Research Methods: Activities We Already Do

by David H. Kessel

It has been my experience as a teacher that students often feel very distant from formal Social Research Methods...that is, these Methods seem very much apart from their lives and are quite imposing to them. While undoubtedly there are some students who take to them immediately, the great majority of people feel quite intimidated by them and the prospect of learning them. By and large, social research is thought of as something “experts” scientists with a great deal of education and experience, not something “ordinary” people do...especially not without specialized training.

While there certainly is some truth to these ideas, if left at this level of understanding, students will tend to react to research with much doubt and angst. However, I don’t think this is the only option when approaching either a Research Methods component in an Introductory course, nor in an upper-level course in Social Research Methods (primarily for discipline majors). Rather, I agree wholeheartedly with Earl Babbie when, in the introduction to Part 1 of The Practice of Social Research, 9th Edition, from Wadsworth, he says:

It will become clear to you before you’ve read very far that you already know a great deal about the practice of social research. In fact, you’ve been conducting research all your life. From that perspective, the purpose of this book is to help you sharpen skills you already have and perhaps to show you some tricks that may not have occurred to you. (p. 15)

Neither Babbie nor I are denying or ignoring that there are many details about Methods to be learned. Rather, what he and I are saying is that the “substance” of research and its methods isn’t so “distant” from our ordinary daily activities as the “formalization” of them seems to portray. Each of the Methods...each type of data analysis...represents an activity we already do in the course of our lives...admittedly, not always very precisely...but yet, we still do them.

So, to introduce this subject to students, the first task is to help them understand that we’re not about to embark on such a strange journey after all...rather, we’re going to “uncover,” so to speak, the core activity of each Method and thereby reduce that “gap” between themselves and Methods employed by those who have a more formalized approach to investigating our world. How?

This can be done a number of ways. At the beginning of the course component or the specialized course itself, one could simply give a lecture about it...encouraging discussion and allowing the ideas to emerge in the process. One could make it a small group exercise in class...asking each group to handle a given number of methods and then have a discussion about what they found. Or, one could assignment an Analysis Paper (or whatever name one chooses to call the exercise) asking students to do the “uncovering” on their own, prompting them to consult their text for details of a method they don’t yet understand. After evaluating and grading these papers and handing them back, a lecture/discussion could follow, clarifying and explaining each item. Which ever any others teachers might used, they are all based on helping them identify the activities they already do...the “stuff” of which each Method is made of, so to speak. If a written assignment is utilized, one can also ask them to identify those activities which they are most attracted to...which they like the most...or even which ones they feel they are most proficient at already or would like to be. If this is covered in a non-written way, students can be alerted to be thinking about this to help them develop a focus as the course progresses.

I’ve done both the lecture/discussion and the Analysis Paper approaches. I tend to prefer the AP and follow-up coverage because it gives me an idea of where “they are at” as a kind of “pretest” of sorts. It also facilitates better, in my opinion, getting them to think about their own interests and abilities. However, these are simply my preferences and nothing more.

So, what follows is the substance that is the form of a question (Have you ever....?)...for each of the Methods and modes of analysis of data. I certainly make no claim for exactness or comprehensiveness in terms of what else could be utilized under each...I’d welcome suggestions and improvements from others. A few have been gleaned from the papers students have written, some I simply hadn’t thought of and some are distinct improvements on what I first thought of. Immediately after the list, I include a recent Analysis Paper I gave in a “Methods of Social Research” an example.

Remember...each “question” begins with “Have you ever...”


---played a “trick” on someone to see how they would react?
---tested someone in some way?
---done something just to get a response?
---“meddled” in the affairs of others?
---doubted something and tried to get similar or even different results?


---ask someone two or more questions about a given issue?
---ask two or more people the same question (i.e. what did you think of that movie?)?
---compare or contrast answers from two or more people?
---taken or given a test?


---asked question(s) to someone face to face?
---asked question(s) to someone on the telephone?
---asked someone about something you’ve “heard” about them?
---asked anyone face to face or on telephone to explain themselves about something?
---had to “follow-up” on an answer someone has given you?
---been told by someone to “ask me later”...or to be refused an answer?

Field Research

---just sat back wherever you are and watched people and/or events?
---gone somewhere to just “blend in” and watch people?
---noticed people doing things in a patterned way?
---asked to attend an event or location in order to just watch things?

Participant Observation

---“pretended” to be part of something in order to fit in or to see if you could fit in...or would like to fit in?
---“dressed-up” or “down” for a particular situation?
---spied on someone or event...secretly and/or in disguise?
---learned anything new or different by being part of or engaged with others?
---“faked” your purpose for being there...or your identity?

Content Analysis

---examined a book for its content in order to decide to read it or buy it for someone else?
---said there’s too much violence (or sex or....)on TV, in movies, in books, etc.?
---examined a speech or talk for frequency of certain words being used?
---stopped listening or watching something because you didn’t like the use of words or phrases?
---assessed any kind of media presentation?
---concluded that a film/show/book was “unrealistic” or too simple or too difficult?

Archival Research

---used any existing materials to help you do something?
---looked through a junk or second-hand store?
---looked through a drawer, a box, a basement, an attic, a garage for something specific or to just see what you could find?
---compared or contrasted past information/things with current ideas/things?


---compared the present with the past? (i.e. things just aren’t like they use to be?)
---wondered how/why something got to be the way it is?
---looked for trends of consistency or of change?
---compared/contrasted the structure or nature of two different realities?

Evaluation Research

---tried something new and then assessed how it did or worked?
---stopped doing something because it didn’t do what you wanted it to do?
---been asked your opinion about how something worked or was doing?
---been told or ever told someone to stop doing something because of its effect on others?

Physical Traces

---looked for signs or evidence of something you know or think has been done?
---found “evidence” of something and tried to figure out what happened?
---asked “what’s this mean?” after discovering something or seeing something happen?
---sifted through “junk”?
---heard of “forensics”?
---heard of “archeology”?


---wanted to hear the stories of and their lives?
---wanted to learn in greater depth about certain ways of doing things from people doing them?
---wondered about other groups and other people in different settings than yours?


---tried something before doing it again?
---decided about the “whole” of something after experiencing only a part of it?
---tried a particular dish in a restaurant to decide if it’s a “good” restaurant?
---stereotyped a whole group after encountering in some way just one member of it?


---counted anything?
---inferred anything from the “numbers” of anything?
---decided that something is true or false because of the number of people believing or not in it?
---concluded anything after viewing and interpreting a “table” of numbers about something?
---used “numbers” and an interpretation of them to persuade or convince someone of something?
---concluded that something is “probable” or not based on a numerical analysis?

Qualitative Analysis

---interpreted the meaning of events or activities?
---categorized people and/or events by labels?
---decided someone is telling the truth or lying about themselves or others?
---decided that what seems “obvious” really isn’t like what it appears to be?
---realized that just because something can be “counted” it may not “count” for anything?

Recent Analysis Paper given to Methods of Social Research class

Analysis Paper #1 (20 pts)

Often times “social research” seems very remote to us as’s something that “experts” do or simply procedures and ideas which seem hard to grasp and do. Yet, all the methods...and the ways of analyzing the data generated by them...are to some degree things we already do as regular people in our everyday lives.

As we begin this course in Methods of Social Research, consider each of the following Methods or Analyzes in terms of the “thing” or activity “behind” it...that which we already do. (You may need to take a quick look at the textbook to get the general idea of what each entails...but for the most part I think you’ll already know.)

Explain each of them by “demythologizing” the activity each represents. And, which of these activities do you like the best...or like to do...or excel at?

Field Research
Participant Observation
Content Analysis
Evaluation Research
Physical Traces
Qualitative Analysis