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Chapter 2: Research Process and Research Methods

2.1 Sociology as a Social Science

Have you ever wondered if online schooling affects a person’s later success in college or in their career pursuits? Do you wonder if texting is changing teenagers’ abilities to spell correctly or to communicate clearly? How do social movements like LGBTQ rights, Me Too, or Black Lives Matter develop? How about the development of social phenomena like the massive public followings that some social influencers are able to attract? The goal of research is to answer questions. Sociological research attempts to answer a vast variety of questions, such as these and more, about our social world.

We often have opinions about social situations, but these may be biased by our expectations or based on limited data. Instead, scientific research is based on , which is evidence that comes from direct experience, scientifically gathered data, or experimentation. Many people believe, for example, that crime rates go up when there’s a full moon, but empirical evidence doesn’t support this opinion. Researchers Rotton and Kelly (1985) conducted a of research on the full moon’s effects on behavior. Meta-analysis is a technique in which the results of virtually all previous studies on a specific subject are evaluated together. Rotton and Kelly’s meta-analysis included thirty-seven prior studies on the effects of the full moon on crime rates, and the overall findings were that full moons are entirely unrelated to crime, suicide, psychiatric problems and crisis center calls (Arkowitz and Lilienfeld, 2009). We may each know of an instance in which a crime happened during a full moon, but it was likely just a coincidence (Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

Some researchers, like Rotton and Kelly (mentioned above), do research to test, or debunk, popular explanations that seem like common sense. Other sociologists do research for its own sake, and some sociologists, such as Mark Edwards, do research to try to benefit society. In the late 1990s, Oregon had one of the highest rates of hunger among the 50 states, and a higher rate than would have been expected from its more average level of poverty. Sociologist Mark S. Edwards of Oregon State University investigated the reasons for the high hunger rate and found problems in the way the state was distributing food stamps and making food available at food banks. In one county, for example, the food bank was located in an upper-class community, and hungry residents from elsewhere in the county were embarrassed to be seen at the food bank. Edwards’s research “assisted advocacy groups and legislators in improving the state’s efforts to enroll low income families in food stamp programs,” according to his department’s Web site (https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/spp/sociology/research), and the changes based on his findings were credited with lowering the state’s hunger rate before the deep economic recession began in 2008. After the recession hit the nation, officials and news media outlets in Oregon and elsewhere turned to Edwards for advice on dealing with the growing hunger and food insecurity that resulted. Edwards was gratified that his research had helped make a difference. “I’ve chosen to do projects that are not high-powered, big academic projects,” he said, “but are simple research projects that are trying to deal with social justice questions in our state” (Blome & Kravitz, 2006; Govier, 2010; Herring, 2008; E. Lindsey, 2009).

Whatever the goals of their research, sociologists follow the scientific method as they gather information that they then analyze. This chapter examines the research process in sociology. It first discusses sociology as a social science and the different ways that people ordinarily try to understand social reality. It then examines the primary methods that sociologists use in their research and the practical and ethical issues they sometimes encounter.

Like anthropology, economics, political science and psychology, sociology is a social science. All these disciplines use research to try to understand various aspects of human thought and behavior. Although this chapter naturally focuses on sociological research methods, much of the discussion is also relevant for research in the other social and behavioral sciences. When we say that sociology is a social science, we mean that it uses the scientific method to try to understand the many aspects of society that sociologists study. An important goal is to yield —general statements regarding trends among various dimensions of social life. A generalization is just that: a statement of a tendency, rather than a hard-and-fast law. For example, the statement discussed at the beginning of Chapter 1 that young people were more likely to vote for Biden than for Trump in 2020 does not mean that all young people voted for Biden; it means only that they were more likely than not to do so.

image of people in a protest march

A generalization regarding the 2020 election is that young people were more likely to vote for Joe Biden than for Donald Trump. This generalization does not mean that every young person voted for Biden and no young person voted for Trump; it means only that they were more likely than not to vote for Biden. Eric Yeichfrom – Pexels

Many people will not fit the pattern of such a generalization, because people are shaped but not totally determined by their social environment. That is both the fascination and the frustration of sociology. Sociology is fascinating because no matter how much sociologists are able to predict people’s behavior, attitudes, and life chances, many people will not fit the predictions. But sociology is frustrating for the same reason. Because people can never be totally explained by their social environment, sociologists can never completely understand the sources of their behavior, attitudes, life choices, and life chances.

In this sense, sociology as a social science is very different from a discipline such as physics, in which known laws exist for which no exceptions are possible. For example, we call the law of gravity a law because it describes a physical force that exists on the earth at all times and in all places and that always has the same result. If you were to pick up the book you are now reading—or the computer or other device on which you are reading or listening to—and then let go, the object you were holding would definitely fall to the ground. If you did this a second time, it would fall a second time. If you did this a billion times, it would fall a billion times. In fact, if there were even one time out of a billion that your book or electronic device did not fall down, our understanding of the physical world would be totally revolutionized, the earth could be in danger, and you could go on television and make a lot of money.

For better or worse, people are less predictable than this object that keeps falling down. Sociology can help us understand the social forces that affect our behavior, beliefs, and life chances, but it can only go so far. That limitation conceded, sociological understanding can still go fairly far toward such an understanding, and it can help us comprehend who we are and what we are by helping us first understand the profound yet often subtle influence of our social backgrounds on so many things about us.

Although sociology as a discipline is very different from physics, it is not as different as one might think from this and the other “hard” sciences. Like these disciplines, sociology as a social science relies heavily on systematic research that follows the standard rules of the scientific method. We return to these rules and the nature of sociological research later in this chapter. Suffice it to say here that careful research is essential for a sociological understanding of people, social institutions, and society.

At this point a reader might be saying, “I already know a lot about people. I could have told you that young people voted for President Biden. Maybe our social backgrounds do influence us in ways I had not realized, but what beyond that does sociology have to tell me?”

Students often feel this way because sociology deals with matters already familiar to them. Just about everyone has grown up in a family, so we all know something about it. We read a lot in the media about topics like divorce and health care, so we all already know something about these, too. All this leads some students to wonder if they will learn anything in their introduction to sociology course that they do not already know.

How Do We Know What We Think We Know?

Let’s consider this issue a moment: how do we know what we think we know? Our usual knowledge and understanding of social reality come from at least five sources: (a) personal experience; (b) common sense; (c) the media (including the Internet); (d) “expert authorities,” such as teachers, parents, and government officials; and (e) tradition. These are all important sources of our understanding of how the world “works,” but at the same time their value can often be very limited.

Personal Experience

Let’s look at these sources separately by starting with personal experience. Although personal experiences are very important, not everyone has the same personal experience. This fact casts some doubt on the degree to which our personal experiences can help us understand everything about a topic and the degree to which we can draw conclusions from them that necessarily apply to other people. For example, say you grew up in Maine or Vermont, where more than 98% of the population is white. If you relied on your personal experience to calculate how many people of color live in the country, you would conclude that almost everyone in the United States is also white, which certainly is not true. As another example, say you grew up in a family where your parents had the proverbial perfect marriage, as they loved each other deeply and rarely argued. If you relied on your personal experience to understand the typical American marriage, you would conclude that most marriages were as good as your parents’ marriage, which, unfortunately, also is not true. Many other examples could be cited here, but the basic point should be clear: although personal experience is better than nothing, it often offers only a very limited understanding of social reality other than our own.

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Think Like a Sociologist

image of a male and female who are a couple, and the female is pregnant, they are looking at a phone

Happy pregnant couple sharing smartphone photos at home. Amina Filkins Pexels

We develop common sense through our personal experiences and it largely becomes, without much thought, how we explain what we would consider “too obvious.”  Consider the following statement: “Couples who live together (cohabit) before getting married have lower chances of getting divorced than couples who don’t live together before marriage.” It seems pretty obvious, right? Why would a sociologist even waste time exploring this question? The statement is actually incorrect and we know this because of sociological research.

What factors might correlate with a higher rate of divorce for couples who cohabit before marriage?

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Common Sense

If personal experience does not help that much when it comes to making predictions, what about common sense? Although common sense can be very helpful, it can also contradict itself. For example, which makes more sense, haste makes waste or he or she who hesitates is lost? How about birds of a feather flock together versus opposites attract? Or two heads are better than one versus too many cooks spoil the broth? Each of these common sayings makes sense, but if sayings that are opposite of each other both make sense, where does the truth lie? Can common sense always be counted on to help us understand social life? Slightly more than five centuries ago, everyone “knew” the earth was flat—it was just common sense that it had to be that way. Slightly more than a century ago, some of the leading physicians in the United States believed that women should not go to college because the stress of higher education would disrupt their menstrual cycles (Ehrenreich & English, 1979). If that bit of common sense were still with us, many of the women reading this book would not be in college.

image of two women in caps and gowns at graduation

During the late 19th century, a common belief was that women should not go to college because the stress of higher education would disrupt their menstrual cycles. This example shows that common sense is often incorrect. Steven Depolo – Female Black College Graduates Cap Gown – CC BY 2.0

Still, perhaps there are some things that make so much sense they just have to be true; if sociology then tells us that they are true, what have we learned? Here is an example of such an argument. We all know that older people—those 65 or older—have many more problems than younger people. First, their health is generally worse. Second, physical infirmities make it difficult for many elders to walk or otherwise move around. Third, many have seen their spouses and close friends pass away and thus live lonelier lives than younger people. Finally, many are on fixed incomes and face financial difficulties. All of these problems indicate that older people should be less happy than younger people. If a sociologist did some research and then reported that older people are indeed less happy than younger people, what have we learned? The sociologist only confirmed the obvious.

The trouble with this confirmation of the obvious is that the “obvious” turns out not to be true after all. In the 2018 General Social Survey, which was given to a random sample of Americans, respondents were asked, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Respondents aged 65 or older were actually slightly more likely than those younger than 65 to say they were very happy! About 36% of older respondents reported feeling this way, compared with only 25% of 18-34 year-olds (see Figure 2.1 “Age and Happiness”). What we all “knew” was obvious from common sense turns out not to have been so obvious after all.

Figure 2.1 Age and Happiness

bar chart showing the % saying they are very happy by age with 35% of 18-34 year olds, 34% of 35-49 years olds, 32% of 50-64 year olds and 36% of those over 65 saying they are very happy.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018

The Media

If personal experience and common sense do not always help that much, how about the media? We learn a lot about current events and social and political issues from the Internet, television news, newspapers and magazines, and other media sources. It is certainly important to keep up with the news, but media coverage may oversimplify complex topics or even distort what the best evidence from systematic research seems to be telling us. A good example here is crime. Many studies show that the media sensationalize crime and suggest there is much more violent crime than there really is. For example, in the early 1990s, the evening newscasts on the major networks increased their coverage of murder and other violent crimes, painting a picture of a nation where crime was growing rapidly. The reality was very different, however, as crime was actually declining. The view that crime was growing was thus a myth generated by the media (Kurtz, 1997).

Expert Authorities

Expert authorities, such as teachers, parents, and government officials, are a fourth source that influences our understanding of social reality. We learn much from our teachers and parents and perhaps from government officials, but, for better or worse, not all of what we learn from these sources about social reality is completely accurate. Teachers and parents do not always have the latest research evidence at their fingertips, and various biases may color their interpretation of any evidence with which they are familiar. As many examples from U.S. history illustrate, government officials may simplify or even falsify the facts. We should perhaps always listen to our teachers and parents and maybe even to government officials, but that does not always mean they give us a true, complete picture of social reality.

Tradition

A final source that influences our understanding of social reality is tradition, or long-standing ways of thinking about the workings of society. Tradition is generally valuable, because a society should always be aware of its roots. However, traditional ways of thinking about social reality often turn out to be inaccurate and incomplete. For example, traditional ways of thinking in the United States once assumed that women and people of color were biologically and culturally inferior to men and whites. Although some Americans continue to hold these beliefs, these traditional assumptions have given way to more egalitarian assumptions. As we shall also see in later chapters, most sociologists certainly do not believe that women and people of color are biologically and culturally inferior.

If we cannot always trust personal experience, common sense, the media, expert authorities, and tradition to help us understand social reality, then the importance of systematic research gathered by sociology and the other social sciences becomes apparent.

The Scientific Method

As noted earlier, because sociology is a social science, sociologists follow the rules of the in their research. Most readers probably learned these rules in science classes in high school, college, or both. The scientific method is followed in the natural, physical, and social sciences to help yield the most accurate and reliable conclusions possible, especially ones that are free of bias or methodological errors. An overriding principle of the scientific method is that research should be conducted as objectively as possible. Researchers are often passionate about their work, but they must take care not to let the findings they expect and even hope to uncover affect how they do their research. This in turn means that they must not conduct their research in a manner that “helps” achieve the results they expect to find. Such bias can happen unconsciously, and the scientific method helps reduce the potential for this bias as much as possible.

This potential is arguably greater in the social sciences than in the natural and physical sciences. The political views of chemists and physicists typically do not affect how an experiment is performed and how the outcome of the experiment is interpreted. In contrast, researchers in the social sciences, and perhaps particularly in sociology, often have strong feelings about the topics they are studying. Their social and political beliefs may thus influence how they perform their research on these topics and how they interpret the results of this research. Following the scientific method helps reduce this possible influence.

Figure 2.2 The Scientific Method

Graphic showing four boxes with arrows connecting the boxes.  The boxes are labeled in order:  formulating a hypothesis, measuring and gathering data, analyzing data and drawing a conclusion.

As you probably learned in a science class, the scientific method involves these basic steps: (a) formulating a hypothesis, (b) measuring and gathering data to test the hypothesis, (c) analyzing these data, and (d) drawing appropriate conclusions (see Figure 2.2 “The Scientific Method”). In following the scientific method, sociologists are no different from their colleagues in the natural and physical sciences or the other social sciences, even though their research is very different in other respects. The next section discusses the stages of the sociological research process in more detail.

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Think Like a Sociologist

Itzel became curious about the connections between learning to read and to do math. She developed a research project that explored the effectiveness of a particular reading enrichment approach designed for third graders. She targeted a group of third graders in her local elementary school that had scored below grade level in reading. She divided them into two groups by gender: group A (girls) and group B (boys). Then, she developed a reading enrichment program and administered it to group B. After a few months, both groups A and B were again tested in math and reading. The boys in group B, rather predictably, scored better in reading; and, surprisingly, they also scored better in math. The scores for the girls in group A did not change in either reading or math.

Based on the above, formulate a hypothesis that may have preceded Itzel’s project.

Based on those preliminary results, provide a conclusion based on “common sense” and one based on the scientific method.

 



Section 2.1 References

Arkowitz, Hal and Scott O. Lilienfeld. (2009). Lunacy and the Full Moon: Does a full moon really trigger strange behavior? Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lunacy-and-the-full-moon.

Blome, C. and J. Kravitz.  (2006, May 11). Stamping out food insecurity: More people in Benton County could be using food stamps. The Daily Barometer. Retrieved from http://media.barometer.orst.edu/media/storage/paper854/ news/2006/2005/2011/News/Stamping.Out.Food.Insecurity-2291747.shtml

Ehrenreich, B. and D. English. (1979). For her own good: 150 years of the experts’ advice to women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Govier, G. (2010, June 14). InterVarsity alumni—Mark Edwards. InterVarsity News. Retrieved from http://www.intervarsity.org/news/intervarsity-alumni-mark-edwards-.

Herring, P. (2008, November 17). New report on hunger identifies Oregon as one of the worst. Extension Service News. Retrieved from http://extension.oregonstate.edu/news/story.php?S_No=614&storyType=news.

Kurtz, H. (1997, August 12). The crime spree on network news. The Washington Post, p. D1.

Lindsey, E. (2009, November 17). Oregon’s recession means many in state go hungry. Oregon Public Broadcasting. Retrieved from http://news.opb.org/article/6220-oregons-recession-means-many-state-go-hungry

Research. College of Liberal Arts. (2020, April 2). Retrieved from https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/spp/sociology/research.

Rotton, James and Ivan W. Kelly. (1985). Much Ado about the Full Moon: A Meta-analysis of Lunar-Lunacy Research. Psychological Bulletin 97 (no. 2): 286–306.

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.) Introduction to sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

Saylor Foundation.  (2015). Social Problems: Continuity and Change. License:  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_social-problems-continuity-and-change/.

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