Out of the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Revised: September 16, 2014




: Guides to a Decision-Making Process
     by Susan Gustavus Philliber, Mary (Schwab) Bast, and G. Sam Sloss, 1980,
     Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Chapter 2: 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?



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.

Significant Others

While personal 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.

Social Problems

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.


Regardless of 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 phenomenon.

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 forces.

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 unconscious.

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 so.

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.


The relationship 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.


In the selection of topics, as in other phases of research, you should be aware of potential difficulties, biasing factors, and ethical considerations.

Social and Political Influences

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.

The researcher's 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!

Other 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 are used.

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.

Practical Considerations

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 research.

Ethical Considerations

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 purpose.

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.

It's sometimes 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.

Theoretical Assumptions

While distorting 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 consideration.


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 researched.

The Literature Review

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 Organization Development 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.

Having located literature, keeping a checklist of useful information will help you read each source. You might ask yourself, particularly for research articles:

  1. What was the exact problem studied?

  2. How were the topics of interest defined?

  3. What did the authors expect to find?

  4. How were things measured?

  5. What research did this author cite? Have you read it?

  6. Who were the subjects of study?

  7. What do the results show?

  8. Do the data presented agree with the written conclusions?

  9. 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.

Variables are 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 affiliation."

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.)

Writing Hypotheses

Preliminary decisions 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 hypothesize:

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.)


  1. 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.

  2. 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 theory?

  3. 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 such bias?

  4. 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?

  5. 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)?

  6. 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?

(d) Which 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 justified? Explain.

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