By Luke Field
This year, for the first time, I attended the Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis. The School runs for six weeks, broken up into three two-week sessions, based in the Colchester campus of the University of Essex. Across the three sessions, the School offers a suite of courses in a variety of social science methodologies. The majority of these methodologies are centred around quantitative data analysis, but the School also offers courses in qualtitative data analysis, discourse analysis, and mixed-methods approaches; additionally, a more design-oriented course in process tracing is also available.
The courses on offer can be broadly categorised into three levels: introductory courses, giving participants a foundation in methods such as regression, policy analysis, and game theory; intermediate courses in more specialised areas, such as social network analysis, quantitative text analysis, and longitudinal data analysis; and advanced courses, for those seeking an in-depth knowledge of methods such as spatial econometrics and Bayesian analysis.
I attended the first of the 2016 sessions in order to undertake a fascinating new course in Machine Learning, delivered by Dr Lucas Leemann. Emerging partly from disciplines such as artificial intelligence and statistics, this area of research relies on the use of statistical models to deepen our understanding of data––typically through the use of optimal prediction or classification methods––and is gaining popularity in a variety of disciplines across the social sciences.
Upon first arrival at the Summer School, I was struck by the sheer breadth of both the courses on offer and the participants in attendance. With anything up to 15 courses taking place simultaneously, across a wide range of topics and attracting participants from a dizzying variety of backgrounds, the campus buzzes with intellectual activity as ideas and approaches clash and compete with one another. This is complemented and facilitated by the pedigrees of the course lecturers, who varied considerably as to their roles in both academia and industry, but were uniform in their track records of achievement and expertise in their chosen methodology.
Courses are generally delivered in 3.5 hour teaching sessions, with further exercises also provided to build competency outside of class time. I found the modular “theory, then practice” approach both intuitive and effective: a discussion of theoretical concepts followed directly by working with practical examples meant it was possible to become comfortable quickly with each new technique. Although the fast pace of the courses makes for a very intense working experience, it allows the participant to feel their competency in the method increase as the course proceeds day-by-day, which is very satisfying.
Complementing the intense academic workload is a packed social programme, with a different activity scheduled for almost every evening of the session. Although these ‘down-time’ activities are sometimes overlooked, from early on in my undergraduate career, I learned that the social programme is important: not only is it enjoyable in its own right and a chance to make friends, but the networking opportunities can open up both one’s academic and professional horizons. In particular, talking to researchers and practitioners from a wide variety of professional and methodological backgrounds – especially in a group with such an international variety as the Essex Summer School – can inspire new insights and approaches (and, indeed, scope for collaboration). In my experience, a casual chat over coffee with someone from a different discipline can potentially offer as much of a creative spark as a two-hour workshop with someone from one’s own discipline.
The unique experience and environment of the Essex Summer School meant that I returned to my home university with two enormous benefits: a bag full of new methodological techniques and tricks, and a head full of new ideas and approaches to work with. I look forward to returning to the picturesque Essex campus to build my methodological toolkit and expand my horizons further in the future.
Luke Field is an Irish Research Council Scholar and tutor at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. A graduate of University College Cork, Luke is currently undertaking PhD research into campaigning strategies during referendums, with a focus on strategies used during the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum in Ireland. His research interests include political psychology, electoral politics, voter behaviour, and social policy.
SAGE announced earlier this year that it has partnered with the Essex Summer School to sponsor its workshops on Social Science Data Analysis. Research methods has been at the very the heart of SAGE’s mission since our founder, Sara Miller McCune, published SAGE’s first methods book in 1970. Since then we have been champions of the field, both in terms of supporting both its development and the innovative ways in which they are taught. Today we have over 1,200 textbooks, reference works and journals in research methods, as well as online products. Find out more about SAGE Research Methods here and more about our partnership with the Essex Summer School here.