1.3 Research design

Research design is about connecting questions and answers.

This book is written for two audiences that have a lot to learn from each other. On the one hand, this book is for social scientists who have training and experience studying social behavior, but who are less familiar with the opportunities created by the digital age. On the other hand, this book is for another group of researchers who are very comfortable using the tools of the digital age, but who are new to studying social behavior. This second group resists an easy name, but I will call them data scientists. These data scientists—who often have training in fields such as computer science, information science, engineering, and physics—have been some of the earliest adopters of digital age social research, in part because they had the necessary data access and computational skills. Data scientists, however, have less training and experience studying social behavior. This book brings these two communities together to produce something richer and more interesting than either community could produce individually.

The best way to create this powerful hybrid is not to focus on abstract social theory or fancy machine learning. The best place to start is research design. If you think of social research as the process of asking and answering questions about human behavior, then research design is the connective tissue; research design links questions and answers. Getting this connection right is the key to producing convincing research. This book will focus on four approaches that you have seen—and maybe used—in the past: observing behavior, asking questions, running experiments, and collaborating with others. What is new, however, is that the digital age provides us radically different opportunities for collecting and analyzing data. These new opportunities require us to modernize—but not replace—these classic approaches.