The first step in conducting original social research is to develop a research question. This question should aim to investigate an important social issue, test a hypothesis or theory, or fill a gap in existing research. It is important that the research question can be answered through a systematic study. Some best practices for developing a research question include researching what gaps exist in the current literature, thinking about practical as well as theoretical implications of potential questions, and ensuring the scope is feasible for an undergraduate capstone project.
After developing the research question, the next step is to complete a literature review. This involves thoroughly reviewing existing academic literature related to the research topic to identify what work has already been done. The literature review serves several critical purposes. It situates the proposed research within the context of the field, highlights gaps and limitations in prior work to demonstrate the need for additional research, and helps inform the methodology by indicating what approaches have and have not been successful. The literature review should synthesize decades of published work on the topic to capture the full historical and intellectual context.
With the research question and literature review completed, the next phase involves determining the research methodology. Various considerations go into selecting an appropriate approach. The researcher must choose between quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods. They should decide if the goal is explanation or understanding, and consider the resources available. Common social science methodologies for capstones include surveys, interviews, focus groups, documentary analysis, experiments, ethnography, case studies and more. The methodology section should provide a detailed rationale for the chosen approach and describe plans for sampling, recruitment, instrument design, data collection and analysis procedures.
The next step is developing tools to collect original data according to the approved methodology. For example, if conducting interviews, an interview guide must be created containing all questions and probes. If surveying, a questionnaire must be designed with properly constructed and sequenced items. Tools need to undergo rigorous development and pilot testing to ensure they will accurately and reliably collect meaningful data to address the research question. IRB approval is also typically required before beginning data collection when involving human subjects.
Once tools are finalized, the next major phase is data collection. Proper sampling techniques must be used to select participants that allow results to transfer to the target population. With qualitative research it is important to continue collecting data until reaching thematic saturation. For surveys careful attention must be paid to response rates and potential nonresponse bias. Throughout data collection, the researcher should keep detailed records of the process for transparency.
After data is collected, the analysis phase begins. This often requires learning new software for managing and coding qualitative data, or conducting statistical analysis. The analysis must directly link back to the original research question and literature review. For qualitative data, themes should be identified through an inductive process and supported by robust examples from the data. Quantitative analysis may involve descriptive statistics, statistical testing, or more advanced modeling depending on the methodology and sophistication of data.
The final stage is to interpret the results and draw well-supported conclusions. These should consider any limitations or alternative explanations and directly address how the study fills gaps or adds to knowledge identified in the literature review. The discussion should also contemplate practical implications and directions for future research. Dissemination of capstone research is generally through a lengthy written paper, but increasingly includes presentation at undergraduate research conferences as well. The finished product demonstrates independent original research skill development as the hallmark of undergraduate achievement.
Conducting rigorous original social research for an undergraduate capstone project necessitates carefully developing a research question, completing a literature review, choosing an appropriate methodology, obtaining IRB approval, designing valid data collection instruments, collecting a sample, analyzing results both qualitatively and/or quantitatively, and drawing conclusions. Each stage requires significant skill development and poses unique challenges. But by following best practices, students can generate meaningful new knowledge contributing to their disciplines through independent empirical investigation.