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Mellon Mays Guide to Research

Some research basics to help you get started.

Need help researching in the Social Sciences?

Ask the Social Sciences Teaching and Research Team-- SSTART!

Introduction to research in the social sciences

Social scientists seek to analyze human interactions in social contexts. A tall order, indeed-- people and their social systems are infinitely complex. And so, while various disciplines like Anthropology, Political Science, Economics and Sociology all have their own theoretical traditions and methodology to help frame their work, deep research in the social sciences is multi-disciplinary.

All of this makes library research in the social sciences uniquely challenging... and particularly satisfying! This guide offers a general overview of social sciences library research, including how and where to start, finding relevant sources, and responsibly using the information you find. All electronic resources are available to you online when you're signed in to Brown's network.

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 indices. 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.

Getting Started

Choosing a topic

The first thing you will need to do, of course, is come up with a research topic. You may already have a very specific topic in mind, or you may have a general idea of what interests you. In either case, it can be enough to begin your research. Very often you will find that your research will mold your topic and you may end up writing about something you had never even considered in the beginning!

If you’re having trouble coming up with a topic, think about what has interested you most in your class so far. What would you like to know more about? Maybe you have a few ideas and can’t narrow it down. That’s ok. You’ll be guided by your research: while you scan, browse, and read, you'll gain a better sense of the important issues surrounding your topic-- and you'll watch your research question come into focus.

Often, the best way to start searching is to use keywords, those words that describe the topic in your mind. You can start off in the main library search box, or Discovery Tool, with a Google-like search of words that seem to fit. It’s usually best to start off with a general search – don’t use too many words that will limit your options. You can narrow down your focus as you go along.

Beginning your search

Where to start? If you don't know much about your research topic, do a bit of background reading. A quick Google search may land you on Wikipedia, one of the places you might go to get a sense of the important ideas, people, organizations, places or events surrounding your topic. You might also consider Credo Reference, a collection of online reference sources, as well as subject-specific encyclopedias that can be found in the search box on the library's home page. Take note of the concepts and keywords you discover as you do your background reading, as they give focus to your research question. Consider keeping research notes or a journal; even a simple list of keywords and helpful resources will offer a springboard for your ideas and save you time.

Using the Library Search Box

Books (in paper and electronic format) and articles are core resources in Social Sciences research. You'll find access to these as well as CDs and DVDs, primary source archival material, subscription information to journals, and access to much of our online journal content. Using the discovery tool to do in-depth and extensive research in our periodical literature is not recommended; for more efficient searching, consider choosing specific databases that index information on your topic.

For more information about using the search box, including tips on how to narrow your search results and find specific kinds of sources, please see Using the Catalog in this LibGuide.

Doing a 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. There is an art to the sometimes messy, thrilling, and frustrating process of conducting a lit review.
Where do I start? The Research Question
Begin with what you know: what are the parameters of your assignment? Do you have any particular interests in a relevant topic? Has something you're read or talked about in class caught your attention, and you'd like to learn more?
Brainstorm some keywords you know are related to your topic, and start searching. Do a search in the library search box and see what comes up. Scan titles. Do a Google 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 professor.

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

More information on Writing a Literature Review (UNC)

Subject Databases

We have hundreds of databases containing journal literature, newspaper articles, images, and much more. How do you know which databases to search?

On the main library page, under Get Help, you’ll see a pop-up list called Pick a Guide. There’s a guide for every subject area. And because the social sciences are by nature interdisciplinary, if you're researching water resources in Africa, consider databases that cover this complex topic-- perhaps resources in Economics, Political Science, Anthropology, and Sociology, but also Environmental Sciences.

Each guide will list the most useful databases for that particular subject area and you will also find a link to your Subject Librarian, whom you can contact for research help, whether it’s a simple question or an in-depth research consultation. Subject librarians love working with students, so don't be afraid to contact them.

Some social science research guides include:

Search tips

Even with the various limiters available in the results list, it can still be difficult to figure out which sources are truly helpful. Some things to keep in mind: annotated bibliographies can help you figure out who the important scholars are in any field. You will also find that, as you start reading the books and articles, certain scholars’ names will come up again and again, both in the text and in the footnotes and bibliographies. These will almost certainly be the important authorities on their subjects. Bibliographies in books are a great resource that is often overlooked. An earlier scholar has already done a lot of research on this topic and is offering it to you for free! Be sure to make use of it. If you’re researching a particular person, it’s always good to read anything that he or she has written or look at any works that he or she has created.

Usually, a social sciences research paper will require you to use scholarly resources. Often these resources are peer reviewed: a scholar will have submitted his or her paper to the journal where it was read by peers, suggestions were made, the paper was revised, and finally accepted as a work that lives up to the scholarly standards of that discipline. The library search results list for Articles & More will have a limiter you can use to restrict your results to only scholarly works. You will also find scholarly works in the various subject databases.

You may find that it’s also useful to use newspapers for primary source coverage of current events. As with any source, remember that there is sometimes bias in news reporting. Read every source with a critical eye.

Is Google OK to use? This really depends on your topic. Sometimes, especially for contemporary events, Google can be a great, if overwhelming, source of information. But you really have to be careful. Note who is responsible for the information on the website. Do they cite where their facts came from? If they do give citations, you should consider following up on these and reading the original articles yourself. A website can look scholarly and yet really not be what it seems at all. When you use library databases, you are using resources that have already been vetted. You don't have to worry over whether an article is considered scholarly or not - it's already been done for you by experts. When in doubt, feel free to ask a librarian what he or she think of the online source you've found.

If you do use Google, it's probably best to start with Google Scholar, and use the advanced search page so that you can limit as much as possible (for instance, you may want to limit your search to sites with the domain .edu or .gov - although these are certainly not guarantees that the sites will be reliable). Click on the arrow to the right of the search box to get to the advanced search page.

For a more detailed discussion about Google and other search engines, please see the Search Engines section of this research guide's home page.