July 01, 2019

Why Social Science Research Matters

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

If you are a student in one of the social sciences, you most likely have taken a course in research methods. You probably learned a lot about the different ways that social scientists conduct their studies, how they analyze their data, and hopefully some of the ethical considerations that researchers should take.

Many of you might be thinking that once you finish the course, you are done with needing to know about research methods if you are not planning on being a social scientist. But many of the core principles you learn about in your research class are vital to know about as a critical thinker and an active citizen.

Here are the main lessons you should take with you—no matter your desired profession or future educational goals:

1. Think critically about where information comes from

How do we know what we think we know? It has never been easier to spread misinformation, even unintentionally. We might see a social media post from a trusted friend or family member that seems like it is probably true. But that’s not the same thing as information that has been empirically tested, peer reviewed by researchers in the same specialty, and critically evaluated.

Be wary if there is a statistic without a citation, a comment like “studies show” without actually citing the study, and other red flags that someone is using the language of research to add weight to an assumption, an opinion, or maybe even a lie.

Even a well-executed study has limitations; no single study can address every circumstance. Instead, research can tell us about what is more likely rather than a universal “truth.” A well-intentioned reporter looking to write an interesting story may occasionally oversimplify research. The same may happen with a group looking to promote a cause, even a worthy cause.

2. Think probabilities, not certainties

Life is complicated, and so are people. Our behavior cannot be predicted with 100% certainty. You have learned about measures of variation and the margin of error, and that while we may be able to understand large patterns of behavior, predicting any single person’s actions are not really possible.

But research can help us understand large patterns; sometimes research can complicate rather than simplify our understanding of the world. This is a good thing; when we understand the contexts in which people live, and how a variety of social forces shape their lives, we can avoid the tendency to oversimplify peoples’ experiences. This can also help us avoid oversimplifying any proposed solutions to social problems.

3. Keep an open mind

As someone who has learned about research methods, you know that we have to test hypotheses and be open to the possibility that we are wrong. We may even need to re-test hypotheses that research has previously supported to see if social changes may lead to different results of older studies.

Being open to learning new things, and testing our assumptions rather than digging in our heels and refusing to believe we are wrong are vital life skills. (You will find that your most intimate relationships improve if you are open to the possibility that you are wrong!)

Having an open mind is not just about better relationships with people around us, but a better understanding of our larger social world. Are the public policies (laws and government practices) we presume are effective really effective? If so, how do we know? Sometimes policies that feel right to us actually have different consequences than we realize—something that we can learn from research. We need to be open to considering that our beliefs about particular phenomena are not correct, at least not all of the time.

4. See for yourself

Once you have been exposed to social science research, you can read studies yourself. You can find data from the original sources (like the census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the FBI). You no longer need an “interpreter” (such as a news report) to tell you what a study concludes. When you see someone make a claim on social media, you can look for research to see if that claim has any support, and if so, under what circumstances.

Ideally, a research methods course gives you the tools to read a study, interpret a table or a graph, and understand what conclusions we might be able to draw about sociological phenomenon. While people with impressive titles might make bold statements about the world around us, it never hurts to read the research ourselves. Sometimes even scientists make generalizations that they cannot support.

Being research literate and able to interpret numbers in their proper context are vital life skills. Whether these tools help you avoid being ripped off by a scam, think critically about the policies (and politicians) you support with your votes, or understanding your world better, research methods can help.

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