Using numbers in social research

Module code: SY2008
Module co-ordinator: Dr Patrick White

Understanding and using data are skills that are crucial to students in the social sciences, increasingly valued by employers and also extremely useful in everyday life. In this module we will look at how data are used and misused by researchers, politicians, and the media and how 'number sense' can help you separate fact from fiction.

The first part of the module will focus on 'consuming' reports of research reported in the media and in academic publications. We will examine how graphs and tables can be used to mislead an audience and how to display data clearly and effectively. You will also be asked to think about the nature of numbers themselves and how and why we use them in research and in our daily lives.

In the second part you will learn to analyse large data sets, such as the Crime Survey for England and Wales and the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, and to present your interpretations clearly. Video tutorials on YouTube, created by the module co-ordinator, are available to help you learn to use the SPSS software package that you will use to analyse these data sets. All the teaching focuses on conceptual understanding and, unlike many other data analysis modules, requires you to have  only very basic mathematical skills that you will be familiar with from secondary school.

This module will prepare you to analyse your data for the third-year research project and will provide you with skills and knowledge that are highly sought after by graduate employers. It will also increase both your ability and confidence to engage with numeric data effectively. 

Topics covered

  • Why we use numbers and what they are for
  • Common misunderstandings about numbers and how they should be interpreted
  • The difference between measuring and counting, and how this affects data analysis
  • How to look for relationships between variables
  • How to display data effectively using charts and graphs
  • The importance of sampling
  • Making judgments about research findings


  • 18 one-hour lectures
  • 8 one-hour seminars
  • 174 hours of guided independent study


  • Written report of statistical analysis, 1,500 words (70%)
  • Exam, 1 hour (30%)