Section 1.5: Social Research

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

***Section 1.5: Social Research is a DRAFT Version ***

Sociologists possess a natural curiosity about the world and its various social patterns, problems, and phenomena. They employ research methods to design studies that can help them investigate these issues and gather insightful data. Planning the research design is a crucial step in any sociological study, as it serves as a roadmap for conducting research and obtaining meaningful information (Bryman, 2016).

If a researcher were to enter a coffee shop and inform the employees that they would be observed as part of a study on work efficiency, the baristas might become self-conscious and not behave naturally. This phenomenon is known as the Hawthorne effect, where people alter their behavior because they are aware they are being observed as part of a study (Adair, 1984). The Hawthorne effect is sometimes unavoidable, particularly when it is necessary to disclose the study’s purpose. Consequently, subjects’ awareness of the study may introduce a certain degree of artificiality into the research findings.

However, making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always feasible for other reasons. For instance, researchers cannot simply walk into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Ku Klux Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviors. In such situations, alternative methods must be employed (Bryman, 2016). The chosen research design inevitably influences the study, while the study simultaneously shapes the research design. Researchers select methods that best align with their study topics and their overall research approaches.

When planning the design of a study, sociologists generally choose from four widely used methods of social investigation: surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data analysis (the use of existing sources) (Bryman, 2016).

Surveys: Surveys involve the collection of data from a sample of individuals, usually through questionnaires or interviews. They are useful for gathering information on attitudes, opinions, behaviors, and demographic characteristics. However, surveys may be limited by the quality of the questions and the accuracy of respondents’ self-reports (Fowler, 2013).

Field research: Field research entails observing and interacting with people in their natural environments. It can involve various techniques, such as participant observation, non-participant observation, and in-depth interviews. Field research allows for a rich understanding of social contexts and processes, but it may be time-consuming and challenging to generalize the findings to broader populations (Atkinson & Hammersley, 2007).

Experiments: Experiments involve the manipulation of an independent variable to examine its effect on a dependent variable, usually in a controlled setting. They can provide strong evidence for causal relationships, but their artificial settings may limit the external validity of the findings (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002).

Secondary data analysis: Secondary data analysis involves the use of existing data sources, such as official statistics, historical documents, or previously collected survey data. This method can be cost-effective and efficient, but the quality and relevance of the data may be limited by the original research design and data collection methods (Johnston, 2017).

Each research method has its benefits and drawbacks, and the topic of study heavily influences the method (or methods) employed by the researcher. A seasoned sociology professor would emphasize the importance of selecting the most appropriate research method for a given study, considering both the research question and the potential limitations of each method.

Surveys in Social Research

As a research method, surveys collect data from participants who answer a series of questions about their behaviors and opinions, often through a questionnaire (Bryman, 2016). Surveys are widely used in scientific research because they allow individuals to express their thoughts anonymously.

In the United States, many people respond to various types of surveys. The U.S. Census is an example of a large-scale survey that gathers sociological data. However, not all surveys are considered sociological research. Some surveys focus on identifying marketing needs and strategies rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing to social science knowledge.

Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys collect different types of information from people. Although surveys may not be great at capturing how people behave in social situations, they are excellent for discovering how people feel and think—or at least how they say they feel and think (Fowler, 2013).

A survey targets a specific group of people, called a population, such as college athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 diabetes. Researchers usually survey a smaller portion of the population, called a sample, which represents the larger population. The success of a study depends on how well the sample represents the entire population (Bryman, 2016).

In a random sample, every person in a population has an equal chance of being chosen for the study. Random samples represent the population as a whole, and the results can provide an accurate estimate of public opinion (Fowler, 2013).

After selecting participants, researchers develop a plan to ask questions and record responses. It is essential to inform participants about the nature and purpose of the study beforehand. If they agree to participate, researchers thank them and offer them a chance to see the study results if interested. Researchers present participants with an instrument, such as a questionnaire, to gather information.

Questionnaires may include yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing participants to choose possible responses to each question. This quantitative data—numerical information that can be counted—is easy to tabulate by counting responses and converting them into percentages (Bryman, 2016).

Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers. These answers are subjective and vary from person to person. These responses provide qualitative data—results that are subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting (Fowler, 2013). Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate, but it provides a wealth of material.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the participant, where the researcher asks a series of questions, and participants respond freely, without being limited by predetermined choices (Bryman, 2016). In an interview, a participant can clarify their answers, and the researcher can explore subtopics or ask additional questions.

In conclusion, survey research is a widely used method in sociology for collecting data on people’s behaviors, opinions, and attitudes. Researchers carefully select samples and use questionnaires or interviews to gather information from participants. Both quantitative and qualitative data can be collected, providing a comprehensive understanding of the population being studied.

Field Studies in Social Research

Sociology is a fascinating discipline that often takes researchers out of their offices and laboratories and into the real world to study people in their natural environments. This approach is called field research, which involves collecting primary data from natural settings without conducting lab experiments or surveys (Bryman, 2016). Field research aligns well with an interpretive framework, emphasizing the understanding of human behavior in specific social contexts. To carry out field research, sociologists need to be open to exploring new environments and immersing themselves in the lives and experiences of their subjects.

The process of field research requires researchers to interact with or observe individuals or groups of people while gathering data (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011). The critical aspect of field research is that it occurs in the subject’s natural environment, such as a coffee shop, tribal village, homeless shelter, hospital, airport, shopping mall, or beach resort. By observing people in their daily lives, sociologists can gain valuable insights into their behaviors, values, and beliefs.

Although field research often starts in a specific setting, its primary goal is to observe particular behaviors within that context. This research method is ideal for understanding how people behave in various situations (Bryman, 2016). However, it is less effective in determining why they behave in specific ways. In a natural environment, many variables can influence people’s actions, making it challenging to identify precise cause-and-effect relationships.

Much of the data collected in field research focuses on correlations – the relationships between two or more variables – rather than causation (Emerson et al., 2011). Due to the small sample sizes typically involved in field research, it is generally not possible to establish a causal relationship between variables. However, the identification of correlations can still provide valuable insights into the connections between people’s behaviors, social contexts, and other factors.

Field research can involve various methods, including participant observation, where the researcher actively participates in the subjects’ lives and activities (Bryman, 2016). This immersion allows the researcher to gain a deep understanding of the subjects’ experiences and perspectives. Another method is non-participant observation, where the sociologist observes the subjects without actively engaging with them (Emerson et al., 2011). This approach can help minimize the potential influence of the researcher’s presence on the subjects’ behavior, leading to more authentic observations.

In addition to observational methods, field researchers may also use in-depth interviews to gather more detailed information about the subjects’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations (Bryman, 2016). These interviews can provide valuable context and help researchers better understand the reasons behind people’s actions and decisions.

Field researchers must also consider ethical issues when conducting their studies. They must ensure that they respect the privacy, dignity, and autonomy of their subjects, obtaining informed consent when necessary and protecting the confidentiality of the information collected (Bryman, 2016). Additionally, researchers must be aware of their own biases and preconceptions and strive to remain objective and open-minded throughout the research process.

In conclusion, field research is a valuable approach in sociology that allows researchers to study people in their natural environments, providing rich insights into human behavior and social contexts. By utilizing various methods such as participant observation, non-participant observation, and in-depth interviews, sociologists can gather valuable data to better understand the complexities of human society. Although field research may not be ideal for establishing causal relationships, the identification of correlations and the in-depth exploration of social contexts can still contribute significantly to the advancement of sociological knowledge.

Participant Observation in Social Research

In the year 2000, a humorous writer named Rodney Rothman sought to gain an insider’s perspective on white-collar work. He secretly entered the high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency and pretended to work there for two weeks (Rothman, 2000). His primary goal was to see if anyone would notice or question his presence. Surprisingly, no one did. The receptionist greeted him, and the employees welcomed him. Rothman was accepted as a team member, even claiming a desk and attending a meeting. Although some details of his story were later discredited, and The New Yorker issued an apology, Rothman’s article provided an interesting glimpse into the inner workings of a “dot com” company (Rothman, 2000).

Rothman’s experiment is an example of a research method called participant observation, which is commonly used by sociologists (Bryman, 2016). In participant observation, researchers join a group of people and take part in their routine activities to observe them within their natural context (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011). This method allows researchers to experience specific aspects of social life and gain a deeper understanding of the group they are studying.

To conduct participant observation, a researcher might temporarily assume various roles and record their observations (Bryman, 2016). For instance, a researcher could work as a waiter in a restaurant, live as a homeless person for several weeks, or accompany police officers on their regular patrols. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study to maintain the authenticity of their observations (Emerson et al., 2011). They might not disclose their true identity or research purpose if they believe doing so would compromise the results of their research.

Participant observation can provide valuable insights into the social dynamics and behaviors of specific groups (Bryman, 2016). By immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects, researchers can gain firsthand knowledge of the group’s norms, values, and practices. Additionally, participant observation allows researchers to see things from the perspective of their subjects, fostering empathy and understanding.

However, participant observation also has its challenges and ethical considerations. Researchers must be mindful of the potential impact of their presence on the group’s behavior and strive to minimize any disruptions or influences (Emerson et al., 2011). They must also be aware of their own biases and preconceptions and endeavor to remain objective and open-minded throughout the research process. Moreover, researchers must ensure that they respect the privacy, dignity, and autonomy of their subjects, obtaining informed consent when necessary and protecting the confidentiality of the information collected (Bryman, 2016).

In conclusion, participant observation is a valuable research method in sociology, allowing researchers to immerse themselves in the lives of their subjects and gain a deeper understanding of social dynamics and behaviors. By carefully considering the ethical implications and challenges of this approach, sociologists can employ participant observation to contribute to the advancement of social knowledge.

Ethnography in Social Research

Ethnography is a research method that involves the in-depth observation of social perspectives and cultural values within a particular social setting (Geertz, 1973). Unlike other research methods, ethnographies focus on understanding an entire community, capturing the complex interplay of social relationships, beliefs, and practices that define the group (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 2011).

At the heart of an ethnographic study is the exploration of how individuals perceive their own social status and how they understand themselves in relation to their community (Geertz, 1973). Ethnographers might study diverse social settings such as a small fishing town in the United States, an Inuit community in the Arctic, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places have distinct boundaries, with people living, working, studying, or vacationing within them. Individuals in these settings behave according to specific cultural norms and expectations, which ethnographers seek to understand and document (Emerson et al., 2011).

To conduct an ethnographic study, a researcher commits to spending a predetermined amount of time observing every aspect of the chosen social setting, immersing themselves in the daily lives of the people they are studying (Geertz, 1973). This immersive approach allows the ethnographer to gain a comprehensive understanding of the community’s social dynamics, beliefs, and practices.

For example, a sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might observe how villagers go about their daily lives, noting their routines, rituals, and interactions with one another. Afterward, the researcher would write a paper detailing their observations and insights. Similarly, to study a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might register for a retreat and participate as a guest for an extended period. Throughout their stay, they would observe and record data on the center’s activities, practices, and social dynamics, later collating the material into a comprehensive analysis of the setting (Emerson et al., 2011).

Ethnographic research has several advantages, including the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of a specific social setting and the ability to capture the richness and complexity of human experiences (Geertz, 1973). However, this research method also presents challenges, such as the need to remain objective and avoid imposing one’s own cultural biases on the observed community (Emerson et al., 2011). Additionally, ethnographers must carefully consider ethical issues, such as maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of research subjects and obtaining informed consent when appropriate (Bryman, 2016).

n conclusion, ethnography is a valuable research method in sociology that allows researchers to immerse themselves in the social settings they study, providing deep insights into the cultural values and social perspectives of diverse communities. By carefully navigating the challenges and ethical considerations of this research method, sociologists can employ ethnography to contribute significantly to our understanding of human societies and cultures.


Sociologists also use experiments to test social theories, following a scientific approach to investigating relationships and testing hypotheses (Bryman, 2016). There are two main types of experiments in sociology: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments.

Lab-based experiments involve creating controlled environments where researchers can manipulate variables and observe the results (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). In these settings, researchers can collect more data in a short period, as they have control over the experimental conditions. On the other hand, natural or field experiments take place in real-world settings without interference from the researcher (Harrison & List, 2004). While data collection in these situations may be less controlled, the information gathered can be considered more accurate, as it reflects real-life experiences.

Both types of experiments are valuable for testing if-then statements, helping sociologists understand how one event or situation affects another. To set up a lab-based experiment, researchers create artificial situations that enable them to manipulate specific variables (Shadish et al., 2002). They typically select a group of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education, and divide them into two groups: the experimental group and the control group.

The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s), while the control group is not. For example, if a sociologist wanted to test the benefits of tutoring, they might provide tutoring to the experimental group of students but not the control group. Both groups would then be assessed for differences in performance to determine if tutoring had a significant effect on the experimental group.

However, it is essential to consider the ethical implications of such experiments. In the tutoring example, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the achievements of either group of students, so the experimental setting would need to be somewhat artificial. The test might not count toward the students’ permanent records, for example, to minimize potential harm (Bryman, 2016).

In conclusion, experiments are crucial tools for sociologists to test social theories and better understand the relationships between various factors in society. Both lab-based and natural or field experiments have their unique benefits and limitations, but together they offer valuable insights into the complex world of social interactions and relationships.

Secondary Data Analysis

As a seasoned sociology professor, I recognize the importance of secondary data analysis in our discipline. Secondary data analysis involves studying the completed work of other researchers rather than conducting original research from primary sources. Sociologists may examine writings by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists and search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines from any historical period (Johnston, 2017).

Using existing information saves time and money, and it can provide depth to a study. Sociologists often reinterpret findings in ways not initially intended by the original authors. For instance, to investigate how women were encouraged to behave in the 1960s, a researcher might watch movies, TV shows, and situation comedies from that era. Similarly, to explore changes in behavior and attitudes due to television’s emergence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data (Bryman, 2016).

Social scientists also learn by analyzing research from various agencies, such as governmental departments and global organizations like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the World Health Organization. Public statistics, like foreclosure rates, can be useful for studying the effects of the 2008 recession, and racial demographic profiles can be compared with education funding data to examine resources accessible to different groups (Mills, 2018).

A significant advantage of secondary data is that it constitutes nonreactive research, meaning it does not involve direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviors. Unlike studies requiring direct contact, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process (Johnston, 2017).

However, using available data has challenges. Public records are not always easily accessible, requiring researchers to invest time and effort to locate and gain access to them. Sociologists employ content analysis to guide their search through vast libraries of materials and systematically record and value information gleaned from secondary data as it relates to their study (Bryman, 2016).

In some cases, verifying the accuracy of existing data is impossible. For example, it is easy to count how many drunk drivers are pulled over by the police, but how many are not? While it is possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, determining the number who return to school or get their GED later might be more challenging (Mills, 2018).

Another issue arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not include the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, average salaries paid to professors at a public school may be public record, but the separate figures might not reveal how long it took each professor to reach their salary range, their educational backgrounds, or how long they have been teaching (Johnston, 2017).

When conducting content analysis, it is crucial to consider the publication date of an existing source and take into account attitudes and cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, published in the 1920s, reflect the attitudes and values of that time, which have changed significantly since then (Bryman, 2016).


Sociologists study social patterns, problems, and phenomena using various research methods, including surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data analysis. Each method has its advantages and limitations, and the research design plays a crucial role in guiding the study and obtaining meaningful information. The Hawthorne effect, where people change their behavior due to awareness of being observed, may introduce artificiality into research findings. Ultimately, sociologists choose research methods that best align with their study topics and approaches, considering both the research question and potential limitations.

Surveys are a popular research method in sociology, collecting data on behaviors, opinions, and attitudes through questionnaires or interviews. Researchers select representative samples from specific populations and obtain both quantitative and qualitative data, offering a comprehensive understanding of the studied population. Surveys enable anonymous responses and can provide insights into people’s thoughts and feelings.

Field research in sociology involves studying people in their natural environments, providing insights into human behavior and social contexts. Using methods like participant observation, non-participant observation, and in-depth interviews, researchers collect valuable data on correlations between variables. While not ideal for establishing causation, field research contributes significantly to sociological knowledge by exploring complex social contexts.

Participant observation is a sociological research method where researchers immerse themselves in a group’s activities to understand social dynamics and behaviors. This approach offers valuable insights and fosters empathy, but researchers must consider ethical implications, minimize disruptions, and remain objective. When used responsibly, participant observation contributes to social knowledge.

Ethnography is a research method in sociology that involves in-depth observation of social perspectives and cultural values within a particular social setting. This method allows researchers to understand an entire community and capture the complex interplay of social relationships, beliefs, and practices that define the group. To conduct ethnographic research, researchers immerse themselves in the daily lives of the people they are studying and gain a comprehensive understanding of the community’s social dynamics, beliefs, and practices. While ethnography offers the opportunity to gain a deep understanding of a specific social setting and capture the richness of human experiences, it also presents challenges and ethical considerations.

Secondary data analysis involves studying the completed work of other researchers rather than conducting original research. It can provide depth to a study and save time and money, but researchers must carefully navigate the challenges of verifying the accuracy of existing data and considering the publication date of the source. While it is a nonreactive form of research, using existing data has limitations, such as unavailable or incomplete data, and verifying the accuracy of existing data can be challenging.

Word Count:  4171

Key Terms

data, design studies, gather insightful data, investigate, meaningful information, natural curiosity, planning the research design, roadmap, social patterns, sociological study, sociologists, various social phenomena

References and Further Reading 

Adair, J. G. (1984). The Hawthorne effect: A reconsideration of the methodological artifact. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69(2), 334-345.

Atkinson, P., & Hammersley, M. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. Routledge.

Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13(4), 544-559.

Bryman, A. (2016). Social research methods (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (2011). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press.

Fowler, F. J. (2013). Survey research methods. Sage Publications.

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

Harrison, G. W., & List, J. A. (2004). Field experiments. Journal of Economic Literature, 42(4), 1009-1055.

Johnston, L. (2017). Secondary data analysis. In N. G. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The Sage handbook of online research methods (2nd ed., pp. 95-110). Sage Publications.

Johnston, L. (2017). Secondary data analysis. In A. Quan-Haase & L. Sloan (Eds.), The Sage handbook of social media research methods (pp. 250-263). Sage.

Mills, A. J. (2018). Secondary data analysis: A method of which the time has come. Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries, 3(3), 619-626.

Newton, M. (2002). Savage girls and wild boys: A history of feral children. Thomas Dunne Books.

Rothman, R. (2000). My fake job. The New Yorker.

Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (2002). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Yin, R. K. (2018). Case study research and applications: Design and methods. SAGE Publications.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2), 219-245.

Learn More

On Other Sites

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

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

“Observation, Participant.” (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

“Participant Observation.” (n.d.). In A Dictionary of Sociology.

“Survey Research.” (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Sociology.

“Validity, Statistical.” (n.d.). In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences.

Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  05/12/2023

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