Introducing sociology students to quantitative research methods
Author: Aidan Kelly, Goldsmiths, University of London
Date: 8 November 2011
Type of case study: Teaching
Course title: Making Data Matter; Quantitative Social Research
Course type: Quantitative research methods
Level: Postgraduate; Undergraduate
When Aidan Kelly came to Goldsmiths in 2002, he says he expected to encounter backlash to teaching quantitative methods in sociology, a traditionally qualitative oriented field, and students uninterested in quantitative research. Instead, he has found students who may not be familiar with quantitative methods but are eager to learn.
"[Students at the start] don’t really know enough about what social class is as it’s actually measured and how to code age and things like that," says Kelly, but they quickly learn. His social research methods classes for 3rd year undergraduates and postgraduates use both quantitative and qualitative research methods, but the undergraduate course is geared towards students who have been introduced to quantitative methods in 5 week courses in years one and two. The postgraduate courses in particular work towards a Masters in Social Research and tackle data management issues and identification of good data. For his classes, Kelly chose some of the more varied social datasets from the UK Data Service like Understanding Society and the General Household Survey, which provide a variety of analysis challenges and an opportunity to explore.
Though he does some relabeling of variables and other simplifications, one of the keys of his course is that he exposes students to these large datasets after previously introducing the concepts and lets them figure out how to navigate them on their own. He finds that when students face the data without a safety net, defining their own models and doing their own recoding, they can create varied outputs that are recognisably theirs. He also incorporates the UK Data Service catalogue search interface into the class and teaches students how to seek out their own data, which he sees more and more students interested in as they pursue advanced degrees.
What accounts for this uptick in interest? Kelly can’t pin down specifics but thinks the requirements of research grants asking for quantitative analyses certainly play a factor for students serious about securing funding for their own research. The gradual introduction of quantitative data in Kelly’s courses nurtures that interest and he is considering expanding his teaching to doctoral level training programmes as well.