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Sociological Methodology

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Sociological Methodology

Sociological research is the systematic analysis that is done by using empirical methods, i.e. asking, observing and analysing data. It aims to make empirically grounded statements that can be generalized, or test such statements. Various approaches can be distinguished and different aims can be pursued, ranging from an exact description of a phenomenon to its explanation or the evaluation of an intervention or institution. In the pursuit of research, sociologists follow certain scientific principles that include theories and different methods. Theories and methods provide the accuracy of data and the ways to gather and process information.
Scientific Research
For example, Emile Durkheim conducted his research on suicide. He explored how the sociology can be used scientifically to uncover the impacts of social factors in our lives. He used different societal factors such as social integration, religion and psychological factors to show the rate of suicide.
According to Ruth A. Wallace and Alison Wolf, the sociologists use theoretical perspectives to express their assumptions or hypothesis systematically with comprehensive discourse. This discourse is based on theories. The hypothesis is a kind of assumption a sociologist makes to conduct its research. In a scientific language, the assumption is called hypothesis which is the theory-based statement that shows a relationship among various factors that can be tested through research. These factors are called variables. Sociologists try to anticipate a causal relationship among variables; if there is a relationship, then one variable produces a change in other variables.
The research must be accurate, and to know its accuracy, the researchers must know the validity of their data. Validity refers to whether the research measures what the researcher intends to measure. Sociologists also need to know about the reliability that refers to whether research results would be the same if the research were repeated at different times or if the same thing were studied in different ways. There is also a need to practice objectivity in research that demands no inclusion of biased approaches and personal opinions.
Research Methods
According to Kathey S. Stolley, to conduct research, sociologists must gather data — any piece of information for research. Data can be primary as well as secondary. Primary data can be collected through primary resources such as questioning, interviewing and ethnography. On the other hand, secondary data can be collected through secondary resources such as books, newspapers, etc. Racheal Sherman and Anselm Straus organized data collection into three methods: questioning, ethnography and analysis.
1. Questioning
Questioning is one of the most common tools used in research method. Questioning is a form of survey research in which people are asked questions to determine their behaviours, attitudes and opinions. For example, in research on assimilation patterns of Afghan migrants in Pakistan, a survey can be conducted to gauge the sentiments of Afghan and non-Afghan people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
To generate a survey, a researcher needs to generate a sample that represents a large population. Moreover, the researcher can design a questionnaire to determine behaviour such as in the form of multiple choice questions (MCQs). Another method is interviewing that is a series of questions administered by a researcher. Interviews can be conducted in various ways such as face-to-face, through telephone, email and video-conferencing.
2. Ethnography
Second method of research is ethnography. In this method, the researcher would research field work. Ethnography is a research method that involves the observation of the interactions of everyday life. This can also be called an observational research. In this method, the researcher would observe the behaviour, traits, mores and societal environment of a certain phenomenon.
For example, in ethnographic research of a courtroom, the researcher would observe proceedings of the court, the behaviour of judge, prosecution and its overall environment. Ethnographic research contributes to Verstehen, Max Weber’s concept that sociologists should develop subjective understanding by taking someone else’s position mentally to understand their social world, lives and perspectives.
3. Analysing
To analyse data, two approaches are being employed: one is quantitative method and the other is a qualitative method. Qualitative methods are used to determine the essential characteristics, properties or processes of something or someone. Rather than desiring to count how many, how much or how often, qualitative researchers may attempt to study conditions or processes such as how police decide to arrest someone, the reactions or responses of a spouse or parent to the loss of a loved one, or the processes used in obtaining illegal drugs. This type of research often involves case studies (detailed studies of individuals or small groups of individuals, such as a family) and participant observation, in which the observer takes part in the activity being observed.
Quantitative method is concerned with the numerical analysis of data whereas the qualitative method is concerned with the interpretation of non-numerical data. Quantitative methods are designed to obtain numbers or amounts of something, e.g. the median age at marriage, the range of incomes, or crime rates. To quantify is to count, to determine frequencies, to measure amounts, or to state something in mathematical or statistical terms. This type of research often involves surveys or experiments.
Today, both qualitative and quantitative modes of research are widely used, with both recognized within the discipline as legitimate methods of social research. However, many sociologists demand “hard” facts and rigorously gathered data, and consider only these data to be what they regard as “real science”; they question the validity of impressions, interpretive descriptions, or “soft” data. On the other hand, many feminists would argue that numbers and hard data are viewed as masculine and that masculinity means power and superiority. Verbal descriptions, relational and emotional skills, and soft data are seen as feminine, and femininity is viewed as weak and inferior.
According to Uwe Flick, in quantitative research in studying a phenomenon, one would first start with a concept such as poverty. Then find out a theoretical perspective on that, i.e. models of poverty that can be drawn from the literature review. For empirical evidence, one must formulate a hypothesis or several hypotheses, which need(s) to be tested.
Moreover, quantitative research is more concerned with causations; for example, poverty is caused by the pandemic. On the contrary, qualitative research not necessarily starts from a theoretical perspective. It’s more of analytical and descriptive nature and not connected with the numerical study. In qualitative research, we can use two to ten cases but the number of cases is infinite in quantitative research. Sampling in qualitative research is limited and in quantitative, it’s random.
Types of Sociological Research
1. Descriptive Research
Descriptive research describes social reality, i.e. a descriptive study can be undertaken to determine whether the disabled people in Pakistan have more troubles to find jobs than people who are physically fit. Ethnography is a method popularly used among sociologists in descriptive research. Ethnography is a study where one observes and investigates a certain phenomenon.
According to Max Weber, ethnography is a method of studying the social and cultural dimensions of human interaction. It is a form of research focusing on the sociology of meaning through close observation of socio-cultural phenomena.
2. Explanatory Research
Explanatory research is concerned with explaining why a certain phenomenon happens or does not happen. It helps to resolve questions that are concerned with the problem of causation. In all scientific studies, the variable that is supposed to cause an effect is known as the independent variable. The variable that is apparent to be affected by the independent variable is the dependent variable.
In a study of child abuse in Pakistan, the abuse itself would be the dependent variable, the effect; the causes of child abuse — perhaps such factors as stress and the parents’ own childhood experiences of having been abused — would be the independent variables.
3. Evaluation Research
Evaluation research is concerned with the evaluation of a certain program or project. It determines as to what extent the goals of a programme or project have been achieved. For example, the research could be made in SOS village in Lahore to determine the achievement of its intended goals. Evaluation research consists of two types of studies: outcome evaluations and field experiments.
Outcome research measures the effects of an organization’s policies and programmes. Field experiments are tested situations created to include the actual conditions proposed by a policy, programme or project. The purpose of these test situations is to determine the effects of a new or proposed policy, programme or project.
Steps in Research
The process of research includes the following steps:
1. Stating the Problem
The first step in the research is to state the problem which needs to be investigated. The researcher can select a topic from various sociological phenomena; ranging from social realities to taboos based upon his/her personal experience or from common observation. The researcher needs to create a hypothesis or more hypotheses. For example, the hypothesis here is to make a comparative analysis of the unemployment rate between Pushtun ethnicity and Muhajir ethnicity in Karachi.
2. Selecting, Defining and Sampling Variables
After creating assumptions or hypothesis or various hypotheses, the researcher needs to select the variables. To narrow down a problem to a manageable size the researcher would focus on variables. For example, to analyze the unemployment difference of Pushtuns and Muhajirs, we can employ two variables, i.e. ethnicity and unemployment.
One is a dependent variable and another is an independent one. When we hypothesize a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables, the cause is called the independent variable and the effect is called the dependent variable. In our example, ethnicity is the independent variable, and unemployment is the dependent variable; that is, we hypothesize that unemployment depends on one’s ethnicity. Next to test a hypothesis one must define the variables. Sampling would be done here in this example to get information about the ethnicity and employment status of people. To further narrow down research, we can take a sample from the adult population. Sampling involves two processes:
obtaining a list of the population you want to study, and
selecting a representative subset or sample from the list.
3. Gathering Data
The ways of gathering data include surveys, ethnography and field experiments. For instance, discussed in research methods.
4. Finding Patterns
The fourth step in the research process is to look for patterns in the data. If we study unemployment, for example, we will find that Muhajirs are twice as likely to be unemployed as Pushtuns (Statistical data). This finding is a correlation: an empirical relationship between two variables — in this case, ethnicity and employment.
5. Generating Theories
After a pattern is found, the next step is to explain it. Finding a correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean that one variable causes the other. For example, even though there is a correlation between ethnicity and unemployment, many Muhajirs are unemployed and many Pushtuns are not. Nevertheless, if we have good empirical evidence that being Pushtuns increases the probability of unemployment, the next task is to explain why that should be so. Explanations are usually embodied in a theory, an interrelated set of assumptions that explains observed patterns. Theory always goes beyond the facts at hand; it includes untested assumptions that explain the empirical evidence.
In our unemployment example, we might theorize that the reason Muhajirs face more unemployment than Pushtuns is that many of today’s Muhajir adults grew up in a time when the ethnic difference in educational opportunity was much greater than it is now. This simple explanation goes beyond the facts at hand to include some assumptions about how education is related to ethnicity and unemployment.
Although theory rests on an empirical generalization, the theory itself is not empirical; it is, well, theoretical. It should be noted that many different theories can be compatible with a given empirical generalization. We have proposed that educational differences explain the correlation between ethnicity and unemployment. Others might argue that the correlation arises because of discrimination. Because there are often many plausible explanations for any correlation, theory development is not the end of the research process. We must go on to test the theory by gathering new data.
Content Analysis
Content analysis refers to the systematic examination of documents such as archives and newspapers. The process is almost same as conducting survey but instead of taking a sample of individuals and then asking them a list of questions, sociologists take a sample of documents and then systematically ask questions about those documents.
Using Existing Statistics
Whether researchers use a qualitative method or quantitative, they have to use the statistics provided by different governmental sources.

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