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Sociological Research: Research Tips

A quick guide to sociological research methods for collecting and evaluating information on your topic.

Where to Start

Start with what interests you most! Having a real interest in the topic you're researching will motivate you to work hard on something you're proud of. Create a list of as many interesting topics (related to the class subject, of course) as you can think of.  There are no bad ideas at this stage. 

If you're at a loss for what to write about, try the following resources. They’ll point you to questions scholars in the field find interesting and important. If you pay close attention, they’ll also reveal some gaps in the literature and ways you might help fill them. 

Encyclopedias

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (HM425.B53 in the reference section) is useful for general inquiries, or you might try sources like The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (BL60.E53 in the stacks) for more specific topics.  A subject heading search for sociology-encyclopedias is a great place to start.   

An example: Steven Brint’s entry “Colleges and Universities” in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology makes an interesting claim in its conclusion. Brint argues that, as college-going rates have gone up and the number of postsecondary institutions have increased, where you went to college matters more and more for labor market outcomes. There’s a two-tiered system in place: high school students with the most resources have the greatest chance of ending up at four-year colleges, while low-income students are more likely to end up at two-year institutions. Can you think of any questions you would want to ask Professor Brint about this trend? Imagining yourself in conversation with other scholars is a good way to generate interesting research questions. 

Review Articles

Review articles summarize recent research in a subfield of sociology and generally include some analysis of this literature as well. Does current research focus heavily on the intersections of race and gender? Is there a lot of research being done on the experiences of homeless men, to the exclusion of homeless women? Review articles will often point out such strengths and/or omissions in the literature. The Annual Review of Sociology is a good resource for review articles. However, many databases will also let you restrict your search to review articles by selecting "literature reviews" as a search criterion.  

An example: In their 2015 Annual Review of Sociology article, "Beyond Altruism: Sociological Foundations of Cooperation and Prosocial Behavior", Simpson and Willer summarize a study on altrusim among Wikipedia users. The study found that those who contribute more to group efforts are awarded higher status by their fellow group members. Being higher status also makes them more likely to contribute to group efforts in the future. Can you think of a different context (something very different from Wikipedia) in which to test this finding? Would you expect to see the same results in this new context? Considering the generalizability of a finding is a good way to generate important research questions.  

Dissertations

Dissertations are important not only for their content but also for their literature reviews. Finding a reasonably current dissertation related to your topic will usually lead you to much of the literature that you need. Literature reviews are especially helpful since they are much more than an alphabetical list of sources; they put the sources in context, often describing the history of research on the topic and evaluating various approaches.  In dissertations, literature reviews are usually so extensive that they merit a separate chapter. Dissertations, including Emory dissertations, can be located through Dissertation and Theses (Full-Text). You’ll need your Emory login to access these resources.

An example: Sarah Lageson's 2015 dissertation Digital Punishment: The Production and Consequences of Online Crime Reporting has a chapter dedicated to reviewing "The Field of Digital Crime Reporting". She also concludes her dissertation with important questions on the topic that she thinks are important for future research.  

Bibliographies

Oxford Bibliographies Online (Sociology) directs users to the most important Sociology literature in a wide variety of topics, through extensive scholarly bibliographic essays and lists.  

An example: The article on Gerontology suggests that scholars in this field are often interested explaining differences in health outcomes for the elderly by age, race, and socioeconomic status. Is there a particular health or quality of life variable that is interesting to you (e.g. loneliness, heart disease)? Has the literature demonstrated differences in this variable across groups?  

Once you’ve got a few potential topics in hand, you’ll want to narrow down to a specific research question.  At this stage you can:

  • Run your topic by faculty and other experts.
  • Find relevant articles and books about your topic.  Follow the footnotes and works cited to other sources on this topic. (This is a backward citation search.)    
  • Find out what other sources cite the article or book you’ve found. (This is a forward citation search.)
  • Find the source in a database and look at how its indexed.
  • If you’ve found a print book that looks relevant, head to the stacks and see what sits next to it on the shelf.
  • Identify a few important scholars in the field and follow their work.

Tip: For more advice on how to move from a broad topic to a specific research question, consult The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb, and Williams, especially Chapter 3: From Topics to Questions.

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