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1.3 Why Should We Care?

Learning Objectives

  1. Be able to describe and discuss some of the reasons why students should care about social scientific research methods.
  2. Identify the types of employment opportunities that exist for those with an understanding of social scientific research methods.

At this point, you may be wondering about the relevance of research methods to your life. Whether or not you choose to become a sociologist, you should care about research methods for two basic reasons: (a) research methods are regularly applied to solve social problems and issues that shape how our society is organized, thus you have to live with the results of research methods every day of your life, and (b) understanding research methods might actually help you land a job.

Consuming Research and Living With Its Results

Another New Yorker cartoon depicts two men chatting with each other at a bar. One is saying to the other, “Are you just pissing and moaning, or can you verify what you’re saying with data?” (http://www.cartoonbank.com/1999/are-you-just-pissing-and-moaning-or-can-you-verify-what-youre-saying-with-data/invt/118737/). Which would you rather be, just a complainer or someone who can actually verify what you’re saying? Understanding research methods and how they work can help position you to actually do more than just complain. Further, whether you know it or not, research probably has some impact on your life each and every day. Many of our laws, social policies, and court proceedings are grounded in some degree of empirical research (Jenkins & Kroll-Smith, 1996).Jenkins, P. J., & Kroll-Smith, S. (Eds.). (1996). Witnessing for sociology: Sociologists in court. Westport, CT: Praeger. That’s not to say that all laws and social policies are good or make sense. However, you can’t have an informed opinion about any of them without understanding where they come from, how they were formed, and what understandings our policymakers relied on in order to craft them.

A recent lawsuit against Walmart provides an example of sociological research in action. A sociologist named Professor William Bielby was enlisted by plaintiffs in the suit to conduct an analysis of Walmart’s personnel policies in order to support their claim that Walmart engages in gender discriminatory practices. Bielby’s analysis shows that Walmart’s compensation and promotion decisions may indeed have been vulnerable to gender bias. In June 2011, the United States Supreme Court decided against allowing the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit.Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. (2011); The American Sociological Association filed an amicus brief in support of what would be the class of individuals claiming gender discrimination. You can read the brief at http://asanet.org/images/press/docs/pdf/Amicus_Brief_Wal-Mart_v__Dukes_et_al.pdf. For other recent amicus briefs filed by the ASA, see http://asanet.org/about/amicus_briefs.cfm. While a class-action suit was not pursued in this case, consider the impact that such a suit against one of our nation’s largest employers could have on companies and their employees around the country and perhaps even on your individual experience as a consumer.Want to know more about the suit against Walmart or about Bielby’s analysis for the case? Check out the following sources: Hart, M., & Secunda, P. M. (2009). A matter of context: Social framework evidence in employment discrimination class action. Fordham Law Review, 78, 37–70. Retrieved from http://www.fordhamlawreview.org/assets/pdfs/Vol_78/Hart_Secunda_October_2009.pdf

Figure 1.8

Every day we have the opportunity to read about the results of someone’s research; just pick up a newspaper or magazine. Knowing how to evaluate research will help you understand which results to believe and which to question.

In addition to having to live with laws and policies that have been crafted based on social research, you are also a consumer of all kinds of research, and understanding methods can help you be a smarter consumer. Ever notice the magazine headlines that peer out at you while you are waiting in line to pay for your groceries? They are geared toward piquing your interest and making you believe that you will learn a great deal if you follow the advice in a particular article. However, since you would have no way of knowing whether the magazine’s editors had gathered their data from a representative sample of people like you and your friends, you would have no reason to believe that the advice would be worthwhile. By having some understanding of research methods, you could avoid wasting your money by buying the magazine and wasting your time by following inappropriate advice.

Pick up or log on to just about any magazine or newspaper, or turn on just about any news broadcast, and chances are you’ll hear something about some new and exciting research results. Understanding research methods will help you read past any hype and ask good questions about what you see and hear. In other words, research methods can help you become a more responsible consumer of public and popular information. And who wouldn’t want to be more responsible?

Research as Employment Opportunity

There are many potential jobs out there for people with knowledge about how to conduct research. In fact, one of my very first jobs as a college graduate with a BA in sociology was at an evaluation researchResearch conducted to assess the effects of specific programs or policies. firm that hired me specifically because of the knowledge I’d gained in my college research methods class. While there, I worked as a data-collection coordinator, helping in the evaluation of local domestic violence shelters and transitional housing sites by administering satisfaction surveys to residents. I also helped collect data for a study on community member’s thoughts and feelings about where they lived by conducting telephone interviews with a random sample of people who lived in the area. (This last project made me much more sensitive than I’d previously been to survey researchers who do cold-calling.) Without a background in research methods, I would not have been hired for this position.

Upon graduation from college, you, too, may enjoy the benefits of employment thanks to having learned social science research methods in college. Some current jobs of sociologists I know include jobs doing research in pharmaceutical companies to understand the social consequences of medications, conducting research for lobbying organizations, working in human resources, and so on. Other recent undergraduate sociology majors went on to conduct market research in the advertising industry, work for the United States Census and other federal government positions, and even help with the collection of data for large social science studies such as the General Social SurveyThe General Social Survey (GSS) is one of the largest sources of social scientific data in the United States. Since 1972, GSS researchers have collected data on social trends, demographics, behaviors, beliefs, and change using survey interview techniques. (http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/GSS+Website/About+GSS). Understanding research methods is important in all these jobs and careers. In addition, in 2009 the Wall Street Journal reported findings from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau showing that among 200 professions, sociologists have the eighth best job in the world (Needleman, 2009).Needleman, S. E. (2009, January 6). Doing the math to find the good jobs: Mathematicians land top spot in new ranking of best and worst occupations in the U.S. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123119236117055127.html So now you should have more knowledge about what you might do with your sociology degree. Understanding social scientific research methods can lead to the prospect of a very satisfying career.

Key Takeaways

  • Whether we know it or not, our everyday lives are shaped by social scientific research.
  • Understanding social scientific research methods can help us become more astute and more responsible consumers of information.
  • Knowledge about social scientific research methods is useful for a variety of jobs or careers.

Exercises

  1. Page or scroll through a few popular magazines or news sources. Pull out any examples you see of results from social science research being discussed. How much information about the research is provided? What questions do you have about the research? To what extent will the research shape your actions or beliefs? How, if at all, is your answer to that question based on your confidence in the research described?
  2. Want to know more about jobs and career possibilities for people with undergraduate sociology degrees? Check out the American Sociological Association’s page on employment for sociologists: http://asanet.org/employment/factsoncareers.cfm.
  3. Still not convinced about the value of sociology? If you happen to be someone who is swayed by star power, you might wish to peruse the following, which contains a list of famous sociology majors: http://www.asanet.org/students/famous.cfm.