Sociological Investigation – how sociologists ‘do’ sociology
First it looks at science as a way of knowing and then it discusses two limitations to scientific sociology
that are addressed by two other approaches to knowing – interpretative sociology and critical sociology.
Finally, it explains four methods of data collection.
Academic sociologists have been trained to conceive of their discipline – sociology- - as the scientific
study of society, and to remit to the sister discipline of psychology the study of individuals.
What are the basics of sociological investigation?
1. Apply the sociological perspective
2. Be curious and ask questions
Science as one form of truth
Belief/Faith: Believing in God and knowing there is a God has two different meanings
Expert: asking someone who has been trained
Simple agreement: everyone knows that littering is wrong
Science: is a logical system that bases knowledge on direct, systematic observation
Empirical evidence: is information we can verify with our own senses
Common sense versus scientific evidence
Scientific evidence sometimes challenges our common sense – look at stereotypes, crime rates, etc.
Example - 6 statements:
Poor people are far more likely than rich people to break the law
Canada is a middle-class society in which people are more or less equal
Poor people don’t want to work
Differences in the behaviour of females and males are just human nature
People change as they grow old, losing many interests as they focus on their health
Most people marry because they are in love
Three ways to do sociology
1. Scientific sociology (Comte, Durkheim)
i. the study of society based on systematic observation of social behaviour
ii. (positivism – assumes that an objective reality exists ‘out there’)
iii. job of the scientist is to discover this reality by gathering empirical evidence
Concept: a mental construct that represents some part of the world in a simplified form
Society is a concept as well as family, economy, race, social class.
Variable: a concept whose value changes from case to case
Price, within social class we may look at upper, middle, working or lower class.
Measurement: a procedure for determining the value of a variable in a specific case
Some variables are easy to measure – step on a scale to see how much you weigh, some
variables are more difficult – how do you measure one’s social class (clothing, patterns of
speech, home address, income, occupation, education). Another challenge is how you deal
with huge numbers of people (income of all Canadian families). Sociologists use statistical
measures like mode, mean and median to describe people or communities.
Operationalize a variable: specifying exactly what is to be measured before assigning a value
to a variable
Before measuring the concept of social class, we would have to decide exactly what we
were going to measure (income level, years of school, occupational prestige) Reliability: consistency in measurement
Measurement is reliable if repeated measurements give same result time after time.
Validity: actually measuring what you intend to measure
Example – study how religious people are. You may receive consistent answers, but
what they take from the meaning of the question may mean something different (attending
worship because of tradition or because of spirituality)
Cause and Effect: a relationship in which change in one variable causes change in another
Studying hard for an exam may yield good marks
3 requirements to meet cause and effect: a demonstrated correlation, an independent (or
causal) variable that occurs before the dependent variable and; no evidence that a third
variable could be causing a spurious correlation between the two
Independent Variable: the variable that causes the change
How hard I study
Dependent Variable: the variable that changes
Predict that if that pattern continues, you will do well on the next exam
Correlation: a relationship in which two (or more) variables change each other.
Spurious Correlation: an apparent but false relationship between two (or more) variables that
is caused by some other variable.
Control: holding constant all variables except one in order to see clearly the effect of that
*Human behaviour is highly complex, involving dozens of causal variables at any one time,
so establishing all of the cause-and-effect relationships in any situation is extremely difficult
Objectivity: personal neutrality in conducting research
Carefully holding onto scientific procedures, not letting our own attitudes and beliefs
influence the results
(Max Weber expected people to select their research topics according to personal beliefs and
interests – value-relevant; but not imposing our own values – value-free)
Replication: Repetition of research by other investigators
If we conduct the same study as someone else has and yields the same results, validity
Some limitations of scientific sociology:
1. Human behaviour is too complex for sociologists to predict any individual’s actions
2. Because humans respond to their surroundings, the mere presence of a researcher may
affect the behaviour being studied.
3. Social patterns change; what is true in one time or place may not hold true in another.
4. Because sociologists are part of the social world they study, being value-free when
conducting social research is difficult. Positivist sociology focuses our attention on what we can observe directly. In terms of social life, this
means action or behaviour. But interpretive sociology reminds us that the reality we perceive is not the
action itself but the meaning we attach to the action.
Scientific: focuses on action
Interpretive: focuses on the meaning attached to behaviour
Scientific: sees an objective reality ‘out there’
Interpretive: sees reality as being constructed by people themselves everyday
Scientific: makes use of quantitative data
Interpretive: makes use of qualitative data
Scientific – best in a laboratory, interpretive – best in a natural setting
Wilhelm Dilthey may be called the founder of interpretive sociology
2. Interpretive Sociology: the study of society that focuses on the meanings people attach to their
i. Not just to observe what people do, but also to share in their world of meaning
and come to appreciate why they act as they do
ii. Mead – symbolic interaction; language is fundamental to the human experience,
get inside the minds of the actors through close and sustained contact
1. observation, participant-observation and interviews
3. Critical sociology: the study of society that focuses on the need for social change
Importance of Change: should society exist in its present form?
Marx – not just to research the social world but to change it in the direction of democracy and
Use critical orientation to seek not only to change society but the character of research itself
Sociology as Politics: scientific sociologists object to taking sides in this way, charging that
critical sociology – whether feminist, Marxist, or post-modern-becomes political, lacks objectivity, and
cannot correct for its own biases. Critical sociologists reply that all research is political or biased-either
it calls for change or it does not. Critical sociology is an activist orientation tying knowledge to action.
Scientific Interpretive Critical
What is reality? Society is an orderly Society is ongoing Society is patterns
system. There is an interaction. People of inequality.
objective reality construct reality as Reality is that some
‘out there’. they attach categories of people
meanings to their dominate others.
How do we conduct Researcher gathers Researcher develops Research is a
research? empirical, ideally a qualitative account strategy to bring
quantitative, data. of their subjective about desired social
Researcher tries to sense people make change. Researcher
be a neutral of their world. is an activist.
observer. Researcher is a
What is the Structural- Symbolic- Social-conflict
corresponding functional interaction
approach? Methods and theories:
Scientific Sociology applies to structural-functional approach
Interpretive Sociology applies to the symbolic-interaction approach
Critical Sociology applies to the social-conflict approach
Gender: the personal traits and positions that members of a society attach to being male or female.
1. Androcentricity (approaching an issue from a male’s perspective); Gynocentricity
(approaching an issue from a female’s perspective)
2. Overgeneralizing (approaching people from only one gender to su