January 07, 2019

Getting Excited about Sociological Research Methods

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In our department, Research Methods is a required course that many students put off taking until their junior or even senior year. For several reasons, this class is often viewed as one of those requirements that you just have to get through, rather than as one to eagerly anticipate.

I aim to change that. Here’s why you should be excited to take a research methods course:

  1. It might be the single most important class for your resume

Of all of the tools you learn within the sociology major, learning how to conduct research could help you find a job. Planning a project, carrying out a study, and interpreting research findings are skills you can use in a variety of settings.

You don’t even have to have a research-oriented job for these skills to come in handy. Designing a study requires you to think through a project and match your research question to the appropriate method. In other contexts, this skill is useful as you plan a course of action that is best to accomplish a goal or solve a problem.

Understanding how to analyze and interpret data—whether qualitative or quantitative—is also a valuable skill. Being comfortable with numbers in a setting where many people might not be will set you apart. You don’t even have to have complex mathematical skills to be able to apply data analysis skills to a variety of jobs. Knowing how to read a simple table or graph, or the difference between a percentage, raw number, or rate can go a long way.

And keep in mind, it is often people at higher levels of management who have the skills to assess things like sales or employee performance. Understanding the big picture—what sociologists generally seek to do when conducting research—is a skill someone in charge needs to have. No matter what career path you follow, mastering the concepts within Research Methods should be a personal goal.

  1. Reading sociological research can be very interesting

Here’s where we often lose students in Research Methods classes: we take away the best part and replace discussions of actual research with abstract notions of how research should be done.

When I first started teaching Research Methods early in my career, I was guilty of this practice. Following the standard topics in textbooks, I taught students about designing surveys, crafting interview questions, and how to use the best ethical practices when working with human subjects. These are all important ideas, but I followed the textbook’s lead and talked about these ideas without necessarily talking about actual research that someone conducted.

Occasionally I would come up with an off-the-cuff example of a study that demonstrated the concept from the text. But this wasn’t the main focus of the class, and students would be tested on how well they knew the glossary items in each chapter. Thinking back, this class was boring to teach and probably boring to take.

When students get to read original research, they find out what we really mean when we are talking about causality or external validity through a topical example. Teaching about methods without using original research is much like serving cake without sugar: it’s basically all there, but without the best part, what’s the point?

For most sociologists, research is the sugar of our work: even if we don’t conduct research regularly ourselves, we enjoy reading others’ work (and if we don’t, maybe we’re in the wrong profession). True, not all studies are ideal to use in undergraduate classes to teach them about the research process or ignite their excitement for sociology. But there are plenty of great, accessible studies that students can read while learning how sociologists do research.

  1. It’s another chance to get a broad survey of sociology

Many students first develop an interest in sociology through their Introduction to Sociology course. One of the strengths of intro is that it can be sociology’s highlight reel, focusing on the many topics we study and bringing our most interesting findings to new students.

If we think of Research Methods as the next step after Introduction to Sociology, we can continue to highlight our most interesting research and teach students how it is done. Ethnography can be one of the most interesting types of research to read about, but assigning books like C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School or Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality can show how “making the familiar strange” works in settings they already have experience with.

Teaching students about how to conduct sociological experiments can come to life when they read Devah Pager’s study, “The Mark of a Criminal Record.” Rather than construct surveys to administer to their sympathetic friends to complete a class project, students can learn about National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health—and learn what longitudinal research is while they’re at it. And learning how the U.S. Census is constructed, administered, and analyzed is not just vital for sociologists, but for all citizens.

Students and instructors, tell us what you think is the most exciting part of learning sociological research methods?

Comments

Good research have a great impact to the society.

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