I’m a member of a university (the University of Southampton) which forces its budding social scientists through two courses in statistics. This semester, I’ve joined a little gang of social statistics PhD students in teaching first year undergraduates in psychology, criminology, sociology, politics and half-a-dozen other things how to calculate standard deviation and correlation and how to draw a scatter plot. It’s not something that ever came up in my undergraduate course, and I’m beginning to think that it should have. Although some of the undergrads are enthusiastic, most seem to feel a bit conned: they didn’t realise that their course would require any stats and can’t see why they’re being taught it.
In some of these social sciences (psychology springs to mind), quantitative research is the norm. In others (political science, say) quantitative research is not ubiquitous, but pretty common. A researcher wishing to make his or her way in either field would be well advised to develop a basic understanding of statistical significance, for example. And yet, undergraduates are surprised that any numeracy is required.
What is social science undergraduate study for? Should undergraduates be learning quantitative research techniques like these? I think so. For one, they are a valuable preparation for a research degree. Secondly, numeracy is a common employer requirement: statistics, and the basic mathematics which underlies them, are useful in the workplace.
One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is that my (ESRC-funded) PhD topic nestles comfortably between several disciplines. I’m looking at volunteering as a political activity – it’s politics, social policy, sociology, statistics… I’m pretty sure that even an economist or psychologist wouldn’t kick it out of bed! So, with no ‘home discipline’, what do I have to rely on? Only research methods (quantitative methods, in my case).
Research methods are the techniques by which social scientists can claim knowledge. Their counterpart, critical thinking, is the technique by which other social scientists construct their rebuttal. If a social science undergraduate finishes his or her course without learning these skills, something, somewhere is going horribly wrong.
Vicki Bolton writes a blog, Confounding Factor, on social science statistics.