Methods in the Social Sciences
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.
Observation – Sociology, Anthropology, Education
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.
Study – Clinical Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Criminal
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.
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
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.
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).
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,
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.
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.
Observation – Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology
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.
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