Section 1.5: Social Research

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Sociologists possess a natural curiosity about the world and its various social patterns, problems, and phenomena. They employ research methods to design studies that can help them investigate these issues and gather insightful data. Planning the research design is a crucial step in any sociological study, as it serves as a roadmap for conducting social research and obtaining meaningful information.

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The Sneaky Effect in Research

Have you ever acted differently when you knew someone was watching you? This happens a lot in research too! Imagine you’re at your favorite coffee shop, and someone tells the staff they’re being watched for a study on how fast they work. Chances are, they might act a bit differently than usual. This is called the Hawthorne effect. It’s like when you know you’re being watched, so you try to be on your best behavior (Adair, 1984).

But here’s a twist: sometimes researchers can’t just blend in. For example, they can’t just stroll into a prison or a kindergarten class without being noticed. They have to find other ways to study people in these places (Bryman, 2016).

How Sociologists Study People

When sociologists plan to study something, they have a few methods to choose from. Let’s explore these:

1. Surveys: Ever filled out a questionnaire? That’s a survey! Sociologists use surveys to learn about people’s opinions, behaviors, and more. But they have to be careful with their questions, and people don’t always tell the truth (Fowler, 2013).

2. Field Research: This is like being a social detective. Sociologists go out into the real world, observe people, and sometimes even join in to understand them better. It’s a great way to learn about social life, but it can take a lot of time (Atkinson & Hammersley, 2007).

3. Experiments: This is where researchers change one thing to see what happens to something else. It’s like a science experiment but with social behaviors. Experiments can show cause and effect, but they might not always reflect real-life situations (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002).

4. Secondary Data Analysis: This is like being a treasure hunter, but instead of looking for gold, sociologists look through old data, like past surveys or historical records. It can save time and money, but sometimes the data isn’t perfect (Johnston, 2017).

Choosing the Right Method

Picking the right method for a study is like choosing the right tool for a job. Each method has its ups and downs, and what works for one study might not work for another. A good sociologist thinks carefully about the best way to answer their questions.

Remember, every method has its strengths and weaknesses. It’s all about finding the best fit for the question at hand!

Unraveling the World of Surveys in Sociology

What are Surveys?

Imagine you’re asked to fill out a questionnaire about your favorite movies or hobbies. That’s pretty much what a survey is, but in the world of sociology, it’s like a super-tool. Surveys are a way for sociologists to collect data by asking people questions about what they do and what they think (Bryman, 2016). These surveys can be done anonymously, which means people can share their thoughts without giving away who they are.

Surveys Everywhere!

In the United States, surveys are a big deal. Take the U.S. Census, for example; it’s a huge survey that helps us understand our society. But not all surveys are about sociology. Some are used by companies to figure out what people want to buy or how they feel about products.

The Nitty-Gritty of Survey Research

Surveys are fantastic for getting into people’s heads, understanding their opinions, and feelings. But, they might not be the best at showing how people act when they’re around others (Fowler, 2013).

When sociologists do a survey, they don’t ask everyone in the world. They pick a specific group, called a population—like college athletes or teenagers with type 1 diabetes. But they only ask a smaller group from this population, known as a sample, which represents the larger group (Bryman, 2016).

🤓 Cool Fact: If the sample is chosen randomly, it can give us a pretty accurate picture of what the whole population thinks.

Crafting the Survey

Before asking questions, researchers tell participants what the study is about. Then they use tools like questionnaires to collect information. Some questions are simple, like yes-or-no or multiple-choice, giving us numerical data (Bryman, 2016).

Other questions are more open-ended, allowing for more detailed answers. These answers give us qualitative data, which is like getting a deeper story behind the numbers (Fowler, 2013).

Interviews: A Closer Look

Sometimes, instead of questionnaires, researchers have one-on-one chats with participants, known as interviews. This lets participants explain their answers in more detail, and researchers can dig deeper into certain topics (Bryman, 2016).

Wrapping Up

So, survey research is a big deal in sociology. It helps collect both numbers and stories about what people think and feel. Researchers carefully pick their samples and use questionnaires or interviews to gather this valuable info.

Surveys can tell us a lot about people, their habits, and their opinions. It’s all about asking the right questions and listening to the answers!

Exploring Field Studies in Sociology

What is Field Research?

Field research is like a real-world adventure for sociologists. Instead of sitting in an office or lab, they step out into the world to study people where they live, work, and play. It’s all about collecting first-hand data in natural settings without doing lab experiments or sending out surveys (Bryman, 2016). This kind of research is super important for understanding how people behave in their everyday environments.

Diving into the Real World

Imagine a sociologist visiting a local coffee shop, a remote village, or even a bustling airport. That’s field research in action. It’s about observing or chatting with people in their usual surroundings (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011). This way, sociologists get to see firsthand how people act, what they value, and what they believe in.

Observing Behaviors in Context

Field research is great for seeing how people behave in different situations. But it’s not always the best at explaining why they act that way. That’s because in real life, lots of things can influence how people behave, making it hard to pinpoint exact causes (Bryman, 2016).

Mostly, field research looks at correlations—how different things are related—rather than trying to prove one thing causes another (Emerson et al., 2011). Even though it’s tricky to establish cause-and-effect in field studies, understanding these relationships can still teach us a lot.

Different Ways to Do Field Research

There are a few methods sociologists use in the field:

  1. Participant Observation: This is where researchers dive right in, joining in on the activities and life of the people they’re studying. It’s like being both a player and an observer in the game of life (Bryman, 2016).
  2. Non-Participant Observation: Here, sociologists watch from the sidelines. They observe without getting involved, which can help keep their presence from influencing the situation (Emerson et al., 2011).
  3. In-Depth Interviews: Sometimes, talking directly to people can uncover deeper insights. These chats can reveal more about why people think and act the way they do (Bryman, 2016).

Being Ethical and Objective

When doing field research, it’s super important to be ethical. That means respecting people’s privacy, getting their consent to be part of the study, and keeping their info confidential (Bryman, 2016). Researchers also need to be aware of their own biases and stay as objective as possible.

In a Nutshell

Field research takes sociology out of the books and into the real world. It’s all about understanding people in their natural habitats through observation and interaction. While it might not always pinpoint causes, it offers valuable insights into how people behave and relate to each other. Sociologists use different methods, like observation and interviews, to gather rich data, all while being mindful of ethical considerations. Field studies really bring to life the complexities of human society.

Reflective Question: If you were a sociologist conducting field research, what place or group of people would you be curious to study and why?

Delving into Participant Observation in Social Research

The Unconventional Study of a “Dot Com” Office

In 2000, writer Rodney Rothman decided to play undercover employee at a New York “dot com” agency. He snuck into their office, acted like he worked there, and surprisingly, everyone treated him as a colleague. He claimed a desk, attended meetings, and nobody questioned him. Although some aspects of his story were later challenged, and The New Yorker apologized, Rothman’s tale gave a unique peek into the world of a “dot com” company (Rothman, 2000).

What is Participant Observation?

Rothman’s quirky experiment illustrates a research method called participant observation, popular in sociology (Bryman, 2016). Here, researchers join a group and participate in their daily routines to study them in their natural setting (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011). This method lets researchers dive deep into specific social aspects, understanding the group from the inside out.

How is Participant Observation Conducted?

Researchers might take on different roles to blend in. They could be waiters, live as homeless individuals, or ride along with cops. The idea is to become part of the group without standing out, keeping observations as real as possible (Bryman, 2016). Sometimes, they might not even reveal they’re doing research, fearing it could skew the results (Emerson et al., 2011).

Benefits and Insights

By living and breathing as part of the group, researchers get firsthand insights into social dynamics, norms, values, and practices (Bryman, 2016). It’s a way to see the world through the group’s eyes, building empathy and a deeper understanding.

Challenges and Ethics

But it’s not all smooth sailing. Researchers have to be super careful not to change the group’s behavior just by being there. They must watch out for their own biases and strive to stay objective (Emerson et al., 2011). Ethical considerations are also crucial—they need to respect people’s privacy, get consent when needed, and keep information confidential (Bryman, 2016).

Wrapping It Up

Participant observation is like going undercover in sociology. It’s a powerful way to really understand a group from the inside. With careful attention to ethics and biases, this method can shed light on social dynamics in ways other research methods might not. It’s about getting real, unfiltered glimpses of people’s lives and the social structures they navigate every day.

🔍 Reflective Question: If you were to conduct participant observation, which group or community would you choose, and what would you hope to learn from the experience?

Understanding Ethnography in Social Research

The Deep Dive into Communities and Cultures

Ethnography isn’t just a research method; it’s a journey into the heart of communities. It’s about soaking in the social perspectives and cultural values of a particular group or setting (Geertz, 1973). Unlike other methods, it’s not just about pieces of a puzzle but the entire picture—the interwoven social relationships, beliefs, and practices (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011).

The Essence of Ethnographic Studies

What’s unique here is the focus on how individuals see themselves and their place in their community. Ethnographers might find themselves in varied settings—a sleepy fishing town, a remote Inuit community, a bustling Thai village, or even a tranquil Buddhist monastery. Each place has its own rules, norms, and expectations (Emerson et al., 2011).

The Ethnographer’s Journey

Imagine committing months to observe every detail of a chosen setting. That’s what ethnographers do. They become part of the daily life, from a simple fishing trip in a village to participating in rituals at a spiritual retreat. This immersive approach is like a key unlocking comprehensive insights into a community’s fabric (Geertz, 1973).

Case Examples: From Amazon to Retreat Centers

A sociologist studying an Amazon tribe would not just watch from afar; they’d be part of daily routines, noting down even the most mundane details. Or, if studying a spiritual retreat center, they’d actually join in, living the experience, and later penning down their rich observations (Emerson et al., 2011).

Advantages and Challenges

Ethnography is powerful—it captures the depth and complexity of human experiences like few methods can (Geertz, 1973). But it’s not easy. Researchers must constantly battle their own biases, strive to remain objective, and tread carefully on ethical grounds like privacy and consent (Bryman, 2016).

Concluding Thoughts

Ethnography in sociology is like a deep-sea dive into the ocean of human culture and society. It’s challenging but immensely rewarding, offering unparalleled insights into the intricate tapestry of human lives and communities. By balancing the method’s demands with ethical sensitivity, sociologists can use ethnography to enrich our understanding of the diverse worlds we inhabit significantly.

🌍 Reflective Question: If you were to conduct an ethnographic study, which community or cultural setting would you choose, and what aspect of their life would you be most curious to explore?

Understanding Experiments in Sociology

Testing Social Theories Through Scientific Methods

In sociology, experiments serve as a cornerstone for investigating relationships and testing hypotheses (Bryman, 2016). They come in two main flavors: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments.

Lab-Based Experiments: Controlled Environments

Here, sociologists play puppet masters in a way, creating controlled settings where they can tweak variables and watch what happens (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). This control allows for a lot of data in little time. However, it’s a bit like a greenhouse – controlled, but not quite the wild.

Natural or Field Experiments: The Real-World Stage

These take place in the uncontrolled, unpredictable real world (Harrison & List, 2004). The lack of control might make data messy, but it’s authentic, reflecting genuine experiences.

The Power of If-Then: Experimentation in Action

Both types of experiments shine in testing if-then scenarios, helping sociologists unpack the domino effects in social phenomena. Lab experiments typically involve setting up artificial conditions, splitting participants into experimental and control groups (Shadish et al., 2002). One gets the treatment (independent variable), the other doesn’t.

For instance, in studying tutoring benefits, the experimental group gets tutoring, while the control group doesn’t. The goal? To see if tutoring truly makes a difference in performance.

The Ethical Tightrope

It’s crucial, however, to tread carefully on ethical grounds. In the tutoring example, the researcher wouldn’t want to risk any student’s achievements, so the setup might need to be somewhat artificial, like using tests that don’t affect their grades (Bryman, 2016).

Concluding Thoughts

Experiments in sociology are like navigational tools, guiding researchers through the complex seas of social interactions and relationships. While lab-based and natural experiments each have their strengths and weaknesses, together, they offer a comprehensive lens to view and understand societal dynamics.

Navigating Secondary Data Analysis in Sociology

The Art of Secondhand Knowledge

As a seasoned sociology professor, I’ve seen firsthand the critical role secondary data analysis plays in our field. It’s like treasure hunting through the works of other researchers, delving into resources by historians, economists, and even works from earlier sociologists. We sift through periodicals, newspapers, and magazines, sometimes venturing back through different historical eras (Johnston, 2017).

The Perks: Time, Money, and Depth

Using existing information is economical, both in terms of time and resources. It also adds layers of depth to a study. We often reinterpret findings in ways the original authors might not have envisioned. Imagine trying to understand women’s prescribed behaviors in the 1960s. We’d dive into movies, TV shows, and sitcoms from that time. Or, to gauge the impact of television’s rise in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we’d reinterpret secondary data in fresh ways (Bryman, 2016).

Learning from Agencies and Statistics

Data from government departments and global organizations like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the World Health Organization are gold mines. We use public statistics, such as foreclosure rates from the 2008 recession, to understand societal impacts. Racial demographic profiles can be juxtaposed with education funding data, offering insights into resources available to different communities (Mills, 2018).

Nonreactive Research: A Double-Edged Sword

Secondary data analysis is nonreactive; it doesn’t meddle with subjects or skew behaviors. There’s no need to dive into a population with all the investment and risks that original research entails (Johnston, 2017). However, this nonreactivity can also be a limitation, as it may not provide insights into the current, dynamic context.

The Challenges: Accessibility, Accuracy, and Relevance

Accessing public records isn’t always a walk in the park. It demands time and effort. Content analysis is our guide through vast information libraries, helping us systematically record and value information related to our studies (Bryman, 2016).

Accuracy can be elusive. For instance, we know how many drunk drivers are caught, but what about those who aren’t? And while we can find dropout rates, tracking those who return to school or earn their GED is trickier (Mills, 2018).

Data might also not fit our exact needs or perspective. For example, knowing average salaries of public school professors is one thing, but understanding the nuances of their career trajectories, educational backgrounds, and tenure is another (Johnston, 2017).

The Temporal Context: A Critical Lens

When conducting content analysis, it’s imperative to consider the publication date of sources. A work like “Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture” by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, published in the 1920s, must be viewed through the lens of that era’s attitudes and values, which have significantly evolved since then (Bryman, 2016).

Concluding Thoughts

Secondary data analysis is a cornerstone of sociological research, offering a cost-effective, rich approach to understanding societal phenomena. While it presents unique challenges regarding accessibility, accuracy, and contextual relevance, it remains an invaluable tool in our quest to comprehend and analyze social dynamics.


Sociologists employ a range of research methods to examine social patterns, problems, and phenomena. These methods include surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data analysis, each with its own strengths and limitations. The choice of method is guided by the research question, the study’s objectives, and potential constraints. The Hawthorne effect, where individuals alter their behavior when they know they’re being observed, is a factor that can affect research outcomes.


  • Usage: Collect data on behaviors, opinions, and attitudes.
  • Method: Questionnaires or interviews.
  • Sampling: Representative samples from specific populations.
  • Data Type: Quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Advantages: Anonymity, comprehensive insights.
  • Limitations: May not capture complex behaviors or social phenomena.

Field Research

  • Usage: Study people in natural environments.
  • Method: Participant observation, non-participant observation, in-depth interviews.
  • Data Type: Correlations between variables.
  • Advantages: In-depth insights into human behavior and social contexts.
  • Limitations: Not ideal for establishing causation, susceptible to researcher bias.

Participant Observation

  • Usage: Immerse in group activities to understand social dynamics.
  • Method: Active involvement in the group.
  • Advantages: Rich insights, fosters empathy.
  • Limitations: Ethical considerations, potential disruptions, need for objectivity.


  • Usage: In-depth observation of social perspectives in a particular setting.
  • Method: Immersion in daily life of the studied community.
  • Advantages: Deep understanding of a community, captures complexity of human experiences.
  • Limitations: Challenges in maintaining objectivity, ethical considerations.

Secondary Data Analysis

  • Usage: Study existing research instead of conducting original research.
  • Method: Analysis of writings, public records, and other pre-existing data.
  • Advantages: Saves time and money, provides depth to a study.
  • Limitations: Challenges in data verification, potential issues with data relevance and completeness.


In sociology, the choice of research method is pivotal and depends on the research question and objectives. Sociologists must weigh the advantages and drawbacks of each method, considering factors like the Hawthorne effect and ethical considerations. Whether it’s through surveys, field research, or secondary data analysis, each method contributes uniquely to our understanding of social dynamics and human behavior.

Word Count:  3641

Key Terms

data, design studies, gather insightful data, investigate, meaningful information, natural curiosity, planning the research design, roadmap, social patterns, sociological study

References and Further Reading 

  • Adair, J. G. (1984). The Hawthorne effect: A reconsideration of the methodological artifact. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69(2), 334-345.
  • Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. Routledge.
  • Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13(4), 544-559.
  • Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  • Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press.
  • Fowler, F. J. (2013). Survey research methods. Sage Publications.
  • Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. Basic Books.
  • Harrison, G. W., & List, J. A. (2004). Field experiments. Journal of Economic Literature, 42(4), 1009-1055.
  • Johnston, L. (2017). Secondary data analysis. In N. G. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The Sage handbook of online research methods (2nd ed., pp. 95-110). Sage Publications.
  • Johnston, L. (2017). Secondary data analysis. In A. Quan-Haase & L. Sloan (Eds.), The Sage handbook of social media research methods (pp. 250-263). Sage.
  • Mills, A. J. (2018). Secondary data analysis: A method of which the time has come. Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries, 3(3), 619-626.
  • Newton, M. (2002). Savage girls and wild boys: A history of feral children. Thomas Dunne Books.
  • Rothman, R. (2000). My fake job. The New Yorker.
  • Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (2002). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods. SAGE Publications.
  • Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219-245.

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Last Modified:  10/27/2023

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