Statistics: because you’re worth it

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 forShould 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.

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Hi, i’m student of sociology, i’m in 2nd year in Universidad de Chile, South america. I think it kind of different our situation in the subject of statistics because we have the obligation of study it. We have four courses of statistics beginning with basics deviation o mean and other basic stuff increasing in difficulty but what i don’t like is the mostly use of software in the process, like spss and atlas-ti. if you allow me to ask, in your own country(ies) the subject of statistics is not a obligation to study?

Vicki Bolton

Prof T, Clara – you can contact me and find out more about my research and background through my blog ( Clara – I am/was an odd kind of economics major at undergrad. My postgrad research sits within the Division of Social Statistics but my co-supervisor is a geographer-turned-sociologist. I tend to think of myself (erroneously) as a political scientist. I may be a little confused, discipline-wise! Clara, Rajesh – I completely agree with you about thinking systematically. I took a great course on what might be called research philosophy last year which was a very neat over-view of why… Read more »


I Feel the same way. Mechanisms underlying phenomenones in Social Sciences, unlike Physical sciences are intangible. It creates great deal of dificulty to create predictive theories, having substantial accuracy. The situation would remain so until we develope more shopesticated research methods, just like telescopes and microscopes in the physical sciences. Such thinking implies that Research methods are of supreme importance as far as advancements in social are concerned. Mathematics are just about logical thinking. It helps overcoming our cognitive limitations of processing information.


Prof " T "

Dear Vicki, first I believe there is a ‘paper’ in this issue. I completely agree with you as well.As an educator, I am continuously shocked and concerned about the moaning and groaning among students when required to take even the most elementary statistics for their undergraduate degree in sociology. As a budding sociologist, it is my belief that these moans and groans from students reflect the very heart of American culture and its lack of priority on satisfying – equally – the need for basics: Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic. As a practitioner, having hired hundreds of individuals, it is frustrating… Read more »


I agree with you…. I’m a lecturer.. and my student always think that statistic and research methods are boring and difficult to understand… but they are really important… It helps you to think systematically. If there is any questions about research method can I discuss it with you… thx… (Sorry…what is your major?)

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