Chapter 2 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Social Research Methods

Chapter Overview

Research methodology is the system of methods a researcher uses to gather data about a particular research question. Early sociologists often emulated the methods of the natural sciences, which they applied without further modification to the study of the social world. Their approach to empirical research was often informed by positivism, which required researchers to remain objective and value neutral in their investigation of social phenomena.

Most methods employed by sociologists today can be described as being either qualitative or quantitative. Generally speaking, qualitative research methods are used to study social elements or data that cannot be counted or measured and usually focuses on the social practices of individuals and small groups. This type of research is often concerned with the subjective meanings of people’s experiences and their personal interpretations of the social world. Qualitative methods thus often incorporate an insider (informant) perspective, which privileges the voice of the research participants over that of the researcher.

Ethnographies, institutional ethnographies, case studies, and narratives are commonly-used methods within qualitative research. Qualitative research often encourages subjectivity and critical approaches explicitly recognize the importance of social location in relation to biases, of research participants and the researcher within the research.

Ethnographies study people and their culture and are typically carried out with the researcher spending time “in the field” with those being studied for an extended period of time in order to understand how people go about their daily lives and interpret the world around them. Institutional ethnographies recognize that there are at least two sets of “truths” operating within any given institution. One set of truths represents the ruling interests (e.g., those of the organization and its administrators) while the other set represents the experiential perspectives of those who work within the institution, tasked with upholding the ruling interests. There is often a disjuncture between these sets of truths or interests. Making this disjuncture visible can then bring about institutional change. Case studies typically involve the study of a single case or a few selected cases that exemplify a single social entity. Case studies are often used to identify best practices. Finally, narratives are literally the stories people tell about their own lives. While narratives played only a minor role in sociology until the late 1980s, today they represent an important contribution to sociological knowledge. Narratives give people, especially marginalized people, a voice—the expression of a viewpoint that comes from occupying a specific social location.

Additional qualitative methods include content analysis, discourse analysis, and genealogy. Content analysis involves systematically identifying and then interpreting the themes that become visible in cultural artifacts, such as newspaper articles, advertisements, artwork, clothing, children’s books, and institutional records and diverse social media platforms. Discourse analysis is carried out in one of two ways: either as an analysis of “texts” such as court transcripts or news stories, or as a broader analysis of large “fields” of presentation of information or concepts over a period of time, such as an analysis of the changes in the discourse of masculinity over the past hundred years. Genealogy is a type of discourse analysis that examines the history of the broad fields of discourses discussed above. It also lays bare the underpinnings that prop up modern discourses or fields such as mental health, the penal system. An example of genealogical research is Edward Said’s study of Orientalism, which refers to the Western fascination with or romanticization of the “exotic” culture of Middle and Far Eastern societies.

Quantitative research methods, in contrast to qualitative methods, are used to gather countable data on social issues; they are more likely than qualitative methods to favour an outsider perspective and objectivity. Here, the researcher rather than research participants are the experts. Quantitative research focuses on social elements that can be counted and measured and is used to generate statistics. Statistics, in sociology, is the science of using numbers to map social behaviour and beliefs. Quantifiable research involves the use of operational definitions. Operationalizing a definition entails taking an abstract or theoretical concept (e.g., “poverty,” “abuse”) and transforming it into a concrete and measurable entity.

Two key terms used in understanding and carrying out quantitative research are variable and correlation. Variables are concepts with measurable traits or characteristics that can vary or change from one person, group, culture, or time to another. We distinguish between two different types of variables: independent and dependent variables. Independent variables have some influence on other variables; in other words, they cause changes in another variable. Dependent variables are those that are assumed to be influenced by independent variables i.e they are the effect the independent variable has.

Correlations occur when two variables are associated more frequently with one another than could reasonably be expected by chance. Direct (or positive) correlations exist when the independent and dependent variables increase or decrease together, while inverse (or negative) correlations occur when variables change in opposing directions. While correlations are relatively simple to demonstrate, it is crucial to understand that a correlation does not automatically mean that the independent variable caused a change in the dependent variable. Causation is not as simple to determine as correlation. When someone assumes that a correlation demonstrates causation, spurious reasoning is present. Spurious reasoning involves falsely making causal explanations without recognizing the influence of a critical third or spurious variable—an outside factor influencing both correlated variables.

Statistics should always be critically examined. As sociologist Joel Best (2001) notes, it is important to recognize that all statistics are flawed to a certain extent, but that some flaws are more significant than others. Best emphasizes the importance of critical thinking when dealing with statistics and provides a number of questions to consider when statistics are encountered. It should be noted that surveys, polls could be disingenuous as well.

Finally, it is important to consider that nearly all research relationships are fundamentally unequal relationships. Typically, researchers have been the ones to define the questions, determine who will be asked what questions, interpret the collected data, and decide what will be done with the results of the research. This power imbalance is even greater when the subjects of study are members of marginalized groups such as racial minorities and colonized subjects (indigenous groups) and the researchers have more social power. Thus, researchers now pay increasing attention to research ethics, which entails demonstrating respect for the research subjects. Today, all human subjects research must be based on informed consent, which means participants indicate their understanding and acceptance of research conditions.

Learning Objectives

After reading chapter two, you will be able to:

  • Articulate the difference among fact, theory, and hypothesis.
  • Understand the role of scientific method as social science research.
  • Name some strengths and limitations of insider and outsider perspectives.
  • Distinguish between qualitative and quantitative sociological research.
  • Outline the value of narratives to sociological research.
  • State the significance of operational definitions in quantitative research.
  • Recognize and give examples of spurious reasoning.
  • Explain why care must be taken with using statistics.
  • Respect the importance of ethics in treating research subjects.