Overview of the Research Paper in Sociology 415/515 and 416/516

Imagine that you are a lawyer in court and you need to demonstrate that an employer has been
systematically discriminating against older than average applicants for jobs. You have a box of
applications from potential employees during the past year, you have lists of who was hired, and
you have 100 completed questionnaires filled out by managers who were involved in hiring for the
company. You have noticed that the older applicants were almost never hired but the younger ones
are. Now the older applicants have retained you to challenge the employer in court over this topic.
Having accepted the case, you now have to figure out how to communicate to 12 jurors who know
little about the problem (age discrimination in hiring and the law dealing with this topic) that there is
good evidence (the box of applications, the lists of people hired and the survey of managers) that
unfair hiring practices have been used by the employer. Your lawer-ly task of convincing a jury to
reach a certain verdict is very similar to the task you face when you are writing an academic research
paper. So how do you make a convincing case for a jury? The answer to this question is analogous to
how you develop a convincing argument and case in an academic research paper. Let's follow the
analogy through from beginning to end.

The Introduction

When you write a quantitative research paper, you are not just writing for the judge (the teacher).
You are writing for an imagined, or real, audience of peers or a public that knows less about the
subject than you. This puts upon you the task of introducing and explaining the issue clearly before
proceeding with the evidence. If you were in court you would not assume that the jury understands
the details of the law or the subtle dynamics of employment discrimination. You would introduce to
them the fact that such a phenomenon exists, that there are rules that employers are supposed to
follow and that there is now disagreement between the employer and the un-hired applicants regarding
whether mistreatment occurred in this instance. You would also make it clear from the start that you
intend to convince them that the un-hired applicants are right and that the employers are wrong.

Similarly, you begin an academic research paper with an introduction that alerts the reader to the fact
that there is an important phenomenon worthy of our attention and that there is some kind of sociological
question surrounding that phenomenon. It may be that the question is theoretical (e.g. Why does this occur
s it does?) or empirical (e.g. Does such a thing actually exist?) or practical (e.g. Why does such a thing
matter to society?) In addition to alerting the reader to the existence and importance of the topic of your
paper, you also alert the reader to the nature of your conclusion (e.g. "I find that "X" has more influence
on "Y" than is commonly believed by most academics.")

If the reader had to set down your paper at the end of the introduction, she should be able to complete
these sentences:

This does not steal your thunder as an author because you still have the challenging task of making your
case, showing how the evidence leads to a particular conclusion and showing how the other explanations
are not as persuasive as your explanation.

The Literature Review

After introducing to the jury your intentions and goals for this case, you then have a chance to explain to the
jury what they need to know about hiring practices, the law, and about different ways of understanding this
issue. For example, you might want them to know that the law is very specific about age discrimination and
that earlier jury cases just like this one have found that employers must be held accountable if they fail to hire
someone just because of their age. You may want to alert the jury to their own biases, pointing out that they
might tend to feel sympathy for the employer because some of them think that employers should be able to hire
whoever they want or that the law has no place in telling employers what to do. You might also think they need
to know that this employer is very powerful and wealthy and that it would not have been a major hardship for
them to have accommodated some of the elderly applicants who applied for jobs. In other words, as the attorney
for the un-hired applicants, your job is to inform the jury, review for them the important issues, help them
understand what is really the question, and prepare them to carefully judge for themselves.

The literature review of a research paper seeks to accomplish these same tasks. You must have in mind that most
of your readers know little or nothing about your topic and thus you have to review for them the basic features of
what is already known and established about this topic. At the same time, some very informed readers (your
teacher and your fellow student writers!) will be able to check on your accuracy and your honest portrayal of
the current state of knowledge. For a further discussion of how to write a good literature review, you can view
a document about literature review back in the list of course review materials. Remember: the literature review
is not a review of all of the literature. It is a selective but fair treatment of the state of current knowledge about a
topic, designed to point out what is known and what remains to be discovered about social phenomena.
 
Data and Methods
 
If you had a box full of applications from the past year, and 50% of them were from older than average applicants,
but only 2% of the new hires were older than average, you could point to the disparity in these percentages as
circumstantial evidence that discrimination occurred. But before you could present these findings, you would need
to introduce to the jury the fact that you have some data that bears upon this issue. Before showing them the 50%
versus 2% gap, you would need to tell the jury about your data. For example, where did you get these records?
How reliable are they? Are there missing records that we do not know about? Were these records obtained legally?
You also might have to explain how you computed your percentages if you have jurors who do not understand your
math.

Similarly, in a research paper you need to tell your readers about your data, about how you gathered it, and sometimes,
how you analyzed it. Some of the things that may need to be addressed are:
 

          * What is the nature of the data? Is it derived from telephone surveys, coding of
                 government documents, door-to-door interviews, etc.?
 

          * How valid is this data set for addressing the topic? Does the data actually represent measures of the things you
                 are writing about? Does the data represent the real phenomena occurring "out there" in society
                 (i.e. representativeness of the data.)?
 

          * How reliable is this data in terms of measurement error?

          * How are you measuring the variables that are in your study? For example, is "age" measured by "years of
                  age", or as "over 49/under 50"?

We will talk more at length about this section of the paper as the course proceeds.

Findings (or Results)

At some point you introduce to the jury the critical pieces of evidence that demonstrate that the employer engaged
in age discrimination. For example, you might show them a pie chart that shows 50% of the applications were from
eople over 50 years old and then show a second pie chart that shows that 2% of the new hires were over 50 years
old. Then you might introduce to them a table showing that 75% of the managers indicated that they believed that
older people would be more difficult to work with than younger ones. In other words, you show the results of your
analysis that will convince the jury of your claim.

In academic writing, you also will highlight the critical findings of your analysis to point out that the conclusions you
will draw are the most reasonable. However, in contrast to a legal case where you will hope that any conflicting
information is suppressed or over-looked, academic ethics require that you present the whole story, or at least as
much as you can. This means that when you complete your analysis you also report unanticipated or contradictory
findings and then do the best that you can to make sense of these as well. Thus you should seek to strike a tone of
confident assertion while at the same time acknowledging the parts of your analysis that do not support your claim
or that might support alternative claims.

The results section of your paper will generally be the place where tables and graphs are located, deriving principally
from your analysis. Tables and graphs from other researchersí work tends to appear in the literature review section,
if at all.

Conclusions (or Discussion)
 
In a trial case, the closing argument is the place where you put together the pieces and review for people what it is
that you have presented to them. You remind them of the legal questions involved, highlight the most critical evidence,
point out why you have demonstrated the alternative claim to be false, and suggest to them that they should now
decide to agree with you about the guilt of the employer.

The conclusion of a paper is also the place where you quickly summarize what you have accomplished in the paper,
highlighting the major theoretical question (or questions), reminding the reader of the central findings that help answer
the question, and pointing out how your explanation is superior to alternatives. Typically this section also indicates how
your research raises new questions or areas of social inquiry, or suggests potential social policy actions. Your
conclusion should be concise, but also complete enough that if someone only read your conclusion, they would know
what question you tried to answer, what main findings you provide to answer the question, and what you think it
ultimately means.

Citations (or References or Bibliography)

Lawyers always need to be ready to cite where they have found legal precedent for the claims they make. When you
argue that the employer is guilty you may need to say to the judge or the jury that in Jones v. Smith, Inc., the judge
allowed evidence just like you are providing and the jury found it convincing enough to convict Smith, Inc..

In the same fashion, academic writing requires that you indicate where you see in the literature the theoretical or
empirical claims that you are evaluating. This section is not just a legally or ethically required component of a paper,
but is essential for convincing the reader that you have some idea of where your paper fits into the conversation that is
going on among academics in "the literature". A thorough reference section also allows your readers to go investigate
further to see if your paper really does accurately report what other authors have said. Unlike "unnamed sources" in
newspapers, academic writers usually must divulge from where they obtained their material. (See Chapter ? regarding
appropriate citations.. etc.) In a quantitative paper, this means that the author includes citations for the papers and books
where other authors have made claims and provided information that is pertinent to the case at hand.

******

This document is a draft which will eventually be part of the Sociology Department's Writing Handbook. Your comments
would be welcomed. You may e-mail them to:  medwards@orst.edu

 
Author: Mark Edwards