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Research Topics & Ideas: Sociology

50 Topic Ideas To Kickstart Your Research Project

Research topics and ideas about sociology

If you’re just starting out exploring sociology-related topics for your dissertation, thesis or research project, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll help kickstart your research by providing a hearty list of research ideas , including real-world examples from recent sociological studies.

PS – This is just the start…

We know it’s exciting to run through a list of research topics, but please keep in mind that this list is just a starting point . These topic ideas provided here are intentionally broad and generic , so keep in mind that you will need to develop them further. Nevertheless, they should inspire some ideas for your project.

To develop a suitable research topic, you’ll need to identify a clear and convincing research gap , and a viable plan to fill that gap. If this sounds foreign to you, check out our free research topic webinar that explores how to find and refine a high-quality research topic, from scratch. Alternatively, consider our 1-on-1 coaching service .

Research topic idea mega list

Sociology-Related Research Topics

  • Analyzing the social impact of income inequality on urban gentrification.
  • Investigating the effects of social media on family dynamics in the digital age.
  • The role of cultural factors in shaping dietary habits among different ethnic groups.
  • Analyzing the impact of globalization on indigenous communities.
  • Investigating the sociological factors behind the rise of populist politics in Europe.
  • The effect of neighborhood environment on adolescent development and behavior.
  • Analyzing the social implications of artificial intelligence on workforce dynamics.
  • Investigating the impact of urbanization on traditional social structures.
  • The role of religion in shaping social attitudes towards LGBTQ+ rights.
  • Analyzing the sociological aspects of mental health stigma in the workplace.
  • Investigating the impact of migration on family structures in immigrant communities.
  • The effect of economic recessions on social class mobility.
  • Analyzing the role of social networks in the spread of disinformation.
  • Investigating the societal response to climate change and environmental crises.
  • The role of media representation in shaping public perceptions of crime.
  • Analyzing the sociocultural factors influencing consumer behavior.
  • Investigating the social dynamics of multigenerational households.
  • The impact of educational policies on social inequality.
  • Analyzing the social determinants of health disparities in urban areas.
  • Investigating the effects of urban green spaces on community well-being.
  • The role of social movements in shaping public policy.
  • Analyzing the impact of social welfare systems on poverty alleviation.
  • Investigating the sociological aspects of aging populations in developed countries.
  • The role of community engagement in local governance.
  • Analyzing the social effects of mass surveillance technologies.

Research topic evaluator

Sociology Research Ideas (Continued)

  • Investigating the impact of gentrification on small businesses and local economies.
  • The role of cultural festivals in fostering community cohesion.
  • Analyzing the societal impacts of long-term unemployment.
  • Investigating the role of education in cultural integration processes.
  • The impact of social media on youth identity and self-expression.
  • Analyzing the sociological factors influencing drug abuse and addiction.
  • Investigating the role of urban planning in promoting social integration.
  • The impact of tourism on local communities and cultural preservation.
  • Analyzing the social dynamics of protest movements and civil unrest.
  • Investigating the role of language in cultural identity and social cohesion.
  • The impact of international trade policies on local labor markets.
  • Analyzing the role of sports in promoting social inclusion and community development.
  • Investigating the impact of housing policies on homelessness.
  • The role of public transport systems in shaping urban social life.
  • Analyzing the social consequences of technological disruption in traditional industries.
  • Investigating the sociological implications of telecommuting and remote work trends.
  • The impact of social policies on gender equality and women’s rights.
  • Analyzing the role of social entrepreneurship in addressing societal challenges.
  • Investigating the effects of urban renewal projects on community identity.
  • The role of public art in urban regeneration and social commentary.
  • Analyzing the impact of cultural diversity on education systems.
  • Investigating the sociological factors driving political apathy among young adults.
  • The role of community-based organizations in addressing urban poverty.
  • Analyzing the social impacts of large-scale sporting events on host cities.
  • Investigating the sociological dimensions of food insecurity in affluent societies.

Recent Studies & Publications: Sociology

While the ideas we’ve presented above are a decent starting point for finding a research topic, they are fairly generic and non-specific. So, it helps to look at actual sociology-related studies to see how this all comes together in practice.

Below, we’ve included a selection of recent studies to help refine your thinking. These are actual studies,  so they can provide some useful insight as to what a research topic looks like in practice.

  • Social system learning process (Subekti et al., 2022)
  • Sociography: Writing Differently (Kilby & Gilloch, 2022)
  • The Future of ‘Digital Research’ (Cipolla, 2022).
  • A sociological approach of literature in Leo N. Tolstoy’s short story God Sees the Truth, But Waits (Larasati & Irmawati, 2022)
  • Teaching methods of sociology research and social work to students at Vietnam Trade Union University (Huu, 2022)
  • Ideology and the New Social Movements (Scott, 2023)
  • The sociological craft through the lens of theatre (Holgersson, 2022).
  • An Essay on Sociological Thinking, Sociological Thought and the Relationship of a Sociologist (Sönmez & Sucu, 2022)
  • How Can Theories Represent Social Phenomena? (Fuhse, 2022)
  • Hyperscanning and the Future of Neurosociology (TenHouten et al., 2022)
  • Sociology of Wisdom: The Present and Perspectives (Jijyan et al., 2022). Collective Memory (Halbwachs & Coser, 2022)
  • Sociology as a scientific discipline: the post-positivist conception of J. Alexander and P. Kolomi (Vorona, 2022)
  • Murder by Usury and Organised Denial: A critical realist perspective on the liberating paradigm shift from psychopathic dominance towards human civilisation (Priels, 2022)
  • Analysis of Corruption Justice In The Perspective of Legal Sociology (Hayfa & Kansil, 2023)
  • Contributions to the Study of Sociology of Education: Classical Authors (Quentin & Sophie, 2022)
  • Inequality without Groups: Contemporary Theories of Categories, Intersectional Typicality, and the Disaggregation of Difference (Monk, 2022)

As you can see, these research topics are a lot more focused than the generic topic ideas we presented earlier. So, for you to develop a high-quality research topic, you’ll need to get specific and laser-focused on a specific context with specific variables of interest.  In the video below, we explore some other important things you’ll need to consider when crafting your research topic.

Get 1-On-1 Help

If you’re still unsure about how to find a quality research topic, check out our Research Topic Kickstarter service, which is the perfect starting point for developing a unique, well-justified research topic.

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Berkeley Graduate Division

  • Basics for GSIs
  • Advancing Your Skills

Sociology 190 Research Assignment

by Sarah Macdonald, Sociology

Context Assignment 1: Paper Proposal Assignment 2: Literature Review Assignment 3: Abstract and Outline Assignment 4: Research Presentation Assignment 5: Final Paper

Sociology 190 is a senior capstone course in which students engage in small seminar discussions of a particular topic. In my section of Soc 190, Transnational Adoption from a Sociological Perspective , I paired in-depth discussions on the topic of adoption with a semester-long research project — each student designed a research question, collected data, and wrote up a 15–20-page research paper on a topic of their choice. I knew that because the research paper seemed overwhelming to my students, they would need guidance and feedback throughout the process. In designing my syllabus and assignments I consulted with syllabi from others in my department that had previously taught similar courses. The resulting assignments are included in this section.

In the process of setting the assignments I learned that students needed very explicit instructions on the format of a formal research paper, the opportunity to discuss their progress frequently in class, and structured opportunities to learn about how to do sociological research. Throughout the semester we had discussions, both as a large group and in smaller groups, about the students’ progress on their projects, which allowed students a chance to receive feedback more often than I was able to give in writing. We also had several formal opportunities to learn about research, for example when I gave presentations to the students on research methods, or when we had a guest speaker talk about their research, or when students had a session with a subject-specific librarian to learn about how to locate secondary sources. Each assignment then served as a research milestone where students got formal feedback from me about their progress. Before each assignment we had in-depth discussions of how to formulate the different components of a research paper, so the assignments include detailed lists of the parts we had already discussed in class. We ended the semester with a mini research conference where students presented their arguments to their peers and received feedback. They then used this feedback and my feedback on the smaller assignments to produce their final research papers.

Assignment 1: Paper Proposal

Paper proposal.

In no more than 2 double-spaced pages (Times New Roman, size 12 font, one-inch margins) you will:

  • Briefly describe and explain your research topic and its importance. You should describe why you think this topic is particularly relevant to our course and why it is an important area of study.
  • Clearly present and explain your central research question.
  • Identify your data source and method of analysis. How will you collect data and what will you do with the data?
  • Explain why these sources of data are appropriate for your research question and how they will help you to answer your question.

Choosing a Research Topic and Question

Your research topic and question must relate to the topic of transnational adoption, but beyond this requirement there are no limitations on the topic that you choose. I recommend that you look through the topics in the syllabus to help you to begin to determine what you are most interested in studying. In addition, the reading entitled “International Adoption: A Sociological Account of the US Experience” (Engel et al., 2007) [1] , should help you to understand the various topics related to transnational adoption that are of particular concern to sociologists.

Choosing a Data Source

Once you have identified your research question, you must choose one of the research methods listed below that will be most appropriate for answering your question.

  • In-depth Interviews : You must conduct 3 to 5 in-depth interviews (lasting at least 45 minutes each) with individuals.
  • Textual Analysis : You can choose to analyze a set of written or visual texts (books, newspaper articles, news stories, images, films, court documents, government proceedings, etc.). You must choose at least three texts to analyze and may need to choose several texts depending on the types of texts you are analyzing.
  • Participant Observation : Spend 5 to 10 hours observing social interaction at a relevant research site. If you decide to do this you must get advance permission from the organization and/or individuals before conducting your observation.
  • Quantitative Analysis : You can complete a basic statistical analysis of a data set. You can either use an existing data set or design your own survey and distribute it to at least 30 people to create your own dataset.

[1] Engel, Madeline, Norma K. Phillips, and Frances A. Dellacava (2007). “International Adoption: A Sociological Account of the US Experience.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 27: 257–270.

Assignment 2: Literature Review

For this assignment you will submit a review of current literature on your topic that will:

  • Summarize and synthesize 5 to 10 sources (books or journal articles, not websites or news stories) that are not included in course readings. This means that you should not simply provide summaries of the sources, but should explain how they relate to each other (synthesize how they draw on similar theories, come to similar conclusions, etc.) and/or offer a critique of their content that is relevant to your own research. You may also choose to cite course readings; in fact, I encourage you to do so, but you must cite at least 5 additional sources.
  • Explain how your research project is likely to challenge, confirm, complicate, or contribute to existing work on your topic. You must make an argument for what your research will add to literature that already exists on the topic.

The literature review should be 4 to 5 double-spaced pages, size 12 Times New Roman font, one-inch margins.

Additional tips for writing your literature review:

  • Do not just choose the first 5 sources that you find; make sure that they are relevant to your research question and topic.
  • Think about the literature review as a window into a conversation between researchers about your topic. You’ll want to explain what they have already found out about the topic and then you’ll want to make a strong case for how your research is adding to the conversation.
  • Keep your summaries of the articles or books concise and relevant. You don’t need to summarize their entire argument, you just need to give us an idea of what parts are particularly pertinent to your own research.
  • The format of your literature review should not just be a list of summaries. Instead you will want to identify some way in which the previous literature has fallen short and has not considered the question that you are interested in studying. This takes quite a bit of work in most cases and will mean that you will have to explain clearly how your research will challenge, confirm, complicate, or contribute to existing work on the topic.
  • Edit, edit, edit. You should spend a fair amount of time putting this together and editing as much as possible. If you do a really good job on this portion, it’s likely you’ll be able to paste it into your final paper with minimal changes! Take it very seriously.
  • You must use the American Sociological Association’s Style Guide to format your citations. If you use Zotero, it will do it for you automatically. Make sure your in-text citations are also properly formatted. The ASA Style Guide is posted on our course site.

Assignment 3: Abstract and Outline

Part one: abstract.

For this assignment you will write an abstract of no more than 500 words that details the argument you will make in your final paper. The abstract should have the following components:

  • Research Question:  1 or 2 sentences describing your topic or research question; this doesn’t need to be in question form.
  • Contribution: A statement that explains what empirical or theoretical contribution your research makes to existing literature.
  • Methods and Data: An explanation of no more than 1 sentence that explains your methods, i.e., how you collected data to answer your research question.
  • Findings: A few sentences that describe the main argument you will make in your paper and what you found as a result of doing your research. It is okay if you haven’t yet finished your research and these findings are only preliminary.
  • Concluding Statement/Implications: You will want to include at least 1 sentence that connects back to the problem that you identified at the beginning and that explains any important implications of your research.

Note: The abstract should not include any citations.

Grading: Your grade will be based on the organization and coherence of your writing, the inclusion of all aspects detailed above, and especially on the clarity, feasibility, and appropriateness of the argument that you plan to make in your final paper.

Part Two: Paper Outline

For this assignment you will write an outline of your final paper that details each of the sections of the paper and the overall argument that you will make in each section. The outline can be as long as you would like, but cannot exceed 5 single-spaced pages, size 12 font, one-inch margins. I recommend that you include as much detail as possible as this will be your last formal opportunity to receive feedback from me.

Please label all sections. For each section you will include a brief paragraph (2–3 sentences) that outlines what you will argue/explain in that section. Then you will outline each paragraph or part of that section (please use the numerical outlining function in Word; you may also use bullet points where necessary). The outline should be as detailed as possible and should include quotations, examples from your research, data that supports your points, etc. You should include the following sections:

  • Abstract: A revised abstract for the paper that is no longer than 250 words. This means you may have to substantially cut down the abstract that you handed in for the previous assignment.
  • Introduction: This section should contain the argument you will make in the paper, your specific research question, any background necessary for the reader, and a short introductory explanation of why your topic is sociologically relevant and interesting and how it contributes to existing literature.
  • Literature Review: This section should contain a summary and synthesis of existing research related to your topic and an explanation of how your topic contributes to existing research, either theoretically or empirically.
  • Methods: This section will describe the research method(s) you used to answer your question and why the method(s) was (were) appropriate for helping you to answer your research question. You should include the specifics of what exactly you did, for example: How many people did you interview? How many surveys did you post? How many people responded? How did you contact the people that were included in your study? If you did textual analysis, how did you select the texts that you analyzed? Why? How did you go about analyzing them? Include as much detail as possible.
  • Findings: This is the section where you will make the central argument of your paper. You will explain the answer to your research question. If you are making your argument in several parts or sections, make sure to include those sections in the outline. The outline for the findings section should show me, in a very detailed way, what the argument is that you are making and how you expect to make the argument. It should include support from your research (quotes, percentages, or whatever other type of data you will use to support your argument).
  • Discussion and Conclusion: In this section you will summarize the argument that you make in the paper and you will reiterate how your findings confirmed or challenged (or both) the findings from the research that you outlined in the literature review. You will explain how your findings contribute to existing literature. You may also suggest questions that still need to be answered and suggestions for further research that should be done on your topic.

Assignment 4: Research Presentation

For this assignment you will prepare a very brief presentation of your research for the class. The purposes of this assignment are: a) to learn about the research that students have done as part of this class, b) to have the opportunity to give feedback and suggestions to other students, c) to discuss several topics related to transnational adoption using the foundational knowledge you have gained this semester.

Guidelines for your presentation:

  • Your presentation should be about 5 minutes . Please practice ahead of time so that you can make sure that you can fit what you want to say in this time period.
  • You should briefly explain your research question, your method, and your most interesting finding. In your presentation you should make some connection back to the topics and/or readings that we have discussed in this class — you can either connect your finding to course material or explain how your research contributes to the literature we have read together as part of this course.
  • After your presentation the class will ask questions of you and your panel. Please come prepared to talk in depth about your research and to answer questions about the research process, your findings, how the findings relate to the course, what contribution you are making to the existing literature on your topic, etc.

Grading: You will be graded on your ability to clearly and concisely present your research, the connections that you make between your research and course material, and your engagement in a discussion about your topic with other students in the class during the Q&A period.

Assignment 5: Final Paper

For this assignment you will draw on the research proposal, literature review, abstract, paper outline, and the data you have collected through your research to write a polished research paper on your topic. The paper must be 15–20 pages, size 12 Times New Roman font, one-inch margins. Please note that your bibliography/works cited and any appendices you choose to include will not be counted in the 15-page minimum.

Required Components for the Final Paper:

Please make sure to label each section with either a section title (e.g., literature review) or a title that communicates the content of the section (e.g., previous research on culture keeping).

  • Cover Page: The first page of your paper should be a cover sheet that includes a title that communicates the content of your paper, your name, date, title of the class, and any other information you feel is necessary.
  • Abstract (∼250 words): A revised abstract for the paper that is no longer than 250 words. This means you may have to substantially cut down the abstract that you handed in for the previous assignment. It should be single-spaced and should be placed immediately preceding the introduction.
  • Introduction (1 – 3 pages): This section should contain the argument you will make in the paper, your specific research question, any background necessary for the reader (e.g., historical context), and a short introductory explanation of why your topic is sociologically relevant and interesting, and how it contributes to existing literature.
  • Literature Review (4–6 pages): This section should contain a summary and synthesis of existing research related to your topic and an explanation of how your topic contributes to existing research, either theoretically or empirically.
  • Methods (1–2 pages): This section will describe the research method(s) you used to answer your question and why the method(s) was (were) appropriate for helping you to answer your research question. You should include the specifics of what exactly you did, for example: How many people did you interview? How many surveys did you post? How many people responded? How did you contact the people that were included in your study? If you did textual analysis, how did you select the texts that you analyzed? Why? How did you go about analyzing them? Include as much detail as possible. You should also explain why your sample is likely not representative of the general population you are studying and what biases are present as a result of your research design.
  • Findings (7+ pages): This is the section where you will make the central argument of your paper. You will explain the answer to your research question. It should include support from your research (quotes, percentages, or whatever other type of data you will use to support your argument). You may choose to divide this section into sub-sections, but each sub-section should have a clear title. Make sure that you are making an argument and that each paragraph in this section connects back to your central argument.
  • Discussion and Conclusion (2+ pages): In this section you will summarize the argument that you have made in the paper and you will reiterate how your findings confirmed or challenged (or both) the findings from the research that you outlined in the literature review. You will explain how your findings contribute to existing literature. You may also suggest questions that still need to be answered and suggestions for further research that should be done on your topic.
  • Appendices: If you did interviews or a survey you must include an appendix with your questions. You should refer to the appendix in the methods section. You can also include appendices with additional information (e.g., coding, statistics) if you feel that it is necessary. The appendices do not count in the page count.
  • Bibliography/Citations: Remember that you must cite at least ten sources in your paper. While many of these will likely be in the literature review, you should also cite where necessary in the other sections of the paper. At least 5 sources must come from readings that were not included in the course syllabus. All parenthetical citations and the works cited/bibliography page must be in ASA format. Formatting instructions are posted on our course website.

In writing this paper please make sure to look back over your previous assignments at my comments and to incorporate changes into your final paper. You are welcome to use any part of your previous assignments verbatim, but I urge you to edit carefully. This paper should be a polished, final paper and not a draft. This means that you will need to finish the paper in advance of the deadline to allow ample time for editing.

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2.2 Stages in the Sociological Research Process

Learning objectives.

  • List the major stages of the sociological research process.
  • Describe the different types of units of analysis in sociology.
  • Explain the difference between an independent variable and a dependent variable.

Sociological research consists of several stages. The researcher must first choose a topic to investigate and then become familiar with prior research on the topic. Once appropriate data are gathered and analyzed, the researcher can then draw appropriate conclusions. This section discusses these various stages of the research process.

Choosing a Research Topic

The first step in the research process is choosing a topic. There are countless topics from which to choose, so how does a researcher go about choosing one? Many sociologists choose a topic based on a theoretical interest they may have. For example, Émile Durkheim’s interest in the importance of social integration motivated his monumental study of suicide that Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” discussed. Many sociologists since the 1970s have had a theoretical interest in gender, and this interest has motivated a huge volume of research on the difference that gender makes for behavior, attitudes, and life chances. The link between theory and research lies at the heart of the sociological research process, as it does for other social, natural, and physical sciences. Accordingly, this book discusses many examples of studies motivated by sociologists’ varied theoretical interests.

Two sociologists laughing together

Many sociologists, such as the two pictured here, have a theoretical interest in gender that leads them to investigate the importance of gender for many aspects of the social world.

Francisco Osorio – CL Society 31: Sociologists – CC BY 2.0.

Many sociologists also choose a topic based on a social policy interest they may have. For example, sociologists concerned about poverty have investigated its effects on individuals’ health, educational attainment, and other outcomes during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Sociologists concerned about racial prejudice and discrimination have carried out many studies documenting their negative consequences for people of color. As Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” discussed and as this book emphasizes, the roots of sociology in the United States lie in the use of sociological knowledge to achieve social reform, and many sociologists today continue to engage in numerous research projects because of their social policy interests. The news story that began this chapter discussed an important example of this type of research. The “Sociology Making a Difference” box further discusses research of this type.

Sociology Making a Difference

Survey Research to Help the Poor

The Community Service Society (CSS) of New York City is a nonprofit organization that, according to its Web site ( http://www.cssny.org ), “engages in advocacy, research and direct service” to help low-income residents of the city. It was established about 160 years ago and has made many notable accomplishments over the years, including aiding the victims of the Titanic disaster in 1912, helping initiate the free school lunch program that is now found around the United States, and establishing the largest senior volunteer program in the nation.

A key component of the CSS’s efforts today involves gathering much information about the lives of poor New Yorkers through an annual survey of random samples of these residents. Because the needs of the poor are so often neglected and their voices so often unheard, the CSS calls this effort the Unheard Third survey, as the poor represent about one-third of the New York City population. The Unheard Third survey asks respondents their opinions about many issues affecting their lives and also asks them many questions about such matters as their health and health care needs, employment status and job satisfaction, debt, and housing. The CSS then uses all this information in reports about the needs of the poor and near-poor in New York that it prepares for city and state officials, the news media, and key individuals in the private sector. In these ways, the CSS uses survey research in the service of society. As its Web site ( http://www.cssny.org/research ) states, “research is a critical tool we use to increase our understanding of conditions that drive poverty as we advocate for public policy and programs that will improve the economic standing of low-income New Yorkers.”

A third source of inspiration for research topics is personal experience . Like other social scientists (and probably also natural and physical scientists), many sociologists have had various experiences during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood that lead them to study a topic from a sociological standpoint. For example, a sociologist whose parents divorced while the sociologist was in high school may become interested in studying the effects of divorce on children. A sociologist who was arrested during college for a political protest may become interested in studying how effective protest might be for achieving the aims of a social movement. A sociologist who acted in high school plays may choose a dissertation during graduate school that focuses on a topic involving social interaction. Although the exact number will never be known, many research studies in sociology are undoubtedly first conceived because personal experience led the author to become interested in the theory or social policy addressed by the study.

Conducting a Literature Review

Whatever topic is chosen, the next stage in the research process is a review of the literature. A researcher who begins a new project typically reads a good number of studies that have already been published on the topic that the researcher wants to investigate. In sociology, most of these studies are published in journals, but many are also published as books. The government and private research organizations also publish reports that researchers consult for their literature reviews.

Regardless of the type of published study, a literature review has several goals. First, the researcher needs to determine that the study she or he has in mind has not already been done. Second, the researcher needs to determine how the proposed study will add to what is known about the topic of the study. How will the study add to theoretical knowledge of the topic? How will the study improve on the methodology of earlier studies? How will the study aid social policy related to the topic? Typically, a research project must answer at least one of these questions satisfactorily for it to have a chance of publication in a scholarly journal, and a thorough literature review is necessary to determine the new study’s possible contribution. A third goal of a literature review is to see how prior studies were conducted. What research design did they use? From where did their data come? How did they measure key concepts and variables? A thorough literature review enhances the methodology of the researcher’s new study and enables the researcher to correct any possible deficiencies in the methodology of prior studies.

In “the old days,” researchers would conduct a literature review primarily by going to an academic library, consulting a printed index of academic journals, trudging through shelf after shelf of printed journals, and photocopying articles they found or taking notes on index cards. Those days are long gone, and thankfully so. Now researchers use any number of electronic indexes and read journal articles online or download a PDF version to read later. Literature reviews are still a lot of work, but the time they take is immeasurably shorter than just a decade ago.

Formulating a Hypothesis

After the literature review has been completed, it is time to formulate the hypothesis that will guide the study. As you might remember from a science class, a hypothesis is a statement of the relationship between two variables concerning the units of analysis the researcher is studying. To understand this definition, we must next define variable and unit of analysis . Let’s start with unit of analysis , which refers to the type of entity a researcher is studying. As we discuss further in a moment, the most common unit of analysis in sociology is a person, but other units of analysis include organizations and geographical locations. A variable is any feature or factor that may differ among the units of analysis that a researcher is studying. Key variables in sociological studies of people as the units of analysis include gender, race and ethnicity, social class, age, and any number of attitudes and behaviors. Whatever unit of analysis is being studied, sociological research aims to test relationships between variables or, more precisely, to test whether one variable affects another variable, and a hypothesis outlines the nature of the relationship that is to be tested.

Suppose we want to test the hypothesis that women were more likely than men to have voted for Obama in 2008. The first variable in this hypothesis is gender, whether someone is a woman or a man. (As Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality” discusses, gender is actually more complex than this, but let’s keep things simple for now.) The second variable is voting preference—for example, whether someone voted for Obama or McCain. In this example, gender is the independent variable and voting preference is the dependent variable. An independent variable is a variable we think can affect another variable. This other variable is the dependent variable , or the variable we think is affected by the independent variable (see Figure 2.3 “Causal Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable” ). When sociological research tests relationships between variables, it normally is testing whether an independent variable affects a dependent variable.

Figure 2.3 Causal Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable

Casual Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable goes from independent to dependent

Many hypotheses in sociology involve variables concerning people, but many also involve variables concerning organizations and geographical locations. As this statement is meant to suggest, sociological research is conducted at different levels, depending on the unit of analysis chosen. As noted earlier, the most common unit of analysis in sociology is the person ; this is probably the type of research with which you are most familiar. If we conduct a national poll to see how gender influences voting decisions or how race influences views on the state of the economy, we are studying characteristics, or variables, involving people, and the person is the unit of analysis. Another common unit of analysis in sociology is the organization . Suppose we conduct a study of hospitals to see whether the patient-to-nurse ratio (the number of patients divided by the number of nurses) is related to the average number of days that patients stay in the hospital. In this example, the patient-to-nurse ratio and the average number of days patients stay are both characteristics of the hospital, and the hospital is the unit of analysis. A third unit of analysis in sociology is the geographical location , whether it is cities, states, regions of a country, or whole societies. In the United States, for example, large cities generally have higher violent crime rates than small cities. In this example, the city is the unit of analysis.

The US separated into sections: west, south, midwest, and northeast

One of the units of analysis in sociological research is the geographical location. The major regions of the United States are often compared on various characteristics. In one notable finding, the South has the highest regional homicide rate.

Source: Adapted from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blank_US_Map.svg .

Measuring Variables and Gathering Data

After the hypothesis has been formulated, the sociologist is now ready to begin the actual research. Data must be gathered via one or more of the research designs examined later in this chapter, and variables must be measured. Data can either be quantitative (numerical) or qualitative (nonnumerical). Data gathered through a questionnaire are usually quantitative. The answers a respondent gives to a questionnaire are coded for computer analysis. For example, if a question asks whether respondents consider themselves to be politically conservative, moderate, or liberal, those who answer “conservative” might receive a “1” for computer analysis; those who choose “moderate” might receive a “2”; and those who say “liberal” might receive a “3.”

Data gathered through observation and/or intensive interviewing, research designs discussed later in this chapter, are usually qualitative. If a researcher interviews college students at length to see what they think about dating violence and how seriously they regard it, the researcher may make simple comparisons, such as “most” of the interviewed students take dating violence very seriously, but without really statistically analyzing the in-depth responses from such a study. Instead, the goal is to make sense of what the researcher observes or of the in-depth statements that people provide to an interviewer and then to relate the major findings to the hypothesis or topic the researcher is investigating.

The measurement of variables is a complex topic and lies far beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that accurate measurement of variables is essential in any research project. In a questionnaire, for example, a question should be worded clearly and unambiguously. Take the following question, which has appeared in national surveys: “Do you ever drink more than you think you should?” This question is probably meant to measure whether the respondent has an alcohol problem. But some respondents might answer yes to this question even if they only have a few drinks per year if, for example, they come from a religious background that frowns on alcohol use; conversely, some respondents who drink far too much might answer no because they do not think they drink too much. A researcher who interpreted a yes response from the former respondents as an indicator of an alcohol problem or a no response from the latter respondents as an indicator of no alcohol problem would be in error.

As another example, suppose a researcher hypothesizes that younger couples are happier than older couples. Instead of asking couples how happy they are through a questionnaire, the researcher decides to observe couples as they walk through a shopping mall. Some interesting questions of measurement arise in this study. First, how does the researcher know who is a couple? Second, how sure can the researcher be of the approximate age of each person in the couple? The researcher might be able to distinguish people in their 20s or early 30s from those in their 50s and 60s, but age measurement beyond this gross comparison might often be in error. Third, how sure can the researcher be of the couple’s degree of happiness? Is it really possible to determine how happy a couple is by watching them for a few moments in the mall? What exactly does being happy look like, and do all people look this way when they are happy? These and other measurement problems in this particular study might be so severe that the study should not be done, at least if the researcher hopes to publish it.

After any measurement issues have been resolved, it is time to gather the data. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the unit of analysis is the person. A researcher who is doing a study “from scratch” must decide which people to study. Because it is certainly impossible to study everybody, the researcher only studies a sample , or subset of the population of people in whom the researcher is interested. Depending on the purpose of the study, the population of interest varies widely: it can be the adult population of the United States, the adult population of a particular state or city, all young women aged 13–18 in the nation, or countless other variations.

Many researchers who do survey research (discussed in a later section) study people selected for a random sample of the population of interest. In a random sample, everyone in the population (whether it be the whole U.S. population or just the population of a state or city, all the college students in a state or city or all the students at just one college, and so forth) has the same chance of being included in the survey. The ways in which random samples are chosen are too complex to fully discuss here, but suffice it to say the methods used to determine who is in the sample are equivalent to flipping a coin or rolling some dice. The beauty of a random sample is that it allows us to generalize the results of the sample to the population from which the sample comes. This means that we can be fairly sure of the attitudes of the whole U.S. population by knowing the attitudes of just 400 people randomly chosen from that population.

Other researchers use nonrandom samples, in which members of the population do not have the same chance of being included in the study. If you ever filled out a questionnaire after being approached in a shopping mall or campus student center, it is very likely that you were part of a nonrandom sample. While the results of the study (marketing research or social science research) for which you were interviewed might have been interesting, they could not necessarily be generalized to all students or all people in a state or in the nation because the sample for the study was not random.

High school students working in groups

High school classes often are used as a convenience sample in sociological and other social science research.

NWABR – 2009 Student Fellows – CC BY 2.0.

A specific type of nonrandom sample is the convenience sample , which refers to a nonrandom sample that is used because it is relatively quick and inexpensive to obtain. If you ever filled out a questionnaire during a high school or college class, as many students have done, you were very likely part of a convenience sample—a researcher can simply go into class, hand out a survey, and have the data available for coding and analysis within a few minutes. Convenience samples often include students, but they also include other kinds of people. When prisoners are studied, they constitute a convenience sample, because they are definitely not going anywhere. Partly because of this fact, convenience samples are also sometimes called captive-audience samples .

Another specific type of nonrandom sample is the quota sample . In this type of sample, a researcher tries to ensure that the makeup of the sample resembles one or more characteristics of the population as closely as possible. For example, on a campus of 10,000 students where 60% of the students are women and 40% are men, a researcher might decide to study 100 students by handing out a questionnaire to those who happen to be in the student center building on a particular day. If the researcher decides to have a quota sample based on gender, the researcher will select 60 women students and 40 male students to receive the questionnaire. This procedure might make the sample of 100 students more representative of all the students on campus than if it were not used, but it still does not make the sample entirely representative of all students. The students who happen to be in the student center on a particular day might be very different in many respects from most other students on the campus.

As we shall see later when research design is discussed, the choice of a design is very much related to the type of sample that is used. Surveys lend themselves to random samples, for example, while observation studies and experiments lend themselves to nonrandom samples.

Analyzing Data

After all data have been gathered, the next stage is to analyze the data. If the data are quantitative, the analysis will almost certainly use highly sophisticated statistical techniques beyond the scope of this discussion. Many statistical analysis software packages exist for this purpose, and sociologists learn to use one or more of these packages during graduate school. If the data are qualitative, researchers analyze their data (what they have observed and/or what people have told them in interviews) in ways again beyond our scope. Many researchers now use qualitative analysis software that helps them uncover important themes and patterns in the qualitative data they gather. However qualitative or quantitative data are analyzed, it is essential that the analysis be as accurate as possible. To go back to a point just made, this means that variable measurement must also be as accurate as possible, because even expert analysis of inaccurate data will yield inaccurate results. As a phrase from the field of computer science summarizes this problem, “garbage in, garbage out.” Data analysis can be accurate only if the data are accurate to begin with.

Criteria of Causality

As researchers analyze their data, they naturally try to determine whether their analysis supports their hypothesis. As noted above, when we test a hypothesis, we want to be able to conclude that an independent variable affects a dependent variable. Four criteria must be satisfied before we can conclude this (see Table 2.1 “Criteria of Causality” ).

Table 2.1 Criteria of Causality

First, the independent variable and the dependent variable must be statistically related . That means that the independent variable makes a statistical difference for where one ranks on the dependent variable. Suppose we hypothesize that age was related to voting preference in the 2008 presidential election. Here age is clearly the independent variable and voting preference the dependent variable. (It is possible for age to affect voting preference, but it is not possible for voting preference to affect age.) Exit poll data indicate that 66% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Obama in 2008, while only 45% of those 65 and older voted for him. The two variables are thus statistically related, as younger voters were more likely than older voters to prefer Obama.

The second criterion is called the causal order (or chicken-and-egg) problem and reflects the familiar saying that “correlation does not mean causation.” Just because an independent and a dependent variable are related does not automatically mean that the independent variable affects the dependent variable. It might well be that the dependent variable is affecting the independent. To satisfy this criterion, the researcher must be sure that the independent variable precedes the dependent variable in time or in logic. In the example just discussed, age might affect voting preference, but voting preference definitely cannot affect age. However, causal order is not as clear in other hypotheses. For example, suppose we find a statistical relationship between marital happiness and job satisfaction: the more happy people are in their marriage, the more satisfied they are with their jobs. Which makes more sense, that having a happy marriage leads you to like your job more, or that being satisfied with your work leads you to have a happier marriage? In this example, causal order is not very clear, and thus the second criterion is difficult to satisfy.

The third criterion involves spurious relationships . A relationship between an independent variable and dependent variable is spurious if a third variable accounts for the relationship because it affects both the independent and dependent variables. Although this sounds a bit complicated, an example or two should make it clear. If you did a survey of Americans 18 and older, you would find that people who attend college have worse acne than people who do not attend college. Does this mean that attending college causes worse acne? Certainly not. You would find this statistical relationship only because a third variable, age, affects both the likelihood of attending college and the likelihood of having acne: young people are more likely than older people to attend college, and also more likely—for very different reasons—to have acne. Controlling for age makes it clear that the original relationship between attending college and having acne was spurious. Figure 2.5 “Diagram of a Spurious Relationship” diagrams this particular spurious relationship; notice that there is no causal arrow between the attending college and having acne variables.

Figure 2.5 Diagram of a Spurious Relationship

Diagram of a Spurious Relationship

In another example, the more fire trucks at a fire, the more damage the fire causes. Does that mean that fire trucks somehow make fires worse, as the familiar saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” might suggest? Of course not! The third variable here is the intensity of the fire: the more intense the fire, the more fire trucks respond to fight it, and the more intense the fire, the more damage it causes. The relationship between number of fire trucks and damage the fire causes is spurious.

The final criterion of causality is that our explanation for the relationship between the independent and dependent variables is the best explanation . Even if the first three criteria are satisfied, that does not necessarily mean the two variables are in fact related. For example, the U.S. crime rate dropped in the early 1980s, and in 1984 the reelection campaign of President Ronald Reagan took credit for this drop. This relationship satisfied the first three criteria: the crime rate fell after President Reagan took office in 1981, the drop in the crime rate could not have affected the election of this president, and there was no apparent third variable that influenced both why Reagan was elected and why the crime rate fell. However, social scientists pointed to another reason that accounted for the crime rate decrease during the 1980s: a drop in the birth rate some 15–20 years earlier, which led to a decrease during the early 1980s of the number of U.S. residents in the high-crime ages of 15–30 (Steffensmeier & Harer, 1991). The relationship between the election of Ronald Reagan and the crime rate drop was thus only a coincidence.

Drawing a Conclusion

Once the data are analyzed, the researcher finally determines whether the data analysis supports the hypothesis that has been tested, taking into account the criteria of causality just discussed. Whether or not the hypothesis is supported, the researcher (if writing for publication) typically also discusses what the results of the present research imply for both prior and future studies on the topic. If the primary purpose of the project has been to test or refine a particular theory, the conclusion will discuss the implications of the results for this theory. If the primary purpose has been to test or advance social policy, the conclusion will discuss the implications of the results for policy making relevant to the project’s subject matter.

Key Takeaways

  • Several stages compose the sociological research process. These stages include (a) choosing a research topic, (b) conducting a literature review, (c) measuring variables and gathering data, (d) analyzing data, and (e) drawing a conclusion.
  • Sociologists commonly base their choice of a research topic on one or more of the following: (a) a theoretical interest, (b) a social policy interest, and (c) one or more personal experiences.
  • Accurate measurement of variables is essential for sound sociological research. As a minimum, measures should be as clear and unambiguous as possible.

For Your Review

  • Consider the following question from a survey: “Generally speaking, are you very happy, somewhat happy, or not too happy?” Write a brief essay in which you evaluate how well this question measures happiness.
  • Think of a personal experience you have had that lends itself to a possible research project. Write a brief essay in which you describe the experience and discuss the hypothesis that the research project based on the experience would address.

Steffensmeier, D., & Harer, M. D. (1991). Did crime rise or fall during the Reagan presidency? The effects of an “aging” U.S. population on the nation’s crime rate. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 28 (3), 330–359.

Sociology Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Define and describe the scientific method.
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research.
  • Describe the function and importance of an interpretive framework.
  • Describe the differences in accuracy, reliability and validity in a research study.

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behavior is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behavior as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered social patterns in the workplace that have transformed industries, in families that have enlightened family members, and in education that have aided structural changes in classrooms.

Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen in this world. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once the question is formed, the sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. In deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a scientific approach or an interpretive framework. The following sections describe these approaches to knowledge.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried and true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, and field research. But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that these interactions can seem impossible to chart or explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions or about proving ideas right or wrong rather than about exploring the nuances of human behavior.

However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behavior. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results.

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

Sociological research does not reduce knowledge to right or wrong facts. Results of studies tend to provide people with insights they did not have before—explanations of human behaviors and social practices and access to knowledge of other cultures, rituals and beliefs, or trends and attitudes.

In general, sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes or results. For example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists often look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs. They might also study environmental influences and patterns of behavior that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or illness. And, because sociological studies are not all focused on negative behaviors or challenging situations, social researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighborhood organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but also to interpret and analyze data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in—but not attached to—the results. They work outside of their own political or social agendas. This does not mean researchers do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in collecting and analyzing data in research studies.

With its systematic approach, the scientific method has proven useful in shaping sociological studies. The scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring a social problem. They provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method has 6 steps which are described below.

Step 1: Ask a Question or Find a Research Topic

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, select a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geographic location and time frame. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” would be too narrow. Sociologists strive to frame questions that examine well-defined patterns and relationships.

In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the cultural value placed on appearance?”

Step 2: Review the Literature/Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review , which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library, a thorough online search, and a survey of academic journals will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted, identify gaps in understanding of the topic, and position their own research to build on prior knowledge. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to borrow previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized.

To study crime, a researcher might also sort through existing data from the court system, police database, prison information, interviews with criminals, guards, wardens, etc. It’s important to examine this information in addition to existing research to determine how these resources might be used to fill holes in existing knowledge. Reviewing existing sources educates researchers and helps refine and improve a research study design.

Step 3: Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an explanation for a phenomenon based on a conjecture about the relationship between the phenomenon and one or more causal factors. In sociology, the hypothesis will often predict how one form of human behavior influences another. For example, a hypothesis might be in the form of an “if, then statement.” Let’s relate this to our topic of crime: If unemployment increases, then the crime rate will increase.

In scientific research, we formulate hypotheses to include an independent variables (IV) , which are the cause of the change, and a dependent variable (DV) , which is the effect , or thing that is changed. In the example above, unemployment is the independent variable and the crime rate is the dependent variable.

In a sociological study, the researcher would establish one form of human behavior as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)?

Taking an example from Table 12.1, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Note, however, this hypothesis can also work the other way around. A sociologist might predict that increasing a child’s sense of self-esteem (the independent variable) will increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example shows, simply identifying related two topics or variables is not enough. Their prospective relationship must be part of the hypothesis.

Step 4: Design and Conduct a Study

Researchers design studies to maximize reliability , which refers to how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced. Reliability increases the likelihood that what happens to one person will happen to all people in a group or what will happen in one situation will happen in another. Cooking is a science. When you follow a recipe and measure ingredients with a cooking tool, such as a measuring cup, the same results is obtained as long as the cook follows the same recipe and uses the same type of tool. The measuring cup introduces accuracy into the process. If a person uses a less accurate tool, such as their hand, to measure ingredients rather than a cup, the same result may not be replicated. Accurate tools and methods increase reliability.

Researchers also strive for validity , which refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to measure. To produce reliable and valid results, sociologists develop an operational definition , that is, they define each concept, or variable, in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept. By operationalizing the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. Moreover, researchers can determine whether the experiment or method validly represent the phenomenon they intended to study.

A study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, might define “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” However, one researcher might define a “good” grade as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for “good.” For the results to be replicated and gain acceptance within the broader scientific community, researchers would have to use a standard operational definition. These definitions set limits and establish cut-off points that ensure consistency and replicability in a study.

We will explore research methods in greater detail in the next section of this chapter.

Step 5: Draw Conclusions

After constructing the research design, sociologists collect, tabulate or categorize, and analyze data to formulate conclusions. If the analysis supports the hypothesis, researchers can discuss the implications of the results for the theory or policy solution that they were addressing. If the analysis does not support the hypothesis, researchers may consider repeating the experiment or think of ways to improve their procedure.

However, even when results contradict a sociologist’s prediction of a study’s outcome, these results still contribute to sociological understanding. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns. In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high school dropouts have a hard time finding rewarding careers. While many assume that the higher the education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results may substantiate or contradict it.

Sociologists carefully keep in mind how operational definitions and research designs impact the results as they draw conclusions. Consider the concept of “increase of crime,” which might be defined as the percent increase in crime from last week to this week, as in the study of Swedish crime discussed above. Yet the data used to evaluate “increase of crime” might be limited by many factors: who commits the crime, where the crimes are committed, or what type of crime is committed. If the data is gathered for “crimes committed in Houston, Texas in zip code 77021,” then it may not be generalizable to crimes committed in rural areas outside of major cities like Houston. If data is collected about vandalism, it may not be generalizable to assault.

Step 6: Report Results

Researchers report their results at conferences and in academic journals. These results are then subjected to the scrutiny of other sociologists in the field. Before the conclusions of a study become widely accepted, the studies are often repeated in the same or different environments. In this way, sociological theories and knowledge develops as the relationships between social phenomenon are established in broader contexts and different circumstances.

Interpretive Framework

While many sociologists rely on empirical data and the scientific method as a research approach, others operate from an interpretive framework . While systematic, this approach doesn’t follow the hypothesis-testing model that seeks to find generalizable results. Instead, an interpretive framework, sometimes referred to as an interpretive perspective , seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants, which leads to in-depth knowledge or understanding about the human experience.

Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. Rather than formulating a hypothesis and method for testing it, an interpretive researcher will develop approaches to explore the topic at hand that may involve a significant amount of direct observation or interaction with subjects including storytelling. This type of researcher learns through the process and sometimes adjusts the research methods or processes midway to optimize findings as they evolve.

Critical Sociology

Critical sociology focuses on deconstruction of existing sociological research and theory. Informed by the work of Karl Marx, scholars known collectively as the Frankfurt School proposed that social science, as much as any academic pursuit, is embedded in the system of power constituted by the set of class, caste, race, gender, and other relationships that exist in the society. Consequently, it cannot be treated as purely objective. Critical sociologists view theories, methods, and the conclusions as serving one of two purposes: they can either legitimate and rationalize systems of social power and oppression or liberate humans from inequality and restriction on human freedom. Deconstruction can involve data collection, but the analysis of this data is not empirical or positivist.

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  • Authors: Tonja R. Conerly, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang
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The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout introduces you to the wonderful world of writing sociology. Before you can write a clear and coherent sociology paper, you need a firm understanding of the assumptions and expectations of the discipline. You need to know your audience, the way they view the world and how they order and evaluate information. So, without further ado, let’s figure out just what sociology is, and how one goes about writing it.

What is sociology, and what do sociologists write about?

Unlike many of the other subjects here at UNC, such as history or English, sociology is a new subject for many students. Therefore, it may be helpful to give a quick introduction to what sociologists do. Sociologists are interested in all sorts of topics. For example, some sociologists focus on the family, addressing issues such as marriage, divorce, child-rearing, and domestic abuse, the ways these things are defined in different cultures and times, and their effect on both individuals and institutions. Others examine larger social organizations such as businesses and governments, looking at their structure and hierarchies. Still others focus on social movements and political protest, such as the American civil rights movement. Finally, sociologists may look at divisions and inequality within society, examining phenomena such as race, gender, and class, and their effect on people’s choices and opportunities. As you can see, sociologists study just about everything. Thus, it is not the subject matter that makes a paper sociological, but rather the perspective used in writing it.

So, just what is a sociological perspective? At its most basic, sociology is an attempt to understand and explain the way that individuals and groups interact within a society. How exactly does one approach this goal? C. Wright Mills, in his book The Sociological Imagination (1959), writes that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” Why? Well, as Karl Marx observes at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), humans “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Thus, a good sociological argument needs to balance both individual agency and structural constraints. That is certainly a tall order, but it is the basis of all effective sociological writing. Keep it in mind as you think about your own writing.

Key assumptions and characteristics of sociological writing

What are the most important things to keep in mind as you write in sociology? Pay special attention to the following issues.

The first thing to remember in writing a sociological argument is to be as clear as possible in stating your thesis. Of course, that is true in all papers, but there are a couple of pitfalls common to sociology that you should be aware of and avoid at all cost. As previously defined, sociology is the study of the interaction between individuals and larger social forces. Different traditions within sociology tend to favor one side of the equation over the other, with some focusing on the agency of individual actors and others on structural factors. The danger is that you may go too far in either of these directions and thus lose the complexity of sociological thinking. Although this mistake can manifest itself in any number of ways, three types of flawed arguments are particularly common: 

  • The “ individual argument ” generally takes this form: “The individual is free to make choices, and any outcomes can be explained exclusively through the study of their ideas and decisions.” While it is of course true that we all make our own choices, we must also keep in mind that, to paraphrase Marx, we make these choices under circumstances given to us by the structures of society. Therefore, it is important to investigate what conditions made these choices possible in the first place, as well as what allows some individuals to successfully act on their choices while others cannot.
  • The “ human nature argument ” seeks to explain social behavior through a quasi-biological argument about humans, and often takes a form such as: “Humans are by nature X, therefore it is not surprising that Y.” While sociologists disagree over whether a universal human nature even exists, they all agree that it is not an acceptable basis of explanation. Instead, sociology demands that you question why we call some behavior natural, and to look into the social factors which have constructed this “natural” state.
  • The “ society argument ” often arises in response to critiques of the above styles of argumentation, and tends to appear in a form such as: “Society made me do it.” Students often think that this is a good sociological argument, since it uses society as the basis for explanation. However, the problem is that the use of the broad concept “society” masks the real workings of the situation, making it next to impossible to build a strong case. This is an example of reification, which is when we turn processes into things. Society is really a process, made up of ongoing interactions at multiple levels of size and complexity, and to turn it into a monolithic thing is to lose all that complexity. People make decisions and choices. Some groups and individuals benefit, while others do not. Identifying these intermediate levels is the basis of sociological analysis.

Although each of these three arguments seems quite different, they all share one common feature: they assume exactly what they need to be explaining. They are excellent starting points, but lousy conclusions.

Once you have developed a working argument, you will next need to find evidence to support your claim. What counts as evidence in a sociology paper? First and foremost, sociology is an empirical discipline. Empiricism in sociology means basing your conclusions on evidence that is documented and collected with as much rigor as possible. This evidence usually draws upon observed patterns and information from collected cases and experiences, not just from isolated, anecdotal reports. Just because your second cousin was able to climb the ladder from poverty to the executive boardroom does not prove that the American class system is open. You will need more systematic evidence to make your claim convincing. Above all else, remember that your opinion alone is not sufficient support for a sociological argument. Even if you are making a theoretical argument, you must be able to point to documented instances of social phenomena that fit your argument. Logic is necessary for making the argument, but is not sufficient support by itself.

Sociological evidence falls into two main groups: 

  • Quantitative data are based on surveys, censuses, and statistics. These provide large numbers of data points, which is particularly useful for studying large-scale social processes, such as income inequality, population changes, changes in social attitudes, etc.
  • Qualitative data, on the other hand, comes from participant observation, in-depth interviews, data and texts, as well as from the researcher’s own impressions and reactions. Qualitative research gives insight into the way people actively construct and find meaning in their world.

Quantitative data produces a measurement of subjects’ characteristics and behavior, while qualitative research generates information on their meanings and practices. Thus, the methods you choose will reflect the type of evidence most appropriate to the questions you ask. If you wanted to look at the importance of race in an organization, a quantitative study might use information on the percentage of different races in the organization, what positions they hold, as well as survey results on people’s attitudes on race. This would measure the distribution of race and racial beliefs in the organization. A qualitative study would go about this differently, perhaps hanging around the office studying people’s interactions, or doing in-depth interviews with some of the subjects. The qualitative researcher would see how people act out their beliefs, and how these beliefs interact with the beliefs of others as well as the constraints of the organization.

Some sociologists favor qualitative over quantitative data, or vice versa, and it is perfectly reasonable to rely on only one method in your own work. However, since each method has its own strengths and weaknesses, combining methods can be a particularly effective way to bolster your argument. But these distinctions are not just important if you have to collect your own data for your paper. You also need to be aware of them even when you are relying on secondary sources for your research. In order to critically evaluate the research and data you are reading, you should have a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the different methods.

Units of analysis

Given that social life is so complex, you need to have a point of entry into studying this world. In sociological jargon, you need a unit of analysis. The unit of analysis is exactly that: it is the unit that you have chosen to analyze in your study. Again, this is only a question of emphasis and focus, and not of precedence and importance. You will find a variety of units of analysis in sociological writing, ranging from the individual up to groups or organizations. You should choose yours based on the interests and theoretical assumptions driving your research. The unit of analysis will determine much of what will qualify as relevant evidence in your work. Thus you must not only clearly identify that unit, but also consistently use it throughout your paper.

Let’s look at an example to see just how changing the units of analysis will change the face of research. What if you wanted to study globalization? That’s a big topic, so you will need to focus your attention. Where would you start?

You might focus on individual human actors, studying the way that people are affected by the globalizing world. This approach could possibly include a study of Asian sweatshop workers’ experiences, or perhaps how consumers’ decisions shape the overall system.

Or you might choose to focus on social structures or organizations. This approach might involve looking at the decisions being made at the national or international level, such as the free-trade agreements that change the relationships between governments and corporations. Or you might look into the organizational structures of corporations and measure how they are changing under globalization. Another structural approach would be to focus on the social networks linking subjects together. That could lead you to look at how migrants rely on social contacts to make their way to other countries, as well as to help them find work upon their arrival.

Finally, you might want to focus on cultural objects or social artifacts as your unit of analysis. One fine example would be to look at the production of those tennis shoes the kids seem to like so much. You could look at either the material production of the shoe (tracing it from its sweatshop origins to its arrival on the showroom floor of malls across America) or its cultural production (attempting to understand how advertising and celebrities have turned such shoes into necessities and cultural icons).

Whichever unit of analysis you choose, be careful not to commit the dreaded ecological fallacy. An ecological fallacy is when you assume that something that you learned about the group level of analysis also applies to the individuals that make up that group. So, to continue the globalization example, if you were to compare its effects on the poorest 20% and the richest 20% of countries, you would need to be careful not to apply your results to the poorest and richest individuals.

These are just general examples of how sociological study of a single topic can vary. Because you can approach a subject from several different perspectives, it is important to decide early how you plan to focus your analysis and then stick with that perspective throughout your paper. Avoid mixing units of analysis without strong justification. Different units of analysis generally demand different kinds of evidence for building your argument. You can reconcile the varying levels of analysis, but doing so may require a complex, sophisticated theory, no small feat within the confines of a short paper. Check with your instructor if you are concerned about this happening in your paper.

Typical writing assignments in sociology

So how does all of this apply to an actual writing assignment? Undergraduate writing assignments in sociology may take a number of forms, but they typically involve reviewing sociological literature on a subject; applying or testing a particular concept, theory, or perspective; or producing a small-scale research report, which usually involves a synthesis of both the literature review and application.

The critical review

The review involves investigating the research that has been done on a particular topic and then summarizing and evaluating what you have found. The important task in this kind of assignment is to organize your material clearly and synthesize it for your reader. A good review does not just summarize the literature, but looks for patterns and connections in the literature and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of what others have written on your topic. You want to help your reader see how the information you have gathered fits together, what information can be most trusted (and why), what implications you can derive from it, and what further research may need to be done to fill in gaps. Doing so requires considerable thought and organization on your part, as well as thinking of yourself as an expert on the topic. You need to assume that, even though you are new to the material, you can judge the merits of the arguments you have read and offer an informed opinion of which evidence is strongest and why.

Application or testing of a theory or concept

The application assignment asks you to apply a concept or theoretical perspective to a specific example. In other words, it tests your practical understanding of theories and ideas by asking you to explain how well they apply to actual social phenomena. In order to successfully apply a theory to a new case, you must include the following steps:

  • First you need to have a very clear understanding of the theory itself: not only what the theorist argues, but also why they argue that point, and how they justify it. That is, you have to understand how the world works according to this theory and how one thing leads to another.
  • Next you should choose an appropriate case study. This is a crucial step, one that can make or break your paper. If you choose a case that is too similar to the one used in constructing the theory in the first place, then your paper will be uninteresting as an application, since it will not give you the opportunity to show off your theoretical brilliance. On the other hand, do not choose a case that is so far out in left field that the applicability is only superficial and trivial. In some ways theory application is like making an analogy. The last thing you want is a weak analogy, or one that is so obvious that it does not give any added insight. Instead, you will want to choose a happy medium, one that is not obvious but that allows you to give a developed analysis of the case using the theory you chose.
  • This leads to the last point, which is the analysis. A strong analysis will go beyond the surface and explore the processes at work, both in the theory and in the case you have chosen. Just like making an analogy, you are arguing that these two things (the theory and the example) are similar. Be specific and detailed in telling the reader how they are similar. In the course of looking for similarities, however, you are likely to find points at which the theory does not seem to be a good fit. Do not sweep this discovery under the rug, since the differences can be just as important as the similarities, supplying insight into both the applicability of the theory and the uniqueness of the case you are using.

You may also be asked to test a theory. Whereas the application paper assumes that the theory you are using is true, the testing paper does not makes this assumption, but rather asks you to try out the theory to determine whether it works. Here you need to think about what initial conditions inform the theory and what sort of hypothesis or prediction the theory would make based on those conditions. This is another way of saying that you need to determine which cases the theory could be applied to (see above) and what sort of evidence would be needed to either confirm or disconfirm the theory’s hypothesis. In many ways, this is similar to the application paper, with added emphasis on the veracity of the theory being used.

The research paper

Finally, we reach the mighty research paper. Although the thought of doing a research paper can be intimidating, it is actually little more than the combination of many of the parts of the papers we have already discussed. You will begin with a critical review of the literature and use this review as a basis for forming your research question. The question will often take the form of an application (“These ideas will help us to explain Z.”) or of hypothesis testing (“If these ideas are correct, we should find X when we investigate Y.”). The skills you have already used in writing the other types of papers will help you immensely as you write your research papers.

And so we reach the end of this all-too-brief glimpse into the world of sociological writing. Sociologists can be an idiosyncratic bunch, so paper guidelines and expectations will no doubt vary from class to class, from instructor to instructor. However, these basic guidelines will help you get started.

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Anson, Chris M., and Robert A. Schwegler. 2010. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers , 6th ed. New York: Longman.

Cuba, Lee. 2002. A Short Guide to Writing About Social Science , 4th ed. New York: Longman.

Lunsford, Andrea A. 2015. The St. Martin’s Handbook , 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. 2003. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook , 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Ruszkiewicz, John J., Christy Friend, Daniel Seward, and Maxine Hairston. 2010. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers , 9th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Faculty Resources

Assignments and discussions.

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Assignment prompts are provided with this course for instructors to use at their discretion. Since they are openly licensed, instructors may use them as is or to adapt to better fit the class’s focus, time frame and learning outcomes.

Assignments may be delivered pre-populated in your LMS assignment tool in your LMS course shell, where you may modify or delete them as you wish. The recommended expectation for the discussion assignments is that students should do their initial post first before seeing replies from other students (This is generally an option faculty need to select once inside the LMS and looks like “Participants must create a thread in order to view other threads in this forum.” or “Users must post before seeing replies”).

We do NOT recommend assigning every discussion and assignment , as some are large and time-consuming or may not fit well with your course schedule. Some marked as “larger assignments” could be introduced in earlier modules or split into several parts.

If you would like to include your own assignments or have recommendations for additions or modifications, you are invited to contribute! If you would like to share your materials with other faculty and have them included in our list of options, please send them with an explanatory message to  [email protected] . Be sure to mention which course and learning outcome(s) they align with when you send a message.

  • Assignments and Discussions. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution
  • pencil cup. Authored by : IconfactoryTeam. Provided by : The Noun Project. Located at : https://thenounproject.com/term/pencil-cup/628840/ . License : CC BY: Attribution

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Department of Sociology

  • Common Paper Assignments
  • Student Writing Guide

As a sociology major, you will complete a variety of writing assignments to demonstrate your knowledge and research skills, your ability to apply and synthesize abstract concepts and theories, or even show your critical thinking skills. Below is a brief description of the types of paper assignments that are common across the sociological discipline. Of course, your instructors may have other ideas of how you should demonstrate your writing abilities, but these assignments will certainly show up sooner or later in your academic career. ( Writing tips for thesis statements)

Critical Thinking/Social Issue Paper

Probably the most common paper you will be asked to write as a sociology student will require you to examine a specific social issue in which you have to consider the social, political, or economic forces that contribute to or influence theis issue. An instructor may ask you to apply a certain concept or theory, or even take a position and provide supporting evidence. It may also require critiquing a position. Regardless of the topic or directions, instructors will use this assignment to evaluate your  critical thinking  skills.

The Literature Review (a/k/a the Term Paper)

This specific approach to writing usually entails two tasks: (1) identifying a research question or topic of interest and (2) conducting library and/or Internet research to locate scholarly research articles, books, or Internet materials that address the topic selected. This paper is not a mere listing of research findings, but a synthesis of materials to develop a new way of thinking about a topic or suggests directions for further inquiry (see Giarrusso et al., A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers [2008]). This assignment will also require you to use an appropriate citation and reference style; you can check out our suggestions in the Writer's Guide.However, always follow the instructor's suggestions for citation styles. You can find examples of this type of writing in:

  • Literature Review using APA Style Citations
  • Literature Review examples from Students  (PDF)
  • The Process of Writing a Literature Review  (provided by Dr. Cameron Lippard) (PDF)

The Research Paper/Project

Like the literature review paper, you will be required to select a research question or topic and conduct library and/or Internet research regarding scholarly work. However, you will go one step further and conduct your own original research on the topic. This is where you will do what most scientists do: formulate and test hypotheses, use research methods to collect data, complete a quantitative or qualitative analysis of the data collected, and provide conclusions that link your data to the theoretical arguments you discussed in your literature review. In general, this paper will include the following sections: (a) Introduction, (b) Literature Review, (c) Methods Description, (d) Results (data analysis section), (e) Discussions and Conclusions, and (f) References. Usually you will complete a paper like this during your Research Methods and/or Senior Seminar courses. Finally, just like the literature review paper, you will have to use an established citation and reference style. The links below, to already published papers, are good examples of how to do this.

  • Determining What Works for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System: A Summary of Evaluation Evidence  (PDF)
  • Judging Women and Defining Crime: Police Officers' Attitudes Toward Women and Rape  (PDF)

Put a stop to deadline pressure, and have your homework done by an expert.

70 Catchy Sociology Research Paper Topics That Really Stand Out

Sociology Research Paper Topics

If you are taking sociology in college, you will agree that it is one of the fascinating subjects because it involves dealing with things that define and affect people, such as cultures, customs, and how people’s ways of life change.

Despite being an enthralling subject, many students find it challenging to pick the best sociology topics. To help you address the problem, we have picked the best 70 sociology topics for research that you can use. So, use them as they are or tweak them a little to reflect your preference.

Sociology Research Topics on Teenagers and Children

When growing up, childhood is the most carefree period of life, but it does not mean that kids do not have issues. However, these issues change as they become teenagers, and you can focus on them to formulate your sociological research question for your paper. If you are interested in children and teenagers, here is a list of sociological topics to consider:

  • What is the influence of sports on the mental health of teenagers?
  • Is sexual education good for children?
  • What is the best way to deal with bullying in schools?
  • Exploring the main reasons why kids do not have stereotypes.
  • Should we give religious education priority over academic knowledge?
  • Self-identification in teenagers: What are the causes?
  • How does homeschooling impact children’s socialization abilities?
  • Should adults consider teenagers as equals?
  • Teenage suicides: What are the leading causes?
  • Teachers or parents: Who has a bigger role in preventing early pregnancies?

Sociology Papers Topics on Social Media

Social media has emerged as the new method of communication, both at the personal and corporate levels. As more social media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook become the new norm, here are some related sociology research topics for college students.

  • Can we consider social media as a reliable source of information?
  • Using social media to improve the hiring process in companies.
  • Understanding the role of influencers on social media users.
  • Comparing the use of Instagram and Facebook in education.
  • Online relationships: Can they be considered real?
  • Cyberbullying on social media.
  • If social media is outlawed today, would our lives be better?
  • How can we use social media to help change people’s behavior?
  • Social media development over time: How will it affect education in the future?
  • Social media development: What is the effect on the development of civil societies?

Good Sociology Research Topics in Marriage and Family

We are all part of a family, and it plays a great impact on who we become later in life. For students who want to explore issues related to families, here are some examples of interesting sociology research topics that can get them top grades.

How should we define a family?

Traditional gender roles taken by men: Would they be better handled by women?

How has marriage changed in the UK?

Exploring the implications of divorce on children.

Are there negative impacts of kids adopted by families of different ethnicities?

Why have the cases of single parenthood increased so much in the last three decades?

Is the institution of marriage outdated?

Should we allow teens to get access to birth control without the permission of their guardians?

Should the government be allowed to decide who can get married?

Reviewing the implications for kids being adopted by LGBT couples.

Understanding the benefits of being married but choosing to stay childless.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of following the traditional gender roles in the family today?

Should all parents be required to take parenting classes before having children?

Do you support the use of the one-child policy in China to reduce population?

Easy Sociology Research Topics

Like we mentioned earlier, sociology is a broad subject, but it is crucial to select the research ideas carefully to avoid getting bored midway. So, if you like to keep things simple and you are wondering, “ What are some good sociology research topics,” here are some good suggestions.

  • Why do more people prefer online communication today?
  • Is anonymity when using the internet important?
  • What are the best techniques for training kids with deviant behavior?
  • For how long should people date before getting married?
  • Exploring the differences between generations X and Z.
  • The benefits of letting the elderly interact with children.
  • What are the negative implications of intergenerational marriage?
  • Exploring the differences between spiritualism and religion.
  • Why do some city administrations only allow some businesses and disallow others in their jurisdictions?

Environmental Sociology Research Topics

People’s behaviors, policies, economic levels, and levels of education, among other aspects have huge implications on the environment. So, what areas of the environment and related topics do you want to explore? Here are some great topic samples to consider.

  • An analysis of domestic inequality and carbon emissions.
  • Is environmental activism alone enough in addressing the problem of global pollution?
  • Exploring the latest trends in environmental justice: A case study of the United States.
  • Food system localization: Comparing the Pros and Cons.

What implications does recycling for environmental reasons have on an individual’s social well-being?

  • Why everyone has a role to play in addressing the problem of climate change.
  • What are the main causes and consequences of global warming?
  • Facing the truth: Can the global society address the problem of global warming?
  • Why conservation should be taught from an early stage of a child development.

Sociology Research Proposal Topics

If you are required to work on a research project, and the proposal needs to get the nod from your lecturer before proceeding, here are some great topics to consider:

  • How do stereotypes of age impact employment?
  • Comparing liberal feminism and radical feminism.
  • What age group is at a higher risk of getting involved in deviant behavior?
  • Do women have fewer professional opportunities compared to men?
  • How are sexuality and gender viewed by students in private versus public schools?
  • Is it more important to be popular or successful in school today?
  • Playing video games for more than 10 hours every week: What impact does it have on students’ learning abilities?
  • Should we make medicinal marijuana legal?

Good Sociology Research Questions in Culture and Cultural Biases

Some of the hottest research questions in sociology about culture and cultural biases include:

  • Are the policies and laws protecting free speech in society enough?
  • What are the best solutions for reducing population growth in the globe?
  • Should we allow prescription drug companies to make direct advertisements to consumers?
  • What are the biases that exist against obese people?
  • Should we have legal penalties for people who use racial slurs?
  • How is gender discrimination in the workplace perpetrated?
  • What role does feminism play in American politics in the 21 st century?
  • What are the differences between labor immigration in Europe and the US?
  • Should the drinking age be lowered?
  • What are some of the best solutions for addressing homegrown terrorism in the United States?

Once You Have Sociology Research Topics, what Next?

If you want to get top grades, the first step is selecting excellent research paper topics. However, whether you have selected environmental, family, or medical sociology research topics, the bigger task is actually ahead, and you should consider seeking writing help from our professionals . We have writing experts who can handle every topic in sociology, be it a sociological research question or sociology of the family research topics. You can never go wrong with a pro on your side!

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Sociology Research Guide: SOC 210 Research Assignment

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  • Academic Search Premier This link opens in a new window This database covers lots of different subjects and has a mix of scholarly articles and magazines/news articles.
  • CQ Researcher (Congressional Quarterly) This link opens in a new window This database has extensive reports on major social issues. Highly recommend looking up your issue here.
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Tips and tricks

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sociology research assignment

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The Assignment

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5.14: Assignment- Utilizing Secondary Research

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Background: For many sociology students (and sociologists), secondary research can seem like the most “boring” research method; however, as we saw with Emile Durkheim’s early work on suicide using secondary data (death records), we are able to glean a great deal from utilizing existing statistical information.

STEP 1: Look at the bivariate (2 variable) table below. This comes from the Social Science Data Analysis Network (SSDAN) and is comprised of data from the American Community Survey (ACS), an annual Census-like survey.

STEP 2: Identify the independent variable and the dependent variable that could be tested based on this graph.

STEP 3: Summarize the bivariate table by making at least 3 TRUE statements about the variables using the data (the percentages) provided.

STEP 4: Use your sociological imagination to analyze the data. This should be a minimum of 2-3 sentences.

STEP 5: What policy recommendations would you make based on the data? This should be a minimum of 2-3 sentences.

  • Assignment: Utilizing Secondary Research . Authored by : Sarah Hoiland for Lumen Learning. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY: Attribution

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Chapter 2. Sociological Research

Learning objectives.

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

  • Define and describe the scientific method
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research
  • Understand the difference between positivist and interpretive approaches to the scientific method in sociology
  • Define what reliability and validity mean in a research study

2.2. Research Methods

  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, experiments, field research, and secondary data and textual analysis
  • Understand why different topics are better suited to different research approaches

2.3. Ethical Concerns

  • Understand why ethical standards exist
  • Demonstrate awareness of the Canadian Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics
  • Define value neutrality
  • Outline some of the issues of value neutrality in sociology

Introduction to Sociological Research

In the university cafeteria, you set your lunch tray down at a table, grab a chair, join a group of your classmates, and hear the start of two discussions. One person says, “It’s weird how Justin Bieber has 48 million followers on Twitter.” Another says, “Disney World is packed year round.” Those two seemingly benign statements are claims, or opinions, based on everyday observation of human behaviour. Perhaps the speakers had firsthand experience, talked to experts, conducted online research, or saw news segments on TV. In response, two conversations erupt. “I don’t see why anyone would want to go to Disney World and stand in those long lines.” “Are you kidding?! Going to Disney World is one of my favourite childhood memories.” “It’s the opposite for me with Justin Bieber. Seeing people camp out outside his hotel just to get a glimpse of him; it doesn’t make sense.” “Well, you’re not a teenage girl.” “Going to a theme park is way different than trying to see a teenage heart throb.” “But both are things people do for the same reason: they’re looking for a good time.” “If you call getting crushed by a crowd of strangers fun.”

As your classmates at the lunch table discuss what they know or believe, the two topics converge. The conversation becomes a debate. Someone compares Beliebers to Beatles fans. Someone else compares Disney World to a cruise. Students take sides, agreeing or disagreeing, as the conversation veers to topics such as crowd control, mob mentality, political protests, and group dynamics. If you contributed your expanding knowledge of sociological research to this conversation, you might make statements like these: “Justin Bieber’s fans long for an escape from the boredom of real teenage life. Beliebers join together claiming they want romance, except what they really want is a safe place to explore the confusion of teenage sexual feelings.” And this: “Mickey Mouse is a larger-than-life cartoon celebrity. Disney World is a place where families go to see what it would be like to live inside a cartoon.” You finish lunch, clear away your tray, and hurry to your next class. But you are thinking of Justin Bieber and Disney World. You have a new perspective on human behaviour and a list of questions that you want answered. That is the purpose of sociological research—to investigate and provide insights into how human societies function.

Although claims and opinions are part of sociology, sociologists use empirical evidence (that is, evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation) combined with the scientific method or an interpretive framework to deliver sound sociological research. They also rely on a theoretical foundation that provides an interpretive perspective through which they can make sense of scientific results. A truly scientific sociological study of the social situations up for discussion in the cafeteria would involve these prescribed steps: defining a specific question, gathering information and resources through observation, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis in a reproducible manner, analyzing and drawing conclusions from the data, publishing the results, and anticipating further development when future researchers respond to and retest findings.

An appropriate starting point in this case might be the question “What do fans of Justin Bieber seek that drives them to follow his Twitter comments so faithfully?” As you begin to think like a sociologist, you may notice that you have tapped into your observation skills. You might assume that your observations and insights are valuable and accurate. But the results of casual observation are limited by the fact that there is no standardization—who is to say one person’s observation of an event is any more accurate than another’s? To mediate these concerns, sociologists rely on systematic research processes.

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behaviour is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behaviour as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have enlightened parents, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms. The students at that university cafeteria discussion put forth a few loosely stated opinions.

If the human behaviours around those claims were tested systematically, a student could write a report and offer the findings to fellow sociologists and the world in general. The new perspective could help people understand themselves and their neighbours and help people make better decisions about their lives. It might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social trends, but, as we shall see, it’s extremely helpful to rely on systematic approaches that research methods provide. Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen in this world. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once a question is formed, a sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. In deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a positivist approach or an interpretive approach. The following sections describe these approaches to knowledge.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried-and-true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, field research, and textual analysis. But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that they can seem impossible to chart or explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions or about proving ideas right or wrong rather than about exploring the nuances of human behaviour. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behaviour. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results. This is the case for both positivist or quantitative methodologies and interpretive or qualitative methodologies. The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.

But just because sociological studies use scientific methods does not make the results less human. Sociological topics are not reduced to right or wrong facts. In this field, results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before—knowledge of other cultures, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, knowledge of trends and attitudes. No matter what research approach is used, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability (how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced). Reliability increases the likelihood that what is true of one person will be true of all people in a group. Researchers also strive for validity (how well the study measures what it was designed to measure).

Returning to the Disney World topic, reliability of a study would reflect how well the resulting experience represents the average experience of theme park-goers. Validity would ensure that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study, so an exploration of adults’ interactions with costumed mascots should address that issue and not veer into other age groups’ interactions with them or into adult interactions with staff or other guests.

In general, sociologists tackle questions about the role of social characteristics in outcomes. For example, how do different communities fare in terms of psychological well-being, community cohesiveness, range of vocation, wealth, crime rates, and so on? Are communities functioning smoothly? Sociologists look between the cracks to discover obstacles to meeting basic human needs. They might study environmental influences and patterns of behaviour that lead to crime, substance abuse, divorce, poverty, unplanned pregnancies, or illness. And, because sociological studies are not all focused on problematic behaviours or challenging situations, researchers might study vacation trends, healthy eating habits, neighbourhood organizations, higher education patterns, games, parks, and exercise habits.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but to interpret and analyze the data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in but not attached to the results. Their research work is independent of their own political or social beliefs. This does not mean researchers are not critical. Nor does it mean they do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. With its systematic approach, the scientific method has proven useful in shaping sociological studies. The scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring a social problem. They provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps—1) ask a question, 2) research existing sources, 3) formulate a hypothesis—described below.

Ask a Question

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 timeframe. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” would be too narrow. That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study.

Sociologists do not rule out any topic, but would strive to frame these questions in better research terms. That is why sociologists are careful to define their terms. In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the cultural value placed on appearance?” When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition ; that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The concept is translated into an observable variable , a measure that has different values. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept.

By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. The operational definition must be valid in the sense that it is an appropriate and meaningful measure of the concept being studied. It must also be reliable, meaning that results will be close to uniform when tested on more than one person. For example, “good drivers” might be defined in many ways: those who use their turn signals, those who don’t speed, or those who courteously allow others to merge. But these driving behaviours could be interpreted differently by different researchers and could be difficult to measure. Alternatively, “a driver who has never received a traffic violation” is a specific description that will lead researchers to obtain the same information, so it is an effective operational definition.

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review , which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library and a thorough online search will uncover existing research about the topic of study. 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. It allows them to sharpen the focus of their research question and avoid duplicating previous research. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to build on previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about childrearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. It’s important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates a researcher and helps refine and improve a study’s design.

Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related; it makes a conjectural statement about the relationship between those variables. It is an “educated guess” because it is not random but based on theory, observations, patterns of experience, or the existing literature. The hypothesis formulates this guess in the form of a testable proposition. However, how the hypothesis is handled differs between the positivist and interpretive approaches. Positivist methodologies are often referred to as hypothetico-deductive methodologies . A hypothesis is derived from a theoretical proposition. On the basis of the hypothesis a prediction or generalization is logically deduced. In positivist sociology, the hypothesis predicts how one form of human behaviour influences another.

Successful prediction will determine the adequacy of the hypothesis and thereby test the theoretical proposition. Typically positivist approaches operationalize variables as quantitative data ; that is, by translating a social phenomenon like “health” into a quantifiable or numerically measurable variable like “number of visits to the hospital.” This permits sociologists to formulate their predictions using mathematical language like regression formulas, to present research findings in graphs and tables, and to perform mathematical or statistical techniques to demonstrate the validity of relationships.

Variables are examined to see if there is a correlation between them. When a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable there is a correlation. This does not necessarily indicate that changes in one variable causes a change in another variable, however, just that they are associated. A key distinction here is between independent and dependent variables. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect , or thing that is changed. For example, in a basic study, the researcher would establish one form of human behaviour as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)? For it to become possible to speak about causation, three criteria must be satisfied:

  • There must be a relationship or correlation between the independent and dependent variables.
  • The independent variable must be prior to the dependent variable.
  • There must be no other intervening variable responsible for the causal relationship.

 Table 2.1. Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables Typically, the independent variable causes the dependent variable to change in some way.

At this point, a researcher’s operational definitions help measure the variables. In a study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, one researcher might define “good” grades as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for “good.” Another operational definition might describe “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” Those definitions set limits and establish cut-off points, ensuring consistency and replicability in a study. As the chart shows, an independent variable is the one that causes a dependent variable to change. For example, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Or rephrased, a child’s sense of self-esteem depends, in part, on the quality and availability of hygienic resources.

Of course, this hypothesis can also work the other way around. Perhaps a sociologist believes that increasing a child’s sense of self-esteem (the independent variable) will automatically increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example shows, simply identifying two topics, or variables, is not enough: Their prospective relationship must be part of the hypothesis. Just because a sociologist forms an educated prediction of a study’s outcome doesn’t mean data contradicting the hypothesis are not welcome. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns.

In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high school dropouts have a hard time finding a rewarding career. While it has become at least a cultural assumption that the higher the education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results will vary.

While many sociologists rely on the positivist hypothetico-deductive method in their research, others operate from an interpretive approach . While systematic, this approach does not follow the hypothesis-testing model that seeks to make generalizable predictions from quantitative variables. Instead, an interpretive framework seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants, leading to in-depth knowledge. It focuses on qualitative data, or the meanings that guide people’s behaviour. Rather than relying on quantitative instruments like questionnaires or experiments, which can be artificial, the interpretive approach attempts to find ways to get closer to the informants’ lived experience and perceptions. Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings. It can begin from a deductive approach, by deriving a hypothesis from theory and then seeking to confirm it through methodologies like in-depth interviews.

However, it is ideally suited to an inductive approach in which the hypothesis emerges only after a substantial period of direct observation or interaction with subjects. This type of approach is exploratory in that the researcher also learns as he or she proceeds, sometimes adjusting the research methods or processes midway to respond to new insights and findings as they evolve. Once the preliminary work is done, it’s time for the next research steps: designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. These research methods are discussed below.

Sociologists examine the world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study—perhaps a positivist, quantitative method for conducting research and obtaining data, or perhaps an ethnographic study utilizing an interpretive framework. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher would not stroll into a crime-ridden neighbourhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?” And if a researcher walked into a coffee shop and told the employees they would be observed as part of a study on work efficiency, the self-conscious, intimidated baristas might not behave naturally.

In the 1920s, leaders of a Chicago factory called Hawthorne Works commissioned a study to determine whether or not changing certain aspects of working conditions could increase or decrease worker productivity. Sociologists were surprised when the productivity of a test group increased when the lighting of their workspace was improved. They were even more surprised when productivity improved when the lighting of the workspace was dimmed. In fact almost every change of independent variable—lighting, breaks, work hours—resulted in an improvement of productivity. But when the study was over, productivity dropped again.

Why did this happen? In 1953, Henry A. Landsberger analyzed the study results to answer this question. He realized that employees’ productivity increased because sociologists were paying attention to them. The sociologists’ presence influenced the study results. Worker behaviours were altered not by the lighting but by the study itself. From this, sociologists learned the importance of carefully planning their roles as part of their research design (Franke and Kaul 1978). Landsberger called the workers’ response the Hawthorne effect —people changing their behaviour because they know they are being watched as part of a study.

The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research. In many cases, sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known for ethical reasons. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985). Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviours, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers cannot just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Ku Klux Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviours. In situations like these, other methods are needed. All studies shape the research design, while research design simultaneously shapes the study. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topic and that fit with their overall goal for the research.

In planning a study’s design, sociologists generally choose from four widely used methods of social investigation: survey, experiment, field research, and textual or secondary data analysis (or use of existing sources). Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use.

As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire. The survey is one of the most widely used positivist research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

At some point or another, everyone responds to some type of survey. The Statistics Canada census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Customers also fill out questionnaires at stores or promotional events, responding to questions such as “How did you hear about the event?” and “Were the staff helpful?” You’ve probably picked up the phone and heard a caller ask you to participate in a political poll or similar type of survey: “Do you eat hot dogs? If yes, how many per month?” Not all surveys would be considered sociological research. Marketing polls help companies refine marketing goals and strategies; they are generally not conducted as part of a scientific study, meaning they are not designed to test a hypothesis or to contribute knowledge to the field of sociology. The results are not published in a refereed scholarly journal, where design, methodology, results, and analyses are vetted.

Often, polls on TV do not reflect a general population, but are merely answers from a specific show’s audience. Polls conducted by programs such as American Idol or Canadian Idol represent the opinions of fans but are not particularly scientific. A good contrast to these are the BBM Ratings, which determine the popularity of radio and television programming in Canada through scientific market research. Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel and think—or at least how they say they feel and think. Surveys can track attitudes and opinions, political preferences, reported individual behaviours (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits), or factual information such as employment status, income, and education levels. A survey targets a specific population , people who are the focus of a study, such as university athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes.

Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample : that is, a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample , every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. According to the laws of probability, random samples represent the population as a whole. For instance, an Ipsos Reid poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people. However the validity of surveys can be threatened when part of the population is inadvertently excluded from the sample (e.g., telephone surveys that rely on land lines exclude people that use only cell phones) or when there is a low response rate. After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses.

It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the study upfront. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument (a means of gathering the information). A common instrument is a structured questionnaire, in which subjects answer a series of set questions. For some topics, the researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question.

This kind of quantitative data —research collected in numerical form that can be counted—is easy to tabulate. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” answers or tabulate the scales of “strongly agree,” “agree,” disagree,” etc. responses and chart them into percentages. This is also their chief drawback however: their artificiality. In real life, there are rarely any unambiguously yes-or-no answers. Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” “agree,” “strongly agree,” or an option next to a checkbox. In those cases, the answers are subjective, varying from person to person. How do you plan to use your university education? Why do you follow Justin Bieber around the country and attend every concert? Those types of questions require short essay responses, and participants willing to take the time to write those answers will convey personal information about religious beliefs, political views, and morals.

Some topics that reflect internal thought are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of information is qualitative data —results that are subjective and often based on what is seen in a natural setting. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. Interviews are similar to the short answer questions on surveys in that the researcher asks subjects a series of questions. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly. Questions such as “How did society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. And, obviously, a sociological interview is not an interrogation. The researcher will benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Experiments

You’ve probably tested personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis. One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment , meaning they investigate relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach. There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments.

In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that perhaps more data can be recorded in a certain amount of time. In a natural or field-based experiment, the generation of data cannot be controlled but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher. As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens, then another particular thing will result.

To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables. Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group . The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. This is similar to pharmaceutical drug trials in which the experimental group is given the test drug and the control group is given a placebo or sugar pill. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might expose the experimental group of students to tutoring while the control group does not receive tutoring. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record, for example.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is perhaps one of the most famous sociological experiments ever conducted. In 1971, 24 healthy, middle-class male university students were selected to take part in a simulated jail environment to examine the effects of social setting and social roles on individual psychology and behaviour. They were randomly divided into 12 guards and 12 prisoners. The prisoner subjects were arrested at home and transported blindfolded to the simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building on the campus of Stanford University. Within a day of arriving the prisoners and the guards began to display signs of trauma and sadism respectively. After some prisoners revolted by blockading themselves in their cells, the guards resorted to using increasingly humiliating and degrading tactics to control the prisoners through psychological manipulation. The experiment had to be abandoned after only six days because the abuse had grown out of hand (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo 1973). While the insights into the social dynamics of authoritarianism it generated were fascinating, the Stanford Prison Experiment also serves as an example of the ethical issues that emerge when experimenting on human subjects.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

An experiment in action: mincome.

A real-life example will help illustrate the experimental process in sociology. Between 1974 and 1979 an experiment was conducted in the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba (the “garden capital of Manitoba”). Each family received a modest monthly guaranteed income—a “mincome”—equivalent to a maximum of 60 percent of the “low-income cut-off figure” (a Statistics Canada measure of poverty, which varies with family size). The income was 50 cents per dollar less for families who had incomes from other sources. Families earning over a certain income level did not receive mincome. Families that were already collecting welfare or unemployment insurance were also excluded. The test families in Dauphin were compared with control groups in other rural Manitoba communities on a range of indicators such as number of hours worked per week, school performance, high school dropout rates, and hospital visits (Forget 2011). A guaranteed annual income was seen at the time as a less costly, less bureaucratic public alternative for addressing poverty than the existing employment insurance and welfare programs. Today it is an active proposal being considered in Switzerland (Lowrey 2013).

Intuitively, it seems logical that lack of income is the cause of poverty and poverty-related issues. One of the main concerns, however, was whether a guaranteed income would create a disincentive to work. The concept appears to challenge the principles of the Protestant work ethic (see the discussion of Max Weber in Chapter 1). The study did find very small decreases in hours worked per week: about 1 percent for men, 3 percent for wives, and 5 percent for unmarried women. Forget (2011) argues this was because the income provided an opportunity for people to spend more time with family and school, especially for young mothers and teenage girls. There were also significant social benefits from the experiment, including better test scores in school, lower high school dropout rates, fewer visits to hospital, fewer accidents and injuries, and fewer mental health issues.

Ironically, due to lack of guaranteed funding (and lack of political interest by the late 1970s), the data and results of the study were not analyzed or published until 2011. The data were archived and sat gathering dust in boxes. The mincome experiment demonstrated the benefits that even a modest guaranteed annual income supplement could have on health and social outcomes in communities. People seem to live healthier lives and get a better education when they do not need to worry about poverty. In her summary of the research, Forget notes that the impact of the income supplement was surprisingly large given that at any one time only about a third of the families were receiving the income and, for some families, the income amount would have been very small. The income benefit was largest for low-income working families but the research showed that the entire community profited. The improvement in overall health outcomes for the community suggest that a guaranteed income would also result in savings for the public health system.

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Sociologists seldom study subjects in their own offices or laboratories. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey. It is a research method suited to an interpretive approach rather than to positivist approaches. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In fieldwork, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element. The researcher interacts with or observes a person or people, gathering data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or a care home, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviours in that setting. Fieldwork is optimal for observing how people behave. It is less useful, however, for developing causal explanations of why they behave that way. From the small size of the groups studied in fieldwork, it is difficult to make predictions or generalizations to a larger population. Similarly, there are difficulties in gaining an objective distance from research subjects. It is difficult to know whether another researcher would see the same things or record the same data. We will look at three types of field research: participant observation, ethnography, and the case study.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

When is sharing not such a good idea.

Choosing a research methodology depends on a number of factors, including the purpose of the research and the audience for whom the research is intended. If we consider the type of research that might go into producing a government policy document on the effectiveness of safe injection sites for reducing the public health risks of intravenous drug use, we would expect public administrators to want “hard” (i.e., quantitative) evidence of high reliability to help them make a policy decision. The most reliable data would come from an experimental or quasi-experimental research model in which a control group can be compared with an experimental group using quantitative measures.

This approach has been used by researchers studying InSite in Vancouver (Marshall et al. 2011; Wood et al. 2006). InSite is a supervised safe-injection site where heroin addicts and other intravenous drug users can go to inject drugs in a safe, clean environment. Clean needles are provided and health care professionals are on hand to intervene in the case of overdose or other medical emergency. It is a controversial program both because heroin use is against the law (the facility operates through a federal ministerial exemption) and because the heroin users are not obliged to quit using or seek therapy. To assess the effectiveness of the program, researchers compared the risky usage of drugs in populations before and after the opening of the facility and geographically near and distant to the facility. The results from the studies have shown that InSite has reduced both deaths from overdose and risky behaviours, such as the sharing of needles, without increasing the levels of crime associated with drug use and addiction.

On the other hand, if the research question is more exploratory (for example, trying to discern the reasons why individuals in the crack smoking subculture engage in the risky activity of sharing pipes), the more nuanced approach of fieldwork is more appropriate. The research would need to focus on the subcultural context, rituals, and meaning of sharing pipes, and why these phenomena override known health concerns. Graduate student Andrew Ivsins at the University of Victoria studied the practice of sharing pipes among 13 habitual users of crack cocaine in Victoria, B.C. (Ivsins 2010). He met crack smokers in their typical setting downtown and used an unstructured interview method to try to draw out the informal norms that lead to sharing pipes. One factor he discovered was the bond that formed between friends or intimate partners when they shared a pipe. He also discovered that there was an elaborate subcultural etiquette of pipe use that revolved around the benefit of getting the crack resin smokers left behind. Both of these motives tended to outweigh the recognized health risks of sharing pipes (such as hepatitis) in the decision making of the users. This type of research was valuable in illuminating the unknown subcultural norms of crack use that could still come into play in a harm reduction strategy such as distributing safe crack kits to addicts.

Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work there. His main purpose was simply to see if anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later, he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology. However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a sociologist will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation , in which researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers study a naturally occurring social activity without imposing artificial or intrusive research devices, like fixed questionnaire questions, onto the situation. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behaviour. Researchers temporarily put themselves into “native” roles and record their observations. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, or live as a homeless person for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside. Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in shaping data into results. In a study of small-town America conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study on the role of religion in American towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change their methods, but they revised their purpose. This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture , their published results (Lynd and Lynd 1959).

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviours of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ behaviour. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job. Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or book, describing what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, as the story goes, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study. To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it? That is how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the low-wage service sector. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter. She discovered the obvious: that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle- and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of service work employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

Ethnography

Ethnography is the extended observation of the social perspective and cultural values of an entire social setting. Researchers seek to immerse themselves in the life of a bounded group, by living and working among them. Often ethnography involves participant observation, but the focus is the systematic observation of an entire community.

The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a community. An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small Newfoundland fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or Disney World. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible, and keeping careful notes on his or her observations.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might learn the language, watch the way villagers go about their daily lives, ask individuals about the meaning of different aspects of activity, study the group’s cosmology and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat centre, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record how people experience spirituality in this setting, and collate the material into results.

The Feminist Perspective: Institutional Ethnography

Dorothy Smith elaborated on traditional ethnography to develop what she calls institutional ethnography (2005). In modern society the practices of everyday life in any particular local setting are often organized at a level that goes beyond what an ethnographer might observe directly. Everyday life is structured by “extralocal,” institutional forms; that is, by the practices of institutions that act upon people from a distance. It might be possible to conduct ethnographic research on the experience of domestic abuse by living in a women’s shelter and directly observing and interviewing victims to see how they form an understanding of their situation. However, to the degree that the women are seeking redress through the criminal justice system a crucial element of the situation would be missing. In order to activate a response from the police or the courts, a set of standard legal procedures must be followed, a “case file” must be opened, legally actionable evidence must be established, forms filled out, etc. All of this allows criminal justice agencies to organize and coordinate the response.

The urgent and immediate experience of the domestic abuse victims needs to be translated into a format that enables distant authorities to take action. Often this is a frustrating and mysterious process in which the immediate needs of individuals are neglected so that needs of institutional processes are met. Therefore to research the situation of domestic abuse victims, an ethnography needs to somehow operate at two levels: the close examination of the local experience of particular women and the simultaneous examination of the extralocal, institutional world through which their world is organized. In order to accomplish this, institutional ethnography focuses on the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through “textually mediated” practices: the use of written documents, standardized bureaucratic categories, and formalized relationships (Smith 1990).

Institutional paperwork translates the specific details of locally lived experience into a standardized format that enables institutions to apply the institution’s understandings, regulations, and operations in different local contexts. The study of these textual practices reveal otherwise inaccessible processes that formal organizations depend on: their formality, their organized character, and their ongoing methods of coordination, etc. An institutional ethnography often begins by following the paper trail that emerges when people interact with institutions: how does a person formulate a narrative about what has happened to him or her in a way that the institution will recognize? How is it translated into the abstract categories on a form or screen that enable an institutional response to be initiated? What is preserved in the translation to paperwork and what is lost? Where do the forms go next? What series of “processing interchanges” take place between different departments or agencies through the circulation of paperwork? How is the paperwork modified and made actionable through this process (e.g., an incident report, warrant request, motion for continuance)?

Smith’s insight is that the shift from the locally lived experience of individuals to the extralocal world of institutions is nothing short of a radical metaphysical shift in worldview. In institutional worlds, meanings are detached from directly lived processes and reconstituted in an organizational time, space, and consciousness that is fundamentally different from their original reference point. For example, the crisis that has led to a loss of employment becomes a set of anonymous criteria that determines one’s eligibility for Employment Insurance.

The unique life of a disabled child becomes a checklist that determines the content of an “individual education program” in the school system, which in turn determines whether funding will be provided for special aid assistants or therapeutic programs. Institutions put together a picture of what has occurred that is not at all the same as what was lived. The ubiquitous but obscure mechanism by which this is accomplished is textually mediated communication . The goal of institutional ethnography therefore is to making “documents or texts visible as constituents of social relations” (Smith 1990). Institutional ethnography is very useful as a critical research strategy. It is an analysis that gives grassroots organizations, or those excluded from the circles of institutional power, a detailed knowledge of how the administrative apparatuses actually work. This type of research enables more effective actions and strategies for change to be pursued.

The Case Study

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation, and even participant observation, if possible. Researchers might use this method to study a single case of, for example, a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that a developed study of a single case, while offering depth on a topic, does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can add tremendous knowledge to a certain discipline. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviours and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about 100 cases of “feral children” in the world. As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” child development. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject. At age three, a Ukrainian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, eating raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbour called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviours, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2006). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be collectable by any other method.

Secondary Data or Textual Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline through secondary data or textual analysis . Secondary data do not result from firsthand research collected from primary sources, but are drawn from the already-completed work of other researchers. Sociologists might study texts written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists. They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines from any period in history. Using available information not only saves time and money, but it can add depth to a study. Sociologists often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behaviour and attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or Facebook.

One methodology that sociologists employ with secondary data is content analysis. Content analysis is a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content (i.e., a variable) that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output. For example, Gilens (1996) wanted to find out why survey research shows that the American public substantially exaggerates the percentage of African Americans among the poor. He examined whether media representations influence public perceptions and did a content analysis of photographs of poor people in American news magazines. He coded and then systematically recorded incidences of three variables: (1) Race: white, black, indeterminate; (2) Employed: working, not working; and (3) Age. Gilens discovered that not only were African Americans markedly overrepresented in news magazine photographs of poverty, but that the photos also tended to underrepresent “sympathetic” subgroups of the poor—the elderly and working poor—while overrepresenting less sympathetic groups—unemployed, working age adults. Gilens concluded that by providing a distorted representation of poverty, U.S. news magazines “reinforce negative stereotypes of blacks as mired in poverty and contribute to the belief that poverty is primarily a ‘black problem’” (1996).

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and global groups, like Statistics Canada or the World Health Organization, publish studies with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic that measures inequality of incomes might be useful for studying who benefited and who lost as a result of the 2008 recession; a demographic profile of different immigrant groups might be compared with data on unemployment to examine the reasons why immigration settlement programs are more effective for some communities than for others. One of the advantages of secondary data is that it is nonreactive (or unobtrusive) research, meaning that it does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process. Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher needs to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. In some cases there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy, for example, to count how many drunk drivers are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not include the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the salaries paid to professors at universities is often published. But the separate figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they have been teaching. In his research, sociologist Richard Sennett uses secondary data to shed light on current trends. In The Craftsman (2008), he studied the human desire to perform quality work, from carpentry to computer programming. He studied the line between craftsmanship and skilled manual labour. He also studied changes in attitudes toward craftsmanship that occurred not only during and after the Industrial Revolution, but also in ancient times. Obviously, he could not have firsthand knowledge of periods of ancient history; he had to rely on secondary data for part of his study. When conducting secondary data or textual analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research for their book Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture in the 1920s. Attitudes and cultural norms were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal the truth about small American communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviours. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used toward positive change. And while a sociologist’s goal is often simply to uncover knowledge rather than to spur action, many people use sociological studies to help improve people’s lives. In that sense, conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Like any researchers, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming subjects or groups while conducting their research. The Canadian Sociological Association, or CSA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in Canada. The CSA is a great resource for students of sociology as well.

The CSA maintains a code of ethics —formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards to be used in the discipline. It also describes procedures for filing, investigating, and resolving complaints of unethical conduct. These are in line with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010) , which applies to any research with human subjects funded by one of the three federal research agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

Practising sociologists and sociology students have a lot to consider. Some of the guidelines state that researchers must try to be skillful and fair-minded in their work, especially as it relates to their human subjects. Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent, and inform subjects of the responsibilities and risks of research before they agree to participate. During a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level. Researchers are required to protect the privacy of research participants whenever possible. Even if pressured by authorities, such as police or courts, researchers are not ethically allowed to release confidential information. Researchers must make results available to other sociologists, must make public all sources of financial support, and must not accept funding from any organization that might cause a conflict of interest or seek to influence the research results for its own purposes. The CSA’s ethical considerations shape not only the study but also the publication of results.

Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared it was entirely inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated, must establish value neutrality , a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results (1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data. Value neutrality does not mean having no opinions. It means striving to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It means avoiding skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs. Is value neutrality possible?

Many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. Individuals inevitably see the world from a partial perspective. Their interests are central to the types of topics they choose, the types of questions they ask, the way they frame their research and the research methodologies they select to pursue it. Moreover, facts, however objective, do not exist in a void. As we noted in Chapter 1, Jürgen Habermas (1972) argues that sociological research has built-in interests quite apart from the personal biases of individual researchers. Positivist sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that are useful for controlling and administering social life. Interpretive sociology has an interest in pursuing types of knowledge that promote greater mutual understanding and the possibility of consensus among members of society. Critical sociology has an interest in types of knowledge that enable emancipation from power relations and forms of domination in society. In Habermas’ view, sociological knowledge is not disinterested knowledge. This does not discredit the results of sociological research but allows readers to take into account the perspective of the research when judging the validity and applicability of its outcomes.

case study in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual

code of ethics a set of guidelines that the Canadian Sociological Association has established to foster ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology

content analysis a quantitative approach to textual research that selects an item of textual content that can be reliably and consistently observed and coded, and surveys the prevalence of that item in a sample of textual output

control group an experimental group that is not exposed to the independent variable

correlation when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable, but does not necessarily indicate causation

d ependent variable variable changed by another variable

empirical evidence evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation

ethnography observing a complete social setting and all that it entails

experiment the testing of a hypothesis under controlled conditions

field research gathering data from a natural environment without doing a lab experiment or a survey

Hawthorne effect when study subjects behave in a certain manner due to their awareness of being observed by a researcher

hypothesis an educated guess with predicted outcomes about the relationship between two or more variables hypothetico-deductive methodologies methodologies based on deducing a prediction from a hypothesis and testing the  validity of the hypothesis by whether it correctly predicts observations

independent variable  variable that causes change in a dependent variable

inductive approach methodologies that derive a general statement from a series of empirical observations

institutional ethnography the study of the way everyday life is coordinated through institutional, textually mediated practices

interpretive approach a sociological research approach that seeks in-depth understanding of a topic or subject through observation or interaction

interview  a one-on-one conversation between a researcher and a subject

literature review a scholarly research step that entails identifying and studying all existing studies on a topic to create a basis for new research

nonreactive  unobtrusive research that does not include direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviours

operational definitions specific explanations of abstract concepts that a researcher plans to study

participant observation immersion by a researcher in a group or social setting in order to make observations from an “insider” perspective

population a defined group serving as the subject of a study

positivist approach a research approach based on the natural science model of knowledge utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question and quantitative data

primary data data collected directly from firsthand experience

qualitative data  information based on interpretations of meaning

quantitative data information from research collected in numerical form that can be counted

random sample a study’s participants being randomly selected to serve as a representation of a larger population reliability a measure of a study’s consistency that considers how likely results are to be replicated if a study is reproduced research design a detailed, systematic method for conducting research and obtaining data

sample small, manageable number of subjects that represent the population

scientific method a systematic research method that involves asking a question, researching existing sources, forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions

secondary data analysis using data collected by others but applying new interpretations

surveys data collections from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviours and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire

textually mediated communication institutional forms of communication that rely on written documents, texts, and paperwork

validity the degree to which a sociological measure accurately reflects the topic of study

value neutrality a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study and in publishing results

variable a characteristic or measure of a social phenomenon that can take different values

Section Summary

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research Using the scientific method, a researcher conducts a study in five phases: asking a question, researching existing sources, formulating a hypothesis, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. The scientific method is useful in that it provides a clear method of organizing a study. Some sociologists conduct scientific research through a positivist framework utilizing a hypothetico-deductive formulation of the research question. Other sociologists conduct scientific research by employing an interpretive framework that is often inductive in nature. Scientific sociological studies often observe relationships between variables. Researchers study how one variable changes another. Prior to conducting a study, researchers are careful to apply operational definitions to their terms and to establish dependent and independent variables.

2.2. Research Methods Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design. There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behaviour, as well as in interpreting and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results. Sociologists use scientific methods for good reason. The scientific method provides a system of organization that helps researchers plan and conduct the study while ensuring that data and results are reliable, valid, and objective. The many methods available to researchers—including experiments, surveys, field studies, and secondary data analysis—all come with advantages and disadvantages. The strength of a study can depend on the choice and implementation of the appropriate method of gathering research. Depending on the topic, a study might use a single method or a combination of methods. It is important to plan a research design before undertaking a study. The information gathered may in itself be surprising, and the study design should provide a solid framework in which to analyze predicted and unpredicted data.

Table 2.2. Main Sociological Research Methods. Sociological research methods have advantages and disadvantages.

2.3. Ethical Concerns Sociologists and sociology students must take ethical responsibility for any study they conduct. They must first and foremost guarantee the safety of their participants. Whenever possible, they must ensure that participants have been fully informed before consenting to be part of a study. The CSA (Canadian Sociological Association) maintains ethical guidelines that sociologists must take into account as they conduct research. The guidelines address conducting studies, properly using existing sources, accepting funding, and publishing results. Sociologists must try to maintain value neutrality. They must gather and analyze data objectively, setting aside their personal preferences, beliefs, and opinions. They must report findings accurately, even if they contradict personal convictions.

Section Quiz

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research 1. A measurement is considered ______­ if it actually measures what it is intended to measure, according to the topic of the study.

  • sociological
  • quantitative

2. Sociological studies test relationships in which change in one ______ causes change in another.

  • test subject
  • operational definition

3. In a study, a group of 10-year-old boys are fed doughnuts every morning for a week and then weighed to see how much weight they gained. Which factor is the dependent variable?

  • the doughnuts
  • the duration of a week
  • the weight gained

4. Which statement provides the best operational definition of “childhood obesity”?

  • children who eat unhealthy foods and spend too much time watching television and playing video games
  • a distressing trend that can lead to health issues including type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  • body weight at least 20 percent higher than a healthy weight for a child of that height
  • the tendency of children today to weigh more than children of earlier generations

2.2. Research Methods 5. Which materials are considered secondary data?

  • photos and letters given to you by another person
  • books and articles written by other authors about their studies
  • information that you have gathered and now have included in your results
  • responses from participants whom you both surveyed and interviewed

6. What method did Andrew Ivsins use to study crack users in Victoria?

  • field research
  • content analysis

7. Why is choosing a random sample an effective way to select participants?

  • Participants do not know they are part of a study
  • The researcher has no control over who is in the study
  • It is larger than an ordinary sample
  • Everyone has the same chance of being part of the study

8. What research method did John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd mainly use in their Middletown study?

  • secondary data
  • participant observation

9. Which research approach is best suited to the positivist approach?

  • questionnaire
  • ethnography
  • secondary data analysis

10. The main difference between ethnography and other types of participant observation is:

  • ethnography isn’t based on hypothesis testing
  • ethnography subjects are unaware they’re being studied
  • ethnographic studies always involve minority ethnic groups
  • there is no difference

11. Which best describes the results of a case study?

  • it produces more reliable results than other methods because of its depth
  • its results are not generally applicable
  • it relies solely on secondary data analysis
  • all of the above

12. Using secondary data is considered an unobtrusive or ________ research method.

  • nonreactive
  • nonparticipatory
  • nonrestrictive
  • nonconfrontive

2.3. Ethical Concerns 13. Which statement illustrates value neutrality?

  • Obesity in children is obviously a result of parental neglect and, therefore, schools should take a greater role to prevent it.
  • In 2003, states like Arkansas adopted laws requiring elementary schools to remove soft drink vending machines from schools.
  • Merely restricting children’s access to junk food at school is not enough to prevent obesity.
  • Physical activity and healthy eating are a fundamental part of a child’s education.

14. Which person or organization defined the concept of value neutrality?

  • Institutional Review Board (IRB)
  • Peter Rossi
  • Canadian Sociological Association (CSA)

15. To study the effects of fast food on lifestyle, health, and culture, from which group would a researcher ethically be unable to accept funding?

  • a fast-food restaurant
  • a nonprofit health organization
  • a private hospital
  • a governmental agency like Health and Social Services

Short Answer

  • Write down the first three steps of the scientific method. Think of a broad topic that you are interested in and which would make a good sociological study—for example, ethnic diversity in a college, homecoming rituals, athletic scholarships, or teen driving. Now, take that topic through the first steps of the process. For each step, write a few sentences or a paragraph: 1) Ask a question about the topic. 2) Do some research and write down the titles of some articles or books you’d want to read about the topic. 3) Formulate a hypothesis.

2.2.Research Methods

  • What type of data do surveys gather? For what topics would surveys be the best research method? What drawbacks might you expect to encounter when using a survey? To explore further, ask a research question and write a hypothesis. Then create a survey of about six questions relevant to the topic. Provide a rationale for each question. Now define your population and create a plan for recruiting a random sample and administering the survey.
  • Imagine you are about to do field research in a specific place for a set time. Instead of thinking about the topic of study itself, consider how you, as the researcher, will have to prepare for the study. What personal, social, and physical sacrifices will you have to make? How will you manage your personal effects? What organizational equipment and systems will you need to collect the data?
  • Create a brief research design about a topic in which you are passionately interested. Now write a letter to a philanthropic or grant organization requesting funding for your study. How can you describe the project in a convincing yet realistic and objective way? Explain how the results of your study will be a relevant contribution to the body of sociological work already in existence.
  • Why do you think the CSA crafted such a detailed set of ethical principles? What type of study could put human participants at risk? Think of some examples of studies that might be harmful. Do you think that, in the name of sociology, some researchers might be tempted to cross boundaries that threaten human rights? Why?
  • Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that could potentially put your health and safety at risk, but had the potential to help thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people? For example, would you participate in a study of a new drug that could cure diabetes or cancer, even if it meant great inconvenience and physical discomfort for you or possible permanent damage?

Further Research

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research For a historical perspective on the scientific method in sociology, read “The Elements of Scientific Method in Sociology” by F. Stuart Chapin (1914) in the American Journal of Sociology : http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Method-in-Sociology

2.2. Research Methods For information on current real-world sociology experiments, visit: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Sociology-Experiments

2.3. Ethical Concerns Founded in 1966, the CSA is a nonprofit organization located in Montreal, Quebec, with a membership of 900 researchers, faculty members, students, and practitioners of sociology. Its mission is to promote “research, publication and teaching in Sociology in Canada.” Learn more about this organization at http://www.csa-scs.ca/ .

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research Merton, Robert. 1968 [1949]. Social Theory and Social Structure . New York: Free Press.

2.2. Research Methods Forget, Evelyn. 2011. “The Town with no Poverty: Using Health Administration Data to Revisit Outcomes of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiement.” Canadian Public Policy . 37(3): 282-305.

Franke, Richard and James Kaul. 1978. “The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation.” American Sociological Review 43(5):632–643.

Gilens, Martin. 1996. “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 60(4):515–541. Grice, Elizabeth. 2006. “Cry of an Enfant Sauvage.” The Telegraph . Retrieved July 20, 2011 ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/3653890/Cry-of-an-enfant-sauvage.html ).

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., and Zimbardo, P. G. 1973. “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison.” International Journal of Criminology and Penology  1:69–97.

Ivsins, A.K. 2010. “’Got a pipe?’ The social dimensions and functions of crack pipe sharing among crack users in Victoria, BC.” MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Victoria. Retrieved February 14, 2014 ( http://dspace.library.uvic.ca:8080/bitstream/handle/1828/3044/Full%20thesis%20Ivsins_CPS.2010_FINAL.pdf?sequence=1 )

Lowrey, Annie. 2013. “Switzerland’s Proposal to Pay People for Being Alive.” The  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2014 ( http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/magazine/switzerlands-proposal-to-pay-people-for-being-alive.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2 ).

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd. 1959. Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture . San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

Lynd, Staughton. 2005. “Making Middleton.” Indiana Magazine of History 101(3):226–238.

Marshall, B.D.L., M.J. Milloy,  E. Wood, J.S.G.  Montaner,  and T. Kerr. 2011. “Reduction in overdose mortality after the opening of North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility: A retrospective population-based study.” Lancet  377(9775):1429–1437.

Rothman, Rodney. 2000. “My Fake Job.” The New Yorker , November 27, 120.

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Retrieved July 18, 2011 ( http://www.richardsennett.com/site/SENN/Templates/General.aspx?pageid=40 ).

Smith, Dorothy. 1990. “Textually Mediated Social Organization” Pp. 209–234 in Texts, Facts and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling. London: Routledge.

Smith, Dorothy. 2005. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Toronto: Altamira Press.

Sonnenfeld, Jeffery A. 1985. “Shedding Light on the Hawthorne Studies.” Journal of Occupational Behavior 6:125.

Wood, E., M.W. Tyndall, J.S. Montaner, and T. Kerr. 2006. “Summary of findings from the evaluation of a pilot medically supervised safer injecting facility.” Canadian Medical Association Journal  175(11):1399–1404.

2.3. Ethical Concerns Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2010.  Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans . Retrieved February 15, 2014 ( http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/pdf/eng/tcps2/TCPS_2_FINAL_Web.pdf ).

Canadian Sociological Association. 2012. Statement of Professional Ethics . Retrieved February 15, 2014 ( http://www.csa-scs.ca/files/www/csa/documents/codeofethics/2012Ethics.pdf ).

Habermas, Jürgen. 1972. Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston: Beacon Press

Weber, Max. 1949. Methodology of the Social Sciences . Translated by H. Shils and E. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1. C | 2. C | 3. D | 4. C | 5. B | 6. C | 7. D | 8. C | 9. A | 10. A | 11. B | 12. A | 13. B | 14. D | 15. A

Image Attributions

Figure 2.3.  Didn’t they abolish the mandatory census? Then what’s this? by  Khosrow Ebrahimpour ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/xosrow/5685345306/in/photolist-9EoT5W-ow4tdu-oeGG4m-oeMEcK-oy2jM2-ovJC8w-oePSRQ-9J2V24-of1Hnu-of243u-of2K2B-of2FHn-owiBSA-owtQN3-of1Ktd-oitLSC-oeVJte-oep8KX-ovEz8w-oeohhF-oew5Xb-oewdWN-owavju-oeMEnV-oweLcN-ovEPGG-ovAQUX-oeo2eL-oeo3Fd-oeoqxh-oxCKnv-ovEzA5-oewFHa-ovHRSz-ow8QtY-oeQY6Y-oeZReR-oeQmHw-oeKXid-oeQLKa-oy6fNT-ow4sVT-oeQMQq-oeQPPr-oeQYbL-ow8hS1-ow4n8v-owiPKS-oeQF41-oeiH5z ) used under CC BY 2.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Figure 2.4. Dauphin Canadian Northern Railway Station by Bobak Ha’Eri ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2009-0520-TrainStation-Dauphin.jpg ) used under CC BY 3.0 license ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en )

Figure 2.5.  Punk Band by Patrick ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/lordkhan/181561343/in/photostream/ ) used under CC BY 2.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Figure 2.6.  Crack Cocaine Smokers in Vancouver Alleyway ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crack_Cocaine_Smokers_in_Vancouver_Alleyway.jpg ) is in the public domain ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain )

Figure 2.8.  Muncie, Indiana High School: 1917 by Don O’Brien ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/dok1/3694125269/ ) used under CC BY 2.0 license ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Introduction to Sociology - 1st Canadian Edition Copyright © 2014 by William Little and Ron McGivern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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sociology research assignment

sociology research assignment

SOC 101: Intro to Sociology: Research Methods Lab Assignment

  • Research Methods Lab Assignment
  • Poster Presentation Assignment
  • Citing Your Information

Research Methods Lab Assignment Objectives

Research Methods Lab Assignment Objectives: For this particular assignment, you will be asked to:

  • Consult a sociology journal from the list provided on this tab to search for a study
  • Cite your findings using ASA style
  • Identify the research method used in the study
  • Describe the study's findings

Sociology Journals

sociology research assignment

  • Social Forces An international journal of social research that publishes articles, commentary, book reviews and lists of recently published books on all areas of social sciences
  • Sociology of Education SOE publishes research that examines how social institutions and individuals' experiences within these institutions affect educational processes and social development.
  • Sociology of Religion Devoted exclusively to sociology of religion. Carries broad range of articles on theoretical & empirical issues. Is a forum for scholarship in classic tradition of comparative, historical & theoretical work.
  • Sociology of Health and Illness Sociology of Health & Illness is an international journal which publishes sociological articles on all aspects of health, illness, medicine and health care. When searching this title, use the Wiley-Blackwell Free Backfiles option at the bottom of the journals list.
  • Sociological Research Concerned with developments in sociology in Russia and other successor states of the USSR.
  • Work and Occupations Journal covering sociology as related to work, occupations, employment and labor relations.
  • Race and Class Articles and book reviews for readers interested in the sociological issues of race and the third world.
  • Gender and Society Articles analyze gender and gendered processes in interactions, organizations, societies, and global and transnational spaces.
  • American Journal of Sociology American Journal of Sociology remains a leading voice for analysis and research in the social sciences. The journal presents pathbreaking work from all areas of sociology, with an emphasis on theory building and innovative methods.

Tips to Verify Primary Research

When reviewing your article, ensure that you have original research in front of you. Consider these terms to help you identify original research,  NOT  theoretical papers, literature reviews, or book reviews.

Assignment Example

Your work should be formatted like the following:

sociology research assignment

How to Browse & Search a Specific Journal

EBSCO Journal Searching When searching EBSCO journals, you can browse issues on the right, or search within the publication using keywords.

sociology research assignment

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When choosing to search within the publication, be sure to click  Advanced Search  in order to add your search terms to the boxes below the journal name.

sociology research assignment

JSTOR Journal Searching ​ When searching JSTOR journals, you can browse issues at the bottom, or search within the publication using keywords. Be sure to use the drop-down menu to reflect  In This Journal  when searching.

sociology research assignment

Wiley Online Library Journal  Searching​ ​ When searching Wiley journals, you can browse issues from the Recently Published Issues  section, or search within the publication using keywords on the right side of the page. 

sociology research assignment

Gale Journal  Searching​ ​ When searching Gale journals,  you can browse issues using the year drop-down menu and selecting your preferred issue number , or search within the publication using keywords at the top of the page. 

sociology research assignment

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25 + Interesting Sociology Project Topics (Updated 2024)

Sociology Project Topics

Sociology focuses on the study of human society, social structures, relationships, and interactions.

It explores how individuals and groups interact, how society is organized. Also, how people are influenced by social forces such as culture, social norms, and institutions.

Sociology uses a variety of research methods, including quantitative and qualitative research.

The insights gained from sociological research are used to inform public policy, address social problems, and promote social change.

This blog will make you familiar with sociology project topics.

Why Are Sociology Projects Important?

Table of Contents

Sociology projects are important for several reasons:

sociology research assignment

1. Understanding Society

Sociology projects provide a better understanding of society. It includes the social structures, relationships, and interactions that make up our social world.

Through research and analysis, sociologists can uncover patterns and trends in social behavior. Thus, helping us to better understand our communities, cultures, and social institutions.

2. Addressing Social Issues

Sociology projects can shed light on social issues. For example, inequality, poverty, discrimination, and injustice. By identifying and analyzing these issues, sociologists can develop strategies. Further, they use them to address and promote positive social change.

3. Informing Public Policy

Sociological research can inform public policy by providing evidence to support policy decisions. For example, sociologists may study the impact of social programs. It includes welfare or healthcare, and provides insights on how to improve them.

4. Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Sociology projects need critical thinking skills such as analyzing data, synthesizing information, and drawing conclusions. These skills are valuable in many fields and can help students to become more informed and engaged citizens.

5. Enhancing Communication Skills

Sociology projects often involve writing, presenting, and discussing research findings with others. This can help students develop communication skills that are essential in many careers.

Therefore, you need to search sociology project topics.

Sociology is the scientific study of human social behavior and the interactions between individuals and groups. It is a vast field that covers a wide range of topics, from the dynamics of small groups to the global impact of social structures. Sociology projects are a great way to explore and understand social issues and interactions. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next sociology project, here are 20 sociology project topics to consider:

1. Gender Roles In The Workplace

This is one of the best sociology project topics. Explore how gender roles affect workplace dynamics and opportunities. You could conduct a survey to gather data on how individuals perceive gender roles in their workplace, or analyze the gender pay gap in a specific industry. 

2. The Impact Of Social Media On Self-Esteem

Investigate how social media affects self-esteem and self-image. You could analyze social media use patterns and compare them to measures of self-esteem and body image.

3. Stereotyping In Media

Analyze how stereotypes are perpetuated in the media and their impact on society. You could examine the representation of marginalized groups in popular media, or conduct a content analysis of news articles. It will help you to see how they reinforce or challenge stereotypes.

4. The Effects Of Poverty On Childhood Development

Examine the relationship between poverty and childhood development. You could analyze data on childhood poverty rates and educational outcomes. It conducts interviews with families living in poverty to better understand their experiences.

5. The impact of social movements on policy change

Investigate how social movements influence policy change. You could analyze the success rates of different types of social movements. It examine the role of social media in mobilizing and organizing movements.

6. Cultural Differences In Communication

Explore how cultural differences affect communication. You could conduct interviews with individuals from different cultural backgrounds. It will help to understand their communication styles, or analyze cultural norms around communication in specific contexts.

7. Social Inequality In Healthcare

Analyze how social inequality affects healthcare access and outcomes. You could examine healthcare data by socioeconomic status, race, or gender. Also, conduct interviews with individuals who have experienced discrimination in healthcare settings.

8. The Role Of Social Support Networks In Mental Health

Investigate the impact of social support networks on mental health outcomes. You could analyze data on social support and mental health outcomes. Conduct interviews with individuals to understand the role of social support in coping with mental health challenges.

9. Immigration And Assimilation

Analyze the process of assimilation for immigrants in a particular country. You could examine how immigrants adapt to the cultural norms of their new home. Also, analyze the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in the immigration process.

10. The Impact Of Globalization On Cultural Identity

Examine how globalization affects cultural identity. You could analyze the spread of popular culture across borders. Further, investigate the ways in which global trade and commerce impact local cultures.

11. The Impact Of Technology On Social Interaction

Investigate how technology affects social interaction. You could analyze trends in online communication, or conduct interviews with individuals. It will help to understand how their use of technology impacts their social lives.

12. Environmental Justice

Analyze the relationship between social inequality and environmental issues. You could examine data on pollution and health outcomes by socioeconomic status.

Analyze the experiences of communities impacted by environmental disasters.

13. Crime And Punishment

This is one of the most debatable sociology project topics. In this, you have to investigate the criminal justice system and its impact on individuals and communities. You could analyze data on incarceration rates by race or socioeconomic status.

Conduct interviews with individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

14. The Role Of Religion In Society

Examine the role of religion in shaping social values and beliefs. You could analyze the relationship between religiosity and political attitudes.

Investigate the ways in which different religions impact gender norms and expectations.

15. Urban Sociology

Urban sociology focuses on life in cities, from their population to their economy. It also explores the ways in which city residents interact, the cultural development of city life.  Also, it will let you know the dynamics between different subsets of the urban population.

These results can be useful to local government authorities, municipal employees, and service providers.

Historically, urban sociologists have focused on empirical analysis. with the goal of understanding city change and its relationship to larger processes. They have tended to emphasize agents of change, including entrepreneurs, governments and policymakers.

16. Rural Sociology

Rural sociologists study social life outside the subnational settings conventionally studied in sociology. It focuses on areas with the least resources and the most social structural impediments to higher incomes and employment.

A series of defining attributes and axes of tension characterize the field’s development (Lobao 1996). First, attention to social life in settings with the geographic periphery.

Second, community has been a significant focus in rural sociology, and community studies have developed . A recent survey of articles published from 1965 to 1976 identified three different paradigmatic perspectives. These include functionalist, interpretive, and critical approaches (Falk and Zhao 1989:591).

17. Family Sociology

Family sociology is a wide area of research that examines the family as an intimate unit. This includes topics like the roles of men and women in the family, the effects of divorce on families, single parenting, and family therapy.

Family relationships are one of the most important things that sociologists study. It play a significant role in socialization and identity development. They also have a strong impact on children’s behaviors and actions.

Sociologists use a variety of techniques to explore the family. It includes cultural factors and shifting demographics. They look at everything from gender and age to race. It includes ethnicity to understand how these factors affect the structures and processes of each family.

18. Gender Sociology

Gender sociology is the study of how society determines gender. It focuses on how men and women are perceived in society and how they act toward each other.

The socialization process that creates and maintains stereotype gender roles starts early in life.

Sociologists say that this process is a result of gender-specific behavior during childhood.

Feminists have argued that the traditional societal gender expectations disadvantaged women and kept them in subordination.

19. Music Sociology

Music sociology is an interesting subject that explores how people relate to music and the effects of music on their lives. It’s an important topic that will provide you with a great research project.

During your studies, you’ll learn about many different types of music including classical, jazz, rock, and pop. These different genres are all important to study. They reflect social values, organization processes, meanings, and individual identity.

In addition, you’ll learn about the different ways in which music is categorized. Also, how that affects consumer purchasing decisions. You’ll also learn about the different influences that have shaped popular music in America and abroad.

20. Politics

As you consider the sociological implications of politics. Think about how people’s lives and experiences vary depending on their racial, ethnic, gender, and class identities.

You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about how the social world works if you begin to ask sociological questions.

Once you’ve identified a sociological research topic, it’s time to turn to the library. This is an important step to take as you begin your original research sociology project topics.

21. Youth and Substance Abuse

Investigate the underlying factors contributing to substance abuse among young people, such as peer pressure and socioeconomic conditions. Explore prevention and intervention strategies to reduce the problem.

22. Effects of Media Violence on Children

Explore the relationship between exposure to violent media content and aggressive behavior in children. Discuss the societal implications and propose measures to minimize the negative impact.

23. Environmental Justice and Communities

Examine the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards faced by marginalized communities. Discuss the intersection of race, socioeconomic status, and environmental inequality, and propose strategies for achieving environmental justice.

24. The Effects of Technology on Human Relationships

Inspect the influence of technology, such as smartphones and social media, on interpersonal relationships. Analyze how technology affects communication patterns, social interactions, and the formation of meaningful connections, and discuss strategies for maintaining healthy relationships in the digital age.

25. Social Movements and LGBTQ+ Rights

Explore the history and impact of social movements advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. Analyze the strategies used, legal advancements achieved, and remaining challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in achieving full equality and acceptance.

26. Online Harassment and Cyberbullying

Investigate the prevalence and impact of online harassment and cyberbullying on individuals and communities. Analyze the factors contributing to online harassment, its psychological and social consequences, and propose strategies for prevention and creating safer online spaces.

  • Project Management Ideas
  • Mass Communication Project Topics

Elements of Sociology Project – You Should Know

The elements of a sociology project may vary depending on the scope of the research and the specific requirements of the project. However, some common elements of a sociology project may include:

1. Research Question

A clear and concise research question should be established. It defines the focus of the project and guides the research process.

2. Literature Review

A review of existing research on the topic should be conducted to provide context for the project. Also, it identifies gaps in the existing knowledge.

3. Methodology

The methodology should be carefully chosen based on the research question. It should include details on data collection methods, data analysis techniques, and ethical considerations.

4. Data Collection

Data should be collected using appropriate methods. It includes surveys, interviews, observations, or experiments. The data collected should be relevant to the research question and analyzed thoroughly.

5. Data Analysis

Data should be analyzed using appropriate statistical or qualitative techniques. It depends on the nature of the data and the research question.

The results of the analysis should be presented clearly and concisely, using graphs, tables, or other visual aids as necessary. The results should be interpreted in light of the research question and existing literature.

7. Conclusion

A conclusion should be drawn based on the analysis of the data and the research question. The conclusion should summarize the findings of the study, discuss their implications, and suggest areas for future research.

8. References

All sources used in the project should be properly cited using a recognized citation style.

Ways To Make Sociology Project Efficiently?

After, you decide the sociology project topics, next thing is to make the project efficiently. Here are some tips to make your sociology project more efficient:

1. Start Early

Give yourself plenty of time to plan and conduct your research. Starting early will also give you more time to revise and polish your work. Start with finding suitable sociology project topics.

2. Choose A Focused Research Question

A well-defined research question will guide your research and help you stay focused. Be sure to choose a research question that is specific, clear, and manageable.

3. Conduct A Thorough Literature Review

A literature review will help you understand the existing research on your topic. It identifies gaps in the literature that your project can address. This will save you time and help you avoid duplicating previous research.

4. Use Reliable Sources

Use reliable sources, such as academic journals and books, to ensure the accuracy and credibility of your research.

5. Collect Data Efficiently

Use efficient data collection methods, such as online surveys or interviews via phone or video call, to save time and resources. Be sure to obtain informed consent from participants and follow ethical guidelines.

6. Organize Your Data

Organize your data using a spreadsheet or database to make it easier to analyze and draw conclusions.

7. Use Appropriate Analysis Techniques

Choose appropriate analysis techniques, such as descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, or qualitative analysis, depending on the nature of your data and research question.

8. Write Concisely And Clearly

Write your project in a clear and concise manner, using subheadings and bullet points to make it easier to read and understand. Be sure to proofread your work carefully to avoid errors and inconsistencies.

9. Get Feedback

Ask for feedback from peers, professors, or other experts find the perfect sociology project topics and to improve the quality of your work and identify areas for improvement.

Through the exploration of these sociology project topics, sociologists can gain valuable insights into the ways in which society functions and how social problems arise. By conducting research and analyzing data, sociologists can help to inform public policy and promote social justice.

Furthermore, sociology projects provide students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, research and writing skills, and an understanding of the complex social systems that shape our world. Whether you are interested in pursuing a career in sociology or simply want to deepen your understanding of social issues, sociology project topics offer a wealth of opportunities for learning and personal growth.

Overall, this blog has shown that sociology is a dynamic and important field that can help us to better understand and address the complex social problems facing our world today. By studying sociology project topics, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity and complexity of human society, and work towards building a more just and equitable world.

Q1. What are the 8 types of sociology?

Here are 8 types of sociology that you must know which includes: Criminology Rural Sociology Historical Sociology Sociology of Knowledge Sociology of Religion Sociology of Economy Urban Sociology Political Sociology

Q2. What are the 7 areas of sociology?

The 7 areas of sociology are as follows: Social organization Social psychology Social change Human ecology Population and demographics Applied sociology Sociological methods and research.

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150+ Interesting Sociology Research Topics

sociology research assignment

Sociological research topics are one of the most interesting kinds of research that you can do. This is because topics of sociology are not only enlightening, but they also treat important aspects of life. Many people carry out sociology science research for different reasons. You may write sociology topics for essays, or other kinds of research papers. For whatever reason that you choose to carry out your research, there are a variety of topics that you can choose from. Finding the most interesting sociology topics should not pose a serious challenge for you.

Features of a good sociological research topic

Sociology topics dive into fields of human lives that may appear simple. For instance, writing a sociological research paper on eating, disparities between human races, politics, or cultural behaviors.

Carrying out research on topics in sociology means that you are adopting scientific means to provide whatever reports that your paper would contain. Hence, good sociological topics for research papers should be; Interactive, informative, current, based on facts, unbiased, and relevant.

The importance of good sociology research topics should not be undermined. This is because it determines what your research would entail, and the results that your research would produce.

Sociology Research Paper Topics on Culture and Lifestyle

  • The general effects of art in everyday life
  • The rising significance of prostitution
  • Should babies be circumcised or get piercings even with their inability to give consent?
  • The role and importance of music in human culture
  • The significance of different dress culture
  • Addressing the controversy of the LGBTQ community
  • The rising awareness of women prowess in the society
  • Feminism and its effect on the changing society
  • Does traveling affect one’s life positively or negatively?
  • What secret societies entail
  • Should there be a universal ideal marriage culture
  • The abuse of over-the-counter drugs and its effect on health
  • The role that humans play in global warming
  • African culture and beliefsSociology topics on Rape, Crimes, and Abuse
  • Ways that people get abused emotionally and physically without knowing
  • Addressing abuse from lecturer/ teacher to student in institutions of learning
  • Ways that you abuse people emotionally and physically without knowing
  • The growing culture of blackmail through sex
  • The still occurring practice of kids marriage in different communities
  • Empowering women for self-defense
  • Helping rape victims overcome trauma
  • Why do abusers do what they do?
  • Should the punishment for rapists and abusers be more severe?
  • The implications of the death sentence on criminals
  • Looking into Innocent people that have served jail terms for crimes they did not commit.
  • Employee – employer bully
  • The importance of educating the male gender against rape
  • Factors responsible for rape
  • Drugs abuse and its effect on the society

Sociological Research Paper Topic on the Global Pandemic

  • Adapting to the changing times of the pandemic
  • Analyzing life before and after the pandemic
  • The blessings that are hidden underneath the disaster of the coronavirus
  • Debunking the myths and controversy surrounding vaccination against the deadly virus
  • How can the world better prepare for unforeseen disruptions from similar cases of COVID-19
  • Did countries of the world handle the effects of the virus in the best ways possible?
  • The effects of the COVID-19 vaccine

Social Science Research Topics on Ethnicity and Nationalism

  • How racism affects global development
  • The way forward for cohabitation between different peoples
  • The fast-rising trend of banditry and terrorism
  • The role of ethnicity and religion in global unrest
  • Countries with the highest rankings of racism and gender inequality
  • The similarities between ethnicity and racism
  • What are the disparities between modern nationalism and the traditional nationalism
  • The unifying characteristics of language
  • Acts that should be considered patriotic
  • Your obligations to the state

Sociology Essay Topics on Social Media and the Internet

  • The social media community and its role as a unifying factor
  • How the social media aided the “black lives matter” campaign
  • Should there be a restriction on access to the internet?
  • The blessing and curse of the social media
  • The effects of cyberbullying
  • The right of social media founders to restrict activities on the internet
  • Many ways that social media served as a platform for relaying extremely important information
  • Online dating; positive/ negative effects, as well as realities for couples
  • The life of social media influencers and their roles in instigating a change
  • How does public opinion affect state politics
  • Character representation in kids cartoons
  • Mass media harassment

Social Scientific Research Topics on Youth, Politics, and Sexuality

  • The subject of open sexuality in youths today
  • Why do more youths fail to participate in politics
  • Should explicit sexual contents remain censored even with how much exposure teens already have?
  • What age bracket should be classified as youths?
  • How does social media affect the behavior of youths and teens?
  • Managing the life-threatening situation in the game of politics
  • Why corruption lurks in politics
  • The role of youths in elections
  • Maintaining the voting rights of people
  • Including politics into the school curriculum
  • The right way to go about sexual education
  • The fear of coming out as gay to family and loved ones
  • Does sex play a role in a failing relationship?
  • Addressing the issue of virginity in ladies
  • The peer pressure of getting tattoos among teens

Social Research Topics on Education

  • The bully culture in schools and why it still thrives
  • Why do public schools Witness more indiscipline?
  • The right to education; the heavy demands in private schools
  • Should religion be inculcated into the basic school curriculum?
  • Helping kids deal with trauma from being bullied
  • Should every kid be assigned a teacher to monitor them?
  • How feasible will it be for students to decide which teachers they’d like to tutor them?
  • Are teachers underpaid for the services that they render?
  • How effective is the tactic of examinations and tests in helping students?
  • Should extracurricular activities be given more attention in schools?
  • Is detention an effective tool for punishing offenders in schools?
  • Handling social class discrimination in schools
  • Do students who are homeschooled get the same values as those schooled in a classroom?
  • The importance of making students wear uniforms
  • Education values

Sociology Topics for Essay on Family

  • The behavior and attitude of children in broken homes; how to help them overcome the trauma
  • The importance of DNA; should it be made compulsory when a child is born?
  • The responsibility of single parenting
  • Should women pay child support if the man has custody of their child?
  • Marriages; placing a legal age for people to get married
  • Who should propose marriage in a relationship; the man or the woman?
  • Should having children outside wedlock be considered illegal?
  • How gender equality affects relationships
  • Should there be restrictions on the number of kids a married couple can have?
  • The issue of bad parenting and the best way to handle its effect
  • Is love always the determining factor in relationships?
  • What influence do gay parents have on the sexual decision of their kids?
  • The mental effect of arranged marriages on both the parents and children
  • Why failed marriages are a common recurring event.
  • Should children be given physical painful punishments when they do the wrong things?
  • The difference between modern and past methods of parenting
  • Should family planning be made compulsory?

Sociological Paper Topics on Psychology

  • Why do people opt for euthanasia
  • The growing rate of anxiety and depression
  • Understanding the life of addiction to drugs and alcohol
  • Why do people shy away from seeking therapy after a trauma
  • The ideology behind feminism
  • The realities of PTSD
  • How families of fallen soldiers battle grief
  • Do males also go through sex discrimination?
  • Inside a teenager’s head
  • Unmasking the face behind the gothic lives of people
  • How are female sex workers discriminated against?
  • The role of religion in shaping ideology
  • How social interaction helps tackle trauma
  • Are antidepressants helpful
  • Who are feminine men?

Sociology Paper Topics on Superstition, Art, and Science

  • Do mermaids live in our midst
  • The controversy of the incomplete Christian bible
  • African historical culture; the practice of rituals
  • What is in Pandora’s box?
  • The accuracy of the big bang theory

Sociological Topics on Health

  • Why intermittent fasting?
  • Is dieting enough to lose weight?
  • The exercise culture for overweight women
  • How effective is yoga?
  • The health benefits of exercises
  • Why do people find it difficult to exercise
  • How many people invest in food
  • What happens in the gym locker rooms
  • How expensive is it to eat healthily?
  • How homeless people manage to eat healthily
  • Are food supplements healthy?
  • The phobia for hospitals
  • Why nurses may appear rude
  • Why do adults fear needles
  • The importance of drug prescription

Sociology Topics for Research Paper on Class conflict

  • Who sets the standard?
  • Family training pattern of the rich and the poor
  • The effect of class disparities in the society
  • The effect of class disparities in social gatherings
  • Do the poor hate the rich?
  • Revenue distribution between opposite sides of the state
  • Do the rich hate the poor?
  • The history of class conflict
  • The bias in class segregation
  • Should the disabled get special treatments?
  • Who belongs in the ghetto?
  • The theory of equal opportunity for all classes

Final tips on sociology research paper topics

The categories of sociology topics to research range from economy to anthropology. They vary from lifestyle, alcoholism, education, family, as you can see from the list above. Pick the one that suits you and start writing.

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Sociology articles from across Nature Portfolio

sociology research assignment

Long ties across networks accelerate the spread of social contagions

Long ties that bridge socially separate regions of networks are critical for the spread of contagions, such as innovations or adoptions of new norms. Contrary to previous thinking, long ties have now been found to accelerate social contagions, even for behaviours that involve the social reinforcement of adoption by network neighbours.

sociology research assignment

Long online discussions are consistently the most toxic

An ambitious investigation has analysed discourse on eight social-media platforms, covering a vast array of topics and spanning several decades. It reveals that online conversations increase in toxicity as they get longer — and that this behaviour persists despite shifts in platforms’ business models, technological advances and societal norms.

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sociology research assignment

Keep the (social) distance! Turnout and risk perception during health crisis

  • Andreea Stancea
  • Aurelian Muntean

sociology research assignment

Happiness amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia: exploring gender, residence type, and pandemic severity

  • Indera Ratna Irawati Pattinasarany

Artificial intelligence and socioeconomic forces: transforming the landscape of religion

sociology research assignment

Domestic violence against women during the COVID19 pandemic in Jordan: a systematic review

  • Maissa N. Alrawashdeh
  • Rula Odeh Alsawalqa
  • Fawzi Khalid AlTwahya

Volunteer translators in non-governmental organizations: exploring their identity and power through discourse analysis

  • María del Mar Sánchez Ramos

sociology research assignment

Does timing matter? Language course participation and language outcomes amongst new immigrants

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sociology research assignment

We urgently need a culture of multi-operationalization in psychological research

Analysis of different operationalizations shows that many scientific results may be an artifact of the operationalization process. A culture of multi-operationalization may be needed for psychological research to develop valid knowledge.

  • Dino Carpentras

sociology research assignment

Using stakeholder network analysis to enhance the impact of participation in water governance

Citizen participation in water governance can improve the relevance, implementation, and effectiveness of public policies. However, participation can be expressed in a great diversity of forms, on a gradient ranging from mere public consultation to shared governance of natural resources. Positive outcomes ultimately depend on the conditions under which participation takes place, with key factors such as leadership, the degree of trust among stakeholders, and the interaction of public authorities with citizens. Social network analysis has been used to operationalize participatory processes, contributing to the identification of leaders, intersectoral integration, strategic planning, and conflict resolution. In this commentary, we analyze the potential and limitations of participation in water governance and illustrate it with the case of the Campina de Faro aquifer in southern Portugal. We propose that stakeholder network analysis is particularly useful for promoting decentralized decision-making and consensual water resources management. The delegation of power to different interest groups is a key process in the effectiveness of governance, which can be operationalized with network analysis techniques.

  • Isidro Maya Jariego

sociology research assignment

How a tree-hugging protest transformed Indian environmentalism

Fifty years ago, a group of women from the villages of the Western Himalayas sparked Chipko, a green movement that remains relevant in the age of climate change.

  • Seema Mundoli

sociology research assignment

To understand mRNA vaccine hesitancy, stop calling the public anti-science

  • Patrick Peretti-Watel
  • Pierre Verger
  • Jeremy K. Ward

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sociology research assignment

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  1. Sociology Research Topics & Ideas (Free Webinar + Template)

    If you're just starting out exploring sociology-related topics for your dissertation, thesis or research project, you've come to the right place. In this post, we'll help kickstart your research by providing a hearty list of research ideas, including real-world examples from recent sociological studies.. PS - This is just the start…

  2. PDF A Guide to Writing a Senior Thesis in Sociology

    The thesis project requires research into the theories and past research relevant to the project, analysis of data, either original or existing, and a written final ... Sociology 91r, an independent reading and research course, with a Sociology faculty member. This is a one semester course resulting in a smaller research paper, but it gives

  3. Sociology 190 Research Assignment

    by Sarah Macdonald, Sociology. Context Assignment 1: Paper Proposal Assignment 2: Literature Review Assignment 3: Abstract and Outline Assignment 4: Research Presentation Assignment 5: Final Paper. Context. Sociology 190 is a senior capstone course in which students engage in small seminar discussions of a particular topic.

  4. 2.2 Research Methods

    Our mission is to improve educational access and learning for everyone. OpenStax is part of Rice University, which is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. Give today and help us reach more students. Help. OpenStax. This free textbook is an OpenStax resource written to increase student access to high-quality, peer-reviewed learning materials.

  5. 2.3 Research Design in Sociology

    If random assignment is used, experiments provide fairly convincing data on cause and effect. ... The major types of sociological research include surveys, experiments, observational studies, and the use of existing data. Surveys are very common and allow for the gathering of much information on respondents that is relatively superficial. The ...

  6. How to Write a Sociology Assignment

    Introduction - 1 paragraph. The main argument made by the author along with examples offered by you to relate the writing with the reality - 4 or more paragraphs. Conclusion - 1 paragraph. The planning stage can also include a timeline. You can generate a timeline for yourself where you self-appoint deadlines.

  7. PDF A Guide for Junior Papers and Senior Theses

    First and foremost, sociological research must be informed by a scholarly literature. Sociologists seek to better understand society and build theories that help us to make sense of and understand our social worlds. Independent research, whether or JP or senior ... Of all the pieces of your research project, this is probably the most important ...

  8. 2.2 Stages in the Sociological Research Process

    Typically, a research project must answer at least one of these questions satisfactorily for it to have a chance of publication in a scholarly journal, and a thorough literature review is necessary to determine the new study's possible contribution. ... When sociological research tests relationships between variables, it normally is testing ...

  9. 2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research

    Our mission is to improve educational access and learning for everyone. OpenStax is part of Rice University, which is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. Give today and help us reach more students. Help. OpenStax. This free textbook is an OpenStax resource written to increase student access to high-quality, peer-reviewed learning materials.

  10. Sociology

    Undergraduate writing assignments in sociology may take a number of forms, but they typically involve reviewing sociological literature on a subject; applying or testing a particular concept, theory, or perspective; or producing a small-scale research report, which usually involves a synthesis of both the literature review and application ...

  11. 101 Sociology Research Topics That Make an Impact

    What kind of sociology research topics have you looked at lately? Do they make the right impact? Check out this list that assures you'll be passionate! ... Whether you choose one of these topics or they spur another idea, you're sure to come up with a great basis for your research project. Culture and Society Sociology Research Topics.

  12. 40+ Sociology Research Topics For Students In 2023

    Here are 40+ sociology research topics for students in 2023: 1. Gender Inequality In The Workplace. Explore the causes, consequences, and potential solutions for gender disparities in employment. 2. The Influence Of Cultural Norms On Marriage And Family Dynamics.

  13. Assignments and Discussions

    Discussion: Society and Formal Organizations. Analyze bureaucracies and meritocracy. Assignment: Society and Groups. Explain a primary group, secondary group, in-group, out-group, and a reference group. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control. Discussion: Deviance. Discuss formal deviance norms in the U.S. Assignment: Deviance in the News.

  14. Common Paper Assignments

    Common Paper Assignments. As a sociology major, you will complete a variety of writing assignments to demonstrate your knowledge and research skills, your ability to apply and synthesize abstract concepts and theories, or even show your critical thinking skills. Below is a brief description of the types of paper assignments that are common ...

  15. 70 Excellent Sociology Research Paper Topics for You

    70 Catchy Sociology Research Paper Topics That Really Stand Out. If you are taking sociology in college, you will agree that it is one of the fascinating subjects because it involves dealing with things that define and affect people, such as cultures, customs, and how people's ways of life change. Despite being an enthralling subject, many ...

  16. Sociology Research Guide: SOC 210 Research Assignment

    The Assignment. Choose a social problem you are interested in. Research your social problem: Definition of the social issue. History. People affected. Solutions. Develop a detailed solution to address this social problem. In addition to the textbook, you need a minimum of 3 credible sources.

  17. 5.14: Assignment- Utilizing Secondary Research

    RUBRIC Background: For many sociology students (and sociologists), secondary research can seem like the most "boring" research method; however, as we saw with Emile Durkheim's early work on suicide using secondary data (death records), we are able to glean a great deal from utilizing existing statistical information. STEP 1: Look at the bivariate (2 variable) table below.

  18. Chapter 2. Sociological Research

    2.2. Research Methods Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design. There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behaviour, as well as in interpreting and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results.

  19. SOC 101: Intro to Sociology: Research Methods Lab Assignment

    Research Methods Lab Assignment Objectives: For this particular assignment, you will be asked to: Consult a sociology journal from the list provided on this tab to search for a study. Review the article abstract to ensure the study involves primary research. Cite your findings using ASA style. Identify the research method used in the study.

  20. 11 Smart Sociology Research Topics

    The list is organized around 11 umbrella topics, each with its own set of mini-topics. These umbrella topics include: Race, Nationality, and Ethnicity. Mass Media. Food. Youth Cultures. Gender and Sexuality. Social Movements. Cults, Clans, and Communities.

  21. 25 + Interesting Sociology Project Topics (Updated 2024)

    The elements of a sociology project may vary depending on the scope of the research and the specific requirements of the project. However, some common elements of a sociology project may include: 1. Research Question. A clear and concise research question should be established. It defines the focus of the project and guides the research process. 2.

  22. 150+ Interesting Sociology Research Topics

    Final tips on sociology research paper topics. The categories of sociology topics to research range from economy to anthropology. They vary from lifestyle, alcoholism, education, family, as you can see from the list above. Pick the one that suits you and start writing. Sociological research topics are one of the most interesting kinds of ...

  23. Sociology

    How a tree-hugging protest transformed Indian environmentalism. Fifty years ago, a group of women from the villages of the Western Himalayas sparked Chipko, a green movement that remains relevant ...

  24. Welcome to the Purdue Online Writing Lab

    Mission. The Purdue On-Campus Writing Lab and Purdue Online Writing Lab assist clients in their development as writers—no matter what their skill level—with on-campus consultations, online participation, and community engagement. The Purdue Writing Lab serves the Purdue, West Lafayette, campus and coordinates with local literacy initiatives.