Section 1.3: Sociological Methods

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

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Sociologists, when employing the sociological perspective, are open to investigating any subject matter. All aspects of human behavior can be explored and scrutinized. Sociologists aim to understand the world humans have created and inhabit by examining patterns of behavior as individuals interact with their environment (Berger, 1963). Utilizing sociological methods, systematic research within the context of the scientific method, and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have uncovered workplace patterns leading to industry transformations, family patterns offering insights to family members, and education patterns that have facilitated structural changes in classrooms (Brym & Lie, 2019; Giddens, 2013).

The research process for sociologists often starts with a question regarding how or why certain phenomena occur in the world. These inquiries can range from unique questions about emerging trends to revisiting common aspects of life (Macionis, 2020). Once the sociologist formulates the question, an in-depth process is undertaken to address it. In determining the design of this process, researchers may choose between a scientific approach or an interpretive framework (Charmaz, 2014; Neuman, 2014).

The following sections elaborate on these approaches to acquiring knowledge. The scientific approach in sociology involves the application of empirical methods to gather data and generate findings based on systematic observation, measurement, and analysis (Bryman, 2016; Schutt, 2018). This approach aims to establish causal relationships and generalizable patterns through quantitative research methods, such as surveys, experiments, and statistical analysis (Agresti & Finlay, 2009). It seeks to create objective, verifiable knowledge about the social world (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994).

On the other hand, the interpretive framework focuses on understanding the meaning and significance of social phenomena through the subjective experiences of individuals (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). Interpretive sociologists seek to uncover the underlying meanings, motives, and intentions behind human behavior, often using qualitative research methods, such as interviews, participant observation, and content analysis (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015). This approach emphasizes the importance of context, culture, and social interaction in shaping human experiences (Geertz, 1973; Goffman, 1959).

Sociologists, by adopting the sociological perspective and employing sociological methods, are able to explore a wide array of human behaviors and social phenomena. Through systematic research and the application of either scientific or interpretive approaches, they have made significant contributions to our understanding of society and its various components, such as workplace dynamics, family relationships, and educational structures (Brym & Lie, 2019; Giddens, 2013). Their inquiries continue to shed light on the intricacies of the social world, paving the way for further knowledge and societal improvements.

Science and the Scientific Method

Sociologists often rely on scientific methods to conduct research, including experiments, surveys, and fieldwork. However, the complexity of human behavior poses a challenge for studying social interactions. Despite this challenge, the scientific method is a valuable tool for sociologists, as it provides a framework that ensures objectivity and accuracy in their research.

The scientific method is based on empirical evidence and involves developing and testing theories about the world. It requires systematic observation, critical thinking, skepticism, and logical reasoning. The method comprises a series of steps that have been developed over time through scholarship.

While sociological studies use scientific methods, they do not reduce human behavior to right or wrong facts. Instead, they offer insights into different cultures, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Researchers aim to maximize the study’s reliability and validity, which refer to the likelihood of replicating research results and the accuracy of measuring what the study was designed to measure, respectively.

Sociologists typically investigate the role of social characteristics in outcomes, such as psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, wealth, crime rates, and more. They analyze environmental influences and patterns of behavior that contribute to social issues like poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or substance abuse. Sociologists also study positive behaviors and habits, such as vacation trends, healthy eating, and exercise habits.

Sociological methods are not only used to collect data but also to interpret and analyze it. Sociologists deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity to their research, working outside of their political or social agendas. While researchers have their own preferences and opinions, they use the scientific method to maintain objectivity, focus, and consistency in their studies.

Sociological methods provide a systematic and organized series of steps that ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring social problems. It provides accuracy, reliability, and validity in research. Overall, the scientific method offers a shared basis for discussion and analysis in sociological studies.

The scientific method begins with a series of steps, including asking a question, researching existing sources, and formulating a hypothesis. These steps allow sociologists to focus their research and develop a more comprehensive understanding of social issues.

Ask a Question

The initial step of the sociological method is to develop a research question, describe a problem, and identify a particular area of interest. The inquiry should be limited enough to study within a particular geographical and time frame yet broad enough to have universal relevance. For example, “How can social media influence self-esteem in adolescent girls?” would be a suitable research question. Sociologists consider all topics worthy of investigation, but they strive to frame questions in research terms that are precise, valid, and meaningful.

Defining terms is a crucial part of the process of developing research questions. Sociologists carefully define the terms they use to ensure clarity and consistency in their studies. In a study on social media’s influence on self-esteem in adolescent girls, for example, “self-esteem” might be operationalized as “the positive or negative assessment of one’s own worth or value in relation to others in a particular social context.” The researcher would ask, “How does social media use among adolescent girls affect their self-esteem, as operationalized by a scale that measures positive and negative self-evaluations?”

Developing an operational definition is the process of defining a concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps required to objectively measure it. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept, which allows researchers to collect data in a systematic and replicable manner. The operational definition should be valid, appropriate, and meaningful, as well as reliable, meaning that results will be close to uniform when tested on multiple occasions.

For example, in a study on the impact of parental involvement on children’s academic achievement, “parental involvement” could be operationalized as “the amount of time parents spend engaged in their children’s education at home, as measured by the number of hours per week they spend helping with homework, attending school events, and communicating with teachers.” This operational definition is both valid and reliable since the same definition can be used to collect data across multiple groups of parents.

Review the Literature

After formulating the research question and operationalizing the variables, the next step in the sociological method is to conduct a literature review. A literature review is a systematic and comprehensive search for relevant literature related to the topic of study. The purpose of a literature review is to familiarize the researcher with the existing knowledge and research on the topic and to identify any gaps in the literature that the current study can address.

To begin the literature review process, researchers can conduct a search of academic databases, such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, or PubMed, using relevant keywords and phrases. In addition to online sources, researchers can also visit their local library or university library to search for books, journals, and other relevant publications.

Once researchers have gathered a set of potential sources, they must carefully evaluate each source to determine its relevance and credibility. It is important to assess the quality of the study’s design and methodology, as well as the author’s credentials and potential biases. In addition to assessing the source’s quality, researchers should also identify key themes and concepts that emerge from the literature review.

By conducting a thorough literature review, researchers can position their own study within the context of previous research, building on prior knowledge and identifying gaps in the literature that their study can fill. Additionally, a literature review can help refine and improve the study’s design, ensuring that the research question is relevant and appropriately focused.

It is important to note that when researchers use existing sources, they must properly cite those sources. Citing sources is a fundamental component of academic research, allowing readers to locate and evaluate the evidence used to support the study’s findings. Improper citation or plagiarism, the act of using someone else’s work without giving proper credit, is a serious ethical violation in the academic community.

In the case of the hygiene study, a literature review might uncover studies on personal hygiene practices in different cultures, the psychological effects of poor hygiene, or the relationship between hygiene and social status. By reviewing existing literature, the researcher gains a deeper understanding of the topic, identifies gaps in the current knowledge, and positions the study to contribute to the field.

Formulate a Hypothesis

The scientific method is a process that sociologists use to study human behavior. Sociologists use a variety of methods, such as experiments, surveys, and field research, to study human interactions. Humans and their interactions are very complex and diverse, but scientific models are useful for studying human behavior because they establish clear parameters to ensure objective and accurate results.

The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. This method is defined by its commitment to the systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. The scientific method is a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.

Sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes. They might study environmental influences and patterns of behavior that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or illness. But sociological studies are not all focused on negative behaviors or challenging situations. Researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighborhood organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geography and time frame. For example, “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” is too narrow. In contrast, “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” is too broad. Sociologists define their terms carefully and operationalize the variables to ensure consistent and replicable data.

The next step is to conduct background research through a literature review. Researchers, including student researchers, are responsible for citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge.

A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related. In sociology, the hypothesis will often predict how one form of human behavior influences another. The independent variable is the cause of the change, while the dependent variable is the effect or thing that is changed. Researchers operationalize the variables to measure them and establish consistency and replicability in a study.

It is important to note that a hypothesis does not guarantee the study’s outcome. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns. Results may vary, and sociologists are interested in all outcomes. Once the hypothesis is established, the next research steps include designing and conducting a study and drawing conclusions.

Interpretive Frameworks

Sociologists often utilize the scientific method as a research approach, which involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. However, some sociologists approach research from an interpretive framework, which seeks to understand social worlds from the participant’s point of view. This approach focuses on in-depth knowledge and understanding rather than generalizable results.

Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. Unlike the scientific method, which typically involves formulating a hypothesis and a method for testing it, an interpretive researcher develops approaches to explore the topic at hand that may involve a significant amount of direct observation or interaction with subjects. This type of researcher learns as they proceed and sometimes adjusts the research methods or processes midway to optimize findings as they evolve.

The interpretive framework is particularly useful for studying complex social phenomena that cannot be easily quantified or measured. For example, understanding the experiences of individuals within a particular community or cultural group requires a deep understanding of the group’s shared beliefs, values, and norms. An interpretive researcher may conduct interviews or engage in participant observation to gain insights into these social worlds.

While the scientific method aims to establish objectivity and testable results, the interpretive perspective acknowledges that the researcher’s own values and biases may influence their observations and interpretations. As such, an interpretive researcher seeks to understand the subjective experiences of individuals and groups rather than simply measuring objective outcomes.

Overall, while the scientific method and the interpretive framework differ in their approaches to research, both are valuable tools for sociologists seeking to understand the complexities of human behavior and social interaction.


Sociologists use the sociological perspective and sociological methods to study all aspects of human behavior and understand our world. They use systematic research methods and either a scientific or interpretive approach to uncover insights into workplace patterns, family relationships, educational structures, and more. The sociological method involves empirical evidence and testing theories through systematic observation, measurement, and analysis. The interpretive framework focuses on understanding the subjective experiences of individuals and emphasizes the importance of context, culture, and social interaction. Through the use of these approaches, sociologists contribute to our understanding of society and its various components, such as environmental influences and patterns of behavior. The scientific method and the interpretive framework differ in their approaches to research, but both are valuable tools for sociologists seeking to understand human behavior and social interaction.

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Key Terms

Behavior, Complexity, Context, Critical thinking, Culture, Dependent variable, Empirical evidence, Generalizable results, Hypothesis, Independent variable, Interviews, Interpretive framework, Literature review, Logical reasoning, Objectivity, Operational definition, Participant observation, Qualitative research, Quantitative research, Reliability, Scientific method, Skepticism, Social phenomena, Sociological methods, Sociological perspective, Subjectivity, Systematic research, Validity

References and Further Reading 

Agresti, A., & Finlay, B. (2009). Statistical methods for the social sciences. Pearson.

Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. Doubleday.

Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (2007). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. Pearson.

Brym, R. J., & Lie, J. (2019). Sociology: Your compass for a new world. Cengage Learning.

Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods. Oxford University Press.

Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory. Sage.

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. Basic Books.

Giddens, A. (2013). Sociology. Polity.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor Books.

King, G., Keohane, R. O., & Verba, S. (1994). Designing social inquiry: Scientific inference in qualitative research. Princeton University Press.

Macionis, J. J. (2020). Sociology. Pearson.

Neuman, W. L. (2014). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Pearson.

Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice. Sage.

Schutt, R. K. (2018). Investigating the social world: The process and practice of research. Sage.

Learn More

On Other Sites

“Constructivism.” (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

“operational definition.” (n.d.). In A Dictionary of Sociology.

“Scientific Explanation.” (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Sociology.

Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/12/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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