September-October 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 7

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Successful Research in
Small Departments

by Vince Bolduc, Saint Michael’s College

Centers for survey research are usually associated with large universities such as NORC at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, or the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. There are also a few well-established research centers at mid-sized institutions such as Marist College and Quinnipiac University. Given the comparative advantages of these institutions’ established infrastructures, the challenges of doing significant survey research at smaller colleges may seem insurmountable.

Yet, a large fraction of departments of sociology make their home in much smaller institutions, many of them joint departments, where it would appear that significant survey research projects are impossible. Below, I suggest ways that even small departments can avail themselves of large survey research possibilities, and, in so doing, provide valuable lessons for our students as well as make significant contributions to our wider communities.

As the only quantitative empiricist in a four-person joint department, I have been able to direct (or co-direct) more than 50 research projects in the past three decades. Most of these have been course-based projects, some of which have resulted in significant local and statewide publicity, some national references, and even a few peer-reviewed products that would "count" towards tenure and promotion considerations on most campuses in America. Had I the time and inclination, many of the research efforts could have been taken to the "next step" to more prestigious publications, but the demands on faculty in small institutions are more holistic and have somewhat different reward structures than are found at large universities.

The College as a Client

This research undertaken by the department is a form of public sociology that can be useful not only to our own campus communities, but also to non-profit organizations, government agencies, businesses, and state legislatures. Besides the obvious career benefits, it has been good for the reputation of the college and a modest source of supplemental income for both myself and my host institution.

The most obvious client that is ready and able to support survey research is the college itself. Carla Howery, former ASA Deputy Executive Officer, once suggested that sociologists too often play the role of institutional critic and gadfly rather than that of constructive supporter to the broad mission of the institution. With a relatively lean administrative infrastructure typical on small campuses, the latent need for applied research may be considerable. For example, quantifying and assessing alumni achievements, student culture, parental satisfaction, gender equity, employee morale, mission successes, and re-accreditation measures all offer easy research projects that students may find engaging and can be fully supported by the institution.

There are also the advantages that come from working in a small (2,000 student) gemeinschaft type of college. The social capital of close interpersonal relationships allows for efficiencies that would make the large research universities envious. Virtually every administrator—from the President, Provost and Registrar, to the offices of Student Life, Campus Ministry, Alumni Affairs, Library, and Institutional Research, to the clerical staff and the Institutional Review Board—have supported my research efforts without the red tape and bureaucratic inefficiencies that might be expected on larger campuses. In fact, each of these college offices has helped facilitate my research projects by providing such necessities as background data, sample frames, and contextual literature. Students work on virtually every research project, and there too, primary relationships allow for work to proceed with great fluidity.

One such on-campus survey on how our college animates its mission grew unexpectedly into a comparative study of five colleges with a sample size of 1,600 respondents and a response rate of 66%. This project captured some national attention, with presentations to three Boards of Trustees, a paper delivered to a professional association, two national publications, and a reference in the New York Times. Many of these on-campus surveys developed by my classes have been adopted by various campus offices and are now institutionally administered on a yearly basis. Many of the earlier surveys now provide the only historical documentation for the behaviors and values of faculty, staff, and students in prior decades.

Off-Campus Projects

The second type of research sponsors are off-campus non-profits, which have supported projects ranging from statewide surveys for an environmental group to an analysis of the contributor base of the Visiting Nurse Association or the clientele of a homeless shelter. Obviously, these are more complex than on-campus projects and benefit from collaborating with a colleague on coordinating data collection, analysis, and writing. While there would be clear benefits to working with another sociologist, researchers in small departments often need to turn to colleagues in related departments such as political science, psychology, or even computing or marketing.

I am often joined in my work by an economist. Over the years, we have built a harmonious division of labor that greatly facilitates our research and writing. We have both benefited from interdisciplinary sharing (as have our students), and the presence of an economist as co-director greatly expands the appeal of our research to a wider range of sponsors and users. For obvious reasons, the business community is especially interested in the economic dimension of social life, whereas civic and political organizations, as well as human service agencies, are more interested in the sociological dimensions.

Our latest research publication has been referenced hundreds of times in public discourse, and we made some 15 public presentations of the findings in the past six months. This sponsored project resulted in a jointly authored 156-page statistical portrait of 160 trends in Vermont, titled Vermont in Transition: A Summary of Social, Economic, and Environmental Trends (the publication is available online). It has also been the subject of a week-long series on the state’s public radio station, as well as the focus of a half-hour television program on the largest television station in Vermont.

Another widely cited and useful research project that we have undertaken is a longitudinal series of telephone interviews on how Vermonters feel about their quality of life. Dating back to 1990, our Pulse of Vermont survey, sponsored by the Vermont Business Roundtable, is now in its fifth phase The findings became a point of focus at the annual meeting of the Roundtable, consisting of the CEOs of 100 of the state’s largest employers. At least as important, we have also been invited to share the trends before the state’s various legislative bodies.

We have found that prospective clients come to us for four reasons: 1) our professional competence; 2) our painstakingly cultivated ability to write for the lay reader; 3) our low cost (our stipends are minimal or non-existent, as we assume we are "compensated" with the usual academic rewards, and student workers are economically efficient); and 4) our reputation for ideological and political neutrality.

These are good standards for any research. When well executed and presented, these studies in public sociology enhance the reputation of the college as well as the stature of the discipline. logo


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