The "Conventional" Research Model
Research models are tailored to the specific problem being investigated and the focus of the researcher. Both quantitative research and qualitative research contribute to our knowledge of society and human social interaction. and both involve a series of steps. We will now trace the steps in the "conventional" research model. which focuses on quantitative research. Then we will describe an alternative model that emphasizes qualitative research. 1. Select and define tile research problem. When you engage in research. the first step is to select and dearly define the research topic. Sometimes. a specific experience such as having known someone who committed suicide can trigger your interest in a topic. Other times. you might select topics to fill gaps or challenge misconceptions in existing research or to test a specific theory (Babble, 2()04). Emile Durkheim selected suicide because ~le~ant~d to demonstrate the Importance of society III sturgeons that might Upper to be arbitrary acts by individuals. Suicide was a suitable topic because it was widely believed that suicide was a uniquely individualistic act. However. Durkheim emphasized that suicide rates provide better explanations for suicide than do individual acts of suicide. He reasoned that if suicide were purely an individual act. then the rate of suicide (the relative number of people who kill themselves each year) should be the same for every group regardless of culture and social structure (see Box 2.2 on page 48 for a current example). Moreover. Durkheim wanted to know why there were different rates of suicide-whether factors such as religion. marital status. sex. and age had an effect on social cohesion.
2. Review previous research. Before you begin your research. it is important to review the literature to see what others have written about the topic. Analyzing what previous researchers have found helps to clarify issues and focus the direction of your own research. But when Durkheim began his study. very little sociological literature existed for him to review other than the works of Henry Morselli (1975/1881). who concluded that suicide was a part of an evolutionary process whereby "weak-brained" individuals were sorted out by insanity and voluntary death.
3. Formulate the Ilypothesis (if applicable). You may formulate a lzypotJlesis-a statement of the relationship between two or more concepts. Concepts are the abstract. elements representing some aspect of the world in simplified form (such as "social integration- or "loneliness"). As you formulate your hypothesis about suicide. you may need to convert concepts to variables. A is any concept with measurable traits or. characteristics that can change or vary from one person. time. situation. or society to another. Variables are the observable and/or measurable counterparts of concepts. For elfman, "suicide" is a concept; the "rate of suicide" is ? The most fundamental relationship n a hypothesis is between a dependent variable and one or more independent variables The independent variable is presumed to cause or determine a dependent variable. Age. sex. race. and ethnicity are often used as independent variables. The dependent. variable is assumed to depend on or be caused by the independent variable(s) (Babbie, 2004). Durkheim used the degree of social integration in society as the independent variable to determine its influence on the dependent variable. the rate of suicide. Whether a variable is dependent or independent depends on the context in which it i~ used. To use variables in the contemporary research process. sociologists creole opcrutlonal dct installous. An operatlonal fictitious Is an explanation of an abstract accept in terms of observable features that are special enough to measure the variable. For example. suppose that your goal is to earn an A in this course. Your professor may have created an operational definition by defining an A as earning an exam average of 90 percent or above (Babble, 2004)_ Events such as suicide are too complex to be caused by anyone variable. Therefore. they must be explained in terms of multiple causation-that is. an event occurs as a result of many factors operating in combination. What does cause suicide? Social scientists cite multiple causes. including rapid social change. economic conditions. hopeless poverty. and lack of religiosity (the degree to which an individual or group feels committed to a particular system of religious beliefs). Usually. no one factor will cause a person to commit suicide. Rather. other factors must combine with a factor such as poverty to cause a person to commit suicide. Sociologists cannot produce an equation (such as poverty + homelessness
= suicide) to predict a social occurrence.Not all social research makes use of hypotheses.
4. Develop the research design. In developing the research design. you must first consider the units of analysis and the time frame of the study. A ullit of analysis is what or wnom is being studied (Babbie, 2004). In social science research. individuals the most typical unit of analysis. Social groups (such as families. cities. or geographic regions). organizations (such( as clubs. labor unions. or political parties). and social artifacts (such as books. paintings. or weddings) may also be units of analysis. Durkheim's unit of analysis was social groups. not individuals, because he believed that the study of individual cases of suicide would not explain the rates of suicide. After determining the unit of analysis for your study. you must select a time frame for study: crosssectional or longitudinal. Cross-sectional studies are based on observations that take place at n single point in time; these studies focus on behavior or responses at a specific moment Longitudinal studies are concerned with what is happening over a period of time or at several different points in time; they focus on processes and social change. Some longitudinal studies are designed to examine the same set of people each time. whereas others look at trends within a general popu lation. Using longitudinal data. Durkheim was able to compare suicide rates over a period of time in France and other European nations.
5. Collect and analyze the data. Your next step is to collect and analyze data. You must decide which population-persons about whom we want to be able to draw conclusions-will be observed or questioned. Then it is necessary to select 8 sample of people from the larger population to be studied. It is important that the sample accurately represent the larger population. For example. if you arbitrarily selected five students from your sociology class to interview. they probably would not be representative of your school's total student body. However.
if you selected five students from the total student body by a random sample. they might be closer to being representative (although a random sample of five students would be too small to yield much useful data). In random sampling. every member of an entire population being studied has the same chance of being selected. You would have a more representative sample of the total student body. for example. if you placed all the students' names in a rotating drum and conducted a drawing. By contrast, in probability sampling. participants are deliberately chosen because they have specific characteristics, possibly including such factors as age. sex, race/ethnicity. and educational attainment. In addition to problems with sampling, sociologists must maintain the validity and reliability of the data they collect. Validity is the extent to which a study or research instrument accurately measures what it is supposed to measure. For example. sociologists who analyze the relationship between religious beliefs and suicide must determine whether "church membership" is an accurate indicator of a person's religious beliefs. In fact. one person ma)' be very religious but not belong to a specific church. whereas another person may be a member of a church yet not hold any deep religious convictions. 10 maintain validity. some sociologists study the relationship between suicide and religion not only in terms of people's specific behaviors (e.g .• frequency of attendance at church services) but also as a set of values. beliefs. or attitudes (Breault. 1986). Reliability is the extent to which a study or research instrument yields consistent results when applied to different individuals at one time or to the same in individuals over time. An important issue in reliability is the feel that sociologists have found that the characteristics of interviewers and how they ask questions may produce different answers from the people being interviewed.. AI; a result. different studies of college students who have contemplated suicide may arrive at different conclusions. Problems of validity are also linked to how data is analyzed. Allalysis i5 the process through which data are organized so that comparisons can be made and conclusions drawn. Sociologists use many techniques to analyze data.
The process for each type of research method is discussed later in this chapter. In Durkheim's study. he collected data from vital statistics for approximately 26,000 suicides. He classified them separately according to age, sex, marital status. presence or absence of children in the family. religion, geographic location. calendar date, method of suicide, and a number of other variables. As Durkheim analyzed his data, four distinct categories of suicide emerged: egoistic, altruistic, anomie. and fatalistic. Egoistic suicide occurs among people who are isolated from any social group. For example. Durkheim concluded that suicide rates were relatively high in Protestant countries in Europe because Protestants believed in individualism and were more loosely tied to the church than were Catholics. Single people had proportionately higher suicide rates than married persons because they had a low degree of social integration. which contributed to their loneliness. In contrast. a/truistic suicide occurs among individuals who are excessively integrated into society. An example is military leaders who kill themselves after defeat in battle because they have so strongly identified themselves with their cause that they believe they cannot live with defeat. According to Durkheim, people are more likely to kill themselves when social cohesion is either very weak or very strong. 'Durkheim further observed that degree of social integration is not the only variable that influences suicide rates. Rapid social change and shifts in moral values make it difficult for people to know what is right and wrong. Anomie suicide results from a lack of shared values or purpose and from the absence of social regulation. By contrast, excessive regulation and oppressive discipline may contribute to fatalistic suicide, as in the suicides of slaves.