Understanding Social Science Research

Course Description

Social science research informs the practices of various actors, ranging from government to business to nonprofit corporations and beyond. But in order for social scientific knowledge to be used correctly and well, certain principles pertaining to both research methods and data interpretation must be understood. In this introductory research methods course, students will both evaluate the quality and meaning of social scientific research and put the principles of effective research into professional practice. They will also evaluate popular media representations of social scientific research. This work will involve critically analyzing the ways journalists represent the truthfulness, reliability, and validity of social science research; critiquing the design and interpretation of published social science research studies; and evaluating the ethics of research design, implementation, and publication.

Learning Objectives

By the end of the course, students will:

  • Understand and clearly explain the principle that underlie high quality social science research;

  • Read social science research and science journalism more critically, developing the ability to analyze and evaluate the reliability and validity of these publications; and

  • Develop basic research design and data interpretation competencies.

Required Readings

We have two primary course texts, both of which are available freely online:

Illowsky, Barbara, and Susan Dean. 2018. Introductory Statistics. Houston, TX: OpenStax.

Swedberg, Richard. 2014. The Art of Social Theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

All other course texts will be provided for you on Blackboard; there are no texts that you are required to purchase. It is expected that you will come to each course meeting having thoroughly read the assigned reading and that you are ready with comments and questions to contribute to our group discussions.

Description and Assessment of Assignments

Reading Reflections (75 pts. x4)

For the first three class meetings (other than our very first), you will submit a 400–500-word reflection on the readings. Your reflection should briefly summarize the argument made, but spend most of your reflection discussing how the readings apply to our understanding of social science research and how they should inform the way we analyze the research we read. Reading reflections are due before the start of class on the day of the class meeting for which the readings are assigned.

Research Analyses (100 pts. x6)

For each class meeting in weeks 4–6, you’ll submit a 400–500-word analysis of a research study and a journalistic article about written about that study. Again, your analysis should briefly summarize the arguments made, but then most of your analysis should critique the design and the claims of the original study, as well as the claims the journalist makes about what that study means. Research analyses are due before class on the Monday of the week after we have discussed the method.

In-Class Activities (100 pts.)

In order to sharpen both your analytical and your practical skills, we will have in-class activities most class meetings. You should come to every meeting prepared to engage in these activities and to be kind, compassionate, and encouraging colleagues who provide honest and helpful feedback to one another.

Course Schedule: A Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Introduction to Social Science Research

Section A: Research and Its Aims

  • Persell, Caroline Hodges. 1990. “Doing Social Research.” In Understanding Society: An Introduction to Sociology, 26–36. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Section B: Theory and Claims

  • Swedberg, The Art of Social Theory, Introduction; Chapter 1

Week 2: The Tools of Research

Section A: Evidence and Explanation

Week 3: Understanding Research

Section A: Introduction to Statistical Evidence

  • Illowsky and Dean, Introductory Statistics, Chapter 1, Sections 1.1 - 1.3; Chapter 2, Sections 2.5 - 2.8; Chapter 6, Sections 6.1 - 6.2; Chapter 9, Sections 9.1 - 9.4

Section B: Reading Research and Using Knowledge

Week 4: Researching the Public

Section A: Survey Research [Application: Polling]

Section B: Focus Group Research [Application: Focus Grouping]

Week 5: Researching Why and How

Section A: Experimental Research [Application: A/B Testing]

Section B: Interview Research [Application: UI/UX Interviews]

Week 6: Researching Meaning

Section A: Content Analysis Research [Application: Media Monitoring]

Section B: Ethnographic Research [Application: Corporate Ethnography]

Week 7: Ethical Concerns and Questions

Section A: Ethics in Conducting and in Using Research