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Chapter 2. The process and problems of social research. Social research is done through the process of:. Specifying a research question Developing an appropriate research strategy Choosing appropriate units of analysis Conforming to scientific and ethical guidelines.

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chapter 2

Chapter 2

The process and problems of

social research


Social research is done through the

process of:

  • Specifying a research question
  • Developing an appropriate research strategy
  • Choosing appropriate units of analysis
  • Conforming to scientific and ethical guidelines

What is the question?

  • A social research question is a question about
  • the social world that you seek to answer through
  • the collection and analysis of firsthand, verifiable,
  • empirical data.
  • But that doesn’t mean it is easy to specify a research
  • question. In fact, formulating a good research question
  • can be surprisingly difficult.

What makes a research question “good”?

Feasibility: Can you start and finish an investigation

with available resources and in the time allotted?

Social importance: Will the answer make a difference

in the social world, even if it only helps people

understand a problem?

Scientific relevance: Does your question help resolve

some contradictory research findings or a puzzling

issue in social theory?


What is the theory?

  • Building and evaluating theory is one of the most
  • important objectives of social science.
  • A theory is a logically interrelated set of propositions that
  • helps us make sense of many interrelated phenomena and
  • predict behavior or attitudes that are likely to occur when
  • certain conditions are met.
  • Social theories suggest the areas on which we should
  • focus and the propositions that we should consider
  • testing.

How do we find relevant social theory and

prior research?

  • You’ll find that in any area of research, developing
  • an understanding of relevant theories will help you
  • to ask important questions, consider reasonable
  • alternatives and choose appropriate research procedures.
  • The social science research community is large and active,
  • and new research results appear continually in scholarly
  • journals and books.
  • The World Wide Web is also a good source.

What is the strategy?

  • When we conduct social research, we are attempting to
  • connect theory with empirical data—the evidence we
  • obtain from the social world.
  • Deductive research--starting with a social theory and then
  • testing some of its implications with data.
  • Inductive research--first collecting the data and then
  • developing a theory that explains patterns in the data.
  • A research project can use both strategies.

Deductive research

  • In deductive research a specific expectation is deduced from a general theoretical premise and then tested with data that have
  • been collected for this purpose.
  • We call the specific expectation deduced from the more
  • general theory a hypothesis.
  • A hypothesis proposes a relationship between two or
  • more variables—characteristics or properties that can vary.

Variation in one variable is proposed to predict,

  • influence, or cause variation in the other variable.
  • The proposed influence is the independent variable; its
  • effect or consequence is the dependent variable.
  • After the researchers formulate one or more hypotheses
  • and develop research procedures, they collect data with
  • which to test the hypothesis.

Direction of association

  • A pattern in a relationship between two variables---that
  • is, the value of a variable tends to change consistently in
  • relation to change in the other variable
  • When researchers hypothesize that one variable increases
  • as the other variable increases, the direction of association
  • is positive .
  • But when one variable increases as the other decreases,
  • or vice versa, the direction of association is
  • negative, or inverse .

Inductive research

  • Inductive researchbegins with specific data, which
  • are then used to develop (induce) a general explanation
  • (a theory) to account for the data.
  • Inductive reasoning enters into deductive research when we
  • find unexpected patterns in the data we have collected for
  • testing a hypothesis.
  • We may call these patterns serendipitous findings
  • or anomalous findings.

What is the design?

  • Researchers usually start with a question, though some begin with a
  • theory or a strategy.
  • If you are very systematic, the question is related to a theory, and an
  • appropriate strategy is chosen for the research.
  • There are several different types of research designs.
  • One important distinction between the types is whether data are collected
  • at one point in time or at two or more points in time.
  • Another distinction is whether the design focuses on individuals or on groups.

Cross-sectional designs

  • In a cross-sectional research design, all data are collected
  • at one point in time. Identifying the time order of effects—
  • what happened first, and so on—is critical for developing
  • a causal analysis, but can be an insurmountable problem
  • with a cross-sectional design.

Longitudinal Designs

  • In longitudinal research designs, data are collected
  • at two or more points in time, and so identification of
  • the time order of effects can be quite straightforward.
  • By measuring the value of cases on an independent variable
  • and a dependent variable at different times, the researcher
  • can determine whether variation in the independent variable
  • precedes variation in the dependent variable.
  • The value of longitudinal data is so great that every effort
  • should be made to develop longitudinal research designs
  • when they are appropriate for the search question asked.

Types of longitudinal designs

  • Repeated cross-sectional design (trend study).
  • A type of longitudinal study in which data are collected
  • at two or more points in time from different samples of the
  • same population.
  • Fixed-sample panel design (panel study). A type of
  • longitudinal study in which data are collected from the
  • same individuals—the panel—at two or more points in time.
  • In another type of panel design, panel members who
  • leave are replaced with new members.

Types of longitudinal designs con’t

  • Event-based design (cohort study). A type of
  • longitudinal study in which data are collected at two
  • or more points in time from individuals in a cohort.

Units and levels of analysis

  • Whenever we design research, we must decide whether
  • to use individuals or groups as our units of analysis and
  • whether to collect data at one or several points in time.
  • The decisions that we make about these design
  • elements will affect our ability to draw causal
  • conclusions in our analysis.

Units of analysis: the level of social life on which the

  • research question is focused, such as individuals, groups,
  • towns, or nations.
  • In most sociological and psychological studies,
  • the units of analysis are individuals.

Levels of analysis:from the most micro (small) to

  • the most macro (largest).
  • Conclusions about processes at the individual level
  • (micro) should be based on individual-level data.
  • Conclusions about group-level processes (macro)
  • should be based on data collected about groups.

Ecological fallacy

  • In most cases, when this rule is violated, we can be
  • misled about the existence of an association between
  • two variables.
  • A researcher who draws conclusions about individual-level
  • processes from group-level data could be making what
  • is termed an ecological fallacy.

Reductionist fallacy

  • On the other hand, when data about individuals are
  • used to make inferences about group-level processes,
  • a problem occurs that can be thought of as the mirror
  • image of the ecological fallacy: the reductionist fallacy,
  • also known as reductionism, or the individualist fallacy.

But is it ethical?

  • Research distorted by political or personal pressures to
  • find particular outcomes or to achieve the most
  • marketable results is unlikely to be carried out in an
  • open and honest fashion.
  • Openness about research proceduresand results goes
  • hand in hand with honesty in research design.
  • Openness is also essential if researchers are to learn
  • from the work of others.

The uses of science

  • Scientists must consider the uses to which their
  • research is put.
  • Social scientists who conduct research for organizations
  • and agencies may face additional difficulties when
  • the organization, not the researcher, controls the
  • final report and the publicity it receives.

Research on people

  • Whenever we interact with other people as social
  • scientists we must give paramount importance to the
  • rational concerns and emotional needs that will shape
  • their responses to our actions.
  • It is here that ethical research practice begins, with
  • the recognition that our research procedures involve
  • people who deserve as much respect for their well-being
  • as we do for ours.


  • Maintaining confidentiality is a key ethical obligation.
  • This means obtaining informed consent.
  • To be informed, consent must be given by persons
  • who are competent to consent, have consented
  • voluntarily, are fully informed about the research,
  • and have comprehended what they have been told

Other ethical issues

  • The potential of withholding treatment from some
  • subjects, as is done in experiments with placebos.
  • The extent to which ethical issues are a problem
  • varies dramatically with research designs.
  • Survey research creates few ethical problems.
  • But experiments can put people in uncomfortable
  • or embarrassing situations.

Institutionalreview boards (IRB)

  • Federal regulations require that every institution that
  • seeks federal funding for biomedical or behavioral
  • research on human subjects have an institutional
  • review board (IRB) that reviews research proposals.
  • IRBs at universities and other agencies apply ethics
  • standards that are set by federal regulations but can be
  • expanded or specified by the IRB itself.