using to problematize matters relevant to the essay title. What does this offer as a general frame for how to examine the key issues in further detail? What theoretical and predictive implications are there for how you might be able to analyse real world experiences and explain the social reality(ies) related to the given problem. What factors, relationships, structures, causations, consequences, etc., might be looked for to understand matters better? In other words, how does a key theory(ies) set up a view of the problem?
(paras 4 and 5) Become more specific by referring to empirical case studies or evidence that examines, in particular detail, real world examples of the main issue you are dealing with (or aspects thereof). Is it possible to find two effective pieces of research-based literature (usually referenced journal articles) that give, either, contrasting interpretations of the problem within your chosen perspective, or perhaps provide a different treatment of the same issue from an alternative theoretical perspective. Either approach helps you to clarify why it is difficult to pin down your problem to a definitive solution. Describe the key factors in play.
(paras 6 and 7) Bring the different strands of your argument together by returning to the opening question, without answering it yet. Find your own voice here to advocate what you feel have been the useful insights provided by your analysis of the main issue, together with a critique of the inevitable shortcomings of both the general perspective you have employed and the complicating contextual conditions in the more detailed case studies (which have highlighted the difficulties of applying theory to real world). Do you want to suggest any alternative interpretations or models for how the world might work? If so briefly discuss their potential.

Now answer the question set, if only by further problematizing it, or offering a possible alternative from how the issue in the question might be better approached. A good conclusion can usually be read as a brief summary of the whole essay. So state concisely – What was the original problem? How have you explored it? What have we learned from this exercise?
As a result of your study are there useful comments to be made about the important relationships, change processes, structures, agency, power, control mechanisms, possible causations, paradigms shifts (new ways of thinking that might reframe the problem) that have emerged as possibly significant to the main question? Are there insights or broader implications for how your argument can help someone else examine similar or related issues in other social situations and circumstances (different cultures, places, age cohorts, time, understanding of gender, etc.) Are there any factors which are limiting the broader validity and relevance of your argument? You might finish by pointing out the positive contribution of your essay, e.g. policy or practice consequences. Or do you want to suggest a new (unanswered) take on the problem that might put issues into a better focus, maybe through identifying problematic areas which require further research or theoretical analysis.
Peck, J. & Coyle, M. (1999) The Student’s Guide to Writing: Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling. London: Macmillan
Redman, P. (2001) Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Sage/Open Univ.
The source

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