New Ventures: Innovating Social Science Research

By Sarah Fister Gale

Social science research is constantly evolving. Current efforts to include more multi-method and team-based strategies, along with a growing interest in quantitative approaches across disciplines, requires nimble and forward-thinking approaches to funding, resources, and pedagogy.

For many faculty and graduate students, pursuing emerging questions through early stage projects that reflect these trends is made possible by several organizations on the UChicago campus.

These include the Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR) and the Social Science Research Center (SSRC), which provide seed funding and support for novel research projects; and the Committee on Quantitative Methods in Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences (QRM) which offers guidance on methodological research for social, behavioral, and health sciences.

All three organizations provide a place of community where faculty and grad students can bring their research ideas to life, identify partners from across disciplines, and learn new methods to shape their work.

“We are open to taking risk on projects that might not be safe bets, but interest us, and ask questions that we genuinely don't have answers to,” says Jenny Trinitapoli, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Director of CISSR. The Center annually provides funding for faculty and grad students to launch international research endeavors.  

“One of the great opportunities we have at CISSR is our ability to invest in projects at early stages,” Trinitapoli says.

These programs often focus on supporting early career faculty, with many grant recipients pursuing their first project post dissertation, notes Guanglei Hong, Professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development and Chair of the Committee on Quantitative Methods in Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences (QRM). Hong, who served as a founding member of the SSRC Faculty Advisory Committee, is a strong advocate for supporting the work of junior faculty members.

“They often don't have a track record to show their qualifications in grant applications at that point,” she says. “This is how seed funding can help them generate preliminary findings and eventually compete for external funding.”

But funding is only the beginning of the support Chicago researchers receive through such grants, says Kathleen Cagney, Professor of Sociology and the College, Deputy Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, and Director of the Population Research Center. Cagney chairs the advisory board that oversees grant funding for SSRC. 

“We are very interested in collaboration, particularly across disciplines, and in work that is clearly new,” she says. To support that mission, SSRC encourages researchers across the division to take advantage of its vast shared workspace, giving them a central place to work.

Creating spaces where faculty can secure grants, find mentors, and learn new methods reflects UChicago’s commitment to helping all of its faculty build successful academic careers, says Hong. “Junior faculty need mentoring, just like graduate students,” she says. “We have to work together to support them.”

Cagney, Hong, and Trinitapoli each benefitted from early support and mentoring on their first research projects, which provided a foundation for the rest of their research careers. It helped them build relationships, publish work, and chart a course for their future, and now they are making sure the next generation of researchers have the same advantages.

Center for International Social Science Research (CISSR)

CISSR was founded in 2017 as a successor to the Division’s Center for International Science. Trinitapoli has served as faculty director since 2018. CISSR's current programs provide competitive grants to faculty and graduate students who are exploring international and global topics through new data collection efforts. The faculty advisory committee of CISSR intentionally opens funding to a broad array of topics and locations.

“A decade-and-a-half of being an active field worker has armed me with experiences to make informed judgments about quality work, especially on projects that are high-risk,” says Trinitapoli.  “We support all disciplines in the social sciences, anywhere in the world – including Chicago.”

Applications for funding are assessed based on a few key qualities. Namely, the project should tackle an original problem through the collection of new data and materials, and ask questions that are highly relevant to the world we live in today and in the future.

“Having both a timely relevance and a timelessness is a characteristic of the work that we support. We want to be compelled by the question, and curious about the answer,” she says. “Those are the attributes that our projects share.”

As an example, Trinitapoli points to the research of Boaz Keysar, a professor in the Department of Psychology, which exploring the impact of using a second language in peace negotiations during conflict. CISSR funding has allowed him to field studies in Hong Kong, Israel, and several European countries.

“Few scholars are able to test questions in so many different countries and settings, and that's something that I'm extremely pleased CISSR has been able to invest in.”

Similarly, Monika Nalepa, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, is creating a year-by-year global data set documenting autocratic regime institutionalization, another project made possible with the support of a CISSR grant.

“The data set is going to have a life and impact well beyond the work that Professor Nalepa writes herself,” Trinitapoli says. “Other people can access it to conduct their own analyses on this topic, and significant capacity-building can come from that.”

In her own research, Trinitapoli studies the sociology of religion with an emphasis on the impact of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Her primary contribution to the field is a longitudinal study known as Tsogolo la Thanzi (TLTC), which asks how young people make decisions about relationships, sex, and childbearing in a context where HIV is so prevalent. “I began looking for secondary data to do analyses that would help answer those questions and understand the transition to adulthood better,” she says.

Working with Sara Yeatman, who is now a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, they developed a novel data collection strategy and created a collaboration with several Malawian colleagues to launch and maintain a cohort study of 1500 women. Funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, TLT interviewed the women every four months for the first three years, with follow-up survey rounds in 2015 and 2019.Trinitapoli, who joined UChicago in 2015, and her collaborators have now been studying this cohort of women for more than a decade. All of the data collection is conducted in Malawi, but the collaborative work of data analysis, writing, and publishing includes scholars on multiple continents.

Trinitapoli encourages her students to leverage the TLT data for their own theses and dissertations. She also shares it with the National Statistics Office in Malawi and regional population centers in sub-Saharan Africa. “These findings can be of value to the discipline and the entire field in any number of ways.” Her team of post-doctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduate students, and regular visitors are housed in space provided by SSRC.

In addition, she points to the relationship between her research, her work at CISSR, and her team’s location at SSRC. “Having generous funding from NICHD and space for my team at SSRC allows me to lead CISSR without having any major, personal conflict-of-interest,” she says.

Social Sciences Research Center (SSRC) 

Functioning as an incubator, the SSRC fosters team-based approaches to social science research with a focus on interdisciplinary investigation and an open physical space where social scientists can have the conversations that move their work forward.

Currently, the SSRC houses fourteen faculty members and their projects, which are supported by more than $12 million in active federal and private grants. In addition, the Center offers seed grants for faculty, and research stipends for outstanding graduate students through two sets of competitive fellowships. 

 “Research is enriched by being in the same physical location,” says Cagney. “That's one of the great qualities the SSRC offers Division faculty and graduate students.”

On any given day, you’ll find a variety of research teams in the SSRC space, including the GenForward Survey team, led by Cathy Cohen, a professor in Political Science. This nationally representative bi-monthly survey of 18-34-year-olds explores how race and ethnicity shape their experiences in the world.

The Trauma Responsive Educational Practices Project also regularly meets at SSRC. The project, led by Micere Keels, an associate professor in Comparative Human Development, studies how trauma affects children’s brain and behavioral development.

And Robert Vargas, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, is working with a group of art students in space at SSRC to transform digitized maps into hybrid art projects through paintings on canvas.

According to Cagney, and reiterated by Trinitapoli, the project teams who use the space often talk about the importance of having a dedicated location for their dispersed teams to work together and to build new connections. “It's interesting to see how much it matters, how a fortuitous exchange in a hallway can change the direction of science,” Cagney says. “People get more work done because they are around others who support and engage over the work.”

Further, the SSRC facilitates partnerships and programs with multiple social science centers on campus, giving scholars a multitude of resources to work with as their projects grow. Adjacent to the SSRC’s offices is the University of Chicago’s Secure Data Enclave, a centralized service for researchers who work with sensitive data. Campus partners like the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, the Knowledge Lab, and the Center for Spatial Data Science are co-locating near the SSRC in the 1155 E. 60th St building.

In her own research, Cagney examines social inequality and its relationship to health with a focus on neighborhood, race, and aging in the course of life.

Currently, Cagney is working on a NIH/NIA-funded project, Activity Space, Social Interaction and Health in Later Life, in which older adults in 10 Chicago neighborhoods, diverse by race and social class, are given smart phones. Her team couples GPS tracking data with real-time survey assessments that are administered randomly on the phone throughout the day.

Launched in 2016 and based in part on the psychological concept of flow devised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist who studied at UChicago, the surveys ask questions about who the person is with, what they are doing, and how they feel. “We hypothesize that locating people and getting information about their wellbeing in that moment will help us gain insights about long-term effects on health,” she says.

Cagney believes the research will help to answer fundamental questions about whether our lives constrict as we age, and whether the spaces we inhabit during the day are as segregated as our residential location. “We think that our circumference of turf gets smaller as we age, but we have no data to support it,” she says.

It will also test the viability of using smartphones and apps in studies of older people. “Because this population may have a harder time with dexterity, sight and other issues, it can make this kind of method more challenging,” she says. Though she has found that once the study app was adapted for their needs – larger font, louder alerts – participants quickly adapted and enjoyed using the app and being a part of the process.  “I think they are getting more from it than we might have imagined.”

She is currently writing grants to conduct a similar study in a rural community, and another in Hong Kong. “It's important to test these concepts in locations with different forms of population density to understand how and why these approaches might matter.”

Cagney’s research informs her work with SSRC and her appreciation of the opportunities she and her colleagues have to test their research models in a global context. “Comparative research is critical, and that's something to which SSRC is attentive.”

Committee for Quantitative Methods in the Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences (QRM)

Formed in 2018, the faculty-led committee features a University-wide interdisciplinary group of scholars committed to improving methodological research and education in the study of populations and societies. The Committee brings together scholars from across the Division of Social Sciences, Biological Sciences Division, and Harris School, with Hong as it inaugural chair. The Committee runs a biweekly workshop that has facilitated exchanges of innovative methodological ideas among the faculty from these different units.

Its academic offerings began with a concentration – Quantitative Methods and Social Analysis in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS) – for students with a strong desire to gain quantitative knowledge and skills that are broadly applicable, Hong explains. “With it, they can move on into PhD programs in any field and mostly in the social sciences.”

The Committee then added a certificate in Advanced Quantitative Methods for doctoral students interested. The certificate is more than just a credential, Hong says. . “With strong training in statistical theory, they will be qualified to teach methods courses as well as substantive courses. And it will help to advance their dissertation project and future research.”

QRM plans to launch a minor program in quantitative social analysis for undergraduates next fall, ensuring every group of students have access to rigorous quantitative methods training.

Hong has spent most of her academic career using and promoting quantitative methods in social science research. While pursuing her PhD at the University of Michigan, her focal interest was on how education can improve people's lives and society. Early in the process, she realized she needed deeper methodology training to prove her theories.

She notes that in many social sciences disciplines, researchers will state a theory with a causal component, but the evidence generated often doesn’t provide strong support for the causal claim. “They will just say at the end of the article that the evidence is correlational, rather than causal, so readers should take it with caution,” she says. “It is very unsatisfactory.”

That led her to quantitative methods as a field, and in particular how to use these methods to answer causal questions having to do with educational policy, practice, and programs. Causal inference is a subfield in statistics, but Hong adapted it for her research to understand the impact of educational policy on children.

 In one early study she used this method to examine the impact of grouping young students in kindergarten based on their reading ability – a much debated teaching strategy in primary education. Some experts believe that grouping negatively impacts children with lower reading skills because they aren’t exposed to the same rigorous material and they may feel unfairly stigmatized.

Her research however found that grouping had no negative educational or social impact on low-achieving kindergartners. “They didn’t seem to suffer except when teachers failed to allocate enough instructional time on literacy instruction,” she says. She also found that grouping didn’t benefit high-achieving kids who performed the same regardless. The benefit of grouping was clear, however, for medium-achieving kids so far as enough time was allocated by the teacher to teach literacy.

Hong joined the Chicago faculty in 2009, where she has expanded her use of causal inference methods to include causal mediation analysis, which strives to answer why certain outcomes occur. “Social scientists always have a theory about the why, but the question is, how do you explicitly test that theory?”

She’s currently conducting a secondary data analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, examining the impact of the Great Recession on youth transition into adulthood. “I think a lot of the social phenomena we're seeing nowadays in urban and rural areas likely originated from those major perturbations in the political-economic system.”

She sees herself as holding a dual identity at Chicago, as both an education policy researcher and as a methodologist and chair of QRM, where she shares causal inference methods through conferences, workshops, training and her own research. “The nice thing about publishing application studies is that people are first drawn to them because they answer substantive questions, then they are exposed to these new strategies,” she says. “It is a way to disseminate and teach the methods to other researchers.”

She teaches a series of quantitative methods courses, including one called Introduction to Causal Inference, which has become increasingly popular. At the beginning, only a dozen students enrolled in the class, now she has to cap it at 40, with students coming from all over campus. “I  enjoy talking to students across these disciplinary lines, and helping them realize that there are common frameworks they can use to advance scientific research in multiple fields.”


Trinitapoli, Cagney, and Hong agree that supporting early career faculty with funding and mentoring, and introducing them to new methods that can expand their research is key to creating a research culture where important questions get answered. “I think it is in keeping with UChicago’s vision to always support research that rests at the boundaries of a discipline and to think about how new and important work emerges,” Cagney says.

Hong adds that one of the unique aspects of UChicago’s research community is how often faculty from across disciplinary lines work together on research collaborations, workshops, and through casual interactions that advance scientific research. “When we come together as a community, we can learn from each other,” she says.

Trinitapoli also appreciates the agile nature of the research being conducted by her peers. “No one will tell you which model you should follow,” she says. “The only expectation is to do excellent research on topics that are timely and timeless.”