Genre Guide for Argumentative Essays
in Social Science


  1. Social Science Essays

    Social sciences encompass a range of disciplines; each discipline uses a range of techniques, styles, and structures of writing. Different instructors may guide you in ways that diverge from these suggestions. Therefore, use this guide as a tool among others.

    Writers of social science essays discuss theory to explain how the social world works. These writers use evidence that is the product of systematic research to support these arguments. Often these writers evaluate competing arguments; they show awareness of uncertainty and limitations of knowledge regarding the issues they investigate.

    Social science essays often ask the writer to:

    • Define social science concepts
    • Explain social science theories
    • Apply theory to a context or example from the real world
    • Evaluate or determine how the theory relates to the example
    • Reach a final conclusion regarding the issue

  2. Purpose

    The study of social sciences requires that the writer not simply describe a social problem, but rather, analyse it. The writer uses theory to analyse the problem, in order to understand it better. This process involves argumentation. An argument is statements supported by evidence and/or reasoning which is connected in a logical manner and leads to a supported conclusion.
    The essay question may ask you to do the following:

    Discuss: Present the different aspects of a question and problem
    Compare: Examine the characteristics of objects to demonstrate their similarities and differences
    Contrast: Examine the characteristics of objects to demonstrate their differences
    Analyse: Consider the various components of the whole and explain the relationships between them
    Evaluate: Examine the various sides of a question to reach a plausible conclusion

  3. Planning the Essay

    Steps for writing a social science essay:

    1. Understand the question(s) to be addressed in the essay
    2. Develop a strategy for answering the questions
    3. Provide answers to those questions
    4. Provide arguments to show that your answers are strong
    5. Provide counter-arguments and refutations to show you’ve considered other arguments,
      but yours is stronger.
    6. Reply to possible objections to your arguments

    A first important step is to carefully examine the essay question and develop a strategy for answering it. The order in which you develop your discussion creates the basic design or structure of the essay. If the question has several parts, use those parts as ways to structure your essay. You should explain this strategy to the reader in your introduction, and ensure that the reader can follow this structure throughout the essay.

  4. Sections of the Essay

    Title: This may be the set question or the issue for discussion.

    Introduction: This tells the reader what the essay is about.

    Main section: The main section develops the key points of the argument in a logical manner. Theoretical arguments and evidence from research studies are used to support these points.
    This main section is often divided into various subsections. Headings and subheadings are used to distinguish these sections and guide the reader through the discussion.
    These sub-sections often include:

    • Definitions of key terms
    • Explanation of theory
    • Arguments regarding questions which are backed by theory and evidence
    • Refutation to counter-arguments
    • Other possible arguments, and reasons why they are weaker than your argument.

    Conclusion: This brings together the arguments presented in the main section, and makes a final statement which answers the question.

    References: This section, entitled “References”, lists the sources used in the proper citation style.

    In the introduction, the approach to discuss the various aspects of the question is stated clearly. In the main section, as various issues are discussed, the writer makes arguments and states them as conclusions regarding that issue. In the conclusion section, these various conclusions are drawn together for the overall evaluations and conclusion regarding the original question.

  5. Structure of the Essay: Introduction

    Introduction Section


    1. Introduce topic and context

    2. Provide brief background information

    3. State the aim of the essay

    4. Give outline

    Get reader’s attention with a dramatic statement or illustration

    Set the context and scope of the essay

    State the question that you will answer

    Explain how you will answer the question, e.g. the order in which various topics will be discussed

    1. Introduction Example

      In this seminar, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle was criticized with reference to the case of animal abuse, stating that Mill omits the question of animals’ interests. This essay aims to have a further discussion of the criticism of the harm principle from this perspective. This essay will be mainly divided into two sections. In the first part, the harm principle and the related criticism will again be introduced, while in the second part, the two questions raised by Dr. Chan will be discussed. The first question is whether animals have moral status, and the second question is whether legal protection is necessary due to moral considerations. After answering those two questions, the validity of this criticism will be examined.

  6. Structure of the essay: Main Section

    The main section includes several subsections, which are planned according to the requirements of the essay question.

    1. Main Section – Background Information:

      Typically the first section includes important background information. Whether each of these steps is included depends, of course, on the essay question. Each of these sections should include a heading followed by a paragraph of at least three sentences.

      Main Section


      First section: Background information and context

      1. Definition of terms
      1. Explanation of theory


      1. Overview of issue or context



      Clearly define the important concepts of the essay, with references

      Summarise and explain the theory to be discussed, with references

      Explain the issue or context that you will explore in the essay

    2. Main Section – Development of your Argument

      In this section, you develop your argument, which means discussing your questions in depth to arrive at the answer(s) to the question(s) posed in your introduction. Each section will probably have several paragraphs, and have sub-headings to organize the parts of the section. If you have two or more issues/examples, then the main section will probably include several sections and sub-sections.

      Main Section


      Main Section: Discussion of Issue/Example

      1. Transition

      2. Discussion of application of theory to the issue/example, which arrives at a conclusion regarding that question






      Introduce the issue/example, state the aim of this section, and outline the section

      Develop an argument regarding this issue backed by theory and/or evidence, with references

      Most important, state your position regarding this issue

      Strong essays will include counter-arguments and refutations. Or, you may present other arguments and reasons, and then show how your argument is stronger.

    3. Conclusion – Bring together your final answer




      1. Draw final conclusion

      2. Final word on the issue



      Bring together conclusions reached in the main section; state your overall conclusion (the answer to your question)

      Highlight the implications or wider context of your issue

  7. Example Essay Structure

    Note that social science essays often discuss more than one theory, and more than one issue/example. The structure above should be adapted to fit your question. An example is shown below.

    In this essay, theories from two philosophers are applied to two real-world examples.

    Heading / Sub-heading name

    Step and Content

    Should we try to stop others who plan to commit suicide?




    Definition of Suicide

    Definition of key term

    John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” and the Harm Principle

    Explanation of Mill’s theories

    Immanuel Kant’s Moral Theory and the Formula of Universal Law

    Explanation of Kant’s theories

    Case Study on the suicide of Leslie Cheung

    Introduce the issue/example, state the aim of this section, and outline the section (*)

    The Harm Principle and “On Liberty” (sub-heading)

    Discuss how Mill’s theories relate to the Leslie Cheung example. Arrive at a conclusion regarding this.

    The Formula of Universal Law and the Moral Theory (sub-heading)

    Discuss how Kant’s theories relate to the Leslie Cheung example. Arrive at a conclusion regarding this.

    Case Study of the September 11th Terrorist Attack in 2001

    Introduce the issue/example, state the aim of this section, and outline the section (*)

    The Harm Principle and “On Liberty” (sub-heading)

    Discuss how Mill’s theories relate to the Terrorist Attack example. Arrive at a conclusion regarding this.

    The Formula of Universal Law and the Moral Theory (sub-heading)

    Discuss how Kant’s theories relate to the Terrorist Attack example. Arrive at a conclusion regarding this.


    Restate four conclusions drawn in the main section; state final answer to the question.

  8. Common Errors

    Avoid overstating or overgeneralising. Look for words like all, always, everyone, none, never. If you use them, be sure that you can justify them. These are very strong words. Consider the difference between “stealing is always morally wrong”, or “stealing is wrong in most circumstances”.

    Common mistakes in social science essay writing include:

    1. Failure to answer the question. Be sure you understand the question and develop a plan to answer it completely.
    2. Failure to provide an effective structure. This is important as it helps the reader to understand your ideas. Unconnected discussions are likely to confuse the reader.
    3. Failure to write in your own words and reference sources. Writing in your own words is crucial as it demonstrates that you understand the topic and can communicate your argument clearly. Accurate referencing of scholars’ ideas and words is also important.


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