Research methods in Education and the Social Sciences

About this unit

This course this unit is based on was an introduction to social research and was designed particularly to enable you to understand and assess research reports in both the social sciences and applied areas such as education and health. It discussed the main strategies of research design, data collection and analysis used by social researchers, illustrating them from a wide variety of fields.

The course opened with an outline of the nature of social research. Particular emphasis was given to the diverse circumstances in which it is carried out, the variety of purposes it may serve and the controversies surrounding it. The different sorts of ‘product’ that can result from research (descriptions, explanations, evaluations, theories) were characterized, along with the different demands that these make on the researcher and their implications for the criteria that are appropriate to the assessment of research.

The second part of the course dealt with problem formulation, the logic of research design and decisions about how many cases will be studied and how they are to be selected. Social research spans a very wide range of research designs, and three principal types were defined. The first, case study, is the study of a few naturally occurring cases (often only one case). These may be selected because they are believed to be representative of a larger population, or because they are in some way crucial cases for testing a theory. The survey strategy also investigates naturally occurring rather than research-created cases, but the sample is large – tens, hundreds or even thousands – and usually, though not always, selected with the help of statistical sampling theory. Finally, the experiment is the study of cases specially created by the researcher in such a way as to control relevant variables and test theoretical hypotheses. These are only the main types of research design, and the differences between them are of degree, not of kind.

The next part of the course dealt with acquisition and construction of data. Research may use data already collected for other purposes (‘secondary’ data) or data specially collected for the research project. Most research uses both sorts, though one or the other usually predominates. The main strategies for collecting data – interviews, observation (both structured and unstructured) and documents – were considered. Different types of secondary data and access to them were examined. Each of these types of data presents characteristic problems and sources of potential error. It is important to remember that data are not simply acquired but are also constructed by the researcher. For example, unstructured data may be collected as notes jotted down on the spot, then expanded and corrected to make the fieldnote record; interviews or events observed may be audio- or video-recorded, and the transcriptions that are then prepared will include annotations about the context as well as the words and physical movements recorded. These unstructured data may later be structured, perhaps to produce frequency counts of phenomena representing analytic categories that are of interest in the research.

Data analysis was the subject of the fourth part of the course, beginning with the analysis of relatively unstructured and then more structured data, secondary and primary, from interviews, observation and documentary sources. The principles of both qualitative and quantitative analysis are explained, and the critical analysis of text is examined.

The last part of the course was about writing research reports, reviewing the purposes research can serve, the different audiences that might be addressed and the different ways of presenting it. The purpose and audience for research reports is of considerable significance for their structure and even for their content.

Suggested study hours 400

Format pdf for 5 books

What is included?

The course consisted of an introduction and five blocks of work on the principles of social and educational research.

Where is this from?

This was an undergraduate level 3 course from the Faculty of Social Sciences presented between 1993 and 1998. The materials accessible here are from 1998.

Course materials