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Sociological Research Methods


General Approaches

Empirical Research

Sociological research is based on the use of empirical data to substantiate concepts and theories and to test hypotheses.

  • Empirical data: Facts that we observe, measure, and verify with our senses.

  • Concept: A simple, abstract construct (idea) that represents some aspect of the world.

  • Theory: A formal statement that attempts to explain a phenomenon by attributing it to particular relationships among a group of concepts.

  • Hypothesis: An educated guess or proposition about the relationship between two or more phenomena that is stated in testable form.

Sociology: Science or Interpretation

Most sociologists probably find themselves some where between these two positions:

  • Sociology as science: Sociological research is a systematic method of direct observation of the world, similar to the natural sciences, which produces objective knowledge of social phenomena and, in some cases, general social laws. Associated with variable research.

  • Interpretive sociology: Sociological research examines the meanings that actors attach to social phenomena. Meanings are subjective and not governed by universal laws; hence, sociology differs from natural science. Associated with qualitative research.


Research Design

Once the researcher has a question and some concepts and theories, she or he must pick a level of analysis, a time frame, and a method of gathering data, and decide what type of data analysis will be most appropriate.

Level of Analysis
  • Unit of analysis: The specific social entity about which data will be gathered and empirical claims made. Some possible units of analysis: individuals, careers, city birth rates, unionization votes, nations, business establishments.

  • Cross-sectional study: Uses data from one time point only.

  • Longitudinal study: Uses data gathered at several points in time. Permits conclusions about change.

Methods of Gathering Data
  • Surveys: People are asked to respond to a prepared set of questions or statements in either a verbal interview or a written questionnaire.

  • In-depth interviews: People are asked to respond at length to a series of questions posed by the researcher. Questions may be fixed in advance or the interviewer may allow open-ended discussion.

  • Field research (participant observation): Researchers observe and talk to people in their ordinary settings while sometimes joining in their activities.

  • Document study: Data is gathered from documents such as newspaper articles, marriage records, or diaries.

  • Experiments: A method used to test a specific hypothesis about a cause and effect relationship. An experiment has three steps: (1) measuring the effect variable; (2) exposing the effect variable to the cause variable; and (3) measuring the effect variable again to see if a change has occurred. Any factors that might affect the two variables being measured and that are not part of the causal relationship being tested must be controlled.

Variable Analysis or Qualitative Analysis?
  • Variable research: Entails choosing variables to represent relevant concepts, measuring the variables, and analyzing the results. Data is often gathered through surveys; analysis is statistical.

    • Variable: A concept that can take on more than one value. For example, the variable ethnicity may take on the values African-American, Latino, Asian, etc.

    • Measurement: The procedure by which the value of a variable is determined in a specific case. For example, one could measure ethnicity by looking at each individual person or by asking each person what their ethnic identification is.

  • Qualitative research: Entails selection of questions, concepts, and relevant data sources. Data is often gathered through interviews or field research. Analysis involves identification of categories and patterns in the data and continual reassessment of questions and concepts.

Causal Analysis: A Dominant Approach

Much sociological research aims at establishing the presence of causal relationships among social phenomena. (The following discussion assumes variable research.)

  • Causal analysis: The goal is to establish (or refute) the existence of a causal relationship between two or more variables. To establish causation, the research must demonstrate that: (1) the variables are correlated; (2) the causal variable precedes the effect variable in time; and (3) a change in the causal variable results in a change in the effect variable regardless of changes in other factors. Proving (3) is difficult because of the broad potential for unmeasured spurious or intervening relationships in the social world.

  • Correlation: Two variables are correlated if they change together.

    • Positive correlation: When the value of one increases (decreases), the value of the other increases (decreases).

    • Negative correlation: When the value of one increases (decreases), the other decreases (increases).

  • Spurious relationship: A false relationship between two variables (A, B). A and B may appear to be causally related, but they are actually affected independently by a third variable (C). For example, suppose that the U.S. cities with the highest number of art museums (A) also have the highest concentrations of smog (B). Does this mean that art causes smog? A more likely explanation is that city size (C) is causally related to both the number of museums and the concentration of smog. A ← C → B

  • Intervening relationship: A relationship between two variables (A, B) that is dependent on the actions of a third variable (C). For example, suppose that working-class students (A) perform poorly on SATs (B). Does this mean that working-class students are less intelligent? A more likely explanation is that working-class students go to low-quality schools (C). Here, a school-quality variable intervenes in the relationship between student social class and SAT score. A → C → B

Issuese in Approach

The following concerns are relevant to all sociological research:

  • Reliability: Consistency of observation, such that the same results are obtained each time the observation is repeated.

  • Validity: There are many types of validity; one important type is construct validity, which addresses the question of whether the researcher is measuring exactly what he or she claims to measure.

  • Generalizability: Most sociologists can only observe a few of the sociological phenomena about which they wish to make empirical claims, so they generalize from this few to the larger group. The most common way of doing this is to select the smaller group of cases by systematically sampling them from the larger group or population. If the sample represents the population well, conclusions about it are generalizable; if not, they are biased. Typically, the best way to achieve generalize ability is by using a large, randomly selected sample

  • Value-free research and objectivity: Many believe that sociologists should strive to produce objective, value-free analysis; they should avoid introducing their own values into their research. Others claim that it is impossible and undesirable for researchers to completely suppress their values; values are an important impetus for sociological research.

  • Research ethics: Sociologists agree that some research methods have the potential to harm or pose risks to participants. For this reason, most sociologists adhere to established guidelines for conducting research in a manner that will reduce risks and conform to widely accepted ethical standards.