WRI 230/231: Is Talk Cheap?

The Art and Science of Conversation-Based Methods for Social Research

Discussion in a Writing Seminar

Talking with people is fundamental to social scientific inquiry. Historians and sociologists alike conduct interviews to glean personal perspectives on transformative life experiences and global events. Economists and political scientists deploy qualitative surveys to understand how people think, learn, and reason about social issues, the law, and beyond. Anthropologists and policy scholars listen in on multi-person conversations—whether in situ or in curated focus groups—to discover the discursive foundations of cultural and political life. But what makes those methods distinctive from everyday conversation? And what makes conversation a convincing base of evidence from which to gain insight about human behaviors and societies in the first place?  

This sophomore research seminar immerses students in the art and science of conversation-based methods for doing social research, allowing them to experientially develop the habits of mind and practical skills essential to successful qualitative projects in the social sciences. In the fall, we pilot instruments for eliciting or observing conversation with human subjects; in the spring, the discursive data obtained from those pilot studies become the engine of an original scholarly contribution. A prospective concentrator in African American Studies might devise an interview project to document how first-generation students of color navigate their transition to Ivy League universities. Aspiring policymakers and policy scholars can convene a panel of expert Princeton alumni to hear firsthand accounts of the obstacles to more equitable immigration policies. And students interested in the psychological foundations of economic decision-making could develop and run a Zoom survey experiment with a representative sample of American adults. All topics and interests are welcome, but this course will be most generative for students planning to major in a social science department.

Sample Reading List

Amana Kaskazi and Vanessa Kitzie, “Engagement at the Margins: Investigating How Marginalized Teens Use Digital Media for Political Participation,” new media & society 25, no. 1 (2022): 72-94.

Michele Ilana Friedner, “Vessel of God/Access to God: American Sign Language Interpreting in American Evangelical Churches,” American Anthropologist 120, no. 4 (2018): 659-670.

Wisconsin Farms Oral History Project, “The Lands We Share,” https://landsweshare.org/.

Carla A. Pfeffer, “‘I Don’t Like Passing as a Straight Woman’: Queer Negotiations of Identity and Social Group Membership,” American Journal of Sociology 120, no. 1 (2014): 1-44.

Julio J. Elias, Nicola Lacetera, and Mario Macis, “Sacred Values? The Effect of Information on Attitudes toward Payments for Human Organs,” American Economic Review 105, no. 5 (2015): 361-365.


  • Writing assignments 80%
  • Class/precept participation 20%

2023-24 Seminar

Seminar meets Tuesdays 8:30 - 9:50 a.m.

Precept meets Tuesdays 10:00 - 10:50 a.m. or Thursdays 9:00 - 9:50 a.m.


Review the Frequently Asked Questions.

For more information about WRI 230/231, please contact Alex Davis.