Doing Empirical Sociological Research This Unit is concerned with the process of carrying out empirical researchâ€”which is vital to keeping sociology alive and relevant! It also contains most of the information you will need to complete Writing Assignment 2, which is due shortly after the unit closes. Empirical Research Hopefully, you remember the term empirical evidence (or empirical data) from Unit 1: it is evidence that can be obtained and verified with the senses, such as sight or hearing. That evidence is collected and analyzed through empirical researchâ€“the process of systematically making observations and recording experiences in order to create data, and/or analyzing the data in order to create new knowledge that answers questions or tests theories. (Most empirical research involves collecting new data, but sometimes it consists of analyzing data that others have already collected, such as survey data gathered by the Census Bureau.) Note that a single empirical research project is often called a â€œstudy.â€ What empirical research IS NOT is, I think, what most beginning students think of when they hear the word â€œresearchâ€: going to the library or online to find and read books and articles containing other peopleâ€™s data and analyses. Those activities might be called â€œlibrary research,â€ â€œsecondary research,â€ or, as in Schaefer Ch. 2, Module 5, â€œreviewing the literature,â€ a stage in the scientific method. Indeed, this is an important step in empirical research because it allows us to look at what others have already learned and written about so that when we do our own studies, we can build on existing knowledge (rather than â€œdiscoveringâ€ what others already know) and avoid past researchersâ€™ mistakes. However, looking up existing books and articles is not the same as doing your own empirical researchâ€”the former centers on synthesizing old knowledge, while empirical research produces new knowledge. Note that in Writing Assignment 2, you will be creating a plan for an empirical research project, not for library research. Hence I do not expect you to say you will find and read a bunch of books or articles, or to provide an extensive bibliography. I do expect you to think carefully about how to obtain and interpret empirical data! Research Proposals A research proposal is a detailed explanation of how empirical research will be carried out and why it is important, which researchers write before they begin a new project. Some of the things that research proposals typically include are: an introduction to the topic being studied, a review of existing literature on the topic, a description of the theoretical framework (e.g., functionalism, conflict theory, interactionism) that will guide research, a specific research question or hypothesis (or several questions/hypotheses), a description of the research design, including plenty of detail on who will be studied, how they will be studied, and how the resulting data will answer the research question, a description of how data will be analyzed, a discussion of limitations of the research (no research project is perfect!) and why these limitations are acceptable, a justification of why the research is important, even with these limitations, and perhaps other elements such as discussion of research budgets or ethics. Why do researchers go to the trouble to write up a proposal before they start collecting data? First and most importantly, research is a complicated process and it often requires lots of time and money, as well as the patience and cooperation of the people being studied. If an experiment or survey does not yield the data needed to answer the research question (which sometimes happens with poorly planned studies), it is usually not possible to go back and do it again. Therefore, itâ€™s important to get it right the first time! Writing a proposal forces researchers to specify exactly what they intend to do, how, and why, which encourages careful planning. A second reason for writing proposals has to do with research ethics. Much research in the social sciences involves interaction (observation, experimentation, asking questions) with live human beings. Some past studies have caused harm to their participants (e.g., psychological distress from the Zimbardo prison study). Therefore sociologists today follow a code of ethics which emphasizes minimizing or eliminating harm, as well as protecting research participantsâ€™ confidentiality and their right to make informed decisions. To ensure that this code is followed, universities and other research settings have review committees that oversee the studies carried out by their employees. The proposal is one of the documents researchers must submit to review committees in order to get their studies approved. A final reason for writing proposals has to do with the financial costs of research. Often researchers need to get financial support for their studies in the form of grants from government agencies (the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, others), non-profit organizations (the American Sociological Association, the Pew Charitable Trusts, others), or for-profit corporations. They write proposals to convince potential funders that their inquiries are worthwhile and deserving of support. If you follow the link below (and click on a state), you can see summaries of research proposals that were submitted to and given funding by the National Science Foundationâ€™s social and economic sciences division. (Donâ€™t feel bad if you canâ€™t fully understand them, thoughâ€”they are written by very advanced researchers, and contain lots of jargon.) http://www.nsf.gov/awards/award_visualization.jsp?org=SES I have called Writing Assignment 2 a “research plan,” but what I am basically asking you to do is develop a mini- research proposal. Why am I asking you to do this? Itâ€™s a great way to demonstrate your knowledge of fundamental sociological concepts and perspectives (especially those in the present Unit and Unit 1), to focus your sociological imagination on a topic you are interested in, and to really engage your critical, logical thinking skills! Note, however, that you will not actually be carrying out the research you plan. I do mean that: **Do not attempt to give a survey, engage in participant observation, do an experiment, or otherwise collect any data as part of the proposal assignments!** Why not? First, that would take us beyond the scope of this introductory class. Second, each of you would have to submit your finished proposal to an ethics committee before collecting data, and that process takes months! So instead of actually doing research, the goal of the assignment is to devise a detailed, realistic plan for an empirical study that could actually be done. Research Questions and Hypotheses Often the most important part of any research proposal or plan is writing the research question. A research question is a carefully worded statement of the question or problem the researcher wishes to answer or solve by collecting and analyzing data, and it serves as a guideline for designing the rest of the research process. In sociology, a good research question has a number of important characteristics: It is relevant to the researcher’s focal topic It seeks to explain or interpret something about the topic, not just discover facts It seeks social explanations, not just individual or personal ones It can be answered with scientific logic and empirical evidence, not just opinion It is focused enough to lead to actual empirical research It reflects a theoretical perspective such as functionalism, conflict theory, or interactionism You will be writing a resarch question for Assignment 2. (Let me know if you need assistance with this difficult task!) Many of you will write those questions as questions, but some may want to write your questions as hypotheses instead. As Schaefer notes (p. 34), a hypothesis is a speculative statement (meaning: an educated guess) about the relationship between two or more variables (meaning: measurable characteristics that can changeâ€”see Unit 1). Schaeferâ€™s description of the scientific method implies that all sociological studies use hypotheses, but this is an oversimplification. Hypotheses are used mostly in explanatory research (research on cause-and-effect relationships), especially if it employs quantitative data, or data that is represented as numbers (quantitative and qualitative data are defined in more depth in the next lecture note). If your topic and theoretical perspective lead you to a cause-and-effect question and suggest that quantitative data would be useful, you are welcome to write a hypothesis instead of a research question. To do so, you would write something like: â€œMy study will attempt to examine whether the following hypothesis is true: Hypothesis: People with more years of education will earn higher salaries once they enter the full-time workforce.â€ (or whatever your hypothesis is) However, hypotheses are not always the best way to begin research. This is particularly the case when the research question is interpretive (it asks what a behavior or other pattern means to people), and especially if it calls for qualitative data (data expressed in worlds). For instance, Watson (â€œMcDonalds in Hong Kongâ€) started his study with questions, not hypotheses. If your questions are interpretive and suggest qualitative data, you would write something like the following: â€œThe goal of my study is to answer the following: Research Question: How do first-generation and non-first-generation college students perceive the challenges and rewards of college?â€ (or whatever your question is) [Note that this is an interpretive question because it centers on comparing the meanings of college for two different groups of people.] Of course, there are other possibilitiesâ€”you may want to do an explanatory study with qualitative data (Chamblissâ€™s â€œThe Saints and the Rougnnecksâ€ is a good example of this). If so, you have some choices to make, but keep in mind that hypotheses are usually used with quantitative data, so if you plan to collect qualitative data you are generally safer with a question. In sum You will begin Assignment 2 by choosing a topic and a theoretical perspective and devising a research question or hypothesis. For the theoretical perspective, you may choose functionalism, conflict theory, or interactionism: any perspective can be used to address any topic, though some topics seem to â€œfitâ€ with certain theories more easily than others. If you are having difficulty thinking of a question that reflects your theoretical perspective, try plugging your topic into one of the following sample questions. (You will also have to make further modifications indicated by the brackets. Also, these questions are not the only possibilities, but at least they will get you started): Functionalism: How is [topic] functional or dysfunctional for [specify some part or aspect of society]? Conflict Theory: How does [topic] help reinforce [or challenge] inequalities between [specify two unequal social groups]? Interactionism: How do people construct the meanings of [topic] in everyday interactions? Or, how does [topic] affect peopleâ€™s perceptions of reality? After youâ€™ve written your question, Assignment 2 requires that you plan to address it using one of the major research designs described in Schaefer Module 6 and the lecture notes here. This is another important but difficult decision. To help, the next two lecture notes address some things you should consider in selecting a research design: (a) whether you need qualitative or quantitative data, and (b) what types and how many people you will include in your study.
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