Foundations of Social Science Research

What is science? Science is the process of producing generalized understanding through systematic observation of phenomena.

Goals of science: To understand and explain an aspect of the world around us. Systematic observation and interpretation of phenomena is the chief goal of social science.

Why are disciplines like sociology, economics, political science, anthropology and psychology referred to as Social Sciences?. They share the same goals as the other sciences: to produce knowledge, to understand and to explain the world around us.

Science is characterized as LOGICO-EMPIRICAL. The two pillars of science are: logic, and observation. Statistics is also an integral part of the scientific enterprise.

 Before talking about what theory is and where it falls in research, we need to be familiar with the following terms: constants, variables, attributes, hypotheses, dependent and independent variables.

1. Constants: Characteristics that do not vary from trial to trial. Gender of mother is a constant. Social science does not study constants.

2. Variables: Characteristics that differ (vary) from one individual to another (for example, age, social class, and income). A variable is a logical set of attributes. The variable gender, for example, is made up of the attributes male and female.

 3. Attributes are characteristics or qualities that describe a person or an object. Examples of attributes include female, religious, conservative etc. Variables are logical groupings of attributes. Male and female are attributes of the variable gender.

Learning Check 1
What are the attributes of occupation, political party preference, age, income, and social class?

4. Hypotheses: An expression of the relationship between two or more variables. A hypothesis is testable though systematic research. Hypotheses are frequently expressed in a statement of the relationship between two or more variables: an independent (or presumed cause) and a dependent (or presumed effect) variable. Hypotheses are always tentative because they can only be verified after they have been tested empirically.

Dependent and Independent Variables in hypotheses construction. The dependent variable is caused (depends) on the independent variable. The dependent variable occurs later in time than the independent variable. Note that independent variables are also caused by other variables. For example, respondent's education depends on their parents' education.

 Examples of hypotheses:

1. Socially isolated children watch more television than children who are well integrated into their
 peer groups.
2. One-parent family structure is more likely to generate delinquency than the two parent family structure.
3. Male college students are more likely than female college students to have tried marijuana.

Learning Check 2
Identify the dependent and independent variables in the above hypotheses and list the attributes of each variable.

Hypotheses are generated from


What theory is not!

We use theory casually to explain events and experiences in our daily lives. We may have a theory about why our boss has been so nice to us lately or why we did so poorly on our last history test. In this way, we are trying to explain the nature of social reality. Our theories about things around us are commonsense explanations based on educated guesses and personal experience. Social science theory is more precise explanation that is frequently tested by conducting research.

What is social science theory?

Example of social science theory: Read Babbie, Pp. 52-56.

Types of Theory

What distinguishes social science theory from other ways of looking at social phenomena?

 1. Social scientific theory deals WITH WHAT IS, NOT WHAT SHOULD BE. Social science has to do with HOW THINGS ARE AND WHY AND NOT WHAT THEY OUGHT TO BE.

 2. Social scientific theory aims to determine the logical and persistent patterns of regularity in social life. Lying behind that aim is the fundamental assumption that life is orderly, not totally chaotic or random.

Three objections raised in regard to social regularities: 3. Social scientific theories explain human aggregates, not individual behaviour. The purpose is to explain why aggregated patterns of behaviour are so regular even when the individuals participating in them may change over time. Although social scientists observe people, they are primarily interested in finding relationships that connect variables - therefore, theory uses the language of variables.


 Theory and research are inextricably inter-related. Either without the other would tend to be meaningless and each contributes to the development of the other aspect. Without theory, the data and findings of any research endeavor could not be interpreted meaningfully. Without research, theories and their sub-propositions could not be tested and refined. Theory and research are related in two ways: