• 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.

Sociologists 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 insight. 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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Moral Courage: A Sociological Perspective

  • Culture and Society
  • Published: 26 February 2018
  • Volume 55 , pages 181–192, ( 2018 )

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While many social scientists have written about obedience and conformity, few have analyzed the conduct of outliers and nonconformists who defy these forces by engaging in acts of moral courage. Among psychologists and philosophers, moral courage is often portrayed as an individualistic phenomenon that is immune to sociological analysis. This paper challenges this view, positing that social ties with like-minded coconspirators, an identification with ‘imagined others’ who espouse similar moral beliefs, and social interactions that awaken the conscience play a crucial role in facilitating these seemingly solitary acts. Drawing on two original case studies – a border guard who defied a restrictive immigration law on the eve of World War II, and a Serb who crossed the lines of ethnic division during the Balkan wars of the 1990s – the article illuminates the social dimensions of moral courage and contributes to the project of developing a social psychology of conscience.

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This account and the case study that follows both draw on a book published by the author in 2012.

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Press, E. Moral Courage: A Sociological Perspective. Soc 55 , 181–192 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-018-0231-4

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Published : 26 February 2018

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-018-0231-4

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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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case study sociological perspective

Conducting Case Study Research in Sociology

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  • Key Concepts
  • Major Sociologists
  • News & Issues
  • Research, Samples, and Statistics
  • Recommended Reading
  • Archaeology

A case study is a research method that relies on a single case rather than a population or sample. When researchers focus on a single case, they can make detailed observations over a long period of time, something that cannot be done with large samples without costing a lot of money. Case studies are also useful in the early stages of research when the goal is to explore ideas, test, and perfect measurement instruments, and to prepare for a larger study. The case study research method is popular not just within ​the field of sociology, but also within the fields of anthropology, psychology, education, political science, clinical science, social work, and administrative science.

Overview of the Case Study Research Method

A case study is unique within the social sciences for its focus of study on a single entity, which can be a person, group or organization, event, action, or situation. It is also unique in that, as a focus of research, a case is chosen for specific reasons, rather than randomly , as is usually done when conducting empirical research. Often, when researchers use the case study method, they focus on a case that is exceptional in some way because it is possible to learn a lot about social relationships and social forces when studying those things that deviate from norms. In doing so, a researcher is often able, through their study, to test the validity of the social theory, or to create new theories using the grounded theory method .

The first case studies in the social sciences were likely conducted by Pierre Guillaume Frédéric Le Play, a 19th-century French sociologist and economist who studied family budgets. The method has been used in sociology, psychology, and anthropology since the early 20th century.

Within sociology, case studies are typically conducted with qualitative research methods . They are considered micro rather than macro in nature , and one cannot necessarily generalize the findings of a case study to other situations. However, this is not a limitation of the method, but a strength. Through a case study based on ethnographic observation and interviews, among other methods, sociologists can illuminate otherwise hard to see and understand social relations, structures, and processes. In doing so, the findings of case studies often stimulate further research.

Types and Forms of Case Studies

There are three primary types of case studies: key cases, outlier cases, and local knowledge cases.

  • Key cases are those which are chosen because the researcher has ​a particular interest in it or the circumstances surrounding it.
  • Outlier cases are those that are chosen because the case stands out from other events, organizations, or situations, for some reason, and social scientists recognize that we can learn a lot from those things that differ from the norm .
  • Finally, a researcher may decide to conduct a local knowledge case study when they already have amassed a usable amount of information about a given topic, person, organization, or event, and so is well-poised to conduct a study of it.

Within these types, a case study may take four different forms: illustrative, exploratory, cumulative, and critical.

  • Illustrative case studies are descriptive in nature and designed to shed light on a particular situation, set of circumstances, and the social relations and processes that are embedded in them. They are useful in bringing to light something about which most people are not aware of.
  • Exploratory case studies are also often known as pilot studies . This type of case study is typically used when a researcher wants to identify research questions and methods of study for a large, complex study. They are useful for clarifying the research process, which can help a researcher make the best use of time and resources in the larger study that will follow it.
  • Cumulative case studies are those in which a researcher pulls together already completed case studies on a particular topic. They are useful in helping researchers to make generalizations from studies that have something in common.
  • Critical instance case studies are conducted when a researcher wants to understand what happened with a unique event and/or to challenge commonly held assumptions about it that may be faulty due to a lack of critical understanding.

Whatever type and form of case study you decide to conduct, it's important to first identify the purpose, goals, and approach for conducting methodologically sound research.

  • Definition of Idiographic and Nomothetic
  • Pilot Study in Research
  • Understanding Purposive Sampling
  • The Different Types of Sampling Designs in Sociology
  • Social Surveys: Questionnaires, Interviews, and Telephone Polls
  • Abstract Writing for Sociology
  • The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity
  • Introduction to Sociology
  • Definition of Cultural Materialism
  • All About Marxist Sociology
  • Definition and Overview of Grounded Theory
  • Definition of Aggregate and Social Aggregate
  • Macro- and Microsociology
  • Cluster Sample in Sociology Research
  • How to Write and Format a Business Case Study
  • Sociology of Health and Illness

case study sociological perspective

Sociological Case Study: Uncovering the Human Experience

  • Political Theory

Sociological Case Study

Sociological case studies analyze social behavior and structures to understand trends and patterns. Sociological case studies offer insightful perspectives into social phenomena, exploring behavior, values, and norms in different societies.

When examining a sociological case study, it’s essential to consider the various sociological concepts at play, such as culture, socialization, and conflict theory. These case studies are invaluable tools for sociologists and researchers to gain a deeper understanding of human interactions and societal complexities.

By examining real-world situations, sociological case studies contribute to the development of sociological theories and inform social policies and interventions. This article delves into the importance of sociological case studies and their impact on understanding and addressing social issues.

Understanding Human Behavior Through Sociological Lens

Studying human behavior from a sociological perspective provides invaluable insights into the interplay of social structures and individual experiences. It’s a lens through which we can delve into the complex dynamics shaping human actions and interactions. By analyzing the impact of culture and society on human behavior, sociologists uncover the underlying patterns and forces that influence how individuals behave and interact with one another.

The interplay of social structures and individual experiences

When it comes to understanding human behavior through a sociological lens, one cannot overlook the interplay of social structures and individual experiences. Sociologists delve deep into the intricate web of social institutions, including family, education, religion, and government, to unravel the ways in which these structures shape and guide human behavior. Through meticulous observation and analysis, sociologists aim to discern how societal norms, values, and hierarchies mold an individual’s attitudes, actions, and relationships. This examination of social structures and their influence on individual experiences provides a comprehensive understanding of human behavior within the broader context of society.

Impact of culture and society on human behavior

Understanding human behavior through a sociological lens entails recognizing the profound impact of culture and society on individual actions and choices. Culture serves as a powerful force, shaping people’s beliefs, customs, and behavioral norms. Sociologists delve into the intricacies of cultural frameworks and how they influence human behavior, shedding light on the ways in which people learn and internalize cultural patterns that guide their actions and interactions. Moreover, the social environment, encompassing institutions, communities, and social interactions, exerts a significant influence on human behavior. By scrutinizing the impact of culture and society, sociologists gain critical insights into the myriad factors that mold and steer human behavior in diverse social contexts.

Sociological Case Study: Uncovering the Human Experience

Credit: www.harvardmagazine.com

Research Methodology For Sociological Case Studies

When conducting sociological case studies, it is imperative to employ a research methodology that allows for in-depth exploration of social phenomena. The research methodology for sociological case studies encompasses various qualitative research approaches, including ethnographic methods that focus on uncovering human experiences and cultural contexts.

Qualitative Research Approaches In Sociological Studies

In sociological case studies, qualitative research approaches play a critical role in understanding the complex dynamics of social interactions, behaviors, and institutions. Utilizing qualitative methods such as interviews, observations, and document analysis enables researchers to delve into the subjective meanings and interpretations of social phenomena, providing rich and nuanced insights.

Ethnographic Methods For Uncovering Human Experiences

Ethnographic methods are particularly valuable in sociological case studies as they allow researchers to immerse themselves in the natural settings and cultural contexts of the subjects under study. By employing participant observation, field notes, and in-depth interviews, ethnographic research uncovers the intricate layers of human experiences, behaviors, and social structures, thereby capturing the essence of social life.

Case Studies On Social Identity And Interaction

Sociological case studies provide valuable insights into how individuals navigate their social environment. These case studies on social identity and interaction delve into the complex interplay of factors that shape and influence one’s sense of self and their interactions with others. Exploring topics such as gender dynamics in social interactions and the impact of socioeconomic status on identity formation yields a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of the human experience within society.

Exploration Of Gender Dynamics In Social Interactions

Gender dynamics play a crucial role in shaping social interactions and behavior. Through sociological case studies, the dynamics of gender roles, expectations, and power structures within social settings are scrutinized. These case studies shed light on the nuances of how individuals perceive and respond to gender-based norms and hierarchies in their interactions with others. By examining real-life scenarios and interpersonal dynamics, sociologists uncover the underlying forces that influence the dynamics of gender in various social contexts.

Impact Of Socioeconomic Status On Identity Formation

Socioeconomic status significantly impacts the formation of individual identity within society. Sociological case studies analyze the ways in which socioeconomic factors such as income, education, and occupational status contribute to the construction of one’s self-identity. These case studies delve into the disparities in opportunities, social mobility, and access to resources that result from differing socioeconomic statuses. By examining the lived experiences of individuals from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, sociologists elucidate the profound influence of economic factors on shaping an individual’s identity and social interactions.

The Role Of Institutions In Shaping Human Experiences

When examining human experiences from a sociological perspective, it becomes evident that institutions play a pivotal role in shaping these experiences. Institutions such as family dynamics and the education system have a profound impact on the way individuals perceive and interact with the world around them. Understanding the influence of these institutions provides valuable insight into the social fabric and the experiences of individuals within it.

Influence Of Family Dynamics On Individual Experiences

The family unit serves as the primary socializing agent for individuals, shaping their values, beliefs, and behaviors. The dynamics within a family, including the roles of parents, siblings, and extended family members, significantly impact an individual’s view of the world and their place within it. Family dynamics directly influence an individual’s social interactions, relationships, and overall well-being, defining their experiences within the broader societal context.

Education And Its Impact On Social Integration And Experiences

Education plays a pivotal role in influencing an individual’s social integration and experiences. Schools and educational institutions not only provide academic knowledge but also function as socialization agents, shaping individuals’ perceptions of the world and their interaction within it. The education system directly impacts an individual’s access to opportunities, social networks, and overall life prospects, thus significantly influencing their experiences within society.

Leveraging Sociological Insights For Social Change

Sociological case studies provide valuable insights into the complexities of human society and behavior. By leveraging these insights, we can pave the way for meaningful social change. This article delves into the crucial role of sociological findings in addressing societal inequalities and advocating for policy changes, and how these insights can be harnessed to drive positive transformation.

Understanding Human Experiences To Address Societal Inequalities

Sociological case studies delve deep into the intricacies of human experiences within societal contexts. By examining the dynamics of interactions , cultural norms , and institutional structures , it sheds light on the root causes of social inequalities . These insights aid in identifying marginalized communities and understanding the barriers they face. Subsequently, the knowledge gleaned from these case studies empowers us to develop targeted interventions and strategies that address systemic injustices and promote equitable opportunities for all.

Advocating For Policy Changes Based On Sociological Findings

Sociological research provides evidence-based data that serves as a strong foundation for advocating policy changes. By presenting compelling insights and statistics, we can influence policymaking processes, urging authorities to address critical societal issues. Furthermore, this data is instrumental in shaping legislation and public policies that strive to foster an inclusive and just society. Effectively leveraging sociological findings in policy advocacy is paramount for effecting real and sustainable social change.

Frequently Asked Questions For Sociological Case Study

What are the key concepts in sociological case studies.

Sociological case studies focus on understanding social behavior, cultural norms, and societal structures. They analyze real-life situations to gain insights into human interactions and social dynamics. The key concepts include social institutions, power dynamics, and cultural influences.

How Are Sociological Case Studies Conducted?

Sociological case studies often involve qualitative research methods such as interviews, observations, and textual analysis. Researchers immerse themselves in the social context, gathering rich data to explore complex social phenomena. They aim to uncover patterns, meanings, and relationships within the chosen case.

Why Are Sociological Case Studies Important For Society?

Sociological case studies provide valuable insights into social issues, inequality, and community dynamics, shedding light on diverse perspectives and experiences. They allow for a deeper understanding of societal challenges and contribute to informed decision-making and social improvements.

To sum up, this sociological case study offers valuable insights into the complexities of human behavior in various social settings. By examining the factors influencing individuals and communities, we can better understand and address the challenges they face. This deepened understanding paves the way for more effective and empathetic social policies and interventions.

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13.1 Sociological Perspectives on Health and Health Care

Learning objective.

  • List the assumptions of the functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives on health and medicine.

Before discussing these perspectives, we must first define three key concepts—health, medicine, and health care—that lie at the heart of their explanations and of this chapter’s discussion. Health refers to the extent of a person’s physical, mental, and social well-being. As this definition suggests, health is a multidimensional concept. Although the three dimensions of health just listed often affect each other, it is possible for someone to be in good physical health and poor mental health, or vice versa. Medicine refers to the social institution that seeks to prevent, diagnose, and treat illness and to promote health in its various dimensions. This social institution in the United States is vast, to put it mildly, and involves more than 11 million people (physicians, nurses, dentists, therapists, medical records technicians, and many other occupations). Finally, health care refers to the provision of medical services to prevent, diagnose, and treat health problems.

With these definitions in mind, we now turn to sociological explanations of health and health care. As usual, the major sociological perspectives that we have discussed throughout this book offer different types of explanations, but together they provide us with a more comprehensive understanding than any one approach can do by itself. Table 13.1 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes what they say.

Table 13.1 Theory Snapshot

The Functionalist Approach

As conceived by Talcott Parsons (1951), the functionalist perspective emphasizes that good health and effective medical care are essential for a society’s ability to function. Ill health impairs our ability to perform our roles in society, and if too many people are unhealthy, society’s functioning and stability suffer. This was especially true for premature death, said Parsons, because it prevents individuals from fully carrying out all their social roles and thus represents a “poor return” to society for the various costs of pregnancy, birth, child care, and socialization of the individual who ends up dying early. Poor medical care is likewise dysfunctional for society, as people who are ill face greater difficulty in becoming healthy and people who are healthy are more likely to become ill.

For a person to be considered legitimately sick, said Parsons, several expectations must be met. He referred to these expectations as the sick role . First, sick people should not be perceived as having caused their own health problem. If we eat high-fat food, become obese, and have a heart attack, we evoke less sympathy than if we had practiced good nutrition and maintained a proper weight. If someone is driving drunk and smashes into a tree, there is much less sympathy than if the driver had been sober and skidded off the road in icy weather.

Second, sick people must want to get well. If they do not want to get well or, worse yet, are perceived as faking their illness or malingering after becoming healthier, they are no longer considered legitimately ill by the people who know them or, more generally, by society itself.

Third, sick people are expected to have their illness confirmed by a physician or other health-care professional and to follow the professional’s instructions in order to become well. If a sick person fails to do so, she or he again loses the right to perform the sick role.

A woman curled up in

Talcott Parsons wrote that for a person to be perceived as legitimately ill, several expectations, called the sick role, must be met. These expectations include the perception that the person did not cause her or his own health problem.

Nathalie Babineau-Griffith – grand-maman’s blanket – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

If all these expectations are met, said Parsons, sick people are treated as sick by their family, their friends, and other people they know, and they become exempt from their normal obligations to all these people. Sometimes they are even told to stay in bed when they want to remain active.

Physicians also have a role to perform, said Parsons. First and foremost, they have to diagnose the person’s illness, decide how to treat it, and help the person become well. To do so, they need the cooperation of the patient, who must answer the physician’s questions accurately and follow the physician’s instructions. Parsons thus viewed the physician-patient relationship as hierarchical: the physician gives the orders (or, more accurately, provides advice and instructions), and the patient follows them.

Parsons was certainly right in emphasizing the importance of individuals’ good health for society’s health, but his perspective has been criticized for several reasons. First, his idea of the sick role applies more to acute (short-term) illness than to chronic (long-term) illness. Although much of his discussion implies a person temporarily enters a sick role and leaves it soon after following adequate medical care, people with chronic illnesses can be locked into a sick role for a very long time or even permanently. Second, Parsons’s discussion ignores the fact, mentioned earlier, that our social backgrounds affect the likelihood of becoming ill and the quality of medical care we receive. Third, Parsons wrote approvingly of the hierarchy implicit in the physician-patient relationship. Many experts say today that patients need to reduce this hierarchy by asking more questions of their physicians and by taking a more active role in maintaining their health. To the extent that physicians do not always provide the best medical care, the hierarchy that Parsons favored is at least partly to blame.

The Conflict Approach

The conflict approach emphasizes inequality in the quality of health and of health-care delivery (Weitz, 2013). As noted earlier, the quality of health and health care differs greatly around the world and within the United States. Society’s inequities along social class, race and ethnicity, and gender lines are reproduced in our health and health care. People from disadvantaged social backgrounds are more likely to become ill, and once they do become ill, inadequate health care makes it more difficult for them to become well. As we will see, the evidence of disparities in health and health care is vast and dramatic.

The conflict approach also critiques efforts by physicians over the decades to control the practice of medicine and to define various social problems as medical ones. Physicians’ motivation for doing so has been both good and bad. On the good side, they have believed they are the most qualified professionals to diagnose problems and to treat people who have these problems. On the negative side, they have also recognized that their financial status will improve if they succeed in characterizing social problems as medical problems and in monopolizing the treatment of these problems. Once these problems become “medicalized,” their possible social roots and thus potential solutions are neglected.

Several examples illustrate conflict theory’s criticism. Alternative medicine is becoming increasingly popular, but so has criticism of it by the medical establishment. Physicians may honestly feel that medical alternatives are inadequate, ineffective, or even dangerous, but they also recognize that the use of these alternatives is financially harmful to their own practices. Eating disorders also illustrate conflict theory’s criticism. Many of the women and girls who have eating disorders receive help from a physician, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or another health-care professional. Although this care is often very helpful, the definition of eating disorders as a medical problem nonetheless provides a good source of income for the professionals who treat it and obscures its cultural roots in society’s standard of beauty for women (Whitehead & Kurz, 2008).

Obstetrical care provides another example. In most of human history, midwives or their equivalent were the people who helped pregnant women deliver their babies. In the nineteenth century, physicians claimed they were better trained than midwives and won legislation giving them authority to deliver babies. They may have honestly felt that midwives were inadequately trained, but they also fully recognized that obstetrical care would be quite lucrative (Ehrenreich & English, 2005).

A collage of the expectations of ADD/ADHD.

According to conflict theory, physicians have often sought to define various social problems as medical problems. An example is the development of the diagnosis of ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

birgerking – What I Really Do… ADD/ADHD – CC BY 2.0.

In a final example, many hyperactive children are now diagnosed with ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. A generation or more ago, they would have been considered merely as overly active. After Ritalin, a drug that reduces hyperactivity, was developed, their behavior came to be considered a medical problem and the ADHD diagnosis was increasingly applied, and tens of thousands of children went to physicians’ offices and were given Ritalin or similar drugs. The definition of their behavior as a medical problem was very lucrative for physicians and for the company that developed Ritalin, and it also obscured the possible roots of their behavior in inadequate parenting, stultifying schools, or even gender socialization, as most hyperactive kids are boys (Conrad, 2008; Rao & Seaton, 2010).

Critics say the conflict approach’s assessment of health and medicine is overly harsh and its criticism of physicians’ motivation far too cynical. Scientific medicine has greatly improved the health of people around the world. Although physicians are certainly motivated, as many people are, by economic considerations, their efforts to extend their scope into previously nonmedical areas also stem from honest beliefs that people’s health and lives will improve if these efforts succeed. Certainly there is some truth in this criticism of the conflict approach, but the evidence of inequality in health and medicine and of the negative aspects of the medical establishment’s motivation for extending its reach remains compelling.

The Symbolic Interactionist Approach

The symbolic interactionist approach emphasizes that health and illness are social constructions . This means that various physical and mental conditions have little or no objective reality but instead are considered healthy or ill conditions only if they are defined as such by a society and its members (Buckser, 2009; Lorber & Moore, 2002). The ADHD example just discussed also illustrates symbolic interactionist theory’s concerns, as a behavior that was not previously considered an illness came to be defined as one after the development of Ritalin. In another example first discussed in Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs” , in the late 1800s opium use was quite common in the United States, as opium derivatives were included in all sorts of over-the-counter products. Opium use was considered neither a major health nor legal problem. That changed by the end of the century, as prejudice against Chinese Americans led to the banning of the opium dens (similar to today’s bars) they frequented, and calls for the banning of opium led to federal legislation early in the twentieth century that banned most opium products except by prescription (Musto, 2002).

In a more current example, an attempt to redefine obesity is now under way in the United States. Obesity is a known health risk, but a “fat pride” or “fat acceptance” movement composed mainly of heavy individuals is arguing that obesity’s health risks are exaggerated and calling attention to society’s discrimination against overweight people. Although such discrimination is certainly unfortunate, critics say the movement is going too far in trying to minimize obesity’s risks (Diamond, 2011).

The symbolic interactionist approach has also provided important studies of the interaction between patients and health-care professionals. Consciously or not, physicians “manage the situation” to display their authority and medical knowledge. Patients usually have to wait a long time for the physician to show up, and the physician is often in a white lab coat; the physician is also often addressed as “Doctor,” while patients are often called by their first name. Physicians typically use complex medical terms to describe a patient’s illness instead of the more simple terms used by laypeople and the patients themselves.

Management of the situation is perhaps especially important during a gynecological exam, as first discussed in Chapter 12 “Work and the Economy” . When the physician is a man, this situation is fraught with potential embarrassment and uneasiness because a man is examining and touching a woman’s genital area. Under these circumstances, the physician must act in a purely professional manner. He must indicate no personal interest in the woman’s body and must instead treat the exam no differently from any other type of exam. To further “desex” the situation and reduce any potential uneasiness, a female nurse is often present during the exam.

Critics fault the symbolic interactionist approach for implying that no illnesses have objective reality. Many serious health conditions do exist and put people at risk for their health regardless of what they or their society thinks. Critics also say the approach neglects the effects of social inequality for health and illness. Despite these possible faults, the symbolic interactionist approach reminds us that health and illness do have a subjective as well as an objective reality.

Key Takeaways

  • A sociological understanding emphasizes the influence of people’s social backgrounds on the quality of their health and health care. A society’s culture and social structure also affect health and health care.
  • The functionalist approach emphasizes that good health and effective health care are essential for a society’s ability to function, and it views the physician-patient relationship as hierarchical.
  • The conflict approach emphasizes inequality in the quality of health and in the quality of health care.
  • The interactionist approach emphasizes that health and illness are social constructions; physical and mental conditions have little or no objective reality but instead are considered healthy or ill conditions only if they are defined as such by a society and its members.

For Your Review

  • Which approach—functionalist, conflict, or symbolic interactionist—do you most favor regarding how you understand health and health care? Explain your answer.
  • Think of the last time you visited a physician or another health-care professional. In what ways did this person come across as an authority figure possessing medical knowledge? In formulating your answer, think about the person’s clothing, body position and body language, and other aspects of nonverbal communication.

Buckser, A. (2009). Institutions, agency, and illness in the making of Tourette syndrome. Human Organization, 68 (3), 293–306.

Conrad, P. (2008). The medicalization of society: On the transformation of human conditions into treatable disorders . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Diamond, A. (2011). Acceptance of fat as the norm is a cause for concern. Nursing Standard, 25 (38), 28–28.

Lorber, J., & Moore, L. J. (2002). Gender and the social construction of illness (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Musto, D. F. (Ed.). (2002). Drugs in America: A documentary history . New York, NY: New York University Press.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system . New York, NY: Free Press.

Rao, A., & Seaton, M. (2010). The way of boys: Promoting the social and emotional development of young boys . New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks.

Weitz, R. (2013). The sociology of health, illness, and health care: A critical approach (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Wadsworth.

Whitehead, K., & Kurz, T. (2008). Saints, sinners and standards of femininity: Discursive constructions of anorexia nervosa and obesity in women’s magazines. Journal of Gender Studies, 17 , 345–358.

Social Problems Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The pioneering European sociologists, however, also offered a broad conceptualization of the fundamentals of society and its workings. Their views form the basis for today's theoretical perspectives, or paradigms , which provide sociologists with an orienting framework—a philosophical position—for asking certain kinds of questions about society and its people.

Sociologists today employ three primary theoretical perspectives: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective. These perspectives offer sociologists theoretical paradigms for explaining how society influences people, and vice versa. Each perspective uniquely conceptualizes society, social forces, and human behavior (see Table 1).

case study sociological perspective

The symbolic interactionist perspective

According to the symbolic interactionist perspective, people attach meanings to symbols, and then they act according to their subjective interpretation of these symbols. Verbal conversations, in which spoken words serve as the predominant symbols, make this subjective interpretation especially evident. The words have a certain meaning for the “sender,” and, during effective communication, they hopefully have the same meaning for the “receiver.” In other terms, words are not static “things”; they require intention and interpretation. Conversation is an interaction of symbols between individuals who constantly interpret the world around them. Of course, anything can serve as a symbol as long as it refers to something beyond itself. Written music serves as an example. The black dots and lines become more than mere marks on the page; they refer to notes organized in such a way as to make musical sense. Thus, symbolic interactionists give serious thought to how people act, and then seek to determine what meanings individuals assign to their own actions and symbols, as well as to those of others.

Consider applying symbolic interactionism to the American institution of marriage. Symbols may include wedding bands, vows of life‐long commitment, a white bridal dress, a wedding cake, a Church ceremony, and flowers and music. American society attaches general meanings to these symbols, but individuals also maintain their own perceptions of what these and other symbols mean. For example, one of the spouses may see their circular wedding rings as symbolizing “never ending love,” while the other may see them as a mere financial expense. Much faulty communication can result from differences in the perception of the same events and symbols.

Critics claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation—the “big picture.” In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the larger issues of society by focusing too closely on the “trees” (for example, the size of the diamond in the wedding ring) rather than the “forest” (for example, the quality of the marriage). The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions.

The functionalist perspective

Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus , or cohesion, in which members of the society agree upon, and work together to achieve, what is best for society as a whole. Emile Durkheim suggested that social consensus takes one of two forms:

  • Mechanical solidarity is a form of social cohesion that arises when people in a society maintain similar values and beliefs and engage in similar types of work. Mechanical solidarity most commonly occurs in traditional, simple societies such as those in which everyone herds cattle or farms. Amish society exemplifies mechanical solidarity.
  • In contrast, organic solidarity is a form of social cohesion that arises when the people in a society are interdependent, but hold to varying values and beliefs and engage in varying types of work. Organic solidarity most commonly occurs in industrialized, complex societies such those in large American cities like New York in the 2000s.

The functionalist perspective achieved its greatest popularity among American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s. While European functionalists originally focused on explaining the inner workings of social order, American functionalists focused on discovering the functions of human behavior. Among these American functionalist sociologists is Robert Merton (b. 1910), who divides human functions into two types: manifest functions are intentional and obvious, while latent functions are unintentional and not obvious. The manifest function of attending a church or synagogue, for instance, is to worship as part of a religious community, but its latent function may be to help members learn to discern personal from institutional values. With common sense, manifest functions become easily apparent. Yet this is not necessarily the case for latent functions, which often demand a sociological approach to be revealed. A sociological approach in functionalism is the consideration of the relationship between the functions of smaller parts and the functions of the whole.

Functionalism has received criticism for neglecting the negative functions of an event such as divorce. Critics also claim that the perspective justifies the status quo and complacency on the part of society's members. Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when such change may benefit them. Instead, functionalism sees active social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate naturally for any problems that may arise.

The conflict perspective

Whereas American sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s generally ignored the conflict perspective in favor of the functionalist, the tumultuous 1960s saw American sociologists gain considerable interest in conflict theory. They also expanded Marx's idea that the key conflict in society was strictly economic. Today, conflict theorists find social conflict between any groups in which the potential for inequality exists: racial, gender, religious, political, economic, and so on. Conflict theorists note that unequal groups usually have conflicting values and agendas, causing them to compete against one another. This constant competition between groups forms the basis for the ever‐changing nature of society.

Critics of the conflict perspective point to its overly negative view of society. The theory ultimately attributes humanitarian efforts, altruism, democracy, civil rights, and other positive aspects of society to capitalistic designs to control the masses, not to inherent interests in preserving society and social order.

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Anthropology Review

What is the Sociological Perspective – Understanding Sociology

The sociological perspective is a way of understanding society that emphasizes the interconnectedness of social structures, institutions, and cultural norms. At its core, sociology seeks to explain how society works and why it operates the way it does. By analyzing social phenomena through a sociological lens, we can gain new insights into issues such as power dynamics, inequality, and cultural values .

Table of Contents

In this article, we will explore what the sociological perspective is and why it’s important for understanding society. We will define key concepts such as social structure, culture, institutions, power, and inequality. Additionally, we will provide real-life examples to illustrate how the sociological perspective can be applied in practice. Finally, we will address common criticisms of sociology and conclude with a summary of the key takeaways from this discussion.

Defining the Sociological Perspective

Sociology is the scientific study of human society and social behavior. It seeks to understand how individuals interact with one another, as well as how groups and societies are structured and function.

The sociological perspective is a way of understanding society that emphasizes the interconnectedness of social structures, institutions, and cultural norms. Unlike other ways of understanding society, such as psychology or economics, sociology takes a holistic approach that considers multiple factors when analyzing social phenomena.

For example, while psychology might focus on individual behavior and motivations, sociology would examine how larger societal forces shape those behaviors and motivations. Similarly, while economics might focus on market dynamics and financial systems, sociology would examine how those systems affect different groups within society in terms of income inequality or access to resources.

Overall, the sociological perspective provides a unique lens through which we can analyze complex social issues and understand the interconnectedness of various societal factors.

Key Concepts of the Sociological Perspective

Social Structure, Power and Culture are the key concepts used by sociologists to analyze society through a variety of different lenses. For example, they might examine how social structures like race or gender impact individuals’ experiences within institutions like education or healthcare. Alternatively, they might study cultural norms and practices in order to understand how they shape behavior and attitudes.

By considering these concepts together, sociologists can gain a deeper understanding of how different aspects of society are interconnected and how they contribute to larger patterns of inequality or power dynamics. Through this analysis, sociologists can identify potential areas for change and work towards creating more equitable societies.

Social Structure

Social structure is a central concept in sociology that refers to the patterns of relationships and social arrangements that shape society. These structures can take many forms, including formal institutions like governments or schools, as well as informal social norms and expectations.

One important aspect of social structure is social hierarchy, which refers to the ranking of individuals or groups within society based on factors like wealth, status, or power. These hierarchies can be based on a variety of characteristics such as race, gender, age, or occupation. For example, in many societies men have traditionally held higher status and power than women.

Institutions are also very important. These are established systems or organizations within society that serve specific purposes such as education (schools), government (political institutions), healthcare (hospitals), or finance (banks). Institutions play a crucial role in shaping social structure by providing frameworks for behavior and expectations for individuals.

Another important aspect of social structure is roles. Roles are sets of expectations for how individuals should behave in different situations based on their position within society. For example, parents are expected to provide for and raise their children while teachers are expected to educate and mentor students.

Social norms also play a key role in shaping social structures. Norms refer to the unwritten rules and expectations for behavior that govern interactions between individuals and groups within society. They can vary widely across different cultures and communities.

Social structure provides a framework for understanding how different aspects of society work together to create larger patterns of behavior and inequality. By analyzing these patterns through a sociological lens, researchers can gain insights into how societies function.

Culture is a complex and multi-faceted concept that refers to the shared beliefs, values, practices, and symbols that define a particular group or society. It encompasses everything from language and social customs to art, music, and literature. Culture is not fixed or static but rather evolves over time as people interact with each other and their environment.

One important aspect of culture is its role in shaping individuals’ identities and worldviews. Cultural norms and traditions can influence how people perceive themselves and others, as well as how they approach various aspects of life like work, family, or religion.

Institutional structures often reflect cultural values and norms. For example, educational institutions may prioritize academic achievement as a reflection of cultural values around the importance of knowledge and learning.

Power is a fundamental concept in sociology that refers to the ability to influence or control others. It can be exerted through various means, including physical force, economic leverage, or social norms and expectations. It can also be exercised at different levels, from individual interactions to broader social structures and institutions.

Social structures and institutions often play a key role in determining power dynamics within society. For example, political institutions may hold significant power over citizens by regulating laws and policies.

Economic institutions like corporations and banks may have significant influence over individuals through their control of resources and wealth.

Inequality is another important concept related to power in sociology. Inequality refers to differences in access to resources, opportunities, and power among different groups within society. These differences can be based on a variety of factors such as race, gender, class, or age.

Inequalities are often reinforced through social structures and institutions that perpetuate disparities in power and privilege. For example, gender inequality may be reinforced through institutionalized norms that place greater value on traditionally masculine traits or roles.

Applying the Sociological Perspective to Real-Life Examples

Example 1: covid-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a current event that can be analyzed through a sociological perspective. This global crisis has had significant impacts on individuals, communities, and societies around the world.

By applying a sociological framework, we can gain insights into how social structures and institutions have shaped the spread of the virus and its impact on different groups within society. For example, research has shown that individuals from marginalized communities like low-income neighborhoods or racial minorities are more likely to be affected by the pandemic due to pre-existing inequalities in access to healthcare and other resources.

Additionally, analyzing the pandemic through a sociological lens can provide insights into how individuals and communities respond to crises. Sociologists have studied how social norms and expectations influence behaviors like mask-wearing or social distancing during pandemics.

covid 19 what is the sociological perspective

Example 2: Black Lives Matter Movement

The Black Lives Matter movement is another example where the sociological perspective can be applied in practice. This social movement aims to address systemic racism and violence against Black individuals in America.

By analyzing this movement through a sociological framework, we can gain insights into how power dynamics shape social structures and institutions that perpetuate racial inequality. Sociologists have studied how institutionalized racism operates at various levels of society, including education, criminal justice systems, and political institutions.

Additionally, studying the Black Lives Matter movement through a sociological lens provides insights into how collective action can bring about change within society. Sociologists have studied how social movements develop over time and what factors contribute to their success or failure.

Criticisms of the Sociological Perspective

Sociology, like any other field of study, has faced criticism and challenges over time. Some common critiques of sociology include:

Lack of objectivity . Critics argue that sociology is not an objective science because it is influenced by the researcher’s own biases and values.

Limited scope . Some argue that sociology focuses too much on macro-level social structures and institutions, neglecting the experiences of individuals and their agency.

Inadequate methods . Others criticize sociology for relying too heavily on quantitative methods at the expense of qualitative research, which can provide more in-depth insights into social phenomena.

Political bias . Some have accused sociologists of having a political bias, either towards liberal or conservative ideologies.

However, it’s important to note that sociology has evolved over time and continues to adapt to new challenges. For example:

Objectivity . While complete objectivity may be impossible, sociologists strive to minimize bias through rigorous research methods and peer review processes.

Scope . Sociology has expanded its scope over time to include micro-level analyses of individual experiences and agency as well as macro-level analyses of social structures and institutions.

Methods . Sociologists now use a variety of both quantitative and qualitative research methods to gain a more comprehensive understanding of social phenomena.

Political bias. Sociologists are trained to maintain objectivity in their research regardless of their personal beliefs or political affiliations.

While there are valid criticisms of sociology as a field, it continues to evolve and adapt in response to new challenges. By addressing these critiques head-on and continuing to refine its methods and theories, sociology can continue to provide valuable insights into how society operates.

Final Thoughts the Sociological Perspective

In this article, we explored the sociological perspective and its application in practice. We used examples from current events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to illustrate how analyzing social phenomena through a sociological framework can provide new insights and perspectives.

We also acknowledged some common critiques of sociology, including lack of objectivity, limited scope, inadequate methods, and political bias. However, we explained how sociology has evolved over time to address these critiques and continues to adapt to new challenges.

Understanding society through a sociological perspective is valuable for individuals and society as a whole because it allows us to see beyond individual experiences and recognize the larger social structures and institutions that shape our lives. By understanding these forces at work within society, we can identify areas where change may be needed to promote greater equity and justice for all individuals.

In conclusion, the sociological perspective provides a unique lens through which we can analyze social phenomena and gain a deeper understanding of society. By continuing to refine our methods and theories, sociology can continue to provide valuable insights into how society operates and how we can work towards building a more just and equitable world.

Anthropology Glossary Terms starting with S

Social Contract Theory

Sociological Perspective

Substantivist Formalist Debate

case study sociological perspective

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1.1: Sociological Perspective and Ethnic Studies

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  • Erika Gutierrez, Janét Hund, Shaheen Johnson, Carlos Ramos, Lisette Rodriguez, & Joy Tsuhako
  • Long Beach City College, Cerritos College, & Saddleback College via ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)

"I can't breathe." George Floyd repeated this phrase at least 20 times while held on the ground in police custody on May 25, 2020 (Singh, 2020). During the 9 1/2 minutes in which Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck depriving him of his breath, Floyd repeatedly called out "Mama," though his mother was already deceased. Following Floyd's lynching, multiracial Black Lives Matter mass protests erupted immediately in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, and countless cities and towns throughout the U.S. and the world. Protesters pushed for justice and reforms to challenge systemic racism in policing, including defunding and disbanding police departments. In many cases, though not all, police unleashed riot gear and tear gas on the mostly non-violent protesters. In response to the mass protests and in a rare case of police accountability of excessive use of force, Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police officers were fired and charged with Floyd's murder.

George Floyd memorial

The Problem of the Color Line

The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line, W.E.B DuBois (1868-1963) wrote in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. A civil rights activist and the first African American to earn a PhD in Sociology from Harvard, DuBois wrote about the socioeconomic and sociopolitical circumstances of African Americans following the Civil War and post-Reconstruction, amidst Jim Crow America. Answering his own question about how it feels to be a problem, DuBois wrote:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness , this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

DuBois edited The Crisis during the Harlem Renaissance, and he was an early member of the Niagara Movement, an organization dedicated to socio-political reform for African Americans which later became the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). DuBois was the first African American president of the American Sociological Society. As a young man, he believed in the promise of the United States as a country where all people could be equal and free.

It appears that the problem of the 21st century is still the problem of race. Yet, as intersectional scholar Kimberle Crenshaw explains, our frames should include an analysis of both gender and race to better understand the complexity of the human condition.

Portrait of W. E. B. DuBois

What is Sociology?

Sociology is the systematic study of society and social interaction. In order to carry out their studies, sociologists identify cultural patterns and social forces and determine how they affect individuals and groups. One way sociology achieves a more complete understanding of social reality is through its focus on the importance of the social forces affecting our behavior, attitudes, and life chances. This focus involves an emphasis on social structure, the social patterns through which a society is organized. Sociology provides a lens for understanding the human condition and the structural forces that influence our behavior and attitudes.

Yet, we are often not aware of the impact of these societal forces. Consider that most Americans probably agree that we enjoy a great amount of freedom. And yet perhaps we have less freedom than we think. Although we have the right to choose how to believe and act, many of our choices are affected by our society, culture, and social institutions in ways we do not even realize. Perhaps we are not as distinctively individualistic as we might like to think. The struggle over state shut-downs, social distancing and mandatory masks in public, threw this debate over freedom into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, take the right to vote. The secret ballot is one of the most cherished principles of American democracy. We vote in secret so that our choice of a candidate is made freely and without fear of punishment. That is all true, but it is also possible to predict the candidate for whom any one individual will vote if enough is known about the individual. Again, our choice (in this case, our choice of a candidate) is affected by many aspects of our social backgrounds and, in this sense, is not made as freely as we might think.

Rainbow colors at the white House celebrating marriage equality, following the 2015 Supreme Court Decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing gay marriage.

To illustrate this point, consider the 2008 presidential election between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. Suppose a room is filled with 100 randomly selected voters from that election. Nothing is known about them except that they were between 18 and 24 years of age when they voted. Because CNN exit poll data found that Obama won 66% of the vote from people in this age group, a prediction that each of these 100 individuals voted for Obama would be correct about 66 times and incorrect only 34 times. Someone betting $1 on each prediction would come out $32 ahead ($66 – $34 = $32), even though the only thing known about the people in the room is their age.

Now let’s suppose we have a room filled with 100 randomly selected white men from Wyoming who voted in 2008. We know only three things about them: their race, gender, and state of residence. Because exit poll data found that 67% of white men in Wyoming voted for McCain, a prediction can be made with fairly good accuracy that these 100 men tended to have voted for McCain. Someone betting $1 that each man in the room voted for McCain would be right about 67 times and wrong only 33 times and would come out $34 ahead ($67 – $33 = $34). Even though young people in the United States and white men from Wyoming had every right and freedom under our democracy to vote for whomever they wanted in 2008, they still tended to vote for a particular candidate because of the influence of their age (in the case of the young people) or of their gender, race, and state of residence (white men from Wyoming).

Sign with the words Vote Here Vote Aquí

Consider the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential campaign. Former President Donald Trump stoked racial strife and polarization during his presidency and through this campaign cycle. With his positive references to white power during the Charlottesville protests and his infamous tweets chastising protesters as thugs, blaming COVID-19 on China, or refusing to demand that the far-right Proud Boys "stand down," he catered to his base who hold more polar views from the rest of the nation, including more staunch opposition to immigration. With unwavering support, nearly 80% of white Evangelical voters checked the box for Trump (Gjelten, 2020). As the votes of the 2020 election have been tallied, Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris, the first-ever woman of color on a major political party ticket, won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes (Sullivan & Agiesta, 2020). Though there were unique niches, and overall increasing numbers, of voters of color supporting Trump, such as Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in Florida, the overwhelming majority of people of color cast a vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, including Latinx and Native American populations in Arizona who helped turn the state blue. A majority of men voted for Trump while the majority of women voted for Biden. Although Trump made gains with all groups of women from 2016 to 2020 elections, a consistently high majority of Black women cast their vote for the Biden-Harris ticket. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of the white electorate cast a vote for Trump, though a smaller percentage of white men voted for Trump as compared to 2016. Similar to four years earlier, race and gender (and religion) proved to be influential factors in voter tendency in 2020.

President Joe Biden

Yes, Americans have freedom, but our freedom to think and act is constrained at least to some degree by our social structures - by society’s standards and expectations and by the many aspects of our social backgrounds. This is true for the kinds of important beliefs and behaviors just discussed, and it is also true for less important examples. What color of mask did you wear during COVID-19? Was it a designer mask? Did it have a message? What social forces impacted your choice of mask?

The social structure plays an integral role in the social location (i.e., place or position) people occupy in society. Your social location is a result of cultural values and norms from the time-period and place in which you live. Culture affects personal and social development including the way people will think or behave. Cultural characteristics pertaining to age, gender, race, education, income, religion, sexuality, disability and other social factors influence the location people occupy at any given time.

Furthermore, social location influences how people perceive and understand the world in which we live. People have a difficult time being objective in all contexts, because of their social location within cultural controls and standards derived from values and norms. Objective conditions exist without bias because they are measurable and quantifiable (Carl, 2013). Subjective concerns rely on judgments rather than external facts. Personal feelings and opinions from a person’s social location drive subjective concerns. The sociological imagination is a tool to help people step outside subjective or personal biography, and look at objective facts and the historical background of a situation, issue, society, or person (Carl, 2013).

Thinking Sociologically

The time period we live (history) and our personal life experiences (biography) influence our perspectives and understanding about others and the world. Our history and biography guide our perceptions of reality reinforcing our personal bias and subjectivity. Relying on subjective viewpoints and perspectives leads to diffusion of misinformation and fake news that can be detrimental to our physical and socio-cultural environment and negatively impact our interactions with others. We must seek out facts and develop knowledge to enhance our objective eye. By using valid, reliable, proven facts, data, and information, we establish credibility and make better decisions for the world and ourselves.

  • Consider a socio-cultural issue you are passionate about and want to change or improve.
  • What is your position on the issue? What ideological or value-laden reasons or beliefs support your position? What facts or empirical data support your position?
  • What portion of your viewpoint or perspective on the issue relies on personal values, opinions, or beliefs in comparison to facts?
  • Why is it important to identity and use empirical data or facts in our lives rather than relying on ideological reasoning and false or fake information

According to C. Wright Mills (1959), the sociological imagination requires individuals to “think themselves away” from examining personal and social influences on people’s life choices and outcomes. Large-scale or macrosociological influences help create an understanding about the effect of the social structure and history on people’s lives. Whereas, small-scale or microsociological influences focus on interpreting personal viewpoints from an individual’s biography. Using only a microsociological perspective leads to an unclear understanding of the world from biased perceptions and assumptions about people, social groups, and society (Carl 2013).

In The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills presented his classic distinction between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the affected individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual’s own failings. Examples include such different problems as police brutality, immigration, mass incarceration, hate crimes, sexual harassment, and unemployment. Public issues , whose source lies in the social structure and culture of a society, refer to a social problem affecting many individuals. Thus problems in society help account for problems that individuals experience personally. Mills, feeling that many problems ordinarily considered private troubles are best understood as public issues, coined the term sociological imagination to refer to the ability to appreciate the structural basis for individual problems.

To illustrate Mills’s viewpoint, let’s use our sociological imagination to understand some important contemporary social problems. We will start with unemployment, which Mills himself discussed. If only a few people were unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good work habits, and so forth. If so, their unemployment would be their own personal trouble. But when millions of people are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because, as Mills (1959) explained, “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.” The unemployment rate rose dramatically during the severe economic downturn that began in 2008, yet had reduced to its lowest level before the COVID-19 pandemic. Once COVID-19 hit, millions of people in the U.S. lost their jobs through no fault of their own. While some individuals are undoubtedly unemployed because they are lazy or lack good work habits, a more structural explanation focusing on lack of opportunity and forced shut-downs is needed to explain why so many people were out of work as this book went to press. Though experienced as a personal trouble, unemployment can better be understood through analysis as a public issue. According to a Pew Research Center study , unemployment rates among African Americans have exceeded the unemployment rates of Euro Americans over the past six decades (Desilver, 2013). Current unemployment trends are no different.

Protest against police brutality in Uptown, banners reading 'Stop Police Brutality' and 'Education Not Incarceration'.

Next, we can consider the police brutality against African Americans and the Latinx Community. Emmett Till. Amadou Dialou. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Andres Guardado. Sean Monterrossa. Each of these senseless killings (and countless more) have presented immense personal troubles for family and friends of these victims. However, the long historical timeline illustrates these combined murders tell a story about lynching, of structural racism and unequal policing and injustice against African Americans and the Latinx Community. Created by African American women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the Black Lives Matter movement has called out the structural roots of this state sponsored violence.

Picture of the Black Lives Matter tribute to Breonna Taylor with the inscription Say Her Name

Finally, the global COVID-19 pandemic has presented the world with severe uncertainty. Personal troubles range from families devastated by the passing of a loved one, essential medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients on the frontline, and a shut-down of our public space that has confined many to their homes. Yet, an analysis of the unprepared public health system to manage this crises, lack of national political leadership, lack of access to (quality) health care in communities of color, combined with the high risk that poor communities face, illustrates the public issues surrounding the pandemic; economic and health care systems serve to only exacerbate the social inequalities that pre-dated COVID-19. Additionally, the rise of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities during COVID-19 further illustrates the how sociological imagination can be employed to consider the personal impact of these hate crimes as well as the public, structural roots of this racism.

Sociological Perspective

A key basis of the sociological perspective is the concept that the individual and society are inseparable. It is impossible to study one without the other. Incorporating a sociological perspective reminds us that we are always participating in something larger than ourselves. Using our sociological imagination, we can begin to see our micro, personal troubles in the context of macro, public issues. Perhaps then, we can better understand the complexity of our social life as well as the social change and resistance that may serve to improve the human condition.

Introducing the Struggle for Ethnic Studies

Ethnic Studies is the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and Indigeneity, focusing on the experiences and perspectives of diverse Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. The field of Ethnic Studies and the various disciplines like Black Studies/Africana Studies, Asian American Studies, Pacific Islander Studies, Arab American Studies, American Indian/Native American Studies, and Chicanx/Latinx and Latinx Indigenous Studies all work to center the knowledge and expertise of historically minoritized groups. Ethnic Studies has always been interdisciplinary in nature, meaning that it combines the strengths and perspectives of multiple disciplines. Scholars in the field of Ethnic Studies have also maintained a critique of the ways in which other disciplines have been associated with systems of power and domination. This has led to a critique of disciplines themselves, including the idea of a “canon” that many disciplines use to define a core set of authors, perspectives, and works that make up the foundation of the field.

There is no singular beginning to Ethnic Studies or a set of scholars who wrote the field into existence. It emerged out of struggles and the long histories of communities of color and Indigenous peoples who value education for its potential to transform lives, inspire change, raise awareness, and disrupt systems of power and exploitation.

Key Takeaways

  • DuBois considered that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line; sociologists consider that the problems of the 21st century continue to revolve around race.
  • Sociology provides a lens for understanding the human condition and the structural forces and structures that influence our behavior, attitudes, social interaction, and society at large while Ethnic Studies helps to center the knowledge and expertise of historically minoritized groups.
  • Using the tools of the sociological imagination and the sociological perspective help people to understand we are always participating in something larger than ourselves.
  • The tools of Ethnic Studies allow us to identify, apply, and analyze theory and knowledge produced by minoritized communities as people explore issues central to each group.

Contributors and Attributions

  • Hund, Janét. (Long Beach City College)
  • Rodriguez, Lisette. (Long Beach City College)
  • Sociology (Barkan) ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 ) contributed to Sociological Perspective
  • A Career in Sociology (Kennedy) ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
  • Introduction to Sociology 2e (OpenStax) ( CC BY 4.0 )
  • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick ( CC BY-NC 4.0 )
  • Cable News Network. (2008). CNN Exit Poll.
  • Carl, J.D. (2013). Think Social Problems . 2nd ed. Uppers Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Desilver , D. (2013, August 21). Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of whites. Pew Research Center .
  • DuBois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  • Galston, W. (2020, June 3). New polling: Eroding support from white working-class women threatens Trump’s reelection. The Brookings Institution.
  • Gjelten , T. (2020, November 8). 2020 faith vote reflects 2016 patterns. National Public Radio.
  • Mills, C.W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Singh, M. (2020, July 9). George Floyd told officers 'I can't breathe' more than 20 times, transcripts show. The Guardian .
  • Sullivan, K. & Agiesta, J. (2020, December 4). Biden's popular vote margin over Trump tops 7 million. CNN.

APS

Scientists Discuss How to Study the Psychology of Collectives, Not Just Individuals

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  • Perspectives on Psychological Science
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case study sociological perspective

Launched by the Association for Psychological Science in 2006,  Perspectives on Psychological Science  is a bimonthly journal publishing an eclectic mix of provocative reports and articles, including broad integrative reviews, overviews of research programs, meta-analyses, theoretical statements, and articles on topics such as the philosophy of science, opinion pieces about major issues in the field, autobiographical reflections of senior members of the field, and even occasional humorous essays and sketches.  Perspectives  contains both invited and submitted articles.

In an era of increasing radicalization and polarization, psychologists are looking beyond the individual mind to understand how groups think and behave. In a set of articles appearing in Perspectives on Psychological Science , an international array of scientists discusses how the study of neighborhoods, work units, activist groups, and other collectives can help us better understand and respond to societal changes.  

“Psychologists must go beyond the traditional focus on the individual mind,” David Garcia, Mirta Galesic, and Henrik Olsson of the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, Austria, write in an introduction to the article collection. “This is even more pressing given the pace of the digital transformation of our society, as new information and communication technologies reshape how we interact, create new networked e structures of humans and machines, and provide a digital breeding ground for new kinds of collective behavior.”  

The authors cover the topic from a number of angles, including collective memory, group intelligence, and crowd behavior. Among other factors, they highlight how: 

  • groups form and evolve 
  • collectives can amplify or dampen individual emotions, beliefs, and decisions  
  • individuals can misperceive the accuracy of their group’s knowledge  

The contributing authors also discuss the need to integrate their research with their peers in other disciplines, such as anthropology, economics, neuroscience, and sociology. Some of the authors propose new approaches and perspectives for studying collectives.  

Topics discussed in the collection of 19 articles include collective intelligence, emotions, knowledge, and performance. The list of articles is below: 

The Psychology of Collectives David Garcia, Mirta Galesic, and Henrik Olsson 

Group Formation and the Evolution of Human Social Organization Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Jörg Gross, and Angelo Romano 

Polarization and the Psychology of Collectives Simon A. Levin and Elke U. Weber 

Understanding Collective Intelligence: Investigating the Role of Memory, Attention, and Reasoning Processes Anita Williams Woolley and Pranav Gupta  

The Emerging Science of Interacting Minds Thalia Wheatley, Mark Thornton, Arjen Stolk, and Luke Chang 

Struggling With Change: The Fragile Resilience of Collectives Frank Schweitzer, Christian Zingg, and Giona Casiraghi 

Motivated Cognition in Cooperation Susann Fiedler, Hooman Habibnia, Alina Fahrenwaldt, and Rima-Maria Rahal 

The Spread of Beliefs in Partially Modularized Communities Robert Goldstone, Marina Dubova, Rachith Aiyappa, and Andy Edinger 

Individuals, Collectives, and Individuals in Collectives: The Ineliminable Role of Dependence Ulrike Hahn 

Communities Of Knowledge in Trouble Nathaniel Rabb, Mugur Geana, and Steven Sloman 

A Network Approach to Investigate the Dynamics of Individual and Collective Beliefs: Advances and Applications of the BENDING Model Madalina Vlasceanu, Ari M. Dyckovsky, and Alin Coman 

Maintaining Transient Diversity Is a General Principle for Improving Collective Problem Solving Paul E. Smaldino, Cody Moser, Alejandro Pérez Velilla, and Mikkel Werling 

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Crowds to Address Global Problems   Stephen B. Broomell and Clinton P. Davis-Stober 

Crowds Can Identify Misinformation at Scale Cameron Martel, Jennifer Allen, Gordon Pennycook, and David G. Rand 

What Makes Groups Emotional Amit Goldenberg 

New Forms of Collaboration Between the Social and Natural Sciences Could Become Necessary for Understanding Rapid Collective Transitions in Social Systems Stefan Thurner 

Toward Understanding of the Social Hysteresis:  Insights From Agent-Based Modeling Katarzyna Sznajd-Weron, Arkadiusz Jędrzejewski, and Barbara Kamińska 

Human Crowds as Social Networks: Collective Dynamics of Consensus and Polarization William H. Warren, J. Benjamin Falandays, Kei Yoshida, Trenton D. Wirth, and Brian A. Free  

A Cognitive Computational Approach to Social and Collective Decision-Making Alan N. Tump, Dominik Deffner, Timothy J. Pleskac, Pawel Romanczuk, and Ralf H. J. M. Kurvers 

Featured Research from Perspectives on Psychological Science

Eight hands hold puzzle pieces together

How Science Can Reward Cooperation, Not Just Individual Achievement

Two social scientists propose a different approach to scientific recognition and rewards: shifting the focus away from individual scientists and toward the larger groups in which scientists are embedded.

case study sociological perspective

Guilty as Charged: How We Contribute to Polarizing Content on Social Media

Podcast: Steven Rathje (New York University) and APS’s Özge G. Fischer-Baum explore the implications for societal change, in-group and out-group behavior, and emotional choices on internet usage. 

case study sociological perspective

Artificial Intelligence Systems Excel at Imitation, but Not Innovation 

While children and adults alike can solve problems by finding novel uses for everyday objects, AI systems often lack the ability to view tools in a new way, researchers explain in this study.

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case study sociological perspective

Student Notebook: Beginning Your Collaborative Writing Journey 

Nidhi Sinha explores the benefits of collaborative writing for graduate students: “The more people you involve in your research, the better experience, productivity, and research satisfaction you will receive in the long run.”

case study sociological perspective

Sword From the Stone: Developing Leadership Across the Ages

Other than a handful of modern monarchs and heirs to proverbial corporate thrones, most leaders aren’t born, they’re developed. Researchers are just beginning to investigate how individuals of all ages learn to take the reins.

case study sociological perspective

Religion and the Development of a More Contextually Responsive Discipline: The Case of Indonesian Psychology 

Growing interest in studying the transformative aspects of local religions and religiosity is not only important for the development of psychological science in Indonesia but also sociologically meaningful.

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Sociology Group: Welcome to Social Sciences Blog

SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES- MEANING, TYPES & EXAMPLES

CLASSICAL SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES: All disciplines study the subject through different perspectives. These help in providing unique or objective insights into the field that is studied. There are many sociological perspectives that have evolved over time across its sub-fields. However, the three classical theories remain popular and applicable to various societies and the interactions within them. These are- structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory

Three-major-sociological-perspectives-theoretical-perspectives-sociology

Introduction: Every discipline or study conducted by humans is done from a unique perspective. It offers meaningful insights into the subject of study. Similarly, sociology studies society, its participants, and their interactions through a sociological perspective that overarches the individual perspectives of social beings. The view through the lens of sociology always remains at the social or group level.

Read: An Introduction to the Discipline of Sociology Discipline – Overview

What is a sociological perspective?

“The perspective of sociology involves seeing through the outside appearances of people’s actions and organisations” (Berger, 1963). The sociological perspective is one that observes society through a lens without personal opinions. It generalizes the causes and actions of individuals into patterns and categories. However, it not only observes these patterns of society but also tries to explain such patterns or behaviours. Sociologists are not concerned with personal characteristics; instead, they aim to find common attitudes and features as well as hidden patterns in those characteristics and behaviours across millions of people. One of the main objectives of the sociological perspective is to find and understand patterns behind recurring features of social interaction, as well as to examine the social impacts of these. With this objective in mind, there have developed many sociological perspectives but there are three major perspectives that have gained popularity.

Types of sociological perspectives

Structural functionalist perspective:.

In sociology and other social sciences, structural functionalism serves as a thought school in which each institution, relation, position, and convention, that together make up a society, has a purpose and each is essential for the sustained functioning of other members and society in general. Social change has been seen in structural-functionalism to be an adaptive reaction to some of society’s difficulties. If one element of the interwoven social structure changes, friction is produced which is addressed by the change in the other areas between this and other aspects of the system. According to the sociologist Durkheim, social cohesion was brought about by the interrelationship between the various components present in society, which is a complex system that has its own dynamic traits, external to people, but that influences their actions. According to this perspective, different institutions, structures, and processes have a particular purpose, one that is beneficial to the members of society. This includes education contributing to the development of society, the legal systems check the deviations in society, the government governs people and protects citizens, families contribute to reproduction and many others. Even processes that others may regard through a negative lens have a purpose from the functionalist’s perspective. A criminal is someone who is normally thought to be harmful to society, but structural functionalists believe that criminals motivate people to behave morally and keep the justice system running.

The critiques of this perspective include its insufficiency to explain social and the continuance of non-functional aspects of society- that do not serve any purpose in society’s necessities. The idea that all the activities of society are useful to society is opposed by some.

 Symbolic Interactionism 

The symbolic interactionist perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, encourages researchers to explore symbols and nuances, their meanings, and their influence on the interactive relationships of daily life. As per this perspective, symbols are connected with their meanings, and these symbols are perceived in a subjective manner. Communication and the exchange of meaning through words and symbols are thought to be the method by which humans comprehend their social environments. Such subjective perception is particularly evident through verbal interactions that use uttered words as main symbols. Conversations are symbolic exchanges between people who evaluate the environment surrounding them continuously. The symbolic interactionist perspective stems from Max Weber’s idea that humans have an interpretation of their world and its meaning and their actions are influenced by such meanings.

Symbolic interactionism as a perspective helps people understand each other’s viewpoints and also helps with the smooth functioning of society. It promotes commonality and motivates the development of society. Symbols such as flags are used during international conflicts, by politicians and broadcasters, to encourage the concepts of unity, social cohesion among citizens and seek their support to the armed forces. Society has promoted the cultivation of symbols for various occasions. In western countries, the symbols of carved pumpkins and horror stories are associated with Halloween. A dove with an olive branch indicates peace worldwide. Movements create symbols to spread their causes and meanings. A rainbow flag, when seen, is directly interpreted to relate to the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, symbols and signs play an important in society. Due to the limitations of being objective, the viewpoint of symbolic interactionism is frequently investigated and critiqued. Opponents further criticise symbolic interactionists for their relatively limited focus on symbols and communication in understanding society.

Conflict theory

Conflict theory argues that when assets, power and social reputations are divided unfairly across sections of society, then disputes develop and these conflicts form the source of social change. Power may be viewed in this sense as the control of productive capacity and acquired riches, the influence over political and social institutions, and the social position of everyone else. The theory of conflict emerges from Karl Marx’s writings, which concentrated on the determinants and consequences of the bourgeois-proletarian class conflict in a capitalist society. This system reinforced an uneven social order, producing a unanimity of values, objectives and standards by the intellectual compulsion of the bourgeoisie. When the proletariat’s social and economic situation deteriorates, Marx predicted that they will become aware of the class system, implying that the rich capitalist class exploits them, resulting in a revolution with a demand for social change. This perspective has evolved from Marx and includes a wide array of conflicts and disputes that contribute to social change in society. Even wars between nations are perceived to be caused by material or ideological differences and the settlement of these leads to structural change. Sociological perspectives like Marxism and Feminism are derived from conflict theory and they both focus on particular conflicts, differences, and their impacts on society.

The theory of conflict has been critiqued for its concentration on social stability change and neglect. Some opponents recognize that societies are continuously changing, but note that many changes are small or gradual, not dramatic.

Read: How to Apply Sociology in Everyday Life

Why is it important?

Sociological perspectives assist us in better understanding ourselves. People perceive society through their restricted experience of a tight circle of kin, acquaintances, and colleagues if they do not have a sociological perspective. The sociological perspective helps us to imagine and mentally separate ourselves from our limited experience, allowing us to understand the connection between personal worries and societal problems. It allows us to see how our own routines and activities relate to the trends and happenings of society. Sociology studies take us into aspects of society that we may normally overlook or misinterpret. Because our perspective is influenced by our own encounters, and individuals with various societal interactions have varying conceptions of social existence, sociological perspectives enable us to respect and comprehend the perspectives of others.

Sociological perspectives are important as they provide a lens to view society in a way that excludes personal biases and prejudices. It has its own applicability across societies and can be altered as times change. The three types of sociological perspectives discussed above are the classical perspectives of sociology. However, there are other perspectives like Marxism, feminism, and post-modernism among others that provide different insights into the happenings of societies. 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 2012). With the development of multiple branches of sociology, the perspectives and theories are bound to grow enormously, but, in the end, they aim towards understanding society.

REFERENCES:

Doing, S. (2001). Sociological perspectives.

Jones, H. (2011). On sociological perspectives. In  Handbook on sexual violence  (pp. 207-228). Routledge.

Kingsbury, N., & Scanzoni, J. (2009). Structural-functionalism. In Sourcebook of family theories and methods (pp. 195-221). Springer, Boston, MA. 

Manning, P., & Smith, G. (2010). Symbolic interactionism.  The Routledge companion to social theory , 37-55.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, June 17).  Structural functionalism .  Encyclopedia Britannica .

Parsons, T. (1961).  Theories of society: Foundations of modern sociological theory . New York: Free Press.

Weber, Max. (1997). Definitions of sociology and social action. In Ian McIntosh (Ed.),  Classical sociological theory: A reader  (pp. 157–164). New York, NY: New York University Press. (Original work published 1922)

Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (Eds.). (2012).  Contemporary sociological theory . John Wiley & Sons. 

Berger Peter, L. (1963). Invitation to sociology.  A Humanistic Perspective, New York . 

case study sociological perspective

Ruthu is a student of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing interdisciplinary studies in international relations, political science and sociology. She is passionate about current affairs, public policies, sustainable development, human rights and quality education. She aspires to have a career in research and academia that allow observation of social reality by combining her subjects and passions in writing.

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Law's Community: Legal Theory in Sociological Perspective

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4 Sociology of Law in Britain: A Case Study

  • Published: February 1997
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The general character and evolution of the sociology of law was analysed in the previous chapter in terms of confrontations between law and sociology as fields of knowledge and practice. A more detailed consideration of the particular history of the sociology of law in Britain extends this inquiry by providing a concrete case study of interactions between legal studies and the social sciences. This chapter highlights conditions that have promoted and hampered the development of research on law in society, as well as the gradual emergence of a sophisticated sociological perspective on the legal field. Sociology of law presupposes much more than ‘contextualism’: that is, the study of law in social context. Three characteristics of the English common law environment can be identified as having had major long-term effects on the development of social scientific research in Britain: empiricism, Benthamite rationalism, and common law pragmatism. A further strand of social scientific research in the field of law is represented by criminology.

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Theory and Practice in Language Studies

Reconsidering Translation From a Bourdieusian Sociological Perspective: A Case Study of the English Translation of Luotuo Xiangzi

  • Jing Cao Universiti Putra Malaysia
  • Nor Shahila Mansor Universiti Putra Malaysia
  • Diana Abu Ujum Universiti Putra Malaysia

Translation activities are not isolated, and an increasing number of researchers have applied sociological theories to translation studies, which contributions to interdisciplinary research in translation. Luotuo Xiangzi , written by Lao She, is one of the best modern Chinese novels. Its four English translation versions and translation activities that span decades have deeply interacting with various parts of society. Based on Bourdieu’s sociological theories of the “field”, “capital” and “habitus”, this case study of the English translations of Luotuo Xiangzi explored the relationship and interaction between the translator and other participants (participating groups) in the translation activity. It was discovered that the translation activity could reveal the translator’s habitus and be greatly influenced by interactions with various fields of society and by the capital engaged in the translation activity of Luotuo Xiangzi , providing proof of the explanatory and guiding power of Bourdieu’s sociological theory in translation studies. This paper tries to enrich the interdisciplinary research of sociology and translation and offers additional references for the translation and global dissemination of translated literature, particularly for Chinese literature.

Author Biographies

Jing cao, universiti putra malaysia.

Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication

Nor Shahila Mansor, Universiti Putra Malaysia

Diana abu ujum, universiti putra malaysia.

Bao, Y. M. (1997). wen hua zi ben yu she hui lian jin shu [Cultural capital and social alchemy: An interview with Bourdieu]. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

Berry, M. (2002). The translator’s studio: A dialogue with Howard Goldblatt. Persimmon: Asian Literature, Arts and Culture, 3, 18-25.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago press.

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The field of cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1997). The forms of capital in Halsey. Education, culture, economy and society, 46-59.

Chen, L. (2015). cong luotuo xiangzi de ying yi ben shuo kai qu--fan yi jia shi jiaojing fang tan lu [From the English translation of Camel Xiangzi--an interview with translator Shi Xiaojing]. Dong fang fan yi, 05, 55-58.

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  1. Case Study Methodology of Qualitative Research: Key Attributes and

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