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Social science research can be used at various times during the course of innovation, from researching the nature of the problem to considering prototypes that have been implemented in other places. One might consult the literature to find out: 

  • Has anyone studied this exact question? What did they find? 
  • Is there a debate in the social science research about this topic? 
  • What might inform my design? 
  • I think I’m seeing pattern in my data – has anyone else seen this pattern? 

In general, peer-reviewed research is seen as the highest quality, followed by government reports, reports form non-partisan independent organizations, news articles, and finally reports from advocacy/partisan organizations.  

A critical eye must be given to the findings of social science, as relationships between factors can be difficult to distinguish, differences in context or implementation can produce different findings, and errors and bias can be found in results. 


  1. Formulate several research questions related to your topic. 
  2. Pare down the questions into succinct, searchable key terms and phrases. 
  3. Use a search engine like Google Scholar or a library’s database for key terms. 
    • Note that using “quotes” or advance search features can produce specific results. The ordering of the words matters.  
  4. Review key descriptive information about the selected resource to determine if it is relevant, including the abstract, published date, and source.
  5. Once you find relevant resources, consider backward and forward looks:
    • Backward look: Use the source’s reference list to identify other related sources.
    • Forward look: Use the “cited by” link to identify other sources that have cited this one.
  6. To assess the source consider:
    • Research Question and Hypothesis: The source should be exploring a specific topic and the suspected causal relationship should be named. Ensure that the hypothesis given capable of being proved false.
    • Sample size – Smaller samples can be highly influenced by context and difficult to replicate or scale.
    • Measurement validity – Were the researchers successful in measuring what they wanted to measure? Look for the use of multiple, validated measures.
    • External validity – How unique were the factors of the sample, context, and implementation? Is it reasonable that the findings could be generalized to a different or broader context?
    • Practical significance – Just because a study has statistically significant findings does not mean that the effect size is in fact substantive.
  7. Create a literature review document that summarizes, organizes, compares, and contrasts the literature found.
  8. Be sure to document your search process, including key terms used and frequently returned searches.


  • When possible, look for meta-analyses or systematic reviews that synthesize the results of numerous studies and can suggest reasons for similarities and differences. 
  • Be cautious of causal claims as there could be additional factors at play or questions of directionality. Randomized control experiments or quasi-experimental designs can often draw stronger conclusions as they allow for additional hypotheses to be ruled out.

Downloads & Links

Social Science Foundation of the Pathways to Prosperity & Wellbeing Pilot Program
Assessing the Research Underpinning Whole Families Program Models