Social Science Research Methods

Civic honesty is about human’s compliance with norms of good conduct. It is a human behaviour that one would encounter in daily life when interacting with others, or when observing others interact. To understand such human behaviour, in this case, civic honesty, easy way is to rely on personal experience and beliefs. However, this method is subjective as it is only based on one’s experience/encounter. Other methods such as knowledge from experts could be overestimated, and knowledge from popular media messages may not have a concrete base of reliability, especially with the growth of “fake news” on social media.

A more accurate and reliable method to understand civic honesty is through scientific research. Scientific research is based on theories that are formulated to explain, predict, and understand social phenomena. Theories can be used to challenge and extend existing knowledge within the limits of critical bounding assumptions. Scientific research is an empirical method of acquiring knowledge of human social behaviour.

It relies on careful observations and verifiable data to conclude its findings.

It could be of a deductive approach by testing on existing theories, or an inductive approach by providing evidence for building new theories. Scientific research is also sceptical. As cognitive assumptions can distort how a person interprets certain observations, scientific research is not easily accepted/convinced without any critical examination. It is systematic, perform according to a defined and structured methodology so that other researchers may easily replicate it. This provides greater assurance in terms of the reliability of the method and accuracy of the findings for the readers of the report.

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Another characteristic of scientific research is parsimonious, which use a simple yet elegant measurement model, minimizing the number of parameters to explain a given phenomenon. Evaluation of this study; it pursued the positivist social science approach.

Positivist social science

Positivist social science is an approach that determines the validity of knowledge by combining deductive logic with precise empirical evidence/observations of human behaviour. The reason for such research is that it can be used to understand how society works by predicting general patterns of human activity and documented as universal causal laws of human behaviour. In this study, it highlighted the essence of civic honesty and the impact if society is without it. PSS adopts realist ontology and believes that social reality is pre-existing. Social life is ‘out there, waiting to be discovered. It assumes that humans are rational thinkers and self-interested. This can be related back to the study; how civic honesty could be in conflict with material self-interest.

PSS researchers learn about reality by observing human behaviour. They emphasize the role of determinism in human behaviour and effect of external factors over human actions while downplaying an individual’s subjective or internal reasons. In this study, it created an external factor for the recipients, the sight of a lost wallet. Then observed their actions, whether the recipients would return the lost wallet. PSS researchers also prefer quantitative data, and mainly use surveys, experiments, and statistics, which is adopted in this study. PSS logically deduces from theory, collects data, and analyses facts in ways that allows replication (Neuman, 2014). In this study, the experiment and the survey can be replicated by interested researchers.

Interpretative social science (ISS)

Interpretative social science focus on understanding subjective experience through a qualitative methodology. The goal of ISS is to understand the meaning behind actions in a social context, not just external human behaviour. In this study, civic honesty is determined by recipients’ action of whether he/they returned the lost wallet, rather than an in-depth understanding of why he/she chose to return/not return the lost wallet. ISS emphasizes conducting a very close, detailed reading of the text to acquire a profound, deep understanding. It also goes deeper into how people interact with each other. In this study, no interaction is observed on the recipients. While PSS believes that social reality is pre-existing, ISS adopts nominalist ontology that humans never directly experience a social reality.

In view of ISS, social reality exists as people experience it and assign to it. Explanations for ISS are idiographic and inductive, in-depth with specific details.  This study neither commerce on any form of interactions for the recipients of the wallet, nor conduct an in-depth observation on each individual to derive civic honesty. Unlike PSS, ISS researchers rarely ask survey questions or claim to obtain something meaningful to the question. ISS researchers learn how the world works so they can acquire an in-depth understanding of humans.

Critical social science (CSS)

Critical social science aims to reveal the underlying sources of inequality, power relations, and social control in society, and empower individuals to change and build a better society. On the basis of critical realist ontology, social reality encompasses multiple layers and is governed by hidden, underlying structures. Through knowledge, individuals can see and alter these deeper structures. CSS takes on a more neutral approach to social study in an effort to uncover truths that may have been overlooked or left undone. The approach is taken in this study on civic honesty neither reveal any sources of inequality nor aim to empower any individuals. This ruled out the possibility of the study pursuing CSS approach. Ethics plays an important part in social science research because they are dealing with human participants. It could impact their life if the research is not being carried out or managed properly. Two research practices adopted in this study are field experiments and online surveys.

Field experiment

In the field experiment, it is observed that it has complied to the Privacy and Confidentiality ethics. Researchers respect and safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of participants by using information given and received responsibly. Information of the recipients such as age, gender, local/foreigner, was collected based on the research assistant’s observations. No particulars, i.e. names, contact details, was taken. This is important because in many countries, i.e. Singapore, it is considered committing theft if money or property is not returned if it is possible to identify the owner.

Respect for Persons (autonomy) refers to that participants are treated as autonomous, i.e., capable of making deliberate decisions about whether or not to participate in the research. The study may risk compromising this. Throughout the field experiment, none of the recipients is aware or being informed that they are part of the experiment. This could be better managed, especially for those recipients who had responded (contacted the owner to return the wallet). Instead of sending an auto-reply message of saying the “owner of the wallet” has left town, the message could state and inform that they have been part of the experiment. They should also be given the choice of whether or not to be part of it.

Online survey

In the prediction study survey, basic demographic information was collected from the respondents. This has promoted compliance to the Privacy and Confidentiality ethics. All participants have been treated as anonymous. Similar to the field experiment, it is considered as committing theft if money or property is not returned if it is possible to identify the owner in many countries. Justice refers to fairness in receiving the benefits of study by the participants – This may risk compromising research ethics. All participants should be treated equally. However, in the prediction study of this research, the “Non-expert” group of participants received a flat payment of US $0.50 for their participation, and the opportunity to win a $5.00 bonus if they are the most accurate 5% of participants. Whereas for the “Expert” group, participants would receive a US $100 bonus if they are the three most accurate respondents. Furthermore, the “Non-expert” group were probed about their beliefs on about the relevant motivations, i.e. the temptation to keep the money in the wallet. These questions were not asked for the “Expert” group.

Beneficence refers to the need for research to maximise benefits and minimise any possible harmful effects of participation in research – This may risk compromising research ethics. In the prediction study, researchers conducted an online survey to investigate lay beliefs about the relationship between civic honesty and monetary incentives, and this is conducted only for the United States. Participants were told that the study was conducted in 25 US cities, instead of stating that it was a global study. It is unclear for the deception of participants. Furthermore, there should be at least some form of online debrief page explaining why the deception was necessary after the end of the survey.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from
  2. Cohn, A., Maréchal, M. A., Tannenbaum, D., Zünd, C. L. (2019). Civic honesty around the globe. Science, 365(6448), 70-73
  3. Cohn, A., Maréchal, M. A., Tannenbaum, D., Zünd, C. L. (2019). Supplementary Materials for Civic honesty around the globe. Retrieved from
  4. Kara, S. (2018). Difference Between Positivist, Interpretive and Critical Social Science. Retrieved from
  5. Lim, A., & Faizal, S. S. B. (2019). SCC211 Social Science Research Methods (Study Guide). Singapore: Singapore University of Social Sciences
  6. Neuman, L. W. (2014). Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (7th ed.). Essex, UK: Pearson Education Limited
  7. Singapore Legal Advice. (2020). Penalties for Committing Theft in Singapore. Retrieved from

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Social Science Research Methods. (2021, Dec 13). Retrieved from

Social Science Research Methods
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