Choose a Topic/Review the Literature/Develop Research Questions, Hypotheses, and/or Sensitizing Concepts

Identify a sociological topic on which you might like to do research and indicate in a few sentences why you think the topic is worth studying. Next, review and summarize the academic and professional literature relevant to your topic. Emphasize literature that reports original research substantively related to your topic, but you may also review works that are theoretically or methodologically relevant, especially if substantive literature is scarce. You should include a minimum of 10 sources in your summary, including at least 7 articles from scholarly periodicals or journals. (Click here to view a list of widely cited sociology journals.) You may also include books and edited volumes, theses and dissertations, government documents and reports, papers presented at professional conferences, and scholarly works from the Internet. Avoid non-academic articles and books. To locate resources, you can use Infotrac, Sociological Abstracts, the Social Science Index, Social Science Citation Index, bibliographies from other works, the library's electronic card catalog, dissertation abstracts, indices to government documents, local professionals and scholars, the Internet, and other databases and indices. Click here to access sociology databases available through the Walker Library.  Once you have found possible resources, read the abstracts, table of contents or executive summaries to see if they provide useful information about your topic. If so, read the remainder of the document and note important findings and conclusions. Be sure to record complete bibliographic information of each work you read.

Next, organize your notes and write the review. Do not simply list and summarize individual articles. Instead, integrate the literature into a single, consistent essay.  Your goal is to summarize "the facts" about your topic in concise, well-written paragraphs. Put similar and related information together. You may want to organize your review around the major areas of research in the studies you have read or around the major findings reported in the research. How you organize your review is up to you as long as it is logical, connected and integrated. Make sure you cite your sources in the body of your paper using ASA style. (Click her to view an online version of the ASA Style Guide.) You will also need a list of references at the end of the paper, again following ASA style. You must include a reference for every work you cite, but only for works you cite. (Click here to view some sample literature reviews.)

After you have summarized the literature, clearly and concisely state a research question (or questions) you would like to address. Choose a single or a small number of related questions and express them as simply and clearly as possible. Then, depending on your orientation and the nature of your research question(s), develop either testable hypotheses or sensitizing concepts and questions. Quantitative researchers tend to express their research question as testable hypotheses, while qualitative researchers typically prefer sensitizing concepts and questions. If you are interested in the effect of social forces on behavior, want to know "the facts" about social life, and like causal explanations and relationships; if your research question(s) ask about causes and consequences or how two or more variables are related, you will most likely prefer quantitative methods and should probably develop testable hypotheses. If you are interested in how people make sense of and understand their everyday experiences, how they order and organized their interactions, how they perceive and define reality, and prefer typologies and narrative descriptions over causal explanations; if your research question(s) ask about how people experience, make sense of, perceive, understand and assign meaning to things or focuses on the way groups or cultures define and see the world, you will most likely prefer qualitative methods and should develop sensitizing concepts and questions. If you are not sure which method you should use, you should probably use quantitative methods.  Most people think more like quantitative sociologists than qualitative sociologists and quantitative research is easier to design.

When developing testable hypotheses, remember that hypotheses are statements, not questions. They typically express relationships between two or more variables that are believed to exist in the empirical world. Hypotheses must be empirically verifiable, that is, researchers must be able to test whether or not they are true by making observations of the empirical world. One way to develop hypotheses is to come up with possible answers to your research questions based on your knowledge of sociological theory and your reading of the research literature. Using these possible answers, develop statements that answer your research question(s). Next, express those statement(s) in terms of relationships between variables, making sure the relationships are expressed fully, clearly, and concisely. These relationships may be causal or simply associational. If causal, be sure to clearly state which variables are causing other variables to change and whether these causal relationships are direct, indirect, or involve interactions. Whenever possible, you should also state the type of association that exists between the variables, whether positive, negative, curvilinear, non-directional, or none at all. If you have several related hypotheses, you may want to express your hypotheses as a path model. (Click here to view some sample hypotheses.)

Rather than hypotheses, qualitative researchers tend to develop and state sensitizing concepts and questions. Sensitizing concepts and questions are concepts, ideas, notions, or questions that guide observations and data collection in inductive qualitative research. Even though they may not have explicit hypotheses, qualitative researchers typically have an idea of what is important or what they want to focus on when they do qualitative research. These are there sensitizing concepts. Sensitizing concepts and questions are the starting point.  They inform the researcher where to look, for what to look, and give him/her some idea of what they can expect to see.  In the latter sense, they serve as pseudo-hypotheses. However, qualitative researchers typically seek to remain open minded and their sensitizing concepts and questions often evolve over the course of a research project. Like hypotheses, sensitizing concepts can be drawn from theory, previous research and the researchers own interests and concerns. It is important that sensitizing concepts be clearly identified at the beginning of a qualitative project.