The Scientific Method

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the scientific method as it applies to sociological research
  • Distinguish reliability from validity in a research study
  • Distinguish an independent variable from a dependent variable

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behavior is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behavior as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have led to legislative changes, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms.

Photograph of a full moon
Figure 1. Research provides no evidence that crime rates increase during a full moon.

The “crime rate during a full moon” discussion mentioned earlier put forth a few loosely stated opinions. The good news is we can look at data sets that show us if there is a connection between full moons and crime rates. If there appears to be a trend of increased crime during those times, we should begin to investigate other variables to see whether there is something else that could account for this relationship. If we were to discover that more crime occurs during full moons, this information could inform policing strategies and potentially make cities safer during full moons. Of course, we would be left with more questions! What is it about full moons that lead to increases in crime? Is this true for men and women? Young and old? In cities and in rural areas?

Connecting crime to a full moon might not seem like common sense to the skeptic. What about crime and hot weather? Or crime and holidays? Or crime during natural disasters? Are there more violent crimes in states with less restrictive gun policies? You can see how there are many, many questions that can be asked about any given topic, also how this type of research can be extremely important for informing and shaping public policy.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried and true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, and field research, but humans and their social interactions are so diverse that these examples might seem un-scientific. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behavior. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are sound. The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.

The figure shows a flowchart that states the scientific method. One: Ask a Question. Two: Research Existing Sources. Three: Formulate a Hypothesis. Four: Design and Conduct a Study. Five: Draw Conclusions. Six: Report Results.
Figure 2. The scientific method is an essential tool in research.

Results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before—knowledge of other cultures, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, or knowledge of trends and attitudes. No matter what research approach they use, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability, which refers to how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced. If another sociologist follows the same research protocols, will they come up with the same results? If so, then the study is reliable. The more exciting the findings, and the more they challenge prevailing understandings, the more likely it is that other sociologists will try to replicate them.

Researchers also strive for validity, which refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to measure. Returning to the crime rate during a full moon topic, the reliability of a study would reflect how well the results represent the average adult crime rate during a full moon. Validity would ensure that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study and not something else such as one’s perception of criminal activity. If police officers believe there is more criminal activity during a full moon, they might be more likely to see criminal activity and to formalize it by making arrests instead of giving warnings, which would actually create the appearance of increased criminal activity–via documentation–during a full moon.  This evidence would be created even if the amount of criminal activity were no different than on any other night. Thus, what is actually being measured is police officers’ perception of crime, and their subsequent actions during a full moon, rather than criminal activity.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but also to interpret and analyze the data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in—but not attached to—the results. They work outside of their own political or social agendas. This doesn’t mean researchers do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps—1) ask a question, 2) research existing sources, and 3) formulate a hypothesis.

Try It

Ask a Question

computer-generated image of a man with his hand on his chin in a thinking pose, with a question mark behind him.
Figure 3. The scientific process begins with a good question.

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geography and time frame. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. Are married people happier than single people? Are people with children happier than people without children? These questions are more specific, but how is happiness defined and measured?

The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of college freshman at XYZ College?” would be too narrow so we might want to broaden it to a particular age group (i.e. traditional college students ages 18-22). Also, if you sensed some implicit bias in this question, you would be correct to question whether hygiene, a series of behaviors, should be studied as behaviors or as values (beliefs).

That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study but must be framed as research questions. As you can probably see, this is a difficult process even for veteran sociologists. Sociologists are careful to define their terms. When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition, that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept. By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data methodically in a way that supports the overarching goals of validity and reliability in sociological research.

In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health);” however that might be difficult to measure. Would brushing one’s teeth be considered physical appearance (i.e white teeth) or health (i.e. healthy gums, prevent tooth decay, etc.)? To operationalize hygiene, one must be clear about what constitutes personal hygiene for appearance. A researcher could develop a checklist, for example, of things that are included.

Many times, a research question changes. Perhaps after thinking about hygiene and values, the question changes to “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect cultural gender role norms?” Thus, the ways in culture shapes something very personal would be the topic of this study. Should a woman shave or not shave her legs? Should a man have a beard? Some facial hair? No facial hair? What about nail care for women? For men? 

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about the importance of using the scientific method in sociology.

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review, which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library or a thorough online search of research databases will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to borrow previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. This step might also prompt the researcher to revisit their research question!

To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about child-rearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. It’s important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates researchers and helps refine and improve studies’ designs.

Formulate a Hypothesis

People commonly try to understand the happenings in their world by finding or creating an explanation for an occurrence, which is what we referred to earlier as common sense. Social scientists may develop a hypothesis for the same reason. A hypothesis is a testable educated guess about predicted outcomes between two or more variables; it’s a possible explanation for specific happenings in the social world and allows for testing to determine whether the explanation holds true in many instances, as well as among various groups or in different places. The hypothesis will often predict how one form of human behavior influences another. The independent variables is the cause of the change or the variable that influences the other variable. The dependent variable is the effect, or variable that is changed. It depends on the independent variable.

For example, researchers establish one form of human behavior as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? 

How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is annual income (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)? It is important to note that we are suggesting relationships or correlations between variables and not causation. This is known as correlation

Table 1. Examples of Dependent and Independent Variables.
Hypothesis Independent Variable Dependent Variable
The greater the availability of affordable housing, the lower the homeless rate. Affordable housing Homeless rate
The greater the availability of math tutoring, the higher the math grades. Math tutoring Math grades
The greater the police patrol presence, the safer the neighborhood. Police patrol presence Safer neighborhood
The greater the factory lighting, the higher the productivity. Factory lighting Productivity
Individuals with college degrees or higher are less likely to live below the poverty line. College education Likelihood of living below the poverty line

As the table shows, an independent variable is the one that influences the other variable. Rather than being “right,” sociologists are interested in the relationships between variables. If we were to examine the last example, what other variables might come into play? Would we see similar patterns of income for all college-educated people or are there disparities for racial and ethnic minorities? Gender minorities? First, we must move into the next research steps: designing and conducting a study and drawing conclusions. You’ll learn more about these types of research methods in the next section of the course.

Try It

Think It Over

Sociology is a broad discipline covering many topics. Think about something that interests you and/or relates to your experience or your life. As a college student, you operate within a social world ripe for research!

  • From competitive sports teams to fraternities or sororities to ROTC to intramural sports and student clubs, there are a plethora of groups on college campuses that would make good topics of study. 
  • The proverbial college experience is different based on one’s statuses, particularly minority statuses, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and social class. 
  • Consider your college’s relationship to the surrounding community and that community’s relationship with the state and/or country. 

If you were to formulate a research question and do some preliminary research on these topics, you would likely find that there have been sociological studies conducted on many of these topics. Furthermore, you would find statistical information about student groups and participation, student demographics, and community demographics.

What value does this type of research have for understanding individuals, groups, and communities?


when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable, but does not necessarily indicate causation

dependent variable:
a variable changed by other variables

a testable educated guess about predicted outcomes between two or more variables
independent variables:
variables that cause changes in dependent variables
literature review:
a scholarly research step that entails identifying and studying all existing studies on a topic to create a basis for new research
operational definitions:
specific explanations of abstract concepts that a researcher plans to study
a measure of a study’s consistency that considers how likely results are to be replicated if a study is reproduced
scientific method:
an established scholarly research method that involves asking a question, researching existing sources, forming a hypothesis, designing and conducting a study, and drawing conclusions
the degree to which a sociological measure accurately reflects the topic of study

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