Writing in the social sciences: introductory information

Philosophy of the Social Sciences

The course I will be teaching is not a philosophy of social sciences, but I ought to do some reading in it before I head on out to teach.

Prof. Smith at Calvin College has a Philosophy of the Social Sciences course from which I took the following:

This course will investigate the foundational assumptions at work in the social sciences. Emerging in the wake of modernity and in concert with the rise of positivism, the social sciences have, since the beginning, been concerned with basic philosophical questions when reflecting on “method.” What does it mean to have “scientific” knowledge of the “social” world? What counts as “knowledge?” What is “science” in such a context? How has our understanding of “science” changed after the demise of positivism? What are the implications of hermeneutics for scientific observation and the notion of “objectivity?” And what are the implications of that for the project of the social sciences? Is positivism still with us? How are we to understand the “social?” Just what are human beings, and thus what is the nature of human community? Is social science merely descriptive, or also critical and prescriptive?

He also offers some additional readings which sound interesting.

Lori Gottlieb, “How Do I Love Thee? The New Science of Love,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 2006): 58- 70.
Daniel Izuzquiza, “Can a Gift Be Wrapped? John Milbank and Supernatural Sociology,” Heythrop Journal 67 (2006): 387-404.

Here is another Phil of soc sci, with lecture notes and audio of the foundation of philosophy in social science.

Preparing and Writing in the Social Sciences

Dr. Flaxman of Brown’s Writing Program wrote a paper on how teachers create writing assignments. The following quote provides language that I found useful.

In the Writing Fellows Program we distinguish three kinds of student writing: pre-socialized, socialized, and post-socialized. In all three cases, we describe the level of student sophistication in contextual terms. The process of education, in this model, is one of initiating students into the conventions of a particular discourse. First-year students at Brown who have never taken a course in Economics, for example, are termed “pre-socialized” to the conventions of writing Economics. Once they learn the vocabulary and conventions of writing in this discourse, they are “socialized” to the discourse. And, some, having learned the proper way to communicate economic concepts, begin to play with these conventions consciously, becoming “post-socialized” to the discourse.

In that same paper, Dr. Flaxman presents the case for the developmental model of writing, where each point is more complex than the one before. I think that will work very well with the social sciences class.

Dartmouth offers some good advice on stylistic differences between the social sciences and the humanities.

Understand, however, that writing for a particular discipline means more than simply writing good sentences. Every discipline has a preferred writing style. If you are a Humanities student, you will certainly be somewhat put off by the style of writing in the Social Sciences. The paragraphs seem surprisingly short, the sentences remarkably unremarkable, and what’s up with that pesky passive voice?

In the Social Sciences, sentences must be well-crafted but they mustn’t be “flowery.” The reader mustn’t feel that the writer is relying more on rhetoric than she is on evidence. Paragraphs must also be well-crafted and coherent, but they mustn’t belabor the point. Digressing to interesting but not immediately relevant observations is discouraged. In short, the Social Science paper should report clearly, concisely, thoroughly, and objectively the writer’s findings.

Finally, the Humanities student will find it difficult getting accustomed to the passive voice used in most Social Science papers. Perhaps it will help to understand that this voice is used for a reason: to keep the observer out of the narrative. Consider: “I observed no significant increase in aggressive behavior” vs. “No significant increase in aggressive behavior was observed.” In the second, passive sentence the observation seems more objective and impersonal, cut loose from the very subjective “I.”

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