Chapter 2: Sociological Investigation
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- The Basics of Sociological Investigation.
- Sociological investigation begins with two key requirements:
- Look at the world using the sociological perspective.
- Be curious and ask questions.
- Sociology is a type of science, a logical system that bases knowledge on direct, systematic observation. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical evidence, information we are able to verify with our senses.
- Scientific evidence sometimes contradicts common sense explanations of social behavior.
- The Elements of Science.
- Concepts, variables and measurement.
- Concepts are mental constructs that represent some part of the world, inevitably in a simplified form.
- Variables are concepts whose value changes from case to case.
- Measurement is the process of determining the value of a variable in a specific case.
- This requires that researchers operationalize variables, which means specifying exactly what one is to measure in assigning a value to a variable.
- Statistical measures are frequently used to describe populations as a whole.
- Sociology of Everyday Life Box: Three useful (and simple) statistical measures:
- The mode is the value which appears most often in a series of numbers.
- The mean refers to the arithmetic average of a series of numbers.
- The median is the value that occurs midway in a series of numbers arranged in order of magnitude or, simply, the middle case.
- Measurement also requires reliability, the quality of consistent measurement, and validity, the quality of measuring precisely what one intends to measure.
- Relationships Among Variables.
- Cause and effect is a relationship in which change in one variable causes change in another.
- The independent variable is the variable that causes the change.
- The dependent variable is the variable that changes.
- Correlation exists when two (or more) variables change together.
- Spurious correlation means an apparent, although false, association between two (or more) variables caused by some other variable.
- Spurious correlations can be discovered through scientific control, the ability to neutralize the effect of one variable in order to assess relationships among other variables.
- Sociologists strive for objectivity, a state of personal neutrality in conducting research, whenever
possible following Max Weber's model of value free sociology.
- One way to limit distortion caused by personal values is through replication, repetition of research by others in order to assess its accuracy.
- Limitations of scientific sociology.
- Human behavior is too complex to allow sociologists to predict any individual's actions precisely.
- Because humans respond to their surroundings, the mere presence of a researcher may affect the behavior being studied.
- Social patterns change constantly; what is true in one time or place may not hold in another.
- Because sociologists are part of the social world they study, being value-free when conducting social research is especially difficult.
- Subjective interpretation is always an important element in sociological analysis.
- Some sociologists argue that the value-free ideal is unattainable because all research is inherently political.
- Research can be contaminated by gender bias in five ways:
- Androcentricity, or approaching an issue from the male perspective.
- Overgeneralizing or using data drawn from studying only one sex to support conclusions about human behavior in general.
- Gender blindness or not considering the variable of gender at all.
- Double standards.
- Interference because a subject reacts to the sex of the researcher.
- Feminist research rejects Weber's notion of objectivity in favor of being overtly political.
- Sociologists attempt to follow codes of professional research ethics.
- Social Diversity Box: Conducting Research with Hispanics. Gerardo and Barbara Marin suggest that sociologists studying Hispanics adopt the following:
- Be careful with terms.
- Realize that cultural values may differ.
- Realize that family dynamics may vary.
- Be aware that attitudes toward time and efficiency may vary.
- Realize that attitudes toward personal space may vary.
- The Methods of Sociological Research.
A research method is a systematic plan for conducting research. Four commonly used
research methods are:
- An experiment is a research method for investigating cause and effect under highly controlled conditions. Typically experiments are explanatory,
that is, used to test hypotheses, unverified statements of a relationship between variables. Most experiments are conducted in laboratories and employ experimental and control groups.
- The Hawthorne effect is a change in a subject's behavior caused by the awareness of being studied.
- The Stanford County Prison study was an experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo that supported the notion that the character of prison itself, and not the personalities of prisoners and guards, causes prison violence.
- A survey is a research method in which subjects respond to a series of items in a questionnaire or an interview. Survey research is usually descriptive rather than explanatory.
- Surveys are directed at populations, the people who are the focus of research. Usually we study a sample, a part of a population researchers select to represent the whole. Random sampling is commonly used to be sure that the sample is actually representative of the entire population.
- Sociology of Everyday Life Box: National Political Surveys. Early political polls were sometimes very inaccurate due to faulty sampling design.
- Surveys may involve questionnaires, a series of written questions a researcher presents to subjects. Questionnaires may be closed-ended or open-ended. Most surveys are self-administered and must be carefully pretested.
- Surveys may also take the form of interviews, a series of questions administered personally by a researcher to respondents.
- Lois Benjamin used interviews to study a snowball sample of one hundred elite African Americans.
- Critical Thinking Box: Table Reading: An Important Skill.
- Participant observation is a method in which researchers systematically observe people while joining in their routine activities. Participant observation
research is descriptive and often exploratory. It is normally qualitative research, inquiry based on subjective impressions. In contrast, survey methodology, is usually quantitative research, investigation based on the analysis of numerical data.
- William Whyte utilized this approach to study social life in a poor neighborhood in Boston. His research, published in the book Street Corner Society, illustrates the value of using a key informant.
- Secondary analysis is a research method in which a researcher utilizes data collected
- National Map 2?1: Affluent Minorities: Residential Patterns.
- E. Digby Baltzell's Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia explored reasons for the prominence of New Englanders in national life.
- Interplay of theory and method.
- Deductive logical thought is reasoning that transforms general ideas into specific hypotheses
suitable for scientific testing.
- Inductive logical thought is reasoning that builds specific observations into general theory.
- Most sociological research uses both types of thought.
- Putting it all together: Ten steps in sociological investigation:
- What is your topic?
- What have others already learned about the topic?
- What--exactly--are your questions?
- What will you need to carry out research?
- Are there ethical concerns?
- What method will you use?
- How will you record the data?
- What do the data tell you?
- What are your conclusions?
- How can you share what you've learned?
- Controversy and Debate Box: Can People Live with Statistics?
- In general, understand why it is important that sociological researchers strive always to keep their work methodologically
- Be familiar with the advantages of the scientific approach to knowing.
- Fully understand the terms concept, variable, and measurement.
- Know why sociologists often must operationalize the variables they study.
- Be familiar with the three commonly used statistical measures of what is average or typical: the mode, the mean, and the median.
- Understand and differentiate between the concepts of reliability and validity.
- Fully appreciate the distinction between independent and dependent variables; be able to identify the independent and dependent variables
in a research project.
- Understand the distinction between cause and effect and correlation.
- Be aware of how researchers can use scientific control to uncover spurious correlations.
- Recognize the desirability of objectivity and be aware of some of the steps which sociologists can take to make their work
as objective as possible.
- Be familiar with the limitations of scientific sociology.
- Recognize that all sociological research has political implications.
- Be familiar with the gender-based issues which may distort sociological research.
- Be aware of some of the major ethical issues which may arise in the course of doing sociological research.
- In general, be familiar with the four major methods by which sociologists conduct research and with the primary strengths and
weaknesses of each method.
- Understand the basic logic of experi-mental research.
- Know what an hypothesis is.
- Be familiar with the problems posed by the Hawthorne effect.
- Be familiar with the principles which guide selection of a sample.
- Be aware of some of the issues which must be considered in construction of a questionnaire or interview schedule.
- Know how to read a table.
- Be familiar with the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research.
- Understand the distinction between deductive and inductive logical thought.
- Be familiar with the ten steps in sociological investigation.
- What are the advantages of choosing a scientific approach to
understanding social reality? Can you think of any disadvantages?
- Your text discusses how sociologists operationalize the concept
of social class. How might you operationalize such important concepts
as intelligence, aggressiveness, masculinity or level of commitment
- Demonstrate your understanding by considering whether the lie
detector (polygraph) machine is a (a) valid, and (b) reliable
- How would you explain the fact that the rape rate and ice cream
sales tend to be positively correlated?
- Suppose that you were a sociologist studying the rioting in
Los Angeles which erupted following the failure of a jury to convict
the police officers who were videotaped beating motorist Rodney
King. Construct two arguments, one proposing that you ought to
be as objective as possible in your work and the other suggesting
that, while striving for accuracy, you should take a stand against
any injustices which your research may uncover. Which position
do you find more convincing? Why?
- What do you regard as the primary arguments in favor of and
against using laboratory experiments to study human social behavior?
- Does the Hawthorne effect apply to research methods other than
experiments? What are some of the steps researchers might take
to reduce the bias which results from their presence?
- Do you think Zimbardo's Stanford County Prison experiment was
ethical, or should he have been prevented from conducting this
study? Defend your position.
- Demonstrate your comprehension of the logic of sampling by
explaining how you might develop a representative sample of students
on your campus in order to conduct some survey research work.
- What do you regard as the principal advantages and disadvantages
of both open-ended and closed-ended questions in survey research?
- Develop several criticisms of the research methods employed
in Lois Benjamin's study of elite African Americans.
- How might a researcher who favored quantitative research methods
such as experiments and survey research critique William Whyte's
study of street corner society? How much do you agree with these
criticisms? How might Whyte defend his work?
- Overall, which of the four major sociological research methods
strikes you as most scientific? Why? Which is least scientific?
Integrative Supplement Guide
- ABC Videos:
- Where Are the Fathers? - Welfare and Unwed Mothers (20/20, 4/15/94)
- Social Survey Software, 2/E:
- Unit 2 - Sampling: Where the Facts Come From
- Transparencies - Series IV:
- T-2 Correlation and Cause: An Example, Part 1
- T-3 Correlation and Cause: An Example, Part 2
- T-4 Deductive and Inductive Logical Thought
- Images in Sociology, Series II (laser disk):
Chapter 12 - Research Methods
Supplemental Lecture Material
Academic Freedom and "Political Correctness"
James S. Coleman, a highly distinguished scholar and recent president
of the American Sociological Association, recently published an
intensely controversial article arguing that what conservatives
derisively call the "political correctness" movement poses a real
threat to academic freedom.
Traditionally, university administrators have been viewed as the
principal enemies of academic freedom, but Coleman sees a new
and more serious threat resulting from collegial pressure. He
writes, "The greatest enemy of academic freedom is the norms that
exist about what kinds of questions may be raised in research
(and in teaching as well) and what kinds of questions may not
be raised.... The taboos that a sociologist is most likely to
encounter are those concerning questions of differences between
genders or differences among races which might be genetic in origin"
Such taboos are primarily designed to prevent attacks on what
Coleman terms "the policies of conspicuous benevolence." "There
are certain policies, certain public activities, that have the
property that they stem from benevolent intentions toward others
less fortunate or in some way oppressed policies intended to
aid the poor, or to aid blacks or Hispanics or women. Any research
that would hinder these policies is subject to much disapproval
and attack" (p. 34).
For example, Coleman's widely-reported research into educational
opportunity among the races discovered, among other things, that
"....teachers' scores on vocabulary tests were related to the
verbal achievements of students...." (p. 30). It is widely known
that African-American teachers, "....themselves products of segregated
school systems...(are) on the whole less well prepared, less qualified,
with lower verbal skills, than their white counterparts" (pp.
These observations lead to the disturbing conclusion that African-American
students "....would do less well, on average, under black teachers
than under white teachers. But the role-modeling or cultural-difference
hypotheses implicit in much current theorizing would lead to the
opposite conjecture, that they would be doing better, on average,
under black teachers. If the first conjecture were right, it would
have some disturbing implications. One would be that a major source
of inequality of educational opportunity for black students was
the fact that they were being taught by black teachers. Another,
directly relevant to the policy issue, would be that both black
and white students would have greater educational opportunity
if they were not taught by these teachers. This potential implication
was the cause of our not asking the question that followed naturally
from our research" (p. 31). And this, according to Coleman, is
the real problem: pressure for "political correctness" muzzles
the impulse to ask the crucial questions. Researchers who are
afraid to challenge the policies of conspicuous benevolence for
fear of censure by their colleagues will be unable to investigate
possible negative latent consequences of these policies, with
the end result being failure to achieve the very goals promoted
by their supporters.
There are several ways out of this dilemma. Coleman suggests an
alteration in the hierarchy of values held within the academic
community: "If, in the hierarchy of values held by the academic
community of which one is a part, the value of freedom of inquiry
is higher than the value of equality (the value that gives rise
to conspicuous benevolence), then such constraints, such self-suppression
of research into inconvenient questions, will no longer be effective"
Coleman, James S. "A Quiet Threat to Academic Freedom." National Review XLII, 2 (March 18, 1991): 28-34.
- What are some other examples of research topics that might
challenge what Coleman calls policies of conspicuous benevolence?
- How would sociologists who disagreed with Coleman defend their
Supplemental Lecture Material
The False God of Numbers
A recent New York Times article discussed the use--and misuse--of
statistics in politics. An example of how numbers can be used
to lead to oversimplified conclusions is President Clinton's recent
declaration that welfare reform has been a success since in 1997,
1.4 million people dropped off the welfare rolls nationwide. Yet,
is welfare reform the only possible cause of such a decrease?
One problem is that the numbers do not necessarily prove that
those who left welfare actually went to work. Some of the former
welfare recipients might simply have slipped away into even deeper
poverty and despondency. Also, how much of the drop can be attributed
to a booming economy and very low unemployment rather than reforms?
In other words, the statistics used show a correlation, not necessarily
cause and effect.
New air quality standards must be enacted because they will prevent
precisely 15,000 deaths a year from respiration ailments. Sounds
simple, doesn't it? Yet the problem is a thorny one. One might
ask whether all those respiratory deaths are due only to air pollution.
And what about the cost of new standards to industry? How will
these affect the economy in the long run?
Here are a few other examples begging alternate explanations or
U.S. quality of life is diminishing since, according to a 1996
study, the average one-way commute now takes 40 seconds longer
than it did in 1986.
High divorce rates attribute to the breakdown of the family and
poorer conditions for children.
Because corporations seek to save money by laying off full-time
employees, the number of people working part-time or on a contract
basis has increased.
All in all, these questions are complex and multi-dimensional.
It is not likely that one answer alone is sufficient. Yet politicians
and the media often make it sound simple and straightforward.
"Keeping Score: Big Social Changes Revive the False God of Numbers."
The New York Times (August 17, 1997):1 and 4.
- What various elements of science are these statements violating?
- Why would politicians be tempted to simplify statistics? How should social scientists handle statistics
differently? In what way does their responsibility to society
differ from that of politicians?
- Name several alternative conclusions that might be drawn from
the numbers quoted above.
- Activity: Look through several newspapers for the statistics quoted there.
Analyze them using scientific standards. Keep in mind such issues
as the difference between cause and effect and correlation, sample
size and population, and the way the study was conducted. Also
consider interpretations of the data.
Supplemental Lecture Material
The Day America Told the Truth
Public opinion polls have become increasingly common in recent
decades. A 1991 best-selling book entitled The Day America Told the Truth is packed with examples of the tantalizing bits of information
that can be uncovered using this research procedure. The authors,
James Patterson and Peter Kim, both executives at the J. Walter
Thompson advertising agency, found, among other things:
- "New Englanders lead the country in cheating on their spouses,
spying on their neighbors, and giving to charity."
- "Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in capital punishment;
one in three would volunteer to pull the switch for the electric
- "Twenty-two percent of males and seven percent of females say
they had lost their virginity by the age of thirteen."
- "The profession Americans trust most is that of firefighter."
- "Fifteen percent of adult Americans would rather watch television
than have sex."
- "One-third of surveyed married men and women confess to having
had at least one affair."
- "One in seven people reports being sexually abused in childhood."
- "Sixty percent, six hundred percent more than official estimates,
say they have been victims of a major crime."
- "Twenty percent of the women in the survey report having been
raped by their dates."
- "More than seventy percent say they did not have even one hero."
The survey was given to "....a random sample of 2000 people, quizzed
in 50 different locations over the period of a week. A shorter,
mail-in version was sent to 3500 people." Respondents were guaranteed
total anonymity and repeatedly urged to be completely honest.
The findings reported in The Day America Told the Truth are fascinating and could provide the impetus for more theoretically
based research efforts by academic sociologists. These findings
also suggest that the common suspicion that people answering questionnaires
often fail to report unconventional attitudes and odd behavior
may not be true one of Patterson and Kim's respondents even
admitted that he "...made out with two girls and a dog while immersed
in hot wax and Jell-O."
Gelman, David. "The Moral Minority." Newsweek (May 6, 1991): 63.
- Are you always completely honest when you answer questionnaires?
- How can researchers increase the chances that their respondents
will not withhold or distort information?
Supplemental Lecture Material
"The Proper Study, A Poem"
By W. S. Slater
Seated before her window Mrs Jones
Described the passers-by in ringing tones.
"Look," she would say, "the girl at Number Three
Has brought her latest boy-friend home to tea;
And, see, the woman at the upstairs flat,
Has bought herself another summer hat!"
Her daughter Daphne, filled with deep disgust,
Expostulated, "Mother, really, must
You pry upon the neighbours? Don't you know
Gossip is idle, empty-minded, low?"
And Mrs Jones would murmer, "Fancy, dear!
There's Mr Thompson going for his beer!"
Daphne, an earnest girl of twenty-three,
Read Sociology for her degree
And every Saturday she would repair,
Armed with her tutor's latest questionnaire,
To knock on doors, demanding, "Are you wed?
Have you a child? A car? A double bed?"
Poor Mrs Jones would remonstrate each week,
"Daphne, I wonder how you have the cheek.
And then to call me nosey!" Daphne sighed.
"Oh, will you never understand?" she cried.
"Mere curiosity is one thing, Mother:
Social Analysis is quite another."
- What are the similarities between Mrs. Jones's "mere curiosity"
and her daughter's "social analysis"?
- In what ways do these two activities differ?
- How important are these differences?
Supplemental Lecture Material
Separating the Wheat and the Chaff: Spurious Correlations
Researchers commonly encounter behaviors that seem to be related
to one another in some way. In the case of the number of miles
a car is driven and its gas consumption, there is an obvious and
genuine connection. But simply because two behaviors share a significant
statistical correlation does not always prove that there is a
real relationship between the two variables.
With complex systems, it may be difficult to determine if a statistical
correlation is genuine or completely coincidental and spurious.
While the continental drift of the West Coast of North America
may be highly correlated with the growth of the federal deficit
in recent decades, it is unlikely that there is a meaningful connection
between the two. Apparently, there is also a strong negative correlation
between the number of PhDs and the number of mules in a state.
As one commentator remarked, "Are the PhDs created when mules
die?" Similarly, a positive correlation exists between ice cream
sales and deaths by drowning. The same researcher humorously asked
if "people buy more ice cream when they hear of a drowning?" Even
when a connection exists, it may be trivial or misleading. In
the end, correlation is worthless without interpretation, and
that interpretation should be as well-grounded as possible. Consider
the following examples:
- My favorite spurious correlation is between shoe size and the
ability to solve mathematical equations (or any other task requiring
schooling). The students usually express a lot of puzzlement over
that one, until you point out that children's feet tend to grow
as they go through school. (Wuensch, p. 3)
- One . . . [example of a spurious con-nection] is the strong
positive correlation between places of worship in a locale and
the number of bars in the same vicinity. The explanation is obvious:
Religion drives people to drink. (Beins, p. 3)
In most research problems, however, the spurious nature of the
correlation may not be immediately clear, requiring additional
information and careful interpretation to establish the real nature
of the connection between the variables. Indeed, important issues
may be riding on correctly evaluating and understanding the correlation.
[A] story I sometimes use is based on a Nova television show from a few years back. Chinese medical researchers
had found a correlation between incidence of human esophageal
cancer and the incidence of tumors in chickens. Were the chickens
the source of the human cancers? Were the humans giving the chickens
their tumors? What they eventually found was that regional preferences
for a fermented cabbage dish and minerals in the soil in which
the cabbage was grown gave both the humans, who ate the cabbage,
and the chickens, who ate the scraps, their tumors. (Street, p.
Staff. 1993. "Examples of Spuriousness," in Teaching Methods. Fall (2).
- What steps can individual researchers adopt to prevent spurious
correlations? What can the community of researchers do?
- What spurious correlations have you come across in your own
- Can you think of spurious correlations that have had important
effects upon history?