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 & 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.
evidence that comes from direct experience, scientifically gathered data, or experimentation
a technique in which the results of virtually all previous studies on a specific subject are evaluated together
general statements regarding trends among various dimensions of social life