Possibly the most frequently asked question when it comes to social science essay writing (certainly in first and second year courses) is how many sources should be used in an essay. This is a very legitimate question, especially if you don’t have much essay writing experience to start with. But the answer is not very straightforward. It depends. Rather than providing a fixed number, this blog post lays out what it depends on, and what kinds of parameters play a role in determining the number of readings.
The purpose of referencing
First, however, a short reflection on why you need to use references in the first place. Anchoring this discussion to its purpose will help you gain a deeper understanding of the issue, and the rest will make more sense. It is tempting to see this as a tick-box exercise of a specific number of readings you need to cover. But providing references goes deeper than that.
What distinguishes academic writing from other forms of writing is that indeed, it builds on what others have written before, and makes explicit reference to it. This is because social science is ever-evolving. When we write about social class today, we stand on the shoulders of giants, scholars like Marx, Weber, or more recently, Pierre Bourdieu. And those are only the big names. Hundreds of other authors have dedicated their scholarly lives to academic research, and added bits and pieces to an ever-evolving body of knowledge, be it on social class or any other topic we write about.
Providing references to their work pays tribute to this. It is a sign of respect for the work of others. But it also a way of showing your own awareness of the different debates and different perspectives in the field. And it is a way of showing where your position is. For example, if your analysis of class follows a Marxist tradition, this will show in the readings you use, as you will be drawing primarily on authors that have also followed this tradition (and probably some original Marx as well).
Rather than this being a tick-box exercise, then, referring to the work of others has a deeper meaning. It is about who you are, and where you see yourself, as a budding scholar. And you might not think of yourself as a budding scholar (yet?), but hey, we all have to start somewhere.
Parameter 1: Your ambition
And this brings us to the first parameter, your ambition. If all you want is write a reasonably well-informed essay that achieves a solid pass and a not unreasonable grade (a perfectly legitimate ambition. In our school this corresponds to a grade in the 50s range), fewer sources will do. You still need to demonstrate you have read, and are building on the literature, but there is less emphasis on integrating, for example, different perspectives. If, however, you want to demonstrate that you really know some stuff, and are aware of at least some of the different perspectives (in our school, a 60s essay), you will typically use a few more sources, integrate a few more perspectives, and a little more data and evidence. If you are aiming for those really high grade ranges (in our school, 70 and above), you want to show more of an ‘overview of the topic’, an awareness of a slightly bigger part of the body of knowledge that exists, which will result the use of additional sources, and an extended bibliography.
Okay, I know you want numbers. Here we go then. Let’s say this is a typical 1,500 to 2,000-word essay, first or second year, Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University (if you’re at another school or university this might be different. Even some individual courses might be different. Always check for local conditions): a typical 50s essay here will probably use four or five sources; in the 60s, it tends to be around five to ten, and typical 70s or above essays use probably somewhere between eight and 15 substantive sources. These are rough estimates, though. And importantly, these numbers are not deterministic. You could write a brilliant essay based on just five or six sources and still get that first. Or you could use 15 sources in your essay, but if your argument is off, or your writing is incomprehensible, or the sources aren’t very good, you might still only get a 50s grade.
Parameter 2: The kind of question
The second parameter to consider is the kind of question you are addressing. There are two main distinctions to make here: first, whether the question is mostly on a specific theory or on a topic. More theoretical questions tend to need fewer readings. For example, it could ask about a specific concept by a specific author, say Foucault’s concept of power/knowledge, or Mead’s idea of the Self. Rather than looking at several different viewpoints, this kind of essay question is asking you to engage in detail with only one author’s perspective. This means there is less importance on breadth of reading (expressed in a higher number of readings). However, this does not necessarily make things easier, as there is instead more emphasis on depth of reading. You need to engage thoroughly with that one text, more that you would otherwise. And even though the emphasis is on one author’s theory, depending on your ambition, you still want to consult additional literature, and see how other authors have interpreted and contextualised this particular theory.
If the essay question is on a specific topic, on the other hand, say globalisation, gender inequalities or social class, there is usually more of an emphasis on the breadth of reading, and of you demonstrating awareness of different perspectives and interpretations. This tends to result in a higher number of bibliography entries.
The second aspect of the ‘kind of question’ parameter you need to consider is how many dimensions the question has. In the above example, if the question is about one theorist, you will typically need fewer readings than if the question is asking you to compare theories, for example, compare Foucault’s notion of how power and knowledge are connected to what Marx and Engels wrote about the issue. Both might be 2,000 word essays, but the number of readings is likely to be twice as many if you add this comparison.
The same goes for topic questions. These, too, can involve several dimensions. A question that asks about the impact of globalisation on cultural practices in Japan is more likely to be focused on a selected number of core readings. If a similar question asks about the impact of globalisation on culture, the economy and politics in Japan, this multitude of dimensions will require additional readings for the additional dimensions.
Parameter 3: Quality of sources
Another parameter that determines the number of sources you need to use is the quality of your sources, and the kinds of sources you use. Once again, two distinctions are important here. First, there is a difference between core readings, and ones that are more peripheral. The core readings should indeed provide the core of your argument, and the basis for the essay to build on. They are usually provided in the course material, either as essay readings, or for the respective lectures or course units the essay builds on. The decisive point, however, and what defines these as core readings for the purpose of your essay, is that they touch on the core of what the essay is about. Peripheral readings are ones that provide examples, additional material, data and illustration. They help your essay branch out, and cover just that little bit more ground. The point, however, is that they are additional, and if push comes to shove, you could probably do without them. The core readings, in contrast, are indispensable.
This distinction is important for how you count your number of readings. Core readings count fully; peripheral readings, not quite so much. This can become a problem if your bibliography is overly weighted towards peripheral readings. If you have, say, ten readings in your bibliography, but only one or two are on the core of the topic, this will be insufficient, despite the relatively high number of readings. If we take the above example of the effects of globalisation on Japanese culture, if only one or two readings are on globalisation, and ten others on examples, this might leave the core a little hollow, and the discussion of globalisation in a more general sense might just not have sufficient substance. I have used the word ‘might’ here, because this does depend on the kinds of readings, and there is a chance that this bibliography actually does work. The important point is that this is something you need to pay attention to, and ultimately it is your judgment call.
The second distinction of the kinds of sources is between academic and non-academic sources. As a rule of thumb, you should be very careful about using non-academic sources in the first place. All of the above is written on the assumption that we are talking about academic (i.e. peer-reviewed) journal articles and books. Under certain circumstances, however, it is possible to use non-academic sources, such as news articles or blogposts, mostly to provide current examples and illustration of whatever you are writing about. If you do use such sources, however, they should never be seen as a replacement for academic sources. And when you count how many sources you have used, you should simply take these out of the equation. If you have used, say three academic sources and 15 non-academic sources, in the eyes of your marker (at least if I am that marker) you have only used three sources, plus some additional, peripheral, illustrative material. This is not to say that this additional material cannot also be very useful. But as discussed above, academic essay writing starts with an acknowledgment of what is already out there in terms of academic literature and research, and is based on the body of knowledge that has evolved over time on a specific topic, not on yesterday’s news.
Parameter 4: specific instructions
The last parameter to consider can throw the entire calculation over board. It is whether the essay question comes with specific instructions. Such instructions could be, for example, that an essay in social theory really only needs to engage with this one theory. This gives you permission to limit the number of readings. However, be careful here, as this can be a false friend. Reading additional secondary literature on the theory might actually help you understand it better.
Or you might be encouraged to use news articles to provide examples for your discussion. This can potentially lead to a much higher number of bibliography entries. But as discussed above, this should not replace academic literature, and the latter should always form the basis and core of your discussion.
These four parameters are what I think are the most relevant determinants for the number of readings you need to use in your essay. But maybe I missed something? What other considerations do you think are important? Or maybe you disagree with some claim made in this article? Do let me know in the comments below.