Social Sciences Sources of Evidence and Methods

        Social scientists include sociologists, anthropologists, and some historians and political scientists.  You can tell the latter two kinds of researchers are using social science evidence and methods from their documents' format: do they use APA format; do they supply tables and charts and other kinds of raw data; and do they pay scrupulous attention to the recency of the secondary sources they cite?

        Social sciences' claim to scientific status (vs. humanities or arts) rests in their assumption human behavior is rule-governed when observed in large populations, and that those rules can be discovered and used to explain or even predict human behavior over the long run, or in large groups.  Individual behavior still remains subject to the whims of personality, but in groups, especially in well-defined social classes (e.g., 18-to-22-year-old American college students), investigators' ability to predict behavior grows better and better.  Social systems composed of many behavior rules also can be studied as whole systems.  Changes in behaviors or systems of behaviors also can be studied over time. 

        Social scientists attempt to generate hypotheses to explain the data they observe.  Experimental hypotheses have to be "falsifiable," that is, there have to be conditions under which they can be disproven.  They also usually have to result in the experimenter's increased ability to predict something about the phenomenon being studied.  Experiments that appear to confirm hypotheses must be "replicated" or reproduced by other researchers following the original experimenter's methods with the same quality materials.  Unless results are replicatable, they are not accepted by the scientific community.

        Two main sources of social sciences evidence are quantitative and qualitative.  Social science research depends a great deal on data compiled by first-hand observation of social situations by the scientist-researcher, though texts can be social science data, as well.  Qualitative data is compiled by observing relatively complex kinds of behaviors in relatively small samples of people and developing hypotheses to explain those behaviors.  Surveys and interviews often are used to gather qualitative data.  Survey and interview design is a very important and complex part of social science method.  If only a few subjects are surveyed or interviewed, the data remains "suggestive" and qualitative, but if enough subjects of the right sort are covered, the data begins to have quantitative predictability.  Because handling information drawn from large numbers of subjects grows increasingly difficult, quantitative data tends to be derived from relatively simple kinds of behaviors observed in very large samples of people from which hypotheses can be developed.  For all social science claims, one question is always asked: what is the size and nature of the sample?

        For claims that attempt to explain behavior, researchers always use statistical tests to determine whether the rule-generating patterns in the observed data could have been the result of chance, or could have been the result of a skewed or too-small sample.  Chance rules outcomes which occur close to the law of averages (i.e., roughly 50% likelihood of either alternative if two outcomes are possible).  Skewed samples occur when the investigator accidentally includes a majority of people likely to produce an outcome for irrelevant reasons, like asking students at a cafeteria whether they are hungry and using the results to predict how often students in general are hungry.  Too-small samples produce results which are likely to be affected by change and which usually do not represent the larger population, as when a student asks only students in her/his writing class to rate the overall quality of instruction at the college, though "suggestive" results can be used to call for further research with a larger and more varied sample.

        For this research project, do not attempt to do primary research yourself.  That is, do not attempt to do a survey or interview subjects.  You do not have enough time, training, or experience to start from scratch.  You can, however, take advantage of what already has been done to produce very interesting results.  Look for published work on your topic and let your more experienced colleagues in the field tell you what they have had years to discover.  Once you have had the 200-level training in social sciences for your major, you will be able to conduct your own primary research.