June 03, 2019

What is Sociological Research?

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

We do research all the time, or at least we use the word research regularly. Trying to figure out where to stay on a vacation? “Research” it online! Choosing a restaurant? Do some “research” by asking your friends about their favorite places in the area. Hoping to learn more about a movie before shelling out money for tickets? “Research” reviews and see what other people think.

You can probably tell from my use of quotations that looking something up online is not the same thing as doing sociological research. This should go without saying, but on several occasions I have seen students genuinely confuse a Google search with doing social science research.

Here’s what sociological research is: the systematic study of people, institutions, or social phenomena using measurement techniques such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, ethnography, or comprehensive analysis of texts. Sociological research may also include the analysis of data collected by government agencies or other sources.

The word systematic underlines the key difference between this kind of research and an online search. A sociologist uses a system, or a formal process through which we gather data. An online search is typically not systematic, and in fact is largely driven by the search engine’s algorithm that privileges some sites over others. This means that the top results are often determined by factors such as which sites get the most traffic. While we might learn some background information this way, it is not exactly sociological research.

Does this mean that a Google search plays no part in doing systematic research? Not necessarily. We might find the results of research others conducted this way that can inform our literature review, although we are probably better off using a database that focuses solely on research-related publications to do so.

We can also do an online search to find secondary sources of data. This might mean finding census data, data on health, crime, or other phenomena that others have collected and we can analyze independently. Certainly using statistics from these and other sites provides useful background information and is the first step in conducting our own research. Technically, in order for something to qualify as our own research we might conduct a unique analysis, even if we are using data someone else collected.

The word systematic is key for qualitative research as well. We are regular observers of the world around us, but this doesn’t mean that our casual observations and conclusions qualify as research. When conducting ethnography, we might start with basic observations that lead us to look more carefully at a group’s interactions.

Because of something call observer bias, we may only look for examples that support our preconceived notions about things. But if we are consciously questioning our own assumptions, we are primed to look for examples that challenge our beliefs. Conducting qualitative research systematically means constantly challenging our own assumptions, asking questions and being open to finding out that our assumptions are wrong, or at least that there are notable exceptions.

Whether it is making sure that our observations take place in a variety of times and places or contexts or asking the people we observe about their perspectives on their experiences, we can develop a more in-depth understanding of the people we are studying. As you can see, this is far more involved than just watching and drawing conclusions.

It is true that we can learn a lot simply by looking things up online—that might even be how you found this blog—but to qualify as social science research takes a few extra steps, including a critical perspective rooted in sociological theory.

Have you heard the word “research” used in any other context that differs from social science? What might be a better way to describe our everyday observations and searches online?

Comments

The quality of research has been adversely affected by people conducting more of google search research than carrying out sociological research.

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