GEN3501: Research Methods for Social Sciences

#2 Ideas, Literature Review, Ethics & Politics in Research

Topic Summary

   I.  Planning a Research Project
II.  Research Ideas
III.  Preparing & Doing Research
IV.  Literature Review
V.  Ethics & Politics in Social Research

Planning a Research Project

  • Knowing what is required to do, or what you want to do;
  • Thinking about your research area;
  • Using your supervisor to the fullest extent: getting help & feedback, taking criticisms positively, following suggestions, …
  • Managing time and resources
  • Develop a timetable (preferable together with supervisor);
  • Time-consuming: gaining access, analyzing data, writing up, ethical clearance.
  • Find out what, if any, resources can be put at your disposal for carrying out your research.
  • Funding, assistance, equipment, data analysis software …
  • Formulating suitable research questions
  • Process of developing research questions:
  • General research area that interests us;
  • Select aspect of research area;
  • Research questions (a wide pool);
  • Narrow down to develop a tighter & clearer focus and to select related & specific research questions.
Sources of research area
Personal interest/experience
research literature
Puzzles-inconsistent views concerning one topic
New developments in society
Social or behavioral problem
Causal observation
Vague and fleeting thoughts


Formulating suitable research questions

  • Criteria for evaluating research questions
  • Be clear; be linked to each other;
  • Be researchable, not too abstract to be converted into researchable/operational terms;
  • Have some connection(s) with established theory & research;
  • Be able to make an original contribution, however small, to the topic;
  • Neither too broad nor too narrow.

Preparing & Doing Research


Writing your research proposal

To outline what your research project will be about and how you intend to go about it:
what is/are your research topic/objectives?
why is your research topic (or why are those research objectives) important?
what is/are your research question/questions?
what does the literature have to say about your research topic/objectives and research question(s)?
who will be your research participants? how to select them? How are you going to collect data relevant to research question(s)? what research methods are you intending to use?
why are the research methods/sources you have selected the appropriate ones for your research and how will those resources be funded?
what is your timetable for the different stages of the project?
what problems (access to organizations) do you anticipate in doing the research?
what are the possible ethical problems associated with your research?
How will you analyze your data?
Preparing for your research
Develop data-collection instruments after having identified research questions reasonably clearly
If possible, conduct a small pilot study to determine how well the research instruments work.
Access issues- confirm at the earliest opportunity that you have the necessary permission to conduct research at the setting/organization
Sampling Considerations
What do you need to study in order to investigate your research questions?
How easily can you gain access to a sampling frame?
What kind of sampling strategy will you employ?
Can you justify your choice of sampling method?
Any possible ethical problems(s) associated with your research methods or your approach to contacting people?

Getting Started: Literature Review

Reviewing the existing literature

Narrative review (traditional kind):
To arrive at an overview of a field of study through a reasonably comprehensive assessment & critical  interpretation of the literature, as a prelude to conducting one’s  own research in the area.
To establish why the researcher conducted the research & what its contribution is likely to be.

Purpose of exploring the existing literature
what is already known about this area?
what concepts and theories are relevant to this area?
what research methods and research designs have been employed in studying this area?
Are there any significant controversies?
Are there any consistencies in findings related to this area?
Are there any unanswered research question in this area?
How does this literature relate to your research questions? – possibility to revise and refine your research questions in the process of literature review.

Reviewing the existing literature

Getting the most from your readings
Take good notes, including details of the material you read.
Develop critical reading skills- moving beyond mere description and summary asking questions about the significance of the work; how does the item relate to others you have read? any strengths and deficiencies? any implication of the author\’s ideas and/ or findings?
Search and review of literature should be guided by research questions and used as a means of showing why your research questions are important.
Returning to much of the examined literature late in the discussion and conclusion parts
Only put relevant literature, which can assist developing an argument into a literature review.
Reading literature should not be stopped once you begin designing your research.
Use literature should to tell a story about the research project.
Have a comprehensive coverage of the literature.

—Systematic review:

  • A replicable, scientific & transparent process aiming to minimize bias through exhaustive literature search of published & unpublished studies and by providing an audit trail of the reviewer’s decisions, procedures & conclusions.
  • Tend to follow the steps in order:
  • Define the purpose & scope of the review;
  • Seek out studies relevant to the scope & purpose of the review;
  • Assess the relevance of each study for the research question(s);
  • Analyze & appraise each study;
  • Extract the results of each study & synthesize the results.
summarizing the results of a large number of quantitative studies and conducting various analytical tests who whether or not a particular variable has an effect.
Aim to establish whether or not a particular variable has a certain effect by comparing the results of different studies.
Vulnerable to \”file drawer problem\”- Study finds no intended effect of independent variable- difficult to publish- the findings are simply filed away in a drawer. Findings of a meta-analysis will be based in favor of the independent variable being found to have a certain effect.
Meta-ethnography To achieve interpretative synthesis of qualitative research and other secondary sources (a counterpart to meta-analysis in quantitative research).
Crucial: synthesis is focused primarily on the interpretations and explanations offered by the included studies, rather than on the data that these studies are based on.
  • Searching the existing literature ~ an ongoing process
  • Electronic databases
  • The single most useful source: Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI)
  •; Cited Reference Search; INGENTA;
  • Academic publishers (Cambridge Journals Online; SAGE);
  • Newspaper archives; periodicals;
  • Search engine: Google Scholar & amazon (be selective, critical evaluating);
  • Email alert; catalogue of your own institution & other universities …
  • Keywords & defining search parameters
  • Crucial: using synonyms, alternative terms, wild card symbols; knowledgeable in your research area.

Referencing your work

  • Referencing in literature review: to emphasize your understanding & knowledge of the subject: its historical development & your own research builds on the work of others.
  • Referencing in other parts of your paper: different purposes (e.g., to help to reinforce your argument …).
  • Most common referencing system – APA style (
Whenever paraphrasing the argument or ideas of an author or authors in writing: add in parentheses immediately afterwards the surname of the author and the year of publication.
If quoting the author: put quotation marks around the quotation; after the year of publication, include the page number where the quotation is from.
All books, articles, and other sources cited in the text are then given in a list of references at the end of the dissertation in alphabetical order by author surname.
  • The role of the bibliography
  • Comprehensive coverage of the existing literature;
  • Selectively focused & quality – reflecting the author’s informed judgement of the importance & suitability of sources
  • Be cautious in using secondary referencing (referring to an article or book that has been cited in another source).
  • Integrating the references into the text of the main body.
  • Understanding the authors’ beliefs & approaches, accumulating knowledge.

Ethics in Social Research


Ethics of social research – related to the role of values in research process – Issues:
~How should we treat the people on whom we conduct research?
~Are there activities in which we should or should not engage due to our relations with them?

Ethical concern
Research ethics concerns the responsibility of researchers to be honest and respectful to all individuals who are affected by their research studies or their reports of the studies\’ results.
Ethical issues must be considered at each step in the research process: measurement techniques, participant selection, research strategies and designs, data collection and analysis, reporting results.

American Psychological Association (APA) Guidelines
~Ethical guidelines for the use & treatment of human participants in research –
~First published in 1973; periodically revised.
APA Ethics Code: 10 ethical standards, researchers should be completely familiar with all of them before beginning any research with human participants.
~The Institutional Animal Care & Use Committee (IACUC) – examines all proposed research with respect to its treatment of nonhuman subjects – minimal discomfort/harm, general care, medical care …
~IACUC approval must be obtained prior to conducting any research with nonhuman subjects.

Ethical principles

1. No Harm to participantsanticipate, guard against, minimize

  • Physical or psychological, induced to perform reprehensible acts;
  • Monitoring participants’ well-being, halting the study at any sign of trouble.
  • Data protection: maintaining the confidentiality & anonymity of records.
  • Very important for establishing trust & future researches; however, may be difficulty for many forms of qualitative research; may present dilemmas for researchers.
  • Possibility of harm to the researcher.
  • Not possible to identify in all circumstances whether harm is likely: informed consent must be obtained.

2. Informed consent:

  • Prospective research participants should be given as much info as might be needed to make a rational, informed decision about whether or not to participate in a study.
  • Components: information, understanding, voluntary participation.
  • Implication: participants should be fully informed about the research process.
  • Easier said than done:
  • Extremely difficult to present absolutely all info required to make informed decision.
  • Individual differences among participants in understanding the nature of the study.
  • Informed consent forms: a statement of all the elements of informed consent, signed by research participants.

3. Privacy:

  • Very much linked to “informed consent” & “anonymity & confidentiality”:
  • No names or other identification appear on data records;
  • Using pseudonyms in transcripts &  beyond;
  • storing interview tapes, transcripts, & participants’ contact details separately;
  • Use a coding system to keep track of which participant names go with which datasets.
  • Covert methods: usually deemed to be violating the privacy principle.
  • Is related to all methods of social research

4. Deception: researchers represent their work as something other than what it is / Not telling participants the true purpose of the study, aiming to examine behavior under “normal”/ ”natural” circumstances.

  • Why to object deception? – not a nice thing; adversely affecting the image of research.
  • Widespread in social research, WHY?
  • Rarely feasible or desirable to provide participants with a totally complete account of what the research is about, the research may not proceed as planned.
  • Participants may modify their natural behavior.
  • Debriefing: provide a full description of the study\’s true purpose asap after participation is completed; explain the nature of & justification for any deceptions used.

Scientific Integrity – Fraud in science

  • Error (失誤): an honest mistake that occurs in the research process.
  • Fraud (舞弊, 欺詐): explicit effort to falsify or misrepresent data. (e.g., making up or changing data to make it support the hypothesis)
Why is fraud in science committed? Competitive nature of an academic career
Researcher\’s exceedingly high need for success and the admiration coming along with it.


safeguards against fraud Replicating- repeating a research study using the same basic procedures used in the original
Peer review- editor of the journal and a few experts in the field review the paper in extreme detail.

Avoiding Plagiarism (剽竊)
Plagiarism: presenting someone else’s ideas/writings/inventions as one’s own.

  • a serious breach of ethics & honesty, should be guarded against at all cost.
  • can occur on a variety of different levels:
  • literally copy an entire paper word for word & present it as your own work;
  • copy & paste passages from articles & sites found on the Internet;
  • only changing a few words; changing most wording but keeping the same structure;
  • outside ideas & phrases appear in your paper without appropriate citation.
  • Not plagiarism : rephrasing in your own words, using your own structure, & a citation for the original source is an acceptable paraphrase.

Ethics & the issue of quality

  • Research Ethics Committee (in US context) safeguards ethical clearance on social research: a slow & stringent process, only 15% of application are cleared in the first round.
  • RECs frequently raise issues about the quality of a research: no quality = unethical.
  • Gaining REC clearance may have implications for the research process, which in turn may impact the research quality:
  • In addition to the traditional domains of ethical consideration, researchers have to defend their methodological techniques – sampling, interview guide, questionnaire … à direction, process, & quality of research will all be affected.
  • Growing frustration about the amount of time taken to proceed the research because of the lengthy process of clearance
  • The difficulties of ethical decision-making
  • Less guidance on marginal inappropriate practice;
  • Clash between the ethically desirable and the practical: requirement to sign a “informed consent” form reduces prospective participants’ willingness to participate in survey research.
  • New media (internet) & difficult decisions:
  • What is or is not “sensitive material” in chatrooms, email discussion groups?
  • Visual ethnography: how to obtain informed consent of everyone who appears in photographs?

Politics in Social Research

Politics: the working-through of power & contests

  • Social researchers are sometimes put in the position where they take sides.
  • Issue of funding research.
  • Gaining access & getting on in organization – constant negotiation & renegotiation
  • Teams – various and/or diverging career & objectives of team members.
  • Pressure restricting the publication of findings.
  • The use made of findings by others can be the focus of further political plots.
  • Politics of methods – competing claims to methodological proficiency/expertise