Part 4

Part 4: Research Methods

Emile Durkhein

There are many different ways of doing research in the field of sociology. The first step in any research study is coming up with a question. What area of society would you like to investigate? Will your research involve studying broad patterns of behavior or are you more interested in the day to day interactions of individuals? These questions will help you determine what type of research method you are going to use. It will also help you to determine what type of theories or theoretical perspectives you will use in your study.

One of the most influential works of sociology began with a question. Emile Durkheim was interested in what causes a person to commit suicide. He believed that studying suicide rates would help establish sociology as an academic discipline. Throughout history, most explanations of suicide focus on the individual. Even today, people are likely to explain suicide as an individual problem perhaps caused by depression or some other psychological or personal malady. Durkheim wanted to show that suicide was influenced by social factorsrather than the individual. But what social factors were involved? In order to uncover these patterns, Durkheim began to collect statistical data on suicide rates throughout Europe. He found that certain groups of people were more likely to commit suicide. For instance, white male Protestants had higher rates of suicide than Catholics or members of the Jewish community. He also found that men, wealthy individuals and unmarried adults had higher rates of suicide as well.

Durkheim concluded that although suicide is a personal choice, societal factors contribute to whether or not someone makes that decision. In other words, suicide is a public issue, not a personal trouble. For instance, white male Protestants had higher rates of suicide and according to Durkheim, this was due mainly to their high degree of individualism. Durkheim also pointed out that wealth and affluence gave individuals a false sense of comfort. It made them feel as if they only need depend on themselves. Durkheim concluded that a person’s degree of “social solidarity” contributes to whether or not they are likely to commit suicide. In smaller communities, where social solidarity is higher, suicide rates were lower. In societies undergoing the rapid changes of modernization, suicide rates were also higher. His Durkheim’s approach is in line with empiricism and sociology in that it examines social patterns and uses actual statistics or “social facts” that provide us with information based on more than just a person’s opinions. Even today we still find similar patterns of suicide rates in society which shows the strength and validity of Durkheim’s research.

Source: Center for Disease Control, 2002

Table 4: Suicide Rate (per 100,000) in United States

Four Types of Research Methods Used by Sociologists:


a.) Questionnaire

b.) Interview

Existing Data

a.) Secondary Analysis

b.) Content Analysis

Field Research

a.) Ethnography

b.) Participant Observation


a.) Experimental Group/Control Group

b.) Controlled Experiment

Use and Misuse of Statistics

Statistical data can be very persuasive. Many of us are inclined to believe that numbers always tell the truth. when doing research on any subject. However, statistics can be misleading. Data can often be manipulated for the sake of making an argument seem more valid. Also, some research is funded by groups and organizations that have a financial stake in the outcome of their research. Social scientists are often eager to get funding for research, but if they are being funded by wealthy corporations or political groups, their research findings may be influenced by these powerful forcesbiased. Below are a few rules that might be helpful to you when using statistics doing research:

  1. Check the source of research for possible bias.
  2. Check source of funding for research. Is there a built-in bias?
  3. Make sure variables are clearly defined
  4. Is correlation cited as a cause?
  5. Are important facts being left out?
  6. Avoid overgeneralizations