Sociology & the Scientific Method: Crash Course Sociology #3

Sociology & the Scientific Method: Crash Course Sociology #3


What puts the “science” in “social science”? The things you probably think of as “science”
– like biology, or physics, or chemistry – can seem a world apart from sociology
and the concepts we’ve introduced so far. But sociology is a type of science; it’s
just not one that uses beakers or microscopes. Rather than investigating the physical, natural
world, sociology explores the social world. Now, there are different schools of thought
within sociology about the best way to understand
the social world. But one of the primary means of conducting
sociology uses many of the same, basic principles
and methods as any of your hard, clinical sciences. Can sociology use the scientific method?
Check. Does it rely on empirical data?
Check. And graphs?
Heck yeah! [Theme Music] A science is really any practice that uses
a systematic method of observation to gain
knowledge. And you probably know that systematic method
as the scientific method. Basically, you come up with some question
about the world, and then develop a testable theory
about how you could answer that question. And you develop and test your theory by gathering
empirical evidence; that is, verifiable information that’s collected
in a systematic way. Now, whether you’re using it to explore the natural
world or the social world, the scientific method is
rooted in the philosophy known as positivism. First laid out by Auguste Comte – yes, the same
Auguste Comte that we introduced as the founder
of sociology a couple episodes ago – positivism argues that phenomena can be
studied through direct observation, and that these observations can be pulled together
into theories or facts that can help us understand
how the world works. Now, you might be wondering where the “positive”
in “positivist” comes into play. Was Comte just a glass half-full kinda guy? Well, “positive” in this case doesn’t refer to optimism,
and it doesn’t mean “I’m POSITIVE that I’m right!” Instead, a ‘positive’ theory is one that’s
objective and fact-based, whereas a ‘normative’
theory is subjective and value-based. Which brings us to the first of our three
types of sociological inquiry: Positivist sociology, or the study of society based
on systematic observations of social behavior. And here, “objective” is the key word. As scientific researchers, sociologists must
set aside their own values and beliefs to approach
their work as neutral observers, and use empirical evidence to answer
questions about how the social world works. So what kind of evidence are you looking for? If you’re doing quantitative research, you
want data. Quantitative research is the study of observable
relationships in the world, using mathematical
or statistical methods. Basically, quantitative evidence is information
that you can count or tally up. But this doesn’t just mean number-based
data, like income or age. You can also use it to categorize people or
things, like the state you live in, your gender,
or your race. And quantitative evidence can be used in lots
of different ways. For example, there’s descriptive data, which
does just what it sounds like: It describes facts relevant to the question
you’re researching. Like, maybe you want to know how
income is distributed across households in the
United States. Quantitative data are your friend here. This graph is the distribution of household incomes
in 2014, produced by the US Census Bureau. The height of the bars in the graph indicate the
number of households at a certain income level. And the point labelled “50th” is an important
one because it’s the median income, the absolute
middle observation in the sample. That means that 50% of households have lower
incomes than that level, and 50% have higher incomes. In this case, the median income is $53,700. But, be careful about the conclusions you
draw from this graph! The median may be the observation in the middle,
but it’s not the same as average household income. That distinction goes to the mean, which is the sum
of all the values, divided by the number of observations. So in 2014, the mean household income was
$75,700. That’s a lot higher than the median! What’s up with that? Why is there a gap between the mean and the
median? Well, think back to the group that the Occupy Wall
Street movement was concerned with: “the 1%” That political label is actually a descriptive
statistic! It describes the percent of the population
with the highest income. And the fact that the income of that 1% is so much
higher than the incomes of the other 99% – that’s why
we have a gap between the mean and median. And I’m not being political here; it’s
pure mathematics: If you have 99 people making $50,000 per
year and 1 person making $50 million per year –
what’s gonna happen to the mean income? It’s gonna be pulled way up by the one,
very rich person. Even though the mode – or the most common
observation in your sample – is the same as the median
income, $50,000, the mean will be over $500,000. Another type of evidence that sociologists
use is qualitative data – or information that’s not
in numerical form. Where quantitative data try to measure, qualitative
data try to illustrate, or characterize. Sometimes the information that you need
can’t, or shouldn’t, be distilled into a number in
a spreadsheet. Instead, you use descriptions of the world,
gathered through interviews, questionnaires,
and first-hand observation. Like, why do some people get married and
some people commit to a long term partnerships
without getting married? Maybe some of that is quantifiable, but a lot of the
process behind making a decision like that is going to
come down to how the couple feels about marriage. And that can’t be easily stated in a statistic. There are, of course, limitations to sociology
as a positivist discipline. Not everything you want to know about society is
going to fit into observable, measurable categories. And what’s worse: I don’t know if you’ve noticed this,
but human beings are pretty unpredictable. In much of the natural sciences, the
environment in which research is done in is
completely controlled by scientists. Like, microbes in a petri dish: They’re probably
not going to develop free will and mess around with
your carefully designed experiment. But if you’re studying human behavior, you
can’t control the environment or how your
subject interacts with that environment. So if you’re interested in, say, the effects
of quality parenting on child development,
you can’t randomly assign babies to parents. Because, ethics. Parents apparently
want to raise their own spawn. But more than that, you might not want to
be controlling the environment so much. If you’re interested in how humans behave in the real
world, you don’t want your research methods to make
them act differently than they otherwise would. Because the fact is, subjects might change how
they behave if they know they’re being observed. For a really fun and fascinating example of
this let’s go to the Thought Bubble! In the late 1920s, Austrian sociologist Elton
Mayo went to a telephone factory known as
the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. His goal was to help the Western Electric
company figure out how to make its workers
more productive. So Mayo split the factory staff into groups: a control
group who kept working under the same conditions as
always, and an experimental group. For the experimental group, Mayo made a series
of changes to their working environment. He gave them different work hours, changed
up their rest breaks, even turned up the lights
on the factory floor. And lo and behold, the changes seemed to work! The workers in the experimental group became
more productive, and absenteeism dropped. But the truth is, the changes to the physical
environment weren’t what made the difference. Yes, brightening up the room made the
workers more productive – but it turned out,
so did dimming the lights! And so did reversing all the other changes
that Mayo made. Eventually, Mayo realized that the workers were
working harder because he was observing them. The fact that the workers knew someone was
watching how hard they worked made them want
to work harder. And this finding at the Hawthorne Works led
future researchers to be much more aware of how
their own presence influenced their findings. And to this day, the influence of an observer
on the behavior of her participants is known
as the Hawthorne Effect! Thanks Thought Bubble! So, yes, studying humans and their behavior
scientifically can be challenging. But yet another problem with positivist
sociology is that not all social facts can be
applied to all people, in all time periods. In other words, truth is not always objective. It’s like when you tell someone about your
favorite book. If you’re trying to convince them that Harry Potter is
“objectively” the best book series ever written, then you
don’t know what the word “objectively” means at all. There is no objective truth about what the
best book is. That’s strictly subjective – an idea that’s
built on your own experiences and feelings. But as sociologists, we still find subjective
experiences to be valid, and important, and even worth studying – even if we can’t
generalize them into some capital-T truth
about the world. Instead, we might be interested in how
patterns in people’s subjective experiences form
the structures that make up our social world. In sociology, we talk about subjectivity as
the meaning that people give their own lived
experiences. And this brings us to another way of doing
sociology: Interpretative sociology is the study of society
that focuses on the meanings that people attach
to their social world. While positivist sociology is more interested in
whether a person acts a certain way – something
you can see as an outside observer – interpretative sociology asks:
Why this behavior? What’s the meaning behind it? And how do people view their own actions and
thoughts? Interpretative sociologists approach their subjects
with the aim of seeing the world from their subject’s
perspective, rather than through quantitative data. So, there are fewer statistics involved in
this type of research. Instead, interpretative sociologists often
use interviews or face-to-face interactions with
their subjects to understand the world. Now, there’s one more school of thought
about how the science of sociology can be
conducted. And it actually relaxes some of the
assumptions we made early on about the
objectivity of the researcher. These thinkers believe there’s plenty of room in
sociology for subjectivity – especially, for values. Values are the ideas a person has about what’s good,
and the attitudes they hold about how the world works. And curiosity about a research topic often
springs from these very values. Many researchers are drawn to the study of
sociology out of a desire to understand moral or
political questions about how societies work. Like, what’s the relationship between race
and poverty in the United States? How can understanding that relationship help
break the connection between race and poverty? The argument for value-driven research,
rather than value-free research, is one of the
origins of Critical Sociology, or the study of society that focuses on
the need for social change. These ideas go back a long time, starting
as early as the 19th century when Jane Addams
developed the Hull House, an organization that not only provided
things like housing and education to low-income
people in Chicago, but also researched the causes of, and
solutions to, the ills of poverty. We’ll explore all of these schools of thought
throughout the rest of series. But for now, we talked about sociology as
a science. We discussed positivist sociology and how
sociologists use empirical evidence to explore
questions about the social world. And we introduced two alternatives: interpretative
sociology and critical sociology. Next time, we’re going to learn about how
sociologists actually do their research. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl
C. Kinney Crash Course Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made with the help of all these
nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for
everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we’d like to thank all
of our patrons in general, and we’d like to specifically thank our Headmaster of Learning
David Cichowski. Thank you for your support.