Chapter 16: Reading and Understanding Social Research
Being a responsible consumer of research requires that you take seriously your identity as a social scientist. Now that you are familiar with how to conduct research and how to read the results of others’ research, you have some responsibility to put your knowledge and skills to use. Doing so is in part a matter of being able to distinguish what you do know, based on the information provided by research findings, from what you do not know. It is also a matter of having some awareness about what you can and cannot reasonably know as you encounter research findings.
When assessing social scientific findings, think about what information has been provided to you. In a scholarly journal article, you will presumably be given a great deal of information about the researcher’s method of data collection, the sample, and information about how the researcher identified and recruited research participants. All these details provide important contextual information that can help you assess the researcher’s claims. If, on the other hand, you come across some discussion of social scientific research in a popular magazine or newspaper, chances are that you will not find the same level of detailed information that you would find in a scholarly journal article. In this case, what you do and do not know is more limited than in the case of a scholarly journal article.
Also take into account whatever information is provided about a study’s funding source. Most funders want, and in fact require, that recipients acknowledge them in publications. But more popular press may leave out a funding source. In this internet age, it can be relatively easy to obtain information about how a study was funded. If this information is not provided in the source from which you learned about a study, it might behoove you to do a quick search on the web to see if you can learn more about a researcher’s funding. Findings that seem to support a particular political agenda, for example, might have more or less weight once you know whether and by whom a study was funded.
There is some information that even the most responsible consumer of research cannot know. For example, because researchers are ethically bound to protect the identities of their subjects, we will never know exactly who participated in a given study. Researchers may also choose not to reveal any personal stakes they hold in the research they conduct. We cannot know for certain whether or how researchers are personally connected to their work unless they choose to share such details. Neither of these “unknowables” is necessarily problematic; however, having some awareness of what you may never know about a study does provide important contextual information from which to assess what one can take away from a given report of findings.