Essay Guide

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Social & behavioural science writing

Social & behavioural sciences – definitions

Social sciences deal with the institutions and working of human society and with the interpersonal relationships of individuals as members of human society. Behavioural sciences deal with human actions and try to establish generalizations about those actions in human society.

Certain terms in these definitions – ‘interpersonal relationships’, ‘individuals’, ‘human actions’ – highlight how social and behavioural sciences are different from, say, physics or chemistry. A chemist can be certain that, when she mixes the right quantities of chemical A and chemical B, she will be able to observe a certain reaction. However, interpersonal relationships, individuals and human actions are more unpredictable. This means that a range of theories have been developed to explain individuals’ actions, interpersonal relationships, and individuals’ interactions with institutions. You will hear these different theories described as different ‘schools of thought’ or ‘philosophies’.


Social and behavioural science writing, like scientific writing, also starts with questions that cannot be definitively answered out of our previous personal experiences: ‘What are the causes of autism?’ or ‘How can we stop young men re-offending?’ Like scientific writing, social and behavioural science writing also uses evidence obtained from research to try and answer those questions.

However, unlike scientific writing, the theoretical position of the social or behavioural scientist will influence the sorts of questions she asks, the way she conducts research and obtains evidence and the way she interprets it. To put this another way, it does not matter if a physicist is a Marxist but it is significant if a sociologist is.

Method into essay – the big picture

Translating method into essay helps us to identify some of the distinguishing features of social and behavioural science writing.

A social or behavioural science essay has to show knowledge of how evidence and theory work together.

A social or behavioural science essay has to show knowledge of all the key theoretical positions relevant to the question. For example, an essay reviewing the causes of autism has to take account of theories that, respectively, emphasise biological, social or psychological causes.

A social or behavioural science essay has to use all the key theoretical positions relevant to the question to explore the question and to evaluate evidence you bring into your discussion. In an undergraduate essay, you will be referring to research that has already been published. This means it is important to understand the theoretical position behind the research.

Method into essay – the small print

Social and behavioural science essays have other distinguishing features.

They use a wide range of references from established studies to up-to-the minute journal articles. They use a wide range of sources from writing within their own subjects to reports from newspapers and magazines.

They use empirical research. For example, different theories of autism have been developed from studies of autistic children. If you are discussing one particular theory, it is important to refer to the size of the research sample on which it is based and to the context of the research.

They often use tables, numerical and statistical data to support points in their argument.

They use theory critically. They show understanding of how theory determines the evaluation of evidence. They show understanding of whether or not a theory is applicable to a particular piece of evidence. They use one theory to evaluate another.