Professor Marshall

LESSON 3: Model, Measure and Make Sense

Research Methods, Designs and Concepts

We all use sociology--every day--to analyze where we fit in and to try to figure out why people do what they do, but sociologists who specialize in the study of social problems in society want to know not only where we fit, but WHY we fit there, and if anything should be done about it. We also have to understand what it is that sociologists are trying to understand and measure. The influence of society is the central question asked by sociologists when they attempt to explain human behavior. That is to say:

What is the influence of society on the individual AND what is the influence of the individual on society?

For sociologists, people are social beings more than they are individuals--we do not exist in a vacuum. We exist in a private and public world which has been shaped by our experiences and by what we have been exposed to over our lifetimes. Our thinking and motivation are largely shaped by our life experiences as we interact with one another.  According to Barkan (1997:4), "society profoundly shapes… behavior and attitudes." We exist within the structures of society. Social structures are organized patterns of social interaction and social relationships. These structures have great influence over who we are as individuals.

The Relationship between People and Structure

Within the field of sociology, the common denominator is people. Sociology explores the "forces that influence people and help shape their lives … Society shapes what we do, how we do it, and how we understand what others do" (Univ. of Limerick 2007). Options in life are determined in the past and are molded by currently existing structures that provide well-established guidelines for how individuals conduct their lives. To quote Macionis and Plummer, "In the game of life, we may decide how to play our cards, but it is society that deals us the hand."

You can think about the structure of society such that it is an invisible force, much like gravity. Where gravity makes us "stick" to the earth, social structures make us "stick" to the rules. It is often invisible, and sometimes very obviously visible. It presses in on us to cause us to conform (or not) to the pressures of society around us:

Macro Sociology

Not only does social structure press down on us to cause us to conform to or contradict it, we also help to shape the bigger picture:

Micro Sociology

Both of these relationships are important to remember as you apply the methods of sociology to the study of people, society and social issues.

Research Methods and Techniques

What is it that sociology brings to the field of research? In a nutshell, sociological research tells us what our attitudes, experiences, beliefs and feelings are about. The essence of what sociologists do is centered on trying to describe social reality. And, science relies on the essential "proof" that something IS (this is one of the basic ideas which separates science from faith claims). As a quick review, recall from your myriad science courses, the scientific process:

Scientific Method

Sociologists have a variety of methods at our disposal by which we do our research (the graphic above says that we "test with an experiment" but note that there are many different techniques and methods that we can and do choose to use in place of the traditional scientific experiment. Note that the category of methods and techniques we use changes over time with advances in the concepts of scientific inquiry:

So, scientists--sociologists--go about their work trying to capture the essence of how society IS rather than how we think it should or could be. In order to do so, we have a variety of research methods available to us, and we conceptualize what we want to study by asking questions about (among many other things) attitudes, beliefs, feelings and experiences.

ATTITUDES: Attitudes can be formed from our pasts, our present and our futures, and are formed as either positive or negative evaluations. We choose our attitude about something, and in doing so, we evaluate how we feel about it. Sociologists use scales to measure attitudes, and they can be very difficult to measure precisely because they are arbitrary, meaning that they have to be measured against something else, for example: To measure attitudes about the concept inequality, we measure against the concept of equality.

This may seem easy to some, but on further evaluation, we can see that there are quite a few problems with this type of measurement. What exactly does death mean? What exactly does life mean? Must we account for quality of life (or death) and what does that mean? We could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what each concept means. Therefore, when sociologists set about to research an attitude, it is very important that they fully operationalize the concept that they want to measure.

BELIEFS: Beliefs are about our worldview--what do we believe about something? Beliefs are ideas of a particular group or society and may consist of fables, stories, traditions, superstitions, and educational experiences that have influence on our ideas, emotions and values as well as our ATTITUDES. An example of a belief is a religious belief. Religion is steeped in tradition, and it helps to shape our attitudes (whether we are religious or not--understanding this helps you to see how a measurement of an attitude or belief is arbitrary--if you had nothing to measure how religious you are against, then how would you know how religious you are??). So, a belief can be a moral foundation by which you act or think.

FEELINGS: How you feel about something is directly influenced by your attitudes and beliefs as well as by past experiences. In the realm of thinking about death and dying, your feelings are likely directly related to experiences you've had in your life. Loved ones who die when we ourselves are children can have a profound impact on us and our feelings about our own deaths. Our beliefs (for example, our religious beliefs) help us to form feelings about death and dying, and help us to decide what our experiences may be when confronted with mortality. Feelings give us QUALITATIVE data, meaning that they describe us--they give a report on our sense of being.

EXPERIENCES: Moving toward the crux of symbolic interaction theory, experiences are framed and given meaning by individuals. Each of us experiences social reality differently from the next. We may not identify our experiences as different than another's (for example, the marriage of two people may be described by both in similar fashion, and both may think they had the same experience during the event), when in reality our experiences are likely vastly different than someone else's. Experiences influence the future, and they are also framed in context of our past experiences. The primary difference between experience and the other three constructs (attitude, belief and feeling) is that experience requires action. Something that we interact with gives us an experience. There are significant differences among people who have had a personally significant death event in their lives and for those whom death is a distant subject of discussion and inquiry--it is this experience that influences how we think and feel and what we believe about a concept.

All four of these concepts--attitude, belief, feeling and experience--are what sociologists try to measure. Some will argue that these measurements are impossible to take as society (and individuals) are constantly changing. Others will assert that it is very important for us to "get an handle" on concepts related to society and to continue to work toward creating new methods to do so.

In addition to measuring attitudes, beliefs, feelings and experiences, sociologists also measure hard data. An example of this might be student grades and grade inflation. We know that, in a "perfect world," if we gather data on grades (let's say we take a stratified random sample from every college in America, meaning that we get representative students from all socio-economic categories, and we also get representatives at the proper scale of gender, race, ethnicity, age, geographic region and so on...) then our grade distribution should look like this: 

Bell Curve Grade Distribution

So, the question is: does our grade distribution look like this? The answer is: NO, which leads us to: WHY? And the "why" answer is one which involves additional research. Perhaps students are simply very smart. Perhaps teachers are being too lax with grading. Or, perhaps grade inflation is occurring. It is likely a combination of many things which drive the curve to be skewed. This brings us back to the concept of operationalization. Being able to take measurements which are precise and which are reflective of social reality is a must for sociologists.

After a sociologist conducts a research project, it is her job to write about the research and publish her results. Scientific writing is referred to as "peer reviewed," meaning that before it can reach publication in a scholarly journal, it must be reviewed by other respected scientists and academics to make sure that the research stands up to the the most rigorous standards:

Selecting your Design, Method and Technique

Once you have decided on a research project, you have to go about setting the parameters for your work. Selecting your research participants, figuring out what you want to measure, and doing your background research are all important steps to consider BEFORE you begin designing the data collection and methods components of your research. Once you reach the point at which you will begin thinking about data collection, there are some important basic steps that warrant your consideration AND it is your job as a researcher to know which design, method and techniques are the best fit for your project. Relying on other sociologists with more research experience and reading other peer reviewed works on the same topic will help you with these steps.

Step 1: Select a Design

Research Designs and Methods

As a researcher, you have to know which design is going to be the best design for your project. The amount of time you have to complete your study as well as the amount of funding you have to do your project must be factored into your decision.

Comparative studies are good to use when you want to compare one group of data to another to see how the results compare to one another. For example, you may consider comparing your research on intimate partner violence against that of the National Crime Victimization Survey to see if you come up with the same results.

Cross-Sectional studies are good to use when you only want to look at one point in time. For example, you may consider evaluating the final exam questions from a random sample of college students in introductory sociology courses at Success University in the Fall of 2013 to see if any of the questions had a high failure rate.

Longitudinal studies track the same group of people over time, looking at how attitudes, behaviors, beliefs and feelings might change (or stay the same). Cohorts can be comprised of many different kinds of groups: a group of soldiers who go through basic training together may be tracked over a period of time; the Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have been used by sociologists in many research projects; men who work in traditionally female occupations (such as nursing or housekeeping) may be studied over time to see what their experiences are like. Longitudinal studies can also be looked at as comparative studies in that they compare how feelings, attitudes, beliefs and experiences change over time. The difference between the two is that comparative studies may be at the same point in time and they will be comparisons of completely different data sets. Longitudinal studies always compare data over time, and always compare data on the same cohort.

Step 2: Select a Method

Research Methods

Methods are discussed in the video at the beginning of this lesson.

Step 3: Select a Technique

There are literally hundreds of techniques that can compliment the method of your choice. Again, it is up to you as the researcher to know which technique you want to use, and this is where experience and knowing other sociologists can be very handy. Being able to discuss with others your research project can help you to determine which designs, methods and techniques will work best for your project.

Example 1: Coding

Coding can be used with comparative, cross-sectional or longitudinal studies.

According the Steele and Price (13) coding can be especially useful when you have collected information from people which is not easily turned into percentage or statistical data on its own. Turning data into numerical form which is easily translated into percentages is called "coding" and is a common technique that sociologists and those who apply sociology on the job should know. Coding makes it much easier for you to analyze and report data to a supervisor on the job, or to make sense of data on the job. For example, you may be pursuing a degree in criminal justice, with a desire to work in law enforcement. You may find that you need to understand basic coding skills in order to understand different kinds of drug use in your community based on information you pull out of arrest report narratives (how many times is marijuana mentioned? Cocaine? Methamphetamine?). Or, you may be pursuing a career in nursing and you might find that you end up working in a nursing home where you note that the elderly patients frequently get agitated in the evening hours. You begin asking them why, and with coding techniques, you're able to figure out that many of them are waiting too many hours for their evening snacks. Just having random data available is often difficult, if not impossible, to analyze. Coding is an easy and quick way to make sense of information that might otherwise be of little value.

Example 2: Backward Mapping

This is a technique that was used with a cross-sectional design and a survey method (interview) called "Backward Mapping.:"

Backward Mapping Technique

With this technique, after the interviews have been conducted, the researcher reviews the content of the interviews to establish some basic themes. Once this is done, basic themes are reviewed to see which can be combined into organizing themes. The next step is to review the organizing themes to see if they can be combined into an overarching global theme, which may also be asserted as a theory. Here is an example of exactly how this technique was used in an actual research project (as a side note, the technique below was actually used in my dissertation research, which was later reworked into a smaller article for publication in the Journal for Applied Social Sciences with two of my colleagues--I include this as an actual example of how applied sociology works):

Backward Mapping Example

Example 3:

A technique of comparative research is the replication (or confirmation) retest. Here, a student chooses the method of existing resources analysis, conducting a content analysis.

Example 4:

Complex Experimental Designs are challenging even for the most experienced researchers. This is mostly a cross-sectional design, with selection of the experiment method. As a technique, the Solomon 4-group Comparison was selected here, which allows the researcher tight control over the project, and gives four sub-sets of data (the participants are exposed to different conditions or variables) with which to compare outcomes.

Solomon Experimental Technique


As you can see, sociological research can be quite simple or quite complex. This introduction barely scratches the surface of how we do research in the field of sociology. You are encouraged to do additional investigation of these concepts on your own.