Guides to a
Susan Gustavus Philliber, Mary (Schwab) Bast, and G. Sam
Sloss, copyright © 1980, Peacock Publishers, Inc.
The Research Problem
Before entering the
decision-making process of social research, it's important to
understand its basic purpose: to gain knowledge about the social
world. In this chapter we look at knowledge itself. How do we "know" something? And
to what ends can such knowledge take us?
SOURCES OF PROBLEMS
One of the oldest and
most common sources of research problems is curiosity. Just as
your interest in baseball or gardening may stimulate you to
investigate the topic in greater depth, so researchers may
investigate phenomena that attract their personal interest.
For example, a man named Lipset belonged to the International
Typographical Union, and his son's well-known study of democratic decision-making
processes was specifically concerned with that organization. The
younger Lipset was curious because the union was very
large and, according to contemporary social thinking, should have succumbed to an oligarchic
decision-making process (a rule of the many by the few), yet
appeared to be very democratic.
interests or curiosity may be key motivating factors in problem
selection, it's a basic assumption in the social sciences that
individuals learn from and are influenced by others. Because
researchers are usually recruited and trained in universities,
the selection of research topics often reflects the influence of
teachers or fellow students. For example, the first book of Carlos Castaneda's
adventures with Don Juan (The Teachings of Don Juan)
served as his master's thesis, while the third (Journey to
Ixtlan) was his Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology. A reading
of his advisor's writings suggests that the character of Don
Juan is based, at least in part, on Castaneda's advisor, Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel's notion that people actually construct
social reality instead of merely reacting to it is a major theme
in Castaneda's works. This type of influence may also be les
personal, as when one
is influenced by the writings of past theorists.
In addition to
personal curiosity and the influence of others, concern with
social problems has been a major source of social research. As
discussed in more detail in Chapter 4, one of the first uses of
social surveys was to study poverty. Likewise, concerns with the
Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews and discrimination in
this country have generated a vast body of psychological and
social-psychological research on ethnic, gender, sexual
orientation, and racial prejudice. Concern with the energy crisis and the threat of overpopulation
have generated volumes of research.
Just as researchers'
interests vary, so they also differ in what they perceive to be
a social problem. Karl Marx's view of capitalism as a social
problem is not shared by all social scientists. Likewise one may
view the feminist movement as a social problem, or one might see
sexual orientation stereotyping and prejudice to be problems. Still, this
interest in social problems suggests that researchers are
concerned not only with knowledge for knowledge's sake, but also
with its application, or with what in Chapter 1 we called intelligent intervention.
precipitating factors, one of the basic goals of research is to
increase our knowledge about a particular phenomenon. For the
scientist this means building a body of theory. As you read in
the previous chapter, knowing is a matter of providing a
description of reality. While we could conceivably call any
description of reality a "theory," the term is generally used
more rigorously. When a statement that links together two or
more concepts is widely agreed upon, it is given the status of a
proposition. A theory consists of a set of propositions that are
systematically interrelated and purport to explain some
Probably most research
is conducted in an effort to test propositions. The research
begins with a theory and uses empirical evidence to find out how
well that description actually fits reality. If amenable to
observation, either the basic propositions or deduced
propositions may be tested against empirical data. In testing
theory, the goal is not merely to find support for one theory,
but also to eliminate less likely theories. Thus, Durkheim began
his study of suicide by attempting to show that previous
theories of suicide could not be true. Durkheim first tried to
demonstrate that suicide is not a result of mental illness or
psychopathic states by showing that rates of suicide and
insanity are not related. In the same manner he attempted to
discredit theories that attributed the causes of suicide to
race, heredity, climate, seasonal temperatures, and imitation
before defending his theory of suicide in terms of social
Research also has the
dual role of both specifying and generalizing the domain of the
theory. For example, a theory about social power may state that
power underlies all organizational relationships. A more
specific theoretical statement could be that while people at all
organizational levels hold certain kinds of power, those in
higher-status positions always have more power than those in
lower-status positions. One might also attempt to expand the
relationship between power and organizational hierarchies to
include other social hierarchies. In this case it might be stated
that lawyers have more power than clients or doctors have
more power than patients. Naturally, specification and
generalization of theory are major concerns because we strive to
explain as many phenomena as possible.
Let's take a look at
some research by Stanley Milgram in an attempt to understand
better the relationship between theory and research. Milgram was
interested in explaining extreme instances of mass aggression,
such as the murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi concentration camps
or the killing of civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War.
Milgram suggested that such behavior was not the result of
sadistic personalities and could better be understood by
studying obedience to authority.
To investigate this
possibility, a series of experiments was conducted. The basic
design included an experimenter and two subjects who were told
they were to participate in a study of how people learn. A coin
was flipped to assign one the role of teacher and the second as
the learner. The learner was then strapped into an electric
chair and the learning task began. In front of the teacher was a
panel with thirty switches beginning at 15 volts, with 15-volt
increments up to 450 volts. The panel also contained verbal
designations at every sixty volts of "slight shock," "moderate
shock," "strong shock," "intense shock," "extreme intensity
shock," "danger: severe shock," and ending with three XXXs. The
experimenter instructed the teacher to administer an electrical
shock to the learner each time he responded with an incorrect
answer, beginning with 15 volts and increasing 15 volts with
each successive error.
In reality the coin
flip was rigged, the learner was really an accomplice, and
"errors" were preprogrammed. While actually receiving no shock,
at 75 volts the "learner" grunted to show discomfort at the
"shock," followed by similar reactions at 90 and 105 volts. At
120 volts the learner shouted that the "shocks" were painful and
at 150 volts demanded to be let out of the experiment. The cries
of pain increased in intensity until 300 volts, where the
learned refused to give any more answers; after 330 volts the
screams were no longer heard, suggesting the learner was
What the researchers
were actually measuring was the maximum shock the subject
(teacher) was willing to administer before refusing to go any
further. Though the subjects believed the learner
was being painfully shocked, over 90 percent continued the
experiment to the conclusion. Some of the obedient subjects even
suspected the learner had suffered a heart attack or died when
failing to respond after 330 volts. Thus, Milgram was able to
demonstrate individuals could be made to commit aggressive acts
against others by having an authority figure instruct them to do
Milgram not only
wanted to show individuals would be willing to harm
others; he also wished to understand how other variables might
increase or decrease willingness to obey. He suggested one such
factor might be closeness of authority. Thus in one condition of
the experiment instructions were given a few feet away, while in
another they were given by telephone. Not only was obedience
three times greater when the experimenter was present, but
several subjects administered lower shocks than instructed when
the experimenter was absent.
It was also suggested
that closeness to victim would be related to obedience to
authority. To test this, four conditions were designed: with the
victim (learner) in another room and not heard, in another room
but heard, in the same room a few feet away, and in the same
room but the teacher had to force the learner's hand onto the
shock plate. The closer the teacher was to the
victim, the less likely he was to obey the experimenter.
In other experiments,
the researchers explored the influences of various authority
types by using an ordinary person as experimenter, two
contradictory authorities, and two authorities with one acting
as the victim. In yet other experiments they investigated the
effects of having peers present. In addition, Milgram was
concerned with further generalizing the relationships. He moved
his study from Yale University to a downtown office building to
eliminate the prestige of the university. These experiments have
also been conducted using women instead of men and using people
from different countries.
In addition to testing
and clarifying his theory of aggressive behavior, Milgram looked
for evidence relating to conflicting theories. He argued that
sadistic personality explanations or theories of inborn
aggressive tendencies were not supported, because subjects
became nervous and tense as the experiment continued. Some even
begged the experimenter to stop the experiment as they
faithfully followed orders. Milgram later designed an
experiment specifically to test this alternative explanation.
When subjects were allowed to use any shock level they wished,
they administered minimal shocks.
The obedience studies
point out that clarifying theory with research is a continuing
endeavor. One study cannot provide all the answers.
While the Milgram studies show how acts of mass aggression may
be explained by obedience levels, they don't show why
authorities would issue such orders in the first place. Nor do
they deal with situations where the subject might be punished
for failing to carry out the orders, with obedience to orders
that don't harm others, or with many other questions about
obedience to authority. Not only
do questions seek answers, but each new answer may bring with it
a host of new questions.
between theory and research is a two-way street. Each affects
and is in turn affected by the other. We call it serendipity when
further investigation is stimulated by unanticipated or
anomalous results, apparently inconsistent with prevailing
theory or other established findings. An example comes from
Merton's study of the social organization of a small suburban
housing community. Among other findings, this study revealed a
surprisingly high incidence of social participation in voluntary
organizations among parents of infants and young children. The
parents said this was because numerous teenagers could
provide baby-sitting services. However, inspection of that
community's age distribution showed a very small proportion of
teenagers in the fifteen-to-nineteen bracket. These apparently
contradictory findings were explained when further investigation
showed that parents in a small, cohesive community were more
willing than those in larger communities to use baby-sitters
from the thirteen-to-fifteen age group.
Research can also
generate further research concerned with developing measurement
tools. In the previous chapter we noted that researchers are
interested in identifying categories in which a particular
phenomenon belongs. Measuring phenomena with our senses alone is
often difficult, if not impossible. Just as development of the
telescope was as great help to the field of astronomy, social
scientists have found it necessary to develop scales to measure
such concepts as attitude, IQ, economic status, and group
interaction processes. While such activities may not directly
build or test a theory, the ability to identify and measure
phenomena is an important step in that direction.
Finally, a look at the
research and methodology journals reveals a substantial number
of articles dealing with the properties and utility of various
statistical techniques. While much of this literature may seem
foreign and irrelevant to those new to research, the development
of statistical techniques for describing and analyzing phenomena
is an important area of inquiry for the researcher. Without
going into a lengthy discussion of statistics, remember that theories are symbolized by language. Because
mathematics is the most universal, well-developed, and specific
language we have, its applicability for describing social
phenomena is a major interest for many researchers.
INFLUENCES ON PROBLEM
In the selection of
topics, as in other phases of research, you should be aware of
potential difficulties, biasing factors, and ethical
Social and Political
One influence on problem selection or interpretation stems from the social
background of researchers, who have tended historically to be
white men from white-collar
homes, with racial minorities and
females underrepresented. This underrepresentation of various
segments of the population can have adverse, though perhaps
unintended, consequences for the advancement of theory. It has
been suggested that much research from which theory is
constructed has been race- and/or class- and/or gender-biased. In a
review of college-level marriage and family texts, Ehrlich
accused the male authors of presenting unproven or value-laden
statements about families as factual. Much of
the early work on family social mobility was criticized for using
only fathers' occupation and income.
background also includes a political orientation. One writer
went so far as to suggest that social researchers, with few
exceptions, act as spies for the political elite. Certainly it's
no secret that Machiavelli, one of the early social theorists,
wrote The Prince with the intent to help rulers control people. And Project Camelot, the largest social
science research project funded in its day ($6 million), turned
into an international scandal. Sponsored by the United Sates
Department of Defense in the early 1960s, top-rate sociologists,
economists, and psychologists were to conduct surveys and field
studies of ways to control
counterinsurgency movements in third-world countries. While the study
was never completed because of adverse public reaction, just
consider for a moment how you'd feel as an American colonist if
King George III had proposed such a study!
factors help determine who has access to research. For
example, while research on bargaining techniques could be used
in industry by either labor or management, several factors favor
management in using even apparently neutral research. First, if
the study is published in an academic journal, it is more likely
to have been read and the professional jargon understood by
management personnel, who are more likely than their
subordinates to have attended college. Second, management is
more likely to have the financial backing to use research
findings. We can never have total control over how research findings
The purpose here is to alert
you to the possibility that preconceived and perhaps unconscious notions
affect the choice of research problems and the approach to their
study. Diligence is required both in reading and conducting
research to recognize and understand these influences.
Sometimes research is
limited by practical considerations. Data may be unavailable for
a variety of social and historical reasons. For example,
research on Stone Age hunting and gathering societies would be
virtually impossible. A different kind of limitation might be encountered by
the male researcher who wishes to study women's
groups. Likewise, a political activist may
have difficulty researching police departments.
The type of
sponsorship available may also influence your choice of a research endeavor. In addition to providing salaries, sponsors are
often needed to finance equipment and materials necessary for
research projects. The paper, envelopes, postage stamps,
laboratories, recording equipment, computers, assistants, and
other required resources can cost thousands of dollars. Much
research is sponsored through grants, from government
agencies, corporations, or private foundations. While the
influence of sponsors may vary widely, the usual procedure is
for the researcher to submit a proposal in an area specifically
requested by the funding agency or in an area of continuing
interest. Committees review the proposal and decide whether or
not to fund the project.
Sponsors can be both a
help and a hindrance. In some instances the researcher's area of
inquiry has been severely limited, and in others research projects have actually been halted and researchers
forbidden to publish because their work appeared to depict
sponsors in an unfavorable manner. In many cases the limitations
imposed seem less important than do the resources made available
by such sources. In fact, unless you're independently wealthy you'll
eventually need to obtain sponsorship if you continue to do
Invasion of privacy is not a
concern of the geologist who reveals the "secrets" of a rock.
Social researchers, however, may obtain information subjects wouldn't willingly or intentionally share. For example,
one controversial research project involved observing impersonal
sex in public restrooms. The researcher even recorded auto
license numbers to identify and later interview participants in
their homes under another pretext. Although names were never
revealed, the issue of personal privacy and legitimate research
interests is an important consideration. Even when information
is willingly given to the researchers, its disclosure to others
may have damaging consequences for the subject. In most
instances the information is presented only in statistical
summaries, making identification of any particular individual
impossible. In other cases researchers have used pseudonyms or withheld some information in order to
protect the identity of those studied.
A second ethical issue
is using deception to gain access to
information. For example, while investigating the
circumstances under which people will help one another, a
researcher would not want those being observed to know the
nature of the study, because those being observed might be
influenced to present themselves as considerate.
Because of such problems, researchers have often misinformed
subjects as to the true nature of the study. Hence, we have the ethical dilemmas of deceiving subjects
and the fact that
such deception may also influence the research in unintended
ways. In fact, deception has become so common in social science
research that subjects
often try to figure out the study's
"real" purpose and may react in ways that defeat the study's
Finally, there's the
question of potential harm to those being investigated. We'd
all agree it's unethical to amputate a limb or disfigure someone to
study the process of being stigmatized.
However, the boundaries of legitimate
manipulation are not always clear. Some studies have used drugs and
electric shocks. Others have intentionally induced fear or
anxiety. Still others have actively sought to change a subject's
political or racial attitudes.
difficult and complex to define boundaries that serve the research project while
protecting the rights of those being studied. Not only are several issues often
intertwined, but what is thought of as "ethical" is continually
changing. Early medical researchers couldn't
legally dissect human cadavers, but current laws allow such
experimentation if there's prior written consent from the
deceased. Universities today have ethics committees that
specifically review such matters, but the ultimate
responsibility lies with the researcher.
influences are usually seen as coming from moralistic,
prejudicial, or political beliefs, they may also stem directly
from "scientific" theory. Remember that medical scientists once
believed in bleeding as a treatment, and astronomers once
believed the sun revolved around the earth. A substance called
phlogisten, which supposedly caused things to burn, and
another called ether, though which light waves supposedly
traveled, were studied by scientists for decades before being
abandoned as nonexistent. In the same manner some concepts
utilized by social scientists, such as attitudes, norms, and
social class, have been attacked as useless. Concepts and
theories are constantly being developed, revised, and abandoned.
No theory, concept, or belief is above questioning. Today's
truths may become tomorrow's myths.
Thus, the selection of
a research topic involves more than merely "What do I want to
study?" This selection has potential social, political,
theoretical, practical, and ethical consequences. The choice of
your research problem -- the first stage of any research project
and one that influences later stages -- deserves thoughtful
FOCUSING THE PROBLEM
Rarely will a research
problem emerge ready to be investigated from any of the sources
we've discussed. Often a research problem is formulated only in
the simplest form. For example, you might want to know "What
kind of leadership encourages innovation?" or "Is there a
difference in the religious beliefs of Republicans and
Democrats?" In this section we'll discuss how such general
interests become a more tightly focused problem ready to be
Doing a literature
review before you begin your investigation enables you to take
advantage of the unique human capacity to pass on detailed
written information from one generation to another. Reading all
the knowledge that's accumulated so far on the problem you want
to study can be time-consuming and even tedious. But careful
evaluation of that material helps make your investigation
worthwhile by alerting you to knowledge already gained and
problems already encountered in your areas of interest.
A literature review
amounts to reading available material on a given topic,
analyzing and organizing findings, and producing a summary.
There are many sources for literature reviews, including
journals of general interest in each discipline, such as the American Political Science Review.
There are also
journals for specific topics such as the Leadership and
Journal. Governments publish great quantities of data on
many topics. The United Nations and the United States Government
Printing Office are two major sources. In addition, businesses
and private organizations gather and publish information you
might find useful. For certain problems you may want to search
through popular or non-scholarly periodicals as well. While it's
customary to include only data from sources that actually
research the problem in a precise fashion, articles in more
popular sources may provide interesting insight or orientations.
Talking to knowledgeable people may also give you information
that helps you formulate your problem.
Thoroughness is the
key. Most libraries have staff trained in information retrieval
who can help find sources and suggest strategies to review the
literature. The Internet, of course, now allows easy access to
limitless information on given topics. Thoroughness in your
review means not only finding all current publications on a
topic but locating earlier writing as well. There's no easy rule
for how long ago literature was published on your topic. The
time varies from problem to problem. A useful way to locate past
as well as current writing is to begin with the most current
sources likely to contain relevant material. Then, follow these
authors' footnotes and bibliographies. At some point in this
search you'll find the material is beginning to be only
peripherally related to your current interest or that authors
claim originality for their work.
Of course, doing a
good literature review is easier when you know a great deal
about the subject already. In such a case you'd probably be
familiar with publications and even other people who do research
in your area of interest. But for the novice, efficient use of
library/Internet services and organizing how they check sources
are especially important skills.
literature, keeping a checklist of useful information will help
you read each source. You might ask yourself, particularly for
What was the exact
How were the
topics of interest defined?
What did the
authors expect to find?
How were things
What research did
this author cite? Have you read it?
Who were the
subjects of study?
What do the
Do the data
presented agree with the written conclusions?
What were the
limitations of the study?
A thorough literature
review should demonstrate that you've carefully read and
evaluated each article or book. Because research reports can be
tedious and difficult to understand for new researchers, many
tend to read others' conclusions or summaries and take the
author's word that the data actually support the conclusions.
Careful reading of both tables and text for awhile will convince
you they don't always agree. Sometimes data are grossly
misinterpreted in the text, but on other occasions authors are
more subtle. Consider, for example, the following statements:
Fully 30 percent
of the sample said they did not vote.
Only 30 percent of the sample said they did not vote.
The percentage is the
same, but the impression conveyed is decidedly different.
Reading the actual data before accepting the author's
conclusions will help prevent some of these errors of
interpretation from creeping into your own research.
It's important that
after you finish your reading, you're able to write your
literature review in a way that's clear, organizing what you
know about the content and methods used to study your problem.
You may find it helpful to record information about each source
on a separate card or piece of paper so that information can
later be reshuffled, compared, and otherwise reorganized. Note
in most journal articles that what probably began as a long
literature review is usually condensed on the first few pages of
the research report, explaining previous research on the problem
and how the current study will contribute. You, too, want to add
to this growing body of knowledge we call social science by a
creative summary of what's been accomplished by others as well
as by your own research.
Stating the Problem
By the time you've
finished a good literature review, you should be ready to state
your problem more clearly, and also to rule out nonsense
questions. Any research result, no matter how carefully
obtained, is not worth the effort if it answers the wrong
question. By "wrong" we mean questions whose answers don't aid
explanation of any social phenomenon. When people believed
behavior could be changed by boring holes in skulls to release
demons, reasonable research questions might have been, "Which
side of the head do we bore?" "How large a hole should we make?"
While there are no simple rules to identify nonsense questions,
your literature review should have focused you interest on
questions that matter.
As you begin to state
more accurately what you intend to investigate, your problem
will be narrowed from your early, broader questions. For
example, instead of asking "What factors are related to juvenile
delinquency?" your literature review may have clarified that
"peer-group influence" is the really crucial factor in juvenile
delinquency. The general question has become more specific
and may be stated in terms of variables.
concepts that take on different values or states. The variable
"social class status" may range from upper upper to lower lower,
or it may have a variety of other values. Religious affiliation
may be Catholic, Baptist, and so on, each of which is a
different value, state, or category of the variable "religious
An important question
is whether the purpose of the research is simply to describe
phenomena or to explain phenomena. If explanation is the
purpose, then designating some variables as independent and
others as dependent becomes useful. Independent variables
are the presumed causes or explanatory factors, and dependent
variables are the presumed effects, outcomes, or phenomena
to be explained. (To be continued.)
about measurement and the kinds of variables involved in a study
prepare you to write specific hypotheses. A hypothesis is
a statement of expected outcome of research. In single-variable
problems, the hypothesis states the expected occurrence or form
of that variable. For example, if we intend to describe how much
sex education there is in United States schools, we might
Sex education will
be found in a majority of American schools.
In research problems
examining relationships between variables, the hypothesis may
take two forms, depending on whether or not a qualitative
variable is included. You'll recall from Chapter 1 that
variables are qualitative if the categories or states of the
variable don't come in amounts and aren't ordered in any way.
For example, the variable "race" may take on the values black,
white, or several other states, but black is not more race than
white or vice versa. A qualitative variable doesn't come in
amounts, then, but only in kinds. Quantitative variables, on the
other hand, do come in amounts. For example, annual income may
range from none to $500,000 and over. Years of age can assume
all the values between zero and about 120. Educational
attainment may vary between no schooling and post-graduate
training. (To be continued.)
Think back over
the last week, and identify some things even slightly out of
the ordinary. No idea is too minor to include. Did you
notice some change in fashion? Was there a small group at a
public function blocking passage? Did you find someone in
the elevator facing you instead of facing the elevator door?
Did the President's speech cited in the newspaper have an
unusual number of references to peace? List as many such
"curiosities" as you can. Just as each of these examples has
been a source of research and theory building in the social
sciences, so you now have a list of potential research
problems based on your own curiosity.
Think of the one
person who's been most influential in your life. Consolidate
this person's major viewpoint about relationships into a single,
simple statement of belief. Do you agree, at least in part,
with this statement? From this statement generate at least
one research problem which might provide support for the
belief. Assuming for the moment the belief has achieved the
status of a "theory," what research might you generate to
specify the theory further? To expand or generalize the
To what social
groups do you belong: Social class? Gender? Age? Religion?
Race? For one of these categories, list as honestly as you
can the beliefs you hold about people who are not members.
From this list, delineate characteristics you'd agree are negative. Now devise a research problem seeking
information about people from the social group(s) you
described in your list. What biases might get in the way of
objective information collection? What might you do to avoid
Think of a
personal fact about yourself you wouldn't freely disclose.
Now assure yourself that a researcher somewhere is
interested in gaining exactly this information from you and
others like you. What would your reaction be if this
information were gained without your knowledge or
permission? Under what conditions might you share the
information with a researcher?
Find two articles that contain tables. Compare the table(s) in each article to the text. Read through the
results, discussion, and summary sections, and write down
only those sentences that give an exact, objective
description of the findings without interpretation.
Eliminate any of these statements not in complete agreement
with the table(s). With these facts in hand, do you agree
with the conclusions of the author(s)?
Pick one of the
above two articles and read it carefully, following the
guidelines for a literature review in this chapter. Then
answer the following questions:
(a) What are the
dependent variables cited in the literature review? In the
results of this study?
(b) What are the
independent variables cited in the literature review? In the
results of this study?
(c) What is the
research hypothesis? Are other hypotheses advanced to
"explain" the actual findings?
hypotheses are qualitative? Quantitative?
(e) Do any of the
hypotheses predict a directional relationship? If so, is it
inverse or direct?
(f) How many
causal words are used in this article? Do you think they are
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Preface and Index