Introduction to Social Research Methods

What is Social Research ?

The quest to understand the world around us and make sense of the bewildering complexity and diversity of human existence in addition to finding and deriving meaning from life is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, throughout history, philosophers, thinkers, and seers have meditated on the world around them and have produced treatises’ about what they found. With the flowering of human thought during the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, such methods of enquiry were formalized and given specific names such as social research and scientific research. While the former relies on observation and interpretation of the world through conversations, meditation, and other forms of enquiry, the latter relies on verifiable experimentation, empirical examination, and a method of research that is based on numerical outcomes of the research.

The essential difference between social research and scientific research is that the former relies more on qualitative methods whereas the latter relies on quantitative methods.

Differences between Social Sciences and Natural Sciences

This is not to say that social research is wholly quantitative in nature. Given that social scientists also participate in field experiments, conduct surveys and interviews, employ statistical methods and follow a quantitative methodology means that social science is as quantitative as scientific research in some respects. The essential difference here is that whereas social research concerns itself with the humanities such as sociology, anthropology, history, and the arts, scientific research concerns itself with Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, and other science based topics.

Further, another difference between social research and scientific research is that the former starts with a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved whereas the latter starts with an empirical and experiment based outcome such as finding out whether the research supports or contradicts the outcomes.

In other words, social research is all about observing the behavior of people, examining history and historical development, drawing conclusions about the behavior of individuals based on their culture and ethnicity, and arriving at a theory of human life that offers insights into the human condition. On the other hand, scientific research is all about drawing correlations between natural phenomena and the various scientific processes that underpin such phenomena and arriving at theories explaining why and how these phenomena are the way they are.

Social Research is becoming Data Driven

Having said that, in recent years, social science has become as much scientific in nature as science research and the reason for this is that social scientists are increasingly being called to explain complex modern trends in society and culture that cannot be explained by theorizing alone. Indeed, in universities across the world, social scientists are being asked to provide more “data” for their theories either to support or refute their claims and this data driven process has emerged in response to the need for objective measurements that can be used to explain modern life. In other words, social scientists are no longer content to speculate and meditate on the social world and instead, they are now backing up their claims using sophisticated statistical and numerical methods.

Concerns over Ethics and Objectivity of Social Scientists

Further, the division between objectivity and subjectivity is no longer as neat as it was during earlier eras. Both the social sciences as well as the physical sciences are now dominated by researchers for whom data and the objective research are as important as the need to produce qualitative results. In addition, the social scientists are also being asked to explain social phenomena without bias and prejudice as for a long time, it was felt that once social scientists “embed” themselves into the field samples or the target populations and become part of them, their objectivity might be compromised. This is the emerging field of social research wherein the difference between observer and the observed is now more delineated and sharp rather than in earlier times when the merging of the two was the hallmark of social research.

Moreover, the ethical aspects of such research are also being insisted upon which means that social scientists can no longer conduct research on target populations without seeking their consent or without informing them that they are being used for research purposes. Social research has also become very sophisticated in nature and this has also meant that it has become more expensive.

Finally, social science theories are also being used to justify or refute the claims of the societal groups in favor or against another group. This has led to concerns about the politicization of social science and worries that the objectivity and the neutrality of this profession is being compromised.

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Social Research Methods