Chapter 2: Sociological Investigation
Chapter Overview


  1. The Basics of Sociological Investigation
    1. Science As One Form of "Truth"
    2. Common Sense Versus Scientific Evidence
  2. The Elements of Science
    1. Concepts, Variables, and Measurement
      1. Defining Concepts
      2. Reliability and Validity
      3. Relationships Among Variables
    2. The Ideal of Objectivity
      1. Max Weber: Value-Free Research
    3. Some Limitations of Scientific Sociology
    4. The Importance of Subjective Interpretation
    5. Politics and Research
    6. Gender and Research
    7. Feminist Research
    8. Research Ethics
  3. The Methods of Sociological Research
    1. Testing a Hypothesis: The Experiment
      1. The Hawthorne Effect
      2. An Illustration: The Stanford County Prison
    2. Asking Questions: Survey Research
      1. Population and Sample
      2. Questionnaires and Interviews
      3. An Illustration: Studying the African American Elite
    3. In the Field: Participant Observation
      1. An Illustration: Street Corner Society
    4. Using Available Data: Secondary and Historical Analysis
      1. An Illustration: A Tale of Two Cities
    5. The Interplay of Theory and Method
  4. Putting It All Together: Ten Steps in Sociological Investigation
  5. Summary
  6. Key Concepts
  7. Critical-Thinking Questions
  8. Applications and Exercises
  9. Sites to See


  • To review the fundamental requirements for engaging in scientific investigation using the sociological perspective
  • To become familiar with the basic elements of science and how they are used in sociological investigation
  • To see how research is affected by politics and gender
  • To begin to view ethical considerations involved in studying people
  • To become familiar with research methods used by sociologists in the investigation of society
  • To begin to understand the interplay of theory and method
  • To be able to identify and describe each of the ten steps in sociological research



There are two basic requirements identified as underlying sociological investigation: (1) Look at the world using the sociological perspective; and (2) Be curious and ask questions.

Science as a Form of "Truth" How do we come to know something to be true? Four ways of knowing are identified. These include: faith, recognition of expertise, agreement through consensus, and science. Science is a logical system that bases knowledge on direct, systematic observation. Science is based on empirical evidence, meaning information we can verify with our senses.

Common Sense Versus Scientific Evidence Six common sense statements considered to be true by many people in our society are identified. However, using scientific evidence these statements are contradicted by empirical facts.


Concepts, Variables, and Measurement Sociologists use concepts to identify elements of society. A concept is a mental construct that represents some part of the world, inevitably in a simplified form. For example, terms like family and social class are concepts. A variable is a concept whose value changes from case to case. For example, social class varies, with some people being identified as middle class and others as working class.

Measurement is a process for determining the value of a variable in a specific case. For example, the factors of family income and occupation can be used to determine the social class of a particular person or family. Variables can be measured in many different ways.

Sociologists must make use of statistical measures, often called descriptive statistics. The mode is defined as the value that occurs most often in a series of numbers. The mean is calculated by taking the arithmetic average of a series of numbers. The median refers to the value that occurs midway in a series of numbers or, simply, the middle case.

Defining Concepts Operationalizing a variable means specifying exactly what one is to measure in assigning a value to a variable. For example, social class can be measured using income and occupation.

Reliability and Validity Two other important issues concerning the measurement of variables include reliability and validity. Reliability concerns the consistency in measurement. For example, does a person taking several math achievement tests score equivalently on each test? Validity means measuring precisely what one intends to measure. For example, are the math tests truly measuring what they purport to measure--skills and knowledge--or are they possibly measuring some other quality like ability to follow directions?

Relationships Among Variables Sociological investigation enables researchers to identify cause and effect relationships among variables in which one variable (independent variable) causes a change or effect in another variable (dependent variable). While variables may be correlated, they may not involve a cause and effect relationship. Correlation refers to a relationship between two (or more) variables. A spurious correlation refers to an apparent, although false, relationship between two (or more) variables caused by a third variable.

In summary, to conclude that a cause and effect relationship exists, at least three conditions must be established: (1) a correlation exists between the variables, (2) the independent variable precedes the dependent variable in time, and (3) no evidence exists that a third variable is responsible for a spurious correlation between the two variables.

The Ideal of Objectivity Researchers must make every effort to neutralize their personal biases. Complete neutrality, or objectivity, a state of personal neutrality in conducting research, is seen as an ideal rather than as a reality in science.

Max Weber: Value-Free Research Max Weber argued that research may be value-relevant, or of personal interest to the researcher, but the actual process of doing research must be value-free. Replication, or repetition of research by other investigators limits the distortion caused by personal values. Two criticisms of value-free science include: (1) researchers must always make some interpretation of their data, and (2) any and all research is inevitably political.

Some Limitations of Scientific Sociology To apply the logic of science to sociology, several important limitations must be recognized:

  1. Human behavior is too complex to allow sociologists to predict precisely any individual's actions.
  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 true in another.
  4. Because sociologists are part of the social world they study, being value-free when conducting social research is difficult.
The Importance of Subjective Interpretation Some sociologists believe removing all subjectivity from research is undesirable. First, they say, science is more than mere procedures. The elements of imagination and curiosity are critical. Second, science alone cannot grasp the complexity of human motivation and feelings. Third, data gathered through scientific research does not speak for itself. Interpretation of findings is a quality that is hard to qualify. Sociology is an art as well as a science.

Politics and Research Researcher Alvin Gouldner argues that politics is part of every aspect of our lives. Political neutrality is a myth. He suggests that sociologists support certain values. Like Karl Marx, he says researchers have a choice about which positions are worthy to support.

Gender and Research Values influence research in terms of gender. Dangers to sound research involving gender include: androcentricity (or its opposite gynocentricity), overgeneralizing, gender blindness, double standards, and gender interference. Each are discussed with examples.

Feminist Research While still evolving, the feminist approach primarily focuses on the condition of women in society, seeing women as generally experiencing a subordinate position relative to men.

Research Ethics Yet another issue concerns how research affects the people being studied. The American Sociological Association has a set of formal guidelines for the conduct of social research, including technical competence, awareness of bias, safety and privacy, discussion with subjects concerning risks involved, accurate presentation of purpose of research, full reporting of findings, and identification of any organizational affiliations. There are also global dimensions to research ethics.


A research method is a systematic plan for conducting research. Four of the most commonly used methods are introduced, each with particular strengths and weaknesses for the study of social life.

Testing A Hypothesis: The Experiment An Experiment is a research method for investigating cause and effect under highly controlled conditions. This type of research is usually explanatory. Experiments are typically designed to test a specific hypothesis, or an unverified statement of a relationship between variables. The ideal experiment involves three steps leading to the acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis. The three steps are: (1) measurement of the dependent variable, (2) exposure of the dependent variable to the independent variable, and (3) remeasurement of the dependent variable. One strategy for controlling outside influences is to divide subjects into an experimental group and a control group.

The Hawthorne Effect The issue of the awareness of subjects being studied and how this affects their behavior is discussed. The Hawthorne effect refers to a change in a subject's behavior caused simply by the awareness of being studied.

An Illustration: The Stanford County Prison Philip Zimbardo's classic study focuses on the structural conditions found in prisons. The hypothesis being tested was that the character of prison itself, and not the personalities of the prisoners or guards, is the cause of prison violence.

Asking Questions: Survey Research A survey is a research method in which subjects respond to a series of items in a questionnaire or an interview. It is the most widely used of the research methods.

Population and Sample A population is defined as the people who are the focus of research. A sample is a part of a population that represents the whole. A very critical issue concerns the extent to which the sample is representative of the population from which it is taken. Random selection techniques are used to help ensure the probability that inferences made from the results of the sample actually do reflect the nature of the population as a whole. A national political survey taken for the 1936 presidential election is used to illustrate the importance of a representative sample. Random selection techniques are used to help ensure the probability that inferences made from the results of the sample actually do reflect the nature of the population as a whole.

Questionnaires and Interviews Two general techniques are used for asking and recording questions. A questionnaire is a series of written questions that a researcher presents to subjects. Two basic types of questions asked are closed-ended and open-ended formats. Usually researchers use a self-administered survey. Pretesting a small number of people is a strategy used to find out about poor instructions or questions before questionnaires are sent out to an entire sample. An interview is a series of questions a researcher administers in person to respondents. This strategy has advantages, including more depth, but also involves the disadvantages of extra time and money, and the influence of the researcher's presence on the subjects' responses. For both questionnaires and interviews, how the questions are asked is extremely important. Poor questions will lead to poor research results and conclusions.

An Illustration: Studying the African American Elite Lois Benjamin's survey research on the effects of racism on talented African American men and women is discussed. Her use of snowball sampling and interviews as part of her research design is highlighted in this discussion. The eagerness of respondents to participate, their high degree of emotion in responding to questions, and the effects of the research on them was surprising to Benjamin.

In The Field: Participant Observation Participant observation is a method by which researchers systematically observe people while joining in their routine activities. This method is very common among cultural anthropologists who use fieldwork to gather data for their ethnographies. Sociologists typically refer to this type of research as case studies. Such research is exploratory and descriptive. Participant observation is based heavily on subjective interpretation, and is therefore criticized by some for lacking scientific rigor.

Participant observation has two sides, the participant and observer, sometime referred to as the insider-outsider roles. These can come into conflict at times. Participant observation is typically qualitative research, meaning investigation in which a researcher gathers impressionistic, not numerical, data. Experiments and surveys involve quantitative research, or investigation in which a researcher collects numerical data.

An Illustration: Street Corner Society In the 1930s, William Foote Whyte conducted what was to become one of the classic participant observation studies. He sought to study a poor, Italian, urban neighborhood of Boston (which he called Cornerville) to determine the true social fabric of the community. His work reveals the conflict between the roles of participant and observer -- involvement and detachment. The role of a key informant is highlighted as part of this research process.

Using Available Data: Secondary and Historical Analysis Secondary analysis is a research method in which a researcher uses data collected by others. Advantages of this approach are the considerable savings in terms of time and money. For example, the Bureau of the Census continuously updates information about the U.S. population. Disadvantages include the possibility that the data were not gathered systematically and that the data may not be directly related to the interests of the researcher. Emile Durkheim's study on suicide is an example of this type of research.

An Illustration: A Tale of Two Cities A study by E. Digby Baltzell using secondary research focuses on the question of the apparent influence of religious doctrine in two different parts of colonial America on achievement orientation. The groups focused on are the Puritans of Boston and the Quakers of Philadelphia. Issues regarding the application of the sociological imagination, operationalization of variables, and theory building are addressed.

The Interplay of Theory and Method Obtaining facts is not the final goal of science. Beyond facts is the issue of the development of theory, or combining facts into meaning. Two processes of logical thought are used by scientists. Inductive logical thought is reasoning that transforms specific observations into general theory. E. Digby Baltzell's research illustrates this type of thinking. Deductive logical thought is reasoning that transforms general theory into specific hypotheses suitable for scientific testing. Philip Zimbardo's Stanford County Prison experiment illustrates how this type of reasoning works.


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