AESR: Introduction

Applied Empirical Social Research introduces how to perform research. From towel (re)use in hotels (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008) to late pick-up fees for childcare (Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000) Empirical Social Research provides answers to how to structure incentives.

The course focuses on how researchers should observe, rather than why or what should be observed. A study is usually composed of two parts, one descriptive and one explanatory. To that end, a hypothesis is formulated and then tested on the empirical information. It also includes policy research and methodology research.

Introduction reading will be either chapter 1,2 and 5 from (Diekmann, 2007) or 1,3 and 4 from (Bryman, 2015) .

Data Collection

To observe describe and explain facts, we have to collect, analyse and interpret data. Observing reality is a non-trivial process and often biased by selective perception, context dependent perception, selective memory, prejudice and expectations, and plausibility. Methodology should guide research to prevent or at least reduce bias.

In the Solomon Asch Experiment (Asch, 1958) showed that most people will sway from an obvious truth, if a majority around them declares it false. Another example is the uptake/use of free bed nets versus cost-sharing (Cohen & Dupas, 2010). A research design helped to evaluate the different options.

Data analysis

Analysis of data is non-trivial and prone to error. Statistical fallacies (due to wrong sampling or analysis) and causal fallacies (due to spurious correlations).


Empirical social research provides techniques and methods to measure and interpret social reality in a scientific fashion. Social research methods help to explore, describe, and test statements on social facts, and guide the evaluation of social interventions, policies, and laws. Like any other technique, empirical social research needs training.

Course Overview

The basic principles behind different empirical research methods and the conditions under which their use is appropriate will be explored.

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

first, by reflection which is noblest,

second by imitation, which is easiest,

and third by experience, which is the bitterest.


Throughout the course a research question and hypothesis will be defined and the relevant literature found.

  1. Identify a research design, a sample size, and measurement method
  2. Collect data
  3. Analyse and interpret the collected data (precondition for this course)
  4. Write a short research report

The Research Process

Literature for research is listed in the references (Bryman, 2015; Diekmann, 2007). To tackle the research process a eight step approach is presented:

  1. Formulate a research question and hypotheses
  2. Define research design
  3. Define sampling
  4. Define data collection: methods, instruments, measures
  5. Pilot/pretest
  6. Data collection
  7. Data processing and analysis
  8. Reporting and presentation

The course will focus on 2./3./4., which are done in parallel.

Formulate a Research Question

Research topics arise from scientific literature, new ideas, practical problems, sponsors and clients, or an exploratory study/single observation.

A first step is usually to do a literature review to understand what has been done and where are the research gaps. In a next step, a research question should be formulated including “Why … ?”, “How much … ?”, “How … ?” and “What is the impact of … ?”. As a last step existing theories and existing empirical evidence is used to formulate hypotheses.

Research Design and Sampling

Usual approaches include cross-sectional, trend, panel and cohort designs that are either non-experimental, quasi-experimental or experimental. A unit of observation as well as a sampling frame , sampling procedure and sampling size needs to be chosen. For this course a cross-sectional experiment is recommended.


Asch, S. E. (1958). Cacophonophobia. Psyccritiques , 3(7), 194–195.
Bryman, A. (2015). Social research methods (3rd ed.). Oxford university press.
Cohen, J., & Dupas, P. (2010). Free distribution or cost-sharing? Evidence from a randomized malaria prevention experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1, 1–45.
Diekmann, A. (2007). “Empirische sozialforschung.” Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendungen (18th ed.). Rowohlt.
Gneezy, U., & Rustichini, A. (2000). A fine is a price. The Journal of Legal Studies, 29(1), 1–17.
Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472–482.