(1) Select a broad topic of social interest, such as drug use, proenvironmental behavior, criminal behavior, or marital stability. (A good idea is to model this on a call for research proposals by government agencies.) Separate students into “research teams” in which they devise a series of hypotheses about the causes of each. Ask the groups to then locate social theory that informs their hypotheses by searching journals and/or textbooks for theory or additional research on this issue. Students should take note of the research used to support each theory. When the review of the literature is complete, groups may present their findings in support of their original research hypotheses. All students should then be polled to see which research project will be “funded.”
(2) When politics and social science are combined, it can generate some heated discussion! If you are teaching during an election season, have students listen to a debate or read candidates’ opposing statements about a social issue. Ask students in each group to discuss the claims made by each side that either draw on social research directly or can be evaluated with social research. Students should then organize within their groups to track down the cited research, if any, and related research articles. They should prepare for a debate by developing a case for one candidate that defends or extends his or her position in terms of relevant social research findings and attacks the credibility of the other candidates in the same terms. Discuss ground rules for the debate in advance with a student moderator. Students who do not participate in the debate may serve as postdebate panelists who evaluate the pro and con arguments and select one side as presenting the most persuasive case in terms of social research evidence. You can try a comparable project during an off-season by asking students to focus on some legislation being debated in the state or federal legislature.
(3) Assign student groups to a major academic journal available through the school library. Examples of such journals are the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Review, or Social Forces. Have students read the abstracts of issues from one or two issues to determine the hypotheses of each article. Some articles may not have hypotheses; in this case, ask students to attempt to at least define the dependent variable(s). Also, have students note and discuss issues of validity and generalizability that may affect the results of each article.
(4) Ask students to select a popular TV program to observe (not sports or news). Plan this in advance so that only about five students will watch the same program. (This is important because not every program will prove to be useful for this exercise, and the more programs students watch, the less likely all will observe a “dud.”) All students should identify at least one research problem that was posed by the episode they watched as well as related variables and a hypothesis that was either explicitly stated or implied. Talk shows will provide a wealth of explicit propositions about social variables, while soap operas and dramas will result in more implicit variables and hypotheses. Students who watched the same program should meet to review their notes and consolidate their ideas before presenting a verbal report to the class.
Individual and Group Activities
1. Writing a Descriptive Report
This project assumes that students have some basic knowledge of summary statistics, namely, the mean. If not, this should be carefully explained to them.
(1) Locate a data set in your library or on the Internet (e.g., the U.S. Census, the Unified Crime Report, the GSS, the UN Statistical Yearbook).
(2) Browse the data set to see what sort of information is available in the data set. Select 2–4 variables that you understand well (e.g., population growth, violent crime rate, level of education, infant mortality rate). It will be helpful if you find variables that you think are somehow related to one another.
(3) Create a simple table for each variable in which you display the data for each variable. In some cases, it may be better to condense some of the data into meaningful categories to present the data as means (e.g., region of the United States, continent).
(4) Write a short descriptive report in which you use these tables to describe the data that you have found. This report should include information on the data set (such as how and when data was collected, number of respondents, etc.), definitions of the variables used, and patterns observed in the data. Also in this report, you should begin to connect the patterns in the data to existing social theory.
2. Summarizing Statistics
Instruct students as follows:
You’ve been assigned to write a paper on domestic violence and the law. To start, you can review relevant research on the American Bar Association’s website at www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/resources/statistics.html. What does the research summarized presented at this site suggest about the prevalence of domestic violence, its distribution among social groups, and its causes and effects? Write your answers in a one- to two-page report. Make sure to cite which reports you use on a separate references page.