Explorations in Social Data Analysis

Peter David Brandon
Carleton College


This course will provide sociology/anthropology majors with basic data management skills and statistical techniques for exploring and analyzing social data. Central topics covered include: defining social data; the relevance of social data for understanding social forces, structures and phenomena; graphical techniques for visualizing social data; and statistical tools for describing and summarizing social data and for making inferences about the social world.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution

Course Context:

Sociology/anthropology students need a course that complements (or substitutes for) Math 115 or Math 215. Sociology/anthropology majors need an applied, introductory course in social statistics and exploratory data analysis. This course is an integral new course complementing the Sociology/Anthropology Department's research methods courses and the other quantitatively-rich courses now offered within the Department. Many sociology/anthropology students want to have quantitative encounters or take some more data-oriented courses offered within the Department, but oftentimes feel they don't have the right social science training or the appreciation for social data that is necessary. This course provides new alternatives for students and helps remedy the reticence students feel about quantitative encounters.

Course Content:

A hallmark of the proposed course is the intensive, repeated use of sources of scientific survey data that can ignite student inquiry. Students will learn to visualize data, represent patterns in those data, and pursue elementary statistical analyses based upon their graphical explorations. Thus, the course will use social data to introduce topics, such as, sampling and measurement, descriptive statistics and graphing, probability distributions, statistical inference (estimation and significance tests), comparisons between groups, and analysis of variance. Overall, the course is designed to give sociology/anthropology majors a foundation in statistics that they can use to analyze social data or they can build upon if they choose to take more advanced courses. The simultaneous exposure of students to social data and basic statistical methods are key features of the proposed course. STATA is the preferred statistical software package.

Course Goals:

The course aims to equip students with basic statistical tools for exploring social data and to provide them with opportunities to apply those tools to social issues and problems. The course seeks to promote students creative explorations of social data, enhance their understanding of how and when to use statistical tools, and offer them a quantitative reasoning learning experience. These goals combined with an aim to help students visualize social data will deepen students' appreciation of the usefulness of statistics for investigating the social world.
Specifically, the course aims to build students' knowledge and skills in the following areas:
  • assessing survey data for the study of the social world;
  • choosing, applying, and interpreting basic statistical methods for analyzing survey data;
  • using statistical software to generate findings about the social world;
  • constructing compelling arguments based upon quantitative analyzes;
  • reading social science studies with a better appreciation of the basic statistical methods used;
  • writing clearly about the inferences drawn from their analyzes.

Course Features:

The course provides many avenues for analyzing and exploring social data and writing about the findings from those exercises. Ten intensive assignments, weekly review examinations, a final paper, and working in teams create an environment in which the students use data, explore and mold that data, and interpret that data to reach substantive, defensible inferences about the social world. The team learning approached mixed with the individual examinations and assignments should enhance the learning experience. The ten sources of household survey data also provide students will good examples of the power of well designed social surveys for making valid and reliable inferences.

Course Philosophy:

I chose this design to permit students to have "hands-on" learning experiences with social data that reflects real social issues and problems. My teaching style involves challenging the students to work both cooperatively and independently. The course design promotes cooperative learning and problem solving as well as individual success, which the students can measure week by week. The design also creates a safe environment for students to practice communicating their findings to peers and the instructor. I think that sociology/anthropology students, who are often fearful of statistics, can gain confidence quantifying their social world and learn to see the relevance of social data for redressing social problems.


Cumulative knowledge of statistical skills.
Growing dexterity at using statistical software for data management and data analysis.
Improvement and confidence in using the appropriate vocabulary of a quantitative social science research and quantitative reasoning.
Improvement in presenting basis social statistics, including bivariate tables and informative graphs.


Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 35kB Jun23 10)

Teaching Materials:

Draft of all assignments (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Jun23 10)
Description of all social data sets for course (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 37kB Jun23 10)
All class surveys (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Jun29 10)

References and Notes:

"Statistical Methods for the Social Sciences" Alan Agresti and Barbara Finlay, 2009, 4th Ed., Prentice Hall, NJ.
"A Gentle Introduction to Stata" Alan C. Acock, 2006. Stata Press.
"A Data-Based Approach to Statistics" Iman; 1994; Wadsworth Publishing
"Introduction to the Practice of Statistics" Moore and McCabe; 1993; New York: W.H. Freeman and Company; 2nd Edition
"The Basic Practice of Statistics Moore" 1995; New York: W.H. Freeman and Company
"Statistics" Freedman, Pisani, Purves and Adhikari; 1991; New York: W.W Norton and Company; 2nd Edition
"Applied Statistics: A First Course in Inference" Graybill, Iyer, and Burdick; 1998; Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers" Jane E. Miller
"An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Data Analysis" Ott; 1993; Belmont, CA: Duxbury Press; 4th Edition
ASA guidelines for statistical education, See ASA website.