A few years ago, I decided to write this summary of my research methods course on the spur of the moment, but my motives were longstanding. The prices of social science research methods textbooks are ridiculous. It’s not like this is top secret knowledge mastered by only a select, highly specialized few. Really, anyone with a graduate degree in any social science discipline knows this stuff. Since writing that first version, an army of likeminded educators has assembled to develop inexpensive alternatives to traditional textbooks, and I’m happy to sign up. In this third version, I’ve removed the word “free” from the title only because I’m making an inexpensive printed version available for purchase on Amazon. I’ve observed that most students print this entire document anyway, and several students have asked about the availability of a hard copy. The free electronic version will remain available at https://scholar.utc.edu/oer/1.
Aside from indignation over textbook prices, I also want you to learn. I know that many students won’t read an expensive, dry, long textbook, but I hope that many more will read a free (or cheap), brief textbook. I’ve made an effort to avoid being too boring, but I can’t make any promises there. I’m probably not the best judge of my own boredom quotient. (But, for what it’s worth, I think this is riveting stuff.) I’m convinced that different students learn different ways, and this summary provides one more way to learn. I don’t think these ways-of-learning should be treated as either-or choices. I think all students will maximize their learning by reading, zealously participating in class exercises, completing course assignments, watching YouTube videos, and listening attentively to lectures.
There’s a certain freedom that comes with writing something you won’t charge people to read, and I have some confessions to make. I wrote this course summary somewhat quickly. This was hard for me—I’m usually a very slow, deliberate writer, editing as I go. I found I could move along pretty quickly if I wrote in a fairly breezy style, like talking to a longsuffering friend about research methods. It made writing it easier, and I hope it will make reading it easier, too. I didn’t agonize too much over the structure of this summary. I find with research methods, it’s hard to teach about A before B, B before C, and C before A. I did my best, but you’ll see several comments like “more about that later” where I pretty much threw up my hands. Everything’s related to everything else. It’s one of those topics where you have to understand the whole before you understand the parts—another reason for having a brief text you can read through to get the big picture pretty quickly. And while it’s written in a fairly informal, conversational style, I didn’t entirely take it easy on you. There are no elaborate outlines, no “questions for review,” far fewer headings and subheadings and subsubheadings than I usually prefer, a mere smattering of bullet points, and only two diagrams. Students wishing to make the most of this summary will study it—outlining, taking notes, writing summaries, asking questions and seeking out answers, discussing it with your classmates—all good ideas.
I worked on this revision at a time when we debate what’s “fake news” and what should count as evidence when making important decisions in public affairs—discussions dominated, as I write this, about COVID-19. (I sincerely hope that’s no longer the case as you’re reading this!) Empirical research skills cannot answer all these questions, but they can help. It’s my hope that many of you will go on to learn more about research methods and to conduct your own original research. Even more, I hope all of you will become better equipped to critically assess the information we encounter in our civic lives and to make your own well-reasoned contributions to the discourse around issues in the public sphere that are important to you.