WRI 230/231: Is Talk Cheap? The Art and Science of Conversation-Based Methods for Social Research

Students and their professor discussing their writing in a classroom

Talking with people is fundamental to social scientific research. Historians and sociologists conduct interviews to glean insights about personal experiences and global events alike. Economists and political scientists deploy qualitative surveys to understand how people think, learn, and reason about social issues, the law, and beyond. Anthropologists and psychologists observe real-time dialogue—whether in situ or in curated settings—to discover the linguistic foundations of institutional and interactional life. But what makes those methods distinctive from the conversations in which we all already participate in our everyday lives? And what makes conversation a convincing base of evidence for understanding human behaviors and societies more broadly?


Find your place at Princeton!

This sophomore research seminar immerses students in the art and science of conversation-based methods for social research, empowering them to develop habits of mind and practical skills for scholarly success as they pursue a year-long, social scientific project of their own design. In the fall, we pilot those projects by developing instruments for eliciting or observing human interaction; in the spring, our discursive data become engines of original intellectual contributions. A prospective concentrator in African American Studies might pursue an oral history project documenting the professional trajectories of Black doctors and healthcare workers at the turn of the twenty-first century. Aspiring policymakers could convene a panel of educational experts to reveal the unseen and unexpected obstacles to addressing teacher shortages in American public schools. Students passionate about language and communication could conduct bilingual interviews to discover when and why conversational code-switching occurs. And activists eager to understand the cognitive underpinnings of climate change skepticism could develop and run a survey experiment with a representative sample of American adults. All topics and students are welcome, whether you plan to major in a social science field or not!

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%

2024-25 Seminar

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

50-minute precept time to be scheduled.

Apply to WRI 230/231


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