Unit 2 – Research Methods « The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Understand the importance of evidence and reasoned assessment to working with the social reality.

2.  Identify several different research methods used by sociologists to study the social world.

3.  Distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Core Readings

Steckley, John and Clark, Arthur (2007). Chapter Two: Research Methods


In this week’s reading we take a quick tour of the various sociological research methods (i.e., systems, tools, and techniques) that we sociologists use to assess empirical realities and theories about social institutions and structure.

Of course, if you’re like me when I was a student, your eyes will have already glazed over and you’ll be rapidly switching into “robot mode” as you anticipate the boredom brought about by the heady stuff of sociological methodology, but try not to do that. This is an important chapter. It sets what we might like to call the empirical stage (as in the type of stage that actors use) for the study of sociology.

And just what is an “empirical stage?” you ask. Well basically this is just the idea that sociologist’s use empirical data, i.e. evidence (just the “facts” Mr.) to assess and understand the social world. Sociology is a science, and to all sciences and scientists, evidence is importance. Although under challenge in recent years,[1] science and it’s methods are all about how to accurately measure the “realities” or “facts” of the world around us. Physicists measure quantum states and electrical spins (physical facts), chemists measure moles and volumes (chemical facts), engineers measure tensile strengths and breaking points, and sociologists measure, well, social facts. This sort of empirically based inquiry is a central and important feature of all academic sciences. Perhaps doubly so for sociology.


Well primarily because of the subject matter of sociology. As we saw in the last chapter, sociology deals with the world that you created. Sociology deals with institutions like your school, your family, the media, and politics. Sociology takes as its subject matter areas like gender, sexuality, and the economy. In short, sociology deals with everything that is important to you and because of that, you probably have an opinion about much of what sociology studies. This is a democratic society after all and in a democracy, we are all entitled to opinions about the issues that affect us. Even a teenager graduating high school knows something about the topic matter of sociology.

Now as you might guess, this puts sociologists in a peculiar position of bing in a discipline that everybody knows something about. At times this can be difficult because many people find it easy to dismiss what sociologists say as “merely” common sense, if you agree with what sociologists say, or mere “opinion” if you don’t. And what’s worse for us sociologists, it is much easier to do this in Sociology than it is to do in any other discipline, even psychology. You wouldn’t go up to a graduate engineer, for example, and presume to tell them how to construct a big fancy bridge or building. Engineers have years of training and evaluation, practice and empirical study, behind them before they are allowed to go about constructing bridges that others will have to drive on. Sociologists too have years of training, evaluation, practice, and empirical study. Yet despite this fact, people have no difficulty dismissing the often critical conclusions of sociology.

You have to realize though, whether you’re entering sociology, or just viewing from the outside, that Sociology is a science. It has all the features of traditional science (i.e., empirical study, peer reviewed journal, constant and ongoing empirical assessment and criticism of it’s finding) and therefore is a science. Because of that, the evidence that Sociology gathers, however that is gathered, allows Sociologists like me know things about the world with more or less certainty. Just like engineers know things and chemists know things, so to do Sociologists know things and if you are watching from the outside, you cannot dismiss these things as mere opinion. More important, if you are going to become a sociologist, you cannot fall prey to the external perspectives often foisted on us by those who don’t agree with our conclusions. You’ll often hear people try and tell you that sociology is not a science, or not a “hard” or science, or that it’s just common sense and opinion, but don’t buy that line.

It’s not true.

Sociologists do know things, with more or less certainty, and we should feel, more or less, confident in the things we know. And just what do we know? Well, you will see what we know (more or less) as you we go through the chapters of your sociology text and so there’s no point in going over that here. The more important question for us now is, how do we know what we know, and that’s what this chapter on research methods is for. In this section you’ll find out about some of the methods that Sociologists use to “know” things about the world. Resist the urge to nod of while reading this chapter and pay attention.

As you will see as you peruse the chapter, sociologist use a fairly wide range of methods to determine the Truth (capital “T” or otherwise) about the world around them. Broadly speaking, I can say that Sociologists use two general types of empirical methods. We qualitative methodologies like participant observation and ethnographies, discourse analysis and so on, and we use quantitative methodologies where we find quantifiable variables that can be measured.

Now, those of with training in the so-called “hard sciences” may get a chuckle with some of the methods used by sociologists. You may base your amusement on the evaluated difference between the “hard sciences” like physics and chemistry, which presumably use ridged and unambiguous measures of reality, and the so called “soft sciences” which use measures that are more ambiguous and less precise. If I were you though, I wouldn’t chuckle. On the one hand the entire distinction between “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences is ridiculously male based and absurd. It makes me think of the difference between the flaccid penis of social scientists and the rigid phallus of the physicist—a visual metaphor useful to prop up “male esteem” but not so useful as a metaphoric representation of the difference between branches of science. It’s also totally unfair because of all the sciences, sociology deals with the most complex and difficult subject matter of all and despite this difficulty still manages to apply empirical methods in order to know things. I mean, we don’t look at the relatively simple and easily quantifiable world of chemistry, or the ridged and inflexible science of engineering. We look at the most complicated of all scientific subjects, humans, and the social, political, economic, and spiritual world that we create and live. And that is is a challenge (and that was an understatement). The point here is, if you’re going to be a sociologist, you cannot accept the absurd and patriarchal evaluative assessment foisted on us by the natural scientist who think what they are doing is more scientific, you must stand for the empirical integrity of the discipline, starting now.

And besides, what do the natural sciences really have to be superior over? Sure they’ve created a lot of technical advances, which have improved the life of mostly those in the developed nations, but on balance, they’ve arguably created the potential for incredible suffering and violence. In fact, the “hard sciences” seem to have lost total control of things in recent years. More and better technology has made it easier to deforest, easier to modify the climactic systems of this planet, easier to pillage, and easier to engage in brutal and violent wars.  Arguably, natural sciences have brought us to the brink of planetary disaster.

Now I don’t want to criticise the so-called hard sciences here. Like I said, they have done many great things. But you have to weigh the great things in relation to the not so great things on any scientific balance sheet, and anybody can see that in terms of social, environmental, even human dimensions, the natural sciences are not an unequivocal boon. Not that the “softer” sciences get off the hook here. The point here is simply that we cannot evaluate our disciplines based on one-dimensional, over sexualised metaphors.

And anyway, what defines science is it’s attention to empirical detail and sociology, as best it can given the extreme complexity of its subject matter, pays attention to empirical detail. But it is difficult because with sociology we are not dealing with simple physical characteristics like weight and density or charge. The realities that we deal with are far more complex than the tensile strength of metal, and far more indeterminate. Do a thought experiment with me. Visualize a block of metal sitting in a chair. If you are a physical scientist, it is very easy to quantify that block of metal. There are a handful of variables, and measurement technologies are precise. Now, replace that lump of metal with an image of a real person sitting in the chair. Visualize a typical teenager, with pink hair, tattered clothes, piercings, and a tattoo. As you can easily imagine, the ease of measurement, quantification, and assessment has evaporated in a sea of variables and variability. Instead of dealing with a handful of easily quantifiable parameters, we are now dealing with thousands of variables from the variables of genetics to the variables of socialization to the varying institutional and social contexts that this pink haired “person” floats in. Even the color, shape, and size of room and chair may be important. And this person in the chair is only a single example in a single physical and temporal location. Try and understand this person in multiple settings, during multiple periods of life, and the difficulty expands exponentially. Move into the collectively and look at this person in the context of human society, and the task becomes staggering. But even though the empirical task is staggering, sociologist do try. We do set an empirical stage for our discipline and, given the complexity of what we have to work with, we do a pretty good job. And this bring me back to the topic of this week of readings which is research methodology.

Now, as you read through the methods in this chapter, keep in mind the discussion in this overview. The methods that sociologists use are methods that we have found useful in dealing with the awesome beauty and complexity of our human, social world. As I have tried to convey in this brief overview, this is nothing to embarrassed or apologetic about. Speaking as a sociologist, it is something to honoured. As you will see in the rest of the book, for all the difficulties and complexities that go into understanding the human situation, sociologists still, like natural scientists, have come to know, with more or less certainty, things about the human and it’s social world. There will be always be some ambiguity but that, as they say, is the nature of the beast. I wouldn’t trade the complexity of sociology for for anything.

Assignment Two

In this week’s assignment we are going to take a stab at social research. Recall in last week’s assignment I asked you to begin thinking like a sociologist. I asked you to look at the institutions in your life and identify the rules and boundaries of that institution. I also asked you to right down any questions that came up while you were examining your world. In this week’s assignment I want you to build on what you did last week by researching one of the questions that you formulated in last week’s research. If you didn’t formulate a question, do so now. If you have difficulty, contact your tutor for assistance.

Once you have your question in mind, do the research. Choose one of the research methods presented in this class and follow through with that. For example, if you are going to do research at your work place, conduct an informal ethnography. Sit for an hour and observe what goes on. Write it down in as disciplined and complete a manner as possible. Be serious and professional. Be ethical as well. You have no right to attach names to make judgments of the situations you are studying. You also have no right to share your research with anybody other than those who you are researching. Keep your finding private. Do not share what you find out about one place with or someone else. Respect the privacy of individuals.

When you have finished your research, right it up. Write a two or three page research report and follow the following general format.

Write an introduction or introductory paragraph saying what it is you researched and why you wanted to research it. Be personal here. Put yourself into this. Your  tutors will want to know why you chose this subject area.

When you are done your introductory paragraph, write a short methods paragraph. Explain to your reader what method you used and why (i.e., it was easiest, it was most interesting to you, it seemed to capture the “evidence” best)? Talk about any difficulties you had while researching your chosen question and anything you learn about your methods here as well.

When you are finished your introduction and methods section, move on to discuss your results. Tell your reader what you observed. Don’t put any of your own opinions of evaluations in here. Just report the facts as objectively as possible, and pay attention to objectivity. You want to try and totally remove any individual biases that you have. It won’t be possible at this early stage (and some sociologists argue it’s never possible), but try anyway.

Finally, write a conclusion. Write a couple of paragraphs talking about what you thought you found. Once again be serious, but don’t worry about right or wrong answers. Like the previous assignment, there are none. This is an exercise in thinking and expression only. What you’ll be graded on here is your ability to describe what you did with clarity and precision, and your ability to effectively communicate your ideas. It doesn’t matter if your ideas are wrong at this point (which they may be), we’ll fix those as we move through the course. For now, just embrace the joy of discovery and communication.

When you have completed this assignment, submit it in the online forums for assessment and grading. You may also want to check in online forums for the assignments of others students which have been posted as exemplars (with their permission of course). Once again, I wouldn’t write more than three pages. But don’t write much less than that. You’d need at least that much to provide a coherent and sensible account of your research project.

Assignment Two Ideas

If you get stumped, here are some ideas about the sorts of social questions you might ask.

Ask about gendered labor in your household. That is, who does what work in the household. Calculate the hours of unpaid labor. Count, over the period of a few days, how many times mom, or your wife, or you, do the dishes in a week. Who cooks dinner and how many times. Who looks after the children? Who manages the car> Who deals with the finances. Are there any patterns that you observe? Are tasks equally distributed?

If you work in an ethnically or sexually diverse workplace, ask about the divisions of labor in your workplace. Do some people do some types of jobs more than others. Count up the different types of jobs (secretary, manager, etc.)  and categorize by gender and ethnicity the people doing these jobs. Do you notice any patterns?

Ask for opinions? One form of research that sociologist use is discourse analysis. Pick a controversial subject like, like gay marriage, and ask people’s opinion. Take notes on their response (if they let you), record their demographic characteristics (gender, age, ethnicity) and then look over the responses later. Once again, you are looking for empirical patterns to emerge out of the data. If you don’t find any patterns, don’t worry. There may be none. Whatever you find, report it.

Study Questions

Distinguish between a fact, a theory, and a hypothesis. Provide examples.

What is logical positivism? Why is objectivity in research so important?

What are the major differences between qualitative and quantitative research?  What is ethnography?

What are some of the major advantages of using participant observation as a research method?

How does ‘institutional ethnography’ differ from traditional research methods?

In what research situation would using a narrative be important?

What is triangulation? What are the major benefits associated with using this process?

Why would sociologists be interested in Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis?

Why would a researcher want to use the content analysis method?

Briefly explain the two types of discourse analysis.

What is an ‘operational definition’ and why is it such an important part of the research process? Provide an example of operationalizing a variable.

Distinguish between an independent and a dependent variable. Provide an example to illustrate that you know the difference between the two.

What is a correlation? Explain the difference between an inverse and  a positive correlation.

What is spurious reasoning? Why do sociologists use a ‘third variable’?

What is the difference between causation and correlation?

What is a ‘free-floating statistic? Why should we be careful about them?

How can statistics be abused? Why must we always be careful to note the source of the statistics that we are reading?

[1] See my article The Death of Newton http://www.sociology.org/content/2007/thedeathofnewton.pdf

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