Humans and their social interactions are so diverse that it might seem impossible to study them scientifically, as one would study applied physics or biology. But this is exactly why sociologists employ the scientific method for studying human behavior. The scientific method is a multi-step procedure that involves systematically formulating questions, gathering data, and questioning hypotheses. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship, involving the development and testing of theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It establishes parameters that help make sure results are reliable and verifiable, and it is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world. Most of all, the scientific method strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical.
The results of scientific studies in sociology tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before, whether knowledge of other cultures or their own culture, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, or knowledge of trends and attitudes. Armed with this knowledge, those who have studied sociology can improve their ability to solve problems both in everyday life, and in society.
When designing a research study employing the scientific method, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability, which refers to how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced. If another sociologist follows the same research protocols, will they come up with the same results? If so, then the study is reliable. The more exciting the findings, and the more they challenge prevailing understandings, the more likely it is that other sociologists will try to replicate them.
EXAMPLEA researcher wanted to study the impact of sports participation on behavior-related problems among high school girls. At a dozen high schools, she collected information about which girls participated in sports, and monitored their records for the remainder of their time in high school, noting whether there was a difference in detentions and suspensions among student athletes and non-athletes. This study is reliable because it could be repeated in more high schools, or with different cohorts of students.
Replication of prior studies is a cornerstone of science and social sciences. A sociologist who studies teenagers may replicate their studies several times in regular intervals, studying either the same generation as it grows up or teenagers at the same age and of the same demographic in different decades. Another researcher may build on that research to see how social phenomena, like a global pandemic, affects those same teens or generations of teens.
Researchers also strive for validity, which refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to measure. A study is valid if it has been designed thoughtfully enough to ensure that there aren't complicating factors muddying up the results, and that the study isn't accidentally measuring the wrong thing for the research question at hand.
EXAMPLEIf a researcher is studying the behavior of people with gambling addictions, they might consider asking gamblers to recall their recent wins and losses. But this method would likely not be valid. Just asking the subjects for their wins and losses might tell us more about the gamblers' memories, or about whether they fudge the truth to make themselves appear better, than it tells us about their actual wins and losses. A more valid measure would be the quantitative data analysis of their betting slips and receipts. In that way we can compare actual data instead of people’s recollections and self reports.
Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect data but also to interpret and analyze the data they collected. In so doing, a researcher seeks to apply objectivity and identify any biases they may be unconsciously bringing into the work. This doesn't always succeed! But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis.
We have discussed some of the principles underlying the scientific method, but what is it exactly? The scientific method is a multi-step procedure that involves systematically formulating questions, gathering data, and questioning hypotheses. There are eight steps of the scientific method.
Step 1: Define the problem.
In a world full of fascinating topics and rich settings for sociological inquiry, this is the easy part! Simply pick a broad topic or population that interests you. For the purpose of example, let's say that you are interested in social media and teenagers.
Ask broad, topical, problem-defining questions about your chosen topic, such as:
Social scientists like to say, “Don't go out and reinvent the wheel.” In other words, don’t replicate work that has already been done; make sure what you're doing is unique, and that you are building on the work of prior researchers. Use what others have observed about your topic as your starting point.
As you review the existing studies on your social media and teenagers, you might ask:
A hypothesis is an educated guess about how things are related to one another, often predicting how one form of human behavior influences another. Using limited data gathered from your more casual observations and previous research, you propose a possible explanation or relationship, which you will prove or disprove in your study.
Attributes of a good hypothesis include:
EXAMPLE"Social media makes teenagers lonely" is not a very good hypothesis because it would be hard to show that to be true. "Teenagers who spent above average amounts of time on social media have fewer social connections" is something that you could prove or disprove, so it is a stronger hypothesis.
EXAMPLEYou will never be able to study all teenagers of all ages using all social media platforms. A better hypothesis might focus on the impact of Snapchat use on suburban middle class 16-year-old girls.
EXAMPLEYou might hypothesize that teens whose parents monitor their social media use will experience less cyberbullying. The stimulus, or independent variable, is the monitoring of the teen's social media use. The change or response, or dependent variable, is the amount of bullying the teen might experience.
Step 4: Design a research plan.
In this step you determine exactly how you're going to test your hypothesis, which is how you're going to find the answers to your questions. There are many ways research can be organized in sociology, which we will explore in-depth later in this challenge. Things to consider are:
This is often the most labor-intensive stage. You're actually going out and gathering the raw data according to the research plan that you have in place, whether that means interviewing teens, distributing and collecting surveys in schools, following teens on social media and tracking their usage, or bringing a group of teens into the lab to ask them questions as a group. Things to consider are:
Step 6: Interpret your data.
Data interpretation is the process of reviewing data through a predefined process, which helps to make sense of collected data. You analyze your data in order to judge how it supports the relationship you are exploring between your independent and dependent variables. The goal is to use the data you collected to shed some light on the hypothesis that you posed in step three. Questions to consider:
The results section is where you report your findings and the methodologies used to determine those findings. The results section should simply state the relevant facts as determined by your research outcomes. Various data should be organized in the order of your argument. Here you avoid any data that doesn’t add to your argument.
Things to consider:
Step 8: Pose new questions.
In this last step of the scientific method, you want to pose new questions that come to light based upon your work, so that the process can continue. You may want to point out things that you overlooked or propose new directions for future research. Science is a process of gradual refinement and it’s beneficial to point out areas you may have left unstudied.