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Social Research

In order to effectively evaluate social research one must increase his or her critical thinking skills.  The goal is to understand, analyze, and evaluate information as well as question the information that is presented.  In terms of social research oftentimes we are evaluating researched focused on social problems, developing studies focused on identifying social problems, developing programs to help alleviate social problems, and developing studies to help us evaluate the programs we have developed.

In order to alleviate social problems we must:

  • Understand the social problem
  • Collect information on the social problem
  • Develop a plan
  • Evaluate the plan’s effectiveness

We must be active learners: we must question, hypothesize, criticize, imagine, examine, and speculate!

Social Research

The goal of social research is to:

  • Understand
  • Evaluate
  • Solve social problems

Social Research Methods

Each time a sociologist conducts research he or she goes through specific steps which are noted as the Research Process or Research Model.

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Define the problem
  3. Literature Review (review all of the previous research published on the specific topic)
  4. Formulate a hypothesis (tentative statement; relationship between two or more factors) or state the research question
  5. Choose a research method (method for doing the research; observation, survey, secondary data, documents, experiment, case study)
  6. Sampling/Sample (the individuals you will study that will represent the population- target group- you want to study; oftentimes a random sampling technique is utilized)
  7. Gather the data (assure validity-measures what you intend to measure- and reliability-findings will be consistent if study is repeated)
  8. Analyze the data collected
  9. Report the findings
  10. Share the findings with others (publish the research; present the data to others)

Research Methods in Sociology

Surveys: asking individuals a series of questions via a mail questionnaire (self-administered), interview (in-person interview), or telephone; open-ended questions or closed-ended questions.

Observation or Participant Observation (Fieldwork): the researcher observes individuals (sample), typically this is conducted in the individuals’ natural environment (rather than in the lab which is more likely for psychological research).  In participant observation research the researcher joins the group he/she is studying to conduct the research.

Secondary Analysis: analyzing data that has been collected by other researchers.  Also includes documents and records such as bank records, police records, court records.

Documents: analyzing written sources (newspapers, diaries, records, photographs, films, etc.).

Experiments: testing causation through the use of an experimental group (the group exposed to the variable) and a control group (the group that is not exposed to the variable); although more likely to be conducted in the discipline of psychology or social psychology, some sociological experiments have been conducted.

Choosing the Appropriate Research Method

Choosing which research method to use depends on the issue(s) the researcher is studying.  For instance, if a researcher is investigating views on abortion, which is a sensitive topic, it would probably be best to utilize a self-administered questionnaire.  You can see where an in-person interview could be a problem and result in inaccurate findings.  There are other things that a researcher must take into consideration when deciding which method to use, such as costs (self-administered mail questionnaires are inexpensive; telephone questionnaire or interviews are very costly).


Most of the time, in terms of researching social problems, a researcher is looking for cause and effect relationships.  Causality means that one factor has some type of effect on another factor or produces a change in some other factor.  In some instances we have found that two factors are correlated or associated with one another and that one of the factors (or variables) is not specifically causing a change in the other factor (variable).  The two factors are affecting one another, but this is not causality.  For example, the combination of alcohol abuse, low self-esteem, and the male culture and subculture have been found to result in higher instances of spousal abuse (a correlation).  There is not just ONE cause of spousal abuse.  On the other hand, it has been found that in our culture viewing pornographic images directly results in biological changes, such as an increase in heart rates, increase in blood pressure, and erections or swelling of sexual organs (this is causality).

Research and Social Theory

Social research and social theory go hand-in-hand.  A researcher is either conducting research to test a specific social theory or the researcher is studying a specific topic or social issue to see what social theory emerges from the study.

The General Social Survey (GSS)

Read about the General Social Survey (GSS) (Links to an external site.)

“The General Social Survey (GSS) conducts basic scientific research on the structure and development of American society with a data-collection program designed to both monitor societal change within the United States and to compare the United States to other nations.” (GSS)

“The GSS contains a standard ‘core’ of demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal questions, plus topics of special interest. Many of the core questions have remained unchanged since 1972 to facilitate time-trend studies as well as replication of earlier findings. The GSS takes the pulse of America, and is a unique and valuable resource. It has tracked the opinions of Americans over the last four decades.” (GSS)

The General Social Survey is one of the largest sociological studies conducted on a regular basis.  If you are interested you should search the GSS to read about the most current (and past) research findings.

The Stanford Prison ExperimentStanford Prison Experiment pictures (of the "guards" and the "prisoners") from the original experiment

Twenty-four male students were chosen to take in the study that was conducted in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.  Each student was screened for “psychological normality” prior to being chosen.  Students were randomly assigned as prisoners or guards in a simulated prison.  The goal was to study how individuals will adopt the “prison” roles they were assigned to.  In a very short period of time the prisoners and guards had adopted their new roles.  Within a few hours some guards even began to harass prisoners and their behavior was described as “brutal and sadistic” and that they appeared to enjoy their new role.  The prisoners adopted prisoner-like behavior as well.  By the sixth day the study was terminated.  One prisoner had to be released from the experiment after 36 hours because of “uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger”.  The findings of the experiment were that people readily conform to the social roles they are assigned to and expected to play. 

Visit the Stanford Prison Experiment website (Links to an external site.) for more information.  Think about how you can apply the course material to the study (hypothesis, sample, research method, findings, ethics in social research, etc.).

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