April 04, 2018

Getting Your Sociology Research Project Started

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

One of the most exciting parts of being a student in sociology is the chance to conduct your own research project. But getting started can be a challenge, especially if you have never conducted a full-scale study from start to finish. Here are some steps to take to get started.

  1. What’s interesting?

This may seem obvious, but curiosity is the best motivation for research. Did a class spur your interest in studying something in more detail? Is there a problem that you would like to figure out how to solve? Do you have a question about the way in which social processes impact groups and individuals? Maybe you have an idea about a possible solution, or have a hunch about something and you would like to see if there is evidence to support your hypothesis.

Some of the best advice I received before writing my dissertation was to choose a topic that I was really interested in, because the ups and downs of research and writing can weigh on even the most committed students over a long period of time. If you have a shorter project, say for a semester or longer for a senior thesis, your interest won’t have to be sustained for quite as long, but finding a topic you are really excited about learning more about helps keep you going.

Maybe you have a good problem: you are interested in a lot of things and aren’t sure how to narrow down your choices. Whether you are struggling to come up with an idea or have more than you can reasonably choose from in a single project, the next step is to start reading.

  1. Read the research

It is likely that you have already read some research on a topic if you are interested in it, but you should still read more. A good place to start is to think about studies you read or read about for classes. You can also ask one of your professors for suggested readings on a topic, and from there, take a look at the works cited in the articles and books of interest.

As I have previously blogged, reading the research is essential to see what others have learned in their studies. Sometimes you might be inspired to replicate their method to see if you find similar results in a different population, or at a different time. Think about how you might conduct a study that builds on the knowledge that other studies have created through their research.

You might find that your idea is completely different from other people’s research. It could be that you have stumbled upon a topic no one else has studied. Chances are, there are studies that are relevant for your research, whether it be the method or the population they study in their work.

Or it might be that your topic and interests are better suited for another discipline. Some of my students come up with topics that might be best studied by psychologists, using methods and theory developed for psychological research.

Sometimes students feel like any research they do should be completely original; if a study has already been done, why bother? It may be the case that many studies have already adequately answered a question. But there is still value in replicating research, maybe using a different method, to see how the results compare. Regardless of how novel your idea is, it needs to be part of a sociological conversation if it is to be a study for a sociology course or degree.

  1. Understand theory

How do you know if you have a sociological question? A good way to find out is to figure out if it is in anyway similar to sociological theories. I think of the importance of theory as part of joining a conversation already in progress; your research should be designed in a way that adds to this conversation, even if only a small part of the conversation.

Maybe you have a unique topic that hasn’t been researched before by sociologists, but it fits in well with a sociological theory that you find interesting. Tying your work in with sociological theory anchors your study to the discipline.

  1. Come up with a research question or hypothesis

Next you need to create a concrete and testable research question or hypothesis. Less is more when it comes to your research question. Consider your time frame and resources: the more limited they are the more limited the scope of your question should be so you can actually answer it in your research.

If you are doing a deductive study you will need to create a testable hypothesis, one with clearly operationalized variables. This is often the trickiest part for new researchers—it’s often easier to think about big ideas than small, testable chunks of the world around us. We may find that to fully answer our question or test our hypothesis that it is easier to use data from research already collected. Using secondary data (like census data or other large datasets) might be the best way to answer big questions.

  1. Choose a method

Whether you use an existing data source or collect data yourself if the first methodological decision to make. When possible, I suggest new researchers use existing data. Not only has the data been gathered, it is often far more robust than anything individual researchers—especially on a student budget and time frame—can gather themselves.

But if you do plan on collecting data yourself, be sure to refer to other people’s research (see step 2) to learn more about what method would be best for your research question. As Janis Prince Inniss blogged, your research method needs to be one that enables you to answer your research question.

  1. Take action

Whatever you choose to research, you can break the research process down into manageable action steps. Even if you are not exactly sure what to study, you can get started by reading the literature (research and theory). Don’t be afraid to ask your professors or mentors questions, and don’t be intimidated by the process. After all, research is just asking questions and finding answers.

Comments

Thanks for the research model breakdown!

As a naturally curious person, I find every culture fascinating. I love learning about different traditions within these cultures. I have realized throughout my journey back in school that curiosity is one of the keys to success. It's what drives us to learn more!

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