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Theories Essay

Essay Writing Guide for Psychology Students

Saul McLeod published 2014

Before you write your essay it's important to analyse the task and understand exactly what the essay question is asking. It is possible your lecturer will give you some advice - pay attention to this as it will help you plan your answer.

Next conduct preliminary reading based on your lecture notes. At this stage it's not crucial to have a robust understanding of key theories or studies, but you should at least have a general 'gist' of the literature.

After reading, plan a response to the task. This plan could be in the form of a mind map, a summary table, or by writing a core statement (which encompass the entire argument of your essay in just a few sentences).

After writing your plan conduct supplementary reading and refine your plan and make it more detailed.

It is tempting to skip these preliminary steps and just write the first draft while reading at the same time. However, reading and planning will make the essay writing process easier, quicker, and ensure a higher quality essay is produced.

Now let us look at what constitutes a good essay in psychology. There are a number of important features.

  1. A Global Structure - structure the material in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. Each paragraph / statement should follow sensibly from its predecessor. The essay should 'flow'. The introduction, main body and conclusion should all be linked.
  2. Each paragraph should comprise a main theme which are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence).

  3. Knowledge and Understanding - recognise, recall and show understanding on a range of scientific material that accurately reflects the main theoretical perspectives.
  4. Critical Evaluation - arguments should be supported by appropriate evidence and/or theory from the literature. Evidence of independent thinking, insight and evaluation of the evidence.
  5. Quality of Written Communication - writing clearly and succinctly with appropriate use of paragraphs, spelling and grammar. All sources referenced accurately and in line with APA guidelines.

In the main body of the essay every paragraph should demonstrate both knowledge and critical evaluation.

There should also be an appropriate balance between these two essay components. Try to aim for about a 60/40 split if possible. Most students make the mistake of writing too much knowledge and not enough evaluation (which is the difficult bit).

It is best to structure your essay according to key themes. Themes are illustrated and developed through a number of points (supported by evidence). Choose relevant points only, ones that most reveal the theme or help to make a convincing and interesting argument.

Knowledge and Understanding

Remember that an essay is simply a discussion / argument on paper. Don't make the mistake of writing all the information you know regarding a particular topic.

You need to be concise, and clearly articulate your argument. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.

Each paragraph should have a purpose / theme, and make a number of points - which need to be support by high quality evidence. Be clear why each point is is relevant to the argument. It would be useful at the beginning of each paragraph if you explicitly outlined the theme being discussed (.e.g. cognitive development, social development etc.).

Try not to overuse quotations in your essays. It is more appropriate to use original content to demonstrate your understanding.

Psychology is a science so you must support your ideas with evidence (not your own personal opinion). If you are discussing a theory or research study make sure you cite the source of the information.

Note this is not the author of a textbook you have read - but the original source / author(s) of the theory or research study.

For example:

Bowlby (1951) claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years and, for most children, if delayed till after 12 months, i.e. there is a critical period.


Maslow (1943) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fullfil the next one, and so on.

As a general rule make sure there is at least one citation (i.e. name of psychologist and date of publication) in each paragraph.

Remember to answer the essay question. Underline the key words in the essay title. Don't make the mistake of simply writing everything you know of a particular topic, be selective. Each paragraph in your essay should contribute to answering the essay question.

Critical Evaluation

In simple terms this means outlining the strengths and limitations of a theory or research study.

There are many ways you can critically evaluate:

  • Methodological evaluation of research -

    Is the study valid / reliable? Is the sample biased or can we generalize the findings to other populations? What are the strengths and limitations of the method used and data obtained?

  • Be careful to ensure that any methodological criticisms are justified and not trite. Rather than hunting for weaknesses in every study; only highlight limitations which make you doubt the conclusions that the authors have drawn – e.g. where an alternative explanation might be equally likely because something hasn’t been adequately controlled.

  • Compare or contrast different theories -

    Outline how the theories are similar and how they differ. This could be two (or more) theories of personality / memory / child development etc. Also try to communicate the value of the theory / study.
  • Debates or perspectives -

    Refer to debates such as nature or nurture, reductionism vs. holism or the perspectives in psychology. For example, would they agree or disagree with a theory or the findings of the study?

  • What are the ethical issues of the research? -

    Does a study involve ethical issues such as deception, privacy, psychological and physical harm.
  • Gender bias -

    If research is biased towards men or women it does not provide a clear view of the behavior that has been studied. A dominantly male perspective is known as an androcentric bias.

  • Cultural bias -

    Is the theory / study ethnocentric? Psychology is predominantly a white, Euro-American enterprise. In some texts, over 90% of studies have US participants, who are predominantly white and middle class. Does the theory or study being discussed judge other cultures by Western standards?
  • Animal Research -

    This raises the issue of whether it’s morally and/or scientifically right to use animals. The main criterion is that benefits must outweigh costs. But benefits are almost always to humans and costs to animals.

    Animal research also raises the issue of extrapolation. Can we generalize from studies on animals to humans as their anatomy & physiology is different from humans?

The PEC System

It is very important to elaborate on your evaluation. Don't just write a shopping list of brief (one or two sentence) evaluation points. Instead make sure you expand on your points, remember, quality of evaluation is most important than quantity.

When you are writing an evaluation paragraph use the PEC system.

  • Make your Point.

  • Explain how and why the point is relevant.

  • Discuss the Consequences / implications of the theory or study. Are they positive or negative?

For Example

    (Point) It is argued that psychoanalytic therapy is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority.

    (Explain) Because psychoanalytic therapy involves talking and gaining insight, and is costly and time-consuming, it is argued that it is only of benefit to an articulate, intelligent, affluent minority. Evidence suggests psychoanalytic therapy works best if the client is motivated and has a positive attitude.

    (Consequences) A depressed client’s apathy, flat emotional state and lack of motivation limit the appropriateness of psychoanalytic therapy for depression. Furthermore, the levels of dependency of depressed clients mean that transference is more likely to develop.

Using Research Studies in your Essays

Research studies can either be knowledge or evaluation.

  • If you refer to the procedures and findings of a study, this shows knowledge and understanding.
  • If you comment on what the studies shows, and what it supports and challenges about the theory in question, this shows evaluation.

Writing an Introduction

It is often best to write your introduction when you have finished the main body of the essay, so that you have a good understanding to the topic area.

If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your introduction.

Ideally the introduction should;

  1. Identify the subject of the essay and define the key terms.

  2. Highlight the major issues which “lie behind” the question. Let the reader know how you will focus your essay by identifying the main themes to be discussed.

  3. “Signpost” the essay’s key argument, (and, if possible, how this argument is structured).

Introductions are very important as first impressions count and they can create a halo effect in the mind of the lecturer grading your essay. If you start off well then you are more likely to be forgiven for the odd mistake later one.

Writing a Conclusion

So many students either forget to write a conclusion or fail to give it the attention it deserves. If there is a word count for your essay try to devote 10% of this to your conclusion.

Ideally the conclusion should summarize the key themes / arguments of your essay. State the take home message – don’t sit on the fence, instead weigh up the evidence presented in the essay and make a decision which side of the argument has more support.

Also, you might like to suggest what future research may need to be conducted and why (read the discussion section of journal articles for this).

Don't include new information / arguments (only information discussed in the main body of the essay).

If you are unsure of what to write read the essay question and answer it in one paragraph.

Points that unite or embrace several themes can be used to great effect as part of your conclusion.

The Importance of Flow

Obviously, what you write is important, but how you communicate your ideas / arguments has a significant influence on your overall grade. Most students may have similar information / content in their essays, but the better students communicate this information concisely and articulately.

When you have finished the first draft of your essay you must check if it 'flows'. This is an important feature of quality of communication (along with spelling and grammar).

This means that the paragraphs follow a logical order (like the chapters in a novel). Have a global structure with themes arranged in a way that allows for a logical sequence of ideas. You might want to rearrange (cut and paste) paragraphs to a different position in your essay if they don't appear to fit in with the essay structure.

To improve the flow of your essay make sure the last sentence of one paragraph links to first sentence of the next paragraph. This will help the essay flow and make it easier to read.

Finally, only repeat citations when it is unclear which study / theory you are discussing. Repeating citations unnecessarily disrupts the flow of an essay.


The reference section is the list of all the sources cited in the essay (in alphabetical order). It is not a bibliography (a list of the books you used).

In simple terms every time you cite/refer to a name (and date) of a psychologist you need to reference the original source of the information.

If you have been using textbooks this is easy as the references are usually at the back of the book and you can just copy them down. If you have been using websites then you may have a problem as they might not provide a reference section for you to copy.

References need to be set out APA style:


Author, A. A. (year). Title of work. Location: Publisher.

Journal Articles

Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (year). Article title. Journal Title, volume number(issue number), page numbers

A simple way to write your reference section is use Google scholar. Just type the name and date of the psychologist in the search box and click on the 'cite' link.

Next, copy and paste the APA reference into the reference section of your essay.

Once again remember that references need to be in alphabetical order according to surname.

Further Information

Writing Skills for Psychologists

Study Skills

Essay Writing Guide

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Essay writing guide for psychology students. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/psychology-essay.html

Theories of Sociology

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There are many theories in sociology to get the better understanding of a society. Many things impact an individual’s behaviour, lifestyles, relationship and much more. Technology is one of the many things that affect the people. Internet is used worldwide and we can use sociology to determine what importance and place it holds in the society. To understand this invention and implication the society better, this paper will cover upon the three well-known theories which are’ Conflict, functionalism, and symbolic internationalism theories. There three theories look at the internet from different view point such as from a micro level and macro level. Functionalism focuses on the society as a whole, where as conflict theory focuses on group within that society, and symbol interactional focuses on individuals in the group and society. Thus, the view point changes depending on the population and the perspective.

One of the important perspectives is a structural-functionalism. This approach focuses on “various components of society without prioritizing or assessing their importance to the social system as a whole; in effect all elements of a society are weighed equally” (Naiman, 2004; pp.18). In terms of internet, a functionalist would see the internet as a resource that brings efficiency in the lives of individuals for the reason that it is convenient. It also allows people to interact with one another around the world. A functionalist would ask questions regarding the function of the internet in the society would be: how does the internet help people access their provisions faster? How does it help people acquire knowledge and how can services be accessible to the demanding population? Thus, it mainly considers the benefits for all instead of few individuals.
The internet is more efficiently used now a days because it saves one’s time. An individual can spend few minutes online, booking a flight ticket instead of going to the travel agency in-person or calling the customer services and going through a long hectic procedure. As the technology gets advance, it plays even greater role in shaping the lives of the individuals. Also, some people may wish to visit the bureaucracies. However, others may not have the time to visit the offices due to family responsibilities or for other reasons. Functionalist theorist would see a vast benefit when it comes to administrative related online services. It eliminates the waiting list and makes life easier for the citizens and it will take less space in the bureaucracies.

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The administrative application process also saves papers from being wasted. One can simply send an application online instead of filling out paper work. A contributor to this perspective, Talcott Parsons, “focused on the socialization process, whereby society instills within individuals an outlook in which it is possible for them to pursue their own self-interest while still serving the interests of the system as a whole” (George and Goodman). In this case, the individuals get their work done fast online and it also helps the environmental aspect, which is beneficial to the general population. Further there are many resources online. This perspective comes into conflict with the conflict theory.
A Conflict theorist looks at inequality of an individual or groups such as class, gender, and race. Conflict theory put emphasis on the significance of “interests over norms and values, and the ways in which the pursuit of interests generated various types of conflict as normal aspects of social life, rather than abnormal or dysfunctional occurrences” (Marshall, 1998). Internet is essential now days for everyone regardless of the age group. However, a conflict theorist would view Internet to have inaccurate information, unaffordable for everyone, and brings alienation in the life of workers. The conflict theorist would ask questions such as, which group would benefit from the internet access? And how is inequality form from the accessibility of internet?
Although most people have access to the internet at home, there are some who are not provided with the same advantages. This may become an issue for those individuals because they might have to visit the libraries or their school to do their work. However, it is not always possible due to the expenditure on transportation, unless it is a walking distance. A conflict theorist would look at this issue and consider it as inequitable because an individual has to go through a lot of struggle. The blame may be put on the government because the tax rate should be reduced to help everyone have an easy access to the internet. Everyone should have equal opportunities. Thus many questions would come from a conflict theorist at this point, such as; does everyone have the equal opportunities? Can everyone afford the internet, or most importantly the computer in the first place? This is simply one issue that can be covered from this perspective, however there are many more such as copyright issues, online services (causing isolation from workplace and clients), and much more. Now to understand the internet from a micro level, symbolic interactional theory can be taken into an account.
Symbolic interactional theory looks at the interaction among individuals and what importance and meaning does the interaction hold in the life of the individuals. Interaction between human beings can either take place face to face or through the internet. Now days, a person relies on the internet based connection than face to face. Since internet is such a great resource that everyone is keen about, the question is what benefits can it bring? The benefits of internet use can be exploring many different nationalities, numerous resources available and the use of slang language for quick interaction. The symbolic interactionalist may look at the questions like how knowledge is acquired through the use of the internet. And how that knowledge may affect an individual’s perspective?
A person gets to read many things in different forms such as learning on their own. Also, through watching YouTube videos a person could gain benefits of doing things on their own because YouTube provides online tutorials on crafts, architecture, products etc. Although, by using YouTube may affect many systems that provides art courses or architecture classes, but in a way YouTube may save a lot of an individual’s time and money. The use of online tutorial makes one independent and gives them sense of self-confidence. “I think self esteem is central to everything you do. It affects your behaviour and thoughts. It changes how you feel about and value yourself.” (Perera, 1998). Simply from trying an activity from any tutorial site, one will gain satisfaction and confidence because they can follow the step to step tutorial on their own to form something big. This self-confidence will help them in the real world when it comes to dealing with something serious. A symbolic Interactional view would consider providing such resources to the people, in helping them learn to work on their own and build self-confidence. The development of self-confidence will lead the person to motivate other around them through the spread of their knowledge gained.
All these three theories focus on different levels of society, from a micro to the macro level. The functionalist theorists would see enormous benefits in the intervention and use of internet. It permits people to communicate online, personally and professionally. Also, it saves time when it comes to accessing the administrative services. Symbolic interactional theory would also see benefits in the use of internet, but instead of looking from a bigger perspective, it rather focuses on individuals. The benefits such as exploring many different nationalities to be able to know the person ethnicity very well and the use of slang language for quick interaction. People associate meaning and symbols with a person or a thing as mentioned above. The internet gives people sense of visualization and independence to think for themselves instead of relying on the stereotypes that the society forms. On the other hand, a conflict theory would focuses on groups. From a conflict theorist view, the internet does not provide advantages for every individual, nor does it provide disadvantages for every person. There are few who can make money or save time from the usage. However, there are others who are disadvantaged by the services. These inequalities are for those who can afford the internet, but in reality not everyone can afford the internet. Thus there are groups of people who do not have the same benefits.

Works Cited

GORDON MARSHALL. "conflict theory." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998.

Encyclopedia.com. Web. 17 September 2014.

Naiman, Joanne. "Sociology and the Study of Society." How Societies Work: Class, Power, and Change in a Canadian Context. Toronto: Irwin, 2004.

Perera, K. "The Importance of Self Esteem and Self worth." Building Self Esteem. 2012 Web. 17 September 2014.

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