Module 4: Study Design

Research Design

Social research is meant to explore, describe, and/or explain social phenomenon of all kinds. Researchers may focus on finding solutions to social problems like racism and inequality, or they might simply develop theories about how and why we do things. Researchers might focus their efforts on the individual level (psychology) or on entire nations (political science). Social scientists may look at evidence that comes to us from cultural artifacts (cultural anthropology), from the writings and speeches of people (communication studies), or from the geographic arrangement of peoples and resources (human geography). In all of these fields, the research process begins at the same place – the framing of a research question and the development of an operational plan that details who or what will be studied (aka the unit of analysis) and how data will be collected (method), measured, and analyzed. Often, a research project will begin with a proposal that outlines these and other practical issues such as budgeting, scheduling, and step-by-step details on data collection methods.



Simply put, causality is the relationship between two variables in which a dependent variable is affected by an independent variable. For instance, median annual income in the USA is related to educational attainment in a causal relationship (see chart below). Income, we can say, depends upon one’s education. In this relationship we can clearly see there is a high level of association between the variables. There is a clear temporal order as one gains an education typically before starting a career. We find that the causal mechanism that explains the relationship between the variables is the fact that education provides one with the skills and information needed to perform more complex tasks and thus be qualified for higher paying jobs.

Source: The Washington Post

Let’s use another example… this time, a little more complex. Let’s talk about just a few of the causal mechanism driving migration from Latin America to the USA… Researchers have identified a number of factors “pushing” migrants out of Mexico: lack of work, few educational opportunities, crime, poor life chances and a lack of social support from the government. These cause residents to look elsewhere for a better life. In other words, these circumstances, beyond the control of any everyday individual, have lead to an inadequate standard of living for the health and well-being of families. But, social researchers wanted to understand what created these negative social conditions. Upon further scrutiny, it was found that the underlying conditions were, at least in part, created by the USA.

Let’s take for example one just one causal factor – the loss of family owned farms in central Mexicothat led to an out-migration of a large number of families from that region. At the root of this situation was the precipitous fall in prices of one agricultural commodity – corn. In 1990, about 1/4 of Mexico’s residents depended on corn farming. There were between three and four million corn farmers trying to support families that include four or five children on milpas, or small corn farms. As a result of the passage of NAFTA and the USA flooding the Mexican corn market with subsidized corn from the Midwest, prices fell sharply: from an average of $5 a bushel in 1995 to $1.80 in 2000. Small family farms inMexico were unable to compete with theUS subsidized, combine farms and genetically modified super corn which produced mass surpluses that were shipped to Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and other developing areas.

Displaced farmers and their families were forced from their lands to work first in Mexico Cityor move north and look for work across the border. This did not only affect the farmer, but subsequent generations who have lost family lands and livelihood. And this is but a single commodity… cause – NAFTA depressed the cost of corn, effect – farmers in Mexicowere displaced from the milpas… This example shows temporal order, correlation between variables, and a non-spurious relationship...

If you are interested in more on this topic, watch “NAFTA + U.S. Farm Subsidies Devastates Mexican Agriculture”

In this module…

In this module, you will read from Part II of the Babbie textbook. This section of the text is dedicated to teaching the basics of organizing and preparing for a research project. In Chapter 4, you will read about research design and causality. In Chapter 5, the focus will shift to the process of operationalization and measurement. Chapter 6 will focus on the construction of scales and indices. Finally, Chapter 7 will walk you though the methods for developing representational samples. Throughout the module there will be a series of exercises that will assist you in your own research project.  After reading each chapter, complete the chapter quizzes, exercises 9-12, and Discussion 4.

Check your Course Schedule for due dates.

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