One of the most sought-after, and yet misunderstood, attributes of a social science essay or dissertation is originality. To achieve a grade in the 90s range here at Edinburgh (that is, an A++, an exceptionally good mark), for example, according to our marking descriptors, your essay needs to display ‘an exceptional degree of insight and independent thought’, ‘flair’, and indeed ‘originality’. Independent analysis and originality, however, should not just be a consideration for the higher grade ranges. Rather, this blogpost suggests to think of it as a scale ranging from complete unoriginality (to be avoided) to very high degrees of originality (to be pursued, but within the limits of good scholarship). Below are suggestions how to avoid the former, and how to work towards the latter.
‘Original Contribution’ Originality
Let’s start at the very pinnacle of originality, as this will help you understand why originality is such a priced asset in academia, and where this whole thing is coming from. Before you read this section, though, I want to emphasise that this is not what is normally expected from an undergraduate student essay. You can achieve excellent grades without it. You don’t need this even for an A+ (in Edinburgh terms, an 80s essay), it might just be what takes you from an A+ to an A++ (90s). This level of originality means you have come up with what is often referred to as an ‘original contribution’, a genuinely new idea, typically based on some original data (for example from interviews or questionnaires that you have yourself designed, planned and conducted) that adds genuinely new insight and understanding to the body of existing knowledge. This level of originality is a requirement if you are doing a PhD, it certainly helps with your Master’s or Bachelor’s thesis, but is very unusual and not typically expected in standard essay writing. For professional academics, however, originality is a key currency. It’s what gets their research published in prestigious journals, and forms an important part of academic reputation.
This is so you understand where the people who are teaching you, grading your essays, and writing such marking descriptors are coming from. For them, for us, it’s key to what we do. For you, however, certainly up to the level of where you write your dissertation, this kind of originality is not something you typically need to worry about (there might be exceptions, for example if an assignment specifically asks you to come up with an original research idea).
Still, if you want to go for it, do go for it. What you should know, however, is that you can only do this on the basis of really, really knowing the topic you are writing about very, very well. In order to contribute new insights, you need to know what insights already exist. Sometimes you might have an idea that you haven’t read about anywhere else, but that doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t had that idea first. If it’s already out there, it’s not your original idea, even if you discovered it on your own terms. This means before you can lay claim to your new idea being original, you need to do a lot of reading, and gain a lot of knowledge. Only this extensive knowledge gives you the ability to identify the gaps in the existing knowledge, and whether or not your new idea really does make the contribution you think it makes. In your essay or dissertation, you then also need to explicitly address this, usually through some kind of literature review that summarises the existing ideas and arguments, identifies the gaps of knowledge, and explains how your new idea addresses these gaps.
Sounds tough? It is. And I haven’t even started on how to design your own research project, collect your own data etc. It is indeed beyond the scope of this blogpost. It needs a lot of focus and dedication, and that is why this kind of originality is usually reserved for bigger research projects, in which you have time to do all that digging, and time to do all that original research. For a standard university essay, it means a lot of extra work for marginal gains.
A more realistic view of originality in undergraduate essays
The good news however, is that the above is only one kind of originality. There is a different kind that can be employed, and that can be used throughout your essay. This is not so much a matter of introducing new data or ideas (ie what you put in your essay), but a question of how you discuss existing information, how you write, how you assemble your argument, how you bring the readings into discussion with each other etc. The focus here indeed shifts from the what to the how.
What to avoid
Let’s start with what you should try to avoid. On this end of the spectrum there is unoriginal writing. This is writing that mostly just repeats what others have written before, with little of your own input or critical discussion. Such an essay will make the usual, obvious points and not add much to it. It can show itself, for example, in entire paragraphs being mere summaries of one of the readings, without integrating it with the essay argument or with other relevant readings. In other cases, there might be integration with other readings or the argument, but only in a way that someone else (another reading or the lecture on the topic) has done before. This re-telling of parts of a lecture is indeed not too uncommon in weaker essays, and at times the exact same references and sometimes even the exact same quotes are used as the lecture does.
For this case especially, a word of warning: This last example is not just unoriginal, it is poor scholarship and potentially plagiarism. You must not just retell the story in the same way someone else has, whether this is the lecture or another reading, pretending it’s your own work.
Avoid, then, mere summaries of readings. And avoid summaries of other people’s summaries of other literature. At best, this type of unoriginality will make the difference between a B and a C (ie it is typically what prevents an essay from reaching the B or 60s level in our marking scheme). At worst, it is plagiarism, and will get you into trouble.
Critical Analysis and Original Argument
How to write in an original way, then? To start with, there are two layers to consider. The first one is critical analysis, the second is original argument. Both are expressed in both the macro-organisation of your essay and the micro-level of how you write.
I have written in more detail on how to be critical in social science essay writing in this blogpost. Do read it if you want more detail. To summarise the main points, first, you need to critically engage with the literature. This means questioning the assumptions different authors build on, having a closer look at the methodology they use, contextualising them with other studies that have been done on the topic, but also understanding the context in which the work has been produced, and how this might have influenced the author and their motives. Do not misunderstand critical engagement with disagreeing with the author. You might disagree, but there is also such a thing as critical appreciation, in which you agree with someone precisely because you have examined their work in detail, and have found them to be convincing. This, too, demonstrates critical engagement. This first element of critical analysis mostly shows itself on the micro-level of how your write your essay, how you present your ideas and those of others, always with an attention to the details of the studies you present, and an awareness of different interpretations.
Second, critical analysis can mean formulating a critique of the social/political phenomenon you are looking at. This means asking the power question: How does power, and how do hierarchies and inequalities (economic, political, symbolic etc.) show themselves in how, for example, poverty is discussed in media discourses, policy responses to climate change, or the design of school curricula? This second element of critical analysis can play a key part in how you organise your essay on the macro-level, and how you assemble your overall argument. You can thus organise and structure your essay around a key ctitique that puts into focus the role of such power and hierarchy relations.
And this brings me to the point on ‘original argument’. It depends a little on the essay question, but it is almost always a good idea to formulate an argument, an arguable statement relating to the essay question, introduced in the introduction, and serving as a lynchpin throughout your essay. This could be, for example, ‘this essay argues that tabloid media discourses on poverty are deliberately designed by their owners to blame poverty on the poor, and legitimise welfare cuts and a low-tax, low-spend government’, or it could be ‘that the resistance by policy-makers against sustainable policies, particularly in the US, can be explained by the economic power and political influence the fossil fuel industry still holds, both in the form of financing so-called ‘science’, and through lobbying various levels of government’. Or it could be ‘This essay will argue that the way British history is taught, in particular in its ‘small island’ version introduced by the conservative government in English schools, aims at isolating British history from its colonial context, and obscuring the role of colonial exploitation in the development of the modern British state’.
Let’s keep some perspective here. The above examples are very detailed and nuanced thesis statements that you might see in an A+ essay – something you maybe want to strive for, if your ambitions are that way inclined. But even more reduced versions (e.g. ‘I am going to argue that the school curriculum is an expression of still-existing colonial relations’ or ‘poverty discourses serve to legitimise welfare cuts’) will go a long way. The important thing is that whatever your argument is, it should indeed be arguable, that is, one should be able to argue against it. And indeed, as you then proceed to write your essay, you should anticipate various counter-arguments, what someone else might say and what evidence they might use to argue against you. Address these counter-arguments as appropriate, and show why you find them less convincing.
The essay, then, in a macro-sense, can be organised around such an argument. On the micro-level of how this shows itself as you write along, you then need to develop this argument as your essay proceeds. This is done primarily through signposting, adding a sentence or two at the end of each point or paragraph, making the connections between the different points clearer, and how they relate to the argument. Signposting is usually understood as improving the flow of the essay. This is indeed one of its functions. There is another function, however, which is that it actually helps you develop, and bring to the fore, what your argument is. When it finally comes to the conclusion at the end of your essay, you merely need to bring the different strings of the argument together, and put them into context with the essay or research question.
Both critical analysis and original argument take you beyond merely reproducing what is already out there. They help you develop your own take on things, and put your own stamp on the essay. They will demonstrate your credentials as an independent, critical thinker. They are the keys that will help you unlock ‘originality’ in your essay.
Part 2 of ‘How to be original’ will go a step further, and suggest two techniques for turbocharging your originality, (a) using case studies and (b) theoretical frameworks. Stay tuned for updates.