Sociology and Scientific Evidence
Taking this course. you will be studying social science research and may be asked to write research reports or read and evaluate journal articles. If you tend graduate or professional school in fields sat use sociological research. you will be expected so evaluate existing research and perhaps do your own. Hopefully. you will find that social research is relevant to the practical. everyday concerns of the real world. Sociology involves, debunking-the unmasking of fallacies (false or mistaken ideas or opinions) in the everyday and official interpretations of society (Mills. J959b). Because problems such as suicide involve threats to existing societal values. we cannot analyze these problems without acknowledging the values involved. For example. should assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who wish to die be legal? We often answer questions like this by using either the normative or the empirical approach. The normative approach uses religion. customs. habits. traditions. and law to answer important questions. It is based on strong beliefs about what is right and wrong and what “ought to be” in society. Issues such as assisted suicide are often answered by the normative approach. From a legal standpoint. the consequences of assisting in another person’s suicide may be set free. Although these issues are immediate and profound. some sociologists discourage the use of the normative approach in their field and advocate the use of the empirical approach instead. The empirical approach attempts to answer questions through systematic collection and analysis of data. This approach is referred to as the conventional model. or the “scientific method and is based on the assumption that knowledge is best gained by direct. systematic observation. Many sociologists believe that two bask scientific standards must be met: (J) scientific beliefs should be supported by good evidence or information, and (2) these beliefs should be open to public debate and critiques from other scholars. with alternative interpretations being considered (Cancian, 1992). Sociologists typically use two types of empirical studies: descriptive and explanatory. Descriptive studies attempt to’ describe social reality or provide facts about some group. practice. or event. Studies of this type are designed to find out what is happening to whom. where. and when. For example. a descriptive study of suicide might attempt to determine the number of people who recently thought about committing suicide. On other topics. well-known descriptive studies include the U.S.Census and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. However. it is important to note that even studies which are considered to be “objective” have certain biaseS because of the limitations inherent in doing certain types of research. as discussed in this chapter and in Chapter 7 (-Deviance and Crime”). By contrast. explanatory studies attempt to explain cause and effect relationships and to provide information on why certain events do or do not occur. In an explanatory study of suicide. we might ask questions such as these: Why do African American men over age sixtyfive have a significantly lower suicide rate than white males in the same age bracket? Why are women more likely to attempt suicide than m.en? Sociologists engage in theorizing and conducting research in order to describe. explain. and sometimes predict how and why people will act in certain situations.