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Conducting Research

Tips from your Washington University librarians on locating, evaluating, and citing sources used in your research.

Researching in the Social Sciences

Social scientists interpret and analyze human behavior, generally using empirical methods of research. Though original data gathering and analysis are central to social sciences research, researchers also use library and Web sources to--

  • obtain raw data for model building or analysis
  • locate information about a particular model, theory, or methodology to be used in a research project
  • review the literature to place new research in context

Subjects of study in the social sciences are often interdisciplinary, so your searching will likely need to be, as well.  A review of the literature for a social sciences research project not only should identify what research has been done but also compare and contrast the available information and evaluate its significance. 

Each of the social sciences has a well-developed set of research tools to  help you find relevant material. Some of the WashU Libraries Research Guides listed on the left may give you ideas for beginning your research.  You should also consult your subject librarian for help getting started or refining your search.

Types of sources

Primary sources are original material, created at the time of the event or by the subject you are studying. They may include statistics, survey and poll data, field notes, transcripts, photographs, and many other examples. This kind of material is the closest you can get to your actual subject, raw and unfiltered by later scholars and critics.

Secondary sources are works that analyze primary sources or other secondary sources. These include journal articles, monographs about a subject or person, and critical reviews. All of these can also act as primary sources, depending upon your subject of research.

Tertiary sources index or otherwise collect primary and secondary sources. Examples are encyclopedias, bibliographies, dictionaries, and online indicies.  These sources tend to be most useful as jumping off points for your research, leading you to the more in-depth secondary and primary material that you will need to conduct a thorough study.

Conducting the Literature Review

The literature review is an important part of researching in the social sciences. Research and the literature review in particular are cyclical processes.
Where do I start? The Research Question

Begin with what you know: What are the parameters of your research area? Do you have any particular interests in a relevant topic? Has something you've
read or talked about in a class caught your attention?
Brainstorm some keywords you know are related to your topic, and start searching. Do a search in a few of the Search Resources boxes on the Libraries' Website and see what comes up. Scan titles. Do a Google Scholar search. Read an encyclopedia article. Get as much background information as you can, taking note of the most important people, places, ideas, events. As you read, take notes-- these will be the building blocks of your future searches.
It's probable your question will change over the course of your reading and research. No worries! If you're unsure about your topic, check with your faculty mentor.
Some tips

Throw out a wide net and read, read, read. Consider the number and kinds of sources you'll need. Which citation style should you use? What time period should it cover? Is currency important? What do you need to be aware of related to scholarly versus popular materials?

  • Read widely but selectively.
  • Follow the citation trail -- building on previous research by reviewing bibliographies of articles and books that are close to your interest.
  • Synthesize previous research on the topic.
  • Aim to include both summary and synthesis.
  • Focus on ways to have the body of literature tell its own story. Do not add your own interpretations at this point.
  • Look for patterns and find ways of tying the pieces together.

Where should I look?

  • Databases, journals, books
  • Review articles
  • Organizations
  • Experts
  • Books

How do I know I am done?

One key factor in knowing you are done is that you keep running into the same articles and materials. With no new information being uncovered you can assume you've exhausted your current search and should modify search terms, or perhaps you have reached a point of exhaustion with the available research.

How do I organize my literature review?

  • Identify the organizational structure you want to use: chronologically, thematically, or methodologically.
  • Start writing: let the literature tell the story, find the best examples, summarize instead of quote, synthesize by rephrasing (but cite!) in context of your work.

Additional information available @ The Literature Review: A Few Tips on Conducting It (University of Toronto)