Sociological Research: Approaches & Designs

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  • 0:01 Sociology and Research
  • 0:39 Social Science
  • 2:28 Research
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the ways that sociologists actually conduct their research and discover how something complex can be studied using numbers and other methods. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Sociology and Research

How do you research a society? This is a big question, and one that concerns many academics. One answer lies in sociology, the study of human social behavior and societies. Sociologists study how humans publicly interact with each other and with their society. As social creatures, we are very greatly influenced by our social surroundings.

In fact, sociologists argue that all human actions are based on a mixture of your genetic personality and social influences. This is cool, but how do we research it? Well, sociologists have come up with some pretty good techniques.

Social Science

Sociology is a social science, meaning it believes that scientific methods of experimentation can be applied to social research. The foundation of this is the adherence to empirical research, or research that can be tested in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis. All good science is based on this style of research.

For example, a chemist may hypothesize that mixing two chemicals will explode when mixed together. The chemist can then test that hypothesis with an experiment, although that one might get messy. Social scientists use this same style of research. They create theories and hypotheses about how or why people interact in certain ways, then test those theories with carefully crafted experiments that collect analyzable data.

Sociologists are very specific about using scientific methods in their research. In fact, the main founder of sociology, Émile Durkheim, even claimed that the social sciences were the logical continuation of the natural sciences into the realm of human activity. Still, there are some important differences between social science and natural science.

In natural science, researchers can create laws, a universal generalization, such as the law that gravity will work the same everywhere. Because humans are so diverse, there are no laws in the social sciences. People change over times and cultures, so no universal claims can be made.

Additionally, social scientists have unique concerns about ethics, due to the fact that they are researching actual human beings, not molecules or chemicals, which don't have feelings. The most basic principles of sociological ethics are that individuals should be respected as intelligent people, that subjects should be protected from harm, and that the benefits of research should be distributed fairly.


Sociological research is divided into two primary categories. Quantitative research uses data discovered through mathematical or statistical analysis. In short, evidence that can be plugged into a formula. The best way to remember this is to think of quantitative research as research of quantities, or numbers.

The first step in this style of research is collecting numerical data. Our behaviors actually create many sets of numbers. How many times do you shake hands in a day? How much do you spend per year? How far do you travel to work or school? These are numerical sets of data that can be analyzed through various statistical methods.

Cluster analysis looks for sets of common numerical trends. Correlation explores multiple sets of data to see how one affects the other. Social network analysis uses statistics to examine the relations between people and creates maps of social groups. Pretty cool, huh?

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