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Social research refers to research conducted by social scientists (primarily within sociology, but also within other disciplines such as social policy, human geography, social anthropology and education). Sociologists and other social scientists study diverse things: from census data on hundreds thousands of human beings, through the in-depth analysis of a life of a single important person to monitoring what is happening on a streets today - or what was happening few hundreds years ago.
They use many different methods in order to describe, explore and understand social life. The methods used by social scientists can generally be subdivided into two broad categories. Quantitative methods are concerned with attempts to quantify social phenomena and collect and analyse numerical data, and focus on the links among a smaller number of attributes across many cases. Qualitative methods, on the other hand, emphasise personal experiences and interpretation over quantification, are more concerned with understanding the meaning of social phenomena and focus on links among a larger number of attributes across relatively few cases. While very different in many aspects, both qualitative and quantitative approaches involve a systematic interaction between theories and data. There is also a third approach lying halfway between qualitative and quantitative: the comparative method.
Common tools of quantitative researchers include surveys, questionnaires, and secondary analysis of statistical data that has been gathered for other purposes (for example, censuses or the results of social attitudes surveys). Commonly used qualitative methods include focus groups, participant observation, and other techniques.
Ordinary human inquiry
Before the advent of sociology and application of the scientific method to social research, human inquiry was mostly based on personal experiences, and received wisdom in the form of tradition and authority. Such approaches often led to errors such as inaccurate observations, overgeneralisation, selective observations, subjectivity and lack of logic.
Social research (and social science in general) is based on logic and empirical observations. Charles C. Ragin writes in his Constructing Social Research book that "Social research involved the interaction between ideas and evidence. Ideas help social researchers make sense of evidence, and researchers use evidence to extend, revise and test ideas". Social research thus attempts to create or validate theories through data collection and data analysis, and its goal is exploration, description and explanation. It should never lead or be mistaken with philosophy or belief. Social research aims to find social patterns of regularity in social life and usually deals with social groups (aggregates of individuals), not individuals themselves (although science of psychology is an exception here). Research can also be divided into pure research and applied research. Pure research has no application on real life, whereas applied research attempts to influence the real world.
There are no laws in social science that parallel the laws in the natural science. A law in social science is a universal generalization about a class of facts. A fact is an observed phenomenon, and observation means it has been seen, heard or otherwise experienced by researcher. A theory is a systematic explanation for the observations that relate to a particular aspect of social life. Concepts are the basic building blocks of theory and are abstract elements representing classes of phenomena. Axioms or postulates are basic assertions assumed to be true. Propositions are conclusions drawn about the relationships among concepts, based on analysis of axioms. Hypotheses are specified expectations about empirical reality which are derived from propositions. Social research involves testing these hypotheses to see if they are true.
Social theories are written in the language of variables, in other words, theories describe logical relationships between variables. Variables are logical sets of attributes, with people being the 'carriers' of those variables (for example, gender can be a variable with two attributes: male and female). Variables are also divided into independent variables (data) that influences the dependent variables (which scientists are trying to explain). For example, in a study of how different dosages of a drug are related to the severity of symptoms of a disease, a measure of the severity of the symptoms of the disease is a dependent variable and the administration of the drug in specified doses is the independent variable. Researchers will compare the different values of the dependant variable (severity of the symptoms) and attempt to draw conclusions.
Types of explanations
Explanations in social theories can be idiographic or nomothetic. An idiographic approach to an explanation is one where the scientists seek to exhaust the idiosyncratic causes of a particular condition or event, i.e. by trying to provide all possible explanations of a particular case. Nomothetic explanations tend to be more general with scientists trying to identify a few causal factors that impact a wide class of conditions or events. For example, when dealing with the problem of how people chose a job, idiographic explanation would be to list all possible reasons why a given person (or group) choses a given job, while nomothetic explanation would try to find factors that determine why job applicants in general chose a given job.
Types of inquiry
Social research can be deductive or inductive. The inductive inquiry (also known as grounded research) is a model in which general principles (theories) are developed from specific observations. In deductive inquiry specific expectations of hypothesis are developed on the basis of general principles (i.e. social scientists start from an existing theory, and then search for proof). For example, in inductive reseach, if a scientist finds that some specific religious minoritities tend to favour a specific political view, he may then extrapolate this to the hypothesis that all religious minorities tend to have the same political view. In deductive research, a scientist would start from a hypothesis that religious affilation influenced political views and then begin observations to prove his theory.
Quantitative / Qualitative Debate
There is usually a trade off between the number of cases and the number of their variables that social research can study. Qualitative research usually involves few cases with many variables, while quantitative involves many phenomena with few variables.
There is some debate over whether "quantitative research" and "qualitative research" methods can be complementary: some researchers argue that combining the two approaches into a "comparative research" methods is beneficial and helps build a more complete picture of the social world, while other researchers believe that the epistemologies that underpin each of the approaches are so divergent that they cannot be reconciled within a research project.
While quantitative methods are based on a natural science, positivist model of testing theory, qualitative methods are based on interpretivism and are more focused around generating theories and accounts. Positivists treat the social world as something that is 'out there', external to the social scientist and waiting to be researched. Interpretivists, on the other hand believe that the social world is constructed by social agency and therefore any intervention by a researcher will affect social reality. Herein lies the supposed conflict between quantitative and qualitative approaches - quantitative approaches traditionally seek to minimise intervention in order to produce valid and reliable statistics, whereas qualitative approaches traditionally treat intervention as something that is necessary (often arguing that participation can lead to a better understanding of a social situation).
However, it is increasingly recognised that the significance of these differences should not be exaggerated and that quantitative and qualitative approaches can be complementary. They can be combined in a number of ways, for example:
- Qualitative methods can be used in order to develop quantitative research tools. For example, focus groups could be used to explore an issue with a small number of people and the data gathered using this method could then be used to develop a quantitative survey questionnaire that could be administered to a far greater number of people allowing results to be generalised.
- Qualitative methods can be used to explore and facilitate the interpretation of relationships between variables. For example researchers may hypothesise that there would be a positive relationship between positive attitudes of sales staff and the turnover of a store. However, quantitative structured observation could reveal that this was not the case, and in order to understand why the relationship between the variables was negative the researchers may undertake qualitative case studies of four stores including participant observation. This might confirm that the relationship was negative, but that it was not the positive attitude of sales staff that led to low sales, but rather than high sales led to busy staff who were less likely to be positive at work!
Quantitative methods are useful for describing social phenomena, especially on a larger scale. Qualitative methods allow social scientists to provide richer explanations (and descriptions) of social phenomena, frequently on a smaller scale.
Social scientists usually follow one or more of the several specific sociological paradigms (points of view):
- conflict paradigm paradigm focuses on the ability of some groups to dominate others, or resistance to such domination.
- ethnomethodology paradigm examines how people make sense out of social life in the process of living it, as if each was a researcher engaged in enquiry.
- feminist paradigm focuses on how male dominance of society has shaped social life.
- darwinism paradigm sees a progressive evolution in social life.
- positivism paradigm was an early 19th century approach, now considered obsolete in its pure form. Positivists believed we can scientifically discover all the rules governing social life.
- structural functionalism paradigm also known as a social systems paradigm addresses what functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system.
- symbolic interactionis paradigm examines how shared meanings and social patterns are developed in the course of social interactions.
Two main assumptions of the ethics in social research are:
- voluntary participation
- no harm to subjects
third assumption of social research ethics : contracts that are moral and have been entered into freely and legally should be honored.
Social Research Organisations
- Centre for Rural Social Research, Australia
- Economic and Social Research Council, United Kingdom (Research Funding Council)
- Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, USA
- Institute for Social Research, Germany
- Mass-Observation, United Kingdom
- Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Australia
- National Centre for Social Research, United Kingdom
- New School for Social Research, New York City
Social Research Techniques
- Quantitative methods
- Qualitative methods
- Earl Babbie, 'The Practice of Social Research', 10th edition, Wadsworth, Thomson Learning Inc., ISBN 0534620299
- Charles C. Ragin, 'Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method', Pine Forge Press, 1994, ISBN 0803990219