Social Science Essay Structure

I. Structure and Approach

The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:

  1. What is this?
  2. Why should I read it?
  3. What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?

Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.

These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:

1.  Establish an area to research by:

  • Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
  • Making general statements about the topic, and/or
  • Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.

2.  Identify a research niche by:

  • Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
  • Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
  • Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
  • Continuing a disciplinary tradition.

3.  Place your research within the research niche by:

  • Stating the intent of your study,
  • Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
  • Describing important results, and
  • Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.

NOTE:  Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.

II.  Delimitations of the Study

Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.

Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.

Examples of delimitating choices would be:

  • The key aims and objectives of your study,
  • The research questions that you address,
  • The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
  • The method(s) of investigation,
  • The time period your study covers, and
  • Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.

Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!

NOTE:  Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.

ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"

III. The Narrative Flow

Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:

  • Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
  • Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
  • Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
  • Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.

IV. Engaging the Reader

The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:

  1. Open with a compelling story,
  2. Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
  3. Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
  4. Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
  5. Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.

NOTE:  Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.

Freedman, Leora  and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; “Writing Introductions.” In Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Peter Redman. 4th edition. (London: Sage, 2011), pp. 63-70; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Samraj, B. “Introductions in Research Articles: Variations Across Disciplines.” English for Specific Purposes 21 (2002): 1–17; Swales, John and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.


Writing a Good Social Science Paper


            A social science paper is an argument.  Something does not have to be wildly controversial to constitute an argument. A good argument simply states a position and supports it with evidence in a clear, logical fashion.  Some of the most important skills a student can learn in college are to write correctly, effectively, and even elegantly.  The paper assignment for this course provides one opportunity to develop these skills, and we will read your papers with those objectives in mind.


Thesis – stated position; what you want to argue.

            The thesis is a focused statement that clearly expresses your argument. It is an assertion that can be supported with evidence.  It may help to focus your thesis if you remember: you are writing this paper in response to some question.  What is the question? What is your answer? 


Evidence – support for your thesis; the development of your argument.

            Evidence can take many forms, including: theories, facts, figures, stories, or anticipating and refuting counter-arguments*. 


There are three important points to remember when presenting evidence

  1. Make sure the evidence supports your thesis.
  2. Make it clear to the reader HOW the evidence supports your thesis.
  3. Make sure your presentation of evidence is well organized.


*Anticipating and refuting counter arguments can be a more difficult way to defend a thesis, than simply presenting facts and figures, but it can also be very powerful.  It applies better to some arguments than others, and should be employed carefully. 


To properly refute a counter argument you must:

  1. Imagine an alternative explanation to your thesis.
  2. Think of the evidence that this alternative explanation would need in order to be true.
  3. show either that this evidence does not, or cannot logically, exist.


Be sure to avoid logical fallacies, which will weaken your argument:

Argument by assertion – simply stating that something is true or obvious does not make it so.

Begging the question – make sure your argument actually provides evidence for your thesis.  If the argument merely restates your thesis in different words, that is considered begging the question.

Ad hominem argument – your argument should be based on logic or reason. Arguments that appeal to personal considerations are considered ad hominem.  For example, showing that a particular argument was made by an individual you despise (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden) does not in itself make the argument incorrect.  (Example: “Adolf Hitler and everyone in the Nazi party believed that the world was round, so obviously it must be flat.”)


Context – the bigger picture; why this argument matters.

            Context helps the reader think about possible applications of your argument.  What does your argument mean for some broader issue?  Keep in mind that this context doesn’t have to be too broad.  In fact, a more specific context is better than an overly general one.  To use a biology analogy:  if you argue that some treatment works, how would this treatment be applied? What diseases or conditions will be affected by this treatment?  Phrased differently:  If your argument is correct, what are the potential consequences if we pay attention to it?  What are the potential consequences if your argument is ignored?


Grammar & Style – yes, they matter.


Proper spelling and grammar are important because mistakes of this nature detract from your argument. Most word processing programs have corrective tools that should be used.  For more complex grammar issues, Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. is accessible online at:


Citations and a bibliography are important, so that the reader knows where you found your evidence, and that you are using it properly.  In-text citations and bibliography should be presented in a consistent format (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.). has information on these options.


Organizational Model

            Clear organization is essential for a good argument.  Use your introduction to provide a kind of road map for the rest of your paper.  Be sure to give the reader guideposts along the way, to help them follow your argument.




1.  General introduction to the context (not too general)

2.  Thesis statement (don’t hide this for later)

3.  Hints about evidence – indicate the main points (x, y, z) that you will use to support your thesis. (you develop these points in the body)

4. Hints about context (to be developed in your conclusion)



In this section you are laying out your evidence, the order in which you present your evidence must follow from the hints you gave in your intro (x, y, z)


All the information pertaining to this point should be presented here. Make sure it is clear to the reader how this point relates to your thesis statement.


Likewise for this point

To discuss more complex points, organize that section like a mini-argument. 

If Z has sub-points (1,2,3) it should be presented as follows:

Z introduction

Indication of 1, 2, 3,




Pull all these sub-points back together and remind reader how this relates to the thesis.




1. Restatement of the argument

2. Placement of the argument in Context (this is the time to go beyond the argument you’ve outlined, and discuss its application/implications)


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