Chapter 2. Sociological Research

Quebec City mosque shooting Jan 29 2017
Figure 2.1 The January 29, 2017 Quebec mosque attack in which six worshippers were shot and five critically injured. What social factors led to the process of the gunman’s radicalization and political violence? How do sociologists study these questions? (Image courtesy of Caribb/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Learning Objectives

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

  • Distinguish between scientific and non-scientific ways of thinking.
  • Explain how the scientific method is used in sociological research.
  • Understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative approaches to the scientific method in sociology.
  • Define what reliability and validity mean in a research study.
  • Familiarize oneself with critical research strategies.

2.2. Research Methods

  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, experiments, field research, and secondary data or textual analysis.
  • Understand why certain topics are better suited to different research approaches.

2.3. Ethical Concerns

  • Understand why ethical standards exist.
  • Demonstrate awareness of the Canadian Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics.
  • Define value neutrality, and outline some of the issues of value neutrality in sociology.

Introduction to Sociological Research

In an unfortunate comment following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said “this is not a time to commit sociology.” He implied that the “utter condemnation of this kind of violence” precluded drawing on sociological research into the causes of political violence (Harper cited in Cohen, 2013). In the Prime Minister’s position, there is a split between taking a strong political and moral stance on violence, on one hand, and working towards a deeper, evidence-based understanding of the social causes of acts of violence on the other.

Behind the political and moral rhetoric of statements about terrorism are a number of densely solidified beliefs about the nature of a “terrorist” individual — “people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding, [who] are a threat to all the values that our society stands for” (Harper cited in Cohen, 2013). In this framework, the terrorist is a kind of person who is beyond reason and morality. Therefore, sociological analysis is not only futile in the former Prime Minister’s opinion but also, for the same reasons, contrary to the “utter determination through our laws and through our activities to do everything we can to prevent and counter [terrorist violence]” (Harper cited in Cohen, 2013).

Figure 2.2 Aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, April 13, 2013. (Image courtesy of Aaron Tang/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY 2.0

In the research of Robert Pape (2005), a different picture of the terrorist emerges. In the case of the 462 suicide bombers Pape studied, not only were the suicide bombers relatively well-educated and affluent, but as other studies of suicide bombers in general confirm, they were not mentally imbalanced per se, not blindly motivated by religious zeal, and not unaffected by the moral ambivalence of their proposed acts. They were apparently well-integrated individuals — individuals who were not socioeconomically deprived or repressed in any absolute sense. They were ordinary individuals who became radicalized by being caught up in extraordinary circumstances. How would this understanding of the terrorist individual affect the drafting of public policy and public responses to terrorism?

Sociological research is especially important with respect to public policy debates. The political controversies that surround the question of how best to respond to terrorism and violent crime are difficult to resolve at the level of political rhetoric. Often, in the news and in public discourse, the issue is framed in moral terms and therefore, for example, the policy alternatives get narrowed to the option of being either “tough” or “soft” on crime. Tough and soft are moral categories that reflect a moral characterization of the issue. A question framed by these types of moral categories cannot be resolved using evidence-based procedures. Posing the debate in these terms narrows the range of options available and undermines the ability to raise questions about what responses to crime actually work.

In fact, policy debates over terrorism and crime seem especially susceptible to the various forms of specious, unscientific reasoning described later in this chapter. The familiar story of a shocking act of violence that spirals in the media into a moral panic and becomes the basis for the widespread belief that the criminal justice system as a whole is “soft” and has failed, illustrates several qualities of unscientific thinking: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on overgeneralization, and knowledge based on selective evidence. The sociological approach to policy questions is essentially different because it focuses on examining the effectiveness of different social control strategies for addressing different types of violent behaviour and the different types of risk to public safety. Thus, from a sociological point of view, it is crucial to think systematically about who commits violent acts and why.

Although moral claims and opinions are of interest to sociologists, sociological researchers use empirical evidence (that is, evidence corroborated by direct experience and/or observation) combined with the scientific method to deliver sound sociological research. A truly scientific sociological study of the social causes that lead to terrorist or criminal violence would involve a sequence of prescribed steps: defining a specific research question that can be answered through empirical observation; gathering information and resources through detailed observation; forming a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis in a reproducible manner; analyzing and drawing conclusions from the data; publishing the results; and anticipating further development when future researchers respond to and re-examine the findings.

An appropriate starting point in this case might be the question, “What are the social conditions of individuals who are drawn to commit terrorist acts?” In a casual discussion of the issue, or in the back and forth of Twitter or news comment forums, people often make arguments based on their personal observations and insights, believing them to be accurate. But the results of casual observation are limited by the fact that there is no standardization or universal criteria (see discussion of CUDOS below). Who is to say if one person’s observation of an event is any more accurate than another’s? To mediate these concerns, sociologists rely on systematic research processes.

It is important to note that within sociology there are a variety of ways of approaching social scientific research. The appropriate starting point for the sociological study of terrorism will differ between positivist, interpretive, and critical approaches. For positivist sociology, the research question might be, “Are there social background variables that can predict which individuals will be drawn to commit terrorist acts?” An interpretive approach might ask, “What is the process and timeline or sequence of events of individuals that become violently radicalized? Through what processes do they come to reinterpret their world?” Critical sociologists might pose the question as, “What is the historical, sociopolitical context of violent radicalization?” These different questions entail the choice of different methodologies as discussed below, but all three require a systematic approach to finding the answers.

The unwillingness to “commit sociology” and think more deeply about the roots of political violence might lead to a certain moral or rhetorical image of an “uncompromising” response to the “terrorist threat,” but this response has not proven to be effective in practice, nor is it one that exhausts the options for preventing and countering acts of political violence. Contrary to the former Prime Minister’s statements, the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing is precisely a moment to commit sociology if the issues that produce acts of violence are to be addressed.

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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