Sociology Honors Seminar

SOC-UA 950-951 –- Fall 2019 - Spring 2020

Robert Max Jackson

The Sociology Honors Seminar is a two-semester course for students writing a senior honors thesis.  The primary goal of the first semester is to design a research project, which will be demonstrated in a research proposal or prospectus.  The central goal of the second semester is to bring carry out the research and present the results in the thesis.  The first semester will stress identifying the research question or issue, translating that question into a practical research strategy, deciding on the data and methodology, securing human subjects approval as needed.  The second semester will stress collecting and analyzing the data, developing an effective sociological analysis of the results, and writing the thesis.  Researching the relevant literature will occur throughout both semesters, with an emphasis on finding work that helps developing the research design in the first semester and an emphasis on collecting the work that contributes to the final analysis in the second.

The course structure will have several aspects meant to contribute to the fulfillment of these projects.  During the first semester we will pursue a series of focused tasks that aim to make the development of the projects more manageable.  The course will also serve as a sounding board, where each student shares their ideas and gets feedback from their peers.  

Throughout this process, we must balance between following a shared schedule of tasks so that we can stride together toward the common goal of developing our research projects and accepting that each person’s project will have its own issues and pace.

Table of Contents

       For submissions, click here. ⇓ Click to open submission information. ⇓

To submit shared papers or commentaries, click on the appropriate link below.  This will open a new tab or web page holding a submission form.  With this form your document will be uploaded to a folder on Google Drive.  Be sure to enter all the information fields accurately, as your paper will otherwise not arrive in the submission folder properly.  "The "Topic or Subject" field refers to the number of the related topic on this course "syllabus or to the topic as in the associated instructions.  The files uploaded should always be in Microsoft Word *.docx or *.doc format.  Note that all materials submitted with these forms will be visible to all class members.

Click here to submit papers (to share).

Click here to submit comments on others' papers (to share).

Recommended Books

Students may find it valuable to consult a textbook on methodology in sociology with respect to many aspects of developing a research project.  Any good one should suffice, however, I particularly recommend the relatively new text The Art and Science of Social Research by Deborah Carr, et al. for its clarity and attention to practical concerns.

The Topics

1. Introduction. 

Let us start by thinking about the task ahead of us.  

2. Elements of research design.

Research design, not statistical or theoretical expertise, largely decides if a research project succeeds.  What does it take to go from a question about how things work in the world to an answer that can be defended with evidence and sound logic?  It takes knowledge about the specific issue, about the relevant social processes, and about how to do good research; it requires a thoughtful plan that balances scientific aspirations with practical possibilities; it takes a lot of work over time; and it takes a nimble responsiveness to the unexpected.  To do it really well also requires a disciplined willingness to recognize and respond to the limits of the research and to that which very few researchers can abide: evidence that we are wrong.

3. A First Look at the research Project

While every aspect of a research design requires careful development, it is a good idea to consider early on how the entire project hangs together.  This helps us assess its plausibility, identify what we need to do, and get feedback from others.

4. Causality - What are causes, mechanisms, and the like?

We casually refer to causes and effects in normal interactions all the time. We all conduct our lives – choosing actions, making decisions, trying to influence others – based on theories about why and how things happen in the world. From the early stages of childhood we attribute causes, building a vision of the social (and physical) world that makes it understandable. Every action, every choice about what to do, is based on our anticipation of its effects, our understandings of consequences.  Analytical and scientific reasoning has a similar form, but requires that we approach causation more systematically and self-consciously. Without becoming philosophers of science, effective social science researchers must have a reasonable grip on thinking about causality.  Even most social research not aimed at questions about social causation usually relies on critical assumptions about causation and can only be used in arguments or policies that overrun with causal thinking.  Unfortunately, causal thinking is difficult and fads guide causal argument choices as much as (and often more than) rigorous logic.  For the purposes of designing a senior thesis, we need to achieve a practical grasp of causal thinking.   So here we want to get the basic ideas used in sociology clear.  At the same time, for a contrast, it is worth looking carefully at the practical strategy for assessing causality put forth by  the epidemiologist and statistician, Sir Austin Bradford Hill a half-century ago that had profound and lasting influence on real-world assessments of causality and public health. This should remind us that in science and in life, causality is ultimately a practical problem, not a philosophical one.

5.  Observation and gathering data

Data have to be collected and processed.  This may seem obvious if we are doing our own interviews, but even if we use existing data from past censuses, surveys, or government records, our research depends crucially on the processes that produced our data.  If we treat data as simple, easily interpreted, unambiguous, valid indicators of what we want to know, our plan is likely to be sunk before we leave the dock.  To have a good idea what we need to look for and worry about, we need to understand how data comes into being, what good practices are, and what are the many reasons that our data might not represent what we want.

6.  Research is an ethical issue. 

The professional who conducts social research is a scientist, and we expect scientists to conform to ethical codes. In academic environments (and many non-profit research organizations), this is made salient to social scientists by the requirement that research must be approved by institutional review boards (IRBs), that try to ensure we do not mistreat people. Other ethical concerns, such as selectively presenting only research findings that support the researcher's argument, are all too often neglected. Only when someone is exposed as flagrantly violating rules, such as inventing the data, do our ethics get much recognition (and even then, social scientists commonly cope with the issue as one of public perception). The misuse of social science in public controversies has led many to believe that we can always manipulate the numbers to match our argument. Every time social scientists bend the rules - and this happens with embarrassing regularity - we contribute to the erosion of trust in social scientists ... by the public, by decision makers, and by other scientists. Without integrity, we become known as modern alchemists, practicing pseudo-science.

7.  Theory and Conceptualization

Sociological research seeks the why and how of all things social.  Knowledge of how the world works is always causal, regardless whether the knowledge is right or wrong, precise or vague, well-documented empirically or speculative.  Some of our work stresses description, but we do it because the accurate descriptive knowledge is essential to effective causal analysis.  If we spend a lot of time trying to clarify the specifics of demographic transitions or what people do after divorce or who supports capital punishment, it is because we want to discover what explains these conditions and what effects they have.  Causal or theoretical analysis always relies on abstraction from the specifics.  Concepts are the theoretical abstractions we use to refer to classes or types of people, actions, groups, structures, and the like.  Explanations and theories involve the relationships we formulate between the concepts, relationships that aim to mirror, explain, and predict.  Generally, we start with the theories and arguments that already appear in the literature relating to our research question.  To engage the research and theories that already exist and to exchange ideas with others working in a research area, we need to know what they consider the existing knowledge, to use the terminology they share, and to translate our ideas and objectives into their terms. 

  • Related Readings
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  • 8. Assembling the pieces of a research project.  Good aspirations and causal concerns. 

    Midway through our journey, let us pause, stand back, and consider the research project as a whole, given our understandings up to this point. 

    9.  Measurement and Propositions

    Let us consider two aspects of social research that are usually examined separately, measurement and propositions.  Measurement, in its general form, refers to our ability to distinguish different states of anything that varies in ways that matter to our research question.  All social research depends on the assumption that we can assess the characteristics of actors, relationships among actors, and events accurately and realistically enough to allow us to describe them and analyze how the influence each other.  Our capacity to do effective analyses depend crucially on the processes by which we categorize and count social phenomena.  These processes are prone to errors at many levels. A sociological proposition is a claim about the way things work in the world.  They run the gamut from hypotheses derived from theories to conclusions derived from evidence with interpretive observations somewhere in between.  They are statements about social arrangements and social causation that we seek to conceive, discover, and demonstrate.  The relationships we believe to exist between concepts are theoretical propositions that we expect to correspond to empirical relationships between the measured values of operational representations of those concepts (and vice versa).

    10.   How to Prepare a Good Literature Review.

    Preparing a good literature review is a task easily overlooked.  Yet, a weak literature review in the early stages can jeopardize one's chances of developing a good research design.  At later stages, a poor literature review can damage a paper that otherwise reflects good research.  A good literature review depends on two critical skills: (1) knowing how to find the existing research and theoretical work that is relevant to one's project and (2) knowing how to select and present the important ideas and findings in that literature.

    11. Sampling

    Selecting a subset of the target population for research is fundamental to all social science research.  Even research that seems to observe every member of a population generally depends on sampling ideas.  A population census, for example, has to be sampled to produce the public use samples made available to scholars for research.  Experimental designs often neglect sampling concerns, relying on random assignment to comparison groups; yet, such randomization occurs within the sample of subjects (people or otherwise) available for research.  Generalization to the full population or beyond depends on the implicit sampling that has occurred.  Research using organizations, nations, or other collective entities faces significant issues establishing the population being studied, often reversing the logical sequence by trying to define the population based on the available sample.  Small sample research, such as projects in which the researcher interviews all the subjects or codes all the materials for a content analysis raise critical problems about how representative they are and how much then allow disentangling multiple causes and effects.  In short, all social research must contend with sampling as a crucial facet of research design and defense of inferences.  Since acquiring data involves time, effort, and expense, and may be curtailed by many obstacles, sampling is both a practical and a conceptual problem for research.

    12.   The Research Proposal, Initial Full Draft

    Ultimately, the foundational bridge between planning a research project and carrying it out is the research proposal.  Research proposals are required by agencies that provide research funds, by academic programs that give credentials based (in part) on completed research projects, and by any other body having a reason to review the quality of a research plan before the research is done.  A good research proposal convinces its reviewers that the authors have a good plan, that they know the relevant scholarly literature well enough to do the research properly, and that the research promises to supply findings that will result in a worthwhile, original contribution to existing scholarship. A good proposal will give an overview efficiently,  but will provide enough detail and clarity that some other knowledgeable scholar in the field could conduct the project based on the proposal.

    13 (&14). Oral presentations of research proposals.

    Each student will offer an oral presentation of the proposed research in class. 

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