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Developing good academic practice
Developing good academic practice

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4.2.5 Social Sciences

The notion of ‘common knowledge’ draws us into difficult territory, because it involves a judgement on what is, and what is not, widely known and acknowledged. Some bits of information are considered sufficiently clear and well established to be viewed as common knowledge, and therefore do not require a reference. You will have already noted a few examples of widely known facts and other information in earlier pages linked to this website. Below are two more examples where it is difficult to disagree with what is being said:

  • Global development has been uneven in its economic impact on different parts of the world.
  • Britain has undergone some major economic and social changes since the Second World War.

In both cases the evidence is almost overwhelming in supporting these general statements. Indeed it is partly because the statements are so general that they are difficult to debate. It is reasonable to assume that both are sufficiently well known that they can be regarded as common knowledge and do not require referencing.

In your coursework in the Social Sciences and elsewhere you will often want to use statements, ideas and information that are less widely known and acknowledged. For example, you might want to make use of a particular line of argument about the role of big businesses in present day globalisation, and draw supporting evidence from a particular map, table or graph. Perhaps you want to make use of information from non-course sources to support or challenge an idea in a course about the impact of television on British society. In such cases you will need to make clear to your tutor where the information comes from, by acknowledging your source(s). If you are in any doubt about whether or not to reference, you should err on the side of caution.

A key principle for those working in the Social Sciences is that knowledge is socially constructed. What we mean by this is that knowledge is created, and argued about, by us as human beings. Ideas, and their supporting evidence, are constantly being analysed and debated, in an attempt to develop a clearer understanding. Work in the Social Sciences does not stand still, and relatively few ideas assume the status of ‘common knowledge’.

Even so, you will find that the various fields of study (disciplines) – in the case of Open University Social Sciences this comprises Economics, Geography, Politics, Psychology, Social Policy and Sociology – have each accumulated a vocabulary of reasonably well-established ideas. Some of these ideas may be considered as sufficiently accepted by academics working in that field not to require referencing, but they won’t necessarily be well established to you as a student.

For example, ideas like ‘the geographical imagination’, ‘uneven development’ or ‘international division of labour’ are well established within Geography, but, if you used these ideas as a student, you would need to show first that you understood what they meant. That would involve you tracking down (and referencing) the course sources where these ideas were introduced and explained. It should be clear then that what might be viewed as ‘common knowledge’ will not only vary between fields of study, it could also depend on your level of subject area experience.