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Learning Objectives

Looking Ahead


Unit two examines sociology as asocial science.The basic principles and stages of scientific method are described. A number of techniques commonly used in sociological research are presented. Particular attention is given to the practical and ethical challenges that sociologists face in studying human behavior and to Max Weber's call for «value neutrality» in social science research.

After studying this unit, you should be able to answer the following questions:

1. How do sociologists use scientific method?

2. Why does the conclusion of a sociological study point the way to new research?

3. What are the practical and ethical challenges faced by sociologists who wish to conduct participant-observation research?

4. How can sociologists use unobtrusive measures to study social phenomena indirectly?

5. Why is it valuable for sociologists to have a code of professional ethics?

6. What is the objective of basic sociology, and what relationship should there be between basic and applied sociology?

How do sociologists study human behavior and institutions? Like the typical citizen on the street, the sociologist is interested in the central questions of our time. Is the family falling apart? Why is there so much crime? and such like. Such issues concern most people, whether or not they have academic training. However, unlike the typical citizen, the sociologist must use scientific method in studying society. Scientific method is a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem.

A key element in scientific method is planning. When sociologists wish to learn more about human behavior, they do not simply walk out the door, or pick up the telephone, and begin asking questions. There are five basic steps in scientific method that researchers follow in developing useful research. These are:

1) defining the problem,

2) reviewing the literature,

3) formulating the hypothesis,

4) selecting the research design and then collecting and analyzing data,

5) developing the conclusion.

An actual example will illustrate the workings of scientific method. In the 1980s, people in the United States became increasingly aware of the plight of the homeless in the nation's urban centers. In the past the homeless were primarily older white males living as alcoholics in «skid row» areas. However, today's homeless persons tend to be younger and include growing numbers of families without any shelter.

Defining the problem. The first step in any sociological research project is to state as clearly as possible what you hope to investigate. In beginning their work on homelessness, a team of sociologists headed by David Snow considered the question of who the homeless are. The researchers learned that the mass media presented the homeless primarily as mentally ill. The sociologists developed a researchable question: «How representative is the media image of the homeless?» After that they developed an operational definition, i.e. an explanation of the abstract concept «mental illness». They classified homeless persons as mentally ill «if they had contact with one or more mental health agencies and were simultaneously diagnosed by the agency personnel as having one or more mental health problems.»

Reviewing the literature. By conducting a review of the literature, researchers refine the problem under study, clarify possible techniques to be used in collecting data and may avoid making unnecessary mistakes. When David Snow and his colleagues began considering mental illness among the homeless, they turned to two types of literature. First, they reviewed «popular» magazines such as «Time», «Newsweek» and «People» and found a consistent image of the homeless as «street people» who had previously spent some time in mental hospitals. Second, they examined the systematic studies done in Boston and New York which indicated that homeless persons were usually found to have a diagnosable mental illness. But were these studies representative of the homeless? Still further review showed that when the researchers focused on the homeless in genеral, the proportions of homeless persons found to be mentally ill were much lower.

Formulating the hypothesis. After reviewing the earlier research concerning homeless the researchers developed a guess about the relationship between mental illness and homelessness. Such a speculative state­ment about the relationship between two or more factors is called a hypothesis. A hypothesis essentially tells us what we are looking for in our research. In order to be meaningful, it must be testable.

As part of the study of homelessness, one possible hypothesis might be: «Most homeless persons are not mentally ill.»

In formulating a hypothesis, we do not imply that it is correct. We merely suggest that it is worthy of study, that the hypothesis should be scientifically tested and confirmed, refuted or revised, depending on the outcome of the study.

Collecting and analyzing data. In order to test a hypothesis and determine if it is supported or refuted, researchers need to collect information. To guide them in collecting and analyzing data, they employ one ofthe research designs, the most effective of them beingselecting the sample. There are many kinds of samples, of whichthe random sample is frequently used by social scientists. By using the random sampling techniques, sociologists do not need to question everyone in a population.

In the study of homelessness the researchers drew a random sample of 800 names from the 13,881 homeless men and women who had registered at least once in the Salvation Army during a 14-month period and then compared this sample with the records of six other states and local agencies such as hospitals, mental health institutions, etc. Ultimately, a usable sample of 767 persons was selected for the study of homelessness.

Developing the conclusion. Scientific studies do not aim to answer all the questions that can be raised about a particular object. Therefore, the conclusion of a research study represents both an end and a beginning. It terminates a specific phase of investigation, but it should also generate ideas for future study. This is true of the research on the homeless conducted by David Snow and his colleagues.

Sociological studies do not always confirm the original hypothesis. In many instances, a hypothesis is refuted, and researchers have to reformulate their conclusions, to reexamine their methodology and to make changes in the research design. In the study discussed above, however, the data confirmed the hypothesis: most homeless persons are not mentally ill. The researchers concluded that the homeless are not typically mentally dysfunctional, they are merely trapped in economic conditions that lead to poverty and despair. With this finding in mind further implications are evident: policy makers must begin to address the issue of homelessness in a very different manner and greater attention must be given to the structural problems of society that contribute to homelessness, including unemployment and the inadequate supply of low-cost housing.