Five Key Lessons from ER 273

Social Science Research Methods introduces graduate students to the research process. Isha Ray, associate professor of energy and resources, focuses the class on approaching research with critical thinking and ethical awareness. She shared five key lessons from ER 273.

  1. Partial perspectives define your world. Perspectives on social and environmental problems inevitably differ. To fully understand climate change or water scarcity or land degradation, you must understand these differences, and the histories, economies, and cultures that produced them. In the social sciences we seek to explain complexity, but not to explain it away.
  2. Triangulate: No one method is “best.” All methods of data collection and data analysis have value, and all methods are imperfect. Develop a rich toolkit of research methods so you can use the strengths of one method to overcome the weaknesses of another, and so you can see through one method what another cannot show.
  3. Theorize but allow for surprises. We rarely look for empirical data without a theoretical framing that informs what we decide to look for. This is what social scientists mean when we say “all data are theory-laden.” But good researchers are always open to the unexpected and to observations that challenge their theoretical frames.
  4. Ask, but don’t expect to receive. A lot of primary data comes from interviews or surveys, both asking-based methods. But your respondent isn’t obliged to give you the “objective truth” — she’s more likely to give you her best estimate, or her current perspective. Or she may not be willing or able to answer certain questions at all. Learn to interpret respondents’ answers rather than labeling them “true,” “false,” or “does not know.”
  5. Be a human being first, a researcher second. Your subjects are people — not mushrooms, not ants, not forest fires. Ethical research is about doing excellent research, of course, but even more about being your best self when you are in the field, nosing into other peoples’ lives. Let your research be guided by respect and compassion as much as it is by theory and methods.