An Introduction to Data Analysis & Presentation
Prof. Timothy Shortell, Department of Sociology, Brooklyn College

Methodological Issues

There is not just a single research method in sociology. As we have seen in Chapter 1, sociologists use both quantitative and qualitative data. Both of these can be collected with a variety of methods. Sociologists sometimes disagree about what kinds of data collection strategies are appropriate for particular problems.

The Big Debate

As the discipline of sociology matured, two major methodological perspectives have formed. Most sociologists working today feel both have merit, even if they tend to be more in agreement with one or the other. Some prefer the positivist approach and some prefer the historicist approach.

The positivist position centers on the philosophical argument of empiricism: that the only means of knowing truth is through direct sense perception. Sense-perceived data are called empirical facts. These empirical facts lead to the discovery of universal laws, through the process of induction.

Most sociologists recognize the importance of empirical data. This does not make them positivists. An positivist would argue that only sense-perceived data (i.e., empirical data) are valid. Most sociologists, like most people in general, acknowledge that truth can be acquired through other means. Positivists take an extreme stand on the value of empirical data.

According to the positivist approach, empirical data are collected through the scientific method, a set of techniques that emphasize careful observation, consistent measurement and public reporting of data. To the positivist, this is the only way to conduct scientific research.

At the other end of the spectrum, the historicist believes that science is not a privileged method of discovering the truth, but rather, is a social practice. To the historicist, it doesn't get us anywhere to talk about an external truth, universal laws, and so forth. Instead, the historicist believes that sociological knowledge is a social construction, that is, a body of statements and assertions (a discourse) that is considered truth by virtue of the consensus of sociological professionals. From this perspective, the truth is what we sociologists agree it is, based on our best efforts, our biases, the political context in which we work, and so forth. According to the historicists, the same social forces that operate on society also operate on sociology itself.

Historicists point out that humans, including scientists, are imperfect recording devices. We don't always perceive the world accurately, even when we try our best to do so.

The Nature of Explanation

When sociologists explain a social phenomenon, just what is going on?

Sociologists disagree about what constitutes an explanation. Some argue that a thorough and accurate description of the phenomenon qualifies as an explanation of it. Others argue that description is not explanation. To explain something, they say, we must be able to predict under what conditions the phenomenon would occur, and under what conditions it would not. If we can't predict a phenomenon, we can't explain it.

When we construct mathematical models using quantitative data, we test relationships between variables by measuring covariance -- the extent to which two variables tend to be systematically related. We infer causality between variables based on an empirical covariance between them.

We must be cautious, however. Sociologists recognize that covariance is a necessary condition for causality, but it is not sufficient. In other words, if two variables are causally related, then we should be able to find an empirical covariance between them. On the other hand, if we find an empirical covariance, we cannot conclude that they are causally related.

Another important issue regarding explanation has to do with our perspective as sociologists. Most of the time, when we study social phenomena, we observe the action from the outside. We are not ourselves participants in the phenomenon we want to examine. This allows us the opportunity to take a more neutral position, since we are not subject to the same social forces as the participants.

For example, if we are studying the effectiveness of a various styles of religious speech, we might visit a number of different religious organizations and observe their services and meetings. We could collect data about the way religious leaders communicate and then examine the extent to which followers believe the messages they hear. Because we are not members of these organizations, we are better situated to take a neutral perspective in evaluating them. Of course, being an outsider does not guarantee neutrality or the lack of personal bias. It is generally easier, though, to maintain neutrality when one is an observer and not a participant.

When we study phenomena from the outside, we run the risk of missing information and interpretations of experience that are known only to the participants themselves. We may not be looking for all the relevant variables. We may interpret the facts we observe in ways that are different from, and perhaps contrary to, those of the participants.

Sociology as a Collective Enterprise

Sociologists do not work alone. The discipline is based on a cumulative history of empirical facts and theoretical interpretations. When we do research, we refer to the work of others: we seek to confirm, clarify or dispute the findings and claims of our colleagues, past and present.

No single research project can answer all the questions the researchers would like. Good research, it is often said, raises more questions than it answers, because the new information it provides leads to new ways of looking at phenomena, and new relationships to be explored.

We can evaluate our research efforts by looking at the empirical data and seeking to identify all the plausible interpretations. We then try to weigh them against each other. We want to find the best theoretical explanation of our data that we can. When we think we have it, we make our research public, in sociological journals, at professional conferences, in correspondence with our colleagues.

This is the most important part of sociology: putting your data and interpretations before the community of social scientists. Some will agree with your interpretations and some will disagree. By discussing the claims of research, we come to gain a better understanding of the social world, and the ways in which we study it.

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