If you are a student learning sociology, chances are you will be asked to write an abstract. Sometimes, your teacher or professor may ask you to write an abstract at the beginning of the research process to help you organize your ideas for the research.
Other times, the organizers of a conference or editors of an academic journal or book will ask you to write one to serve as a summary of research you have completed and that you intend to share.
Let's review exactly what an abstract is and the five steps you need to follow in order to write one.
Definition of an Abstract
Within sociology, as with other sciences, an abstract is a brief and concise description of a research project that is typically in the range of 200 to 300 words. Sometimes you may be asked to write an abstract at the beginning of a research project and other times, you will be asked to do so after the research is completed.
In any case, the abstract serves, in effect, as a sales pitch for your research. Its goal is to pique the interest of the reader such that he or she continues to read the research report that follows the abstract, or decides to attend a research presentation you will give about the research. For this reason, an abstract should be written in clear and descriptive language, and should avoid the use of acronyms and jargon.
Types of Abstracts
Depending on at what stage in the research process you write your abstract, it will fall into one of two categories: descriptive or informative.
Those written before the research is completed will be descriptive in nature. Descriptive abstracts provide an overview of the purpose, goals, and proposed methods of your study, but do not include discussion of the results or conclusions you might draw from them. On the other hand, informative abstracts are super-condensed versions of a research paper that provide an overview of the motivations for the research, problem(s) it addresses, approach and methods, the results of the research, and your conclusions and implications of the research.
Before you write an abstract there are a few important steps you should complete. First, if you are writing an informative abstract, you should write the full research report. It may be tempting to start by writing the abstract because it is short, but in reality, you can't write it until you the report is complete because the abstract should be a condensed version of it. If you've yet to write the report, you probably have not yet completed analyzing your data or thinking through the conclusions and implications. You can't write a research abstract until you've done these things.
Another important consideration is the length of the abstract. Whether you are submitting it for publication, to a conference, or to a teacher or professor for a class, you will have been given guidance on how many words the abstract can be. Know your word limit in advance and stick to it.
Finally, consider the audience for your abstract. In most cases, people you have never met will read your abstract. Some of them may not have the same expertise in sociology that you have, so it's important that you write your abstract in clear language and without jargon. Remember that your abstract is, in effect, a sales pitch for your research, and you want it to make people want to learn more.
The Five Steps of Writing an Abstract
- Motivation. Begin your abstract by describing what motivated you to conduct the research. Ask yourself what made you pick this topic. Is there a particular social trend or phenomenon that sparked your interest in doing the project? Was there a gap in existing research that you sought to fill by conducting your own? Was there something, in particular, you set out to prove? Consider these questions and begin your abstract by briefly stating, in one or two sentences, the answers to them.
- Problem. Next, describe the problem or question to which your research seeks to provide an answer or better understanding. Be specific and explain if this is a general problem or a specific one affecting only certain regions or sections of the population. You should finish describing the problem by stating your hypothesis, or what you expect to find after conducting your research.
- Approach and methods. Following your description of the problem, you must next explain how your research approaches it, in terms of theoretical framing or general perspective, and which research methods you will use to do the research. Remember, this should be brief, jargon-free, and concise.
- Results. Next, describe in one or two sentences the results of your research. If you completed a complex research project that led to several results that you discuss in the report, highlight only the most significant or noteworthy in the abstract. You should state whether or not you were able to answer your research questions, and if surprising results were found too. If, as in some cases, your results did not adequately answer your question(s), you should report that as well.
- Conclusions. Finish your abstract by briefly stating what conclusions you draw from the results and what implications they might hold. Consider whether there are implications for the practices and policies of organizations and/or government bodies that are connected to your research, and whether your results suggest that further research should be done, and why. You should also point out whether the results of your research are generally and/or broadly applicable or whether they are descriptive in nature and focused on a particular case or limited population.
Example of an Abstract in SociologyLet's take as an example the abstract that serves as the teaser for a journal article by sociologist Dr. David Pedulla. The article in question, published in American Sociological Review, is a report on how taking a job below one's skill level or doing part-time work can hurt a person's future career prospects in their chosen field or profession. The abstract, printed below, is annotated with bolded numbers that show the steps in the process outlined above.
1. Millions of workers are employed in positions that deviate from the full-time, standard employment relationship or work in jobs that are mismatched with their skills, education, or experience. 2. Yet, little is known about how employers evaluate workers who have experienced these employment arrangements, limiting our knowledge about how part-time work, temporary agency employment, and skills underutilization affect workers' labor market opportunities. 3. Drawing on original field and survey experiment data, I examine three questions: (1) What are the consequences of having a nonstandard or mismatched employment history for workers' labor market opportunities? (2) Are the effects of nonstandard or mismatched employment histories different for men and women? and (3) What are the mechanisms linking nonstandard or mismatched employment histories to labor market outcomes? 4. The field experiment shows that skills underutilization is as scarring for workers as a year of unemployment, but that there are limited penalties for workers with histories of temporary agency employment. Additionally, although men are penalized for part-time employment histories, women face no penalty for part-time work. The survey experiment reveals that employers' perceptions of workers' competence and commitment mediate these effects. 5. These findings shed light on the consequences of changing employment relations for the distribution of labor market opportunities in the "new economy."It's really that simple.