Understanding Social Science Research
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.
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.
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.
Your final grade in the course will be calculated as follows:
Assignment Points % of Grade
Reading Reflections 300 30
Research Analyses 600 60
In-Class Activities 100 10
TOTAL 1000 100
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
Fischer, Claude S. 2010. “Compared to What?” Contexts 9 (4): 84.
Krippner, Greta. “Making a Sociological Argument: Orienting Students to a New Field.” https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/wac/making-a-sociological-argument-orienting-students-to-a-new-field/
Thagard, Paul. 2013. “What Is Evidence?” Psychology Today, March 13. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hot-thought/201303/what-is-evidence
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
Bubela, Tania, et al. 2009. “Science Communication Reconsidered.” Nature Biotechnology 27 (6): 514–18.
Raff, Jennifer. 2017. “How to Read and Understand a Scientific Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide for Non-Scientists.” Huffpost, December 6. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-read-and-understand-a-scientific-paper_b_5501628
Resnick, Brian. 2016. “What Journalists Get Wrong About Social Science, According to 20 Scientists.” Vox, January 22. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/1/22/10811320/journalists-social-science
Resnick, Brian. 2017. “Study: Half of the Studies You Read About in the News Are Wrong.” Vox, March 3. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/3/14792174/half-scientific-studies-news-are-wrong
Week 4: Researching the Public
Section A: Survey Research [Application: Polling]
Illowsky and Dean, Introductory Statistics, Chapter 7; Chapter 9, Sections 9.3 - 9.6; Chapter 12
Zukin, Cliff. 2015. “A Primer of Pre-Election Polls: Why Different Elections Polls Sometimes Have Different Results.” American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, December. https://www.aapor.org/getattachment/Education-Resources/Election-Polling-Resources/Election-Polling-AAPOR-2015-primary_cz120215-FINAL.pdf.aspx
Research to analyze:
Twenge, Jean M., A. Bell Cooper, Thomas E. Joiner, Mary E. Duffy, and Sarah G. Binau. 2019. “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005–2017.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 128 (3): 185–99.
Charles, Shamard. 2019. “Social Media Linked to Rise in Mental Health Disorders in Teens, Survey Finds.” NBC News, March 14. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/social-media-linked-rise-mental-health-disorders-teens-survey-finds-n982526
Section B: Focus Group Research [Application: Focus Grouping]
Lunt, Peter, and Sonia Livingstone. 1996. “Rethinking the Focus Group in Media and Communications Research.” Journal of Communication 46 (2): 79–98.
Featherstone, Liza. 2018. “Talk is Cheap: The Myth of the Focus Group.” The Guardian, February 6. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/06/talk-is-cheap-the-myth-of-the-focus-group
Research to analyze:
Barbara Lee Family Foundation. 2017. “Modern Family: How Women Candidates Can Talk About Politics, Parenting, and Their Personal Lives.” https://www.barbaraleefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/BL_Memo_Final.pdf
Chira, Susan. 2017. “Mothers Seeking Office Face More Voter Doubts Than Fathers.” New York Times, March 14. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/us/women-politics-voters.html
Week 5: Researching Why and How
Section A: Experimental Research [Application: A/B Testing]
Illowsky and Dean, Introductory Statistics, Chapter 10; Chapter 13
Gallo, Amy. 2017. “A Refresher on A/B Testing.” Harvard Business Review, June 28. https://hbr.org/2017/06/a-refresher-on-ab-testing
Research to analyze:
Broockman, David, and Joshua Kalla. 2016. “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-door Canvassing.” Science 352 (6282): 220–24.
Akpan, Nsikan. 2016. “Brief, Face-to-face Canvassing Reducing Transgender Prejudice, Study Says.” PBS News Hour, April 7. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/face-to-face-canvassing-reduces-transgender-prejudice-study-says
Section B: Interview Research [Application: UI/UX Interviews]
Lamont, Michèle, and Ann Swidler. 2014. “Methodological Pluralism and the Possibilities and Limits of Interviewing.” Qualitative Sociology 37 (2): 153–171.
Pernice, Kara. 2018. “User Interviews: How, When, and Why to Conduct Them.” Nielsen Normal Group, October 7. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-interviews/
Research to analyze:
Finn, Mary A., and Loretta J. Stalans. 2016. “How Targeted Enforcement Shapes Marketing Decisions of Pimps: Evidence of Displacement and Innovation.” Victims & Offenders 11 (4): 578–99.
Bess, Gabby. 2016. “After Backpage.com Sting, Pimps Move to Dating Sites and New Tactics.” Broadly, August 15. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/evg44m/after-backpagecom-sting-pimps-move-to-dating-sites-and-new-tactics
Week 6: Researching Meaning
Section A: Content Analysis Research [Application: Media Monitoring]
Illowsky and Dean, Introductory Statistics, Chapter 11
Agility PR Solutions. n.d. “Media Monitoring: The Ultimate Guide.” https://www.agilitypr.com/media-monitoring-ultimate-guide/
Research to analyze:
Lynch, Teresa, Jessica E. Tompkins, Irene I. van Driel, and Niki Fritz. 2016. “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years.” Journal of Communication 66 (4): 564–84.
Strum, Lora. 2016. “Study Tracks 31-year History of Female Sexualization in Video Games.” PBS News Hour, July 8. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/study-tracks-31-year-history-of-female-sexualization-in-video-games
Section B: Ethnographic Research [Application: Corporate Ethnography]
Lichterman, Paul. 2002. “Seeing Structure Happen: Theory-Driven Participant Observation.” In Methods of Social Movement Research, edited by Bert Klandermans and Suzanne Staggenborg, 118–45. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Anderson, Ken. 2009. “Ethnographic Research: A Key to Strategy.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/03/ethnographic-research-a-key-to-strategy
Brogan, Jacob. 2015. “The Case of the Ornamental Anthropologist.” Slate, May 13. https://slate.com/technology/2015/05/netflix-tries-to-put-a-human-face-on-big-data-with-its-own-anthropologist.html
Research to analyze:
Goffman, Alice. 2009. “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.” American Sociological Review 74 (3): 339–57.
Forman, James. 2014. “The Society of Fugitives.” The Atlantic, October. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/the-society-of-fugitives/379328/
Week 7: Ethical Concerns and Questions
Section A: Ethics in Conducting and in Using Research
Meyer, Robinson. 2014. “Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment.” The Atlantic, June 28. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/06/everything-we-know-about-facebooks-secret-mood-manipulation-experiment/373648/
Statt, Nick. 2019. “Google Dissolves AI Ethics Board Just One Week After Forming It.” The Verge, April 4. https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/4/18296113/google-ai-ethics-board-ends-controversy-kay-coles-james-heritage-foundation
Stein, Arlene. 2010. “Sex, Truths, and Audiotape: Anonymity and the Ethics of Exposure in Public Ethnography.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39 (5): 554–68.