Sociological Research Methods

The Scientific Method Inductive vs.Deductive Approaches

Sociology is a science. As such,it is concerned with systematically observing and classifying facts, andestablishing verifiable laws. It, like any other science employs scientificmethod, which is the source for scientific knowledge. The scientific method isa logical system used to evaluate data derived from systematic observation. Thescientific method as a precise way of designing and conducting researchconsists of the following basic steps: “(1) establishing a hypothesis, ageneral statement based on observed facts; 2) determining ways to test thehypothesis, incorporating them in research design; 3) testing the hypothesisthrough research and further observation…” (Howard and Dunaif-Hattis, 1992:7)

Sociology as a science employsthe two very important approaches in research design and in the overallresearch framework: inductive methods and deductivemethod. Inductive method is a method by which the scientist first makesobservation and collects data, on the basis of which he or she formulates hypothesisand theories (Scupin and DeCorse, 1995). The researchertries to build theories from particular observations and instances. Inductionmoves from the particular to the general; whereas deduction moves from thegeneral to the particular. In deductive approach, the researcher attempts toderive specific assertions and claims from a general theoretical principle. Inshort, deductive approach in research goes from general theory to particularclaims (Dooley, 1995:65-66).

  • Inductive method is a method by which the scientistfirst makes observation and collects data, on the basis of which he or sheformulates hypothesis and theories
  • In deductive approach, the researcher attempts toderive specific assertions and claims from a general theoretical principle.

As a science, the primary aim ofsociology is doing research; to produce, accumulate, and disseminate scientificknowledge on society and social phenomena.

However, there are some peoplewho question the scientific status of sociology and other social sciences.

They argue that sociology is notstrictly science because its subject matter is very much complex. It is notpossible to subject human behavior into laboratory manipulations. People havetheir own motives and hidden aspirations and other complex aspects.

However, it is generally acceptedthat sociology is a science in the sense that its primary aim is doingscientific research to promote scientific knowledge.

Sociology can and should employthe scientific methods. The scientific method is defined as a method ofobserving the world critically, empirically and rationally to collect andanalyze data systematically to arrive at a scientific knowledge.

Steps in Sociological Research

Generally, there are about sevensteps in doing a sociological research. These steps are not, however, typicalto sociology alone. It should also be noted that these steps are not fixedones. Some steps may not necessarily be followed in some research projects.They steps may not necessarily be put in sequential order.

Identification of Research Problems

The first step in doingsociological research (for that matter, any other research) is to come up witha research problem. Identification of research problem basically involveschoosing a research topic. The ways and manners in which researchers identify aresearch problem and choose a topic vary according to various factors. Theresearch interests of sociologists are, often, triggered by their own lifeexperiences and observations (Howard and Dunaif-Hattis, 1992). The initialideas for research thus may occur at any time and place for a researcher.Walking down a street, reading through newspapers, watching television, etc maysuggest a topic of research for an observing and curious person (Mann, 1976).

Once a research topic comes to ourmind, we should ask the following questions:

  • Is itresearchable?
  • Is itsociologically/ socially significant?
  • Whatis new about it?
  • Whatgap will it fill?
  • Is itmanageable in terms of time, money,expertise and otherresources? In other words, do you have the neededresources to do the research?

If you answer these and otherrelated questions adequately, then you are on the right track to conduct theresearch.

Literature Review

This step involves familiarizingor orienting yourself with the concepts, theories and the works already donepertaining to the topic identified. Relevant available literature on the topicchosen should be reviewed; we should also check out what works have alreadybeen done by others, what gaps are remaining, what questions remain unanswered,etc.

Research work normally proceedsby reviewing earlier works on a specific research problem one has identified.

The researcher will need toreview past works on the question he or she is raising (Dooley, 1995). Thetraditionally dominant source for literature review has been libraries anddocumentation centers where books and various references are found in cardcatalogued manner. Nowadays, most libraries maintain a computerized filingsystem, whereby references are made available via electronic online methods.Searching literature has become very easy, thus, with the computerization oflibrary sources; one can easily access them if Internet connection is available(Rosnow and Rosenthal, 1996).

Literature review is necessitatedby the fact that a researcher is probably not the first person to develop aninterest in a particular problem; and hence, he or she need to spend some timein the library reviewing what theories and methods others have used to thetopic in the past and what findings are there (Macionis, 1997).

According to Marshal and Rossman (1989: 35),review of literature has the following four purposes:

First, itdemonstrates the underlying assumptions behind the general research question….Second, it demonstrates that the researcher is thoroughly knowledgeable aboutrelated research and the intellectual traditions that surround and support thestudy. Third, it shows that the researcher has identified some gaps in previousresearch and that the proposed study will fill a demonstrated need.

And finally,the review refines and redefines the research questions and related tentativehypotheses by embedding those questions in larger empirical traditions.

Hypothesis Formulation

Hypothesis is a statement thatcan be proved to be correct or incorrect. Hypothesis formulation involvesidentifying basic research objectives and determining research questions. Thisshould be tested empirically.

We put some guiding assumptionsto the research in this step. We ask some basic research questions.

However, we may note that thismay not be always the case. The type of research may determine whetherhypothesizing is needed or not. For example, in exploratory studieshypothesizing may not be needed.

Selections and Designing of Methodsof Data


Here the researcher determinesdata collection methods and prepares data collection instruments. He/she choosesfrom among the different data collection methods. There are generally twocategories of methods: Quantitative methods and qualitative methods. Quantitativemethods focus on measuring quantity of information: terms such as prevalence, scope,percentage, frequency, magnitude, etc are very important. On the other hand,qualitative methods focus on depth and quality of information. The complex, detailedand sensitive aspects; belief, attitudinal and knowledge dimensions etc areusually studied by qualitative methods.

Conducting Data Gathering Activity

This is the step in which theresearcher engages in collecting the needed data by using the various methods andinstruments. The researcher goes to the field and collects the data. He/ shetrains data collectors, supervises the overall data collection process, and so on.

Data collected thus may be of twotypes: primary and secondary data. Primary data are firsthand andoriginal information; the researcher firsthand collects them. They arecollected by the sociology themselves during their own research using researchtools such as experiment, survey, questionnaire, interviews and observation (Chapman,2000). On the other hand, secondary data are those which are already collectedby someone else found in various sources as documents or archives.

They include: official statisticaldocuments, mass media sources (such as electronic media – radio, television, films,etc; and print media such as newspapers, magazines, journals, posters,brochures, leaflets, sign broads, etc.)

Some of the methods of datacollection in sociology include:


One of the dominant quantitativetechniques is the survey method, which involves sampling,impersonal data collections, and sophisticated statisticalanalysis.

Of all the social sciencesresearch techniques, survey research probably seems to be the most visible and pervasiveform research in the social and behavioral sciences (Jones, 1995). . In surveyresearch, people who provide information are termed as respondents, (unlike inanthropology, where we call them informants); these respondents are oftenselected on random sample basis, wherein all members of a population have equalchances of being included in the study population

There are three types of surveyresearch: cross sectional survey, which aimsto find out what opinions research participants across sections of society have about acertain phenomena at a given point of time his surveyrepresents fixed reflections of one moment in time. Longitudinalsurvey is conducted on the same type of people over long period of time, as long as sometimes 20to 30 years. This type provides us with a moving pictureof the changes over time in a given area.

The third type is called panelsurveys, which are alternative versions of longitudinal surveys. It usually lastsshorter period of time and asks questions of panel members on a frequent basis.A panel member may be asked question every month for a couple of years, while inlongitudinal survey, people are asked often once a year (Moore, 2001).

Traditionally, the surveytechniques has been considered the domain of disciplines such as sociology, psychology,political science, and economics, which often work mainly in large, complex andpopulous societies, unlike anthropologists, which have traditionally workedamong small-scale societies.


This quantitative method is sometimesused in sociology. Sociologists conduct experimental studies, following theprocedures and principles of experimentation. This is done usually to explorecause and effect relationship between one and the other social phenomena. Whatcauses what? What is the effect of one social phenomenon on the other?

Key Informant Interview:

This is a qualitative method in whicha knowledgeable person in study site or community is contacted and interviewedby the researcher or data collector. Questions for the interview session may beprepared in advance, or sometimes only guiding themes are prepared for thesession. This method is similar with in-depth interview, in that in most cases one individualperson is contacted and interviewed at a time. However, in the latter, the researcher/interviewer digs deep into issues (Macionis, 1997).

Focus Group Discussion:

This is a form of qualitative datacollection method in which intends to make use of the explicit interactiondynamic among group members which may yield important information on certaintopic.

This qualitative method of datacollection has become so popular particularly in the recent decades; it ishighly being used by researchers from crosscutting fields such as publichealth, anthropology, and other behavioral sciences disciplines.

Case Study:

This method involvesinvestigating a certain issue as a case taking longer time and investigatingthe phenomenon in depth. A case study may be about an individual person, asocial group, a family, or an organization. The case chosen is regarded as arepresentative of the wider group or context from which it is derived. Thismethod may involve elements of both quantitative and qualitative aspects.


This qualitative method involvescollecting data on social phenomena by carefully observing the socialprocesses, events, activities, behaviors, actions, etc., they take place. Allrelevant events, actions, places, objects, etc must be observed and recorded (Marshaland Rossman, 1989). One of the key procedures in these techniques is called participant observation, the activeinvolvement in community life while studying it. The researcher participates ina research setting while observing what is happening in that setting (Henslinand Nelson, 1995). A variant of this method is non-participantobservation – collecting data without participating in what theinformants or the subjects do.

Unobtrusive Measures:

Most of the research techniquesare obtrusive, meaning the data are gathered while the studysubjects’ behaviors actions are directly observed, and they know that they arebeing researched. To avoid the risks of the research act intruding on thesubject of study thereby affecting the research findings, sociologists havedeveloped what is called unobtrusive measures. When a researcher takes unobtrusivemeasures, people’s behavior is observed while they are not aware of it.

Here, this method involvestechniques that do not interfere with the objects or events studied.Sociologist study many social phenomena using this methods such how peoplebehave in the public arena, the way people wear and decorate themselves, theway they sit or stand relative to others, etc (Rosenberg, et al, 1987).

Data Organization, Analysis,Interpretation, and

Report Writing

The most challenging task is howto manage, handle, store and arrange the raw data as cautiously as possible.Data may get lost, if not handled well. The researcher here carefully storesthe data, manages them, organizes and systematically arranges.

Various ways of analyzing dataare used both in qualitative and quantitative methods (Henslin and Nelson, 1995). For quantitativedata researchers use sophisticated statistical techniques using computer models.Plans for data analysis are often made as early before the data are collected (Mann,1976).

Analysis of qualitative data alsoactually begins while the researcher is in the field recording his/ her field notes,tape recording and transcribing the interviews.

Tape-recording the interviewprocess and transcribing are the essential components of analysis (Jones 1995).

In analyzing the data, theresearcher must distinguish between his own views and the views of the people beingstudied (Scupin and DeCorse, 1995). There are many possible analytic schemesand some computer models for analyzing qualitative data are also available.

After the data are entered into acomputer for easy processing, tabulation, and analysis, the researcher interpretsthe data and writes up the findings. The hypotheses are tested, comparisons aremade with similar kinds of studies conducted elsewhere or done before,conclusions are drawn, and recommendations are made, depending on the type ofresearch, such as basic or applied.

Dissemination of Research Findings

This is the final step in whichthe researcher shares the findings with all concerned bodies. Dissemination ofthe research findings is possible via scientific journals, seminars, symposiums,conferences and other forums.

By this, wehave discussed to a great depth, the various methods of sociological research(The Scientific Method, Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches) and the steps to befollowed in carrying out sociological research. Please do study this articlewith full concentration so you may be able to; Discuss the main differencesbetween qualitative and quantitative methods of doing research, Identify thefactors to be considered when one is considering choosing a certain issue orissues as research topic.

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