Sociology 651: Approaches to Sociological Inquiry1
Professor: James Moody

Meeting Time: Monday & Wednesday: 3:30 - 5:18.
Place: 1041 McPherson Laboratory

Office Hours:  MW, 12:00 – 1:00 (372 Bricker).

The official version of this syllabus is the one posted on the web.  You should probably assume anything else is out-of-date.


    Think of this as a course in "applied epistemology:" How do we know the things that we think we know?  In particular, how can we build and test social theory in a manner that is objectively consistent with the best available evidence?  The answer to this question, of course, depends on research method and the most important aspect of method is research design.  This course takes us through the research design process, starting with how we understand cause in social science, moving through a set of common threats to sociological knowledge claims and finishes by examining the strengths and weaknesses of the most commonly used data collection strategies.

    Throughout, we will explore these topics using a case study method.  For almost every topic, we will be reading a recent empirical paper from the American Sociological Review, the American Journal of Sociology or Social Forces.  No published piece of research is perfect, but instead is a creative compromise between the ideal elements of research design and available empirical evidence.  By criticizing each of these papers with respect to the most common design threats, we can hopefully see how idealized research design is commonly implemented.  Class time will focus on discussion of the empirical examples, in-class exercises, and critiques of methodological instruments.

    This course is also consciously about professional socialization.  We will cover topics relating to research ethics, publication, grant writing and reviewing papers for scientific journals.

Course Requirements

                     Primary text:  Singleton and Straits (1999) Approaches to Social Research (4th ed – though 3rd is fine too)

                     We'll be discussing Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean on the first day of class

                     A course pack that contains handouts for classroom discussion, grants and reviews that we will read over the course of the quarter.

                     All empirical example papers are linked directly from the on-line syllabus.  (Most of these are AJS papers, not because I have any particular preference for AJS, but because ASR does not post papers online until a 2-year window has passed).

All texts are available at SBX


         2 Critiques.  You will be required to turn in two critiques of articles.  These critiques are meant to be similar to a journal review, though they will be focused on particular aspects of the research design.

         Final Project.  For your final, you can either turn in a 3rd - more detailed and complete - critique of existing research or develop a research design for a master's thesis proposal.


This class depends on group participation.  I expect everyone to speak up during class with critiques of the reading and to constructively build on the comments and suggestions of your colleagues.


 The grade breakdown for the class is:

         Critiques: 25% (each)

         Final project: 45%

         Class participation: 5%


A note on writing:

While the majority of your Ph.D. training will focus on methods and particular substantive issues, the life bread of a professional sociologist is writing.  It is, therefore, of paramount importance that you develop your writing skills.  Never turn in a paper that is not copy-edited, and always give yourself time to re-write.  I should never see a first draft of your work.  I expect all material turned in for this course to be written within the standards of professional sociology.  If you have trouble with writing, independent of the sociological content of the work, go to the university writing center.  You may also want to purchase and read one of a number of writing style guides, such as:

Corder, Jim W. and Ruszkiewicz, John J. (1989) The Handbook of Current English
Elbow, Peter. (1981)  Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford University Press.
Lamott, Anne.  (1994)  Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Doubleday
Strunk and White (2000). The Elements of Style. Boston : Allyn and Bacon
Thomas, F. N. and Mark Turner (1994) Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press
Zinsser, William. (1990)  On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Harper Perennial

A note on class participation:

This course is a seminar.  Lecture will be limited, as I would prefer to moderate an active discussion centered on key issues of research design.  This format mimics in miniature what you will be doing as professional sociologists, actively engaging in theoretical debates with colleagues.  I expect discussion to be professional and polite (no personal attacks, please), but engaged.  Do not shy away from points.  Do push arguments. Do not accept two logically inconsistent points as "equally valid perspectives."  Do seek to integrate alternative perspectives and understand the basic assumptions that drive different conclusions.  I will push you on your arguments, and I trust you will do the same for each other.  For this format to work, you must be active participants.  If discussion does not emerge spontaneously, I'll ask you to answer questions directly and push for your point of view.


A note on class reading:

We will read a great deal in this course.  Use the calendar view of the syllabus to help plan your reading time, by reading ahead on weekends where we cover a good deal of material.  In many cases, you can get the central points of the text fairly quickly (this is the advantage of using a well written textbook), but prepare yourself for slower and more difficult reading in the empirical papers.  This class does not assume more than a basic understanding of multiple regression, so don't let the statistical details of a particular article worry you.  Focus instead on the logic of the analysis.  The most fundamental problems in any piece of research largely occur before any model is ever estimated.


Class Schedule

A calendar view of the course syllabus is available, which includes all dates.  Below I list each day's meeting, readings for that day and anything that might be due.  Any reading from the course pack will be indicated as (CP) in the schedule below.  To lower copyright costs, I have tried to choose articles that are available on-line, though most of these are only available from a campus computer.  The on-line version of the syllabus and calendar will link you directly to the articles.

Class 1.  Introduction.  What counts as data?  How do we evaluate evidence?  What is a research question?

  • Norman Maclean,  Young Men and Fire

Class 2.  Social Science Reasoning.  What makes a question scientific? How do we move from general ideas about how the world works to scientific research questions?

Class 3. Causality I: The standard view.  How do we determine if one thing causes another?

  •  Approaches Chapter: “Elements of Research Design”
  •  Bollen, Kenneth.  "Causality" (Copies outside Moody’s Office)

Class 4. Causality II.  Alternative Views.  What really counts as a cause in Social Science?  Are we justified in using model coefficients as summaries of cause?  What are (some of) the alternative models?

Supplementary or background

Roberto Franzosi. 1997. "Narrative Analysis-Or Why (And How) Sociologists Should be Interested in Narrative" Annual Review of Sociology 23:517-554
Abbott, Andrew.  1997.  "Of Time and Space: The Contemporary Relevance of the Chicago SchoolSocial Forces 75:1149-1182
Lieberson, Stanley. 1987. Making it Count: The improvement of Social Research and Theory University of California Press
Levine, John H. 1983.  Exceptions are the Rule: An Inquiry into Methods in the Social Sciences  Westview Press, Chapter 2 is particularly salient.


Class 5.  Reliability and Measurement.  How do we move from theoretical concepts to empirical measurement?  What are the pitfalls associated with this move?

Class 6. Validity. Experiments represent a gold-standard for scientific evidence. What are the threats to inference in non-experimental designs?  What are the tradeoffs between internal and external validity?


Class 7.  Human Subjects and Research Ethics.  What are risks to participants in social research? How do we weigh these risks relative to the benefits of the research?  How do we protect subjects from unwarranted risk?

  • Approaches “Research Ethics”
  • Complete the on-line NIH Human Subjects Research course (CITI course). A description, instructions and a link to the course can be found at: . Turn in your certification at the end of the course.

*** Critique 1 is due ***

Class 8. Writing Research Proposals.  What do successful research proposals look like?  What are the key elements in generating successful research grants?

         Read one of the following:

o        Moody " ITR/SOC: The Structure and Dynamics of Electronic Social Networks" - NSF (Funded)

o        Peterson &  Krivo "Law and the Social Sciences" - NSF (Funded)

o        Hodson "Analyzing Organizational Ethnographies" - NSF (Funded)

o        Meyer "SGER: Political views of middle east citizens following western military intervention" (Funded)

         Read one of the following:

o        Kinsman & Moody.  "How does diffusion affect adolescent risk initiation" - NIH (not funded)

o        England, Paula and Liana Sayer, "Determinants of Women and Men Initiating Divorce " - NIH (funded)

o        Kiester and Moody "Childhood Family Processes and Adult Wealth" - NIH (Funded)

         One NSF Dissertation Grant

o        Jin Liu. "Social Welfare Reform and Its Impact on Chinese Firms During Economic Transition"

o        Marc Dixon. "The Politics of Union Decline: Business Political Mobilization and Restrictive Labor Legislation, 1938-1958"

         All readings are in the course pack.

Class 9. Sampling I.  Coverage.  How do we optimally select cases?  How do sampling schemes affect our results?

Class 10. Sampling II.  Time.  We usually sample cases not just in "space" but also in time.  How do different strategies for temporal sampling affect the conclusions we can draw from our research?

Supplementary Reading & Background
 Petersen, Trond.  "Recent advances in Longitudinal Methodology" Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 19. (1993), pp. 425-454.

Class 11.  Survey Research.  This is the first of our detailed examination of particular types of data collection.  Survey's are among the most common sources of data for sociologists.  What are the primary issues in fielding a survey?


  • 2nd Critique Assignment: “Revising the Contact Hypothesis” American Sociological Review 69:40-63 (Copies available from Moody’s office)

Class 12. Questionnaire Construction.  The basis for survey research ultimately rests on how respondents answer questions.  How do you ask questions that ensure the highest quality data?

  • Approaches “Survey Instrumentation”
  • Example surveys (CP)

****Critique 2 is due ****

Class 13. The Review Process.  What do real reviews look like?  How should you respond to reviewers comments on papers?  What should you do with contradictory reviews?

Class 14.  Field Research.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of various field research techniques?  What are the empirical and ethical challenges of fieldwork?

Reading: Note there is a lot of reading for today. Read ahead!

Other background:

Burawoy, Michael 2003. "Revisits: An Outline of a Theory of Reflexive Ethnography" American Sociological Review.  68:645-679


Class 15.  Secondary Data.  There are many data sources that have already been collected for (usually) other purposes.  Such data often admit to many of the same techniques we might use with survey data, but also allow numerous other approaches such as content analysis or case based historical analyses.


Approaches “Research Using Available Data”

Example: Goesling, Brian "Changing Income Inequalities within and between nations: New Evidence" American Sociological Review 66:745-761

Class 16.  Archival Data.  We continue our discussion of secondary data, focusing on data from archival sources.  Such data are usually even further from our research questions than most secondary data sources, but often admit to novel and interesting findings.

Class 17. Historical Comparative Research.   How do we answer questions about society-level topics, such as the conditions that lead to revolutions or democracy?  What are the unique challenges of making causal inferences when you have very small numbers of cases?

Background reading:

    •  Jeffery M. Paige  1999.  "Conjuncture, Comparison, and Conditional Theory in Macrosocial Inquiry" The American Journal of Sociology, 105:781-800.

Class 18.  Social Simulation.  In many cases the theoretical processes we are interested in cannot be adequately studied using any available data.  In such cases, it may make sense to make the data up through a principled social simulation.  What are the costs and benefits of using social simulation?

Supplementary Reading & Background

    • Macy, Michael W. "Chains of Cooperation: Threshold Effects in Collective Action" American Sociological ReviewVol. 56:730-747.
    • Kogut, Bruce & gordon Walker. "The Small World of Germany and the Durability of National Networks" American Sociological Review, Vol. 66: 317-335.

1.  Special thanks to Randy Hodson, Barbara Entwisle and Peter S. Bearman for sharing their syllabi for similar courses.