Challenges in social science writing

Using appropriate evidence

Methodical, rigorous analysis is a key part of research in the social sciences. Research topics can be quantitative (eg numbers of people, dollars spent), or highly abstract and qualitative (eg the workings of the human mind, societal change). As a result, writers in the social sciences rely on many different methodologies and types of data to explore their theories and support their findings.

Strong social sciences writing:

  • acknowledges any weaknesses of the argument and supporting evidence, and respects the strengths of the counterargument, rather than trying to gloss over these points
  • is consistent in its logic and reasoning.

Writing in the social sciences disciplines must be based on up-to-date sources, because information in these fields changes quickly as society evolves. Moreover, the various fields are highly interconnected, with significant amounts of interdisciplinary collaboration and publishing. The result is a fast-moving and ever-changing set of facts and understanding of the world, all contributing to a large pool of data and evidence on which to base your writing.

Information based on past statistics, such as a study conducted at a specific time or census information from a particular year, must be clearly identified as such, with the relevant date and the use of the past tense.

See Writing about evidence for more details of the different types of evidence, and how to write about evidence clearly and accurately.

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Scepticism about ‘truth’ in social sciences

All social science inquiry is conducted within a framework of pre-existing assumptions and vocabulary. Some readers doubt that objective truth is possible in the social sciences. This scepticism may have been heightened in recent years with a well-publicised series of failures to replicate the results of previously accepted and high-profile studies (the ‘replication crisis’).

Whether settled truth can be reached or not, writing in these disciplines should get as close as possible to a set of objective facts. You are more likely to convince your readers that your argument is sound using the following:

  • The right questions. Your question frames the argument, so establishing the right question is a critical first step to compelling social sciences writing. The motivating question of your writing should be articulated clearly.
  • Rigorous analysis. Use empirical procedures that are accepted in a specific discipline – an appropriate selection of quantitative, qualitative or mixed methodologies for the context.
  • Transparent data and evidence. One of the results of the replication crisis has been a push towards ‘open data’. If appropriate and ethical, provide the data itself, along with information about the source, so that readers can assess the validity and robustness of your conclusions.
  • Clear and accurate language. Acknowledge the limitations of your argument and state when something cannot be conclusively proven; avoid overclaiming and overgeneralising, or using inappropriately definitive language.

As you write, keep in mind the possible responses to your arguments, and either forestall criticism with further supporting evidence or acknowledge the weaknesses of your case.

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Ethical, legal and professional considerations

A significant challenge in social science and education writing is understanding and adapting to the issues that can impede communication of your content. These issues may be ethical, legal or professional.

Ethical considerations include:

  • subjects’ right to privacy
  • subjects’ right to understand the research in which they are participating and to provide informed consent
  • treatment of vulnerable populations such as minors, non-native English speakers and older people
  • appropriate respect for the dignity and humanity of research subjects.

Frameworks such as the Belmont report (USA) (1979) and the Australian code for the responsible conduct of research (Australia) (2018) outline ethical principles to guide social sciences research. For example, ‘respect for persons’, ‘beneficence’ and ‘justice’ are named by the Belmont report as the key ethical guiding principles.

Legal considerations include the following:

  • Intellectual property. Is the research yours to communicate? You may or may not be entitled to publish without permission from an institution, supervisor, collaborator, etc.
  • Defamation. Would your publication affect the reputation of any person or organisation?
  • Time sensitivity. Are there any issues around the timing of the publication that should be considered (eg is the document subject to a press embargo)?

Other professional considerations include the following:

  • Interdisciplinary work. Academic social science and education writing often has multiple authors from different specialist areas, with differing professional backgrounds, areas of expertise and frameworks of inquiry. Accommodate this when collaborating across areas of study. Also consider whether other contributors will need to have a say on the final content, timing or medium of the publication.
  • Completeness. Is the publication sufficiently complete and polished to be released? Balance this against the desire for prompt publication of a timely idea. This is a strategic decision, as well as an intellectual one.
  • Impact and prestige. Although prestigious journals are a natural target for academic research, there are benefits to publishing elsewhere. A journal with a narrow focus may reach more of your intended, specific audience.
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