Discussion Posts

Discussion Posts

Chapter 2


Certain restaurants in the United States are fond of conducting political polls among their diners whenever an election is in the offing. Some take these polls very seriously because of their un- canny history of predicting winners. Some movie theaters have achieved similar success by offering popcorn in bags picturing either donkeys or ele- phants. Years ago, granaries in the Midwest offered farmers a chance to indicate their political prefer- ences through the bags of grain they selected. Such idiosyncratic ways of determining trends, though interesting, all follow the same pattern over time: They work for a while, and then they fail. Moreover, we can’t predict when or why they will fail. These unusual polling techniques point to a significant shortcoming of “research findings” that are based only on the observation of patterns. Unless we can offer logical explanations for such patterns, the regularities we’ve observed may be mere flukes, chance occurrences. If you flip coins long enough, you’ll get ten heads in a row. Scientists might adapt a street expression to de- scribe this situation: “Patterns happen.” Logical explanations are what theories seek to provide. Theories function in three ways in research. First, they prevent our being taken in by flukes. If we can’t explain why Ma’s Diner has so successfully predicted elections, we run the risk of supporting a fluke. If we know why it has happened, we can anticipate whether or not it will work in the future. Second, theories make sense of observed pat- terns in a way that can suggest other possibilities. If we understand the reasons why broken homes produce more juvenile delinquency than intact homes do—lack of supervision, for example—we can take effective action, such as establishing after-school youth programs. Third, theories shape and direct research ef- forts, pointing toward likely discoveries through empirical observation. If you were looking for your lost keys on a dark street, you could whip your flashlight around randomly, hoping to chance upon the errant keys—or you could use your memory of where you had been and limit your search to more-likely areas. Theories, by analogy, direct researchers’ flashlights where they will most likely observe interesting patterns of social life. This is not to say that all social science re- search is tightly intertwined with social theory. Sometimes social scientists undertake investiga- tions simply to discover the state of affairs, such as an evaluation of whether an innovative social program is working or a poll to determine which candidate is winning a political race. Similarly, descriptive ethnographies, such as anthropo- logical accounts of preliterate societies, produce valuable information and insights in and of themselves. However, even studies such as these often go beyond pure description to ask “why.” Theory relates directly to “why” questions. This chapter explores some specific ways theory and research work hand in hand during the adventure of inquiry into social life. We’ll begin by looking at some fundamental frames of reference, called paradigms that underlie social theories and inquiry. Whereas theories seek to explain, paradigms provide ways of looking. In and of themselves, paradigms don’t explain any- thing; however, they provide logical frameworks within which theories are created. As you’ll see in this chapter, theories and paradigms inter- twine in the search for meaning in social life.

Some Social Science Paradigms

There is usually more than one way to make sense of things. In daily life, for example, liberals and conservatives often explain the same phenomenon—teenagers using guns at school, for example—quite differently. So might the par- ents and teenagers themselves. But underlying these different explanations, or theories, are paradigms—the fundamental models or frames of reference we use to organize our observations and reasoning.

Paradigms are often difficult to recognize as such, because they are so implicit, assumed, taken for granted. They seem more like “the way things are” than like one possible point of view among many. Here’s an illustration of what I mean. Where do you stand on the issue of human rights? Do you feel that individual human beings are sacred? Are they “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” as asserted by the U.S. Declaration of Independence? Are there some things that no government should do to its citizens? Let’s get more concrete. In wartime, civilians are sometimes used as human shields to protect military targets. Sometimes they are impressed into slave labor or even used as mobile blood banks for military hospitals. How about orga- nized programs of rape and murder in support of “ethnic cleansing”? Those of us who are horrified and incensed by such practices probably find it difficult to see our individualistic paradigm—represented in concepts like human rights, liberty, human dignity—as only one possible point of view among many. However, many cultures in today’s world regard the Western (and particularly U.S.) commitment to the sanctity of the individual as bizarre. Historically, it has decidedly been a minority viewpoint. Although many Asian countries, for example, now subscribe to some “rights” that belong to individuals, those are balanced against the “rights” of families, organizations, and the society at large. Criticized for violating human rights, Asian leaders often point to high crime rates and social disorganization in Western societies as the cost of what they see as our radical “cult of the individual.” I won’t try to change your point of view on individual human dignity, nor have I given up my own. It’s useful, however, to recognize that our views and feelings in this matter result from the paradigm we have been socialized into. The sanctity of the individual is not an objective fact of nature; it is a point of view, a paradigm. All of us operate within many such paradigms. When we recognize that we are operating within a paradigm, two benefits accrue. First, we can better understand the seemingly bizarre views and actions of others who are operating from a different paradigm. Second, at times we can profit from stepping outside our paradigm. Suddenly we can see new ways of seeing and explaining things. We can’t do that as long as we mistake our paradigm for reality. Paradigms play a fundamental role in science, just as they do in daily life. Thomas Kuhn (1970) draws attention to the role of paradigms in the history of the natural sciences. Kuhn’s classic book on this subject is titled, appropriately enough, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Major scientific paradigms have included such fundamental viewpoints as Copernicus’s concep- tion of the earth moving around the sun (instead of the reverse), Darwin’s theory of evolution, Newtonian mechanics, and Einstein’s relativity. Which scientific theories “make sense” depends on which paradigm scientists are maintaining. Although we sometimes think of science as developing gradually over time, marked by important discoveries and inventions, Kuhn says that scientific paradigms typically become entrenched, resisting substantial change. Thus, theories and research alike tend to follow a given fundamental direction. Eventually, however, as the shortcomings of a particular paradigm be- come obvious, a new one emerges and supplants the old. The seemingly natural view that the rest of the universe revolves around the earth, for example, compelled astronomers to devise ever more elaborate ways to account for the motions of heavenly bodies that they actually observed. Eventually, however, the shortcomings of that paradigm would become obvious in the form of observation that violated the expectations sug- gested by the paradigm. These are often referred to as anomalies, events that fall outside expected or standard patterns. For a long time in American society, as elsewhere, a fundamental belief system regarding sex and gender held that only men were capable of higher learning. In that situation, every demonstrably learned woman was an “anomalous challenge” to the traditional view. When the old paradigm was sufficiently challenged, Kuhn suggested, a new paradigm would emerge and supplant the old one. Social scientists have developed several paradigms for understanding social behavior. The fate of supplanted paradigms in the social sciences, however, has differed from what Kuhn observed in the natural sciences.

Natural scientists generally believe that the succession from one paradigm to another represents prog- ress from a false view to a true one. For example, no modern astronomer believes that the sun revolves around the earth. In the social sciences, on the other hand, theoretical paradigms may gain or lose popular- ity, but they are seldom discarded altogether. The paradigms of the social sciences offer a variety of views, each of which offers insights the others lack and ignores aspects of social life that the others reveal. Ultimately, paradigms are neither true nor false; as ways of looking, they are only more or less useful. Each of the paradigms we are about to examine offers a different way of looking at human social life. Each makes its own assump- tions about the nature of social reality. As we’ll see, each can open up new understandings, sug- gest different kinds of theories, and inspire differ- ent kinds of research.

Macrotheory and Microtheory

Let’s begin with a difference concerning focus, a difference that stretches across many of the para- digms we’ll discuss. Some social theorists focus their attention on society at large, or at least on large portions of it. Topics of study for such macrotheories include the struggle between eco- nomic classes in a society, international relations, or the interrelations among major institutions in society, such as government, religion, and family. Macrotheory deals with large, aggregate entities of society or even whole societies. (Note that some researchers prefer to limit the macrolevel to whole societies, using the term mesotheory for an intermediate level between macro and micro: studying organizations, communities, and perhaps social categories such as gender.) Some scholars have taken a more intimate view of social life. Microtheory deals with is- sues of social life at the level of individuals and small groups. Dating behavior, jury deliberations, and student–faculty interactions are apt subjects for a microtheoretical perspective. Such studies often come close to the realm of psychology, but whereas psychologists typically focus on what goes on inside humans, social scientists study what goes on between them. The basic distinction between macro- and microtheory cuts across the other paradigms we’ll examine. Some of them, such as symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology, are often limited to the microlevel. Others, such as the conflict paradigm, can be pursued at either the micro- or the macrolevel

Early Positivism

When the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798–1857) coined the term sociologie in 1822, he launched an intellectual adventure that con- tinues to unfold today. Most importantly, Comte identified society as a phenomenon that can be studied scientifically. (Initially, he wanted to label his enterprise social physics, but that term was taken over by another scholar.)

Prior to Comte’s time, society simply was. To the extent that people recognized different kinds of societies or changes in society over time, religious paradigms generally predominated in explanations of such differences. People often saw the state of social affairs as a reflection of God’s will. Alternatively, people were challenged to create a “City of God” on Earth to replace sin and godlessness.

Comte separated his inquiry from religion. He felt that religious belief could be replaced with scientific study and objectivity. His “positive philosophy” postulated three stages of history. A theological stage predominated throughout the world until about 1300 c.e. During the next 500 years, a metaphysical stage replaced God with philosophical ideas such as “nature” and “natural law.”

Comte felt he was launching the third stage of history, in which science would replace reli- gion and metaphysics by basing knowledge on observations through the five senses rather than on belief or logic alone. Comte felt that society could be observed and then explained logically and rationally and that sociology could be as scientific as biology or physics.

Comte’s view came to form the foundation for subsequent development of the social sci- ences. In his optimism for the future, he coined the term positivism to describe this scientific ap- proach, believing that scientific truths could be positively verified through empirical observations and the logical analysis of what was observed. In recent decades, the idea of positivism has come under serious challenge, as we’ll see later in this discussion.

Social Darwinism

Comte’s major work on his positivist philosophy was published between 1830 and 1842. One year after the publication of the first volume in that series, a young British naturalist set sail on HMS Beagle, beginning a cruise that would profoundly affect the way we think of ourselves and our place in the world.

In 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, he set forth the idea of evolution through natural selection. Simply put, the theory states that as a species coped with its environment, those individuals most suited to success would be the most likely to survive long enough to reproduce. Those less well suited would perish. Over time the traits of the survivor would come to dominate the species. As later Darwinians put it, species evolved into different forms through the “survival of the fittest.”

As scholars began to study society analyti- cally, it was perhaps inevitable that they would apply Darwin’s ideas to changes in the struc- ture of human affairs. The journey from simple hunting-and-gathering tribes to large, industrial civilizations was easily seen as the evolution of progressively “fitter” forms of society.

Among others, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) concluded that society was getting better and better. Indeed, his native England had profited greatly from the development of industrial capitalism, and Spencer favored a system of free competition, which he felt would ensure con- tinued progress and improvement. Spencer may even have coined the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” He certainly believed that this principle was a primary force shaping the nature of soci- ety. Social Darwinism or social evolution was a popular view in Spencer’s time, although it was not universally accepted.

This excerpt from a social science methods textbook published in 1950 illustrates the long- term popularity of the notion that things are getting better and better.

The use of atomic energy as an explosive offers most interesting prospects in the civil as in the military field. Atomic explosives may be used for transforming the landscape. They may be used for blasting great holes and trenches in the earth, which can be trans- formed into lakes and canals. In this way, it may become possible to produce lakes in the midst of deserts, and thus convert some of the worst places in the world into oases and fertile countries. It may also be possible to make the Arctic regions comfortable by providing immense and constant sources of heat. The North Pole might be converted into a holiday resort.

(Gee 1950: 339–40)

Quite aside from the widespread disenchant- ment with nuclear power, contemporary concerns over global warming and the threat of rising sea levels illustrate a growing consciousness that “progress” is often a two-edged sword. Clearly, most of us operate today from a different paradigm.

Conflict Paradigm

One of Spencer’s contemporaries took a sharply different view of the evolution of capitalism. Karl Marx (1818–1883) suggested that social behavior could best be seen as a process of conflict: the attempt to dominate others and to avoid being dominated. Marx’s conflict paradigm focused pri- marily on the struggle among economic classes. Specifically, he examined the way capitalism produced the oppression of workers by the own- ers of industry. Marx’s interest in this topic did not end with analytical study; he was also ideo- logically committed to restructuring economic relations to end the oppression he observed.

The contrast between the views set forth by Spencer and Marx indicates the influence of paradigms on research. These fundamental view- points shape the kinds of observations we are likely to make, the sorts of facts we seek to dis- cover, and the conclusions we draw from those facts. Paradigms also help determine which con- cepts we see as relevant and important. Whereas economic classes were essential to Marx’s analy- sis, for example, Spencer was more interested in the relationship between individuals and society—particularly the amount of freedom in- dividuals had to surrender for society to function.

The conflict paradigm proved to be fruitful outside the realm of purely economic analyses. Georg Simmel (1858–1918) was especially interested in small-scale conflict, in contrast to the class struggle that interested Marx. Simmel noted, for example, that conflicts among mem- bers of a tightly knit group tended to be more intense than those among people who did not share feelings of belonging and intimacy.

In an interesting application of the conflict paradigm, when Michel Chossudovsky’s (1997) analysis of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank suggested that these two inter- national organizations were increasing global poverty rather than eradicating it, he directed his attention to the competing interests involved in the process. In theory, the chief interest being served should be that of the poor people of the world or perhaps the impoverished nations. The researcher’s inquiry, however, identified many other interested parties who benefited: the com- mercial lending institutions who made loans in conjunction with the IMF and World Bank, as well as multinational corporations seeking cheap labor and markets for their goods, for example. Chossudovsky concluded that the interests of the banks and corporations tended to take prece- dence over those of the poor people. Moreover, he found that many policies were weakening the economies in developing nations, as well as undermining democratic governments.

Although the conflict paradigm often focuses on class, gender, and ethnic struggles, we could

appropriately apply it whenever different groups have competing interests. For example, we could fruitfully apply it to understanding relations among different departments in an organization, fraternity and sorority rush weeks, or student– faculty–administrative relations, to name just a few.

Symbolic Interactionism

In his overall focus, Georg Simmel differed from both Spencer and Marx. Whereas they were chiefly concerned with macrotheoretical issues—large institutions and whole societies in their evolution through the course of history— Simmel was more interested in how individuals interacted with one another. In other words, his thinking and research took a “micro” turn, thus calling attention to aspects of social reality that are invisible in Marx’s or Spencer’s theory. For example, he began by examining dyads (groups of two people) and triads (groups of three). Similarly, he wrote about “the web of group affiliations” (Wolff 1950).

Simmel was one of the first European so- ciologists to influence the development of U.S. sociology. His focus on the nature of interactions particularly influenced George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), and others who took up the cause and developed it into a powerful paradigm for research.

Cooley, for example, introduced the idea of the “primary group,” those intimate associates with whom we share a sense of belonging, such as our family and friends. Cooley also wrote of the “looking-glass self” we form by looking into the reactions of people around us. If everyone treats us as beautiful, for example, we conclude that we are. Notice how fundamentally the con- cepts and theoretical focus inspired by this para- digm differ from the society-level concerns of Spencer and Marx.

Mead emphasized the importance of our human ability to “take the role of the other,” imagining how others feel and how they might behave in certain circumstances. As we gain an idea of how people in general see things, we develop a sense of what Mead called the “generalized other” (Strauss 1977).

Mead also showed a special interest in the role of communications in human affairs. Most interactions, he felt, revolved around the process of individuals reaching common understanding through the use of language and other such sys- tems, hence the term symbolic interactionism.

This paradigm can lend insights into the nature of interactions in ordinary social life, but it can also help us understand unusual forms of interaction, as when researchers Robert Emerson, Kerry Ferris, and Carol Gardner (1998), in a study still relevant today, set out to understand the nature of “stalking.” Through interviews with numerous stalking victims, they came to identify different motivations among stalkers, stages in the development of a stalking scenario, how people can recognize if they are being stalked, and what they can do about it.

Moving from the topic of stalking, here’s one way you might apply the symbolic interactionism paradigm to a less dramatic examination of your own life. The next time you meet someone new, pay attention to how you get to know each other. To begin, what assumptions do you make about the other person based merely on appearances, how he or she talks, and the cir- cumstances under which you’ve met. (“What’s someone like you doing in a place like this?”) Then watch how your knowledge of each other unfolds through the process of interaction. Notice also any attempts you make to manage the image you are creating in the other person’s mind.


Whereas some social scientific paradigms em- phasize the impact of social structure on human behavior—that is, the effect of norms, values, control agents, and so forth—other paradigms do not. Harold Garfinkel, a contemporary sociolo- gist, claims that people are continually creating social structure through their actions and in- teractions—that they are, in fact, creating their realities. Thus, when you and your instructor meet to discuss your term paper, even though there are myriad expectations about how you both should act, your conversation will differ somewhat from any of those that have occurred before, and how you each act will somewhat modify your expectations in the future. That is, discussing your term paper will impact the inter- actions each of you have with other professors and students in the future.

Given the tentativeness of reality in this view, Garfinkel suggests that people are con- tinuously trying to make sense of the life they experience. In a sense, he suggests that every- one is acting like a social scientist, hence the term ethnomethodology, or “methodology of the people.”

How would you approach learning about people’s expectations and how they make sense out of their world? One technique ethnometh- odologists use is to break the rules, to violate people’s expectations. Thus, if you try to talk to me about your term paper but I keep talking about football, this might reveal the expectations you had for my behavior might become appar- ent. We might also see how you make sense out of my behavior. (“Maybe he’s using football as an analogy for understanding social systems theory.”)

In another example of ethnomethodology, Johen Heritage and David Greatbatch (1992) examined the role of applause in British political speeches: How did the speakers evoke applause, and what function did it serve? Research within the ethnomethodological paradigm has often fo- cused on communications.

There is no end to the opportunities you have for trying out the ethnomethodological paradigm. For instance, the next time you get on an elevator, don’t face front watching the floor numbers whip by; that’s the norm, or expected behavior. Just stand quietly facing the rear. See how others react to this behavior. Just as im- portant, notice how you feel about it. If you do this experiment a few times, you should begin to develop a feel for the ethnomethodological paradigm.*

We’ll return to ethnomethodology in Chapter 10, when we discuss field research. For now, let’s turn to a very different paradigm.

*I am grateful to my colleague, Bernard McGrane, for this experiment. Barney also has his students eat din- ner with their hands, watch TV without turning it on, and engage in other strangely enlightening behavior (McGrane 1994).

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism, sometimes also known as social systems theory, has grown out of a notion introduced by Comte and Spencer: A social entity, such as an organization or a whole soci- ety, can be viewed as an organism. Like other organisms, a social system is made up of parts, each of which contributes to the functioning of the whole.

By analogy, consider the human body. Each component—such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, skin, and brain—has a particular job to do. The body as a whole cannot survive unless each of these parts does its job, and none of the parts can survive except as a part of the whole body. Or consider an automobile. It is composed of the tires, the steering wheel, the gas tank, the spark plugs, and so forth. Each of the parts serves a function for the whole; taken together, that system can get us across town. None of the individual parts would be very useful to us by itself, however.

The view of society as a social system, then, looks for the “functions” served by its various components. Social scientists using the structural functional paradigm might note that the func- tion of the police, for example, is to exercise social control—encouraging people to abide by the norms of society and bringing to justice those who do not. Notice, though, that the research- ers could just as reasonably ask what functions criminals serve in society. Within the functional- ist paradigm, we might say that criminals serve as job security for the police. In a related obser- vation, Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) suggested that crimes and their punishment provide an op- portunity to reaffirm society’s values. By catching and punishing thieves, we reaffirm our collective respect for private property.

To get a sense of the structural functional paradigm, suppose you were interested in ex- plaining how your college or university works. You might thumb through the institution’s cata- log and begin assembling a list of the adminis- trators and support staff (such as the president,

deans, registrar, campus security staff, mainte- nance personnel). Then you might figure out what each of them does and relate their roles and activities to the chief functions of your col- lege or university, such as teaching or research. This way of looking at an institution of higher learning would clearly suggest a different line of inquiry than, say, a conflict paradigm, which might emphasize the clash of interests between people who have power in the institution and those who don’t.

People often discuss “functions” in everyday conversation. Typically, however, the alleged functions are seldom tested empirically. Some people argue, for example, that welfare, intended to help the poor, actually harms them in a vari- ety of ways. It is sometimes alleged that welfare creates a deviant, violent subculture in society, at odds with the mainstream. From this viewpoint, welfare programs actually result in increased crime rates.

Lance Hannon and James Defronzo (1998) decided to test this last assertion. Working with data drawn from 406 urban counties in the United States, they examined the relationship between welfare payments and crime rates. Contrary to the beliefs of some, their data indicated that higher welfare payments were associated with lower crime rates. In other words, welfare programs have the function of decreasing rather than increasing lawlessness.

In applying the functionalist paradigm to everyday life, people sometimes make the mis- take of thinking that “functionality,” stability, and integration are necessarily good, or that the functionalist paradigm makes that assumption. However, when social researchers look for the functions served by poverty, racial discrimina- tion, or the oppression of women, they are not justifying them. Just the opposite: They seek to understand the functions such things play in the larger society, as a way of understanding why they persist and how they could be eliminated.

Feminist Paradigms

When Ralph Linton concluded his anthropologi- cal classic, The Study of Man (1937: 490), speaking of “a store of knowledge that promises to give man a better life than any he has known,” no one complained that he had left out women. Linton was using the linguistic conventions of his time; he implicitly included women in all his references to men. Or did he?

When feminists first began questioning the use of masculine pronouns and nouns whenever gender was ambiguous, their concerns were often viewed as petty, even silly. At most, many felt the issue was one of women having their feelings hurt, their egos bruised. But be honest: When you read Linton’s words, what did you picture? An amorphous, genderless human being, or . . . a man?

In a similar way, researchers looking at the social world from a feminist paradigm have called attention to aspects of social life that other paradigms do not reveal. In part, feminist theory and research have focused on sex-role differ- ences and how they relate to the rest of social organization. These lines of inquiry have drawn attention to the oppression of women in many societies, which in turn has shed light on oppres- sion generally.

Feminist paradigms not only reveal the treat- ment of women or the experience of oppression but often point to limitations in how other as- pects of social life are examined and understood. Thus, feminist perspectives are often related to a concern for the environment, for example. As Greta Gard suggests,

The way in which women and nature have been conceptualized historically in Western intellectual tradition has resulted in devalu- ing whatever is associated with women, emotion, animals, nature, and the body, while simultaneously elevating in value those things associated with men, reason, humans, culture, and the mind. One task of ecofeminism has been to expose these dual- isms and the ways in which feminizing na- ture and naturalizing or animalizing women has served as justification for the domination of women, animals and the earth.

(1993: 5; quoted in Rynbrandt and Deegan 2002: 60)

Feminist paradigms have also challenged the prevailing notions concerning consensus in society. Most descriptions of the predominant beliefs, values, and norms of a society are written by people representing only portions of society. In the United States, for example, such analyses have typically been written by middle-class white men—not surprisingly, they have written about

the beliefs, values, and norms they themselves share. Though George Herbert Mead spoke of the “generalized other” that each of us becomes aware of and can “take the role of,” feminist paradigms question whether such a generalized other even exists.

Mead used the example of learning to play baseball to illustrate how we learn about the generalized other. As shown here, Janet Lever’s research suggests that understanding the experi- ence of boys may tell us little about girls.

Girls’ play and games are very different. They are mostly spontaneous, imaginative, and free of structure or rules. Turn-taking activi- ties like jumprope may be played without setting explicit goals. Girls have far less expe- rience with interpersonal competition. The style of their competition is indirect, rather than face to face, individual rather than team affiliated. Leadership roles are either missing or randomly filled.

(Lever 1986: 86)

Social researchers’ growing recognition of the intellectual differences between men and women led the psychologist Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues to speak of Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986). In-depth interviews with 45 women enabled the researchers to distinguish five perspectives on knowing that challenge the view of inquiry as obvious and straightforward:

●● Silence: Some women, especially early in life, feel themselves isolated from the world of knowledge, their lives largely determined by external authorities.

●● Received knowledge: From this perspective, women feel themselves capable of taking in and holding knowledge originating with ex- ternal authorities.

●● Subjective knowledge: This perspective opens up the possibility of personal, subjective knowledge, including intuition.

●● Procedural knowledge: Some women feel they have learned the ways of gaining knowledge through objective procedures.

●● Constructed knowledge: The authors describe this perspective as “a position in which women view all knowledge as contextual, experience themselves as creators of knowl- edge, and value both subjective and objective strategies for knowing.”

(Belenky et al. 1986: 15)

“Constructed knowledge” is particularly interesting in the context of our previous discus- sions. The positivistic paradigm of Comte would have a place neither for “subjective knowledge” nor for the idea that truth might vary accord- ing to its context. The ethnomethodological paradigm, on the other hand, would accommo- date these ideas.

Feminist standpoint theory is a term often used in reference to the fact that women have knowl- edge about their status and experience that is not available to men. Introduced by Nancy Hartsock (1983), this viewpoint has evolved over time. For example, scholars have come to recognize that there is no single female experience, that different kinds of women (varying by wealth, ethnicity, or age, for example) have very differ- ent experiences of life in society, all the while sharing some things in common because of their gender. This sensitivity to variations in the female experience is also a main element in what is referred to as third-wave feminism, which began in the 1990s.

To try out feminist paradigms, you might want to explore whether discrimination against women exists at your college or university. Are the top administrative positions held equally by men and women? How about secretarial and clerical positions? Are men’s and women’s sports supported equally? Read through the official his- tory of your school; is it a history that includes men and women equally? (If you attend an all-male or all-female school, of course, some of these questions won’t apply.)

As we just saw, feminist paradigms reflect not only a concern for the unequal treatment of women but also an epistemological recogni- tion that men and women overall perceive and understand society differently. Social theories created solely by men, which has been the norm, run the risk of an unrecognized bias. A similar case can be made for theories created almost exclusively by white people.

Critical Race Theory

The roots of critical race theory are generally asso- ciated with the civil rights movement of the mid- 1950s and race-related legislation of the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, with fears that the strides toward equality were beginning to bog down, civil rights activists and social scientists began the codification of a paradigm based on race aware- ness and a commitment to racial justice.

This was not the first time sociologists paid attention to the status of nonwhites in U.S. society. Perhaps the best known African American sociologist in the history of the disci- pline was W. E. B. DuBois, who published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Among other things, DuBois pointed out that African Americans lived their lives through a “dual consciousness”: as Americans and as black people. By contrast, white Americans have seldom reflected on being white. If you were American, white was simply assumed. If you were not white, you have been seen and made to feel like the exception. So imagine the difference between an African American sociologist and a white sociologist cre- ating a theory of social identity. Their theories of identity would likely differ in some fundamental ways, even if they were not limiting their analy- ses to their own race.

Much of the contemporary scholarship in critical race theory has to do with the role of race in politics and government, studies often undertaken by legal scholars as well as social scientists. Thus, for example, Derrick Bell (1980) critiqued the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down the “separate but equal” system of school segregation. He suggested that the Court was motivated by the economic and political inter- ests of the white, not by the objective of educa- tional equality for African American students.

In his analysis, Ball introduced the concept of interest convergence, suggesting that laws will

only be changed to benefit African Americans if and when those changes are seen to further the interests of whites. Richard Delgado (2002) pro- vides an excellent overview of how Bell’s reason- ing has been pursued by subsequent critical race theory scholars.

As a general rule, whenever you find the word critical in the name of a paradigm or theory, it will likely refer to a nontraditional view, one that may be at odds with the prevailing para- digms of an academic discipline and also at odds with the mainstream structure of society.

Rational Objectivity Reconsidered

We began this discussion of paradigms with Comte’s assertion that society can be studied rationally and objectively. Since his time, the growth of science and technology, together with the relative decline of superstition, have put ra- tionality more and more at the center of social life. As fundamental as rationality is to most of us, however, some contemporary scholars have raised questions about it.

For example, positivistic social scientists have sometimes erred in assuming that humans always act rationally. I’m sure your own experi- ence offers ample evidence to the contrary. Yet many modern economic models fundamentally assume that people will make rational choices in the economic sector: They will choose the highest-paying job, pay the lowest price, and so forth. This assumption ignores the power of tradition, loyalty, image, and other factors that compete with reason and calculation in deter- mining human behavior.

A more sophisticated positivism would assert that we can rationally understand and predict even nonrational behavior. An example is the famous “Asch experiment” (Asch 1958). In this experiment, a group of subjects is presented with a set of lines on a screen and asked to identify the two lines that are equal in length.

Imagine yourself a subject in such an ex- periment. You are sitting in the front row of a classroom among a group of six subjects. A set of lines is projected on the wall in front of you (see Figure 2-1). The experimenter asks each of you, one at a time, to identify the line on the right (A, B, or C) that matches the length of line X. The correct answer (B) is pretty obvious

FiGUre 2-1 the asch experiment. Subjects in the Asch experiment have a seemingly easy task: to determine whether A, B, or C is the same length as X. But there’s more here than meets the eye.. To your surprise, however, you find that all the other subjects agree on a different answer!

The experimenter announces that all but one of the group has gotten the correct answer. Because you are the only one who chose B, this amounts to saying that you’ve gotten it wrong. Then a new set of lines is presented, and you have the same experience. What seems to be the obviously correct answer is said by everyone else to be wrong.

As it turns out, of course, you are the only real subject in this experiment—all the others are working with the experimenter. The pur- pose of the experiment is to see whether you will be swayed by public pressure to go along with the incorrect answer. In his initial experi- ments, all of which involved young men, Asch found that a little over one-third of his subjects did just that.

Choosing an obviously wrong answer in a simple experiment is an example of nonrational behavior. But as Asch went on to show, experi- menters can examine the circumstances that lead more or fewer subjects to go along with the incorrect answer. For example, in subse- quent studies, Asch varied the size of one group and the number of “dissenters” who chose the “wrong” (that is, the correct) answer. Thus, it is possible to study nonrational behavior rationally and scientifically.

More radically, we can question whether social life abides by rational principles at all. In the physical sciences, developments such as chaos theory, fuzzy logic, and complexity have suggested that we may need to rethink funda- mentally the orderliness of events in the physical world. Certainly the social world might be no tidier than the world of physics.

The contemporary challenge to positivism, however, goes beyond the question of whether people always behave rationally in their political, economic, and other areas of behavior. In part, the criticism of positivism challenges the idea that scientists can be as objective as the positiv- istic ideal assumes. Most scientists would agree that personal feelings can and do influence the problems scientists choose to study, what they choose to observe, and the conclusions they draw from their observations.

There is an even more radical critique of the ideal of objectivity. As we glimpsed in the discussions of feminism and ethnomethodology, some contemporary researchers suggest that subjectivity might actually be preferable in some situations. Let’s take a moment to return to the dialectic of subjectivity and objectivity.

To begin, all our experiences are inescapably subjective. There is no way out. We can see only through our own eyes, and anything peculiar to our eyes will shape what we see. We can hear things only the way our particular ears and brain transmit and interpret sound waves. You and I, to some extent, hear and see different re- alities. And both of us experience quite different physical “realities” than, say, do bats. In what to us is total darkness, a bat “sees” things such as flying insects by emitting a sound we humans can’t hear. Echolocation or the reflection of the bat’s sound creates a “sound picture” precise enough for the bat to home in on the moving insect and snatch it up in its teeth. In a simi-lar vein, scientists on the planet Xandu might develop theories of the physical world based on a sensory apparatus that we humans can’t even imagine. Maybe they have X-ray vision or hear colors.

Despite the inescapable subjectivity of our experience, we humans seem to be wired to seek an agreement on what is really real, what is objectively so. Objectivity is a conceptual attempt to get beyond our individual views. It is ultimately a matter of communication, as you and I attempt to find a common ground in our subjective expe- riences. Whenever we succeed in our search, we say we are dealing with objective reality. This is the agreement reality discussed in Chapter 1.

To this point, perhaps the most significant studies in the history of social science were con- ducted in the 1930s by a Turkish American social psychologist, Muzafer Sherif (1935), who slyly said he wanted to study “auto-kinetic effects.” To do this, he put small groups in totally dark- ened rooms, save for a single point of light in the center of the wall in front of the participants. Sherif explained that the light would soon begin to move about, and the subjects were to deter- mine how far it was moving—a difficult task with nothing else visible as a gauge of length or distance.

Amazingly, each of the groups agreed on the distance the point of light moved about. Oddly, however, the different groups of subjects arrived at quite different conclusions as to how much the light was moving. Strangest of all, the point of light had remained stationary. If you stare at a fixed point of light long enough it will seem to move about (Sherif’s “auto-kinetic effect”). Notice, however, that each of the groups agreed on a specific delusion. The movement of the light was real to them, but it was a reality created out of nothing: a socially constructed reality.

Whereas our subjectivity is individual, then, our search for objectivity is social. This is true in all aspects of life, not just in science. Whereas you and I prefer different foods, we must agree to some extent on what is fit to eat and what is not, or else there could be no restaurants or gro- cery stores. The same argument could be made regarding every other form of consumption. Without agreement reality, there could be no movies or television, no sports.

Social scientists as well have found benefits in the concept of a socially agreed-on objec- tive reality. As people seek to impose order on their experience of life, they find it useful to pursue this goal as a collective venture. What are the causes and cures of prejudice? Working together, social researchers have uncovered some answers that hold up to intersubjective scrutiny. Whatever your subjective experience of things, for example, you can discover for yourself that as education increases, prejudice generally tends to decrease. Because each of us can discover this independently, we say that it is objectively true.

According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested. If the predictions agree with the observations, the theory survives that test, though it can never be proved

to be correct. On the other hand, if the observations disagree with the predictions, one has to discard or modify the theory. (At least, that is what is supposed to happen. In practice, people often question the accuracy of the observations and the reliability and moral character of those making the observations.)

(2001: 31)

In summary, a rich variety of theoretical paradigms can be brought to bear on the study of social life. With each of these fundamental frames of reference, useful theories can be con- structed. We turn now to some of the issues involved in theory construction, which are of interest and use to all social researchers, from positivists to postmodernists—and all those in between.

Elements of Social Theory

As we have seen, paradigms are general frame- works or viewpoints: literally “points from which to view.” They provide ways of looking at life and are grounded in sets of assumptions about the nature of reality.

Where a paradigm offers a way of looking, a theory aims to explain what we see. Theories are systematic sets of interrelated statements in- tended to explain some aspect of social life. Thus, theories flesh out and specify paradigms. Recall from Chapter 1 that social scientists engage in both idiographic and nomothetic explanations. Idiographic explanations seek to explain a lim- ited phenomenon as completely as possible— explaining why a particular woman voted as she did, for example—whereas nomothetic explanations attempt to explain a broad range of phenomena at least partially: identifying a few factors that account for much voting behavior in general.

Let’s look a little more deliberately now at some of the elements of a theory. As I men- tioned in Chapter 1, science is based on obser- vation. In social research, observation typically refers to seeing, hearing, and (less commonly) touching. A corresponding idea is fact. Although for philosophers “fact” is as complex a notion

as “reality,” social scientists generally use the term to refer to some phenomenon that has been observed. It is a fact, for example, that Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Scientists aspire to organize many facts under “rules” called laws. Abraham Kaplan (1964: 91) defined laws as universal generalizations about classes of facts. The law of gravity is a classic example: Bodies are attracted to each other in proportion to their masses and in inverse propor- tion to the distance separating them.

Laws must be truly universal, however, not merely accidental patterns found among a specific set of facts. It is a fact, Kaplan points out (1964: 92) that in each of the U.S. presidential elections from 1920 to 1960, the major candidate with the longest name won. That is not a law, however, as shown by elections since. The earlier pattern was a coincidence.

Sometimes called principles, laws are impor- tant statements about what is so. We speak of them as being “discovered,” granting, of course, that our paradigms affect what we choose to look for and what we see. Laws in and of themselves do not explain anything. They just summarize the way things are. Explanation is a function of theory, as we’ll see shortly.

There are no social science laws that claim the universal certainty of those of the natural sciences. Social scientists debate among them- selves whether such laws will ever be discovered. Perhaps social life essentially does not abide by invariant laws. This does not mean that social life is so chaotic as to defy prediction and expla- nation. As we saw in Chapter 1, social behavior falls into patterns, and those patterns quite often make perfect sense, although we may have to look below the surface to find the logic.

As I just indicated, laws should not be confused with theories. Whereas a law is an observed regularity, a theory is a systematic expla- nation for observations that relate to a particular aspect of life. For example, someone might offer a theory of juvenile delinquency, prejudice, or political revolution.

Theories explain observations by means of concepts. Jonathan Turner (1989: 5) calls concepts the “basic building blocks of theory.” Concepts are abstract elements representing classes of phenomena within the field of study. The concepts relevant to a theory of juvenile delinquency, for example, include “juvenile” and “delinquency,” for starters. A “peer group”— the people you hang around with and identify with—is another relevant concept. “Social class” and “ethnicity” are undoubtedly relevant concepts in a theory of juvenile delinquency. “School performance” might also be relevant.

A variable is a special kind of concept. Some of the concepts just mentioned refer to things, and others refer to sets of things. As we saw in Chapter 1, each variable comprises a set of at- tributes; thus, delinquency, in the simplest case, is made up of delinquent and not delinquent. A theory of delinquency would aim at explaining why some juveniles are delinquent and others are not.

Axioms or postulates are fundamental asser- tions, taken to be true, on which a theory is grounded. In a theory of juvenile delinquency, we might begin with axioms such as “Everyone desires material comforts” and “The ability to obtain material comforts legally is greater for the wealthy than for the poor.” From these we might proceed to propositions: specific conclusions, de- rived from the axiomatic groundwork, about

the relationships among concepts. From our beginning axioms about juvenile delinquency, for example, we might reasonably formulate the proposition that poor youths are more likely to break the law to gain material comforts than are rich youths.

This proposition, incidentally, accords with Robert Merton’s classic attempt to account for deviance in society. Merton (1957: 139–57) spoke of the agreed-on means and ends of a so- ciety. In Merton’s model, nondeviants are those who share the societal agreement as to desired ends (such as a new car) and the means pre- scribed for achieving them (such as to buy it). One type of deviant—Merton called this type the “innovator”—agrees on the desired end but does not have access to the prescribed means for achieving it. Innovators find another method, such as crime, of attaining the desired end.

From propositions, in turn, we can derive hypotheses. A hypothesis is a specified testable expectation about empirical reality that follows from a more general proposition. Thus, a re- searcher might formulate the hypothesis, “Poor youths have higher delinquency rates than do rich youths.” Research is designed to test hy- potheses. In other words, research will support (or fail to support) a theory only indirectly—by testing specific hypotheses that are derived from theories and propositions.

Let’s look more clearly at how theory and research come together.

Two Logical Systems Revisited

The Traditional Model of Science

Most of us have a somewhat idealized picture of “the scientific method.” It is a view gained as a result of the physical-science education we’ve received ever since our elementary school days. Although this traditional model of science tells only a part of the story, it’s helpful to understand its logic.

There are three main elements in the tradi- tional model of science: theory, operationaliza- tion, and observation. At this point we’re already well acquainted with the idea of theory.


According to the traditional model of science, scientists begin with a thing, from which they derive testable hypotheses. For example, as so- cial scientists we might have a theory about the causes of juvenile delinquency. Let’s assume that we have arrived at the hypothesis that delin- quency is inversely related to social class. That is, as social class goes up, delinquency goes down.


To test any hypothesis, we must specify the meanings of all the variables involved in it, in ables are social class and delinquency. To give these terms specific meaning, we might define delin- quency as “being arrested for a crime,” “being convicted of a crime,” or some other plausible phrase, whereas social class might be specified in terms of family income, for the purposes of this particular study.

Once we have defined our variables, we need to specify how we’ll measure them. (Recall from Chapter 1 that science, in the classical ideal, depends on measurable observations.) Operationalization literally means specifying the exact operations involved in measuring a variable. There are many ways we can attempt to test our hypothesis, each of which allows for different ways of measuring our variables.

For simplicity, let’s assume we’re planning to conduct a survey of high school students. We might operationalize delinquency in the form of the question “Have you ever stolen anything?” Those who answer “yes” will be classified as delinquents in our study; those who say “no” will be classified as nondelinquents. Similarly, we might operationalize social class by asking respondents, “What was your family’s income last year?” and providing them with a set of fam- ily income categories: under $10,000; $10,000– $24,999; $25,000–$49,999; $50,000–$99,999; $100,000 and above.

At this point someone might object that de- linquency can mean something more than or dif- ferent from having stolen something at one time or another, or that social class isn’t necessarily the same as family income. Some parents might think body piercing is a sign of delinquency even if their children don’t steal, and to some, social class might include an element of prestige or community standing as well as how much money a family has. For the researcher testing a hypothesis, however, the meaning of variables is exactly and only what the operational definition specifies.

In this respect, scientists are very much like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass [1895] 2009. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” Alice replies, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” To which Humpty Dumpty responds, “The ques- tion is, which is to be master—that’s all” ([1895] 2009: 190)

Scientists have to be “masters” of their operational definitions for the sake of preci- sion in observation, measurement, and com- munication. Otherwise, we would never know whether a study that contradicted ours did so only because it used a different set of proce- dures to measure one of the variables and thus changed the meaning of the hypothesis being tested. Of course, this also means that to evalu- ate a study’s conclusions about juvenile delin- quency and social class, or any other variables, we need to know how those variables were operationalized.

The way we have operationalized the vari- ables in our imaginary study could be open to other problems, however. Perhaps some respondents will lie about having stolen any- thing, in which cases we’ll misclassify them as nondelinquent. Some respondents will not know their family incomes and will give mis- taken answers; others may be embarrassed and lie. We’ll consider issues like these in detail in Part 2.

Our operationalized hypothesis now is that the highest incidence of delinquents will be found among respondents who select the low- est family income category (under $10,000); a lower percentage of delinquents will be found in the $10,000–$24,999 category; still fewer de- linquents will be found in the $25,000–$49,999 and $50,000–$99,999 categories; and the lowest percentage of delinquents will be found in the $100,000 and above categoriey. Now we’re ready for the final step in the traditional model of science—observation. Having developed theoretical clarity and specific expectations, and having created a strategy for looking, all that remains is to look at the way things actually are.

Deductive and Inductive

Reasoning: A Case Illustration

In Chapter 1, I introduced deductive and induc- tive reasoning, with a promise that we would return to them later. It’s later.

As you probably recognized, the traditional model of science just described is a nice example of deductive reasoning: From a general theo- retical understanding, the researcher derives (deduces) an expectation and finally a testable hypothesis. This picture is tidy, but in reality, science uses inductive reasoning as well. Let’s consider a real research example as a vehicle for comparing the deductive and inductive link- ages between theory and research. Years ago, Charles Glock, Benjamin Ringer, and I (1967) set out to discover what caused differing levels of church involvement among U.S. Episcopalians. Several theoretical or quasi-theoretical positions suggested possible answers. I’ll focus on only one here: what we came to call the “Comfort Hypothesis.”

In part, we took our lead from the Christian injunction to care for “the halt, the lame, and the blind” and those who are “weary and heavy laden.” At the same time, ironically, we noted the Marxist assertion that religion is an “opiate for the masses.” Given both, it made sense to expect the following, which was our hypothesis: “Parishioners whose life situations most deprive them of satisfaction and fulfillment in the secu- lar society turn to the church for comfort and substitute rewards” (Glock, Ringer, and Babbie 1967: 107–8).

Having framed this general hypothesis, we set about testing it. Were those deprived of satisfaction in the secular society in fact more religious than those who received more satisfac- tion from the secular society? To answer this, we needed to distinguish who was deprived. The questionnaire, which was constructed for the purpose of testing the Comfort Hypothesis, included items that seemed to offer indicators of whether parishioners were relatively deprived or gratified in secular society.

To start, we reasoned that men enjoy more status than women do in our generally male- dominated society. Though hardly novel, this conclusion laid the groundwork for testing the Comfort Hypothesis. If we were correct in our

hypothesis, women should appear more religious than men. Once the survey data had been col- lected and analyzed, our expectation about gen- der and religion was clearly confirmed. On three separate measures of religious involvement— ritual (such as church attendance), organizational (such as belonging to church organizations), and intellectual (such as reading church publica- tions)—women were more religious than men. On our overall measure, women scored 50 percent higher than men.

In another test of the Comfort Hypothesis, we reasoned that in a youth-oriented society, old people would be more deprived of secular gratification than the young would. Once again, the data confirmed our expectation. The oldest parishioners were more religious than the middle-aged, who were more religious than young adults.

Social class—measured by education and income—afforded another test of the Comfort Hypothesis. Once again, the test succeeded. Those with low social status were more involved in the church than those with high social status were.

The hypothesis was even confirmed in a test that went against everyone’s commonsense expectations. Despite church posters showing worshipful young families and bearing the slogan “The Family That Prays Together Stays Together,” the Comfort Hypothesis suggested that parishioners who were married and had children—the clear American ideal at that time—would enjoy secular gratification in that regard. As a consequence, they should be less religious than those who lacked one or both family components. Thus, we hypothesized that parishioners who were both single and child- less should be the most religious; those with either spouse or child should be somewhat less religious; and those married with children— representing the ideal pictured on all those posters—should be the least religious of all. That’s exactly what we found.

Finally, the Comfort Hypothesis suggested that the various kinds of secular deprivation should be cumulative: Those with all the char- acteristics associated with deprivation should be the most religious; those with none should be the least. When we combined the four indi- vidual measures of deprivation into a composite measure, the theoretical expectation was ex- actly confirmed. Comparing the two extremes, we found that single, childless, elderly, lower- class female parishioners scored more than three times as high on the measure of church involvement than did young, married, upper- class fathers. Thus was the Comfort Hypothesis confirmed.

I like this research example because it so clearly illustrates the logic of the deductive model. Beginning with general, theoretical expectations about the impact of social depriva- tion on church involvement, one could derive concrete hypotheses linking specific measurable variables, such as age and church attendance. The actual empirical data could then be analyzed to determine whether empirical reality supported the deductive expectations.

I say this example shows how it was possible to address the issue of religiosity deductively, but, alas, I’ve been fibbing. To tell the truth, although we began with an interest in discovering what caused variations in church involvement among Episcopalians, we didn’t actually begin with a Comfort Hypothesis, or any other hypothesis for that matter. The study is actually an example of the inductive model. (In the interest of further honesty, Glock and Ringer initiated the study, and I joined it years after the data had been collected.) A questionnaire was designed to collect information that might shed a bit of light on why some parishioners participated in the church more than others, but it was not guided by any precise, deductive theory.

Once the data were collected, the task of explaining differences in religiosity began with an analysis of variables that have a wide impact on people’s lives, including gender, age, social class, and family status. Each of these four variables was found to relate strongly to church involvement, in the ways already described. Indeed, they had a cumulative effect, also already described. Rather than being good news, however, this presented a dilemma.

Glock recalls discussing his findings with col- leagues over lunch at the Columbia faculty club. Once he had displayed the tables illustrating the impact of each individual variable as well as their powerful composite effect, a colleague asked, “What does it all mean, Charlie?” Glock was at a loss. Why were those variables so strongly related to church involvement?

That question launched a process of rea- soning about what the several variables had in common, aside from their impact on religiosity. Eventually we saw that each of the four variables also reflected differential status in the secular society. He then had the thought that perhaps the issue of comfort was involved. Thus, the inductive process had moved from concrete observations to a general theoretical explanation.

It seems easier to lay out the steps involved in deductive than inductive research. Deductive research begins with a theory, from which we may derive hypotheses—which are then tested through observations. Inductive research begins with observations and proceeds with a search for patterns in what we have observed. In a quantitative study, we can search for correlations or relationships between variables (discussed further in Chapter 16). Thus, once a relationship has been discovered between gender and religi- osity, our attention turns to figuring out logical reasons why that is so.

Most qualitative research is oriented toward the inductive rather than the deductive ap- proach. However, qualitative research does not, by definition, allow us to use statistical tools to find correlations that point toward patterns in need of explanation (see Chapter 14). Although there are computer programs designed for re- cording and analyzing qualitative data, the quali- tative inductive analyst needs a strong reserve of insight and reflection to tease important patterns out of a body of observations.

A Graphic Contrast

As the preceding case illustration shows, theory and research can usefully be done both in- ductively and deductively. Figure 2-3 shows a graphic comparison of the two approaches as ap- plied to an inquiry into study habits and perfor- mance on exams. In both cases, we are interested in the relationship between the numbers of hours spent studying for an exam and the grade earned on that exam. Using the deductive method, we would begin by examining the matter logically. Doing well on an exam reflects a student’s abil- ity to recall and manipulate information. Both of these abilities should be increased by exposure to the information before the exam. In this fash- ion, we would arrive at a hypothesis suggesting a positive relationship between the number of hours spent studying and the grade earned on the exam. We say “positive” because we ex- pect grades to increase as the hours of studying increase. If increased hours produced decreased grades that would be called a “negative, or inverse,” relationship. The hypothesis is repre- sented by the graph line in part 1(a), represent- ing the deductive model in Figure 2-3. In part (a) we see the expectation of a simple, positive, linear relationship between the two variables. Part (b) represents what we observe when we study the two variables. Finally, part (c) is the need to de- cide whether the observations are close enough to what was expected to justify accepting the hypothesis.

Our next step would be to make observations relevant to testing our hypothesis. The shaded area in part 1(b) of the figure represents perhaps hundreds of observations of different students, specifically, how many hours they studied and what grades they received. Finally, in part 1(c), we compare the hypothesis and the observations. Because observations in the real world seldom, if ever, match our expectations perfectly, we must decide whether the match is close enough to con- sider the hypothesis confirmed. Stated differently, can we conclude that the hypothesis describes the general pattern that exists, granting some variations in real life? Sometimes, answering this question necessitates methods of statistical analy- sis, which will be discussed in Part 4 of this book.

Now suppose we used the inductive method to address the same research question. In this case, we would begin with a set of observations, as in part 2(a) of Figure 2-3. Curious about the relationship between hours spent studying and grades earned, we might simply arrange to col- lect relevant data. Then we’d look for a pattern that best represented or summarized our obser- vations. In part 2(b) of the figure, the pattern is shown as a curved line running through the center of our observations.

The pattern found among the points in this case suggests that with 1 to 15 hours of study- ing, each additional hour generally produces a higher grade on the exam. With 15 to about 25 hours, however, more study seems to lower the grade slightly. Studying more than 25 hours, on the other hand, results in a return to the ini- tial pattern: More hours produce higher grades. Using the inductive method, then, we end up with a tentative conclusion about the pattern of the relationship between the two variables. The conclusion is tentative because the observations we have made cannot be taken as a test of the pattern—those observations are the source of the pattern we’ve created.

As I discussed in Chapter 1, in actual prac- tice, theory and research interact through a never-ending alternation of deduction and in- duction. A good example is the classic work of Emile Durkheim on suicide ([1897] 1951). When Durkheim pored over table after table of official statistics on suicide rates in different areas, he was struck by the fact that Protestant countries consistently had higher suicide rates than Catho- lic ones did. Why should that be the case? His initial observations led him to create inductively a theory of religion, social integration, anomie, and suicide. His theoretical explanations in turn led deductively to further hypotheses and further observations.

The suicide data analyzed by Durkheim pale in comparison with what is now referred to as big data, enormous data sets created through the automatic monitoring of ongoing processes. If you have purchased books, CDs, or anti-itch lotions from Amazon.com or a similar online seller, those purchases were recorded in a huge data set containing the online purchases of everyone else. Hence, you may find yourself looking at a message such as, “Other people who bought this book also bought . . .” Or your web surfing may be spiced with ads for products or services vaguely related to actions you have pre-viously taken online. If you’ve ever contributed to a political campaign or signed an online peti- tion, you’re very likely to have received related notifications and requests subsequently.

Similarly, you have probably read about the controversial bulk data-collection programs of the National Security Administration (NSA), monitoring telephone calls and Internet commu- nications for the purpose of identifying possible terrorist connections and activities. The rise in big data collection and processing by commercial, governmental, and other agencies raises serious debates over the prospects for privacy in modern society.

In summary, the scientific norm of logical reasoning provides a two-way bridge between theory and research. Scientific inquiry in practice often alternates between deduction and induc- tion. Both methods involve an interplay of logic and observation. And both are routes to the con- struction of social theories.

Although both inductive and deductive methods are valid in scientific inquiry, individu- als may feel more comfortable with one ap- proach than the other. Consider this exchange in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as Sherlock Holmes answers Dr. Watson’s inquiry (Doyle [1891] 1892: 13):

“What do you imagine that it means?” “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, in- stead of theories to suit facts.”

Some social scientists would more or less agree with this inductive position (see especially the discussion of grounded theory in Chapter 10), whereas others would take a more deductive stance. Most, however, concede the legitimacy of both approaches.

With this understanding of the deductive and inductive links between theory and research in hand, let’s now delve more deeply into how theories are constructed using either of these two different approaches.

Deductive Theory Construction

To see what’s involved in deductive theory con- struction and hypothesis testing, imagine that you’re going to construct a deductive theory. How would you go about it?

Getting Started

The first step in deductive theory construction is to pick a topic that interests you. The topic can be very broad, such as “What is the structure of society?” or it can be narrower, as in “Why do people support or oppose the idea of a woman’s right to an abortion?” Whatever the topic, it should be something you’re interested in under- standing and explaining.

Once you’ve picked your topic, the next step is to undertake an inventory of what’s already known or thought about it. In part, this means writing down your own observations and ideas. Beyond that, it means learning what other scholars have said about it. You can talk to other people, and you’ll want to read the scholarly lit- erature on the topic. Appendix A provides guide- lines for using the library—you’ll likely spend a lot of time there.

Your preliminary research will probably uncover consistent patterns discovered by prior scholars. For example, religious and political variables will stand out as important determi- nants of attitudes about abortion. Findings such as these will be very useful to you in creating your own theory. We’ll return to techniques of the literature review in more detail as the book continues.

In this process, don’t overlook the value of introspection. Whenever we can look at our own personal processes—including reactions, fears, and prejudices—we may gain important insights into human behavior in general. I don’t mean to say that everyone thinks like you or me, but introspection can provide a useful source of insights that can inform our inquiries.

Constructing Your Theory

Now that you’ve reviewed previous work on the topic, you’re ready to begin constructing your theory. Although theory construction is not a lockstep affair, the process generally involves something like the following steps.

1. Specify the topic.

2. Specify the range of phenomena your theory addresses. Will your theory apply to all of human social life, will it apply only to U.S. citizens, only to young people, or what?

3. Identify and specify your major concepts and variables.

4. Find out what is known (propositions) about the relationships among those variables.

5. Reason logically from those propositions to the specific topic you’re examining.

We’ve already discussed items (1) through (3), so let’s focus now on (4) and (5). As you identify the relevant concepts and discover what’s already been learned about them, you can begin to create a propositional structure that explains the topic under study.

Let’s look now at an example of how these building blocks fit together in deductive theory construction and empirical research.

An Example of Deductive Theory:

Distributive Justice

A topic of interest to scholars is the concept of distributive justice, people’s perceptions of whether they are being treated fairly by

life, whether they are getting “their share.” Guillermina Jasso describes the theory of distributive justice more formally, as follows:

The theory provides a mathematical descrip- tion of the process whereby individuals, reflecting on their holdings of the goods they value (such as beauty, intelligence,

or wealth), compare themselves to others, experiencing a fundamental instantaneous magnitude of the justice evaluation (J), which captures their sense of being fairly or unfairly treated in the distributions of natural and social goods.

(Jasso 1988: 11)

Notice that Jasso has assigned a symbolic rep- resentation for her key variable: J will stand for distributive justice. She does this to support her intention of stating her theory in mathematical formulas. Though theories are often expressed mathematically, we’ll not delve too deeply into that practice here.

Jasso indicates that there are three kinds of postulates in her theory. “The first makes explicit the fundamental axiom which represents the substantive point of departure for the theory.” She elaborates as follows: “The theory begins with the received Axiom of Comparison, which formalizes the long-held view that a wide class of phenomena, including happiness, self-esteem, and the sense of distributive justice, may be un- derstood as the product of a comparison process” (Jasso 1988: 11).

Thus, your sense of whether you’re receiving a fair share of the good things of life comes from comparing yourself with others. If this seems obvious to you, that’s not a shortcoming of the axiom. Remember, axioms are the taken-for- granted beginnings of theory.

Jasso continues to do the groundwork for her theory. First, she indicates that our sense of distributive justice is a function of “Actual Hold- ings (A)” and “Comparison Holdings (C)” of some good. Let’s consider money, for example. My sense of justice in this regard is a function of how much I actually have, compared with how much others have. By specifying the two components of the comparison, Jasso can use them as vari- ables in her theory.

Next, Jasso offers a “measurement rule” that further specifies how the two variables, A and C, will be conceptualized. This step is needed be- cause some of the goods to be examined are con- crete and commonly measured (such as money), whereas others are less tangible (such as respect). The former kind, she says, will be measured con- ventionally, whereas the latter will be measured “by the individual’s relative rank . . . within a specially selected comparison group.” The theory will provide a formula for making that measure- ment (Jasso 1988: 13).

Jasso continues in this fashion to introduce additional elements, weaving them into math- ematical formulas to be used in deriving predic- tions about the workings of distributive justice in a variety of social settings. Here is just a sampling of where her theorizing takes her (1988: 14–15).

●● Other things [being] the same, a person will prefer to steal from a fellow group member rather than from an outsider.

●● The preference to steal from a fellow group member is more pronounced in poor groups than in rich groups.

●● In the case of theft, informants arise only in cross-group theft, in which case they are members of the thief’s group.

●● Persons who arrive a week late at summer camp or for freshman year of college are more likely to become friends of persons who play games of chance than of persons who play games of skill.

●● A society becomes more vulnerable to deficit spending as its wealth increases.

●● Societies in which population growth is welcomed must be societies in which the set of valued goods includes at least one quantity-good, such as wealth.

Jasso’s theory leads to many other proposi- tions, but this sampling should provide a good sense of where deductive theorizing can take you. To get a feeling for how she reasons her way to these propositions, let’s look briefly at the logic involved in two of the propositions that relate to theft within and outside one’s group.

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●● Other things [being] the same, a person will prefer to steal from a fellow group member rather than from an outsider.

Beginning with the assumption that thieves want to maximize their relative wealth, ask yourself if that goal would be best served by stealing from those you compare yourself with or from outsiders. In each case, stealing will increase your Actual Holdings, but what about your Comparison Holdings?

A moment’s thought should suggest that stealing from people in your comparison group will lower their holdings, further increasing your relative wealth. To simplify, imagine there are only two people in your comparison group: you and I. Suppose we each have $100. If you steal $50 from someone outside our group, you will have increased your relative wealth by 50 percent compared with me: $150 versus $100. But if you steal $50 from me, you will have increased your relative wealth 200 percent: $150 to my $50. Your goal is best served by steal- ing from within the comparison group.

●● In the case of theft, informants arise only in cross-group theft, in which case they are members of the thief’s group.

Can you see why it would make sense for informants (1) to arise only in the case of cross- group theft and (2) to come from the thief’s com- parison group? This proposition again depends on the fundamental assumption that everyone wants to increase his or her relative standing. Suppose you and I are in the same comparison group, but this time the group contains ad- ditional people. If you steal from someone else within our comparison group, my relative stand- ing in the group does not change. Although your wealth has increased, the average wealth in the group remains the same (because someone else’s wealth has decreased by the same amount). So my relative standing remains the same. I have no incentive to inform on you.

If you steal from someone outside our com- parison group, however, your nefarious income increases the total wealth in our group. Now my own wealth relative to that total is diminished. Because my relative wealth has suffered, I’m more likely to inform on you in order to bring an end to your stealing. Hence, informants arise only in cross-group theft.

This last deduction also begins to explain why these informants come from the thief’s own comparison group. We’ve just seen how your theft decreased my relative standing. How about members of the other group (other than the individual you stole from)? Each of them actually profits from the theft, because you have reduced the total with which they compare themselves. Hence, they have no reason to in- form on you. Thus, the theory of distributive jus- tice predicts that informants arise from the thief’s own comparison group.

This brief peek into Jasso’s derivations should give you some sense of the enterprise of deductive theory. Of course, the theory guar- antees none of the given predictions. The role of research is to test each of them to determine whether what makes sense (logic) actually occurs in practice (observation).

See the Tips and Tools box, “Generating a Hypothesis from a Theory,” for a look at creating hypotheses for deductive purposes.

Inductive Theory Construction

As we have seen, quite often social scientists begin constructing a theory through the induc- tive method by first observing aspects of social life and then seeking to discover patterns that may point to relatively universal principles. Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1967) coined the term grounded theory in reference to this method.

Field research—the direct observation of events in progress—is frequently used to develop theories through observation. In a long and rich tradition, anthropologists have used this method to good advantage.

Among modern social scientists, no one has been more adept at seeing the patterns of human behavior through observation than Erving Goffman, in a research career that stretched from the 1950s to the 1970s:

A game such as chess generates a habitable universe for those who can follow it, a plane of being, a cast of characters with a seemingly unlimited number of different situations and acts through which to realize their natures and destinies. Yet much of this is reducible to a small set of interdependent rules and practices. If the meaningfulness of everyday activity is similarly dependent on a closed, finite set of rules, then explication of them would give one a powerful means of analyz- ing social life.

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