RECOGNIZING AND DECODING QUESTIONS.
What kind of question is being asked?
If it is a short definitional question that limits you to two or three sentences you need a short, pithy, precise statement. For example, if you are asked,
"From a Marxist perspective, what is ideology?"
You might answer:
"For Marx, ideology consists of ideas, understandings, and beliefs that reflect and justify the social relationships that constitute the mode of production in any particular society. In any epoch, domination is materially secured in production by the ruling class through the appropriation of either the person, product, or surplus labor of the direct producer. The ruling class also controls all the political and cultural institutions of an epoch, and in this way, determines the major ideas of their time. To paraphrase Marx, the ruling class not only controls the means for the production of material life but also the means for the production and distribution of ideas."
Note that the bare minimum answer to this question would be the definition in the first sentence of the answer.
If an essay question (of any length) is being asked, you have to do more than provide a brief definition. When reading the question, try and decode it: that is, try and break it into component tasks that you can complete one after another when you are writing the answer. There are a number of steps to decoding.
First, read the question carefully and completely and work out exactly what it is asking you to do. Does it ask you to do more than one thing? Does it have more than one part? Does it have an either/or structure so you have to say, "some people argue one way, other people argue another way, and I agree with the first person for the following reasons:......"
- In general, if the question asks you to explain something this means you have to give reasons, supported by evidence or examples, for the existence of a relationship, an observed pattern in social behavior, or the causes of an event.
- If the question asks, "What are the elements of capitalism?", for example, you have to list and describe those elements and how they are related to each other.
- Compare means present similarities and differences.
- Contrast requires you to present and discuss differences.
- Why asks you to give reasons for an event, thing, or observed difference, etc.
- Draw a conclusion requires you to discuss a topic and draw your own conclusions supported by evidence or argument. In other words, take a line on an issue and argue it all the way through.
- Is this true? or Does this matter? asks you to say yes or no something is true, or yes or no something matters, and to provide reasons for your answer, supported by evidence.
Second, identify key terms in the question so you can define them. Ask yourself, what is the question about? The question:
"According to Durkheim, the anomic division of labor is an inevitable feature of modern industrial societies. Do you agree with him? Provide examples or illustrations to support your answer,"
is about Durkheim's theory regarding the division of labor and its connection to social solidarity in modern societies.
Before you can answer the question about whether or not you agree with Durkheim, you
- need to define what the division of labor is,
- demonstrate that you are familiar with what Durkheim means when he speaks of social solidarity,
- display an understanding of what the term anomie means,
- connect the ideas of the division of labor and anomie to describe the anomic division of labor,
- convey to your reader that you understand how this part of Durkheim's theory fits into his overall understanding of modern industrial society, and
- succinctly state Durkheim's argument about the anomie division of labor.
This is an elaborate example but what I am trying to emphasize is that to fully answer a question you must address all of its key terms. Specifically, if a question provides you with a statement or quotation that you have to draw conclusions about or discuss, you must define the key terms in that statement and show that you understand them.
On a practical note, so you don't forget your decoding exercise because you are flustered in an exam context or you are carried away on a rush of poetic brilliance, I would suggest you underline or circle the key terms in a question as well as its "operators" such as why, explain, compare etc. On this basis, I would suggest (even in an exam context) that you quickly outline your entire answer to the question. In longer essays, such an outline is absolutely necessary.
ANSWERING A QUESTION, FINDING EVIDENCE, AND PROVIDING EXAMPLES
The first rule for producing a competent answer is to answer the quesfion - this may seem obvious but you would be amazed! Answering a question always involves more than simply re-stating the question. So for example, the question,
"Are structural and interactional approaches to sociological research incompatible?"
may be answered in different ways - the two most obvious being yes or no these approaches are or are not incompatible.
Whatever your opinion on the question being asked, my point is that any answer would have to include at the bare minimum the following elements:
- a direct answer to the question (e.g., "I argue that structural and interactional approaches to sociological research are incompatible because ),
- reasons for your argument (i.e., the basis, grounds, evidence, or logic that support your argument);
- a definition or display that you understand what a structural approach to sociological research is,
- a definition or display that you understand what an interactional approach to sociological research is.
(Note that an astute reader should observe that there is a contention/premise in this question with which they may not agree; namely, that structural and interactional approaches to sociology are opposed to each other. This would be news to those structural analysts of human interaction like the conversation analysts or even Harold Garfinkel, the father of ethnomethodology. If you divine this premise and disagree with it, another possible way to go with this question would be to demonstrate you understand it but to argue that it is a misguided question because it assumes that structural and interactional approaches to studying social phenomenon are exclusive of each other. Indeed, you could argue that differences between sociologists do not rest on the difference between structuralists and interactionists but along some other dimension etc.).
Second, be specific and clear. There are a few standard ways to do this that might help you present your thoughts clearly.
- One is to state your general answer/argument in your opening sentence or introductory paragraph and then follow with a list of reasons that support it. "I argue this for three reasons. First.... Second.....Third....." Once you have this written, it can provide a guide to structure the body of your essay. Each reason would correspond to a paragraph where it was developed in more detail.
- Another tip is to be very clear about who is arguing what at different points in the essay. So, "Freud argues that...." or, "Rodney Stark argues that...." or, "I argue that...." I also recommend that you use the words "I argue," "I suggest" etc. rather than "I believe" because your beliefs are not being evaluated in a sociology essay. Your arguments supported by evidence are being evaluated.
- Finally, if you use a technical term you have learned in class this semester, you must define it or display you understand its meaning.
Third, always use examples and evidence to illustrate and support the points you make. In a theory essay these would be quotations from text or detailed explications of a theorist's argument. In a research essay, evidence could come from many sources including opinion poll data, published aggregate statistics, historical documents or books on a particular historical period, interviews you have conducted with people, or data from experiments you have conducted, etc.
An enormous amount of data about social phenomena are published by the government and the major university research centers in the United States and are available in the basement at Fondren library. For example, the government routinely publishes what amount of the federal budget is spent on which categories of welfare. The Department of Labor regularly publishes data on the sex and ethnic composition of specific occupations and the labor force as a whole. Social surveys of college students have been conducted for decades on everything from political attitudes to sexual behavior. In other words, there are specialized publications on almost everything. Go to the library and talk to the reference librarian about what is available and see whether or not it is relevant for your work.
Fourth, it is particularly important to explain the passages from books, quotes, numbers or other data you use. Don't just stick evidence in any old way and assume that the reader will make the connections! You need to be clear why a piece of information is in the text. For example, "As these two quotes show, Durkheim's and Weber's theories were quite similar in the following ways (list the ways). When Durkheim says "this" he means.... (say what he means). This is similar to the meaning conveyed in the passage from Weber where Weber argues that.... (say what he argues)."
One way of making sure you do this is to give reasons for your answer or for why you have included a quotation by using words like "because", or "for this reason" to demonstrate the connection between your point and the specific illustration/example/quote you are employing. For example, "I argue that Tarzan loved Jane because he displayed extreme worry when she was carried away by the villains and immediately set out to rescue her."
In an exam context, it is enough to accurately paraphrase the ideas, illustrations, or examples from material you have read or from your experience. The main point is that they should be comprehensible to the reader. By contrast, in a take-home essay context, it is imperative that you provide referenced textual and/or other evidence to support your argument.
Finally, always give reasons for your answer. It is not enough to say that in your opinion something is right or wrong. You must give sociological reasons, preferably supported by evidence, to persuade the reader that your opinion is right.
CHECKING THE ENGLISH IN YOUR ANSWER
It is also important that your written product is legible and well-written. You could be the most brilliant student at Rice but unless a reader can understand you, no one will know. What follows is a checklist.
- When you finish a piece of work, re-read your answer for English expression and sense before you hand it in. If you have friend who can do it for you with fresh eyes, that is great. Read for clarity, proper use of terms, the fact that you have answered the question, and the overall organization of the paper. Note: rereading is more than spell-checking on the computer.
- Check that you have defined all the special terms you employ. Do not use words just for the sake of using them, unless you know you are using them properly. A clear answer in your own words is much better than a confusing answer because the jargon has not been used properly.
- Contractions (such as don't, can't, won't isn't etc.) are not used in conventional social scientific writing. Use the complete words (will not, cannot, is not, etc.).
- Check verbs, tenses, and the use of prepositions (for, of, with, at etc.) to make sure you are using them properly.
My final word is that the only way I know to improve your written English is to practice writing all the time - in letters home, in lecture notes, on the email, and all the other times you have to write. Next to the dictionary and thesaurus you should all have on your desk, two good books to keep as references are, A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers by the UCLA writing group which is pretty introductory but th'orough, and The Elements of Style 3rd. ed by Strunk and White, which is old but wonderful. They are widely available and are quite cheap and very useful. The Strunk and White is a particularly valuable purchase because it has an application far broader than undergraduate sociology writing.
SOME PRACTICE QUESTIONS TO DECODE
- Explain how Donald Duck is a cartoon character.
- Compare Marx and Weber's theories of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
- What is the policy of affirmative action and why does it continue to be such a controversial social policy in American society and government?