Guide to Social Science and Journalism Research

Research In The Social Sciences Is Diverse. 

Anthropologists and sociologists survey populations and do extensive work in the field.  Economists pore over data sets to understand why people make certain decisions and whether those decisions are in their best interests.  Psychologists run all kinds of tests on subjects to explore cognition, vision, stereotyping, and personal preferences.  It’s hard to boil down these diverse fields, but researchers share a desire to understand why people do what they do and how groups of people (organizations, communities, societies, cultural groups) relate. 


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What Is Research Like in My Field?

View our videos of faculty talking about research in different fields.

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Where Do You Find Topics?

Social science research topics are all around us every day.  They have been popularized by books like Freakonomics, but they are completely accessible to the aspiring undergraduate researcher.  Do you witness behaviors on campus, in Chicago, across the country, or around the world that demand more of an explanation than “Well, that’s how it is”?  Do you read news reports that have shocking statistics and wonder about the individual and community stories behind the numbers?


Sources for Project Ideas

  • Faculty

Search Northwestern Scholars by concept to find faculty who share your interests. Even if you’ve never taken a class with this professor, you can reach out. Learn about Working with Faculty.

  • Browse, Read, and Find a Research Hole to Fill

Try scholarly databases, journalistic sites, think tanks, the library, and scholarly works. Look for a hole that your research could fill.


Where Do I Start?

The best way to start designing your own social science research project is to imagine your ideal informants.  Is it a few individuals whom you interview for an hour each?  Is it a big group of people who take a 15-minute survey that you design? 

Once you can envision the perfect evidence, you are ready to start the quest for finding a practical way to get access to it.


Qualitative versus Quantitative

Sometimes social science data is qualitative—long answers given in interviews or observations of cultural practices—and other times it’s quantitative—personal income or answers to multiple-choice questions on surveys.  Quantitative data is about numbers, and qualitative data is about responses.


Pilot and Case Study Models

Social science research lends itself to pilot and case study models, which means that you can start small as you get preliminary data and build things up from there.

Try to imagine your research idea on small, medium, and large scales.  The aspiring social scientist at Northwestern is lucky to have easy access to suburban and urban populations, public and private schools, and an array of religious and civic organizations.


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