Social Research Methods/Theory

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Sociology is defined as the study of human societies, collective actions and situations of many individuals and the social behavior within groups

Social Sciences

  • involves the study of statistically significant patterns in social behavior
    • aka social regularities
  • fundamental to sociology, the study of human societies, because they reflect the common behavior of many individuals
    • most important goal of research is to elucidate why these aggregated patterns of behavior remain constant despite the fact that individuals change over time
    • categorized by scope (level)
      • macrotheory: institutions, whole societies, and the interactions of these societies
      • microtheory: understand individuals and the interactions among individuals
      • mesotheory: takes the place in between these two
        • It studies organizations, communities, and perhaps social categories such as gender.

Scientific Community

  • scientific research is held at universities and performed by research who hold Ph.D. degrees
  • researchers work to understand reality and determine the causality of an issue
  • some military and government organizations perform research
    • more like to donate grants to universities but not always without incentive
    • pseudo-scientists
      • people who are paid to produce evidence in support of a certain predetermined result through their "research"
        • only "research" done in this case will be a search for ways to back up a "result" that has already been chosen based on which outcome is desired
    • corporations seek researchers who have the findings and/or opinions that they desire (ie. results that would be beneficial to the corporation)
      • pay these researchers to conjure up more claims to support their positions, in order to make them appear even more credible
  • most scientists use outlets such as academic journals to expand human knowledge


  • is a systematic explanation for the observations that relate to a particular aspect of life
  • is not a fact
  • every theory can be challenged and adapted by other researchers
    • through exploratories in which help to formulate questions for further research

Elements of Social Theory include:

  • observation: seeing, hearing, touching
  • fact: some phenomenon that has been observed
  • laws: generalizations about classes of facts
  • theory: the systematic explanation for observations that relate to a particular behavior or aspect of human life
  • concepts: abstract elements that represent classes of phenomena, or facts, within a field of study
  • axioms/postulates: fundamental assertions on which a theory is grounded
  • propositions: specific conclusions about the relationships among concepts, which are based on axioms
  • hypothesis: a detailed, testable expectation about the empirical reality that comes from a more general proposition
  • null hypothesis: expectation of no relationship between variables, in most cases, researches hope to prove it wrong
  • operationalization: establishing operational definitions, that is, specifying the exact operations involved in measuring a variable
  • operational definition: the concrete and specific definition of something in terms of the operations by which observations are to be categorized

Fundamental Terminology

  • variables: logical groupings of attributes or social facts that are not known in advance
    • examples: age, gender, occupation, and social class
  • attributes: defining characteristics of people or things
    • can be considered a sub-division of variables
    • ones that comprise a variable should be both exhaustive and mutually exclusive
  • theory: attempt to provide logical systematic explanations to observed patterns that correspond to a particular aspect of life
    • help social science researchers to shape and hone their research efforts
  • hypothesis: should be broad in scope, its ability to apply to different phenomena
    • testable and simple to understand
  • agreement reality: things that we 'know' as part of the culture we share
    • second hand knowledge we gain from tradition and authority
  • epistemological knowledge: based on logic and empirical knowledge
  • ordinary human inquiry: relies on cause and effect
  • three kinds of research
    • exploratory: formulates and focuses questions for further research
    • descriptive: detailed accurate picture of the social world is provided
    • explanatory: tests theories about the social world
  • structural functionalism: social entity as an organism - social system composed of parts
  • sociobiological: hardwired genetic propensities that have evolved over human history
  • concepts in social research
    • causal reasoning
      • inductive: reason from specific observations to develop general patterns, or principles
      • deductive: start from general statements and predict specific observations
    • pattern reasoning
      • idiographic explanation: explains one single situation or event in idiosyncratic detail
      • nomothetic explanation: explains a class of situations and events and it settles for a partial explanation

Two Kinds of Data That Can be Collected

  • usually use both kinds together because social research contains both qualitative and quantitative elements
  • Qualitative(non numeric: demonstrate cause and effect through verbal arguments
    • valued; but cannot be generalized to the larger world
  • Quantitative(numeric): numerical data approach to demonstrate cause and effect through statistical models
    • results can be attributed to a larger population, but are often not meaningful

Types of Studies

  • longitudinal studies: a single group of subjects throughout time
    • allows researchers to examine how the world is changing and evolving through time
    • allows researchers to examine the impact of certain events on the subjects
    • pros with study type
      • the simplicity (from an analytical standpoint) of not having extra variables though using many different subjects to get age range at one point are extremely interesting
    • cons with study type
      • one of the most expensive and difficult because it requires following a particular group over a considerable period of time
  • cross sectional studies: examine a wide range of subjects at one specific point in time
    • most commonly found in social research
    • gather data on a variety of age groups at the particular time of their study
      • use the information from each cohort, or similar group for comparative purposes
  • time series: combines cross sectional and longitudinal designs through studying a variety of groups across time
  • panel: examines the same group of people at many different points in time
  • cohort: studies similar groups of people over many different points in time.

Common Research Errors

  • inaccurate observations: without making a note of what actually happened
  • over generalizations: smaller samples so we must expand our results to the whole population
  • selective observation: focusing on the observations that reflect our theories and fit our patterns
  • illogical reasoning: patterns that we look for with no logical or scientific reasoning

Three Necessary Conditions Must be Met to Demonstrate Causality

  • temporal order: if A does not occur before B, then A cannot be said to cause B
  • association: if B does not change when A changes, then A cannot be said to cause B
  • elimination of plausible alternatives: if alternative explanations for the association between A and B cannot be ruled out, then A cannot be said to cause B
    • never possible to eliminate all
    • common errors
      • ecological fallacies: occur when researchers assume that all individuals share the attributes of their group
      • spuriousness: a phenomena in which variables seem to be related, but are not in fact related to each other(both may be related to a third, confounding variable or factor)
      • reductionism: occurs when one attributes societal patterns of behavior to decisions made on the individual-level.
      • tautological reasoning: occurs when instead of A causing B, A really is B
      • teleological reasoning: occurs when people put the ends before the means


  • philosophical and theoretical framework
  • benefits:
    • we can better understand views and actions of others who are operating under a different paradigm
    • we can profit from stepping outside of our paradigm
    • we can have different suggested theories that can inspire different kinds of research
  • important social science paradigms
    • early positivism: Comte introduced this paradigm saying that society is a phenomenon that can be studied scientifically.
      • positive philosophy (law of three stages)
        • Theological stage (religion)
        • Metaphysical stage (philosophy)
        • Positivist stage (science)
    • Socioevolutionary: Social Darwinism:translation of Darwin's theory into societies: Over time, societies are improving
    • conflict: focus is put on conflict and competition when explaining social behavior and interaction
      • Simmel focused on small-scale conflict
      • Chossudovsky (1997): international and global competition
    • symbolic interaction: focus is put on how individuals interact with each other on a micro level and how roles are determined
      • This paradigm inspired:
        • George Herbert Mead to create the "generalized other" which is the theory that the human ability has the power to imagine how others feel and how they might behave in certain circumstances.
        • Charles Horton Cooley to create the "looking-glass self" which is the theory that we form a perception of ourselves based on what we think others think when they look at us.
    • exchange theory: assumes that people are rational actors and that their interactions are based on cost-benefit analysis
    • structural functionalism: looks at society as a system that is made up of parts that all contribute to the functioning of the whole
    • feminist: looks at the treatment of women in todays institutions
    • sociobiological: explains social behavior in terms of genetic characteristics and behavior
      • the paradigm argues that social behavior can be explained in terms of genetic characteristics and behavior
    • ethno methodology: a method used to understand the social order people use through analyzing their accounts and descriptions of their day-to-day experiences

Philosophical Views on Reality

  • pre-modern view: all things we observe are undeniable truths
    • knowledge is not based in logic but heavily reliant on superstitions and traditional beliefs of the time
      • examples: witches, magic, monsters
  • modern view: accepts the diversity of thought among men
    • different people are going to hold different beliefs sacred and that both of their ideas of knowledge is valid in its own way
  • post-modern view: reality is much more abstract, and leaves the 'truths' of the world in the position of the viewer
    • world is defined by multiple truths that are directly related to the point of view

Ethics (two examples)

  • voluntary participation: all participation in social research should be voluntary
    • people should not be force in any way to participate in a research study or experiment
  • no harm done to subjects
    • respecting their privacy
      • collect data about the subjects anonymously