Sociology 2205: Research Design

Fall Semester 2002: Tuesdays, 2:00 pm to 4:25 pm, 2R51 Posvar Hall

Dr. Lisa D. Brush
Office: 2J28 Posvar Hall (formerly FQUAD)
Office Hours: Tuesday 1:00-2:00 pm and by appointment
Office phone: 412-648-7595
Email address/electronic office hours: Talk Back To Dr. Brush

Return to Dr. Brush's home page.

Course Description

Research is the heart of social inquiry. In a Ph.D.-granting program, one important goal is to train graduate students to be disciplined, productive researchers. This course fulfills one of the core requirements in the Sociology graduate program of study. It is designed to give students a broad view of the variety of approaches to designing good social research, with a substantive focus on inequality. We will survey many topics, techniques, and methodologies. The emphasis of this introduction is on breadth rather than depth, on familiarity and critical engagement with ideas rather than mastery of technique.

Learning Goals

Another title for this course might be: Zen and the Art of Research Design. Research is about paying attention to the world in mindful and disciplined ways. Zen provides a set of practices for mindful, disciplined attentiveness. My focus will be on how to make mindful choices among research methods and design options (which are basically just decisions about how to pay attention and to what). Being a disciplined researcher is a state of mind. According to Francis Bacon (1561-1626; not a very Zen fellow, but he had some interesting things to say about the qualities it takes to pay attention to the world!), the disciplined researcher develops

… a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things (which is the chief point) and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; … the desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to reconsider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; [a mind which] neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates any kind of imposture.

As first steps in developing these desirable qualities of mindfulness in research, by the end of this course, you should be able to:

q      Classify and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the research design (specifically the “fit” among the methods, data, and argument) of sociological research both as published in refereed journals and as represented in policy/political debates in the popular press.

q      Define, give the significance of, and use key concepts in research ethics (particularly but not exclusively research with human subjects) as they apply to research design.

q      Choose appropriately, and describe in detail sufficient to justify to a non-specialist, a research design for a specific research project.

q      Develop and discipline your curiosity and passion for inquiry by converting problems and puzzles into research questions and designs for empirical research. Explain in your own words what sociologists gain – and perhaps lose – with this discipline.

Course Requirements and Grading

Projects and evaluation

To meet those learning goals, and to show the extent to which you have moved toward them, you will complete several small, one medium, and one more substantial project in this course. I do not expect you to memorize catalogs of types of research methods and their possible applications – that’s what your reference books are for! Rather, this course requires you to demonstrate your critical engagement with the readings and issues of research design through questions, presentations and discussion in class, and project completion.

q      You will prepare questions and presentations for your peers based on the readings. A portion of your final evaluation will reflect the extent to which your questions, presentations, and participation in class demonstrate engagement with the materials and seriousness of purpose as a researcher-in-training.

q      You will use readings and class discussions to produce methodological and research design descriptions and evaluations of several different pieces of research or debates over research that appear in the popular/policy press. In class, we will focus on the recent debates over “racial profiling” in policing. You will be evaluated on this research discipline through take-home assignments, including a major “mid-term” (really more like a “three quarters term”) assignment. (This is the “medium-sized” project.)

q      You will complete the on-line certification modules in research ethics and human subjects protection from the University of Pittsburgh Institutional Review Board’s Research Practice Fundamentals website ( You are required to complete this certification process in order to pass this course.

q      For your final project, you will prepare materials (protocol, consent forms, etc.) for a proposed research project for review by the IRB. You will be evaluated on the extent to which your materials describe your proposed project in terms conforming to the letter and spirit of the requirements of soundly-designed, ethical research. (This is the biggie.)

Discussion participation

Graduate study means learning to learn from every possible source -- from your readings, your peers, your life experience, your professor, your research. Participating in discussions is one of the best ways to learn. You are expected to contribute your questions and insights to the class. The culture of the class will, I hope, be a congenial one for self-expression. I will work to maintain such a culture by swiftly countering displays of contempt and by practicing principles of pedagogical equity to the extent possible. I cannot help you learn if you don't participate in discussion, however. Doing excellent written work is not enough to demonstrate adequate performance in graduate school. So show a little backbone, organize yourselves in whatever way you need in order to ensure broad participation in the discussion, and whatever you do, don't suffer in silence. Say anything you can defend against reasoned argument. Treat your colleagues' contributions with respect (which means taking them seriously and challenging them as well as extending basic courtesy).

This should go without saying, but attendance at each scheduled class meeting is required. More than one absence that is not due to extraordinary circumstances (you have to fly to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize, for example) will result in a lowered grade.

Moreover, you are expected to keep up with the readings and to complete assignments on time. Late assignments will lose 1/2 a letter grade for each day they are late. If you cannot complete assignments on time due to an emergency, you must let me know before the assignment is due if this is humanly possible. You are expected to have read the readings by the day on which readings are assigned and are expected to participate actively in class discussions.

In addition to participating in discussions, everyone enrolled in this seminar is expected to complete the following assignments:

Questions (10 percent of final grade)

Before 5:00 pm on Mondays (that is, the day before the class meeting), submit to the class distribution list a small set of questions for discussion. They may range from questions of fact or meaning (“What is the difference between ‘nominal’ and ‘ordinal’ and how do I keep track of it?”) to queries about debates or procedure (“Why did so-and-so choose to do such-and-such at this point in the research?”). They may even simply indicate what you found most interesting, important, puzzling, infuriating, fundamental, contrary to what you thought before, etc. about the reading. Provide enough context that your classmates and I can understand your question, and try to direct us to a specific passage in the text that forced you to articulate your question most sharply. Distributed over email in a timely manner, these questions will not only help you organize your response to the readings but will also serve as a guide for discussions. Altogether, these short written assignments contribute ten percent to your final grade. Submit questions at every class when you do not have any other sort of assignment due.

Class presentations and written reviews (30 percent of final grade)

Each student will specialize in three approaches to or problems in research design. The specialization will produce two things: a formal written review of the specific approach or problem, and a presentation to the class of your review, including fielding students’ questions. You will present your review and be responsible for facilitating discussion in the first hour of our session in that particular class. Your presentation should set out what you see as the context, key concepts, and controversies related to this approach or problem in research design. At the minimum, presenters should identify particularly problematic passages in the text(s) and help the group engage with them, either by providing and then eliciting alternate readings of the text(s), contextualizing the debates implicit or explicit in the text(s), or preparing answers to specific questions submitted by your peers. You will submit and present three reviews over the course of the term.

Methods critique exam (20 percent of final grade)

A little past the mid-point of the semester, you will write a methods critique. I will provide materials (a published article or set of articles) and you will have a week to write an appreciation and critique of the research design and methods of inquiry presented there. Look at this assignment as your opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which you have by that point met the relevant learning goals.

Final project and presentation (35 percent of final grade)

Your final project in this class – and the other most important opportunity to you’re your progress toward the learning goals of the course – will be to assemble a packet of materials for submission to the Institutional Review Board. This includes all required paperwork, consent forms, and most of all a research ‘protocol’ or description of your research design, the contribution you hope to make to social knowledge, and the protections for research with human subjects appropriate to your proposed project. During the final session of the semester, you will present your IRB proposal to the group. The final written version of this work is due at the last class session. You must submit a draft of your materials to another class participant for comments ahead of time (see below). This is your opportunity to present your own proposal – and demonstrate that you have met the appropriate learning goals – in a supportive-yet-critical setting. The final presentation and written project together count for 35 percent of your grade.



Comments on draft IRB materials (5 percent of final grade)

Each participant will be responsible for reading, and providing written and oral comments on, the draft IRB materials of one fellow class participant. This will be your opportunity to provide supportive-yet-critical feedback to your colleagues at a crucial stage in the development of their projects. You will receive drafts by the third-to-last class session and must return comments by the beginning of the following class to allow time for revisions. You may also serve as commentator on final presentations. Hand in your colleague's comments with the final version of the paper. These comments count toward five percent of your grade.

Grades will be assigned on the following scale:

A: Truly exceptional and outstanding work.
B: Solid, acceptable graduate-level work.
B- or below: Below acceptable level for graduate work.

Course Materials

The required texts for this course are:

Babbie, E. 2001. The practice of social research. 9th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. This is a big, honking textbook that costs about $50. You will refer to it for the rest of your career.

Ragin, C. C. 1994. Constructing social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press. This is a slim volume, available in paperback for about $25. Ragin is one of the smartest people writing in innovative ways about social research, and I was hard-pressed to decide between this book and the others he authored that are listed later on in this syllabus.

National Academy of Sciences. 1995. On being a scientist: Responsible conduct in research. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. If you can’t afford the $4-5 this will cost you at the bookstore, you can always print it out from the source:

Highly recommended (we will read almost all of it, and you should have it in your personal book collection, but it is readily available from the library and if you can’t afford to buy it, borrow a copy during the weeks we will read from it):

Lieberson, S. 1985. Making it count: The improvement of social research and theory. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

They are all on order at the Book Center. There are also some duplicated manuscripts, book chapters, articles, and other materials available on the “reserve reading wall” in the main sociology department area.

A note on the readings

Because it is a survey course, this course is reading intensive. Do not panic. Part of graduate study is learning how to read all over again. Babbie has a lively presentation style and is clear and thorough. Read him to familiarize yourself with the basic range of questions and choices involved in research design. Ragin combines vision and open-mindedness about research in a very accessible text. Lieberson is a classic (unfortunately, in the 15 years since I read his book for my graduate methods class, the price has, like, tripled, which is why is only “strongly recommended” instead of “required”). The booklet from the National Academy of Sciences is aimed at researchers in the physical and life sciences and engineering, and I want you to read it both for content and to compare and contrast the ideas there with what you think might be applicable specifically to social research. Always use a dictionary to look up terms that may be unfamiliar to you. Use the margins of your text to makes notes and keep definitions handy. Make a list of questions that occur to you as you read. Pick at least one point or passage you find particularly intriguing or annoying and be prepared to work with it in class.

Schedule of Meetings, Readings, and Assignments

Academic Integrity

Enrollment in this course makes you a member of an academic community. The University of Pittsburgh enforces expectations for the members of its academic community. These standards are designed to ensure the integrity of your education and of the evaluation process. Read the Guidelines on Academic Integrity: Student and Faculty Obligations and Hearing Procedures with great care. The expectations of academic integrity are central to the intellectual liveliness and standards of this academic community. As a student, you have a responsibility to be honest and to respect the ethical standards of your chosen field of study. You will have violated these standards if you:

Academic integrity is not limited to these points, but these are the most important elements. They will be enforced without fail in this course. Do your own work. Figure out what you want to say and say it in your own words. Cite your sources when you quote or paraphrase. Violate these community standards and you will flunk so fast your head will spin.

Additional Resources

Every writer should have a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Here are some interesting sources for other ways of thinking about research design, the craft/art/science of social inquiry, and innovative ways to gather, analyze, and present new knowledge about the social world. This listing is very partial.

Alford, R. 1998. The craft of inquiry: Theories, methods, evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Booth, W. C., G. G. Colomb, & J. M. Williams. 1995. The craft of research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burton, D. (ed.). 2000. Research training for social scientists. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Denscombe, M. 1998. The good research guide for small-scale research projects. Buckingham, UK and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

de Vaus, D. 2001. Research design in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hakim, C. [1987]2000. Research design: Successful designs for social and economic research. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Harding, S. (ed.). 1987. Feminism and methodology. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hesse-Biber, S. J., C. K. Gilmartin, & R. Lydenberg (eds.). 1999. Feminist approaches to theory and methodology: An interdisciplinary reader. New York: Oxford University Press.

Katzer, J., K. H. cook, & W. W. Crouch. 1978. Evaluating information: A guide for users of social science research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Prus, R. 1996. Symbolic interaction and ethnographic research: Intersubjectivity and the study of human lived experience. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Ragin, C. C. 1987. The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

-----. 2000. Fuzzy-set social science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reinharz, S. (with L. Davidman). 1992. Feminist methods in social research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robson, C. [1993]2002. Real world research. 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Sanders, W. B. (ed.). 1976. The sociologist as detective: An introduction to research methods. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Smithson, M. 1987. Fuzzy set analysis for behavioral and social sciences. New York: Springer-Verlag.


Return to Dr. Brush's home page.