Sociology Majors Research Skills

Sociologists at Smith study the dynamics of human interaction and the ways in which people are organized into groups of all sizes, characteristics and purposes. By examining such topics as class, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, social change and popular culture, students come to understand the ways in which social structures affect social life and the potentials for change.

Introductory Courses

In Sociology 101 students learning the basics of what C. Wright Mills termed the “sociological imagination.” This mode of critical thinking focuses on the ways in which the social structures in which we live both constrain and enable consciousness and action on the individual and group levels. In this class students:

  • are introduced to major theoretical perspectives in the field,
  • explore the ways in which social stratification determines life chances, culture and identity,
  • are required to engage in close critical readings of major works in the field to understand how research is conducted, and
  • are introduced to the sources and methods employed in the discipline and how to evaluate research.

Core Courses

The core requirements provide students an in-depth understanding of theories and methodologies in the discipline. Students are required to take Sociology 250, Theories of Society, and Sociology 201, Evaluating Information. Additionally students must select a second methods course of either Sociology 202, Methods of Social Research or Sociology 203, Qualitative Methods.

Sociology 250: Theories of Society

Theories of Society is designed to provide students with an overview of a range of perspectives in the discipline. Students are first introduced to basic questions of epistemology—how we develop theory, how we conceptualize science and the role of theory in it, and the ways in which theory provides tools to critically analyze social life. The theoretical foundations of all sociological inquiry are emphasized. The course is divided into five key rubrics which form the conceptual building blocks of theory and research: structure, agency, culture, identity and change. Under each rubric students systematically are introduced to key theoretical frameworks in the discipline and asked to make explicit comparisons between these perspectives. The perspectives reviewed will include Bourdieu, critical race, feminist (and queer), Foucault, neo-Marxism (and related conflict theory), neo-structuralism (and neo-Durkheimian theory), rational choice and symbolic interactionism (and Goffman). Students will explore the values and limits of each perspective by engaging in exercises through which they apply them to contemporary examples and issues for each rubric. Through successive iterations of reviewing these perspectives as they engage each rubric students will master these frameworks. Students will develop facility with core concepts from each perspective that they will be able to apply in other 200-level courses and in research projects.

The Methodology Sequence

In the methodology sequence students master the basic strategies for developing and testing of research questions and the collection and analysis of data. Students start with 201 and have the option of completing the sequence with an additional course on either quantitative or qualitative research methods.

Sociology 201: Evaluating Information

Evaluating Information provides an introduction to statistical and other techniques for summarizing and evaluating sociological data. The course includes sections that focus on:

  • thinking critically about the sources and interpretation of information,
  • assessing the data and methodologies used in sociological research, including inductive and deductive approaches to research and the underlying assumptions, strengths, and limitations of quantitative data for understanding the social world and,
  • learning and applying statistical techniques, including both descriptive and inferential statistics.

Students use sample journal articles to learn evaluate research findings for error, bias, validity, reliability, generalizability, and statistical significance. Using available secondary datasets, assignments ask students to present and interpret data visually in tables and graphs; and to conduct and write about statistical data analysis. Throughout, the focus is on how statistical techniques can help us understand sociological patterns. In addition, students gain quantitative reasoning skills that they may use in assessing statistical and quantitative information daily life.

Soc 202: Quantitative Methods

Quantitative Methods is divided into three distinct but related sections. In the first section, students are introduced to the philosophical underpinnings of social science research methods. Inquiries into various social science research paradigms help students to understand the similarities and differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods. This section of the course places particular emphasis on how positivism has influenced sociological research methods. The next section of the course focuses on the practice of particular quantitative methods. As a class, students design and administer an online survey. Here, students apply what they have learned about the principles of quantitative measurement, including question construction, validity, and reliability, to the construction of an original survey. Students use these survey data to conduct a short research project. During this second section of the course, students also propose an experimental design aimed at testing specific hypotheses. The third section of the course focuses on possibilities for bridging the divide between quantitative and qualitative research methods. The final assignment for the course is a journal article review, which requires students to apply what they have learned throughout the course to a critique of a published quantitative study.

Soc 203: Qualitative Methods

Qualitative Methods aims to provide students with a theoretical as well as practical grounding in conducting qualitative sociological research. After focusing on the epistemological and historical underpinnings of qualitative methodologies, and learning about particular qualitative methods, students conduct a set of practical exercises utilizing qualitative techniques such as participant observation and ethnography, qualitative interviewing, and focus group methodologies. Throughout the semester, the class discusses ethical conduct in research, including the IRB approval process for research with human subjects. The class also covers practicalities involved in qualitative research including the design of qualitative research projects, sampling, recruitment and theory generation. The class learns to code and analyze qualitative material including visual data, archival materials, text and language. The final paper for Soc 203 is a research proposal which sets out a prospective research project, contextualizes the topic of the project in relation to relevant literature, includes a thorough discussion into questions of research ethics, sampling and recruitment, as well as outlines a rationale for the selection of particular qualitative methods.

200-Level Substantive Courses

In 200-level substantive courses students are introduced to the major sub-fields, including gender, race and ethnicity, class, culture, social change, health and medicine, education, environment, demography and globalization. Building on their knowledge of the sociological imagination students learn:

  • the major theoretical perspectives of the sub-field
  • the construction of knowledge and key modes of data analysis
  • critical assessment of key texts in the sub-field including theoretical frameworks and modes of data analysis
  • how to locate major secondary sources, including major works by key authors and significant journals as well as available secondary data sources.

In addition, many classes introduce students to the construction of a research question and the collection of primary data.

300-Level Seminars

Seminars are designed as capstone experiences. They are required of all senior majors, though juniors can also take a 300-level course as an elective. Capstone courses are specialized courses and generally are designed to build on knowledge acquired in 200-level sub-field courses. Capstones integrate knowledge of research skills, theory and the research in a sub-field and engage extensively in critical readings. Students are required to complete an extensive research project that reviews the literature for their question and engages in detailed analysis of secondary or primary data.

June 4, 2009