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Sociological Research Process. Research Stages

Sociologists use the scientific method of research to answer questions related to society and social behavior. The scientific method is “a procedure for acquiring knowledge that emphasizes collecting concrete data through observation and experimentation” (Ferris & Stein, 2018, p. 41). Thus, the method might be characterized as systematic, unbiased, and based on repeated observations. The scientific method involves a series of basic steps for systematic research that will be examined in the following work.

The first step in the process of sociological research is the definition of the variables. Variables are defined as two or more phenomena that are related or connected according to a researcher, and which might be divided into dependent and independent. Independent variable (IV) is a factor that is expected to cause a change in the experimental group, while the dependent variable (DV) is a factor that might be changed by the IV (Ferris & Stein, 2018). The scientific method requires the researcher to differentiate between correlation and causation. On the one hand, causation is a “relationship between variables in which a change in one directly produces a change in the other” (Ferris & Stein, 2018, p. 43). On the other hand, correlation occurs when the variables change simultaneously or when one variable leads to a change in the other. There might be an intervening variable involved in the process, which causes the change in the other two variables and leads to a spurious correlation.

The second step is writing a hypothesis, which is a theoretical statement aimed at determining and explaining the connection between the variables. Durkheim Hypothesis might be used as an example where suicide is considered as the DV and social integration, or sense of belonging, serves as the IV. Durkheim claimed that “the most individualistic actions have sociological explanations” and developed his methodology for studying such actions (Ferris & Stein, 2018, p. 18). The hypothesis proposes that people who were poorly integrated into a group were more likely to commit suicide in comparison with people who felt more socially integrated.

The third step in sociological research is conducting a literature review. During this step, a researcher investigates previously published studies of a given topic to avoid duplication of the work that has been done before. Moreover, a literature review provides the knowledge and the foundation for new research. While writing the book titled All Our Kin, Carol Stack studied the case files of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to discover the patterns and choose an appropriate key subject (Duneier, 2007). The review of the AFDC data also allowed Stack to determine the relationship between family deterioration, poverty, and welfare policy.

The fourth step is selecting a research method or design to employ in a study. Ethnography, or participant observation, is a common qualitative method of sociological research that is based on fieldwork and a researcher’s participation in the studied group’s day-to-day lives. The participant observation technique was remarkably used by Elliot Liebow during his research on black families living in poverty for his book Tally’s Corner (Kelly, 2011). Additionally, John Howard Griffin became a complete participant to investigate the conflict between blacks and whites. He changed the color of his skin, found a job in a shoeshine stand, and observed the reactions of white people around him (Pilgrim, 2011). Sociologists conduct experiments to develop the tools for observation, recording and measuring of data (Ferris & Stein, 2018). In 1971, the Stanford University Psychology department created a prison simulation experiment using students as prisoners and guards (IFC Films, 2015). The experimental method helps the researcher to regulate all variables except for the one that is being investigated so that the sociologist can draw proper conclusions.

A survey is another method used by researchers to collect the responses of the participants from a target population. The technique utilizes statistical analysis and requires appropriate questions and elaborate sample selection for valid results. A questionnaire might be simple and contain closed-ended questions, or it may be based on a more complex format such as the Likert scale (Ferris & Stein, 2018). A case study is a set of open-ended questions utilized by a researcher to investigate a phenomenon in its real-life context. Content analysis is the method of analyzing recorded material in the forms of secondary sources like archival or historical records or compilation data such as U. S. Census. Researchers search for recurrent themes or measure the frequency of a specific variable in a text or image.

The fifth step involves the collection of the data for research based on the research design selected by a sociologist. In the case of participant observation, the researcher uses field notes to examine the social world of a particular group and document the findings. For example, John Howard Griffin wrote journal entries and notes to gather qualitative data, which he published in his book Black Like Me (Pilgrim, 2011). Elliot Liebow also used notes to describe his observations from prison visits and court appearances (Kelly, 2011). During an experiment, the data can be collected by taking notes or implementing video recording equipment, as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment. If the content analysis method is selected by a researcher, websites, and social networks (Facebook, Twitter) might be considered for data collection (Ferris & Stein, 2018). The survey technique allows collecting the data by offering questionnaires and interviews to a target group.

The sixth step is data analysis and evaluation of the accuracy of the hypothesis. Data analysis in experimental sociology is often quantitative because it aims to isolate a variable and examine its impact on a given social situation. Content analysis is quantitative or qualitative in nature and may contradict some old findings. The systematic analysis of poverty by Elliot Liebow and Carol Stack underlined the problems in the relationship between qualitative and quantitative data and, thus, highlighted the importance of ethnographic work (Duneier, 2007). Overall, data analysis is a way for a sociologist to examine the existing resources and findings in order to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

The seventh step is drawing conclusions of research by generalization or inference. Generalization is a statement of a relationship between the variables which can be applied to anyone at any time. The inference is applied to a target population that serves as a sample source and is evidence-based. For example, by generalization, Liebow came to the conclusion that poverty is transferred through culture and that the family is the cause of black poverty. (Duneier, 2007). The researchers who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment drew an inference that the correctional institutions should promote human values instead of destroying them. Therefore, conclusion drawing is the final step of a sociological research process that reflects the results of particular research design and proper data analysis.


Duneier, M. (2007). On the legacy of Elliot Liebow and Carol Stack: Context-driven framework and the need for continuous ethnography. Focus, 25(1), 33–38.

Ferris, K., & Stein, J. (2018). The real world: An introduction to sociology (6th ed.). W. W. Norton.

IFC Films. (2015). The Stanford Prison Experiment – Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films [Video].

Kelly, J. (2011). 44 years later, Tally’s Corner is revealed. Washington Post. Web.

Pilgrim, D. (2011). John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” – May 2011. Ferris State University.


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