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IM for Teaching Research Methods in an Introduction to Sociology Course

Prepared by Caroline Hodges Persell
and Jennifer Gerdes, New York University, Spring 2008


Introducing Scientific Thinking Science involves both ideas (theories) about how the world works and research designed to observe what happens in the world and test theoretical ideas.  In order for students to understand the scientific basis of sociology, they need to comprehend some of the basic principles of scientific research. Several background readings are offered here to introduce learners to key terms used by researchers and discuss how they proceed to do a study.  One is a chapter, “Doing Social Research,” from an Introduction to Sociology textbook by Caroline Persell.  

You might start students by having them read and discuss the introduction, “SCIENCE VERSUS EVERYDAY KNOWLEDGE”.

Then you might have students read and discuss “Steps in the Research Process” and Trochim’s Road Map. It might also be helpful for them to read Greta Krippner's wonderful memos, "How to Read a (Quantitative) Journal Article" and "Making a Sociological Argument" written while she was a graduate student teaching a section of Introductory Sociology.

Third, students could read “TOOLS OF THE TRADE: DEFINITIONS AND PROCEDURES” followed by William Trochim’s discussion of “Five Big Words” in social research.  These words include theoretical, empirical, nomothetic, probabilistic, and causal. 

They could then read and/or instructors could present to them three terms researchers use to go from a general idea to a researchable project: “Understanding Concepts, Variables, and Attributes”.
Fourth, since social research involves people or organizations, it is important for students to understand the ethics of social research.  Two possible readings on this subject are:

1)  An Introduction to the American Sociological Association (ASA)’s Code of Ethics which includes the preamble and summaries of the general principles. This could be given to students.

2)  Trochim also discusses research ethics.

        Fifth, introduce students to some of the ways social researchers gather data.  An introductory overview would be to read “DESIGNING STUDIES AND GATHERING DATA”.

For further reference, see Trochim’s discussions of:


Other useful resources are:

A tool for drawing random samples

Qualitative Research

Quantitative Research

Focus Groups

Participant observation

For sources of high quality data already collected by others see:

American Factfinder at the U.S. Census

CensusScope, a general tool for mapping various measures collected by the U.S. Census at the county, state, or national level.

The SDA Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, includes several datasets, including the General Social Survey (GSS) and the American National Election Study (ANES). These surveys contain data on attitudes over time, and the SDA Archive contains tools for analyzing the data as well. 

The Pew Global Attitudes Project contains international data on attitudes. Click on the datasets button at the top right of their website to see what is available.

Social Explorer provides easy access to demographic information about the United States, providing thousands of interactive data maps going back to 1940. It offers free access to 2000 census data and data for earlier years by subscription. In their home page click on maps or reports.

United States Historical Census Browser, a source for viewing historical census data. 

An overview of numerous sources of governmental statistical data on the web at the University of Michigan Library Center.

Gallup is a great source for American public opinion surveys on a vast number of topics.       

Sixth, once students have formulated a question and hypothesis, located and analyzed relevant data and prior research, they are ready to write up the research they have conducted, including their inferences and conclusions. 

Several useful guides to presenting research exist online.  These include:


Goodman on the presentation process (click on the "proceed" button and then click on the topic in the contents list at the left)

Goodman on graphical presentation (click on the "proceed" button and then click on the topic in the contents list at the left)

The ASA has a style guide for student papers

Exercises for understanding the scientific method:

Class exercise to illustrate the empirical testing of hypotheses.

Class exercise to help students understand the difference between reliability and validity.  

Examining sociological abstracts to see if they contain original research. Some preliminary research has been done assessing the effectiveness of this exercise.

Discussion and exercises for incorporating probability and statistics into students’ understanding of scientific thinking in the social and natural sciences, using examples from various sports.

Data exploration exercises exist throughout this website where students are guided through the process of locating and analyzing existing data to address research questions.

Anne Boyle Cross has written a series of data explorations for teaching sociology at the website Adventures in, a free source of high-quality, introductory-level coursework focused on building basic data analysis skills. One example is an exercise exploring violence in schools.

Films that illustrate the nature of social experiments for manipulating and understanding social life include: Obedience, Quiet Rage, discussed on Zimbardo's Website, and A Class Divided.

These films also raise important ethical issues about conducting research on human subjects.

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