Chapter 2: Sociological Investigation
Instructor's Manual

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Chapter 2
Sociological Investigation

  1. The Basics of Sociological Investigation.
    1. Sociological investigation begins with two key requirements:
      1. Look at the world using the sociological perspective.
      2. Be curious and ask questions.
    2. 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.
    3. Scientific evidence sometimes contradicts common sense explanations of social behavior.
  2. The Elements of Science.
    1. Concepts, variables and measurement.
      1. Concepts are mental constructs that represent some part of the world, inevitably in a simplified form.
      2. Variables are concepts whose value changes from case to case.
      3. Measurement is the process of determining the value of a variable in a specific case.
        1. This requires that researchers operationalize variables, which means specifying exactly what one is to measure in assigning a value to a variable.
        2. Statistical measures are frequently used to describe populations as a whole.
      4. Sociology of Everyday Life Box: Three useful (and simple) statistical measures:
        1. The mode is the value which appears most often in a series of numbers.
        2. The mean refers to the arithmetic average of a series of numbers.
        3. The median is the value that occurs midway in a series of numbers arranged in order of magnitude or, simply, the middle case.
    2. Measurement also requires reliability, the quality of consistent measurement, and validity, the quality of measuring precisely what one intends to measure.
    3. Relationships Among Variables.
      1. Cause and effect is a relationship in which change in one variable causes change in another.
        1. The independent variable is the variable that causes the change.
        2. The dependent variable is the variable that changes.
      2. Correlation exists when two (or more) variables change together.
        1. Spurious correlation means an apparent, although false, association between two (or more) variables caused by some other variable.
        2. 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.
    4. Sociologists strive for objectivity, a state of personal neutrality in conducting research, whenever possible following Max Weber's model of value free sociology.
      1. One way to limit distortion caused by personal values is through replication, repetition of research by others in order to assess its accuracy.
    5. Limitations of scientific sociology.
      1. Human behavior is too complex to allow sociologists to predict any individual's actions precisely.
      2. Because humans respond to their surroundings, the mere presence of a researcher may affect the behavior being studied.
      3. Social patterns change constantly; what is true in one time or place may not hold in another.
      4. Because sociologists are part of the social world they study, being value-free when conducting social research is especially difficult.
    6. Subjective interpretation is always an important element in sociological analysis.
    7. Some sociologists argue that the value-free ideal is unattainable because all research is inherently political.
    8. Research can be contaminated by gender bias in five ways:
      1. Androcentricity, or approaching an issue from the male perspective.
      2. Overgeneralizing or using data drawn from studying only one sex to support conclusions about human behavior in general.
      3. Gender blindness or not considering the variable of gender at all.
      4. Double standards.
      5. Interference because a subject reacts to the sex of the researcher.
    9. Feminist research rejects Weber's notion of objectivity in favor of being overtly political.
    10. Sociologists attempt to follow codes of professional research ethics.
    11. Social Diversity Box: Conducting Research with Hispanics. Gerardo and Barbara Marin suggest that sociologists studying Hispanics adopt the following:
      1. Be careful with terms.
      2. Realize that cultural values may differ.
      3. Realize that family dynamics may vary.
      4. Be aware that attitudes toward time and efficiency may vary.
      5. Realize that attitudes toward personal space may vary.
  3. The Methods of Sociological Research.

    A research method is a systematic plan for conducting research. Four commonly used research methods are:

    1. 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.
      1. The Hawthorne effect is a change in a subject's behavior caused by the awareness of being studied.
      2. 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.
    2. 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.
      1. 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.
      2. Sociology of Everyday Life Box: National Political Surveys. Early political polls were sometimes very inaccurate due to faulty sampling design.
      3. 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.
      4. Surveys may also take the form of interviews, a series of questions administered personally by a researcher to respondents.
      5. Lois Benjamin used interviews to study a snowball sample of one hundred elite African Americans.
      6. Critical Thinking Box: Table Reading: An Important Skill.
    3. 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.
      1. 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.
    4. Secondary analysis is a research method in which a researcher utilizes data collected by others.
      1. National Map 2?1: Affluent Minorities: Residential Patterns.
      2. E. Digby Baltzell's Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia explored reasons for the prominence of New Englanders in national life.
    5. Interplay of theory and method.
      1. Deductive logical thought is reasoning that transforms general ideas into specific hypotheses suitable for scientific testing.
      2. Inductive logical thought is reasoning that builds specific observations into general theory.
      3. Most sociological research uses both types of thought.
  4. Putting it all together: Ten steps in sociological investigation:
    1. What is your topic?
    2. What have others already learned about the topic?
    3. What--exactly--are your questions?
    4. What will you need to carry out research?
    5. Are there ethical concerns?
    6. What method will you use?
    7. How will you record the data?
    8. What do the data tell you?
    9. What are your conclusions?
    10. How can you share what you've learned?
  5. Controversy and Debate Box: Can People Live with Statistics?

Chapter Objectives

  1. In general, understand why it is important that sociological researchers strive always to keep their work methodologically sound.
  2. Be familiar with the advantages of the scientific approach to knowing.
  3. Fully understand the terms concept, variable, and measurement.
  4. Know why sociologists often must operationalize the variables they study.
  5. Be familiar with the three commonly used statistical measures of what is average or typical: the mode, the mean, and the median.
  6. Understand and differentiate between the concepts of reliability and validity.
  7. Fully appreciate the distinction between independent and dependent variables; be able to identify the independent and dependent variables in a research project.
  8. Understand the distinction between cause and effect and correlation.
  9. Be aware of how researchers can use scientific control to uncover spurious correlations.
  10. 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.
  11. Be familiar with the limitations of scientific sociology.
  12. Recognize that all sociological research has political implications.
  13. Be familiar with the gender-based issues which may distort sociological research.
  14. Be aware of some of the major ethical issues which may arise in the course of doing sociological research.
  15. In general, be familiar with the four major methods by which sociologists conduct research and with the primary strengths and weaknesses of each method.
  16. Understand the basic logic of experi-mental research.
  17. Know what an hypothesis is.
  18. Be familiar with the problems posed by the Hawthorne effect.
  19. Be familiar with the principles which guide selection of a sample.
  20. Be aware of some of the issues which must be considered in construction of a questionnaire or interview schedule.
  21. Know how to read a table.
  22. Be familiar with the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research.
  23. Understand the distinction between deductive and inductive logical thought.
  24. Be familiar with the ten steps in sociological investigation.

Essay Topics

  1. What are the advantages of choosing a scientific approach to understanding social reality? Can you think of any disadvantages?
  2. 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 to religion?
  3. Demonstrate your understanding by considering whether the lie detector (polygraph) machine is a (a) valid, and (b) reliable measuring device.
  4. How would you explain the fact that the rape rate and ice cream sales tend to be positively correlated?
  5. 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?
  6. What do you regard as the primary arguments in favor of and against using laboratory experiments to study human social behavior?
  7. 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?
  8. Do you think Zimbardo's Stanford County Prison experiment was ethical, or should he have been prevented from conducting this study? Defend your position.
  9. 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.
  10. What do you regard as the principal advantages and disadvantages of both open-ended and closed-ended questions in survey research?
  11. Develop several criticisms of the research methods employed in Lois Benjamin's study of elite African Americans.
  12. 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?
  13. Overall, which of the four major sociological research methods strikes you as most scientific? Why? Which is least scientific? Why?

Integrative Supplement Guide

  1. ABC Videos:
  2. Social Survey Software, 2/E:
  3. Transparencies - Series IV:
  4. 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" (p. 28).

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. 30-31).

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" (p. 34).


Coleman, James S. "A Quiet Threat to Academic Freedom." National Review XLII, 2 (March 18, 1991): 28-34.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some other examples of research topics that might challenge what Coleman calls policies of conspicuous benevolence?
  2. How would sociologists who disagreed with Coleman defend their position?

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 further exploration:

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. What various elements of science are these statements violating?
  2. 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?
  3. Name several alternative conclusions that might be drawn from the numbers quoted above.
  4. 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:

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are you always completely honest when you answer questionnaires?
  2. 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."

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the similarities between Mrs. Jones's "mere curiosity" and her daughter's "social analysis"?
  2. In what ways do these two activities differ?
  3. 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:

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. 3)


Staff. 1993. "Examples of Spuriousness," in Teaching Methods. Fall (2).

Discussion Questions

  1. What steps can individual researchers adopt to prevent spurious correlations? What can the community of researchers do?
  2. What spurious correlations have you come across in your own thinking?
  3. Can you think of spurious correlations that have had important effects upon history?

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