Module 1: Foundations of Sociology

The main sociological theories, learning outcomes.

  • Explain sociological theories

People holding posters and waving flags outside at a protest rally.

Figure 1. Sociologists develop theories to explain social occurrences such as protest rallies. (Photo courtesy of voanews.com/Wikimedia Commons)

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns, and they develop a theory in an attempt to explain why things work as they do. A sociological  theory  seeks to explain social phenomena. Theories can be used to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis , about society (Allan 2006).

Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro-level theories look at very specific relationships between individuals or small groups. Grand theories attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change. Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their predecessors and add to them (Calhoun 2002).

In sociology, a few theories provide broad perspectives that help explain many different aspects of social life, and these are called paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them. Three paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking, because they provide useful explanations: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

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  • Major Sociological Paradigms: Crash Course Sociology #2. Provided by : CrashCourse. Located at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbTt_ySTjaY . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License
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Chapter 2. Sociological Research

Learning objectives.

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

  • Define and describe the scientific method
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research
  • Understand the difference between positivist and interpretive approaches to the scientific method in sociology
  • Define what reliability and validity mean in a research study

2.2. Research Methods

  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, experiments, field research, and secondary data and textual analysis
  • Understand why different topics are better suited to different research approaches

2.3. Ethical Concerns

  • Understand why ethical standards exist
  • Demonstrate awareness of the Canadian Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics
  • Define value neutrality
  • Outline some of the issues of value neutrality in sociology

Introduction to Sociological Research

In the university cafeteria, you set your lunch tray down at a table, grab a chair, join a group of your classmates, and hear the start of two discussions. One person says, “It’s weird how Justin Bieber has 48 million followers on Twitter.” Another says, “Disney World is packed year round.” Those two seemingly benign statements are claims, or opinions, based on everyday observation of human behaviour. Perhaps the speakers had firsthand experience, talked to experts, conducted online research, or saw news segments on TV. In response, two conversations erupt. “I don’t see why anyone would want to go to Disney World and stand in those long lines.” “Are you kidding?! Going to Disney World is one of my favourite childhood memories.” “It’s the opposite for me with Justin Bieber. Seeing people camp out outside his hotel just to get a glimpse of him; it doesn’t make sense.” “Well, you’re not a teenage girl.” “Going to a theme park is way different than trying to see a teenage heart throb.” “But both are things people do for the same reason: they’re looking for a good time.” “If you call getting crushed by a crowd of strangers fun.”

As your classmates at the lunch table discuss what they know or believe, the two topics converge. The conversation becomes a debate. Someone compares Beliebers to Beatles fans. Someone else compares Disney World to a cruise. Students take sides, agreeing or disagreeing, as the conversation veers to topics such as crowd control, mob mentality, political protests, and group dynamics. If you contributed your expanding knowledge of sociological research to this conversation, you might make statements like these: “Justin Bieber’s fans long for an escape from the boredom of real teenage life. Beliebers join together claiming they want romance, except what they really want is a safe place to explore the confusion of teenage sexual feelings.” And this: “Mickey Mouse is a larger-than-life cartoon celebrity. Disney World is a place where families go to see what it would be like to live inside a cartoon.” You finish lunch, clear away your tray, and hurry to your next class. But you are thinking of Justin Bieber and Disney World. You have a new perspective on human behaviour and a list of questions that you want answered. That is the purpose of sociological research—to investigate and provide insights into how human societies function.

Although claims and opinions are part of sociology, sociologists use empirical evidence (that is, evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation) combined with the scientific method or an interpretive framework to deliver sound sociological research. They also rely on a theoretical foundation that provides an interpretive perspective through which they can make sense of scientific results. A truly scientific sociological study of the social situations up for discussion in the cafeteria would involve these prescribed steps: defining a specific question, gathering information and resources through observation, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis in a reproducible manner, analyzing and drawing conclusions from the data, publishing the results, and anticipating further development when future researchers respond to and retest findings.

An appropriate starting point in this case might be the question “What do fans of Justin Bieber seek that drives them to follow his Twitter comments so faithfully?” As you begin to think like a sociologist, you may notice that you have tapped into your observation skills. You might assume that your observations and insights are valuable and accurate. But the results of casual observation are limited by the fact that there is no standardization—who is to say one person’s observation of an event is any more accurate than another’s? To mediate these concerns, sociologists rely on systematic research processes.

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behaviour is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behaviour as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have enlightened parents, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms. The students at that university cafeteria discussion put forth a few loosely stated opinions.

If the human behaviours around those claims were tested systematically, a student could write a report and offer the findings to fellow sociologists and the world in general. The new perspective could help people understand themselves and their neighbours and help people make better decisions about their lives. It might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social trends, but, as we shall see, it’s extremely helpful to rely on systematic approaches that research methods provide. Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen in this world. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once a question is formed, a sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. In deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a positivist approach or an interpretive approach. The following sections describe these approaches to knowledge.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried-and-true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, field research, and textual analysis. But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that they can seem impossible to chart or explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions or about proving ideas right or wrong rather than about exploring the nuances of human behaviour. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behaviour. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results. This is the case for both positivist or quantitative methodologies and interpretive or qualitative methodologies. The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.

But just because sociological studies use scientific methods does not make the results less human. Sociological topics are not reduced to right or wrong facts. In this field, results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before—knowledge of other cultures, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, knowledge of trends and attitudes. No matter what research approach is used, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability (how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced). Reliability increases the likelihood that what is true of one person will be true of all people in a group. Researchers also strive for validity (how well the study measures what it was designed to measure).

Returning to the Disney World topic, reliability of a study would reflect how well the resulting experience represents the average experience of theme park-goers. Validity would ensure that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study, so an exploration of adults’ interactions with costumed mascots should address that issue and not veer into other age groups’ interactions with them or into adult interactions with staff or other guests.

In general, sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes. For example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs. They might study environmental influences and patterns of behaviour that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or illness. And, because sociological studies are not all focused on problematic behaviours or challenging situations, researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighbourhood organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but to interpret and analyze the data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in but not attached to the results. Their research work is independent of their own political or social beliefs. This does not mean researchers are not critical. Nor does it mean they do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. With its systematic approach, the scientific method has proven useful in shaping sociological studies. The scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring a social problem. They provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps—1) ask a question, 2) research existing sources, 3) formulate a hypothesis—described below.

Ask a Question

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geography and timeframe. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” would be too narrow. That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study.

Sociologists do not rule out any topic, but would strive to frame these questions in better research terms. That is why sociologists are careful to define their terms. In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the cultural value placed on appearance?” When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition ; that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The concept is translated into an observable variable , a measure that has different values. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept.

By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. The operational definition must be valid in the sense that it is an appropriate and meaningful measure of the concept being studied. It must also be reliable, meaning that results will be close to uniform when tested on more than one person. For example, “good drivers” might be defined in many ways: those who use their turn signals, those who don’t speed, or those who courteously allow others to merge. But these driving behaviours could be interpreted differently by different researchers and could be difficult to measure. Alternatively, “a driver who has never received a traffic violation” is a specific description that will lead researchers to obtain the same information, so it is an effective operational definition.

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review , which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library and a thorough online search will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge. It allows them to sharpen the focus of their research question and avoid duplicating previous research. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to build on previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about childrearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. It’s important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates a researcher and helps refine and improve a study’s design.

Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related; it makes a conjectural statement about the relationship between those variables. It is an “educated guess” because it is not random but based on theory, observations, patterns of experience, or the existing literature. The hypothesis formulates this guess in the form of a testable proposition. However, how the hypothesis is handled differs between the positivist and interpretive approaches. Positivist methodologies are often referred to as hypothetico-deductive methodologies . A hypothesis is derived from a theoretical proposition. On the basis of the hypothesis a prediction or generalization is logically deduced. In positivist sociology, the hypothesis predicts how one form of human behaviour influences another.

Successful prediction will determine the adequacy of the hypothesis and thereby test the theoretical proposition. Typically positivist approaches operationalize variables as quantitative data ; that is, by translating a social phenomenon like “health” into a quantifiable or numerically measurable variable like “number of visits to the hospital.” This permits sociologists to formulate their predictions using mathematical language like regression formulas, to present research findings in graphs and tables, and to perform mathematical or statistical techniques to demonstrate the validity of relationships.

Variables are examined to see if there is a correlation between them. When a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable there is a correlation. This does not necessarily indicate that changes in one variable causes a change in another variable, however, just that they are associated. A key distinction here is between independent and dependent variables. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect , or thing that is changed. For example, in a basic study, the researcher would establish one form of human behaviour as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)? For it to become possible to speak about causation, three criteria must be satisfied:

  • There must be a relationship or correlation between the independent and dependent variables.
  • The independent variable must be prior to the dependent variable.
  • There must be no other intervening variable responsible for the causal relationship.

 Table 2.1. Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables Typically, the independent variable causes the dependent variable to change in some way.

At this point, a researcher’s operational definitions help measure the variables. In a study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, one researcher might define “good” grades as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for “good.” Another operational definition might describe “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” Those definitions set limits and establish cut-off points, ensuring consistency and replicability in a study. As the chart shows, an independent variable is the one that causes a dependent variable to change. For example, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Or rephrased, a child’s sense of self-esteem depends, in part, on the quality and availability of hygienic resources.

Of course, this hypothesis can also work the other way around. Perhaps a sociologist believes that increasing a child’s sense of self-esteem (the independent variable) will automatically increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example shows, simply identifying two topics, or variables, is not enough: Their prospective relationship must be part of the hypothesis. Just because a sociologist forms an educated prediction of a study’s outcome doesn’t mean data contradicting the hypothesis are not welcome. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns.

In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high school dropouts have a hard time finding a rewarding career. While it has become at least a cultural assumption that the higher the education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results will vary.

While many sociologists rely on the positivist hypothetico-deductive method in their research, others operate from an interpretive approach . While systematic, this approach does not follow the hypothesis-testing model that seeks to make generalizable predictions from quantitative variables. Instead, an interpretive framework seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants, leading to in-depth knowledge. It focuses on qualitative data, or the meanings that guide people’s behaviour. Rather than relying on quantitative instruments like questionnaires or experiments, which can be artificial, the interpretive approach attempts to find ways to get closer to the informants’ lived experience and perceptions. Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. It can begin from a deductive approach, by deriving a hypothesis from theory and then seeking to confirm it through methodologies like in-depth interviews.

However, it is ideally suited to an inductive approach in which the hypothesis emerges only after a substantial period of direct observation or interaction with subjects. This type of approach is exploratory in that the researcher also learns as he or she proceeds, sometimes adjusting the research methods or processes midway to respond to new insights and findings as they evolve. Once the preliminary work is done, it’s time for the next research steps: designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. These research methods are discussed below.

Sociologists examine the world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study—perhaps a positivist, quantitative method for conducting research and obtaining data, or perhaps an ethnographic study utilizing an interpretive framework. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher would not stroll into a crime-ridden neighbourhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?” And if a researcher walked into a coffee shop and told the employees they would be observed as part of a study on work efficiency, the self-conscious, intimidated baristas might not behave naturally.

In the 1920s, leaders of a Chicago factory called Hawthorne Works commissioned a study to determine whether or not changing certain aspects of working conditions could increase or decrease worker productivity. Sociologists were surprised when the productivity of a test group increased when the lighting of their workspace was improved. They were even more surprised when productivity improved when the lighting of the workspace was dimmed. In fact almost every change of independent variable—lighting, breaks, work hours—resulted in an improvement of productivity. But when the study was over, productivity dropped again.

Why did this happen? In 1953, Henry A. Landsberger analyzed the study results to answer this question. He realized that employees’ productivity increased because sociologists were paying attention to them. The sociologists’ presence influenced the study results. Worker behaviours were altered not by the lighting but by the study itself. From this, sociologists learned the importance of carefully planning their roles as part of their research design (Franke and Kaul 1978). Landsberger called the workers’ response the Hawthorne effect —people changing their behaviour because they know they are being watched as part of a study.

The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research. In many cases, sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known for ethical reasons. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985). Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviours, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers cannot just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Ku Klux Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviours. In situations like these, other methods are needed. All studies shape the research design, while research design simultaneously shapes the study. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topic and that fit with their overall goal for the research.

In planning a study’s design, sociologists generally choose from four widely used methods of social investigation: survey, experiment, field research, and textual or secondary data analysis (or use of existing sources). Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use.

As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire. The survey is one of the most widely used positivist research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

At some point or another, everyone responds to some type of survey. The Statistics Canada census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Customers also fill out questionnaires at stores or promotional events, responding to questions such as “How did you hear about the event?” and “Were the staff helpful?” You’ve probably picked up the phone and heard a caller ask you to participate in a political poll or similar type of survey: “Do you eat hot dogs? If yes, how many per month?” Not all surveys would be considered sociological research. Marketing polls help companies refine marketing goals and strategies; they are generally not conducted as part of a scientific study, meaning they are not designed to test a hypothesis or to contribute knowledge to the field of sociology. The results are not published in a refereed scholarly journal, where design, methodology, results, and analyses are vetted.

Often, polls on TV do not reflect a general population, but are merely answers from a specific show’s audience. Polls conducted by programs such as American Idol or Canadian Idol represent the opinions of fans but are not particularly scientific. A good contrast to these are the BBM Ratings, which determine the popularity of radio and television programming in Canada through scientific market research. Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel and think—or at least how they say they feel and think. Surveys can track attitudes and opinions, political preferences, reported individual behaviours (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits), or factual information such as employment status, income, and education levels. A survey targets a specific population , people who are the focus of a study, such as university athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes.

Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample : that is, a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample , every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. According to the laws of probability, random samples represent the population as a whole. For instance, an Ipsos Reid poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people. However the validity of surveys can be threatened when part of the population is inadvertently excluded from the sample (e.g., telephone surveys that rely on land lines exclude people that use only cell phones) or when there is a low response rate. After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses.

It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the study upfront. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument (a means of gathering the information). A common instrument is a structured questionnaire, in which subjects answer a series of set questions. For some topics, the researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question.

This kind of quantitative data —research collected in numerical form that can be counted—is easy to tabulate. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” answers or tabulate the scales of “strongly agree,” “agree,” disagree,” etc. responses and chart them into percentages. This is also their chief drawback however: their artificiality. In real life, there are rarely any unambiguously yes-or-no answers. Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” or an option next to a checkbox. In those cases, the answers are subjective, varying from person to person. How do you plan to use your university education? Why do you follow Justin Bieber around the country and attend every concert? Those types of questions require short essay responses, and participants willing to take the time to write those answers will convey personal information about religious beliefs, political views, and morals.

Some topics that reflect internal thought are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of information is qualitative data —results that are subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. Interviews are similar to the short answer questions on surveys in that the researcher asks subjects a series of questions. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly. Questions such as “How did society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. And, obviously, a sociological interview is not an interrogation. The researcher will benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Experiments

You’ve probably tested personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis. One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment , meaning they investigate relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach. There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments.

In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that perhaps more data can be recorded in a certain amount of time. In a natural or field-based experiment, the generation of data cannot be controlled but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher. As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens, then another particular thing will result.

To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables. Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group . The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. This is similar to pharmaceutical drug trials in which the experimental group is given the test drug and the control group is given a placebo or sugar pill. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might expose the experimental group of students to tutoring while the control group does not receive tutoring. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record, for example.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is perhaps one of the most famous sociological experiments ever conducted. In 1971, 24 healthy, middle-class male university students were selected to take part in a simulated jail environment to examine the effects of social setting and social roles on individual psychology and behaviour. They were randomly divided into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. The prisoner subjects were arrested at home and transported blindfolded to the simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building on the campus of Stanford University. Within a day of arriving the prisoners and the guards began to display signs of trauma and sadism respectively. After some prisoners revolted by blockading themselves in their cells, the guards resorted to using increasingly humiliating and degrading tactics to control the prisoners through psychological manipulation. The experiment had to be abandoned after only six days because the abuse had grown out of hand (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973). While the insights into the social dynamics of authoritarianism it generated were fascinating, the Stanford Prison Experiment also serves as an example of the ethical issues that emerge when experimenting on human subjects.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

An experiment in action: mincome.

A real-life example will help illustrate the experimental process in sociology. Between 1974 and 1979 an experiment was conducted in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba (the “garden capital of Manitoba”). Each family received a modest monthly guaranteed income—a “mincome”—equivalent to a maximum of 60 percent of the “low-income cut-off figure” (a Statistics Canada measure of poverty, which varies with family size). The income was 50 cents per dollar less for families who had incomes from other sources. Families earning over a certain income level did not receive mincome. Families that were already collecting welfare or unemployment insurance were also excluded. The test families in Dauphin were compared with control groups in other rural Manitoba communities on a range of indicators such as number of hours worked per week, school performance, high school dropout rates, and hospital visits (Forget 2011). A guaranteed annual income was seen at the time as a less costly, less bureaucratic public alternative for addressing poverty than the existing employment insurance and welfare programs. Today it is an active proposal being considered in Switzerland (Lowrey 2013).

Intuitively, it seems logical that lack of income is the cause of poverty and poverty-related issues. One of the main concerns, however, was whether a guaranteed income would create a disincentive to work. The concept appears to challenge the principles of the Protestant work ethic (see the discussion of Max Weber in Chapter 1). The study did find very small decreases in hours worked per week: about 1 percent for men, 3 percent for wives, and 5 percent for unmarried women. Forget (2011) argues this was because the income provided an opportunity for people to spend more time with family and school, especially for young mothers and teenage girls. There were also significant social benefits from the experiment, including better test scores in school, lower high school dropout rates, fewer visits to hospital, fewer accidents and injuries, and fewer mental health issues.

Ironically, due to lack of guaranteed funding (and lack of political interest by the late 1970s), the data and results of the study were not analyzed or published until 2011. The data were archived and sat gathering dust in boxes. The mincome experiment demonstrated the benefits that even a modest guaranteed annual income supplement could have on health and social outcomes in communities. People seem to live healthier lives and get a better education when they do not need to worry about poverty. In her summary of the research, Forget notes that the impact of the income supplement was surprisingly large given that at any one time only about a third of the families were receiving the income and, for some families, the income amount would have been very small. The income benefit was largest for low-income working families but the research showed that the entire community profited. The improvement in overall health outcomes for the community suggest that a guaranteed income would also result in savings for the public health system.

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Sociologists seldom study subjects in their own offices or laboratories. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey. It is a research method suited to an interpretive approach rather than to positivist approaches. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In fieldwork, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element. The researcher interacts with or observes a person or people, gathering data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or a care home, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviours in that setting. Fieldwork is optimal for observing how people behave. It is less useful, however, for developing causal explanations of why they behave that way. From the small size of the groups studied in fieldwork, it is difficult to make predictions or generalizations to a larger population. Similarly, there are difficulties in gaining an objective distance from research subjects. It is difficult to know whether another researcher would see the same things or record the same data. We will look at three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and the case study.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

When is sharing not such a good idea.

Choosing a research methodology depends on a number of factors, including the purpose of the research and the audience for whom the research is intended. If we consider the type of research that might go into producing a government policy document on the effectiveness of safe injection sites for reducing the public health risks of intravenous drug use, we would expect public administrators to want “hard” (i.e., quantitative) evidence of high reliability to help them make a policy decision. The most reliable data would come from an experimental or quasi-experimental research model in which a control group can be compared with an experimental group using quantitative measures.

This approach has been used by researchers studying InSite in Vancouver (Marshall et al. 2011; Wood et al. 2006). InSite is a supervised safe-injection site where heroin addicts and other intravenous drug users can go to inject drugs in a safe, clean environment. Clean needles are provided and health care professionals are on hand to intervene in the case of overdose or other medical emergency. It is a controversial program both because heroin use is against the law (the facility operates through a federal ministerial exemption) and because the heroin users are not obliged to quit using or seek therapy. To assess the effectiveness of the program, researchers compared the risky usage of drugs in populations before and after the opening of the facility and geographically near and distant to the facility. The results from the studies have shown that InSite has reduced both deaths from overdose and risky behaviours, such as the sharing of needles, without increasing the levels of crime associated with drug use and addiction.

On the other hand, if the research question is more exploratory (for example, trying to discern the reasons why individuals in the crack smoking subculture engage in the risky activity of sharing pipes), the more nuanced approach of fieldwork is more appropriate. The research would need to focus on the subcultural context, rituals, and meaning of sharing pipes, and why these phenomena override known health concerns. Graduate student Andrew Ivsins at the University of Victoria studied the practice of sharing pipes among 13 habitual users of crack cocaine in Victoria, B.C. (Ivsins 2010). He met crack smokers in their typical setting downtown and used an unstructured interview method to try to draw out the informal norms that lead to sharing pipes. One factor he discovered was the bond that formed between friends or intimate partners when they shared a pipe. He also discovered that there was an elaborate subcultural etiquette of pipe use that revolved around the benefit of getting the crack resin smokers left behind. Both of these motives tended to outweigh the recognized health risks of sharing pipes (such as hepatitis) in the decision making of the users. This type of research was valuable in illuminating the unknown subcultural norms of crack use that could still come into play in a harm reduction strategy such as distributing safe crack kits to addicts.

Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work there. His main purpose was simply to see if anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later, he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology. However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a sociologist will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation , in which researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers study a naturally occurring social activity without imposing artificial or intrusive research devices, like fixed questionnaire questions, onto the situation. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behaviour. Researchers temporarily put themselves into “native” roles and record their observations. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, or live as a homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside. Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in shaping data into results. In a study of small-town America conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study on the role of religion in American towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change their methods, but they revised their purpose. This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture , their published results (Lynd and Lynd 1959).

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviours of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ behaviour. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job. Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or book, describing what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, as the story goes, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it? That is how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the low-wage service sector. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter. She discovered the obvious: that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle- and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of service work employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

Ethnography

Ethnography is the extended observation of the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social setting. Researchers seek to immerse themselves in the life of a bounded group, by living and working among them. Often ethnography involves participant observation, but the focus is the systematic observation of an entire community.

The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a community. An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small Newfoundland fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or Disney World. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible, and keeping careful notes on his or her observations.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might learn the language, watch the way villagers go about their daily lives, ask individuals about the meaning of different aspects of activity, study the group’s cosmology and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat centre, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record how people experience spirituality in this setting, and collate the material into results.

The Feminist Perspective: Institutional Ethnography

Dorothy Smith elaborated on traditional ethnography to develop what she calls institutional ethnography (2005). In modern society the practices of everyday life in any particular local setting are often organized at a level that goes beyond what an ethnographer might observe directly. Everyday life is structured by “extralocal,” institutional forms; that is, by the practices of institutions that act upon people from a distance. It might be possible to conduct ethnographic research on the experience of domestic abuse by living in a women’s shelter and directly observing and interviewing victims to see how they form an understanding of their situation. However, to the degree that the women are seeking redress through the criminal justice system a crucial element of the situation would be missing. In order to activate a response from the police or the courts, a set of standard legal procedures must be followed, a “case file” must be opened, legally actionable evidence must be established, forms filled out, etc. All of this allows criminal justice agencies to organize and coordinate the response.

The urgent and immediate experience of the domestic abuse victims needs to be translated into a format that enables distant authorities to take action. Often this is a frustrating and mysterious process in which the immediate needs of individuals are neglected so that needs of institutional processes are met. Therefore to research the situation of domestic abuse victims, an ethnography needs to somehow operate at two levels: the close examination of the local experience of particular women and the simultaneous examination of the extralocal, institutional world through which their world is organized. In order to accomplish this, institutional ethnography focuses on the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through “textually mediated” practices: the use of written documents, standardized bureaucratic categories, and formalized relationships (Smith 1990).

Institutional paperwork translates the specific details of locally lived experience into a standardized format that enables institutions to apply the institution’s understandings, regulations, and operations in different local contexts. The study of these textual practices reveal otherwise inaccessible processes that formal organizations depend on: their formality, their organized character, and their ongoing methods of coordination, etc. An institutional ethnography often begins by following the paper trail that emerges when people interact with institutions: how does a person formulate a narrative about what has happened to him or her in a way that the institution will recognize? How is it translated into the abstract categories on a form or screen that enable an institutional response to be initiated? What is preserved in the translation to paperwork and what is lost? Where do the forms go next? What series of “processing interchanges” take place between different departments or agencies through the circulation of paperwork? How is the paperwork modified and made actionable through this process (e.g., an incident report, warrant request, motion for continuance)?

Smith’s insight is that the shift from the locally lived experience of individuals to the extralocal world of institutions is nothing short of a radical metaphysical shift in worldview. In institutional worlds, meanings are detached from directly lived processes and reconstituted in an organizational time, space, and consciousness that is fundamentally different from their original reference point. For example, the crisis that has led to a loss of employment becomes a set of anonymous criteria that determines one’s eligibility for Employment Insurance.

The unique life of a disabled child becomes a checklist that determines the content of an “individual education program” in the school system, which in turn determines whether funding will be provided for special aid assistants or therapeutic programs. Institutions put together a picture of what has occurred that is not at all the same as what was lived. The ubiquitous but obscure mechanism by which this is accomplished is textually mediated communication . The goal of institutional ethnography therefore is to making “documents or texts visible as constituents of social relations” (Smith 1990). Institutional ethnography is very useful as a critical research strategy. It is an analysis that gives grassroots organizations, or those excluded from the circles of institutional power, a detailed knowledge of how the administrative apparatuses actually work. This type of research enables more effective actions and strategies for change to be pursued.

The Case Study

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation, and even participant observation, if possible. Researchers might use this method to study a single case of, for example, a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that a developed study of a single case, while offering depth on a topic, does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can add tremendous knowledge to a certain discipline. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviours and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about 100 cases of “feral children” in the world. As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” child development. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject. At age three, a Ukrainian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, eating raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbour called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviours, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2006). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be collectable by any other method.

Secondary Data or Textual Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline through secondary data or textual analysis . Secondary data do not result from firsthand research collected from primary sources, but are drawn from the already-completed work of other researchers. Sociologists might study texts written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists. They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines from any period in history. Using available information not only saves time and money, but it can add depth to a study. Sociologists often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behaviour and attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or Facebook.

One methodology that sociologists employ with secondary data is content analysis. Content analysis is a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content (i.e., a variable) that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output. For example, Gilens (1996) wanted to find out why survey research shows that the American public substantially exaggerates the percentage of African Americans among the poor. He examined whether media representations influence public perceptions and did a content analysis of photographs of poor people in American news magazines. He coded and then systematically recorded incidences of three variables: (1) Race: white, black, indeterminate; (2) Employed: working, not working; and (3) Age. Gilens discovered that not only were African Americans markedly overrepresented in news magazine photographs of poverty, but that the photos also tended to underrepresent “sympathetic” subgroups of the poor—the elderly and working poor—while overrepresenting less sympathetic groups—unemployed, working age adults. Gilens concluded that by providing a distorted representation of poverty, U.S. news magazines “reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks as mired in poverty and contribute to the belief that poverty is primarily a ‘black problem’” (1996).

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and global groups, like Statistics Canada or the World Health Organization, publish studies with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic that measures inequality of incomes might be useful for studying who benefited and who lost as a result of the 2008 recession; a demographic profile of different immigrant groups might be compared with data on unemployment to examine the reasons why immigration settlement programs are more effective for some communities than for others. One of the advantages of secondary data is that it is nonreactive (or unobtrusive) research, meaning that it does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process. Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher needs to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. In some cases there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy, for example, to count how many drunk drivers are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not include the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the salaries paid to professors at universities is often published. But the separate figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they have been teaching. In his research, sociologist Richard Sennett uses secondary data to shed light on current trends. In The Craftsman (2008), he studied the human desire to perform quality work, from carpentry to computer programming. He studied the line between craftsmanship and skilled manual labour. He also studied changes in attitudes toward craftsmanship that occurred not only during and after the Industrial Revolution, but also in ancient times. Obviously, he could not have firsthand knowledge of periods of ancient history; he had to rely on secondary data for part of his study. When conducting secondary data or textual analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research for their book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture in the 1920s. Attitudes and cultural norms were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal the truth about small American communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviours. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used toward positive change. And while a sociologist’s goal is often simply to uncover knowledge rather than to spur action, many people use sociological studies to help improve people’s lives. In that sense, conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Like any researchers, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming subjects or groups while conducting their research. The Canadian Sociological Association, or CSA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in Canada. The CSA is a great resource for students of sociology as well.

The CSA maintains a code of ethics —formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards to be used in the discipline. It also describes procedures for filing, investigating, and resolving complaints of unethical conduct. These are in line with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010) , which applies to any research with human subjects funded by one of the three federal research agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Practising sociologists and sociology students have a lot to consider. Some of the guidelines state that researchers must try to be skillful and fair-minded in their work, especially as it relates to their human subjects. Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent, and inform subjects of the responsibilities and risks of research before they agree to participate. During a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level. Researchers are required to protect the privacy of research participants whenever possible. Even if pressured by authorities, such as police or courts, researchers are not ethically allowed to release confidential information. Researchers must make results available to other sociologists, must make public all sources of financial support, and must not accept funding from any organization that might cause a conflict of interest or seek to influence the research results for its own purposes. The CSA’s ethical considerations shape not only the study but also the publication of results.

Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared it was entirely inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated, must establish value neutrality , a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results (1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data. Value neutrality does not mean having no opinions. It means striving to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It means avoiding skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs. Is value neutrality possible?

Many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. Individuals inevitably see the world from a partial perspective. Their interests are central to the types of topics they choose, the types of questions they ask, the way they frame their research and the research methodologies they select to pursue it. Moreover, facts, however objective, do not exist in a void. As we noted in Chapter 1, Jürgen Habermas (1972) argues that sociological research has built-in interests quite apart from the personal biases of individual researchers. Positivist sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that are useful for controlling and administering social life. Interpretive sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that promote greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society. Critical sociology has an interest in types of knowledge that enable emancipation from power relations and forms of domination in society. In Habermas’ view, sociological knowledge is not disinterested knowledge. This does not discredit the results of sociological research but allows readers to take into account the perspective of the research when judging the validity and applicability of its outcomes.

case study in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual

code of ethics a set of guidelines that the Canadian Sociological Association has established to foster ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology

content analysis a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output

control group an experimental group that is not exposed to the independent variable

correlation when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable, but does not necessarily indicate causation

d ependent variable variable changed by another variable

empirical evidence evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation

ethnography observing a complete social setting and all that it entails

experiment the testing of a hypothesis under controlled conditions

field research gathering data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey

Hawthorne effect when study subjects behave in a certain manner due to their awareness of being observed by a researcher

hypothesis an educated guess with predicted outcomes about the relationship between two or more variables hypothetico-deductive methodologies methodologies based on deducing a prediction from a hypothesis and testing the  validity of the hypothesis by whether it correctly predicts observations

independent variable  variable that causes change in a dependent variable

inductive approach methodologies that derive a general statement from a series of empirical observations

institutional ethnography the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through institutional, textually mediated practices

interpretive approach a sociological research approach that seeks in-depth understanding of a topic or subject through observation or interaction

interview  a one-on-one conversation between a researcher and a subject

literature review a scholarly research step that entails identifying and studying all existing studies on a topic to create a basis for new research

nonreactive  unobtrusive research that does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours

operational definitions specific explanations of abstract concepts that a researcher plans to study

participant observation immersion by a researcher in a group or social setting in order to make observations from an “insider” perspective

population a defined group serving as the subject of a study

positivist approach a research approach based on the natural science model of knowledge utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question and quantitative data

primary data data collected directly from firsthand experience

qualitative data  information based on interpretations of meaning

quantitative data information from research collected in numerical form that can be counted

random sample a study’s participants being randomly selected to serve as a representation of a larger population reliability a measure of a study’s consistency that considers how likely results are to be replicated if a study is reproduced research design a detailed, systematic method for conducting research and obtaining data

sample small, manageable number of subjects that represent the population

scientific method a systematic research method that involves asking a question, researching existing sources, forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions

secondary data analysis using data collected by others but applying new interpretations

surveys data collections from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire

textually mediated communication institutional forms of communication that rely on written documents, texts, and paperwork

validity the degree to which a sociological measure accurately reflects the topic of study

value neutrality a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study and in publishing results

variable a characteristic or measure of a social phenomenon that can take different values

Section Summary

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research Using the scientific method, a researcher conducts a study in five phases: asking a question, researching existing sources, formulating a hypothesis, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. The scientific method is useful in that it provides a clear method of organizing a study. Some sociologists conduct scientific research through a positivist framework utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question. Other sociologists conduct scientific research by employing an interpretive framework that is often inductive in nature. Scientific sociological studies often observe relationships between variables. Researchers study how one variable changes another. Prior to conducting a study, researchers are careful to apply operational definitions to their terms and to establish dependent and independent variables.

2.2. Research Methods Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design. There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behaviour, as well as in interpreting and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results. Sociologists use scientific methods for good reason. The scientific method provides a system of organization that helps researchers plan and conduct the study while ensuring that data and results are reliable, valid, and objective. The many methods available to researchers—including experiments, surveys, field studies, and secondary data analysis—all come with advantages and disadvantages. The strength of a study can depend on the choice and implementation of the appropriate method of gathering research. Depending on the topic, a study might use a single method or a combination of methods. It is important to plan a research design before undertaking a study. The information gathered may in itself be surprising, and the study design should provide a solid framework in which to analyze predicted and unpredicted data.

Table 2.2. Main Sociological Research Methods. Sociological research methods have advantages and disadvantages.

2.3. Ethical Concerns Sociologists and sociology students must take ethical responsibility for any study they conduct. They must first and foremost guarantee the safety of their participants. Whenever possible, they must ensure that participants have been fully informed before consenting to be part of a study. The CSA (Canadian Sociological Association) maintains ethical guidelines that sociologists must take into account as they conduct research. The guidelines address conducting studies, properly using existing sources, accepting funding, and publishing results. Sociologists must try to maintain value neutrality. They must gather and analyze data objectively, setting aside their personal preferences, beliefs, and opinions. They must report findings accurately, even if they contradict personal convictions.

Section Quiz

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research 1. A measurement is considered ______­ if it actually measures what it is intended to measure, according to the topic of the study.

  • sociological
  • quantitative

2. Sociological studies test relationships in which change in one ______ causes change in another.

  • test subject
  • operational definition

3. In a study, a group of 10-year-old boys are fed doughnuts every morning for a week and then weighed to see how much weight they gained. Which factor is the dependent variable?

  • the doughnuts
  • the duration of a week
  • the weight gained

4. Which statement provides the best operational definition of “childhood obesity”?

  • children who eat unhealthy foods and spend too much time watching television and playing video games
  • a distressing trend that can lead to health issues including type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  • body weight at least 20 percent higher than a healthy weight for a child of that height
  • the tendency of children today to weigh more than children of earlier generations

2.2. Research Methods 5. Which materials are considered secondary data?

  • photos and letters given to you by another person
  • books and articles written by other authors about their studies
  • information that you have gathered and now have included in your results
  • responses from participants whom you both surveyed and interviewed

6. What method did Andrew Ivsins use to study crack users in Victoria?

  • field research
  • content analysis

7. Why is choosing a random sample an effective way to select participants?

  • Participants do not know they are part of a study
  • The researcher has no control over who is in the study
  • It is larger than an ordinary sample
  • Everyone has the same chance of being part of the study

8. What research method did John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd mainly use in their Middletown study?

  • secondary data
  • participant observation

9. Which research approach is best suited to the positivist approach?

  • questionnaire
  • ethnography
  • secondary data analysis

10. The main difference between ethnography and other types of participant observation is:

  • ethnography isn’t based on hypothesis testing
  • ethnography subjects are unaware they’re being studied
  • ethnographic studies always involve minority ethnic groups
  • there is no difference

11. Which best describes the results of a case study?

  • it produces more reliable results than other methods because of its depth
  • its results are not generally applicable
  • it relies solely on secondary data analysis
  • all of the above

12. Using secondary data is considered an unobtrusive or ________ research method.

  • nonreactive
  • nonparticipatory
  • nonrestrictive
  • nonconfrontive

2.3. Ethical Concerns 13. Which statement illustrates value neutrality?

  • Obesity in children is obviously a result of parental neglect and, therefore, schools should take a greater role to prevent it.
  • In 2003, states like Arkansas adopted laws requiring elementary schools to remove soft drink vending machines from schools.
  • Merely restricting children’s access to junk food at school is not enough to prevent obesity.
  • Physical activity and healthy eating are a fundamental part of a child’s education.

14. Which person or organization defined the concept of value neutrality?

  • Institutional Review Board (IRB)
  • Peter Rossi
  • Canadian Sociological Association (CSA)

15. To study the effects of fast food on lifestyle, health, and culture, from which group would a researcher ethically be unable to accept funding?

  • a fast-food restaurant
  • a nonprofit health organization
  • a private hospital
  • a governmental agency like Health and Social Services

Short Answer

  • Write down the first three steps of the scientific method. Think of a broad topic that you are interested in and which would make a good sociological study—for example, ethnic diversity in a college, homecoming rituals, athletic scholarships, or teen driving. Now, take that topic through the first steps of the process. For each step, write a few sentences or a paragraph: 1) Ask a question about the topic. 2) Do some research and write down the titles of some articles or books you’d want to read about the topic. 3) Formulate a hypothesis.

2.2.Research Methods

  • What type of data do surveys gather? For what topics would surveys be the best research method? What drawbacks might you expect to encounter when using a survey? To explore further, ask a research question and write a hypothesis. Then create a survey of about six questions relevant to the topic. Provide a rationale for each question. Now define your population and create a plan for recruiting a random sample and administering the survey.
  • Imagine you are about to do field research in a specific place for a set time. Instead of thinking about the topic of study itself, consider how you, as the researcher, will have to prepare for the study. What personal, social, and physical sacrifices will you have to make? How will you manage your personal effects? What organizational equipment and systems will you need to collect the data?
  • Create a brief research design about a topic in which you are passionately interested. Now write a letter to a philanthropic or grant organization requesting funding for your study. How can you describe the project in a convincing yet realistic and objective way? Explain how the results of your study will be a relevant contribution to the body of sociological work already in existence.
  • Why do you think the CSA crafted such a detailed set of ethical principles? What type of study could put human participants at risk? Think of some examples of studies that might be harmful. Do you think that, in the name of sociology, some researchers might be tempted to cross boundaries that threaten human rights? Why?
  • Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that could potentially put your health and safety at risk, but had the potential to help thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people? For example, would you participate in a study of a new drug that could cure diabetes or cancer, even if it meant great inconvenience and physical discomfort for you or possible permanent damage?

Further Research

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research For a historical perspective on the scientific method in sociology, read “The Elements of Scientific Method in Sociology” by F. Stuart Chapin (1914) in the American Journal of Sociology : http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Method-in-Sociology

2.2. Research Methods For information on current real-world sociology experiments, visit: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Sociology-Experiments

2.3. Ethical Concerns Founded in 1966, the CSA is a nonprofit organization located in Montreal, Quebec, with a membership of 900 researchers, faculty members, students, and practitioners of sociology. Its mission is to promote “research, publication and teaching in Sociology in Canada.” Learn more about this organization at http://www.csa-scs.ca/ .

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research Merton, Robert. 1968 [1949]. Social Theory and Social Structure . New York: Free Press.

2.2. Research Methods Forget, Evelyn. 2011. “The Town with no Poverty: Using Health Administration Data to Revisit Outcomes of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiement.” Canadian Public Policy . 37(3): 282-305.

Franke, Richard and James Kaul. 1978. “The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 43(5):632–643.

Gilens, Martin. 1996. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 60(4):515–541. Grice, Elizabeth. 2006. “Cry of an Enfant Sauvage.” The Telegraph . Retrieved July 20, 2011 ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/3653890/Cry-of-an-enfant-sauvage.html ).

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., and Zimbardo, P. G. 1973. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison.” International Journal of Criminology and Penology  1:69–97.

Ivsins, A.K. 2010. “’Got a pipe?’ The social dimensions and functions of crack pipe sharing among crack users in Victoria, BC.” MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria. Retrieved February 14, 2014 ( http://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8080/bitstream/handle/1828/3044/Full%20thesis%20Ivsins_CPS.2010_FINAL.pdf?sequence=1 )

Lowrey, Annie. 2013. “Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive.” The  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2014 ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/magazine/switzerlands-proposal-to-pay-people-for-being-alive.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2 ).

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1959. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture . San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Lynd, Staughton. 2005. “Making Middleton.” Indiana Magazine of History 101(3):226–238.

Marshall, B.D.L., M.J. Milloy,  E. Wood, J.S.G.  Montaner,  and T. Kerr. 2011. “Reduction in overdose mortality after the opening of North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility: A retrospective population-based study.” Lancet  377(9775):1429–1437.

Rothman, Rodney. 2000. “My Fake Job.” The New Yorker , November 27, 120.

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Retrieved July 18, 2011 ( http://www.richardsennett.com/site/SENN/Templates/General.aspx?pageid=40 ).

Smith, Dorothy. 1990. “Textually Mediated Social Organization” Pp. 209–234 in Texts, Facts and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling. London: Routledge.

Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Toronto: Altamira Press.

Sonnenfeld, Jeffery A. 1985. “Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies.” Journal of Occupational Behavior 6:125.

Wood, E., M.W. Tyndall, J.S. Montaner, and T. Kerr. 2006. “Summary of findings from the evaluation of a pilot medically supervised safer injecting facility.” Canadian Medical Association Journal  175(11):1399–1404.

2.3. Ethical Concerns Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2010.  Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans . Retrieved February 15, 2014 ( http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/pdf/eng/tcps2/TCPS_2_FINAL_Web.pdf ).

Canadian Sociological Association. 2012. Statement of Professional Ethics . Retrieved February 15, 2014 ( http://www.csa-scs.ca/files/www/csa/documents/codeofethics/2012Ethics.pdf ).

Habermas, Jürgen. 1972. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press

Weber, Max. 1949. Methodology of the Social Sciences . Translated by H. Shils and E. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. C | 3. D | 4. C | 5. B | 6. C | 7. D | 8. C | 9. A | 10. A | 11. B | 12. A | 13. B | 14. D | 15. A

Image Attributions

Figure 2.3.  Didn’t they abolish the mandatory census? Then what’s this? by  Khosrow Ebrahimpour ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/xosrow/5685345306/in/photolist-9EoT5W-ow4tdu-oeGG4m-oeMEcK-oy2jM2-ovJC8w-oePSRQ-9J2V24-of1Hnu-of243u-of2K2B-of2FHn-owiBSA-owtQN3-of1Ktd-oitLSC-oeVJte-oep8KX-ovEz8w-oeohhF-oew5Xb-oewdWN-owavju-oeMEnV-oweLcN-ovEPGG-ovAQUX-oeo2eL-oeo3Fd-oeoqxh-oxCKnv-ovEzA5-oewFHa-ovHRSz-ow8QtY-oeQY6Y-oeZReR-oeQmHw-oeKXid-oeQLKa-oy6fNT-ow4sVT-oeQMQq-oeQPPr-oeQYbL-ow8hS1-ow4n8v-owiPKS-oeQF41-oeiH5z ) used under CC BY 2.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Figure 2.4. Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station by Bobak Ha’Eri ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2009-0520-TrainStation-Dauphin.jpg ) used under CC BY 3.0 license ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en )

Figure 2.5.  Punk Band by Patrick ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/lordkhan/181561343/in/photostream/ ) used under CC BY 2.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Figure 2.6.  Crack Cocaine Smokers in Vancouver Alleyway ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crack_Cocaine_Smokers_in_Vancouver_Alleyway.jpg ) is in the public domain ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain )

Figure 2.8.  Muncie, Indiana High School: 1917 by Don O’Brien ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/dok1/3694125269/ ) used under CC BY 2.0 license ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Introduction to Sociology - 1st Canadian Edition by William Little and Ron McGivern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Developing a Research Question

18 Hypotheses

When researchers do not have predictions about what they will find, they conduct research to answer a question or questions, with an open-minded desire to know about a topic, or to help develop hypotheses for later testing. In other situations, the purpose of research is to test a specific hypothesis or hypotheses.  A hypothesis is a statement, sometimes but not always causal, describing a researcher’s expectations regarding anticipated finding. Often hypotheses are written to describe the expected relationship between two variables (though this is not a requirement). To develop a hypothesis, one needs to understand the differences between independent and dependent variables and between units of observation and units of analysis. Hypotheses are typically drawn from theories and usually describe how an independent variable is expected to affect some dependent variable or variables. Researchers following a deductive approach to their research will hypothesize about what they expect to find based on the theory or theories that frame their study. If the theory accurately reflects the phenomenon it is designed to explain, then the researcher’s hypotheses about what would be observed in the real world should bear out.

Sometimes researchers will hypothesize that a relationship will take a specific direction. As a result, an increase or decrease in one area might be said to cause an increase or decrease in another. For example, you might choose to study the relationship between age and legalization of marijuana. Perhaps you have done some reading in your spare time, or in another course you have taken.  Based on the theories you have read, you hypothesize that “age is negatively related to support for marijuana legalization.” What have you just hypothesized? You have hypothesized that as people get older, the likelihood of their support for marijuana legalization decreases. Thus, as age moves in one direction (up), support for marijuana legalization moves in another direction (down). If writing hypotheses feels tricky, it is sometimes helpful to draw them out. and depict each of the two hypotheses we have just discussed.

Note that you will almost never hear researchers say that they have proven their hypotheses. A statement that bold implies that a relationship has been shown to exist with absolute certainty and that there is no chance that there are conditions under which the hypothesis would not bear out. Instead, researchers tend to say that their hypotheses have been supported (or not) . This more cautious way of discussing findings allows for the possibility that new evidence or new ways of examining a relationship will be discovered. Researchers may also discuss a null hypothesis, one that predicts no relationship between the variables being studied. If a researcher rejects the null hypothesis, he or she is saying that the variables in question are somehow related to one another.

Quantitative and qualitative researchers tend to take different approaches when it comes to hypotheses. In quantitative research, the goal often is to empirically test hypotheses generated from theory. With a qualitative approach, on the other hand, a researcher may begin with some vague expectations about what he or she will find, but the aim is not to test one’s expectations against some empirical observations. Instead, theory development or construction is the goal. Qualitative researchers may develop theories from which hypotheses can be drawn and quantitative researchers may then test those hypotheses. Both types of research are crucial to understanding our social world, and both play an important role in the matter of hypothesis development and testing.  In the following section, we will look at qualitative and quantitative approaches to research, as well as mixed methods.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter has been adapted from Chapter 5.2 in Principles of Sociological Inquiry , which was adapted by the Saylor Academy without attribution to the original authors or publisher, as requested by the licensor. © Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License .

An Introduction to Research Methods in Sociology by Valerie A. Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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A hypothesis is a statement that is then tested through research. A hypothesis usually consists of what the researcher thinks to be the case, and the purpose of the research is to discover whether she/he was correct. It is a feature of scientific research methodology . Some interpretivist sociologists prefer to use an aim rather than a hypothesis as they are not interested in replicating scientific research methods as they don't believe sociology is, or should try to be, a science.

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  • 2.2 Research Methods
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 What Is Sociology?
  • 1.2 The History of Sociology
  • 1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology
  • 1.4 Why Study Sociology?
  • Section Summary
  • Section Quiz
  • Short Answer
  • Further Research
  • 2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research
  • 2.3 Ethical Concerns
  • 3.1 What Is Culture?
  • 3.2 Elements of Culture
  • 3.3 High, Low, Pop, Sub, Counter-culture and Cultural Change
  • 3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
  • 4.1 Types of Societies
  • 4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
  • 4.3 Social Constructions of Reality
  • 5.1 Theories of Self-Development
  • 5.2 Why Socialization Matters
  • 5.3 Agents of Socialization
  • 5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course
  • 6.1 Types of Groups
  • 6.2 Group Size and Structure
  • 6.3 Formal Organizations
  • 7.1 Deviance and Control
  • 7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Crime
  • 7.3 Crime and the Law
  • 8.1 Technology Today
  • 8.2 Media and Technology in Society
  • 8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology
  • 8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
  • 9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
  • 9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
  • 9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
  • 9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification
  • 10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
  • 10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
  • 10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification
  • 11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
  • 11.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity
  • 11.3 Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism
  • 11.4 Intergroup Relationships
  • 11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States
  • 12.1 Sex, Gender, Identity, and Expression
  • 12.2 Gender and Gender Inequality
  • 12.3 Sexuality
  • 13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
  • 13.2 The Process of Aging
  • 13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly
  • 13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
  • 14.1 What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
  • 14.2 Variations in Family Life
  • 14.3 Challenges Families Face
  • 15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion
  • 15.2 World Religions
  • 15.3 Religion in the United States
  • 16.1 Education around the World
  • 16.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Education
  • 16.3 Issues in Education
  • 17.1 Power and Authority
  • 17.2 Forms of Government
  • 17.3 Politics in the United States
  • 17.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Government and Power
  • Introduction to Work and the Economy
  • 18.1 Economic Systems
  • 18.2 Globalization and the Economy
  • 18.3 Work in the United States
  • 19.1 The Social Construction of Health
  • 19.2 Global Health
  • 19.3 Health in the United States
  • 19.4 Comparative Health and Medicine
  • 19.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Health and Medicine
  • 20.1 Demography and Population
  • 20.2 Urbanization
  • 20.3 The Environment and Society
  • Introduction to Social Movements and Social Change
  • 21.1 Collective Behavior
  • 21.2 Social Movements
  • 21.3 Social Change

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Recall the 6 Steps of the Scientific Method
  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data analysis.
  • Explain the appropriateness of specific research approaches for specific topics.

Sociologists examine the social world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. Sociologists generally choose from widely used methods of social investigation: primary source data collection such as survey, participant observation, ethnography, case study, unobtrusive observations, experiment, and secondary data analysis , or use of existing sources. Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use. When you are conducting research think about the best way to gather or obtain knowledge about your topic, think of yourself as an architect. An architect needs a blueprint to build a house, as a sociologist your blueprint is your research design including your data collection method.

When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher wouldn’t stroll into a crime-ridden neighborhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?”

Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviors, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers can’t just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviors or attract attention. In situations like these, other methods are needed. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topics, protect research participants or subjects, and that fit with their overall approaches to research.

As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviors and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire or an interview. The survey is one of the most widely used scientific research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

At some point, most people in the United States respond to some type of survey. The 2020 U.S. Census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Since 1790, United States has conducted a survey consisting of six questions to received demographical data pertaining to residents. The questions pertain to the demographics of the residents who live in the United States. Currently, the Census is received by residents in the United Stated and five territories and consists of 12 questions.

Not all surveys are considered sociological research, however, and many surveys people commonly encounter focus on identifying marketing needs and strategies rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing to social science knowledge. Questions such as, “How many hot dogs do you eat in a month?” or “Were the staff helpful?” are not usually designed as scientific research. The Nielsen Ratings determine the popularity of television programming through scientific market research. However, polls conducted by television programs such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance cannot be generalized, because they are administered to an unrepresentative population, a specific show’s audience. You might receive polls through your cell phones or emails, from grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores. They often provide you incentives for completing the survey.

Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel, think, and act—or at least how they say they feel, think, and act. Surveys can track preferences for presidential candidates or reported individual behaviors (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits) or information such as employment status, income, and education levels.

A survey targets a specific population , people who are the focus of a study, such as college athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes. Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample , a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample , every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. As a result, a Gallup Poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people.

After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses. It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the survey up front. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument, which is a means of gathering the information.

A common instrument is a questionnaire. Subjects often answer a series of closed-ended questions . The researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question. This kind of questionnaire collects quantitative data —data in numerical form that can be counted and statistically analyzed. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” responses or correct answers, and chart them into percentages.

Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” or checkbox options. These types of inquiries use open-ended questions that require short essay responses. Participants willing to take the time to write those answers might convey personal religious beliefs, political views, goals, or morals. The answers are subjective and vary from person to person. How do you plan to use your college education?

Some topics that investigate internal thought processes are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of personal explanation is qualitative data —conveyed through words. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of in-depth material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and it is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly.

Questions such as “How does society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. The researcher will also benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Surveys often collect both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, a researcher interviewing people who are incarcerated might receive quantitative data, such as demographics – race, age, sex, that can be analyzed statistically. For example, the researcher might discover that 20 percent of incarcerated people are above the age of 50. The researcher might also collect qualitative data, such as why people take advantage of educational opportunities during their sentence and other explanatory information.

The survey can be carried out online, over the phone, by mail, or face-to-face. When researchers collect data outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting, they are conducting field research, which is our next topic.

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In field work, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element.

The researcher interacts with or observes people and gathers data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or the DMV, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviors in that setting. Field work is optimal for observing how people think and behave. It seeks to understand why they behave that way. However, researchers may struggle to narrow down cause and effect when there are so many variables floating around in a natural environment. And while field research looks for correlation, its small sample size does not allow for establishing a causal relationship between two variables. Indeed, much of the data gathered in sociology do not identify a cause and effect but a correlation .

Sociology in the Real World

Beyoncé and lady gaga as sociological subjects.

Sociologist have studied Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and their impact on music, movies, social media, fan participation, and social equality. In their studies, researchers have used several research methods including secondary analysis, participant observation, and surveys from concert participants.

In their study, Click, Lee & Holiday (2013) interviewed 45 Lady Gaga fans who utilized social media to communicate with the artist. These fans viewed Lady Gaga as a mirror of themselves and a source of inspiration. Like her, they embrace not being a part of mainstream culture. Many of Lady Gaga’s fans are members of the LGBTQ community. They see the “song “Born This Way” as a rallying cry and answer her calls for “Paws Up” with a physical expression of solidarity—outstretched arms and fingers bent and curled to resemble monster claws.”

Sascha Buchanan (2019) made use of participant observation to study the relationship between two fan groups, that of Beyoncé and that of Rihanna. She observed award shows sponsored by iHeartRadio, MTV EMA, and BET that pit one group against another as they competed for Best Fan Army, Biggest Fans, and FANdemonium. Buchanan argues that the media thus sustains a myth of rivalry between the two most commercially successful Black women vocal artists.

Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work there. His main purpose was simply to see whether anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later, he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology. However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a writer, or a sociologist, will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation , in which researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers experience a specific aspect of social life. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behavior. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, experience homelessness for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside.

Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in analyzing data and generating results.

In a study of small towns in the United States conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study on the role of religion in U.S. towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change their methods, but they revised the purpose of their study.

This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture , their published results (Lynd & Lynd, 1929).

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviors of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ behavior. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job.

Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or book and describe what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study . To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it?

That’s how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the working class. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter.

She discovered the obvious, that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of working class employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

The book she wrote upon her return to her real life as a well-paid writer, has been widely read and used in many college classrooms.

Ethnography

Ethnography is the immersion of the researcher in the natural setting of an entire social community to observe and experience their everyday life and culture. The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a social group.

An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small U.S. fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might watch the way villagers go about their daily lives and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record data, and collate the material into results.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is an extension of basic ethnographic research principles that focuses intentionally on everyday concrete social relationships. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1990), institutional ethnography is often considered a feminist-inspired approach to social analysis and primarily considers women’s experiences within male- dominated societies and power structures. Smith’s work is seen to challenge sociology’s exclusion of women, both academically and in the study of women’s lives (Fenstermaker, n.d.).

Historically, social science research tended to objectify women and ignore their experiences except as viewed from the male perspective. Modern feminists note that describing women, and other marginalized groups, as subordinates helps those in authority maintain their own dominant positions (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada n.d.). Smith’s three major works explored what she called “the conceptual practices of power” and are still considered seminal works in feminist theory and ethnography (Fensternmaker n.d.).

Sociological Research

The making of middletown: a study in modern u.s. culture.

In 1924, a young married couple named Robert and Helen Lynd undertook an unprecedented ethnography: to apply sociological methods to the study of one U.S. city in order to discover what “ordinary” people in the United States did and believed. Choosing Muncie, Indiana (population about 30,000) as their subject, they moved to the small town and lived there for eighteen months.

Ethnographers had been examining other cultures for decades—groups considered minorities or outsiders—like gangs, immigrants, and the poor. But no one had studied the so-called average American.

Recording interviews and using surveys to gather data, the Lynds objectively described what they observed. Researching existing sources, they compared Muncie in 1890 to the Muncie they observed in 1924. Most Muncie adults, they found, had grown up on farms but now lived in homes inside the city. As a result, the Lynds focused their study on the impact of industrialization and urbanization.

They observed that Muncie was divided into business and working class groups. They defined business class as dealing with abstract concepts and symbols, while working class people used tools to create concrete objects. The two classes led different lives with different goals and hopes. However, the Lynds observed, mass production offered both classes the same amenities. Like wealthy families, the working class was now able to own radios, cars, washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. This was an emerging material reality of the 1920s.

As the Lynds worked, they divided their manuscript into six chapters: Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities.

When the study was completed, the Lynds encountered a big problem. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had commissioned the book, claimed it was useless and refused to publish it. The Lynds asked if they could seek a publisher themselves.

Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was not only published in 1929 but also became an instant bestseller, a status unheard of for a sociological study. The book sold out six printings in its first year of publication, and has never gone out of print (Caplow, Hicks, & Wattenberg. 2000).

Nothing like it had ever been done before. Middletown was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. Readers in the 1920s and 1930s identified with the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, but they were equally fascinated by the sociological methods and the use of scientific data to define ordinary people in the United States. The book was proof that social data was important—and interesting—to the U.S. public.

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation and even participant observation, if possible.

Researchers might use this method to study a single case of a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that while offering depth on a topic, it does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can contribute tremendous incite. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, which are elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviors and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about one hundred cases of “feral children” in the world.

As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” growth and nurturing. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject.

At age three, a Ukranian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, and she ate raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviors, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2011). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be obtained by any other method.

Experiments

You have probably tested some of your own personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis.

One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment , meaning they investigate relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach.

There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments. In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that more data can be recorded in a limited amount of time. In a natural or field- based experiment, the time it takes to gather the data cannot be controlled but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher.

As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens (cause), then another particular thing will result (effect). To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables.

Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might provide tutoring to the experimental group of students but not to the control group. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record of a student, for example.

And if a researcher told the students they would be observed as part of a study on measuring the effectiveness of tutoring, the students might not behave naturally. This is called the Hawthorne effect —which occurs when people change their behavior because they know they are being watched as part of a study. The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research studies because sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985).

A real-life example will help illustrate the process. In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology professor at California State University at Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory, she conducted research. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, White, and Hispanic. She chose students who routinely drove to and from campus along Los Angeles freeway routes, and who had had perfect driving records for longer than a year.

Next, she placed a Black Panther bumper sticker on each car. That sticker, a representation of a social value, was the independent variable. In the 1970s, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary group actively fighting racism. Heussenstamm asked the students to follow their normal driving patterns. She wanted to see whether seeming support for the Black Panthers would change how these good drivers were treated by the police patrolling the highways. The dependent variable would be the number of traffic stops/citations.

The first arrest, for an incorrect lane change, was made two hours after the experiment began. One participant was pulled over three times in three days. He quit the study. After seventeen days, the fifteen drivers had collected a total of thirty-three traffic citations. The research was halted. The funding to pay traffic fines had run out, and so had the enthusiasm of the participants (Heussenstamm, 1971).

Secondary Data Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline through secondary data analysis . Secondary data does not result from firsthand research collected from primary sources, but are the already completed work of other researchers or data collected by an agency or organization. Sociologists might study works written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists. They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines, or organizational data from any period in history.

Using available information not only saves time and money but can also add depth to a study. Sociologists often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behavior and attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or social media.

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and global groups, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the World Health Organization (WHO), publish studies with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic like the foreclosure rate might be useful for studying the effects of a recession. A racial demographic profile might be compared with data on education funding to examine the resources accessible by different groups.

One of the advantages of secondary data like old movies or WHO statistics is that it is nonreactive research (or unobtrusive research), meaning that it does not involve direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviors. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process.

Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher will need to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. To guide the search through a vast library of materials and avoid wasting time reading unrelated sources, sociologists employ content analysis , applying a systematic approach to record and value information gleaned from secondary data as they relate to the study at hand.

Also, in some cases, there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy to count how many drunk drivers, for example, are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not survey the topic from the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the average salaries paid to professors at a public school is public record. But these figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they’ve been teaching.

When conducting content analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, when Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research in the 1920s, attitudes and cultural norms were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal insights about small U.S. communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

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Open Education Sociology Dictionary

Table of Contents

Definition of Hypothesis

( noun ) A proposed and testable explanation between two or more variables that predicts an outcome or explains a phenomenon.

Examples of Hypothesis

  • Note : The  variables are the students, the time spent studying, and the test grades. To test the hypothesis, collect information from each student about how much time they spent studying prior to the test and compare that to the the testing outcomes.
  • Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Types of Hypothesis

  • asymmetry hypothesis
  • null hypothesis
  • substantive hypothesis

Hypothesis Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification : hy·poth·e·sis

Audio Pronunciation

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /hie-pAHth-uh-suhs/
  • British English – /hie-pOth-i-sis/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /haɪˈpɑθəsəs/
  • British English – /hʌɪˈpɒθᵻsᵻs/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: hypotheses
  • A hypothesis must have the capacity to be disconfirmed or proven false to have meaning. For example, “criminals” commit more crimes than “non-criminals” cannot be proven wrong.
  • A hypothesis can either come from theory ( deduction ) or lead to theory ( induction ).
  • A working hypothesis refers to a hypothesis that has not been thoroughly tested and verified.
  • Hypothesis testing is the process of testing a hypothesis in a scientific manner that requires a link between the concepts or  variables under investigation and rigorous testing methodology .
  • An ( noun ) hypothesist ( verb ) hypothesizes ( adverb ) hypothetically about social issues to create an ( adjective ) hypothetical explanation.

Related Videos

Additional Information

  • Quantitative Research Resources – Books, Journals, and Helpful Links
  • Word origin of “hypothesis” – Online Etymology Dictionary: etymonline.com
  • Gauch, Hugh G., Jr. 2003. Scientific Method in Practice . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lehmann, E. L., and Joseph P. Romano. 2010. Testing Statistical Hypotheses . 3rd ed. New York: Springer.
  • Poletiek, Fenna. 2001. Hypothesis-testing Behaviour . Philadelphia: Psychology.
  • Popper, Karl R. 1959.  The Logic of Scientific Discovery . New York: Basic Books.

Related Terms

  • correlation
  • dependent variable
  • hypothetico-deductive model
  • independent variable
  • inferential statistics
  • statistical analysis

Contributor: C. E. Seaman

Works Consulted

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Brinkerhoff, David, Lynn White, Suzanne Ortega, and Rose Weitz. 2011.  Essentials of Sociology . 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Bryman, Alan. 2012. Social Research Methods . 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Burdess, Neil. 2010. Starting Statistics: A Short, Clear Guide . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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Ferrante, Joan. 2011a. Seeing Sociology: An Introduction . Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Ferrante, Joan. 2011b.  Sociology: A Global Perspective . 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry, Faye Jones. 2016. Introduction to Sociology 2e . Houston, TX: OpenStax.

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Larson, Ron, and Elizabeth Farber. 2015. Elementary Statistics: Picturing the World . 6th ed. Boston: Pearson.

Macionis, John. 2012.  Sociology . 14th ed. Boston: Pearson.

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O’Leary, Zina. 2007. The Social Science Jargon Buster: The Key Terms You Need to Know . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Oxford University Press. (N.d.) Oxford Dictionaries . ( https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/ ).

Ravelli, Bruce, and Michelle Webber. 2016. Exploring Sociology: A Canadian Perspective . 3rd ed. Toronto: Pearson.

Salkind, Neil J., ed. 2007. Encyclopedia of Measurement and Statistics . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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Shepard, Jon M. 2010.  Sociology . 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Cite the Definition of Hypothesis

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Seaman, C. E. 2015. “hypothesis.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary , edited by Kenton Bell. Retrieved January 4, 2024 ( https://sociologydictionary.org/hypothesis/ ).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

Seaman, C. E. (2015). hypothesis. In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary . Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/hypothesis/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Seaman, C. E. 2015. “hypothesis.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary , edited by Kenton Bell. Accessed January 4, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/hypothesis/ .

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

Seaman, C. E. “hypothesis.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Ed. Kenton Bell. 2015. Web. 4 Jan. 2024. < https://sociologydictionary.org/hypothesis/ >.

The Classroom | Empowering Students in Their College Journey

How to Form a Hypothesis in Sociology

The Difference Between Physical Science & Social Science

The Difference Between Physical Science & Social Science

The hypothesis is the basis for scientific inquiry. A hypothesis is like a thesis statement, in that it is a summation of the focus and purpose of your research. Sociology, like other social sciences that study the complex workings of society, produces findings that are open to interpretation, often expressed as statistics. By forming a strong hypothesis, the reader will know what to look for in your collected data.

Look at some aspect of society and find something that interests you. For instance, if you are a smoker or know someone who smokes, look into the impact of smoking on society.

Narrow your focus to something specific. What aspect of society would smoking affect? For example: How many hours in a week are lost to smoking breaks?

Much of sociology deals with statistical analysis, so ask yourself if this is something that can be tested and expressed mathematically. The inclusion of hard data in the form of numbers will give credit and authority to your interpretation and opinion. Your hypothesis, test, and results should be replicable by another researcher.

Make an educated guess about what your results will be. Your hypothesis is an assumption made from your own knowledge or common sense. Be as specific as you can, as it will make your conclusions more definitive. For example: instead of saying "I believe smoking wastes productive time through smoke breaks," make an assumption at how many hours will be lost.

Treat your hypothesis like a question, not a statement. A hypothesis is not a concrete argument; it is an assumption that you are looking to either prove or disprove. Don't be afraid of being disproved by your research.

Create a model for testing your hypothesis. Ask yourself at every step of the model creation, "Will this give me data that relate to my hypothesis?"

Related Articles

What Are the Disadvantages of a Statistical Analysis?

What Are the Disadvantages of a Statistical Analysis?

Types of Observation in the Scientific Method

Types of Observation in the Scientific Method

What Makes an Experiment Testable?

What Makes an Experiment Testable?

Advantages and Disadvantages of Inductive Reasoning

Advantages and Disadvantages of Inductive Reasoning

Surveys vs. Experiments

Surveys vs. Experiments

Methods and Types of Qualitative Research

Methods and Types of Qualitative Research

What Is Intraobserver Reliability?

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How to Identify a Research Problem

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  • SociologyGuide.com: Hypothesis

Luis Delgado has been writing since 2002. He has written reviews, news stories and short fiction for various websites and publications concerning "geek" culture and interests. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University, Stanislaus.

hypothesis examples of sociology

Sociology Hypothesis Examples : Uncovering Compelling Insights

  • Political Theory

Sociology Hypothesis Examples

Sociology hypothesis examples include: “Higher levels of income lead to greater happiness” and “Social media usage affects mental health.” Sociology explores the relationship between individuals and society.

Hypotheses in sociology are proposed explanations for the patterns and trends observed in human behavior. These hypotheses help researchers to test and understand social phenomena. Sociology hypothesis examples cover a wide range of topics, from the impact of technology on social interaction to the influence of economic factors on behavior.

By formulating clear hypotheses, sociologists can investigate and analyze various aspects of human society, contributing to a deeper understanding of social dynamics and structures. Furthermore, these hypotheses provide a framework for conducting research and developing theories that can inform policies and interventions to address social issues.

Understanding Hypotheses In Sociology

Sociology relies on hypotheses to advance understanding and develop insights into social phenomena. A hypothesis in sociology serves as a tool for researchers to formulate predictions and test theories. By understanding the nature and role of hypotheses in sociology, researchers can effectively contribute to the body of sociological knowledge.

Definition Of Hypothesis

A hypothesis in sociology is a specific, testable proposition that seeks to explain or predict sociological phenomena. It serves as a statement that researchers can evaluate through empirical observation or experimentation to determine its validity.

Purpose Of Hypotheses In Sociology

The purpose of hypotheses in sociology is to guide research and inquiry. They provide a framework for investigation and help sociologists to focus on specific aspects of social behavior or structures. Hypotheses also enable researchers to make predictions and draw inferences based on their theoretical understanding of social phenomena.

Key Components Of A Sociology Hypothesis

  • Variables: A sociology hypothesis typically involves variables, which are the characteristics or attributes that can vary or change during the course of the study.
  • Relationships: It specifies the expected relationship between the variables, indicating the direction and nature of the connection under investigation.
  • Testability: A sociology hypothesis must be testable, meaning it can be examined through empirical research or observation to confirm or refute its validity.

Importance Of Sociology Hypothesis Examples

The importance of sociology hypothesis examples lies in their ability to provide a framework for understanding and analyzing social phenomena. By formulating hypotheses, sociologists can create testable predictions that contribute to the advancement of sociological research and a deeper understanding of society.

Real-world Applications Of Sociology Hypotheses

Sociology hypotheses have real-world applications in various fields such as education, healthcare, criminal justice, and social policies. For example, hypotheses related to the impact of socioeconomic status on educational attainment can inform interventions to reduce educational disparities.

Impact Of Hypotheses On Sociological Research

Sociology hypotheses play a crucial role in shaping the direction of sociological research. They guide researchers in designing studies, collecting data, and interpreting findings. By testing hypotheses, sociologists can validate or invalidate theories, contributing to the accumulation of knowledge in the field.

Connections Between Hypotheses And Societal Change

Hypotheses in sociology are inherently linked to societal change. By exploring hypotheses related to social inequalities, power dynamics, and cultural norms, sociologists can identify areas for potential societal improvement. Additionally, testing hypotheses can provide evidence to support policy changes aimed at addressing social issues.

Types Of Sociology Hypotheses

When it comes to the field of sociology, hypotheses play a crucial role in formulating and testing theories. By setting out clear predictions and expectations, hypotheses provide the framework for researchers to investigate and understand various social phenomena. In sociology, different types of hypotheses are used to explore, explain, and predict social behavior and patterns. Let’s explore the various types of sociology hypotheses in more detail.

Descriptive Hypotheses In Sociology

Descriptive hypotheses in sociology focus on observing and describing specific social phenomena or patterns without necessarily providing an explanation. These hypotheses are often used in exploratory research to gain a better understanding of a social issue or behavior. For example, a researcher may develop a descriptive hypothesis to examine the relationship between social media usage and self-esteem among adolescents. The hypothesis serves as a starting point for collecting and analyzing data to describe the phenomenon under study.

Explanatory Hypotheses In Sociology

Explanatory hypotheses in sociology aim to provide a theoretical or conceptual explanation for social phenomena or patterns. Unlike descriptive hypotheses, explanatory hypotheses seek to establish a causal relationship between variables. For instance, a researcher might formulate an explanatory hypothesis to investigate the impact of socioeconomic status on educational attainment. By testing this hypothesis, the researcher seeks to explain the underlying mechanisms that link these variables and contribute to our understanding of social inequalities.

Predictive Hypotheses In Sociology

Predictive hypotheses in sociology are forward-looking and seek to anticipate future social trends or behaviors based on existing evidence and theories. These hypotheses often involve forecasting or projecting potential outcomes based on previous empirical findings. For example, a sociologist might develop a predictive hypothesis to predict the future voting behavior of different demographic groups based on their attitudes and beliefs. By analyzing and testing this hypothesis, researchers can gain insights into potential future social changes and developments.

Analyzing Compelling Sociology Hypothesis Examples

When it comes to understanding human behavior and societal patterns, sociology hypotheses play a crucial role in shaping research and analysis. By examining compelling examples, we can gain valuable insights into the dynamics of our ever-evolving society.

Case Study 1: The Impact Of Social Media On Self-esteem

In this case study, a hypothesis was formulated to investigate the correlation between social media usage and individuals’ self-esteem levels. The hypothesis proposed that increased exposure to social media platforms leads to higher levels of self-comparison and subsequent negative impact on self-esteem.

Case Study 2: Gender Disparities In Workplace Promotion

This case study delves into the hypothesis that there exists a significant gender bias in the promotion process within corporate environments. The hypothesis aimed to examine the disparities in promotion rates between male and female employees, exploring potential systemic biases and discrimination.

Case Study 3: Cultural Influence On Educational Attainment

Examining the impact of cultural backgrounds on academic achievement, this hypothesis sought to identify the relationship between cultural norms and educational attainment. The study aimed to uncover how varying cultural values and practices influence individuals’ pursuit of academic success.

Best Practices For Formulating Sociology Hypotheses

When it comes to sociological research, formulating well-crafted hypotheses is crucial for drawing valid and reliable conclusions. Whether utilizing quantitative or qualitative data, incorporating sociological theories, or considering ethical implications, there are best practices to follow when creating hypotheses in sociology. Let’s delve into the key strategies for formulating sociology hypotheses to ensure accuracy and ethical considerations in hypothesis testing.

Utilizing Quantitative And Qualitative Data

In sociology, utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data is essential for comprehensive hypothesis formulation. Quantitative data provides statistical insights and numerical evidence, whereas qualitative data offers in-depth understanding and contextual nuances. By employing both types of data, sociologists can enhance the validity and reliability of their hypotheses, leading to more robust research outcomes.

Incorporating Sociological Theories

Incorporating sociological theories is pivotal for constructing meaningful and relevant hypotheses. Sociological theories, such as conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and structural functionalism, provide frameworks for understanding societal phenomena. By grounding hypotheses in established sociological theories, researchers can ensure that their hypotheses are theoretically grounded and contribute to the broader sociological discourse.

Ethical Considerations In Hypothesis Testing In Sociology

Ethical considerations play a critical role in hypothesis testing in sociology. Researchers must prioritize ethical principles such as privacy, confidentiality, and informed consent when gathering and analyzing data. Additionally, ensuring that the research does not lead to harm or exploitation of participants is paramount. By integrating ethical considerations into hypothesis testing, sociologists uphold the integrity and dignity of their research subjects.

Sociology Hypothesis Examples  : Uncovering Compelling Insights

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Frequently Asked Questions Of Sociology Hypothesis Examples

What are some examples of sociological hypotheses.

Sociological hypotheses are broad statements regarding the relationship between social variables. For example, one hypothesis might posit that individuals from low-income backgrounds are more likely to experience food insecurity. Another hypothesis could suggest that social media usage impacts mental health.

How Do Researchers Test Sociological Hypotheses?

Researchers test sociological hypotheses by collecting and analyzing data through various methods such as surveys, experiments, and observations. Statistical analysis helps determine the significance of the relationship between variables, providing evidence to support or reject the hypotheses.

Can Sociological Hypotheses Change Over Time?

Yes, sociological hypotheses can change as society evolves. New data, cultural shifts, and advancements in technology may lead to the revision or modification of existing hypotheses. This reflects the dynamic nature of sociology as it responds to the complexities of human interaction within changing societal contexts.

Why Are Sociological Hypotheses Important For Understanding Society?

Sociological hypotheses provide a framework for understanding and exploring complex societal phenomena. They guide research efforts and contribute to our understanding of social structures, behaviors, and interactions. By testing and refining hypotheses, sociologists can offer valuable insights into the dynamics of human societies.

Sociology hypothesis examples are essential for exploring social phenomena. These hypotheses serve as a framework for research, guiding investigations into various societal issues. By examining the relationships between different variables, sociologists can gain valuable insights into human behavior and society as a whole.

Understanding these examples is key to advancing sociological research.

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Major Sociological Theories

A List of Sociological Theories, Concepts and Frameworks

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Much of what we know about societies, relationships, and social behavior has emerged thanks to various sociology theories. Sociology students typically spend a great deal of time studying these different theories. Some theories have fallen out of favor, while others remain widely accepted, but all have contributed tremendously to our understanding of society, relationships, and social behavior. By learning more about these theories, you can gain a deeper and richer understanding of sociology's past, present, and future.

Symbolic Interaction Theory

The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a major framework of ​sociology theory. This perspective focuses on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order . This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx , who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources.

Functionalist Theory

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The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim , who was especially interested in how social order is possible and how society remains relatively stable.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is one of the major contemporary sociological theories, which analyzes the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to better women's lives. Feminist theory is most concerned with giving a voice to women and highlighting the various ways women have contributed to society.

Critical Theory

Critical Theory is a type of theory that aims to critique society, social structures, and systems of power, and to foster egalitarian social change.

Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior . It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is a theory that attempts to explain socialization and its effect on the development of the self. It looks at the individual learning process, the formation of self, and the influence of society in socializing individuals. Social learning theory is commonly used by sociologists to explain deviance and crime.

Structural Strain Theory

Robert K. Merton developed structural strain theory as an extension of the functionalist perspective on deviance. This theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals.

Rational Choice Theory

Economics plays a huge role in human behavior. That is, people are often motivated by money and the possibility of making a profit, calculating the likely costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do. This way of thinking is called rational choice theory.

Game Theory

Game theory is a theory of social interaction, which attempts to explain the interaction people have with one another. As the name of the theory suggests, game theory sees human interaction as just that: a game.

Sociobiology

Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory to social behavior. It is based on the premise that some behaviors are at least partly inherited and can be affected by natural selection.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory interprets society as a series of interactions that are based on estimates of rewards and punishments. According to this view, our interactions are determined by the rewards or punishments that we receive from others, and all human relationships are formed by the use of subjective cost-benefit analysis.

Chaos Theory

Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, however, it has applications in several disciplines, including sociology and other social sciences. In the social sciences, chaos theory is the study of complex nonlinear systems of social complexity. It is not about disorder, but rather is about very complicated systems of order.

  • Social Phenomenology

Social phenomenology is an approach within the field of sociology that aims to reveal what role human awareness plays in the production of social action, social situations and social worlds. In essence, phenomenology is the belief that society is a human construction.

Disengagement Theory

Disengagement theory, which has many critics, suggests that people slowly disengage from social life as they age and enter the elderly stage.

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25 Famous Sociology Theories: Examples and Applications

sociology theory examples and definition, explained below

Sociological theory refers to the conceptual frameworks sociologists use to understand, explain, and predict human behavior within the context of social structures and systems.

We can generally divide sociological theories into two rough buckets. The two buckets are:

  • Macrosociology : Macrosociology explores large-scale social structures, long-term processes, and societal trends. For instance, conflict theory posits that social life is a struggle between groups to gain control of resources, thus causing social inequalities (Robinson, 2014). Theorists such as Marx and Weber elaborate on how overarching structures like the economy drive social behaviors and patterns. 
  • Microsociology : Microsociology studies the intimate social interactions and everyday behaviors of individuals and small groups, with an intrest in individual agency. For instance, symbolic interactionism, a micro sociological theory, explicates how people use symbols (like words or gestures) to create meaning and communicate with each other (Jeon, 2017).
  • Mesosociology: Mesosociology examines the in-between social forces and factors, such as examining local communities, ageism, race and ethnicity, and so on, on regional levels, without the explicit focus on only social institutions (e.g. educational institutions) or specific individuals.

Below are the 25 most famous sociological theories from both macro and micro perspectives.

Sociology Theory Examples

1. conflict theory.

Type of Theory: Macrosociology

Conflict Theory proposes that society is marked by ongoing struggles for resources and power, resulting in social inequalities.

This theory, originally formulated by Karl Marx, asserts that social life is fundamentally about contestations between groups with differing interests (Robinson, 2014).

It highlights how those with more resources often wield greater power, having the ability to shape society to maintain their privileges.

Consequently, it posits that conflicts may arise because of power dynamics and these disagreements drive social change . 

Example of Conflict Theory The persistent wage gap between men and women in many societies can be seen as an illustration of conflict theory, showcasing how power plays maintain social disparities (Blau & Kahn, 2017). It suggests that the gender wage gap is a reflection not solely of individuals’ choices but also of broader societal structures and power dynamics.

2. Functionalism

Definition: Functionalism considers society as a complex system of interdependent parts, each having a function fulfilling societal stability.

This sociological perspective, rooted in the works of Emile Durkheim , perceives each segment of society as vital for its overall functioning — much akin to the organs in a body (Parsons, 2010).

Maintaining harmony is crucial, as per this paradigm, with every part, be it family, education, or law, contributing towards societal equilibrium. Disruptions to this balance, such as social changes or conflicts, are seen as temporary disturbances that society works to resolve.

Example of Functionalism An example from functionalism could be the educational system, which not only provides knowledge (manifest function) but also serves to integrate individuals into societal norms and expectations (latent function) (Meyer, 2011). Here, education is vital for maintaining societal stability and ensuring societal continuity.

3. Symbolic Interactionism

Type of Theory: Microsociology

Symbolic Interactionism emphasizes how individuals use symbols to navigate social interactions and create social worlds.

This theory, developed by George Herbert Mead and further expanded by Herbert Blumer, highlights the subjective meaning of human actions and interactions (Jeon, 2017).

It propounds that people act based on the meanings objects, behaviors, or words have for them, and these meanings emerge from social interactions.

Therefore, society is viewed as being actively and continually constructed and reconstructed through these interactions and the meanings derived from them. 

Example of Symbolic Interactionism An everyday illustration of symbolic interactionism is the use of language, a system of symbols, to convey our thoughts or feelings (Stryker, 2017). The meaning assigned to words isn’t inherent but constructed through our social interactions, and this plays a crucial role in determining our subsequent actions and reactions.

4. Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory postulates that human relationships and interactions are guided by a cost-benefit analysis and the pursuit of rewards.

Driven by the principles of economics, this theory suggests that individuals engage in social interactions akin to transactions, aiming to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs (Cook, 2013).

Impressions of past exchanges and expectations of future returns inform the decisions to pursue or withdraw from interactions.

The balance of rewards against costs can contribute significantly to the stability of social relationships, or conversely, their dissolution. 

Example of Social Exchange Theory The dynamics of friendships can be viewed through this lens (Molm, 2010), where individuals continue the friendship so long as the perceived emotional support, companionship, and other benefits outweigh the costs, such as time commitment and emotional energy.

5. Feminist Theory

Type of Theory: Macrosociology, Microsociology, and Mesosociology

Feminist Theory is concerned with understanding and challenging the social inequalities and injustices faced by women.

This multidisciplinary set of theories emphasizes the diverse experiences of women, often overlooked in traditional sociological paradigms , shedding light on the interconnectedness of gender with other social structures like race, class, and sexuality (Risman, 2017).

It critically examines the ways in which societal institutions perpetuate gender disparities, seeking to dismantle patriarchal structures.

Feminist theorists assert that meaningful societal change necessitates a paradigm shift in gender relations and the deconstruction of problematic norms and stereotypes. 

Example of Feminist Theory The gender pay gap is an instance where feminist theorists have highlighted systemic injustice (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2011), pointing to discriminatory employment practices and societal norms that value certain types of work over others.

6. Structural Strain Theory

Structural Strain Theory posits that social dysfunctions and deviant behavior arise when there is a discrepancy between societal goals and the means to achieve those goals.

This theory, formulated by Robert K. Merton, suggests that when individuals have limited resources or opportunities to reach socially-approved goals, they might resort to socially unacceptable means, leading to deviance (Agnew, 2011).

Merton conceptualized five adaptation modes to this strain – conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion, each reflecting different responses to the experienced disconnection between goals and means.

Example of Structural Strain Theory The incidence of property crime in economically disadvantaged communities reflects this theory (Chamlin & Cochran, 2012), where limited legitimate means to achieve financial success might pressure individuals towards unlawful ways.

7. Labeling Theory

Labeling Theory argues that individuals become deviant not merely due to their actions but rather due to societal reactions and labels attached to their behavior.

It suggests that once a deviant label is applied, it becomes part of the individual’s self-concept, shaping their actions and leading to a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Tannenbaum, 2019).

Individuals might internalize the label, causing them to act in ways that confirm the societal stereotype.

Hence, this theory challenges the simplistic perception of deviance as an inherent characteristic and instead, underscores the role of social definitions and reactions. 

Example of Labeling Theory Stigmatization of ex-offenders and the subsequent difficulty in reintegrating into society highlight the power of negative labels (Moore, 2016). This societal response often leads to recidivism, validating the label and perpetuating a cycle of deviance.

8. Rational Choice Theory

Rational Choice Theory assumes that individuals make decisions based on their rational calculations, aiming to maximize personal benefit.

This theory applies economic theory to social interactions, suggesting that people behave as rational actors, weighing the costs and benefits of potential actions (Becker, 2013).

While initially focused on economic behavior, the theory has been expanded to understand a broad range of social phenomena, from politics to crime.

Critics, however, question the assumption of perfect rationality, pointing out that humans’ decision-making can often be influenced by emotions, biases, and other non-rational factors.

Example of Rational Choice Theory Choosing whether or not to attend college can be considered in terms of this theory (Dominitz & Manski, 1996) – individuals weigh the immediate costs (tuition fees, loss of potential income from working) and the potential long-term benefits (higher earnings, better employment prospects).

9. Social Disorganization Theory

Social Disorganization Theory suggests that crime rates are higher in neighborhoods where social institutions (like schools and families) are unable to maintain control.

According to Shaw and McKay’s pioneering work in the early 20th century, social disorganization arises due to certain characteristics such as poverty, residential instability, and ethnic diversity (Sampson & Groves, 1989).

These factors hinder the formation of close-knit, cohesive communities, leading to social disorganization.

As a result, these communities struggle to maintain social control , providing fertile ground for criminal behavior.

Example of Social Disorganization Theory High rates of juvenile delinquency in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods exemplify this theory (Kubrin & Weitzer, 2003) – without stable social structures, young people may turn to crime as a means of navigation through disorganized social environments .

10. Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory posits that people learn from observing others, with the environment, cognition, and behavior all interplaying to influence learning.

Developed primarily by Albert Bandura, this theory suggests that indirect or vicarious experiences, such as observing others’ behavior and the consequences of such behavior, play a crucial role in human learning (Bandura, 2011).

It posits that individuals are more likely to adopt behaviors if they observe similar people being rewarded for these behaviors.

Conversely, they are less likely to replicate behaviors if they see others being punished for them.

Example of Social Learning Theory The influence of media violence on aggressive behavior is often discussed within this theoretical framework (Anderson & Bushman, 2001) – individuals, particularly children, may replicate aggressive behaviors observed in media, especially when such behavior appears to be rewarded.

11. Critical Theory

Critical Theory seeks to challenge and change society as a whole, rather than simply understand or explain it.

This theory, developed by the Frankfurt School scholars, aims to critique and change society, often seeking to emancipate social groups oppressed by a capitalist, hegemonic society (Horkheimer, 2012).

It is an extension of conflict theory, by inserting a more political and ideological perspective, explicitly advocating for class-based social change.

Critical theorists focus on the role of power in society and how dominant social structures and processes maintain power disparities.

Therefore, it not only aims towards understanding the societal dynamics but also advocates for social justice and equality.

Example of Critical Theory The civil rights movement in the United States exemplified the application of critical theory (Roth, 2019), challenging racial segregation and discrimination laws and advocating for equal rights and social transformation.

12. Postmodern Theory

Postmodern theory in sociology critiques grand theories and ideologies, focusing on the role of language, power relations, and motivations in shaping our understanding of reality. 

Founded in the mid to late 20th century among thinkers like Foucault and Lyotard, Postmodern Theory challenges universal metanarratives, instead advocating for a respect for difference, contradiction, and the indeterminate nature of knowledge. 

It insists that society is too diverse, fragmented, and complex to be fully captured by broad, sweeping theories. 

Therefore, it encourages a more interpretive, localized, and deconstructive approach to understand social realities. 

Example of Postmodernism The questioning of established scientific knowledge and the inclusion of marginalized voices and perspectives can be understood through the Postmodern lens, as in Feminist epistemologies (Harding, 2013).

13. Network Theory

Type of Theory: Mesosociology

Network Theory posits that social actors and their actions are best understood through their relations to one another rather than their individual attributes. 

According to this theory, social patterns and phenomena emerge from the complex web of relations among social actors (Borgatti & Halgin, 2011). 

Whether these actors are individuals, groups, organizations, or even societies, their network connections largely influence their behavior, roles, and opportunities. 

The theory emphasizes the importance of ties and relationships, making it crucial in areas like social networking, organizational studies, and public health. 

Example of Network Theory An example of this theory can be seen in the spread of diseases in epidemiology, such as how HIV/AIDS dissemination was mapped through patients’ social relations (Rothenberg, 2001).

14. Ethnomethodology

Ethnomethodology suggests that individuals use their knowledge of social norms to construct a sense of order and make sense of the world around them. 

Developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s, this approach focuses on the ways people make sense of their everyday world by creating shared understandings of symbols and actions (Rawls, 2013). 

In essence, it attempts to uncover the hidden rules and structures that individuals subconsciously agree upon to coordinate their interactions smoothly. 

These common-sense knowledge rules allow individuals to interpret and predict the behavior of others, thereby facilitating social interactions. 

Example of Ethnomethodology The everyday conversations between friends and how they navigate misunderstandings showcases Ethnomethodology in action, reflecting how we use shared understandings to communicate effectively (Sacks, 1995).

15. Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism views society as a complex system, wherein each part works together to promote the stability and survival of the entire system. 

Built upon the works of Émile Durkheim, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer, this theoretical perspective perceives every aspect of society, be it an institution like family or an act like crime, as serving specific functions to maintain societal balance (Turner, 2013). 

This notion of social equilibrium argues that disruptions, like social change or conflict, are typically rectified by society’s compensatory mechanisms. 

However, critics suggest this perspective overlooks social inequalities, ignoring the disadvantages of certain social arrangements. 

Example of Structural Functionalism The way different parts of the educational system from schools to universities serve to maintain social order and ensure the smooth functioning of society reflects principles of Structural Functionalism (Ballantine & Hammack, 2013).

16. Social Phenomenology

Social Phenomenology emphasizes understanding the subjective experiences and interpretations that individuals have of the world. 

Derived from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, social phenomenologists, like Alfred Schutz, suggest the social world is a human construct, experienced and interpreted through the conscious individuals who inhabit it (Natanson, 2017). 

It is concerned with exploring how individuals ascribe meanings to their experiences, thereby creating their own subjective realities. 

This focus on individual perceptions and interpretations provides a valuable framework for understanding the complexities of social life. 

Example of Social Phenomenology Individual interpretations of a contentious political event could be explored using social phenomenology, revealing how political orientation, social background, and personal experiences shape subjective perceptions and interpretations (Ku, 2016).

17. Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory investigates how culture and societal structures influence individual behaviors, beliefs, and identity.

Central to this perspective is an understanding that culture, as a shared system of meanings, guides human behavior and societal operations (Couldry, 2012). 

These shared meanings, symbols, and practices enable communication and cooperation, foster social cohesion, and influence identity formation.

Culture, therefore, is seen as a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group or society from another.

Example of Cultural Theory Cross-cultural differences in general behaviors or business practices could be considered under this theory, highlighting how cultural norms and values shape behaviors (Hofstede, 2011).

18. World Systems Theory

World Systems Theory suggests that societies function within a world economic system that inherently promotes disparity and inequality.

Immanuel Wallerstein, who developed the theory, argued that the world system is characterized by a division of labor leading to the development of core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral nations (Wallerstein, 2011). 

Acknowledging that these differing positions affect societies’ economic and political development, this theory challenges the view that all societies go through similar linear stages of development. 

Instead, it underscores how the interconnected global ecosphere shapes and is shaped by national economies. 

Example of World Systems Theory The persistent economic disparity between developed and developing nations is illustrative of World Systems Theory, revealing how global economic systems contribute to uneven resource distribution (Arrighi, 2010).

19. Social Constructionism

Social Constructionism posits that social phenomena are created, institutionalized, and made into tradition by humans.

Contrary to theories that view social phenomena as objective facts, social constructionists argue that aspects of the social world – such as social roles, symbols, and institutions – are not inherent or static, but are instead constructed and reconstructed by social actors (Berger & Luckmann, 2011). 

Social Constructionism highlights how these constructed realities can have real, tangible effects on human interaction, social structure, and personal identity . 

Example of Social Constructionism Gender roles and expectations serve as a compelling illustration of Social Constructionism, emphasizing how society, not biology, dictates these roles and norms (West & Zimmerman, 2009).

20. Dependency Theory

Dependency Theory argues that global inequality is due to the exploitation of peripheral and semi-peripheral nations by core nations.

This theory originated as a response to modernization theory, offering a critique of the existing capitalist world system and arguing that underdevelopment was fostered by the historical development of the world economic system (Frank, 2011). 

In this view, periphery nations exporting raw materials to the core nations are left in a state of dependency, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and underdevelopment.

Example of Dependency Theory Dependence on commodity exports by many African countries illustrates Dependency Theory, demonstrating how reliance on export earnings from primary commodities can facilitate an exploitative dynamic with more developed nations (Nwoke, 2015).

21. Neo-Marxist Theory

Neo-Marxist Theory extends the classical Marxist theory by incorporating factors such as culture, ideology, and state power into the analysis of societal dynamics. 

Neo-Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, placed much emphasis on the cultural and ideological superstructure that influences and solidifies the capitalist mode of production (Levitsky, 2013). 

This perspective asserts that power resides not just in economic structures, but also in ideological systems which influence and control societal thought and behavior. 

While upholding the fundamental Marxist tenet of economic determinism, Neo-Marxist theory also recognized the independent impacts of politics, social forces, and ideas in shaping societal relations. 

Example of Neo-Marxist Theory Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, which explains how the dominant class maintains control by shaping cultural norms and values to their advantage, can be considered an application of Neo-Marxist thought (Jones, 2006).

22. Queer Theory

Queer Theory explores identities and experiences that deviate from the normative understandings of sexuality and gender, advocating for the deconstruction of such binaries. 

Rooted in the intellectual traditions of feminist criticism and gay and lesbian studies, Queer Theory critically interrogates the socio-cultural constructs of gender and sexuality, challenging the conceptual rigidity of these categories (Jagose, 2012). 

It posits that identities are not fixed but fluid and questions the societal stigmatization of non-normative sexual identities and practices.

Example of Queer Theory The exploration of non-binary gender identities and the critique of heteronormative structures in society exemplify the application of Queer Theory (Butler, 2011).

23. Intersectionality Theory

Intersectionality Theory examines how various social categories such as race, class, and gender interact to shape individual experiences and systemic inequality.

Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, key contributors to this theory, argue that systems of oppression are interconnected and cannot be examined independently from one another (Crenshaw, 1989).

This multi-faceted approach to social identities underscores that individuals experience discrimination and privilege in varying degrees, depending on their conjoint identities.

Example of Intersectionality Theory The unique challenges faced by women of colour, who contend with both racial and gender discrimination, can be understood through the lens of Intersectionality Theory (Choo & Ferree, 2010).

24. Actor-Network Theory

Type of Theory: Microsociology, Macrosociology

Actor-Network Theory suggests that both human and non-human elements contribute equally to the function of social networks and should be treated as actors or agents within a network.

Developed by sociologists such as Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, Actor-Network Theory illustrates the idea that society is constructed through complex networks of interaction between various actors (Latour, 2005). 

It thus dissolves the boundaries between the social and natural world, viewing both human and non-human entities as possessing agency.

Example of Actor-Network Theory The role of technology in modern social life can be viewed through Actor-Network Theory, reflecting how tech devices shape human behavior and social interaction (Akrich, 1992).

25. Social Identity Theory

Type of Theory: Microsociology, Mesosociology

Social Identity Theory posits that a person’s sense of self is shaped by their membership in social groups and categories.

Developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, this theory argues that individuals seek to maintain or enhance their self-esteem by identifying with specific social groups and perceiving these groups in a positive light (Tajfel, 1974).

This identification with in-groups and differentiation from out-groups can lead to bias and discrimination, thereby driving societal dynamics.

Example of Social Identity Theory Football fan behavior, where loyalty to one’s team often involves devaluing rival teams, illustrates the principles of Social Identity Theory (Brown, 2000).

Sociological theories, ranging from macro to micro levels, provide a lens through which you can examine and understand various societal phenomena. These theories indeed facilitate predictive and explanatory capabilities, thus aiding in gaining a more profound, sharper understanding of the complex environ of human society.

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Positivism in Sociology: Definition, Theory & Examples

Charlotte Nickerson

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Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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On This Page:

Key Takeaways

  • Positivism is an approach to sociology, as well as philosophy, that relies on empirical evidence, such as those found through experiments and statistics, to reveal information about how society functions.
  • Sociology should approach research in the same way as the natural sciences. It should be objective and logical.
  • Positivism originates from the thinking of the French philosophers and sociologists Henri de Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Emile Durkheim but branched off into German-Austrian and American traditions in the early 20th century.
  • Positivisms in the philosophical and scientific sense share several key principles: phenomenalism, nominalism, refusing to call judgments and normative statements knowledge, and belief in the unity of the scientific method.
  • Beginning with the Frankfurt School, critical theorists have critiqued positivism heavily. As a result, positivist methods have had relatively little influence on sociology since the 1970s

positivism

What Is Positivism?

Positivism is a term used to describe an approach to the study of society that relies specifically on empirical scientific evidence, such as controlled experiments and statistics.

Positivism is a belief that we should not go beyond the boundaries of what can be observed. To a positivist, science is the single most important route to knowledge, and only questions that can be approached by applying the scientific method should concern us.

Reality exists outside and independently of the mind, and therefore, it can be studied objectively and as a real thing. They believe that there are social facts that make up the rules of society, which are separate and independent of individuals.

Social facts are things such as institutions, norms, and values that exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.

Sociological positivism holds that society, like the physical world, functions based on a set of general laws. Positivism is based on the assumption that by observing social life, scientists can develop reliable and consistent knowledge about its inner workings.

Thus, sociological positivists argue that by applying scientific principles of research to the study of society, sociologists can put forward proposals for social change that will lead to a better society.

Due to this belief, Positivists believe that society can be studied in the same way as the natural world and that patterns can be observed and analyzed to create the social facts that rule society.

This method is called inductive reasoning, which involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement. A theory can be formed and verified from this data through further study.

Positivists believe that sociology should follow the objective experimental methods that the natural sciences follow so that the research remains value-free and patterns and causation can be established.

Positivists prefer quantitative data and, as far as possible, should follow the experimental method of the natural sciences. This will allow them to uncover and measure behavior patterns, leading them to create social facts that govern society.

Also, by using quantitative data, the positivists believe that they are able to uncover cause and effect that determine human behavior.

Positivism, as a general term, has at least three meanings. It can describe how Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim describe social evolution, the philosophical tradition of logical positivism, or a set of scientific research methods (Riley, 2007).

Key Principles

Positivism has moved from the realm of philosophy to sociology. Nonetheless, positivism in philosophy and sociology share, according to Kolakowski (1972) four main rules:

The rule of phenomenalism

To positivists, experience is the foundation of human knowledge, according to the rule of phenomenalism. Scientists should only observe and record what they actually perceive through their experiences.

Kolaski (1966) emphasizes that positivists do not necessarily ignore events and phenomena that are initially invisible; however, they do object to accounting for “supernatural” events and beings for which knowledge is, by definition, unknowable by humans.

For sociologists, the rule of phenomenalism brings about three main difficulties.

Firstly, while this rule apparently encourages sociologists to use empirical research methods, many have accused sociologists who use these methods of over-abstractifying the social world (Mills, 2000; Willer et al., 1973).

Secondly, in sociology, the rule of phenomenalism demands that there is a common way to observe experiences without adding subjectivity. Yet, beyond the work of, say, Durkheim in The Rules of the Sociological Method (1938), sociologists have not put emphasis on finding a “neutral observation language” (Bryant, 1985).

Thirdly, as Kolakowski himself notes, it is difficult to be sure exactly what can be observed and what cannot. For example, discussions around ‘realism’ in sociology have observed hidden structures and mechanisms that Comte would have likely called unobservable (Keat and Urry, 1975; Bryant, 1985).

The rule of nominalism

According to the rule of nominalism, science is a way of recording experiences, and the recording of experiences can not create knowledge about parts of reality that were previously inaccessible to empirical research (Kolakowski, 1966).

This has created controversy in sociology, specifically around whether or not social facts are the same as individual facts. Historically, divides over this question have created breaks between schools of positivism (Bryant, 1985)

The rule that refuses to call value judgments and normative statements knowledge

Sociology brings up the issue of whether or not the evaluations that a sociologist makes about the social world can be judged scientifically or rationally.

Positivists believe that research should be detached from subjective feelings and interpretations; it is claimed that a scientist’s beliefs and values have no impact on their findings, and sociologists should be the same.

To some, such as Giddens (1974), judgments of value that are not based on empirical evidence, meaning that they cannot be proven valid or invalid through experience, are not knowledge.

Belief in the essential unity of the scientific method

Finally, Kolakowski says that the scientific method can be applied to all ways of knowing. Different positivists interpret what Kolakowski means by unity differently.

For example, some positivists have argued that the unity of science stems from a single fundamental law that all other laws can be derived from – such as Saint-Simon, who argues that this fundamental law is the law of gravity).

However, Kolaski himself holds that different types of science have certain principles and practices in common (Kolakowski, 1972; Bryant, 1985).

Theories of Positivism

Usually, scholars say that the French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term positivism in his Cours de Philosophie Positive (1933).

This is not completely accurate, as Comte did not write about the term positivism itself but about the so-called “positive philosophy” and “positive method,” and the philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon wrote about these ideas before him (Bryant, 1985).

Positivism has a long history in sociology, which began in the French tradition. Following Saint-Simon’s application to positivism with industry and science and Comte’s commentary on science and religion, Emile Durkheim offered what scholars widely considered to be a positivistic interpretation of sociology and education.

Nonetheless, Durkheim was himself a critique of positivism, connecting positivism with an oversimplified conception of social science and exaggeration of the field’s achievements, both of which he considered dangerous to the new applied social sciences.

Durkheim rejected attempts to reduce the complexity of humanity to a single law or formula.

He attacked Comte for assuming “that mankind in its totality constitutes a single society which always and everywhere evolves in the same manner” when “what exists, in reality, are particular societies (tribes, nations, cities, states of all kinds, and so on), which are born and die, progress and regress, each in its own manner, pursuing divergent goals” (Durkheim, 1915).

Despite these criticisms, Durkheim argued that sociology deals with social facts and social facts alone (1895), that people are controlled by certain factors that can be seen through how individuals act, and that by observing how people act, sociologists can figure out social facts.

Following Durkheim, Comte, and Saint-Simon, positivism evolved into different branches in Germany, Austria and the United States.

Discussions around positivism began in Germany and Austria around economics; more generally about the differences between the natural and the historical, cultural and social sciences.

A dispute over the place of values in academic and social sciences, known as the value-freedom dispute, and a further dispute over whether sociology should be in university departments (Bryant, 1985).

The Vienna Circle and the Frankfurt School shaped German-Austrian positivism following World War I. The Vienna Circle was a group of philosophers and scientists from the natural and social sciences, logic, and mathematics who met from 1924 to 1936 at the University of Vienna.

Vienna Circle

The Vienna Circle conceptualized the world as empiricist and positivist – that there is only knowledge from experience. And secondly, that logical analysis can be used to gather knowledge about the world.

This concept of Logical Analysis differentiates the Vienna Circle from earlier positivisms. According to logical analysis, there are two kinds of statements: those reducible to simpler statements about what is empirically given and those that cannot be reduced to statements about empirical experience.

The second statements, such as those in the field of metaphysics, were meaningless to the Vienna Circle and either arose from logical mistakes or were interpretable as empirical statements in the realm of science (Bryant, 1985).

The Vienna Circle also pursued the goal of a unified science, meaning a scientific system where every legitimate, logical statement can be reduced to simpler concepts that relate directly to an experience.

This inspired a search for a so-called “symbolic language” that eliminates the ambiguity of natural languages (Bryant, 1985).

Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School, in contrast, critiqued positivism post-World War II. Horkheimer, a main figure in the Frankfurt School, believed that the methods of inquiry used in the social sciences could not imitate the scientific method used in the natural sciences.

This was because, Horkheimer argued, the ongoing search for universal laws – a logical and mathematical prejudice – served to oversimplify and separate theory from how people interact in the world.

Horkheimer posited that “we should reconsider not merely the scientist, but the knowing individual, in general” (Horkheimer, 1972).

The main arguments of Horkheimer and other members of the school involved:

  • The rejection of scientists: the Frankfurt school rejected the idea that that which cannot be known scientifically cannot be known. Horkheimer (1972) argued that this was because “science and its interpretation are two different things,” presenting an argument that the equation of science with knowledge rejects metascience, which is the only way through which science can be critiqued and its limitations exposed. Ironically, according to the Frankfurt School, positivists had wrongly claimed to have located the essence of knowledge in science (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of the positivist conception of science: according to what Keat calls “the positivist conception of science,” science tries to explain and predict observable phenomena by creating universal laws that apply in all regions of space and time (Keat, 1981). The Frankfurt School offers objections amounting to the idea that there are many ways phenomena are connected and thus many valid accounts of them and that it is wrong to reduce these accounts to one. To the critical theorists countering positivists, there are structures and processes limited by history that cause observable phenomena but whose existence can only be inferred (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of any theory-neutral observation language: the Frankfurt School dismissed the Vienna Circle’s quest for a theory-neutral observation language for science, saying that everyone who does science makes inquiries about the world in a way that will always be in relation to their own ideas around understanding, the presuppositions of their culture, and the theories they explicitly acknowledge (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of empiricism: According to the Frankfurt School, what scientists consider to be empirical is really the popular opinion of scientists at the time (Adorno, 2000). Theory cannot completely account for theoretical findings because the testing of theories involves deforming and breaking parts of the theory, and all empirical research happens in a world where theory and reality are out of joint in a way where people can choose to change the world so that it conforms better to what is possible (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of any conception of the unity of the sciences: the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism also rejects the idea that all sciences operate in the same way by arguing that there are differences between the physical objects studied by natural sciences and the objectification of the mind studied by the social sciences (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of an exclusively instrumental reason: the Frankfurt School further critiques positivism by equivocating reason and instrumental reason. Thinking of reason as just a calculation of the most appropriate means to pre-given ends is dangerous because it threatens to degenerate into the philosophy of “might is right” (Bryant, 1985).
  • The rejection of the dualism of facts and values: finally, the Frankfurt School rejects that there is a dualism of facts and values. In this view, social science must have values (Bryant, 1985).

Instrumental Positivism

Positivism has also taken on a number of forms in American Sociology. The most distinctive of these, what Bryant (1985) calls “Instrumental Positivism,” came into prominence in the late 1920s before enduring more intense criticisms from the 1960s and 1970s onward.

In contrast to the French tradition positivism and that of the Vienna Circle, American instrumental positivism was influenced by what Hinkle calls the founding theory of American sociology (2020) – that human behavior is evolutionary behavior – and the surveys and empirical work on social conditions that influenced sociology in its early stages.

Instrumental positivism has several key characteristics (Bryant, 1985):

The preoccupation with the refinement of statistical techniques and research instrumentation : American sociologists such as Giddings introduced developments in statistics from other countries to American sociology as well as creating new statistical techniques themselves (Bryant, 1985).

The endorsement of a nominalist or individualistic conception of society : according to Hinkle and Hinkle (Andrews, 1955), American sociology assumes that the structure of all social groups is a consequence of the individuals in those groups and that all social phenomena come from the motivations of these individuals. According to this view, individuals are the main “objects” of sociological study (Bryant, 1985).

The affinity with induction, verificationism, and incrementalism : because American sociology was developed largely on questionnaires and surveys (Horowitz, 1964), instrumental positivism is inductive, verificationist, and incrementalist. This means that facts about social life can be verified by correctly conducted research and that all verifiable facts add to the cumulative development of social science. Further, in this view, laws about social behavior can be verified by experience, although later thinkers, such as Hempel, have argued that inductively obtained laws could also be valid (Hempel, 1958). 

The linkage of a dichotomy of facts and values with a conception of value-freedom : instrumental positivism was determined to be objective, which came to a determination to exclude value judgments from claims to knowledge (Gouldner, 1962). To American instrumental positivists, not only were the values of the people conducting sociology separable from sociological facts and research, but this separation was essential to an objective science (Bryant, 1985).

The prominence of team research and the multiplication of centers or institutes of applied social research : finally, instrumental positivists tended to assemble research teams in centers that often did contract research. This had the consequence that those doing sociological research in America were those who could afford to have an established and well-placed team (Bryant, 1985).

Criticism and Controversy

Implicit to these key positivist principles are several points of contention.

For one, positivism assumes that the methods that scientists use in the natural sciences can also be applied to sociology.

This means that the subjective nature of human experience and behavior, to positivists, does not create a barrier to treating human behavior as an object in the same way that, say, a falling rock is an object in the natural world (Giddens, 1974).

However, there has also been a great amount of debate over how much sociologists can generalize human behavior before it is no longer truly representative of human behavior and whether or not conclusions drawn from these so-called adaptations of human behavior are positivist (Bryant, 1985).

As a consequence, scholars agree there is little agreement as to what sociology is supposed to adapt or adopt from the natural sciences when studying human behavior.

Positivism also presupposes that the end result of sociological investigations is a set of laws, like those that natural scientists have established, that can describe human behavior.

This assumption has been problematic in some sociologists’ view because while positivism assumes that natural laws hold true regardless of time or location, social laws can be bound by the historical period and culture where they were created.

Additionally, the assumption that sociology is technical in nature put forth by positivists has generated controversy.

This assumption has the consequence that sociological knowledge is “instrumental” in form, and sociological research acquires findings that “do not carry any logically given implications for practical policy for the pursuit of values” (Giddens, 1974).

Adorno, T. W. (2000). Sociology and empirical research.

Andrews, H. L. (1955). Hinkle and Hinkle: The Development of Modern Sociology: Its Nature and Growth in the United States. Edited by Eugene A. Wilkening (Book Review). Rural Sociology, 20(1), 72.

Bryant, C. G. (1985). Positivism in social theory and research. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Comte, A., & Lemaire, P. (1933). Cours de philosophie positive: 1re et 2me leçons.

Durkheim, E. (1938). The Rules of the Sociological Method. Trans. Sarah A. Solovay and John H. Mueller. Ed. George EG Catlin. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1893.

Giddens, A. (Ed.). (1974). Positivism and sociology. London: Heinemann.

Gouldner, A. M. (1962). The Myth of a Value-Free Sociology, 9 SOC.

Hempel, C. G. (1958). The theoretician’s dilemma: A study in the logic of theory construction.

Hinkle, R. C. (2020). Founding Theory of American Sociology 1881–1915. Routledge.

Horkheimer, M. (1972). The latest attack on metaphysics. Critical theory: Selected essays, 132-187.

Horowitz, I. L. (1964). Max Weber and the spirit of American sociology. The Sociological Quarterly, 5(4), 344-354.

Keat, R. (1981). The politics of social theory Habermas, Freud and the critique of positivism.

Keat, R., & Urry, J. (1975). Social Theory as. Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 83.

Kołakowski, L. (1972). Positivist philosophy from Hume to the Vienna Circle.

Mills, C. W. (2000). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.

Riley, D. (2007). The paradox of positivism. Social Science History, 31(1), 115-126.

Willer, D., & Willer, J. (1973). Systematic empiricism: critique of a pseudoscience. Prentice Hall.

Wolff, K. H., & Durkheim, E. (1960). Emile Durkheim, 1858-1917: a collection of essays, with translations and a bibliography. The Ohio State University Press.

Further Information

Steps of the Scientific Method

Ryan, G. (2018). Introduction to positivism, interpretivism and critical theory. Nurse researcher, 25(4), 41-49.

The Paradox of Positivism

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Hypothesis: Functions, Problems, Types, Characteristics, Examples

Basic Elements of the Scientific Method: Hypotheses

The Function of the Hypotheses

A hypothesis states what one is looking for in an experiment. When facts are assembled, ordered, and seen in a relationship, they build up to become a theory. This theory needs to be deduced for further confirmation of the facts, this formulation of the deductions constitutes of a hypothesis. As a theory states a logical relationship between facts and from this, the propositions which are deduced should be true. Hence, these deduced prepositions are called hypotheses.

Problems in Formulating the Hypothesis

As difficult as the process may be, it is very essential to understand the need of a hypothesis. The research would be much unfocused and a random empirical wandering without it. The hypothesis provides a necessary link between the theory and investigation which often leads to the discovery of additions to knowledge.

There are three major difficulties in the formulation of a hypothesis, they are as follows:

  • Absence of a clear theoretical framework
  • Lack of ability to utilize that theoretical framework logically
  • Failure to be acquainted with available research techniques so as to phrase the hypothesis properly.

Sometimes the deduction of a hypothesis may be difficult as there would be many variables and the necessity to take them all into consideration becomes a challenge. For instance, observing two cases:

  • Principle: A socially recognized relationship with built-in strains also governed by the institutional controls has to ensure conformity of the participants with implicit or explicit norms.

Deduction: This situation holds much more sense to the people who are in professions such as psychotherapy, psychiatry and law to some extent. They possess a very intimate relationship with their clients, thus are more susceptible to issues regarding emotional strains in the client-practitioner relationship and more implicit and explicit controls over both participants in comparison to other professions.

The above-mentioned case has variable hypotheses, so the need is to break them down into sub hypotheses, they are as follows:

  • Specification of the degree of difference
  • Specification of profession and problem
  • Specification of kinds of controls.

2. Principle: Extensive but relatively systematized data show the correlation between members of the upper occupational class and less unhappiness and worry. Also, they are subjected to more formal controls than members of the lower strata.

Deduction: There can numerous ways to approach this principle, one could go with the comparison applying to martial relationships of the members and further argue that such differential pressures could be observed through divorce rates. This hypothesis would show inverse correlations between class position and divorce rates. There would be a very strong need to define the terms carefully to show the deduction from the principle problem.

The reference of these examples showcases a major issue in the hypothesis formulations procedures. One needs to keep the lines set for the deductions and one should be focusing on having a hypothesis at the beginning of the experiment, that hypothesis may be subject to change in the later stages and it is referred to as a „working hypothesis. Hence, the devising and utilization of a hypothesis is essential for the success of the experiment.

Types of Hypothesis

There are many ways to classify hypotheses, but it seems adequate to distinguish to separate them on the basis of their level of abstraction. They can be divided into three broad levels which will be increasing in abstractness.

  • The existence of empirical uniformities : These hypotheses are made from problems which usually have a very high percentage of representing scientific examination of common–sense proportions. These studies may show a variety of things such as the distribution of business establishments in a city, behavior patterns of specific groups, etc. and they tend to show no irregularities in their data collection or review. There have been arguments which say that these aren’t hypothesis as they represent what everyone knows. This can be counter argued on the basis of two things that, “what everyone knows” isn’t always in coherence with the framework of science and it may also be incorrect. Hence, testing these hypotheses is necessary too.
  • Complex ideal types: These hypotheses aim at testing the existence of logically derived relationships between empirical uniformities. This can be understood with an example, to observe ecology one should take in many factors and see the relationship between and how they affect the greater issue. A theory by Ernest W. Burgess gave out the statement that concentric growth circles are the one which characterize the city. Hence, all issues such as land values, industrial growth, ethnic groups, etc. are needed to be analyzed for forming a correct and reasonable hypothesis.
  • Relations of analytic variables: These hypotheses are a bit more complex as they focus on they lead to the formulation of a relationship between the changes in one property with respect to another. For instance, taking the example of human fertility in diverse regions, religions, wealth gap, etc. may not always affect the end result but it doesn’t mean that the variables need not be accounted for. This level of hypothesizing is one of the most effective and sophisticated and thus is only limited by theory itself.

Science and Hypothesis

“The general culture in which a science develops furnishes many of its basic hypotheses” holds true as science has developed more in the West and is no accident that it is a function of culture itself. This is quite evident with the culture of the West as they read for morals, science and happiness. After the examination of a bunch of variables, it is quite easy to say that the cultural emphasis upon happiness has been productive of an almost limitless range.

The hypotheses originate from science; a key example in the form of “socialization” may be taken. The socialization process in learning science involves a feedback mechanism between the scientist and the student. The student learns from the scientist and then tests for results with his own experience, and the scientist in turn has to do the same with his colleagues.

Analogies are a source of useful hypotheses but not without its dangers as all variables may not be accounted for it as no civilization has a perfect system.

Hypotheses are also the consequence of personal, idiosyncratic experience as the manner in which the individual reacts to the hypotheses is also important and should be accounted for in the experiment.

The Characteristics for Usable Hypotheses

The criteria for judging a hypothesis as mentioned below:

  • Complete Clarity : A good hypothesis should have two main elements, the concepts should be clearly defined and they should be definitions which are communicable and accepted by a larger section of the public. A lot of sources may be used and fellow associates may be used to help with the cause.
  • Empirical Referents : A great hypothesis should have scientific concepts with the ultimate empirical referent. It can‟t be based on moral judgment though it can explore them but the goal should be separated from moral preachment and the acceptance of values. A good start could be analyzing the concepts which express attitudes rather than describing or referring to empirical phenomena.
  • Specific Goal : The goal and procedure of the hypothesis should be tangible as grand experiments are harder to carry out. All operations and predictions should be mapped and in turn the possibility of testing the hypothesis increases. This not only enables the conceptual clarity but also the description of any indexes used. These indexes are used as variables for testing hypotheses on a larger scale. A general prediction isn’t as reliable as a specific prediction as the specific prediction provides a better result.
  • Relation to Available Techniques : The technique with which a hypothesis is tested is of the utmost importance and so thorough research should be carried out before the experiment in order to find the best possible way to go about it. The example of Karl Marx may be given regarding his renowned theories; he formulated his hypothesis by observing individuals and thus proving his hypothesis. So, finding the right technique may be the key to a successful test.
  • Relation to a Body of Theory: Theories on social relations can never be developed in isolation but they are a further extension of already developed or developing theories. For instance, if the “intelligence quotient” of a member of the society is to be measured, certain variables such as caste, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are chosen thus deductions are made from time to time to eventually find out what is the factor that influences intelligence.

The Conclusion

The formulation of a hypothesis is probably the most necessary step in good research practice and it is very essential to get the thought process started. It helps the researcher to have a specific goal in mind and deduce the end result of an experiment with ease and efficiency. History is evident that asking the right questions always works out fine.

Also Read: Research Methods – Basics

Goode, W. E. and P. K. Hatt. 1952. Methods in Social Research.New York: McGraw Hill. Chapters 5 and 6. Pp. 41-73

hypothesis examples of sociology

Kartik is studying BA in International Relations at Amity and Dropped out of engineering from NIT Hamirpur and he lived in over 5 different countries.

Verywell Mind

Verywell Mind

The Psychology of Conflict Theory: A Comprehensive Guide

Posted: December 26, 2023 | Last updated: December 26, 2023

If you've ever felt like you can't get ahead in life because there is only so much success to go around, then you've experienced conflict theory in motion. "Conflict theory is the belief that people and systems are naturally in conflict and competition with each other for limited resources," explains Dr. Patrice Le Goy . She adds that "conflict theory also suggests that people with power will do what they can do keep that power."

German philosopher Karl Marx is considered the father of this theory, but others have expanded on it. We'll discuss what conflict theory is in depth, how the idea has developed and changed over time, how it relates to other sociological theories, and whether or not it's still relevant to life today.

Introduction to Conflict Theory

Even though the term might sound a little complex, conflict theory is a straightforward idea and it can be used to explain numerous elements of our lives, such as social classes and wealth inequality. Le Goy says that "people often think of this theory in terms of why war and other major conflicts take place, but we can also think about it in our everyday lives."

Conflict theory is based on a few principles: That we have a limited amount of resources in our world, that humans operate out of self-interest , and that conflict can't be avoided within and between social groups. It's considered the opposite of an idea called functionalism , which claims that society will naturally work together for the greater good and every individual serves a function towards that.

This theory is taught in sociology courses, and its principles since Marx presented them have been broadened over the years to include explanations for war and racial inequality.

Historical Development and Key Thinkers of Conflict Theory

First introduced by Karl Marx, conflict theory has been used to explain other social phenomenon over time. Macchiavelli and Thomas Hobbes presented theories that were later refined by Marx. He used conflict theory to explain how the working class acts as producers of goods for the upper class. After that, sociologist Max Weber rounded out the theory by adding politics, race, gender, and education to it. Weber posited that inequality worsened conflict, and forced people to be competitive while not giving them fair chances due to lack of mobility.

Ida B. Wells looked at conflict theory though a lens of race and feminism, using it to explain the increased rate of lynching between the 1800s to 1900s while Black people experienced more social mobility, as well as how white women excluded Black women from the suffragist movement as they fought for the right to vote.

 W.E.B. DuBois also used conflict theory to explain racism in the late 1800s. He conducted in person research with Black families in Philadelphia and wrote about them in The Atlantic, with a focus on the challenges of Black people in the United States.

In the 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills examine conflict theory through the lens of large organizations in power. He suggested that an elite class was formed by the government, military, and corporations.

Conflict theory was presented in modern times by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He said that the campaign donations that both Republicans and Democrats accepted from banks and other large corporations made them biased towards those organizations and put individuals under their influence. Sanders represented himself as of the people, versus a member of the upper class who sided with corporations.

Core Concepts of Conflict Theory

Conflict theory centers around a few basic concepts.

Competition

The idea that we all have to compete is central to conflict theory. We see this play out, according to Le Goy, in ways such as "people competing for a limited number of jobs that pay well and have good benefits, or for a limited supply of affordable housing in a desirable area."

In this competition, who performs a function best does not innately lead them to achieve success. She notes that "these issues arise from there not being enough of these necessities to accommodate everyone in society and we know that decisions about who gets what are not always need or merit-based."

Conflict theory involves a group in power that has the desire to stay there. Wealth and power are tied together, with wealthy people typically being seen as the people in charge. This makes sense in terms of government, corporations, and individuals who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth compared to the rest of the population.

Conflict theory involves the idea that the upper class uses the goods and services that the working class provides, and that the working class has to stay in their own social stratosphere in order to keep the system going. This theory works against the idea of upward mobility.

Lack of Resources

The notion that there is only so much to go around is why we must compete for power. Limited resources are key to conflict theory. This may seem silly because the world is so big, but if you think about how we concentrate ourselves in it, it makes more sense. We live in cities that are dense in population, and in the densest ones, you may experience intense competition just to find a new home to live in or a new school to send your child to.

Marginalization

Conflict theory involves some people being marginalized due to the imbalance in power. Explains Le Goy, "we see conflict theory in today’s society when we see rights being taken away from marginalized groups. In this case, you are seeing how power is being held on to very tightly and people are not able to have basic rights, in some situations." When some people hold more power than others, those without power are bound to become marginalized.

Conflict Theory vs. Other Sociological Theories

While functionalism also explains why society is the way it is, it does so in the opposite way of conflict theory. It instead focuses on how we all want to work for the greater good . Consensus theory also explains why society functions as it does, but it instead says that our social order is based on our values and our norms. An additional sociological theory is symbolic interactionism, which focuses more on individuals and how they act based on the meanings they give to various elements of life.

Conflict theory differs from most other sociological theories in being centered around conflict. As such, its seen as more of a "glass half empty" approach to humanity than a "glass half full" one.

Applications of Conflict Theory

Conflict theory can be applied to many different facets of life in our society.

In Politics

We see conflict theory in politics through those who lead our country often coming from upper class, wealthy backgrounds. People in charge make rules and laws for those with less money, and have the power to lower the quality of life of the masses.

When the government decides to go to war, that can also be an example of conflict theory: A group in charge is choosing where our national resources go, and how they are used, while also asking those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to do the actual fighting.

In Education

Conflict theorists see our educational system as keeping people in their economic classes without enabling mobility to occur. This manifests as schools in lower income neighborhoods having smaller budgets and fewer resources, and as wealthy people sending their children to expensive private schools where they can attain higher quality educations. Schools in economically advantaged neighborhoods typically have higher graduation rates and more students who move on to a four years college than those in lower income areas.

Economics are a major part of conflict theory because the idea behind it is that the working class are stuck in their positions creating goods and performing services while the wealthy will do whatever they have to in order to stay in power. This creates inequality and marginalization, and without upward mobility, those problems will continue over time.

Le Goy notes that "this idea helps us better understand the reasons why people may behave in a way that seems to be self-centered and uncaring about larger society. When in fact, they are just trying to hold on to what they perceive to be their basic needs ."

Criticisms and Limitations of Conflict Theory

As with any theory, conflict theory has its limitations and criticisms. Some people don't believe in it at all, while others take some of its notions as true but don't like the way it frames humanity. "a major limitation of conflict theory is that it presumes innate selfish human behavior that does not take into account situational circumstances that may lead to this behavior (competing for very limited resources)," says Le Goy.

There is also a lack of research surrounding conflict theory. It doesn't have any specific studies that show that humans are inherently competitive, or that every wealthy person is insistent on staying that way. It sees people in a negative light, and discounts the very many people who do not center their lives around competition and power.

Lastly, conflict theory can be considered an oversimplification of society's struggles. It doesn't take into account that power struggles still arise within classes, and it doesn't give any credence to the ways that people work towards conflict resolution and mobility.

The Relevance of Conflict Theory Today

Conflict theory is relevant to life today if you're seeking an explanation for problems that exist in society. That said, as a sociological theory it presents humanity through a negative lens, and it isn't particularly popular with most people in modern times. It may be useful for explaining some ways that people behave, but it can't be used as an excuse for behavior. It's an interesting idea, and by learning more about it, we can gain a better understanding of how people throughout the years have viewed the struggles in our society.

Read the original article on Verywell Mind .

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  1. 13 Different Types of Hypothesis (2023)

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  6. Writing a hypothesis (Shortened)

COMMENTS

  1. 2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

    For example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists often look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs.

  2. 1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

    In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006). For example, although suicide is generally considered an individual phenomenon, Émile Durkheim was interested in studying the social factors that affect it.

  3. The Main Sociological Theories

    grand theories: an attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change hypothesis: a testable proposition macro-level theories: a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society micro-level theories:

  4. 3.1.3: Developing Theories and Hypotheses

    Theories and Hypotheses. Before describing how to develop a hypothesis, it is important to distinguish between a theory and a hypothesis. A theory is a coherent explanation or interpretation of one or more phenomena. Although theories can take a variety of forms, one thing they have in common is that they go beyond the phenomena they explain by including variables, structures, processes ...

  5. Chapter 2. Sociological Research

    Approaches to Sociological Research. Using the scientific method, a researcher conducts a study in five phases: asking a question, researching existing sources, formulating a hypothesis, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. The scientific method is useful in that it provides a clear method of organizing a study.

  6. 2.1C: Formulating the Hypothesis

    Sociology (Boundless) 2: Sociological Research 2.1: The Research Process ... For example, if the hypothesis is a causal explanation, it will involve at least one dependent variable and one independent variable. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect, or thing that is changed.

  7. Hypotheses

    18 Hypotheses When researchers do not have predictions about what they will find, they conduct research to answer a question or questions, with an open-minded desire to know about a topic, or to help develop hypotheses for later testing. In other situations, the purpose of research is to test a specific hypothesis or hypotheses.

  8. 4.9: The Main Sociological Theories

    A sociological theory seeks to explain social phenomena. Theories can be used to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006). Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro ...

  9. 2.2: Approaches to Sociological Research

    A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related; it makes a conjectural statement about the relationship between those variables. ... Think of a broad topic that you are interested in and which would make a good sociological study—for example, ethnic diversity in a college, homecoming rituals, athletic scholarships ...

  10. Hypothesis

    Study Notes A hypothesis is a statement that is then tested through research. A hypothesis usually consists of what the researcher thinks to be the case, and the purpose of the research is to discover whether she/he was correct. It is a feature of scientific research methodology.

  11. 2.2 Research Methods

    A real-life example will help illustrate the process. In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology professor at California State University at Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory, she conducted research. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, White, and Hispanic.

  12. 1.3: Social Theories

    A Macro Theory is a sociological theory designed to study the larger social, global, and societal level of sociological phenomena. This theory was founded by a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, and revolutionary (1818-1883). Marx was a witness to oppression perpetrated by society's elite members against the masses of poor.

  13. hypothesis definition

    ( noun) A proposed and testable explanation between two or more variables that predicts an outcome or explains a phenomenon. Examples of Hypothesis "I think the more time students spend studying prior to a test the higher their grade will be." Note: The variables are the students, the time spent studying, and the test grades.

  14. Everyday Sociology Blog: Theories and Hypotheses

    A theory is a system of ideas that has been developed after multiple studies. Theories are constructed by examining the results of research and repeated observations. Researchers begin with a theory, and end by noting how their findings add to that theory, or set of theories. A hypothesis is an educated guess about how two or more things are ...

  15. How to Form a Hypothesis in Sociology

    For example: instead of saying "I believe smoking wastes productive time through smoke breaks," make an assumption at how many hours will be lost. Treat your hypothesis like a question, not a statement. A hypothesis is not a concrete argument; it is an assumption that you are looking to either prove or disprove.

  16. Sociology Hypothesis Examples : Uncovering Compelling Insights : The

    Sociology hypothesis examples include: "Higher levels of income lead to greater happiness" and "Social media usage affects mental health." Sociology explores the relationship between individuals and society. Hypotheses in sociology are proposed explanations for the patterns and trends observed in human behavior.

  17. Sociological Theories

    Scott Olson / Getty Images Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources.

  18. 25 Famous Sociology Theories: Examples and Applications

    Sociology Theory Examples 1. Conflict Theory Type of Theory: Macrosociology Conflict Theory proposes that society is marked by ongoing struggles for resources and power, resulting in social inequalities.

  19. Positivism in Sociology: Definition, Theory & Examples

    October 9, 2023 Reviewed by Saul Mcleod, PhD On This Page: What Is Positivism? Key Principles Theories Criticism and Controversy Key Takeaways Positivism is an approach to sociology, as well as philosophy, that relies on empirical evidence, such as those found through experiments and statistics, to reveal information about how society functions.

  20. 5 Examples of How Sociology Impacts Everyday Life

    Examples of sociology could include studying the relationship between culture and society, examining social movements, or researching how communication affects human behavior.

  21. Hypothesis: Functions, Problems, Types, Characteristics, Examples

    Hypothesis: Functions, Problems, Types, Characteristics, Examples April 4, 2022 by Kartik Basic Elements of the Scientific Method: Hypotheses The Function of the Hypotheses A hypothesis states what one is looking for in an experiment. When facts are assembled, ordered, and seen in a relationship, they build up to become a theory.

  22. Quora

    We would like to show you a description here but the site won't allow us.

  23. 19 Examples of Sociology

    The following are illustrative examples of sociology. Society The study of societies, complex social structures that organize human affairs in a place. Culture Meaning and behaviors that emerge from the shared experiences of groups. This includes national cultures, traditional cultures, super culture and subcultures. Traditions

  24. The Psychology of Conflict Theory: A Comprehensive Guide

    Verywell Mind. If you've ever felt like you can't get ahead in life because there is only so much success to go around, then you've experienced conflict theory in motion. "Conflict theory is the ...