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METHODS OF

SOCIOLOGICAL

RESEARCH

WHAT IS SCIENTIFIC METHOD?

Defining the Problem Reviewing the Literature Formulating the Hypothesis Collecting and Analyzing Data

Selecting the Sample Creating Scales and Indices Ensuring Validity and Reliability

Developing the Conclusion

Confirming Hypotheses Controlling for Other Factors

In Summary: Scientific Method

RESEARCH DESIGNS FOR COLLECTING DATA

Experiments Participant Observation Surveys Unobtrusive Measures

ETHICS OF RESEARCH

Case Studies of Ethical Controversies

Tearoom Trade

Tragic Accident or Suicide?

Neutrality and Politics in Research

  • APPENDIX: WRITING A LIBRARY RESEARCH REPORT

  • BOXES

2-1 Everyday Behavior:

Hospital Treatment of "Dying"

Patients

2-2 Current Research:

Understanding Tables and

Graphs

2-3 Current Research:

Replication as a Research Tool-

Middletown Revisted

2-4 Speaking Out: Preserving

Confidentiality—One

Sociologists' View

The great tragedy of science

the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis

by an ugly fact.

Thomas H. Huxley Biogenesis and Abiogenesis, 1870

How do sociologists study human behav­ior and institutions? Is it accurate to categorize sociology as a science? What ethical standards guide sociologists in conducting research? As a way of beginning our examination of the principles and methods of sociological re­search, let us look briefly at an interesting study of the behavior of police officers.

Drawing upon the conflict perspective, which emphasizes that social institutions maintain the privileges of some groups while keeping others in a subservient position, Frances K. Heussenstamm (1971) decided to examine unequal treatment of citizens by law enforcement officers. She won­dered if police would be more likely to issue traf­fic tickets to cars driven by political radicals. As a result, she had her students at California State College at Los Angeles affix the orange-and-black stickers of the Black Panther party to their automobiles. At the time that this research was conducted, the Panthers, a black radical organiza­tion, had been involved in many angry (and some violent) confrontations with California police of­ficers.

All the student drivers selected by Heus­senstamm had exemplary driving records. None had received a moving violation in the previous year. As part of the experiment, students prom­ised to carefully abide by all traffic regulations. Yet, within two hours of affixing the Black Pan­ther stickers, a student received a traffic ticket for an "incorrect lane change." By the fourth day of the study, one student had dropped out of the project after receiving three citations. In 17 days, the 15 student drivers received 33 tickets.

Many questions may come to mind as you con­sider this example of sociological research. Why did Heussenstamm use bumper stickers in inves­tigating unequal treatment by police officers? Would the college students have received a rash of tickets if they had placed bumper stickers say­ing "America: Love It or Leave It" on their cars? Would police officers in other localities and states have given as many (or more) citations to Heus-senstamm's students?

Effective sociological research can be quite thought-provoking. It may interest us in many new questions about social interactions that re­quire further study. On the other hand, effective research is not always dramatic. In some cases,

rather than raising additional questions, a study will confirm previous beliefs and findings.

This chapter, building on what was considered in Chapter 1, will examine sociology as a social science. The basic principles and stages of scien­tific method will be described. A number of tech­niques commonly used in sociological research, such as experiments, participant observations, and surveys, will be presented. Particular at­tention will be given to the practical and ethical challenges that sociologists face in studying human behavior and to the debate raised by Max Weber's call for "value neutrality" in social science research.

These themes form the core of Chapter 2, yet they will also be reflected throughout this text­book. Whatever the area of sociological inquiry— whether culture or organizational behavior, the economy or education—and whatever the per­spective of the sociologist—whether functionalist, conflict, interactionist, or any other—there is one crucial requirement. Within the discipline of soci­ology, all branches of specialization and all theo­retical approaches depend on imaginative, re­sponsible research which meets the highest scientific and ethical standards.

Frances K. Heussenstamm had college students place, stickers for a black radical organization on their cars. The drivers, all of whom had exemplary records, quickly accumulated many traffic tickets.

What is scientific method?

Like the typical woman or man on the street, the sociologist is interested in the central questions of our time. Is the family falling apart? Why is there so much crime in the United States? How do Americans feel about the increasing federal defi­cit? Such issues concern most people, whether or not they have academic training. However, unlike the typical citizen, the sociologist has a commit­ment to the use of scientific method in studying society. Scientific method is a systematic, orga­nized series of steps that ensures maximum objec­tivity and consistency in researching a problem. Many of us will never actually conduct scientific research. Nonetheless, it is important that we understand scientific method, for it plays a major role in the workings of our society. Americans are constantly being bombarded with "facts" or "data." A television news report informs us that "one in every two American marriages now ends in divorce," yet Chapter 12 will show that this as-

CHAPTER TWO ♦ METHODS OF

sertion is based on misleading statistics. Almost daily, advertisers cite supposedly scientific studies to prove that their products are superior. Such claims may be accurate or exaggerated. We can make better evaluations of such information— and will not be fooled as easily—if we are familiar with the standards of scientific research. As this chapter will indicate, scientific method is quite stringent and demands that researchers adhere as strictly as possible to its basic principles.

A key element in scientific method is planning. When sociologists wish to learn more about human behavior, they do not simply walk out the door, or pick up the telephone, and begin asking questions. Scientific method demands precise preparation in developing useful research. If in­vestigators are not careful, research data that they collect may prove to be unacceptable for purposes of sociological study.

There are five basic steps in scientific method that sociologists and other researchers follow. These are (1) defining the problem, (2) review-

I

SOCIOLOGICAL RESEARCH

Homelessness has become a growing problem in the United Stales. Shown are a homeless woman in New York City; a homeless man in Washington, D.C.; and members of a homeless family living in a "tent city."

PART ONE ♦ THE SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

ing the literature, (3) formulating the hypothesis, (4) selecting the research design and then collect­ing and analyzing data, and (5) developing the conclusion. An actual example will illustrate the workings of scientific method.

In the 1980s, people in the United States be­came increasingly aware of the plight of the homeless in the nation's urban centers. In the past, the homeless were primarily older white males living as alcoholics in "skid row" areas. However, today's homeless persons tend to be younger and include growing numbers of fami­lies without any shelter. How might sociologists use scientific method to study homeless residents of American cities? How might they move from the broad social issue of homelessness to a re-searchable problem?

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