Research design involves a set of decisions regarding what topic is
to be studied, among what population, with what research method, and for
what purpose. Chapter 4 of Babbie provides a general introduction to research
design. It examines the following issues:
PURPOSES OF RESEARCH (Reasons for a Study)
Purposes of research inquiry
Units of analysis
Points of focus in social scientific research
The time dimension in research
The design of a research project
The research proposal
Three of the most common research purposes are: exploration, description
Much of social research is conducted to explore a topic or to provide
a beginning familiarity with that topic. This type of research is typical
when a researcher is examining a new interest or when the subject of study
is relatively new and unstudied. Exploratory studies are more typically
The main shortcoming of exploratory studies is that they seldom provide
satisfactory answers to research questions. They can hint at the answers
but cannot provide definite answers because of lack of representativeness.
To satisfy the researcher's curiosity and desire for better understanding
about a particular topic.
To determine the feasibility of undertaking a more careful study
To develop research techniques and a sense of direction for future research.
A major purpose of many social scientific studies is to describe situations
and events. The researcher observes and then describes what was observed.
The chief goals of descriptive research are to provide an accurate profile
of a group and to describe a process, mechanism, or relationship. Because
of its methodology, scientific descriptions are more accurate and precise
than casual descriptions. Examples of descriptive studies are:
U.S. Census - describes the characteristics of the population of the United
A market researcher undertaking to describe people who use a certain product.
A researcher has an explanatory purpose if she wishes to know why
a certain event happened as opposed to simply describing what happened.
The degree of relationship between two variables is of particular concern
in explanatory studies. Explanatory research stresses the determination
of causes. The following are examples of explanatory research:
Note that research designs can be undertaken for more than one reason.
Why did Americans vote for Clinton in the last presidential elections?
Why do some cities have higher crime rates than others?
Why do some children become delinquent?
Discuss the three purposes for doing research.
Describe a study that illustrates each purpose.
UNIT OF ANALYSIS
Units of analysis are those things we examine in order to create summary
descriptions of all such units and to explain differences among them. Units
of analysis deals with "what" or "whom" the social researcher aims to observe,
describe and explain.
53% of the sample are women.
Individuals: Individual people are the most typical unit
of analysis in social scientific research. The individual is the unit of
analysis in a survey in which 100 students are asked to rate their favorite
courses at Northeastern. The individual is the unit of analysis because
each individual student's response is recorded. Note that even though such
data is gathered at the individual level, it is not reported at that level
- we combine descriptions of individuals to provide a composite picture
of the group the individuals represent. Statements that we might make from
such observations are:
10% of students do not have a favorite course.
Groups: Social groups might also be the unit of analysis
for social scientific research. When social groups are the units of analysis,
their characteristics may be derived from characteristics of the individuals
in the group. A study of all gangs in a city would provide data
on the racial and ethnic composition of the gangs studied. Other units
of analysis at the group level could be married couples, families and
Difference between groups and organizations: The distinction
between groups and organizations is rather fuzzy. I think of groups as
social and smaller units than organizations. Hence a family would be a
group and a corporation would be an organization. In both cases, however,
the most important thing to remember is that we are still studying a collectivity
of individuals instead of individuals.
Organizations: Examples would be corporations, churches,
colleges, army divisions, church congregations and academic departments.
Social Artifacts Another unit of analysis is the social artifact,
or any product of social beings or of their behavior. One class of social
artifacts includes concrete objects such as books, poems, paintings, songs,
poetry, and jokes. Social interactions form another class of social artifacts
suitable for scientific research. Examples are weddings, court cases, traffic
accidents and race riots.
Units of Analysis in Review in Babbie, pages
POTENTIAL ERRORS INVOLVING MISUSE OF UNIT OF ANALYSIS
A. Ecological Fallacy: Ecological units refer to groups
or sets or systems: something larger than individuals. Ecological fallacy
occurs when we assume that something learned about an ecological unit says
something about the individuals making up that unit. This fallacy occurs
when the observations are gathered at a higher level or aggregated unit
of analysis, but the causal explanations being made is about a lower or
disaggregated unit. It is always possible that patterns observed at the
aggregate level do not reflect behavior at the individual level.
Example: A researcher finds that crime rates are higher in cities having
large African American populations than in those with few African Americans.
She then concludes that African Americans are more likely to commit crimes
than other Americans. Note that we do not know who commits crimes in these
B. Reductionism: Refers to an overly strict limitation
on the kinds of concepts and variables to be considered as causes in explaining
a broad range of human behavior. Reductionism of any type suggests that
particular units of analysis or variables are more relevant than others.
POINTS OF FOCUS: Most social science research concentrates on one
of three points of focus: characteristics, orientations, and actions.
sociological reductionism - sociological variables (such as norms, values,
roles) are considered
economic reductionism - economic variables (such as supply and demand,
marginal value) are considered.
psychological reductionism - psychological variables (such as personality
traits, childhood traumas).
Characteristics: refer to states of being. For example, we might
characterize individuals by gender, religious affiliation, marital status,
country of origin, etc.
Orientations: these reflect attitudes and beliefs.
Actions: these are actual behaviors. Examples would include voting,
buying, investing, and studying for an exam.
Question 7 in Study Guide (page 54).
TIME DIMENSION IN RESEARCH
cross-sectional Studies: Cross-sectional research is the simplest
and least costly type of research design because observations are made
at one point in time. Cross-sectional studies can be exploratory, descriptive,
or explanatory. The major limitation of cross-sectional research studies
is that their design makes it difficult to explain phenomena that occur
over time. For example, do the descriptions of a study conducted today
tell us anything about what happened ten years ago or what will happen
a couple of years from now?
Longitudinal Studies permit observations over an extended period
of time. There are several types of longitudinal research designs but all
involve observing something at more than one time. Longitudinal studies
are more costly and more complex than cross-sectional studies, but they
are also more powerful, especially when a researcher wants to answer questions
about social processes or change. Three special types of longitudinal studies
are discussed in Babbie: trend, cohort, and panel studies.
Trend Studies: Trend studies are those that examine changes within
some general population over time. They can be thought of as repeated cross-sectional
designs. A good example would be a comparison of U.S. Censuses over time.
Cohort Studies: A cohort is a specific group of people who go through
a demographic or social event at the same time: marriage, birth, divorce,
students who took Soc 337 in fall of 1998. A cohort study examines more
specific subgroups (cohorts) as they change over time.
Approximating Longitudinal Studies from cross-sectional designs: We
can approximate conclusions about processes that take place over time,
even when only cross-sectional data are available. This can be accomplished
in the following ways:
Panel studies: A panel study is a longitudinal study in which exactly
the same individuals (or sample) are observed at different time
periods. Panel research is formidable to conduct and very costly. Panel
studies face a special problem of panel attrition or loss of respondents
over the course of the study. Tracking people over time is difficult; some
respondents are lost through death, lack of interest or change of residence.
Making logical inferences (see the University of Hawaii drug use study
discussed in Babbie, page 104).
Examining the time order of variables.
Asking retrospective questions (Asking people to recall their pasts).
Examining age differences
The table below contains census data collected
in 1970, 1980, and 1990. Column variables represent the year the data was
collected. The rows represent the year that the respondents were born.
There are three cohorts in this table: people born in 1930, 1940, and 1950.
The cells are labeled A through I. The number within each cell represents
the respondents' age at the time of measurement.
Use the table below to identify which cells
represent cross-sectional, panel, cohort and trend studies.
YEAR OF MEASUREMENT
|Year of Birth (Cohort)
HOW TO DESIGN A RESEARCH PROJECT & THE RESEARCH PROPOSAL: Read
these sections of the chapter 4 very carefully. They will help you design
your own research project and provide an overview of the topics to be covered
for the rest of the semester. Try to understand the various components
of a research project.
You may find this site, The
structure of Research Paper useful.
Research interest, idea or theory
Conceptualization of concepts
Choice of a data collection method
Population and sampling
Application (Reporting results and assessing their implications)