Developing Research and Writing Skills for the Social Sciences

The aim of this portion of the course, interspersed throughout the semester, is to improve your research and writing skills for further work within the social science disciplines in general, and political science in particular.

We will follow Scott’s and Garrison’s Political Science Writer’s Manual but also introduce other material to illustrate methods, skills and procedures.

Although this material is introduced each week (in the order below), you can also follow this page and its links as a self-contained program of study.

To the Student

  • The Scott and Garrison text is intended to help political science students to achieve the academic objectives associated with earning a degree in political science. More generally, the text can provide a foundation to improve your research and writing skills for any discipline, particularly related to the social sciences.

Sources – not just about citation

  • Scott and Garrison, Chapter 5: Cite sources and avoid plagiarism
  • cite to give credit, cite to get credit, cite to understand (the lesson of Tom Ridler’s diary – never trust information if you don’t know where it comes from!)
  • How we know what isn’t so – the psychology of errors in critical thinking
  • Internet sources: use with caution

“Wikipedia is like an old and eccentric uncle.  He can be a lot of fun-over the years he’s seen a lot and he can tell a great story. He’s also no dummy; he’s accumulated a lot of information and as some strong opinions about what he’s gathered.  You can learn quite a bit from him.  But take everything he says with a grain of salt.  A lot of the things he thinks he knows for sure aren’t quite right, or are taken out of context. And when it comes down to it, sometimes he believes things that are a little bit, well, nuts. If it ever matters to you whether something he said is real or fictional, it’s crucial to check it out with a more reliable source.”

  • Authority: is the site well regarded, cited, and written by experts in the field?
  • Educational value: does the site content help advance educational goals?
  • Originality: is the site a source of original content and viewpoints?
  • Quality: is the site highly vetted with good coverage of the topical area?

Finding stuff, and some tricks to make life easier

Comparative Method

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 13: Comparing political systems

  • the research process involves collecting, analyzing and interpreting data
  • collecting data can involve cross-section (lots of cases at the same time) or time series (same case at successive points in time).
  • A case is defined by the dependent and independent variables involved  in the research. In practice, states, governments, political parties, movements, conflicts, or even a significant individual can constitute a case.
  • Analyzing data often involves building formal models which may be simplifications of reality, but formalizing or operationalizing definitions of variables, helps to refine the collection and analysis of data, perhaps through correlation, content analysis, or other techniques.
  • Interpreting data usually involves telling a story (narrative) about it in a way that makes a convincing argument.

Writing style

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 3: Developing an effective writing style

  • Be brief. Be clear. Be unambiguous.
  • Good writing communicates to the intended audience, clearly, in a single reading. It is easy to scan for important content. Keep working to improve your style. What works for one audience is not appropriate for others.
  • Use words as if you have to pay for each one.

George Orwell’s guide to political writing, from his wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946) reproduced here.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Critical reviews

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 8: Explain and evaluate the work of others

S&G miss a vital part of the book review process. Whenever you read something, before you even devote time to reading it, you want to know where it comes from. Who wrote it and who were they? Why read something by them? When, where, why did they write it, and under what circumstances? Usually at least some of this belongs in the review, too. Exegesis begins with understanding the originator.

Designing and organizing research

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 9: Organizing the research process

S&G suggest four steps in organizing research

7. establish an effective process (panic early – avoid the rush, particularly if you are using the writing centre)

8. find and evaluate quality print and online material (don’t rely on Massey; use Stauffer).

9. Develop a working bibliography (Google scholar ‘cite’ helps keep your citation style consistent)

10. Conduct a formal literature review (be systematic; use APA format in your research notes so you don’t lose any information about sources)

Legislative and political analysis

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 12: Analyzing legislation (we will adapt this to consider Hansard and Canadian processes)

Back to basics

Scott and Garrison, Chapter 2: Review the basics of grammar and style

It’s an American book, but all those extra vowels are an important part of your culture. Don’t lose them!

David Last, updated September 2016,