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Social Science

What is social science? What kind of research happens in social science? How is it different from other disciplines?


A methodology is an approach or process to your research. It is influenced by the philosophy and reasoning behind the particular research design that you have chosen. More specifically, a methodology is the set of particular steps taken to conduct a research project. People often talk about methodologies in terms of these groups.

  • Qualitative and Quantitative
    • Quantitative research assumes that the world can be objectively observed and measured, and thus information is quantifiable. 
    • Qualitative research assumes that world must be interpreted, and thus information that is gathered that can be considered subjective, and dependent upon context. Social science research tends to be qualitative, or use mixed methods.
  • Primary and Secondary
    • In primary research, the researcher directly observes, and/or gathers data. This might be during the course of an experiment, or it could be through field work, or questionnaires.
    • In secondary research, the researcher uses data that has been compiled by others. For example, a researcher might look at studies on a topic over a decade to find trends. A secondary source might be downloaded data sets from the US Census, or the Center for Disease Control.
  • Empirical and Theoretical
    • "Empirical work might be defined as the gathering and analysis of data from phenomena observed in the real world; it spans a range from purely observational field studies to hypothesis-driven experimentation in the laboratory."

    • "Theoretical work can be inspired by real-world phenomena, but it does not involve the gathering or analysis of data from those phenomena; rather, it might be defined as an exploration of what could be, rather than what is, using tools ranging from analytical models to individual-based simulations." Source: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives in Ecology and Evolution.

  • Deductive and Inductive
    • Deductive reasoning works from the more general to the more specific. For example, you might start with a theory, narrow to a testable hypothesis, and observe the outcome of your experiment.

    • Inductive reasoning works from specific observations to broad generalizations. One might collect observations to see if there are patterns. From the patterns you might then make a hypothesis that would allow you to develop an theory.
    • Fun fact: When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes stories, he got it backwards. Holmes uses induction and not deduction. He observes specifics and makes inferences from them. He usually refrains from announcing theories. See the clip below. Are any of these reasonable inferences?

Methods, tools and instruments

If methodology is an approach to research, then you can expect to find specific methods used to achieve that approach. Here are a couple of areas that can use different methods.

  • Data collection: ethnography, focus groups, participant observation, surveys, etc.
  • Data analysis: content analysis, meta-analysis, systematic analysis, etc.


  • University of Maryland - Characteristics of Good and Bad Research Questions - Keep in mind that the question may be a very good question to ask, and the answer may be quite important, but the "bad" simply has to do with whether or not it can support a research paper or project.

Credit:University of Maryland Libraries Research Tutorial