The Sociological Detectives: Trial: And Error

The latest addition to the burgeoning Sociological Detectives™ Universe is a role-playing simulation of the Research Process – and Popper’s Hypothetico-Deductive Model of Scientific Research in particular – that uses the analogy of a criminal investigation to help students understand and experience how and why the research process is structured.

The simulation takes the students through a number of stages in the investigation – from identifying a problem to prosecuting the guilty party – that mirror the different stages in Popper’s Model.

The basic idea here is that the role-playing element, whereby students are faced with a range of suspects and evidence from which they have to choose one individual they believe the evidence shows is guilty, adds an interesting dimension to what can be a fairly dry and difficult-to-teach area – particularly if you don’t have the time or resources to engage in some hands-on application.

Running the Sim

The simulation is designed to be a whole-class teacher-led activity that is used to sensitise students to the general principles underpinning Popper’s Model and can be used in conjunction with an outline / breakdown of Popper’s actual research process model.

For example, some teachers might want to run the simulation first, before talking about Popper’s model. Once the sim has been run the students can then be moved-on to an understanding of Popper’s Model. This would involve transferring the things that have been learnt from the simulation – the idea of various steps or stages in the research process – to Popper’s Model.

Alternatively teachers might want to introduce the basics of Popper’s Model before running the sim and this would allow them to relate the different steps / stages in the Model to those covered in the sim as they are encountered. While this would be my preferred method of teaching – because it relates the sim directly and immediately to Popper’s Model – how you organise things is really a matter of personal preference and convenience.

Either way, the relationship between the stages in the Hypothetico-Deductive Model and the slides in the simulation can be summarised in the following way:

Hypothetico-Deductive Mode

Sociological Detective Slides

1.     Phenomena

6. P.I.N.C.H. Memo

2. Observation and the generation of ideas

7. Review Memo

3. Development of Testable Hypothesis

8 – 13. Suspects

4. Systematic Observation and Data Collection

8 – 13. Suspects

14. Forensics

5. Data Analysis

15. Prosecute?

6. Testing the Hypothesis

15. Prosecute?

7. Hypothesis False

8 – 13. Go back to list of suspects

8. Reformulate hypothesis

8 – 13. Choose another suspect

9. Hypothesis proven

16. Guilty verdict

10. Add to body of theory

16. Case closed

However you decide to present the Research Process, there are two further resources you might find useful:

1. A PowerPoint Presentation that takes students through each of the stages in the Hypothetico-Deductive Model.

2. A set of short Notes on “The Nature of Science” that includes a section explaining in a bit more detail the stages in Popper’s Model.


The primary objective of the simulation is to introduce the idea of research as a process involving systematic steps or stages and these can be reasonably accurately simulated by a criminal investigation. One reason I’ve suggested the simulation should be teacher-led is that it makes sense for the teacher to be able to identify for students how each part of the crime investigation sim relates to Popper’s Model.

In terms of the game itself, the objective is to discover the identity of the person responsible for a series of burglaries, an interactive element that’s introduced to simulate the idea of hypothesis formation (which of the suspects committed the crime?) and testing. In order to arrive at a guilty verdict students need to look at what the evidence from the crime scene, interviews and their observations is telling them.

Although the “evidence” against the guilty individual can best be described as circumstantial, I wanted to keep things fairly simple and relatively short. There’s little point students spending ages on this part of the simulation to “solve the crime” when the main takeaway they should be getting from the lesson is an understanding of how sociological research can be systematically structured.

The Sherlock Holmes quote at the start of the sim is also indicative here: students can get to the guilty party through a process of elimination: by using the evidence to systematically exclude everyone who couldn’t have done it they will arrive at the only person who could have done it.

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