This is “Next Steps”, section 4.5 from the book Sociological Inquiry Principles: Qualitative and Quantitative Methods (v. 1.0).
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Now that you have thought about topics that interest you and you’ve learned how to frame those topics empirically, sociologically, and as questions, you have probably come up with a few potential research questions—questions to which you are dying to know the answers. However, even if you have identified the most brilliant research question ever, you are still not ready to begin conducting research. First, you’ll need to think about and come up with a plan for your research design, which you’ll learn more about in Chapter 5 "Research Design". As you prepare to design a sociological research project, your next step is to think about the feasibility of your research question and to make a visit to your campus library.
We learned about ethics and the limits posed by institutional review boards (IRBs) and disciplinary codes in Chapter 3 "Research Ethics". Beyond ethics, there are a few practical matters related to feasibility that all researchers should consider before beginning a research project. Are you interested in better understanding the day-to-day experiences of maximum security prisoners? This sounds fascinating, but unless you plan to commit a crime that lands you in a maximum security prison, chances are good that you will not be able to gain access to this population. Perhaps your interest is in the inner workings of toddler peer groups. If you’re much older than four or five, however, it might be tough for you to access even that sort of group. Your ideal research topic might require you to live on a chartered sailboat in the Bahamas for a few years, but unless you have unlimited funding, it will be difficult to make even that happen. The point, of course, is that while the topics about which sociological questions can be asked may seem limitless, there are limits to which aspects of topics we can study, or at least to the ways we can study them.
Assuming you can gain IRB approval to conduct research with the population that most interests you, do you know that that population will let you in? Researchers like Barrie Thorne (1993),Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. who study the behaviors of children, sometimes face this dilemma. In the course of her work, Professor Thorne has studied how children teach each other gender norms. She also studied how adults “gender” children, but here we’ll focus on just the former aspect of her work. Thorne had to figure out how to study the interactions of elementary school children when they probably would not accept her as one of their own. They were also unlikely to be able to read and complete a written questionnaire. Since she could not join them or ask them to read and write on a written questionnaire, Thorne’s solution was to watch the children. While this seems like a reasonable solution to the problem of not being able to actually enroll in elementary school herself, there is always the possibility that Thorne’s observations differed from what they might have been had she been able to actually join a class. What this means is that a researcher’s identity, in this case Thorne’s age, might sometimes limit (or enhance) her or his ability to study a topic in the way that he or she most wishes to study it.Think about Laud Humphreys’s research on the tearoom trade. Would he have been able to conduct this work if he had been a woman?
Barrie Thorne observed children’s interactions with one another on playgrounds and in school to understand how they expressed and taught each other about gender.
In addition to your personal or demographic characteristics that could shape what you are able to study or how you are able to study it, there are also the very practical matters of time and money. In terms of time, your personal time frame for conducting research may be the semester during which you are taking this class. Perhaps as an employee one day your employer will give you an even shorter timeline in which to conduct some research—or perhaps longer. How much time a researcher has to complete her or his work may depend on a number of factors and will certainly shape what sort of research that person is able to conduct. Money, as always, is also relevant. For example, your ability to conduct research while living on a chartered sailboat in the Bahamas may be hindered unless you have unlimited funds or win the lottery. And if you wish to conduct survey research, you may have to think about the fact that mailing paper surveys costs not only time but money—from printing them to paying for the postage required to mail them. Interviewing people face to face may require that you offer your research participants a cup of coffee or glass of lemonade while you speak with them. And someone has to pay for the drinks.
In sum, feasibility is always a factor when deciding what, where, when, and how to conduct research. Aspects of your own identity may play a role in determining what you can and cannot investigate, as will the availability of resources such as time and money.
Library research, typically one of the early stops along the way to conducting original research, is also an excellent next step as you begin your project. While it is common to brainstorm about topics first, examining the literature will help you hone your specific research question and design. We’ll talk more about reading, evaluating, and summarizing the literature in Chapter 5 "Research Design", but at this early stage it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the resources your library has to offer. This will help you learn what sorts of questions other sociologists have asked about an area that interests you.
One of the drawbacks (or joys, depending on your perspective) of being a researcher in the 21st century is that we can do much of our work without ever leaving the comfort of our recliners. This is certainly true of familiarizing yourself with the literature. Most libraries offer incredible online search options, including access to Sociological Abstracts, a database that summarizes published articles in most all, but especially the most prestigious, sociology journals. Now is the time to play around with Sociological Abstracts. You can learn more from your professor or librarian about how to access Sociological Abstracts from your particular campus. Once you’ve done so, take a look. Using a keyword search, find a few articles that cover topics similar to those that interest you. At this stage, simply reading an article’s title and abstract (the short paragraph at the top of every article) will give you an idea about how sociologists frame questions about topics that are of interest to you. Hopefully, this in turn will give you some ideas about how you might phrase your research question.
A visit to your campus library is highly recommended.
Beyond searching the online resources, go visit your library, scan the shelves, and take a look at the most recent sociology journals the library has on display in its periodicals section. Walk through the social science stacks and peruse the books published by sociologists. This is where you’re likely to find the most fascinating monographs reporting findings from sociologists’ adventures in the field. Introduce yourself to the reference librarian. Being on her or his good side will serve you well as you begin your research project. Your reference librarian may also be able to recommend databases in addition to Sociological Abstracts that will introduce you to published social scientific research on your topic (e.g., Criminal Justice Abstracts, Family and Society Studies Worldwide, Social Services Abstracts, and Women’s Studies International).
Once you have had a chance to peruse the online resources available to you and to check out your library in person, you should be ready to begin thinking about actually designing a research project. We consider the stages of research design in Chapter 5 "Research Design".