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Methods of Sociological Inquiry

Methods of Sociological Inquiry

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Methods of Sociological Inquiry

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  1. Methods of Sociological Inquiry Zhen Zeng University of Wisconsin-Madison

  2. Class 1 Human Inquiry and Science

  3. Course Overview This course teaches the basics of social research methods -- • How to formulate testable hypotheses • How to collect data • How to analyze data and draw conclusions • How to avoid logical pitfalls

  4. Class Outline • Course Information • Learning about the Social World • The Foundations of Social Science

  5. Textbooks • Required texts: • Babbie, Earl. 2005. The Practice of Social Research (10th Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. • Wysocki, Diane Kholos. 2004. Readings in Social Research Methods (2nd Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. • Additional readings (available at

  6. Course Requirements • Four exercises • Causal model • Quantitative data analysis • Sampling • Critical analysis of a journal article • Two tests • Multiple-choice questions and short-answer questions • Sample test questions available at course website • Class project • Paper (7 to 8 double-spaced pages) • Presentation

  7. Contact Information • Office: 8107 Social Science • Office Hours: M W, 10-11 • Website: • Email: • Phone: 262-4436

  8. Looking for Reality Scientific knowledge must meet two criteria: • Logical support - must make sense • Empirical support - must not contradict actual observation

  9. Foundations of Social Science • Theory - logic • Data collection - observation • Data analysis - comparison of what is logically expected with what is actually observed

  10. Errors in Inquiry and Solutions • Inaccurate observation • Overgeneralization • Selective observation • Illogical reasoning

  11. Over-Generalization and Selective Observation OVERGENERALIZATION “Those people are never satisfied.” SELECTIVE OBSERVATION “Those people are never satisfied.”

  12. Example: Mistakes in Social Research Hypothesis: Verbal ability has a causal effect on math achievement. Verbal Ability Math Achievement

  13. Verbal Math Class Class Average Average Size Math 101 90 94 100 Math 501 80 90 10 Observed Data from Two Classes

  14. Small sample size Spurious correlation Selectivity bias Measurement problems Ecological fallacy Ceiling effects What’s Wrong?

  15. Classroom Change We are moving to 6102 Social Science from next week Tuesday, Jan. 25. Class 2 Basic Concepts

  16. Class Outline • Review: Errors in Social Research • Approaches to Social Research • Units of Analysis • Variables and Attributes • Association and Causation • Research Steps

  17. Review: Errors in Inquiry and Solutions • Inaccurate observation • Illogical reasoning • Overgeneralization. This is a problem if • sample size is too small, or • the results of a study are generalized to a population very different from the sample. • e.g. Can we generalize findings from Head Start Program to all American children? • Selective observation • E.g. Midway Airlines’ newspaper ad • Be careful of low response rate

  18. What’s Wrong? • People always say height is hereditary. But that can’t be right. Just look at my cousin John. Both of his parents are very tall, but he’s really short. • There is a positive correlation between hay and the number of children born per family. In regions where there is more hay, the average number of children per family is always greater. It proves that, incredible as it may be, birth is affected by hay!

  19. What’s Wrong? • Contrary to what people think, professor is not a hard job at all. Last month, I sent out a questionnaire survey to all the professors at the UW, asking them how much time they spend working in an average week. 30% percent of the professors replied, and the average time they reported was 24 hours! As you see, professors work less than a typical full-time worker, and much less than sociology 357 students!

  20. Approaches to Social Research • Descriptive vs. Explanatory • Idiographic vs. Nomothetic • Qualitative vs. Quantitative • Pure vs. Applied

  21. Approaches to Social Research • Descriptive - Seeks to define and describe social phenomena of interest • Explanatory - Seeks to identify causes and effects of social phenomena and to predict how one phenomenon will change or vary in response to variation in some other phenomenon

  22. Approaches to Social Research • Idiographic - Seeks to fully understand the causes of what happened in a single instance. • Nomothetic - Seeks to explain a class of situations or events rather than a single one.

  23. Approaches to Social Research • Qualitative Data – Nonnumerical data • Quantitative Data – Numerical data, makes observations more explicit and makes it easier to aggregate, compare, and summarize data

  24. Approaches to Social Research • Pure Research - Sometimes justified in terms of gaining “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” • Applied Research – Putting research into practice

  25. Approaches to Social Research • Descriptive vs. Explanatory • Idiographic vs. Nomothetic • Qualitative vs. Quantitative • Pure vs. Applied

  26. Units of Analysis What or whom to study: • Individuals • Groups • Organizations • Neighborhoods • Social artifacts: newspaper, articles, commercials

  27. Variable • A characteristic or property that can vary (taken on different values or attributes ). • Independent and dependent variables (alias exogenous and endogenous variables; response and predictors; cause and effect).

  28. Variables and Attributes

  29. Qualitative and Quantitative Attributes

  30. Bivariate Relationships • Positive association – e.g. height and weight • Negative association – e.g. mother’s education and number of children • Non-linear association – e.g. age and earnings

  31. Positive (Linear) Association Dependent variable observations Independent variable

  32. Negative (Linear) Association Example: Miles per gallon vs. vehicle weight

  33. Non-linear Association

  34. Association and Causation + GNP per capita Average life expectancy Causal examples - mother’s education # of children age mortality height verbal ability Non-causal association examples + + weight math achievement

  35. Criteria for Identifying Causality • If X exerts a causal influence on Y, one can wiggle Y by wiggling X, while when one wiggles Y, X remains unchanged. • If X and Y are related only as effects of a common cause C, then neither changes when one wiggles the other, but both can be changed by manipulating C. (If this is the case, then the relationship between X and Y is not causal.)

  36. Hypothesis • An testable expectation about empirical reality derived from a theory. • A hypothesis states the relationship between two or more variables. • Must be testable.

  37. Class 3 Theory and Research

  38. Class Outline • Two Research Philosophies • Social Science Paradigms • Two Logical Systems • The Links Between Theory and Research

  39. Social Research Philosophies • Positivism • A belief that there is a reality external to us that we can understand through empirical research. • Auguste Comte • Interpretivism and Constructivism • Social reality is socially constructed and that the goal is to understand the meanings people give to reality. • Max Weber “verstehen”

  40. Seeking causal explanations Generalization Limited # of issues Social science modeled after natural science One reality out there Detached, objective researcher Value free Seeking understanding Situation specific Complex issues Socially-constructed realities Multiple realities Researcher as a participant Emphasis on personal experience Positivism vs. Interpretivism

  41. Survey data Face-to-face interviews Mail survey Phone survey Web survey Quantitative methods Qualitative data Participant observation In-depth interviews Focus groups Texts and documents Mostly qualitative methods Positivism vs. Interpretivism

  42. Research Steps • Develop a theory. • Construct a hypothesis. • Define all concepts. • Specify the operations involved in measuring variables. • Data collection. • Data analysis. • Write up a report.

  43. Paradigms • A set of beliefs that guide scientific work in an area, including unquestioned presuppositions and accepted theories. • Paradigms tell us what questions are important to ask about the social world and what are trivial pursuits. • Often implicit, assumed, taken for granted. • We can see new ways of seeing and explaining things when we step outside our paradigm. • Used interchangeably with “theoretical perspectives.”

  44. Social Science Paradigms: Structural Functionalism • A social entity, such as an organization or a whole society, can be viewed as an organism. • All parts of a society--institutions, roles, norms, etc.--serve a purpose and are indispensable for the long-term survival of the society. • This view looks for the “functions” served by the various components of society.

  45. Social Science Paradigms: Structural Functionalism • Durkheim, Merton • Merton’s manifest function and latent function • Example: The economy of a society provides means for people to buy and sell goods (manifest function), but it also fosters social inequality (latent function). • Conservative. May be used to justify the status quo.

  46. Social Science Paradigms: Conflict • Karl Marx suggested that social behavior could be seen as the process of conflict: the attempt to dominate and avoid being dominated. • Marx focused on the struggle among economic classes. • It also applies to gender and race conflicts. • Overemphasis on the tensions and divisions between the groups in a society. • Overemphasis on economic factors as the driving force of human actions.

  47. Social Science Paradigms: Symbolic Interactionism • Interactions revolve around the process of individuals reaching understanding through language and other such systems. • Can lend insights into the nature of interactions in ordinary social life, and help understand unusual forms of interaction. • Simmel, Mead, and Cooley • Example – How are girls and boys treated differently in the classroom? Do children become “genderized” in this process?

  48. Social Science Paradigms: Rational Choice • Rational choice theorists explain individual behavior in terms of cost/benefit calculations. • Prevalent in economics. • Examples • Top-loading or front-loading washer? • How do people decide whether they should go to college or not?

  49. Social Science Paradigms: Feminism • Focuses on gender differences and how they relate to the rest of social organization. • Draws attention to the oppression of women in many societies. • Examples • Why are female professors paid less than male professors? • Why are women less represented in the fields of science and engineering?

  50. Comparison of 5 Theoretical Perspectives Imagine that you’re visiting a city for the first time, what kind of an overview will a _______ tour guide give you? • Functionalist • Conflict • Rational choice • Feminist • Symbolic interactionist