Social Sciences: Research Methods

Raising Questions

As stated earlier in this section, all research begins with a question, and questions are the result of doubt.

As Peter Abelard wrote in Sic et non: “By doubting we come to inquiry, and by inquiry we perceive truth.” In formulating questions, we should be aware that the particular nature of our questions can affect the types of answers we get. The initial premises of what we are studying, whether it be the source testimony or scholars’ interpretations, must always be open to question, especially by those approaching the material for the first time.

Darrell Huff, in How to Lie with Statistics, tells us there are five questions we should ask in order “to talk back to a statistic.” We can apply these five questions with appropriate changes to everything we read:

  1. Who says so?” Does the author betray a conscious or unconscious bias that affects his or her judgment and presentation of the evidence?
  2. How do they know?” On what basis does the author make his or her assertions? Does the author back up arguments with appropriate evidence?
  3. What’s missing?” Is the author telling you everything you need to know to evaluate the author’s arguments?
  4. Did somebody change the subject?” Does the conclusion follow logically from the argument and evidence presented?
  5. Does it make sense?” Is the argument coherent, consistent, and logical? Is there a simpler explanation that would explain the evidence equally well or better?

Areas of Social Science Research

In selecting a subject for investigation, we can divide social science research into four areas:

  1. Economic - having to do with the satisfaction of the material needs of people
  2. Intellectual - pertaining to the training and refinement of the mind, specifically in the areas of culture, interests, tastes, skills, arts, and so forth
  3. Political - concerned with the government, the state, or the running of a polity
  4. Social - having to do with human beings living together as a group in a situation in which their dealings with one another affect their common welfare

In this division, we should also look for interactive elements among the categories. At any particular time, one or another could be considered dominant over the rest, or we could simply consider them to be mutually interdependent.

Types of Explanation

In trying to understand the evidence, we should be aware of the various types of explanation.

According to John Hospers, all explanations are tentative and are meant to elicit the “Aha!” reaction. That is, at the point we say “Aha, that explains it,” our curiosity rests. But that point is different for different people; and if we push explanations far enough, they ultimately lead only to assertions of “brute fact,” namely, “That’s just the way it is.

Hospers defines five types of explanation:

  1. Teleological - in terms of purpose (the Black Death was sent to punish us for our sins)
  2. Classification - wherein an event is shown to be of some class of events already familiar to us (the Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague)
  3. Generalization, that is, an instance of some general law (when a contagion is introduced into a community, the rate of mortality will be directly proportional to the virulence of the contagion and inversely proportional to the level of resistance of the members of that community)
  4. Description - the describing of the intermediate steps involved (a ship from Kaffa traveled to Southern Italy in December 1347 and brought bubonic plague with it)
  5. Referential - some reference to a possible cause (rats caused the Black Death).

Matrices of Interpretation

Researchers should be aware that their matrices of interpretation (hermeneutics) affect what they think they perceive. In other words, facts do not exist independently, nor do they speak for themselves. Facts are always part of some pre-existing system of belief.

Among the most prominent are:

  1. Ageist - a belief that people over or under a certain age are not capable, qualified, or to be trusted
  2. Behaviorist - a belief that the environment determines human and animal behavior
  3. Bottom-Up - belief in the broad sweep of la longue durée, that patterns of behavior filter up from below in society
  4. Capitalist - a belief that profit for the individual and competition among individuals in a society benefit that society
  5. Culture Bias - a belief that, since any particular culture may be inferior or superior in one feature, it is thus inferior or superior, respectively, in all features
  6. Democratic - a belief that everything can be explained in terms of the rise of political and civil liberty for the individual
  7. Elitist - a belief that in any society, it is the elite who rule and determine standards for the rest of society, that patterns of behavior filter down from above
  8. Evolutionary - a belief in the process of development from simple to complex or from primitive to sophisticated, or more simply a belief in the inevitability of progress
  9. Existential - a belief that any interpretation is an arbitrary and purely personal ordering of a random world
  10. Gender Bias - a belief that one gender is inherently superior to the other (now discredited in scholarship, but it was the prevailing view, in the male-oriented version, until the last few decades of the 20th-century, and is still prevalent at non-scholarly levels)
  11. Marxist - a belief in the rise of economic liberty for people within a community or society through cooperation and (if necessary) through violent overthrow of economic exploiters
  12. Nationalist - a belief that when one’s country gains, that’s good - and when one’s country loses, that’s bad
  13. Psychoanalytic - a belief that the behavior of an individual can be explained in terms of patterns the individual developed as a child
  14. Racist - a belief that there are superior and inferior races (now discredited in scholarship, but quite prevalent earlier in the early 20th century and still prevalent at non-scholarly levels)
  15. Religious - a belief that everything can be explained in relation to divine will


In approaching your topic, you should be aware of certain dualisms - ways of approaching the subject matter that often imply the exclusion of their own exact opposites. For example, do we approach our subject matter with the view that there is one correct way of looking at it or many “correct” ways?

  • Positivism - an approach that holds that the natural laws apply to society, that they are knowable, and that, once known, they are applicable to all societies (one correct way)
  • Relativism - holds that the values of any culture or society are equal to that of any other culture or society (many “correct” ways). We could also take an internal vs. external approach
  • Structuralism - deals with the internal structure of things and defines the functioning system according to that structure
  • Semiotics - deals with the study of signs and outward manifestations of things and tries to compare different systems according to those outward manifestations. We could also take a top-down or a bottom-up approach
  • Idealism - tends to see the real world as a world of ideas (e.g., the Weltgeist) that determines the material, physical world
  • Materialism - tends to see the real world as the material world; which, in turn, determines the world of ideas (e.g., “You are what you eat”)