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Focusing on the topic - introductions

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Go to a dictionary or thesaurus and write down the synonyms for each of the key words in the assignment question. This provides you with a larger vocabulary to use as you refer to these ideas or issues through the essay, and it has the effect of triggering ideas or lines of inquiry in your mind - you have started engaging with the topic. For sociologically specific terms like "alienation", "commodify", "norms", etc. refer to a dictionary of sociology.

Once you have determined exactly what the topic requires of you and what your response will be, you need to be sure that this response is presented in a clear line of argument throughout your essay.

One of the most obvious ways to ensure a clear response to a topic is to tie your introduction and conclusion very closely to the topic itself. While this may seem self evident, students nevertheless frequently lose marks because they have not linked the different sections of their answer back to the topic.

Once you have written your essay, it is a good idea to review your introduction:

  • Does it link directly to the question that was asked?
  • Does it accurately reflect the argument you present in the body of the essay?

It is often a good idea to write your introduction after you have written the body of the essay. This way you can be sure that the argument you set out in your introduction is, in fact, the one that you ended up writing!

Let's now examine a sample topic and matching introduction to see how well the argument is presented:

First, we need to analyse the topic in order to work out what is required.

Question 1

Read the following essay topic on stereotyping and the mass media:

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity, and age.

Which words or phrases do you think are particularly important in working out what the topic is about? Tick the boxes of the important words below.



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This is a short topic, but packed with information. Lets take each important word or phrase in turn.

First, we need to identify and understand the key concepts of the topic:

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity, and age.

To answer this question you would need to know well what is meant by "mass media" and "social stereotypes", concepts you would hear about in lectures or read about in a sociology textbook (you are not likely to find explanations in a standard dictionary).

However, an essay that explained what mass media is and what social stereotyping is would not be appropriate. It is the relationship between them that is important. So the topic is not "what social stereotypes are presented in the mass media", nor "how can we address the problem of stereotyping in the media", but rather " how does the mass media construct (create) stereotypes and how does the media reinforce (or strengthen) the stereotypes that already exist in society".

So the emphasis, then, is on the ways in which the media creates and strengthens stereotypes:

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity, and age.

The words construct and reinforce have particular meanings in the academic context. So you will need to go to your Sociology textbook to get a full understanding of how they are used in Sociology. (See the skill on Sociological Terminology.)

Finally, what particular stereotypes are we talking about?

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity, and age.

Clearly, the essay should focus on those stereotypes relating to gender, ethnicity, and age. Once again, you will need to go to a dictionary of sociology or a sociology textbook in order to get a appropriate definition for these terms.

For more help with analysing essay topics go to the interactive tutorial on essay writing in the Writing section of this website.


Question 2

Now examine the following student's introduction to her essay on this topic:

Sample introduction 1

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity, and age.

Stereotyping is a mental activity that is neither natural or necessary; however, due to laziness, upbringing or coincidental experiences (Lester, 1996, p.1), the stereotyping of individuals results in harmful generalisations that ultimately deny an individual's 'unique contribution to humanity' (Lester, 1996, p.1). When the mass media engage in stereotyping, misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups are confirmed. In this essay, a broad range of texts will be used to examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age, as well as how the media shape one's imagination though direct images.

Can you identify particular words and phrases that tie this introduction to the topic question? If so, tick the boxes of the important words below.



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Compare the words and phrases you have identified with the following:

Sample introduction 1

Stereotyping is a mental activity that is neither natural or necessary; however, due to laziness, upbringing or coincidental experiences (Lester, 1996, p.1), the stereotyping of individuals results in harmful generalisations that ultimately deny an individual's 'unique contribution to humanity' (Lester, 1996, p.1). When the mass media engage in stereotyping, misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups are confirmed. In this essay, a broad range of texts will be used to examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age, as well as how the media shape one's imagination though direct images.

This introduction follows the standard convention of beginning with the general topic to be introduced, and then moving on with greater and greater specificity to the particular point to be addressed. We can describe it as follows:

  1. stereotyping
  2. mass media and stereotyping
  3. mass media and stereotyping around gender, ethnicity, and age

This functions reasonably well as an intro, but the last sentence contains the exact wording of the topic question. It is better to try to reformulate the question in your own words. Also the student could have attempted to give an indication of how she will answer the question.


Question 3

Here is an example of a different type of introduction to the essay.

Sample introduction 2

[1] Communication has always been an important part of human social interaction but with the advent of the twentieth century, information has become a global, technological entity. [2] Mass media is the term used to describe human communication systems that employ technology to reach large audiences. [3] These systems have been developed and improved during the twentieth century - communication systems such as print journalism, film, broadcast radio, television and now the internet. [4] Generally the mass media sees itself as quite different from "high culture" (eg art, poetry, literature etc). [5] However, Goodall (1995) suggest that a more complex picture of the mass media has developed. [6] He suggests that there is a distinction to be made within the media framework; one between "high" culture and popular culture. [7] For example, between art-house films and popular Hollywood cinema, between so-called "quality" press and tabloid journalism, and between non-commercial and commercial television. [8] So when looking at the ways in which mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes, this essay will focus on the mass media of popular culture.

Does it address the main themes of the topic? Can you identify words and phrases that tie the introduction to the topic? If so, tick the boxes of the important words below.



Check your answer

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Compare the words and phrases you have identified with the following:

Sample introduction 2

[1] Communication has always been an important part of human social interaction but with the advent of the twentieth century, information has become a global, technological entity. [2] Mass media is the term used to describe human communication systems that employ technology to reach large audiences. [3] These systems have been developed and improved during the twentieth century - communication systems such as print journalism, film, broadcast radio, television and now the internet. [4] Generally the mass media sees itself as quite different from "high culture" (eg art, poetry, literature etc). [5] However, Goodall (1995) suggest that a more complex picture of the mass media has developed. [6] He suggests that there is a distinction to be made within the media framework; one between "high" culture and popular culture. [7] For example, between art-house films and popular Hollywood cinema, between so-called "quality" press and tabloid journalism, and between non-commercial and commercial television. [8] So when looking at the ways in which mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes, this essay will focus on the mass media of popular culture.

This introduction focuses on defining the mass media, and does so well. However, it does not refer to the main topic - stereotypes and the ways in which media construct and reinforce these - until the last sentence, Sentence 8. This again functions reasonably well as an intro, but more of an emphasis could be placed on the idea of social stereotyping and its relationship to the mass media. The extended definition of mass media (Sentences 1-7) could be reduced in this introduction, with the remaining material placed in the body of the essay.


Question 4

Here is another example of a different type of introduction to the essay.

Sample introduction 3

The mass media have become the major mode of communication, without which it would be impossible to circulate the same range and amount of information within our complex social structure (Giddens, 1989: 79). Consequently, the media have enormous influence over audiences' values, attitudes and beliefs: people are necessarily vulnerable to the media "in all of its social functions" (Elliot, 1996:2). Yet the media do not, contrary to popular belief, always present an entirely "realistic" view of the world. Given the necessity to attract sponsorship and to disseminate ideas consistent with the ideals of powerful commercial interests, the media tend to be quite selective and formulaic in their depiction. Symbolisation, "normalisation", labelling and simplification, among other well-established techniques, allow the media to construct and reinforce particular stereotypes - standardized characterizations, which ignore the complexities underlying a myriad of social issues (Campbell, 1995: 14).

Does it address the main themes of the topic? Can you identify words and phrases that tie the introduction to the topic? If so, tick the boxes of the important words below.



Check your answer

Feedback

Compare the words and phrases you have identified with the following:

Sample introduction 3

The mass media have become the major mode of communication, without which it would be impossible to circulate the same range and amount of information within our complex social structure (Giddens, 1989: 79). Consequently, the media have enormous influence over audiences' values, attitudes and beliefs: people are necessarily vulnerable to the media "in all of its social functions" (Elliot, 1996:2). Yet the media do not, contrary to popular belief, always present an entirely "realistic" view of the world. Given the necessity to attract sponsorship and to disseminate ideas consistent with the ideals of powerful commercial interests, the media tend to be quite selective and formulaic in their depiction. Symbolisation, "normalisation", labelling and simplification, among other well-established techniques, allow the media to construct and reinforce particular stereotypes - standardized characterizations, which ignore the complexities underlying a myriad of social issues (Campbell, 1995: 14).

All of the introductions above correctly finish on the concept of the ways in which stereotypes are constructed - the true emphasis of this topic. This introduction goes further and lists the ways in which this occurs, which is helpful as now we can look forward to hearing more about how this happens. This introduction also emphasises the influence of the media on people's beliefs, which may serve to create or reinforce stereotypes.

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