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Research Methods

English 127
Research Writing

Research Methods in the Social Sciences

The research methods below are broken up into Qualitative and Quantitative methods.  Quantitative means that you are generating numbers of some sort, or quantities that can be counted and analyzed; statistics represent one form of quantitative analysis.  Qualitative means that what you are trying to describe cannot be reduced to numbers.  For example, if you wanted to study memories of childhood, it would be hard to capture people's memories just by counting, e.g., number of toys they received, etc.; you would want them to tell you brief (or long) stories within certain categories you had chosen.  Note that some of the methods below, such as suvey/questionnaire, can generate both quantitative as well as qualitative data, depending on the kinds of questions you ask.


Ethnography/Participant Observation – Sociology, Anthropology, Education

Example:  You visit the same class everyday throughout a quarter.  You record and analyze as much of the classroom culture as you can:  how the desks are set up, how the teacher addresses students, how the material is presented, how classroom order is maintained, etc.  You occasionally talk to the participants.  Through your observations, you draw conclusions about what teaching methods produced motivated learning in different kinds of students.

Case Study – Clinical Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Criminal Justice

Example:  You choose a young Latina from a Spanish-speaking household who is entering college for the first time.  You ask her to record her activities every day.  You observe her in classroom situations.  You get copies of her coursework and track her progress in her courses.  You meet with her and occasionally interview her about how things are going.  Through your detailed examination of her student life, you examine factors that make a difference in her success and how many of them are related to language and culture.

Primary Source Analysis – History, Political Science, Media Studies 
Note:  Make sure you understand the difference between a primary and secondary source; see CR, p. 69, as well as the Scholarly Sources webpage.  

Example:  You watch and analyze five popular war movies made during the Vietnam War.  You look for similarities/differences in elements of the movie:  the hero, the battle scenes, the soundtrack, and the overall attitude towards war.  Through your analysis of their content and relative popularity, you draw conclusions about what kinds of messages and attitudes about war were popular/common during that time.  

Interpretive Argument – History, Political Science, Anthropology, Women's Studies 
Note:  When scholars use "interpretive argument" as their main "research" method, they are usually generating new theoretical interpretations and analyses about the field of study itself (meta-analysis or meta-discourse). 

Example:  You read what other historians have written about the response in the women’s movement to Roe v. Wade.  You read newspaper articles that reported on it.  You watch talk shows from the time that discussed the judgment.  You read organizational memos and brochures produced by women’s groups after the judgment.  Through this, you develop an interpretive argument about how the decision affected the direction of the women’s movement in the 1970s. 


Survey/Questionnaire – Sociology, Social Psychology, Political Science, Cultural Studies

Example:  You design a survey of twenty questions about what political beliefs people hold and whom they voted for in a recent election.  You distribute it to 100 women between the ages of 27 and 45, in middle-income brackets, with or without children, married or unmarried.  You use this data to determine how consistent their voting choices are with their political beliefs. 
***Note:  Surveys can contain both quantitative and qualitative questions.  For example, if you ask a number of respondents whether they "strongly agree, agree, are neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree" with a particular statement (e.g., "The tax system is fair"), you will generate quantitative data:  67% of respondents don't think the system is fair (or some other number).  If you ask respondents to describe their parents experience with paying taxes every year when they were growing up, you'd be generating qualitative data. 

Content Analysis – Communication, Ethnic Studies, Political Science

Example: You record and watch the advertisements run during Monday Night Football for three weeks.  As you watch and analyze them, you categorize how many ads are for beer, trucks, etc.  You record data about the content.  Of the beer ads, how many involve working class men, how many include scantily dressed women, etc.?  You use the data to draw conclusions about what kinds of audiences the advertisers are targeting.

Field Observation – Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology

Example:  You sit on a street corner in an area where panhandlers hang out.  As they solicit money, you record data about how often and how much money people give.  You record data about who gives and who doesn’t (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.).  You record who has other kinds of responses (anger, an apology, etc.).  You use the data you generate to draw conclusions about whether certain demographic groups are more or less sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.

Experiment – Psychology, Communication

Example:  You choose subjects who will sit in booths with video cameras and pulse monitors.  As they watch one hour of pre-screened MTV, you record their pulse fluctuations, visual responses, etc.  You use the results to draw conclusions about common responses to certain kinds of content.