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Methods Training

Our philosophy is that intellectual and research interests come first, and that research methods should be tailored to fit research questions. The Department provides comprehensive training in methodology and has faculty who cover a wide range of social science research methods. We take pride in our methodological pluralism, and we celebrate both mixed-methods approaches and research that is firmly and rigorously grounded in a single method.
We provide comprehensive training and mentoring in the following areas:
Comparative Historical Methods
Comparative-Historical Social Science (CHSS) adopts a distinctive set of methodological and theoretical tools for studying the political and social world. These include the following: 1) Temporally-oriented analysis in which researchers study historical sequences and examine the unfolding of processes over time. The "historical" component of CHSS is not defined by the study of past events; rather, it refers to the use of historical approaches to time and sequence to interpret and explain events in the world. 2) Theoretically-grounded analysis in which researchers formulate and assess concepts, hypotheses, and interpretations in light of fine-grained evidence from cases. In CHSS, theory development is typically carried out in close relation to particular empirical problems. 3) Comparative analysis in which researchers systematically juxtapose multiple features of cases to identify the key similarities and differences relevant to their research goals. Close comparison is essential to many of the specific methods of descriptive and causal analysis pursued in the field. 4) Case-oriented analysis in which researchers develop expertise in one or more countries, areas, or regions in order to solve particular theoretical or empirical problems. Such expertise may be achieved through archival research, in-depth historical reading, and/or field and ethnographic research.
Cultural Analysis
Cultural sociology is one of Northwestern’s areas of excellence, and the Sociology department is committed to training students in this area of research. It does so in two ways.
1) In addition to courses in field methods, quantitative analysis, and comparative methods—many of which are relevant to cultural research—the Sociology Department offers a specific course on Research Methods for the Sociology of Culture. This course, which is offered every two years, considers how one formulates a research question and puts evidence together in order to investigate specific instances of the culture-society interaction and, from doing so, to assess cultural theory. It is designed for students who already have some background in cultural sociology, and who have a research project underway or in the planning stages that involves cultural analysis. The course compares sociological methods with those from the humanities and cultural studies in terms of the relationship between evidence and argument. It looks at the steps of research from topic to question formation to hypotheses and data collection to analysis of findings to issues of reliability and validity. Topics include: defining cultural objects; appropriate comparisons; creators and the role of intention; reception aesthetics and audience studies. The course aims to create a productive interplay between research activities and methodological awareness.
2) For advanced graduate students (third-year and beyond), the Culture and Society Workshop offers an interdisciplinary, faculty/student intellectual home. The workshop meets for two hours every week, and its principle activity is reading and responding to participants’ work-in-progress. Students often affiliate with the Workshop for three or four years, with their presentations moving from early drafts of thesis proposals, through developing chapters, and finally to practice job talks. The Workshop facilitates making the transition from student to scholar.
Field Methods and Ethnography
Northwestern University is well-known nationally for its training in field methods and ethnographic research. Our sociology department, under the leadership of Howard S. Becker, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and their colleagues, was one of the first American sociological departments to make qualitative research an integral component of graduate sociological training. The current department has a large and active group of faculty and graduate students conducting field research, including Gary Alan Fine, Carol Heimer, Laura Beth Nielsen, and Mary Pattillo. The department annually offers a required graduate course in Methods of Field Research. In addition, the department sponsors a bi-weekly workshop on ethnographic methods, and an informal monthly ethnographic support group in which faculty and students discuss their ongoing field projects. The department currently offers a Sociological Research Fellowship that provides recipients the opportunity to spend a quarter conducting research outside of the Chicago area. In addition, the Department of Sociology founded and is an active participant in the annual Chicago Conference on Sociological Ethnography. We believe that no graduate program offers a greater depth and breadth of qualitative training than does Northwestern.
Quantitative Methods
Northwestern has recently emerged as one of the most exciting departments for training in quantitative social research. This training seeks to develop both the skill and insight needed to use quantitative data to articulate connections between sociological theory and issues of public and policy debate. Faculty central to quantitative training at Northwestern include Jean ClippertonRobert Nelson, Christine Percheski, Lincoln Quillian, Beth Redbird and Quincy Thomas Stewart. Many faculty have ongoing projects consonant with the department's core strength in social inequality, and the department's Inequality Workshop provides a lively forum for this work. The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and its weekly colloquium also provides a venue for fostering awareness of the latest policy-related research. IPR is also home to the Center for Improving Methods for Quantitative Policy Research, which features its own colloquium on new developments in quantitative methods. While sociology offers a three-quarter graduate sequence in statistics as well as advanced courses in event history analysis, quasi-experimental design and analysis, advanced demographic techniques, and the logic of causation, the department also has a flexible curriculum that allows students to take methods courses of their choosing in other schools and departments, with offerings in Human Development, Political Science, Economics, and Statistics. The Statistics department offers a program in which sociologists and graduate students from other department can obtain an MS in Statistics. Back to top