Chapter Summary for Chapter 2
As researchers, we need to consider the types of question we want to answer. Factual questions give us information about what, who and how. The next step is to ask ‘How usual is this?’ – in other words to ask comparative questions about the situation in other countries or in different types of society. Another comparison is the one undertaken over time rather than across space and such an approach involves developmental questions. Empirical and theoretical questions both have their place in sociology.
Sociological research can be said to be scientific because it has a systematic method, is rooted in empirical investigations and data analysis, involves theoretical thinking and depends on the logical assessment of competing arguments.
The research process works in the following way. It starts from a problem, whether in the shape of a knowledge gap, or perhaps a puzzle or a lack of understanding. The second stage is to conduct a systematic review of existing studies in order to identify possible insights and omissions. At the third stage, the research problem is honed down to aid the formulation of hypotheses which, to be of much use, must be couched in such a way that the results of the research either support or disprove them. From here, some thought must be given to designing a piece of research using relevant methods that are most likely to achieve the research’s objectives.
The execution of research is by no means straightforward, with problems of ethics, access and possible restrictions on the content of what may be published. Added to this is the difficulty of interpreting the data produced and of presenting the findings in a range of formats suitable for particular audiences.
Distinguishing cause and effect can be problematic; in particular, one must separate causation and correlation of variables.
Sociologists make use of a varied range of research methods including ethnography, surveys, biographical research, comparative research, historical analysis and, less frequently, experiments.
Ethnography involves fieldwork using participant observation.
Surveys are usually operationalized through either standardized or open-ended questionnaires. Key considerations are consistency, comprehension and characteristics of respondents (sampling is crucial in this regard – this can be random or through the use of quotas).
Descriptive statistics usually present measures of dispersion (the range, standard deviation) or of central tendency (mean, mode and median).
Biographical studies explore life histories, sometimes via oral testimony, and often use documentary sources, such as personal diaries, to better understand how individuals experience social life.
Comparative research and historical research are often combined to compare the development of different societies over time. Comparative-historical research usually involves studying secondary sources.
Experiments test hypotheses under controlled conditions. While overwhelmingly associated with the natural sciences, on rare occasions such methods can be applied in sociology.
Since all methods have some limitations, it is necessary and desirable to employ ‘triangulation’. A range of ethical issues is raised in the research process, to do with consent and freedom from harm.
The influence of sociological research is most evident in applied research, which targets specific social problems, and when policy-makers draw on its findings. However, sociology also exists in a reflexive relation to the people it studies and in this way contributes to the life of societies.