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Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1- Doing Social Research

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Western University
Sociology 2206A/B
Nicholas Spence

CHAPTER 1- DOING SOCIAL RESEARCH 12/2/2011 3:02:00 PM Social research is a process in which people combine a set of principles, outlooks, and ideas (i.e. methodology) with a collection of specific practices, techniques, and strategies (i.e. a method of inquiry) to produce knowledge Alternatives to Social Research Authority When you accept something as true because someone in a position of authority says it is true or because it is in an authoritative publication, you are relying on authority as a basis for knowledge Limitations to relying on authority: 1. Easy to overestimate the expertise of other people 2. Authorities may not agree, and all authorities may not be equally dependable 3. Authorities may speak on fields they know little about, or they may be plain wrong Also, using the halo effect, expertise in one area may spill over illegitimately to be authority in a totally different area Additional issue is the misuse of authority Related situation occurs when a person with little training and expertise is named as a senior fellow or adjunct scholar in a private think tank with an impressive name. Some think tanks legitimate, some mere fronts created by wealthy special-interest groups to engage in advocacy politics Tradition Tradition means you accept something as being true because its the way things have always been Common Sense Common sense is valuable in daily living, but it allows logical fallacies to slip into thinking Contains contradictory ideas that often go unnoticed because people use ideas at different times, such as opposites attract and birds of a feather flock together 1 Media Myths Shows and movies distort reality, either out of ignorance or because they rely on authority, tradition, and common sense Primary goal is to entertain, not convey the truth Journalists, despite trying to be accurate, are constrained to writing short stories in short periods with limited information and within editorial guidelines Unfortunately, the media tend to perpetuate the myths of a culture, as do some social networking sites that may portray myth as fact Also, mass media hype can distort reality and can create the perception of a problem being a major one People believe things portrayed visually more readily, therefore TV and film have a powerful impact Competing interests also use the media to win public support, and alter public opinion about scientific findings, making it difficult for the general public to judge research findings Personal Experience If something directly happens to you or you see it, you accept it as true However, what appears true may actually be due to a slight error or distortion in judgment Four errors of personal experience overgeneralization, selective observation, premature closure, and the halo effect all reinforce each other and can occur in other areas as well Overgeneralization occurs when some evidence supports your belief, but you falsely assume that it also applies to many other situations (2 blonde girls were rude therefore all blondes are rude) Selective Observation occurs when you take special notice of some people or events and tend to seek out evidence that confirms what you already believe and to ignore contradictory information Psychologists have found that people tend to seek out and distort their memories to make them more consistent with what they already think Premature Closure often operates with and reinforces the first two errors Occurs when you feel you have the answer and do not need to listen, seek information, or raise questions any longer 2 We find a bit of evidence to support our hypotheses and then jump to conclusions based on that Halo effect when we overgeneralize from what we accept as being highly positive or prestigious and let its strong reputation or prestige rub off onto other areas Table 1.1 Sources of Knowledge Example Issue How safe are vaccinations for children? Authority Doctors say that vaccinations are safe and that they are rigorously tested before they are administered to the public. My doctor says they are safe, too. th Tradition Vaccines have been around since the 18 century and have served to eradicate many devastating diseases. Common Sense Pharmaceutical companies spend a lot of money on developing vaccines, so vaccines must be safe. Media Myth I heard a celebrity say that some vaccines are dangerous. The newspapers are suggesting that many other people may feel the same way. Personal Experience My mother had me and my siblings vaccinated, and we are all fine. Scientific The study linking MMR to autism has been retracted due to its being severely flawed, and several other studies have since shown absolutely no linkage between the vaccine and developing autism. How Science Works Although social research builds on some aspects of alternative ways of developing knowledge, it is science that distinguishes social research Social research involves thinking scientifically about questions about the social world and following scientific processes 3 Science Scientists gather data using specialized techniques and use the data to support or reject theories Data are the empirical evidence or information that one gathers carefully according to rules or procedures Data can be quantitative (i.e., expressed as numbers) or qualitative (i.e., expressed as words, visual images, sounds, or objects) Empirical evidence refers to observations that people experience through the senses- touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste This confuses people because researchers cannot use their senses to directly observe many aspects of the social world about which they seek answers (e.g., intelligence, attitudes, opinions, feelings, emotions, power, authority, etc.) The Scientific Community The scientific community is a collection of people who practice science and a set of norms, behaviors, and attitudes that bind them together Professional community- a group of interacting people who share ethical principles, beliefs, and values, techniques and training, and career paths For the most part, the scientific community includes both the natural and social sciences The Scientific Method and Attitude The scientific method is not one single thing: It refers to the ideas, rules, techniques, and approaches that the scientific community uses It includes a way of looking at the world that places a high value on professionalism, craftsmanship, ethical integrity, creativity, rigorous standards, and diligence It also includes strong professional norms, such as honesty and uprightness in doing research, openness about how a study is conducted, and a focus on the merits of the research itself and not on any characteristics of individuals who conducted the study 4
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