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research report in sociology

Long online discussions are consistently the most toxic

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research report in sociology

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research report in sociology

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2.1G: Preparing the Research Report

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Sociological research publications generally include a literature review, an overview of the methodology followed, the results and an analysis of those results, and conclusions.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the main components of a sociological research paper
  • Like any research paper, a sociological research report typically consists of a literature review, an overview of the methods used in data collection, and analysis, findings, and conclusions.
  • A literature review is a creative way of organizing what has been written about a topic by scholars and researchers.
  • The methods section is necessary to demonstrate how the study was conducted, including the population, sample frame, sample method, sample size, data collection method, and data processing and analysis.
  • In the findings and conclusion sections, the researcher reviews all significant findings, notes and discusses all shortcomings, and suggests future research.
  • methodology : A collection of methods, practices, procedures, and rules used by those who work in some field.
  • quantitative : Of a measurement based on some quantity or number rather than on some quality.
  • literature review : A literature review is a body of text that aims to review the critical points of current knowledge including substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic.

Like any research paper, sociological research is presented with a literature review, an overview of the methods used in data collection, and analysis, findings, and conclusions. Quantitative research papers are usually highly formulaic, with a clear introduction (including presentation of the problem and literature review); sampling and methods; results; discussion and conclusion. In striving to be as objective as possible in order to reduce biased interpretations of results, sociological esearch papers follow the scientific method. Research reports may be published as books or journal articles, given directly to a client, or presented at professional meetings.


A literature review is a creative way of organizing what has been written about a topic by scholars and researchers. You will find literature reviews at the beginning of many essays, research reports, or theses. In writing the literature review, your purpose is to convey to your reader what you have learned through a careful reading of a set of articles related to your research question.

A strong literature review has the following properties:

  • It is organized around issues, themes, factors, or variables that are related directly to your thesis or research question.
  • It shows the path of prior research and how the current project is linked.
  • It provides a good synthesis of what is, and is not, known.
  • It indicates the theoretical framework with which you are working.
  • It identifies areas of controversy and debate, or limitations in the literature sharing different perspectives.
  • It places the formation of research questions in their historical context.
  • It identifies the list of the authors that are engaged in similar work.

The methodssection is necessary to demonstrate how the study was conducted, and that the data is valid for study. Without assurance that the research is based on sound methods, readers cannot countenance any conclusions the researcher proposes. In the methodology section, be sure to include: the population, sample frame, sample method, sample size, data collection method, and data processing and analysis. This is also a section in which to clearly present information in table and graph form.

In the findings and conclusion sections, the researcher reviews all significant findings, notes and discusses all shortcomings, and suggests future research. The conclusion section is the only section where opinions can be expressed and persuasive writing is tolerated.



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34 Components of a Research Report

C. Naga Lakshmi

1.   Objective

In this module you will learn about writing reports for research, some formats and their use for organizations. Some links and different internet based resources, references are provided at the end of the document.

2.    Introduction

Research as a process involves several phases and documents produced in a sequence. The sequence and phases of progress have a definite effect on the quality of the final report and on the research documents produced at all stages. Every research/study is judged for its adequacy, quality and validity, on the basis of four such documents – the research proposal, research summary, research abstract and the research report. Research report is the main document on the basis of which the contribution of the research is judged.

A research report is ‘a formal, official statement that contains facts, is a record documentation of findings

and/or is perhaps the result of a survey or investigation’ (Booth 1991). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a report is a statement of the results of an investigation or of any matter on which definite information is required.

Report writing can be undertaken for purposes such as:

·         to present findings

·         to keep records of collected information/data

·         for documenting organisations’ success and failures

·         to write about the progress of a research and/or project

Many of the parts/elements of report writing are generic, but there are themes specific to report writing that make it distinctive. Reports are drafted based on factual information with data and findings. The content is intended to be ‘objective’ and not to be influenced by any personal bias/feelings of the authors.

One can classify reports into several types based on the purpose of research, the funding or sponsoring organization and the area of work. Reports can be documented only for information, very short and concise, for example, budgeting report, and other functions of organisations. Case studies and analysis can be another type of report writing widely used at universities for project documentation. A report for anorganisation’s internal audience can be in an informal format. This report can use informal conversational tone if it is addressing issues such as absenteeism, work plans and processes. For a semi-formal report, such as employee policy, a manual or a task report, the language used can be informal but can have a formalized structure. The third is a formal report with detailed structure and format, and for research, analysis and some inferences.

Writing a report involves the following stages –

·         clarifying terms of reference,

·         planning the work,

·         collecting data and information,

·         organising and structuring the collected information,

·         writing the first draft, and

·         final proof-checking and re-drafting of report.

Report writing is thus a diligent activity, as it involves collating and documenting all the facts collected through field investigation, compiled and documented following a pre-determined research design. Reports require highly structured form of writing and this could be a daunting task sometimes. There are some conventions that have been laid down to produce a common format to suit readership and/or audience. The structure and convention in written reports stress on the process by which the information is gathered to draft the report.

A report can be distinguished from other forms of mainstream/traditional academic research such as the discussion paper, working paper and journal article. For example, the main differences between a report and an essay or academic/research narrative are that the essay format can be at the discretion of the author, but the report has a formal structure approved by the institution or funding agency. Again, a report is used to communicate results or findings of a project/research while an essay is for developing an argument, in-depth via a sequence of paragraphs. Moreover, a report includes some graphic presentations – tables, figures, illustrations but an essay is only a prose. Finally, a report can make some recommendation for future actions but it is unusual for an academic essay to make recommendations for action although some conclusions are drawn.

There is considerable amount of creativity involved in it and use of a great deal of imagery, inventive vocabulary and an elaborate style, as well as academic rigour, so that the readers are engaged and remain interested while reading it.

2.1.        Report Writing: Scope and Reason

One can divide report writing into two stages namely planning the report and the actual writing process. A prospective author writing a report must be clear about the following before s/he begins the writing –

·         The reason and purpose

·         The content of the report

·         The primary readership and their expectations from the report

·         The impact/benefits of the result – who are the beneficiaries, its utility to the implementing authorities

The reason, purpose and scope of the report are sometimes pre-determined by the organization sponsoring the research or by the author. Important dimensions of a report are thus a) the purpose of the report and b) the scope of the report. Scope of the report includes clarity on what needs to go into the report, some guidelines on format and extent of analysis. The content of the report is also influenced by the concern for maintaining necessary academic rigour and standard even though the author’s or the research team’s writing capabilities very often determine such a standard. Readership and audience for the report is the next important consideration and is discussed in the following section.

2.2.        The intended audience and the report structure and style:

The nature of the intended audience (external or internal) is an important factor in determining the length, format, structure, language and tone/pitch for a report. The author/s aim towards dissemination of the report to some perceived audience/readers and the significance of the results documented in the report to be of value to them. Audience can thus broadly be classified as academic/specialised or wider and non-academic. If the report is intended for a largely non-academic audience, the tone and language and style are to be prepared in a user-friendly and simple format.

One key aspect of writing a report is the potential readership’s level of familiarity or experience with the subject/theme of the report. If the report is for lay persons, the report needs to contain additional background information, glossary of terms and theoretical explanation of the theme/subject. If the intended audience is specialized/narrow, and comprises only the group or organization that has commissioned the report, the report has to be written keeping in mind the specific aims and objectives set by the organization or the commissioning body. This sometimes might limit the scope of the report and flexibility for the authors and it is important not to lose sight of the purpose and aims of the commissioning body while structuring the report. Whether it is specific to audience or for a wider readership, the option of writing multiple versions of the report, each catering to specific audience with and without special additional information, tone, font, writing style and explanation of terms and theme is also preferable.

The presentation and content of a report can thus be structured to indicate the main points of decision, presentation of facts and information, and shaping future action to be easily understood and usable for the audience/readers.

To sum up, a report can be written to suit an audience. A popular report must be able to add some increments to their knowledge; help the audience find the right information within the report; know and cater to at least some of the preferences of the intended audience and cater to their usability by designing the report format appropriately.

There are some common errors that a writer should beware of and avoid. They are:

·         Excessive jargon

·         Verbosity

·         Personal bias

·         Factual inaccuracies

·         Grammatical errors

·         Absence of reasoning

·         Absence of sequence

·         Absence of reference

Self-Check Exercise 1:

Q 1. Can we state that report writing is different from a typical academic style of writing?

Report writing is a unique style and it differs from a typical academic exercise. Very often, the format and style of writing are decided by the sponsoring organisation. However, the reason and scope of the study for which the report is being written as well as the readership to which it is catering to, also give shapes to its style. Whereas a typical academic writing caters to the specialists in the field and is rigorous in presentation, the report can carry some more interesting illustrations and graphic presentations, tables and charts to make it more readable.

Q 2. What are the main concerns for a report writer at the beginning stages?

The main concerns for a report writer are to know the purpose and scope of the report being prepared. Then the writer needs to know the audience to whom the report is being sent. Another important concern is to maintain ethics while writing and avoid plagiarism from any source.

Q 3. How can one classify and adopt an appropriate format for a report?

The writer can adopt an appropriate style of writing and language based on the target audience, whether it is for internal consumption or for the external and specialist audience. The choice then lies in an informal and semi-formal structure and language to a complete formal structure and language for a completely research and data analysis based report.

3.                  Stages in planning and writing process

The planning and writing process/phases for a report can be divided into three stages each. The planning phases can be divided into three stages – clarifying the brief, doing the research and organising the content. The writing stage can be divided into the analysis stage, drafting and proof reading stage. The tasks in each of these phases and stages are explained in this section.

3.1.        Planning

The first stage of planning phase for a report is the clarification of the objective of the report. The specific instructions/guidelines issued by the sponsors or organizers for writing the report are to be fully understood and internalized by the team and authors. It is important to recollect in case there was a meeting/launch of the project (for a formal project that had a launching event) and what was announced as the project objectives and format the report.

Planning stage is followed by the actual data collection and research stage. This is the backbone of the report as quality of any report depends essentially on the quality of data collected and analysed. A study that fails to collect enough and reliable data from various sources would obviously fail to generate useful conclusions.

The next stage is the organisation of the content. Authors need to review the notes made and group them under various heads. At this stage, the authors should retain only the relevant content for the objectives and the brief provided and must discard all the irrelevant content. The order of content should also be logical. Authors should make sure the ideas are paraphrased into words, and should avoid any plagiarising practice.

3.2.        Writing

Writing phase entails three stages – analysis, drafting and proof reading. Analysis and writing starts with a simple description of the data gathered and then is critically examined for the evidence for substantiating the research findings. It is important to note the limitations of the research/project at this stage. Drafting the report requires a simple style without superfluous words and unnecessary details. In the content, technical terms are to be used appropriately and make reference to tables, graphs and illustrations. Proof reading stage is the final and most important one as it requires diligence and accuracy. First is to check the flow of report and whether the brief provided initially is being followed. The language, syntax, spellings – all of which are enabled by the word processing software as computers are used. The numbers assigned to illustrations, tables and graphs are to be checked along with the references cited. The layout, contents page, the page numbers and captions also to be checked thoroughly.

Writing needs to follow a structure and can be divided into several components. These are described in the next section.

  • The structure and components of the reports

The report structure ensures ease of navigation across the document for the readers and organising the data collected.

Usually the components of a report include three parts –

  • The Introductory (Beginning) section
  • The Main (Explanatory middle)

III. The End (Appendices & References)

These components of a report are discussed in the next sections.

4.1.        The Beginning and Introduction

The first section is obviously an introduction which provides a background for the research study being presented in the report. It contains the following sections:

  • A title page
  • Contents list/table of contents
  • List of illustrations
  • List of tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations/Acronyms
  • Summary/Abstract/Executive Summary

The arrangement of the sub-sections and the sequence depends on the length and scope of the research.

Lengthy reports require more structuring and sequence.

To begin with, the title page should include a full title of the report, the names and affiliation of the author(s), sponsors or to whom the report is submitted, the name and address of the publisher and the date of publication.

Other details that can be included in later pages are – An ISBN number (if any) and a Copyright (in the inside page). The following figure, is an illustration of a sample of contents of the copyright, permissions and the ISBN details.

Figure 1. Sample of a copyright

Source: 1352909193861/8936935-1356011448215/8986901-1380046989056/WDR-2014_Complete_Report.pdf

The contents list is very significant as helps the reader to identify the main sections of the report. Hence its preparation requires meticulous planning. Each research report shall have a table of contents tailored appropriately as per the theme of research and the topic dealt with. In the above example, the contents are arranged to explain the gender gap, its measurement and the country profiles. Since the cited report caters

to the needs of global readership, it also includes a user’s guide and the associated explanation. The contents can be presented in a simple format as presented in Figure 2.

As against the format stated in figure 2, page numbers of a contents list can be put on the right side. It is a standard practice to state the full page numbers (say from 5-12) of each section and only mention the first page number of a chapter (say 5). A contents list should also mention the following before beginning the Introductory section: List of illustrations, List of tables and figures, Foreword, Preface, Acknowledgements, List of Abbreviations/Acronyms and Summary/Abstract/Executive Summary. It is however not mandatory for any report writer to mention all of them as one may not, for instance, write a Foreword or Summary/Abstract/Executive Summary sub-section in the report.   List of illustrations at the outset are numbered or linked to the particular chapter to help the reader. Other sub-sections as mentioned earlier are listed with the related aspects in the following sequence:

a)      A foreword and or preface can be used to draw a potential reader into the major theme of the report. This can be written by the research team or author/s, including interesting details of the report or the rationale behind the report in the preface. Many a time, subject experts known for proficiency and in depth knowledge in the central theme of the report or a person with sufficient degree of authority/respect in the discipline do write the foreword.

b)      In the acknowledgements section, the authors can express gratitude to all the individuals and organizations who/that were important and contributed to the research and writing, publication and production of the report in its full form. Obviously, it is a well documented practice to acknowledge the contributions of respondents, academicians and intellectuals, funding agency, research team members, support staff, library staff and others.

c)      All the abbreviations that are mentioned in the report should be identified and explained in a section prior to the main section primarily to help the reader. It is for the authors to include the section or not if there are no abbreviations.

d)      If the report is for general audience, and it includes technical terms, there is a need to include a glossary of terms at the end of the document.

e)      Summary/Abstract/Executive Summary is an important part of the report. This should ideally provide the reader with details – aims, objectives of the report, a brief methodological overview, key findings and subsequent conclusions and set of recommendations that emanate from these. It is important to note that all readers may not read the report from cover to cover, they browse the text and focus only on sections which are relevant to their interests and needs. Hence, the summary is the most important section of the report summarizing the overall content and the findings.

For example refer to the web page:

4.2.        The Main Content

A report’s main content can be organized under the following sub-sections –

4.2.1.     Introduction/background/Overview:

The introduction should set the context, engage the reader to understand the background of the report. This can include some details on who commissioned the report, when, and for what reasons. Some important terms of reference, resources which were available for the author to prepare the report can be mentioned and sources of information/data and how they were obtained in brief section. The structure of the report and the sub-sections are organized as per the research plan. The introductory part of a report is significant for several reasons. First, it introduces a reader to the basic theme, context and agenda of research. Second, it builds up a platform for development of detail explanation of concepts, variables and   subject matter in the rest of the report. By doing so, it also helps the author(s) to critically examine his/her arguments so as to develop new theoretical insights on the subject matter in the conclusion. Finally, it would aim to attract attention of a reader, specialist or general, for detail and elaborate study of the complete report.

4.2.2.      The main body of the report

This is the central/middle part and main content of the report. As mentioned in the previous section, it begins with an introduction and should set the background for the reader. It should include sufficient explanation and background details so that the main part of the report shall be fully consumed. The introduction can include the following information:

  • Details of the origin of the report, who commissioned the report, the time frame, when and why the report was commissioned
  • The terms of reference for the report
  • The resources used
  • Any limitations to the work
  • A brief note on the sources of information used and how it was obtained
  • The methodologies employed
  • The structure of the report

The authors usually structure the reports into parts, to analytically present the theoretical orientation if any and the several modules available for analysis. After the introduction, the main body of the report follows the predetermined structure, and is made clearer by the hierarchy of headings and sub-headings, with numberings. This can be drawn from different styles also. The structure sometimes is dependent on the funding organization’s specifications or directives if any to convey the required message within these hierarchy of headings. The stylistic tools are convenient for the readers to identify and access information within the content. This also allows cross reference and easy navigation.

After presenting the existing modules and a review of literature available and relevant to the report, the report presents its data, and the findings as per the funding organization’s requirement. Notwithstanding differences of approach, it is a customary to begin with the general aspects of the findings like socio-economic background of the respondents and end with critical observations and analysis. In between, the effort gets concentrated to explain reasons and factors responsible for a particular issue being researched. While doing so, the author(s) should try to explain a phenomenon from both quantitative and qualitative points of view. For instance, a table or graph containing vital information may be supplemented by case history or narratives from the field. Such triangulation allows author(s) to delve deep into the issue being researched and come out with logical, valid and reasonable explanations. If an analysis is bereft of say qualitative aspects of social life and relies only on quantitative data, the analysis may remain partial and incomplete. In sociology, in particular, attempts are made to come out with holistic explanation of events, phenomena and processes as social life is complex, heterogeneous, and fluid. This allows sociologists to reveal the limitations of purely statistical or economic analysis.

The following are the examples of some reports from reputed international agencies:

Example 1: Human Development Report 2013

Example 2: World Development Report 2014  1356011448215/8986901-1380046989056/WDR-2014_Complete_Report.pdf

Example 3: The World Economic Forum – The Global Gender Gap Report 2013

For reports written for funded Projects, there is a detailed structure and presentation. For example, here is a structure of a research project on the work and culture in the information technology industry in India:

Figure 3 – Academic Research report – Example of a structure and table of contents

Source: Upadhya, Carol and Vasavi, AR (2006) Work, Culture and Sociality in the Indian Information

Technology (IT) Industry: A Sociological Study. Project Report. National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. %202006%20Work,%20Culture%20and%20Sociality-1.pdf

The next important type of research reports are written for projects undertaken by the corporate bodies. There is a detailed structure and presentation in this type of reports also. For example, the structure of a research project – A Corporate report – Deloitte – Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Private Limited – Resetting horizons Global human capital trends 2013 is available on the following sites – _%20(India)V1.pdf

The report content cited above contains 10 findings of the human capital trends 2014 at a global level suited to the human resource community in organizations at the end of the document. Such formats are suitable for executive level readership in companies as well as general readership. It looks as follows:


Reports based on research, conducted by the corporate houses/companies are creative and include executive summary and recommendations. But they are less emphatic on the theory. One can note that there is a link at the bottom of the page that asks the reader to explore the human capital trends dashboard on the internet.

Conclusions, summary and recommendations form the last section of any report as one can observe in all types of reports. This section also is tailored to the funding organisation’s requirement. Yet, readers expect all conclusions to summarise the basic findings of the study and evolve generalisations to a) reject a theory, b) modify a theory, or c) build a new theory. Hence, it is a normal practice to briefly state the aims and objectives of the research as well as methodology followed to conduct the study in the concluding section before stating the major findings and analysing those critically. This is also because a busy reader might only be interested in reading the conclusion.

4.2.3.   The End

After the main section, the last sections are for supplementing it. These include appendices, references and suggestions for further readings. Appendices can be included at the end of the report document and they are in different forms. They should be included if they add value and help reader understand the main text better, with detail that goes beyond the main content of the report. The appendices also are for the specialist/professional audience who seek details such as – methodological frameworks, questionnaires, statistical or technical information, originals of any letters and related documentation   referred to in the content of the report. The authors must exercise discretion in deciding whether the material presented is better appended or in the main text. If the authors are of the opinion that the content is to be definitely read, then it must be placed in the main text. If it is not essential, it can be appended, discussed briefly in the main text. References of books, articles, journals and other relevant documents have to be provided following a format or style as required.

The last and final section is the index and this allows readers to look at key words and allows them to get to the depth of the theme or topics otherwise hidden in the main content. This is a daunting task if done manually. However, word processing software is available and enables the authors to compile index with a few commands including cross-referencing.

The last and final step for a research project is publishing, production and dissemination of the report. Research reports produced for specific readership by funding organisations have few constraints in terms of the formats in which the report has to be published and also whether it can be used for articles submitted to journals. If the report is for generalised audience and has to be disseminated on a large scale, there is a need to design an appropriate cover page printed by a commercial publisher, even if it is an expensive consideration. This can be an in-house activity or it can also be outsourced to a publisher. In case of outsourcing, there is a need to strictly monitor the process of production diligently with revisions of versions to ensure quality.Apart from printing, the research reports can also be published on the internet but with copyrights and careful consideration whether it is allowed by the sponsor. Many times, websites of the sponsor present a carefully compiled summary and findings only and seek details of the reader in case he/she wants complete access to the report.

Self-check exercise 2

Q 4. Academic writing and report writing formats have some similarities and contrasts. Do you agree? Explain.

Report writing and academic writing are similar to the extent of presenting a phenomenon to the reader. The sections of methodology, citations and referencing are also similar for both. However, academic writing conventions are universal and the format is common, for example, a journal publication. But report writing has to be done in tune with the requirements of the sponsoring body or by considering the needs of the audience or readership. To this effect, a report can have several formats, one for the specialist and expert audience and another for the general public depending on the institution/sponsoring institution’s directive.

5.   Conclusion

To conclude, the research report is the most important output of projects and studies conducted by organizations/individual. The key considerations on the content rest with the sponsoring organizations and the authors with audience-specific formats. The production, publishing and dissemination are also important for the sponsoring/funding organization whether it is through formal academic means, journal articles or on the internet. In all cases, research reports contribute directly or indirectly to the theme and topic concerned and subsequently to the discipline.

  • Some useful links and e-resource
  • Baker, Therese, L. Doing Social Research (2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994.
  • Booth, P.F. Report Writing, Huntingdon: Elm Publications, 1991.
  • Britt, Steuart Henderson. The Writing of Readable Research Reports. Journal of Marketing Research 8, no. 2 (1971): 262-266.
  • Bryman, Alan. Social Research Methods (3rd edition).  Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • How to write a good report: Information only, research reports at university, case study analysis reports can be viewed on –
  • Writing formal research reports (for Government):
  • Online resource – The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing by Leslie C Perelman, James Paradis and Edward Barrett – Accessed on 10th July  2014
  •     How to add APA source:
  • Referencing in Harvard Style:Online Source: (Accessed on 13th March 2014)
  • Writing Journal articles
  • Writing tips for journal articles
  • Some Interesting Videos: Further help:
  • Videos on Report Writing formats:
  • Writing tips and reading lists

How To Write A Sociology Research Paper Outline: Easy Guide With Template


Table of contents

  • 1 What Is A Sociology Research Paper?
  • 2 Sociology Paper Format
  • 3 Structure of the Sociology Paper
  • 4 Possible Sociology Paper Topics
  • 5.1 Sociology Research Paper Outline Example
  • 6 Sociology Research Paper Example

Writing a sociology research paper is mandatory in many universities and school classes, where students must properly present a relevant topic chosen with supporting evidence, exhaustive research, and new ways of understanding or explaining some author’s ideas. This type of paper is very common among political science majors and classes but can be assigned to almost every subject.

Learn about the key elements of a sociological paper and how to write an excellent piece.

Sociology papers require a certain structure and format to introduce the topic and key points of the research according to academic requirements. For those students struggling with this type of assignment, the following article will share some light on how to write a sociology research paper and create a sociology research paper outline, among other crucial points that must be addressed to design and write an outstanding piece.

With useful data about this common research paper, including topic ideas and a detailed outline, this guide will come in handy for all students and writers in need of writing an academic-worthy sociology paper.

What Is A Sociology Research Paper?

A sociology research paper is a specially written composition that showcases the writer’s knowledge on one or more sociology topics. Writing in sociology requires a certain level of knowledge and skills, such as critical thinking and cohesive writing, to be worthy of great academic recognition.

Furthermore, writing sociology papers have to follow a research paper type of structure to ensure the hypothesis and the rest of the ideas introduced in the research can be properly read and understood by teachers, peers, and readers in general.

Sociology research papers are commonly written following the format used in reports and are based on interviews, data, and text analysis. Writing a sociology paper requires students to perform unique research on a relevant topic (including the appropriate bibliography and different sources used such as books, websites, scientific journals, etc.), test a question or hypothesis that the paper will try to prove or deny, compare different sociologist’s points of view and how/why they state certain sayings and data, among other critical points.

A research paper in sociology also needs to apply the topic of current events, at least in some parts of the piece, in which writers must apply the theory to today’s scenarios. In addition to this, sociology research requires students to perform some kind of field research such as interviews, observational and participant research, and others.

Sociology research papers require a deep understanding of the subject and the ability to gather information from multiple sources. Therefore, many students seek help from experienced online essay writers to guide them through the research process and craft a compelling paper. With the help of a professional essay writer, students can craft a comprehensive sociology research paper outline to ensure they cover all the relevant points.

After explaining what this type of paper consists of, it is time to dive into one of the most searched questions online, “What format are sociology papers written in?”. Below you can find a detailed paragraph with all the information necessary.

Sociology Paper Format

A sociology paper format follows some standard requirements that can be seen on other types of papers as well. The format commonly used in college and other academic institutions consists of an appropriate citation style, which many professors ask for in the traditional APA format, but others can also require students to write in ASA style (very similar to APA, and the main difference is how you write the author’s name).

The citation is one of the major parts of any sociological research paper that needs to be understood perfectly and used according to the rules established by it. Failing to present a cohesive and correct citing format is very likely to cause the failure of the assignment.

As for the visual part of the paper, a neat and professional font is called for, and generally, the standard sociology paper outline is written in Times New Roman font (12pt and double spaced) with at least 1 inch of margin on both sides. If your professor did not specify which sociology format to use, it is safe to say that this one will be just fine for your delivery.

Sociology papers have a specific structure, just like other research pieces, which consist of an introduction , a body with respective paragraphs for each new idea, and a research conclusion . In the point below, you can find a detailed sociology research paper outline to help you write your statement as smoothly and professionally as possible.

Structure of the Sociology Paper

A traditional sociology research paper outline is based on a few key points that help present and develop the information and the writer’s skills properly. Below is a sociology research paper outline to start designing your project according to the standard requirements.

  • Introduction. In this first part, you should state the question or problem to be solved during the article. Including a hypothesis and supporting the claim relevant to the chosen field is recommended.
  • Literature review. Including the literature review is essential to a sociology research paper outline to present the authors and information used.
  • Methodology. A traditional outline for a sociology research paper includes the methodology used, in which writers should explain how they approach their research and the methods used. It gives credibility to their work and makes it more professional.
  • Outcomes & findings. Sociological research papers must include, after the methodology, the outcomes and findings to provide readers with a glimpse of what your paper resulted in. Graphics and tables are highly encouraged to use on this part.
  • Discussion. The discussion part of a sociological paper serves as an overall review of the research, how difficult it was, and what can be improved.
  • Conclusion. Finally, to close your sociology research paper outline, briefly mention the results obtained and do the last paragraph with the writer’s final words on the topic.
  • Bibliography. The bibliography should be the last page (or pages) included in the article but in different sheets than the paper (this means, if you finished your article in the middle of the page, the bibliography should start on a new separate one), in which sources must be cited according to the style chosen (APA, ASA, etc.).

This sociology research paper outline serves as a great guide for those who want to properly present a sociological piece worthy of academic recognition. Furthermore, to achieve a good grade, it is essential to choose a great topic.

Below you can find some sociology paper topics to help you decide how to begin writing yours.

Possible Sociology Paper Topics

To present a quality piece, choosing a relevant topic inside the sociological field is essential. Here you can find unique sociology research paper topics that will make a great presentation.

  • Relationship Between Race and Class
  • How Ethnicity Affects Education
  • How Women Are Presented By The Media
  • Sexuality And Television
  • Youth And Technology: A Revision To Social Media
  • Technology vs. Food: Who Comes First?
  • How The Cinema Encourages Unreachable Standards
  • Adolescence And Sex
  • How Men And Women Are Treated Different In The Workplace
  • Anti-vaccination: A Civil Right Or Violation?

These sociology paper topics will serve as a starting point where students can conduct their own research and find their desired approach. Furthermore, these topics can be studied in various decades, which adds more value and data to the paper.

Writing a Great Sociology Research Paper Outline

If you’re searching for how to write a sociology research paper, this part will come in handy. A good sociology research paper must properly introduce the topic chosen while presenting supporting evidence, the methodology used, and the sources investigated, and to reach this level of academic excellence, the following information will provide a great starting point.

Three main sociology research paper outlines serve similar roles but differ in a few things. The traditional outline utilizes Roman numerals to itemize sections and formats the sub-headings with capital letters, later using Arabic numerals for the next layer. This one is great for those who already have an idea of what they’ll write about.

The second sample is the post-draft outline, where writers mix their innovative ideas and the actual paper’s outline. This second type of draft is ideal for those with a few semi-assembled ideas that need to be developed around the paper’s main idea. Naturally, a student will end up finding their way through the research and structuring the piece smoothly while writing it.

Lastly, the third type of outline is referred to as conceptual outline and serves as a visual representation of the text written. Similar to a conceptual map, this outline used big rectangles that include the key topics or headings of the paper, as well as circles that represent the sources used to support those headings. This one is perfect for those who need to visually see their paper assembled, and it can also be used to see which ideas need further development or supporting evidence.

Furthermore, to write a great sociology paper, the following tips will be of great help.

  • Introduction. An eye-catching introduction calls for an unknown or relevant fact that captivates the reader’s attention. Apart from conducting excellent research, students worthy of the highest academic score are those able to present the information properly and in a way that the audience will be interested in reading.
  • Body. The paragraphs presented must be written attractively, to make readers want to know more. It is important to explain theories and add supporting evidence to back up your sayings and ideas; empirical data is highly recommended to be added to give the research paper more depth and physical recognition. A great method is to start a paragraph presenting an idea or theory, develop the paragraph with supporting evidence and close it with findings or results. This way, readers can easily understand the idea and comprehend what you want to portray.
  • Conclusion. For the conclusion, it is highly important, to sum up the key points presented in the sociology research paper, and after doing so, professors always recommend adding further readings or suggested bibliography to help readers who are interested in continuing their education on the topic just read.

No matter the method you choose to plan out your sociological papers, you’ll need to cover a few bases of how to assemble your final draft. If you’re stuck on where to begin your work, you can always buy sociology research paper from professional writers. Many students go to the pros to shore up their grades and make time when deadlines become overwhelming. If you do it independently, double-check your assignment’s requirements and fit them into the following sections.

Sociology Research Paper Outline Example


The following sociology research paper outline example will serve as an excellent guide and template which students can customize to fit their topics and key points. The outline above follows the topic “How Women Are Presented By The Media”.

Sociology Research Paper Example

PapersOwl website is an excellent resource if you’re looking for more detailed examples of sociology research papers. We provide a wide range of sample research papers that can serve as a guide and template for your own work.


“Changing Demographics Customer Service to Millennials” Example

Students who structure their sociological papers before conducting in-depth research are more likely to succeed. This happens because it is easier and more efficient to research specific key points rather than diving into the topic without knowing how to approach it or presenting the information, data, statistics, and others found.

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100+ Best Sociology Research Topics


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research report in sociology

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High Impact Sociology Research

Oxford University Press publishes a portfolio of leading Sociology journals. To keep up to date with the latest research your peers are reading and citing, browse our selection of high impact articles on a diverse breadth of topics below.  

All articles are freely available to read, download, and enjoy until May 2023.

  • Community Development Journal
  • European Sociological Review 
  • International Political Sociology 
  • Journal of Human Rights Practice 
  • Journal of Refugee Studies
  • Refugee Survey Quarterly 
  • Social Forces 
  • Social Politics 
  • Social Problems
  • Social Science Japan Journal 
  • Sociology of Religion 
  • The British Journal of Criminology 

Community Development Journal  

Covid-19 and community development Sue Kenny Community Development Journal , Volume 55, Issue 4, October 2020, Pages 699–703,

Financialization, real estate and COVID-19 in the UK Grace Blakeley Community Development Journal , Volume 56, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 79–99,

Financial subordination and uneven financialization in 21st century Africa Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Kai Koddenbrock, Ndongo Samba Sylla  Community Development Journal , Volume 56, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 119–140,

CDJ Editorial—What is this Covid-19 crisis? Rosie R. Meade  Community Development Journal , Volume 55, Issue 3, July 2020, Pages 379–381,

There’s a time and a place: temporal aspects of place-based stigma Alice Butler-Warke Community Development Journal , Volume 56, Issue 2, April 2021, Pages 203–219,

European Sociological Review  

Cohort Changes in the Level and Dispersion of Gender Ideology after German Reunification: Results from a Natural Experiment Christian Ebner, Michael Kühhirt, Philipp Lersch European Sociological Review , Volume 36, Issue 5, October 2020, Pages 814–828,

‘Cologne Changed Everything’—The Effect of Threatening Events on the Frequency and Distribution of Intergroup Conflict in Germany Arun Frey European Sociological Review , Volume 36, Issue 5, October 2020, Pages 684–699,

The Accumulation of Wealth in Marriage: Over-Time Change and Within-Couple Inequalities Nicole Kapelle, Philipp M. Lersch European Sociological Review , Volume 36, Issue 4, August 2020, Pages 580–593,

Three Worlds of Vocational Education: Specialized and General Craftsmanship in France, Germany, and The Netherlands Jesper Rözer, Herman G. van de Werfhorst European Sociological Review , Volume 36, Issue 5, October 2020, Pages 780–797,

Intergenerational Class Mobility among Men and Women in Europe: Gender Differences or Gender Similarities? Erzsébet Bukodi, Marii Paskov European Sociological Review , Volume 36, Issue 4, August 2020, Pages 495–512,

International Political Sociology  

Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right Rita Abrahamsen, Jean-François Drolet, Alexandra Gheciu, Karin Narita, Srdjan Vucetic, Michael Williams International Political Sociology , Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2020, Pages 94–107,

Collective Discussion: Toward Critical Approaches to Intelligence as a Social Phenomenon Hager Ben Jaffel, Alvina Hoffmann, Oliver Kearns, Sebastian Larsson International Political Sociology , Volume 14, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 323–344,

The Cruel Optimism of Militarism: Feminist Curiosity, Affect, and Global Security Amanda Chisholm, Hanna Ketola International Political Sociology, Volume 14 , Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 270–285,

Feminist Commodity Activism: The New Political Economy of Feminist Protest Jemima Repo International Political Sociology , Volume 14, Issue 2, June 2020, Pages 215–232,

Affect and the Response to Terror: Commemoration and Communities of Sense Angharad Closs Stephens, Martin Coward, Samuel Merrill, Shanti Sumartojo International Political Sociology , Volume 15, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 22–40,

Journal of Human Rights Practice  

Africa, Prisons and COVID-19 Lukas M. Muntingh Journal of Human Rights Practice , Volume 12, Issue 2, July 2020, Pages 284–292,

Pandemic Powers: Why Human Rights Organizations Should Not Lose Focus on Civil and Political Rights Eda Seyhan Journal of Human Rights Practice , Volume 12, Issue 2, July 2020, Pages 268–275,

Affirming Radical Equality in the Context of COVID-19: Human Rights of Older People and People with Disabilities Supriya Akerkar Journal of Human Rights Practice , Volume 12, Issue 2, July 2020, Pages 276–283,

Digital Dead Body Management (DDBM): Time to Think it Through Kristin Bergtora Sandvik Journal of Human Rights Practice, Volume 12 , Issue 2, July 2020, Pages 428–443,

Legal Reasoning for Legitimation of Child Marriage in West Java: Accommodation of Local Norms at Islamic Courts and the Paradox of Child Protection Hoko Horii Journal of Human Rights Practice , Volume 12, Issue 3, November 2020, Pages 501–523,

Journal of Refugee Studies  

Refugee-Integration-Opportunity Structures: Shifting the Focus From Refugees to Context Jenny Phillimore Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume 34, Issue 2, June 2021, Pages 1946–1966,

What Difference do Mayors Make? The Role of Municipal Authorities in Turkey and Lebanon's Response to Syrian Refugees Alexander Betts, Fulya MemiŞoĞlu, Ali Ali Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume 34, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 491–519,

Old Concepts Making New History: Refugee Self-reliance, Livelihoods and the ‘Refugee Entrepreneur’ Claudena Skran, Evan Easton-Calabria Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2020, Pages 1–21,

Research with Refugees in Fragile Political Contexts: How Ethical Reflections Impact Methodological Choices Lea Müller-Funk Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume 34, Issue 2, June 2021, Pages 2308–2332,

The Kalobeyei Settlement: A Self-reliance Model for Refugees? Alexander Betts, Naohiko Omata, Olivier Sterck Journal of Refugee Studies , Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2020, Pages 189–223,

Migration Studies  

International migration management in the age of artificial intelligence Ana Beduschi Migration Studies , Volume 9, Issue 3, September 2021, Pages 576–596,

Migration as Adaptation? Kira Vinke, Jonas Bergmann, Julia Blocher, Himani Upadhyay, Roman Hoffmann Migration Studies , Volume 8, Issue 4, December 2020, Pages 626–634,

Research on climate change and migration where are we and where are we going? Elizabeth Ferris Migration Studies , Volume 8, Issue 4, December 2020, Pages 612–625,

The emotional journey of motherhood in migration. The case of Southern European mothers in Norway Raquel Herrero-Arias, Ragnhild Hollekim, Haldis Haukanes, Åse Vagli Migration Studies , Volume 9, Issue 3, September 2021, Pages 1230–1249,

'I felt like the mountains were coming for me.'-The role of place attachment and local lifestyle opportunities for labour migrants' staying aspirations in two Norwegian rural municipalities Brit Lynnebakke Migration Studies , Volume 9, Issue 3, September 2021, Pages 759–782,

Refugee Survey Quarterly  

Refugee Rights Across Regions: A Comparative Overview of Legislative Good Practices in Latin America and the EU Luisa Feline Freier, Jean-Pierre Gauci Refugee Survey Quarterly , Volume 39, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 321–362,

Syrian Refugee Migration, Transitions in Migrant Statuses and Future Scenarios of Syrian Mobility Marko Valenta, Jo Jakobsen, Drago Župarić-Iljić, Hariz Halilovich Refugee Survey Quarterly , Volume 39, Issue 2, June 2020, Pages 153–176,

Ambiguous Encounters: Revisiting Foucault and Goffman at an Activation Programme for Asylum-seekers Katrine Syppli Kohl Refugee Survey Quarterly , Volume 39, Issue 2, June 2020, Pages 177–206,

Behind the Scenes of South Africa’s Asylum Procedure: A Qualitative Study on Long-term Asylum-Seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo Liesbeth Schockaert, Emilie Venables, Maria-Teresa Gil-Bazo, Garret Barnwell, Rodd Gerstenhaber, Katherine Whitehouse Refugee Survey Quarterly , Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2020, Pages 26–55,

Improving SOGI Asylum Adjudication: Putting Persecution Ahead of Identity Moira Dustin, Nuno Ferreira Refugee Survey Quarterly , Volume 40, Issue 3, September 2021, Pages 315–347,

Social Forces  

Paths toward the Same Form of Collective Action: Direct Social Action in Times of Crisis in Italy Lorenzo Bosi, Lorenzo Zamponi Social Forces , Volume 99, Issue 2, December 2020, Pages 847–869,

Attitudes toward Refugees in Contemporary Europe: A Longitudinal Perspective on Cross-National Differences Christian S. Czymara Social Forces , Volume 99, Issue 3, March 2021, Pages 1306–1333,

Opiate of the Masses? Inequality, Religion, and Political Ideology in the United States Landon Schnabel Social Forces , Volume 99, Issue 3, March 2021, Pages 979–1012,

Re-examining Restructuring: Racialization, Religious Conservatism, and Political Leanings in Contemporary American Life John O’Brien, Eman Abdelhadi Social Forces , Volume 99, Issue 2, December 2020, Pages 474–503,

Evidence from Field Experiments in Hiring Shows Substantial Additional Racial Discrimination after the Callback Lincoln Quillian, John J Lee, Mariana Oliver Social Forces , Volume 99, Issue 2, December 2020, Pages 732–759,

Social Politics  

Varieties of Gender Regimes Sylvia Walby Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society , Volume 27, Issue 3, Fall 2020, Pages 414–431,

The Origins and Transformations of Conservative Gender Regimes in Germany and Japan Karen A. Shire, Kumiko Nemoto Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society , Volume 27, Issue 3, Fall 2020, Pages 432–448,

Counteracting Challenges to Gender Equality in the Era of Anti-Gender Campaigns: Competing Gender Knowledges and Affective Solidarity Elżbieta Korolczuk Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society , Volume 27, Issue 4, Winter 2020, Pages 694–717,

Gender, Violence, and Political Institutions: Struggles over Sexual Harassment in the European Parliament Valentine Berthet, Johanna Kantola Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society , Volume 28, Issue 1, Spring 2021, Pages 143–167,

Gender Regime Change in Decentralized States: The Case of Spain Emanuela Lombardo, Alba Alonso Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society , Volume 27, Issue 3, Fall 2020, Pages 449–466,

Social Problems  

Technologies of Crime Prediction: The Reception of Algorithms in Policing and Criminal Courts Sarah Brayne, Angèle Christin Social Problems , Volume 68, Issue 3, August 2021, Pages 608–624,

White Christian Nationalism and Relative Political Tolerance for Racists Joshua T. Davis, Samuel L. Perry Social Problems , Volume 68, Issue 3, August 2021, Pages 513–534,

The Increasing Effect of Neighborhood Racial Composition on Housing Values, 1980-2015 Junia Howell, Elizabeth Korver-Glenn Social Problems , Volume 68, Issue 4, November 2021, Pages 1051–1071,

Transition into Liminal Legality: DACA' Mixed Impacts on Education and Employment among Young Adult Immigrants in California Erin R. Hamilton, Caitlin Patler, Robin Savinar Social Problems , Volume 68, Issue 3, August 2021, Pages 675–695,

Constructing Allyship and the Persistence of Inequality J. E. Sumerau, TehQuin D. Forbes, Eric Anthony Grollman, Lain A. B. Mathers Social Problems , Volume 68, Issue 2, May 2021, Pages 358–373,

Social Science Japan Journal  

Nuclear Restart Politics: How the ‘Nuclear Village’ Lost Policy Implementation Power Florentine Koppenborg Social Science Japan Journal , Volume 24, Issue 1, Winter 2021, Pages 115–135,

Factors Affecting Household Disaster Preparedness Among Foreign Residents in Japan David Green, Matthew Linley, Justin Whitney, Yae Sano Social Science Japan Journal , Volume 24, Issue 1, Winter 2021, Pages 185–208,

Climate Change Policy: Can New Actors Affect Japan's Policy-Making in the Paris Agreement Era? Yasuko Kameyama Social Science Japan Journal , Volume 24, Issue 1, Winter 2021, Pages 67–84,

Japan Meets the Sharing Economy: Contending Frames Thomas G. Altura, Yuki Hashimoto, Sanford M. Jacoby, Kaoru Kanai, Kazuro Saguchi Social Science Japan Journal , Volume 24, Issue 1, Winter 2021, Pages 137–161,

Administrative Measures Against Far-Right Protesters: An Example of Japan’s Social Control Ayaka Löschke Social Science Japan Journal , Volume 24, Issue 2, Summer 2021, Pages 289–309,

Sociology of Religion  

Religion in the Age of Social Distancing: How COVID-19 Presents New Directions for Research Joseph O. Baker, Gerardo Martí, Ruth Braunstein, Andrew L Whitehead, Grace Yukich Sociology of Religion , Volume 81, Issue 4, Winter 2020, Pages 357–370,

Keep America Christian (and White): Christian Nationalism, Fear of Ethnoracial Outsiders, and Intention to Vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential Election Joseph O. Baker, Samuel L. Perry, Andrew L. Whitehead Sociology of Religion , Volume 81, Issue 3, Autumn 2020, Pages 272–293,

Formal or Functional? Traditional or Inclusive? Bible Translations as Markers of Religious Subcultures Samuel L. Perry, Joshua B. Grubbs Sociology of Religion , Volume 81, Issue 3, Autumn 2020, Pages 319–342,

Political Identity and Confidence in Science and Religion in the United States Timothy L. O’Brien, Shiri Noy Sociology of Religion , Volume 81, Issue 4, Winter 2020, Pages 439–461,

Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region, 1992–2017 Brian J. Miller Sociology of Religion , Volume 81, Issue 4, Winter 2020, Pages 462–484,

The British Journal of Criminology  

Reporting Racist Hate Crime Victimization to the Police in the United States and the United Kingdom: A Cross-National Comparison Wesley Myers, Brendan Lantz The British Journal of Criminology , Volume 60, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages 1034–1055,

Does Collective Efficacy Matter at the Micro Geographic Level?: Findings from a Study Of Street Segments David Weisburd, Clair White, Alese Wooditch The British Journal of Criminology , Volume 60, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages 873–891,

Responses to Wildlife Crime in Post-Colonial Times. Who Fares Best? Ragnhild Aslaug Sollund, Siv Rebekka Runhovde The British Journal of Criminology , Volume 60, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages 1014–1033,

‘Playing the Game’: Power, Authority and Procedural Justice in Interactions Between Police and Homeless People in London Arabella Kyprianides, Clifford Stott, Ben Bradford The British Journal of Criminology , Volume 61, Issue 3, May 2021, Pages 670–689,

Live Facial Recognition: Trust and Legitimacy as Predictors of Public Support For Police Use of New Technology Ben Bradford, Julia A Yesberg, Jonathan Jackson, Paul Dawson The British Journal of Criminology , Volume 60, Issue 6, November 2020, Pages 1502–1522,


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2.2 Research Methods

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Recall the 6 Steps of the Scientific Method
  • Differentiate between four kinds of research methods: surveys, field research, experiments, and secondary data analysis.
  • Explain the appropriateness of specific research approaches for specific topics.

Sociologists examine the social world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. Sociologists generally choose from widely used methods of social investigation: primary source data collection such as survey, participant observation, ethnography, case study, unobtrusive observations, experiment, and secondary data analysis , or use of existing sources. Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use. When you are conducting research think about the best way to gather or obtain knowledge about your topic, think of yourself as an architect. An architect needs a blueprint to build a house, as a sociologist your blueprint is your research design including your data collection method.

When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher wouldn’t stroll into a crime-ridden neighborhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?”

Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviors, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers can’t just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviors or attract attention. In situations like these, other methods are needed. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topics, protect research participants or subjects, and that fit with their overall approaches to research.

As a research method, a survey collects data from subjects who respond to a series of questions about behaviors and opinions, often in the form of a questionnaire or an interview. The survey is one of the most widely used scientific research methods. The standard survey format allows individuals a level of anonymity in which they can express personal ideas.

At some point, most people in the United States respond to some type of survey. The 2020 U.S. Census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. Since 1790, United States has conducted a survey consisting of six questions to received demographical data pertaining to residents. The questions pertain to the demographics of the residents who live in the United States. Currently, the Census is received by residents in the United Stated and five territories and consists of 12 questions.

Not all surveys are considered sociological research, however, and many surveys people commonly encounter focus on identifying marketing needs and strategies rather than testing a hypothesis or contributing to social science knowledge. Questions such as, “How many hot dogs do you eat in a month?” or “Were the staff helpful?” are not usually designed as scientific research. The Nielsen Ratings determine the popularity of television programming through scientific market research. However, polls conducted by television programs such as American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance cannot be generalized, because they are administered to an unrepresentative population, a specific show’s audience. You might receive polls through your cell phones or emails, from grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores. They often provide you incentives for completing the survey.

Sociologists conduct surveys under controlled conditions for specific purposes. Surveys gather different types of information from people. While surveys are not great at capturing the ways people really behave in social situations, they are a great method for discovering how people feel, think, and act—or at least how they say they feel, think, and act. Surveys can track preferences for presidential candidates or reported individual behaviors (such as sleeping, driving, or texting habits) or information such as employment status, income, and education levels.

A survey targets a specific population , people who are the focus of a study, such as college athletes, international students, or teenagers living with type 1 (juvenile-onset) diabetes. Most researchers choose to survey a small sector of the population, or a sample , a manageable number of subjects who represent a larger population. The success of a study depends on how well a population is represented by the sample. In a random sample , every person in a population has the same chance of being chosen for the study. As a result, a Gallup Poll, if conducted as a nationwide random sampling, should be able to provide an accurate estimate of public opinion whether it contacts 2,000 or 10,000 people.

After selecting subjects, the researcher develops a specific plan to ask questions and record responses. It is important to inform subjects of the nature and purpose of the survey up front. If they agree to participate, researchers thank subjects and offer them a chance to see the results of the study if they are interested. The researcher presents the subjects with an instrument, which is a means of gathering the information.

A common instrument is a questionnaire. Subjects often answer a series of closed-ended questions . The researcher might ask yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions, allowing subjects to choose possible responses to each question. This kind of questionnaire collects quantitative data —data in numerical form that can be counted and statistically analyzed. Just count up the number of “yes” and “no” responses or correct answers, and chart them into percentages.

Questionnaires can also ask more complex questions with more complex answers—beyond “yes,” “no,” or checkbox options. These types of inquiries use open-ended questions that require short essay responses. Participants willing to take the time to write those answers might convey personal religious beliefs, political views, goals, or morals. The answers are subjective and vary from person to person. How do you plan to use your college education?

Some topics that investigate internal thought processes are impossible to observe directly and are difficult to discuss honestly in a public forum. People are more likely to share honest answers if they can respond to questions anonymously. This type of personal explanation is qualitative data —conveyed through words. Qualitative information is harder to organize and tabulate. The researcher will end up with a wide range of responses, some of which may be surprising. The benefit of written opinions, though, is the wealth of in-depth material that they provide.

An interview is a one-on-one conversation between the researcher and the subject, and it is a way of conducting surveys on a topic. However, participants are free to respond as they wish, without being limited by predetermined choices. In the back-and-forth conversation of an interview, a researcher can ask for clarification, spend more time on a subtopic, or ask additional questions. In an interview, a subject will ideally feel free to open up and answer questions that are often complex. There are no right or wrong answers. The subject might not even know how to answer the questions honestly.

Questions such as “How does society’s view of alcohol consumption influence your decision whether or not to take your first sip of alcohol?” or “Did you feel that the divorce of your parents would put a social stigma on your family?” involve so many factors that the answers are difficult to categorize. A researcher needs to avoid steering or prompting the subject to respond in a specific way; otherwise, the results will prove to be unreliable. The researcher will also benefit from gaining a subject’s trust, from empathizing or commiserating with a subject, and from listening without judgment.

Surveys often collect both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, a researcher interviewing people who are incarcerated might receive quantitative data, such as demographics – race, age, sex, that can be analyzed statistically. For example, the researcher might discover that 20 percent of incarcerated people are above the age of 50. The researcher might also collect qualitative data, such as why people take advantage of educational opportunities during their sentence and other explanatory information.

The survey can be carried out online, over the phone, by mail, or face-to-face. When researchers collect data outside a laboratory, library, or workplace setting, they are conducting field research, which is our next topic.

Field Research

The work of sociology rarely happens in limited, confined spaces. Rather, sociologists go out into the world. They meet subjects where they live, work, and play. Field research refers to gathering primary data from a natural environment. To conduct field research, the sociologist must be willing to step into new environments and observe, participate, or experience those worlds. In field work, the sociologists, rather than the subjects, are the ones out of their element.

The researcher interacts with or observes people and gathers data along the way. The key point in field research is that it takes place in the subject’s natural environment, whether it’s a coffee shop or tribal village, a homeless shelter or the DMV, a hospital, airport, mall, or beach resort.

While field research often begins in a specific setting , the study’s purpose is to observe specific behaviors in that setting. Field work is optimal for observing how people think and behave. It seeks to understand why they behave that way. However, researchers may struggle to narrow down cause and effect when there are so many variables floating around in a natural environment. And while field research looks for correlation, its small sample size does not allow for establishing a causal relationship between two variables. Indeed, much of the data gathered in sociology do not identify a cause and effect but a correlation .

Sociology in the Real World

Beyoncé and lady gaga as sociological subjects.

Sociologists have studied Lady Gaga and Beyoncé and their impact on music, movies, social media, fan participation, and social equality. In their studies, researchers have used several research methods including secondary analysis, participant observation, and surveys from concert participants.

In their study, Click, Lee & Holiday (2013) interviewed 45 Lady Gaga fans who utilized social media to communicate with the artist. These fans viewed Lady Gaga as a mirror of themselves and a source of inspiration. Like her, they embrace not being a part of mainstream culture. Many of Lady Gaga’s fans are members of the LGBTQ community. They see the “song “Born This Way” as a rallying cry and answer her calls for “Paws Up” with a physical expression of solidarity—outstretched arms and fingers bent and curled to resemble monster claws.”

Sascha Buchanan (2019) made use of participant observation to study the relationship between two fan groups, that of Beyoncé and that of Rihanna. She observed award shows sponsored by iHeartRadio, MTV EMA, and BET that pit one group against another as they competed for Best Fan Army, Biggest Fans, and FANdemonium. Buchanan argues that the media thus sustains a myth of rivalry between the two most commercially successful Black women vocal artists.

Participant Observation

In 2000, a comic writer named Rodney Rothman wanted an insider’s view of white-collar work. He slipped into the sterile, high-rise offices of a New York “dot com” agency. Every day for two weeks, he pretended to work there. His main purpose was simply to see whether anyone would notice him or challenge his presence. No one did. The receptionist greeted him. The employees smiled and said good morning. Rothman was accepted as part of the team. He even went so far as to claim a desk, inform the receptionist of his whereabouts, and attend a meeting. He published an article about his experience in The New Yorker called “My Fake Job” (2000). Later, he was discredited for allegedly fabricating some details of the story and The New Yorker issued an apology. However, Rothman’s entertaining article still offered fascinating descriptions of the inside workings of a “dot com” company and exemplified the lengths to which a writer, or a sociologist, will go to uncover material.

Rothman had conducted a form of study called participant observation , in which researchers join people and participate in a group’s routine activities for the purpose of observing them within that context. This method lets researchers experience a specific aspect of social life. A researcher might go to great lengths to get a firsthand look into a trend, institution, or behavior. A researcher might work as a waitress in a diner, experience homelessness for several weeks, or ride along with police officers as they patrol their regular beat. Often, these researchers try to blend in seamlessly with the population they study, and they may not disclose their true identity or purpose if they feel it would compromise the results of their research.

At the beginning of a field study, researchers might have a question: “What really goes on in the kitchen of the most popular diner on campus?” or “What is it like to be homeless?” Participant observation is a useful method if the researcher wants to explore a certain environment from the inside.

Field researchers simply want to observe and learn. In such a setting, the researcher will be alert and open minded to whatever happens, recording all observations accurately. Soon, as patterns emerge, questions will become more specific, observations will lead to hypotheses, and hypotheses will guide the researcher in analyzing data and generating results.

In a study of small towns in the United States conducted by sociological researchers John S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, the team altered their purpose as they gathered data. They initially planned to focus their study on the role of religion in U.S. towns. As they gathered observations, they realized that the effect of industrialization and urbanization was the more relevant topic of this social group. The Lynds did not change their methods, but they revised the purpose of their study.

This shaped the structure of Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture , their published results (Lynd & Lynd, 1929).

The Lynds were upfront about their mission. The townspeople of Muncie, Indiana, knew why the researchers were in their midst. But some sociologists prefer not to alert people to their presence. The main advantage of covert participant observation is that it allows the researcher access to authentic, natural behaviors of a group’s members. The challenge, however, is gaining access to a setting without disrupting the pattern of others’ behavior. Becoming an inside member of a group, organization, or subculture takes time and effort. Researchers must pretend to be something they are not. The process could involve role playing, making contacts, networking, or applying for a job.

Once inside a group, some researchers spend months or even years pretending to be one of the people they are observing. However, as observers, they cannot get too involved. They must keep their purpose in mind and apply the sociological perspective. That way, they illuminate social patterns that are often unrecognized. Because information gathered during participant observation is mostly qualitative, rather than quantitative, the end results are often descriptive or interpretive. The researcher might present findings in an article or book and describe what he or she witnessed and experienced.

This type of research is what journalist Barbara Ehrenreich conducted for her book Nickel and Dimed . One day over lunch with her editor, Ehrenreich mentioned an idea. How can people exist on minimum-wage work? How do low-income workers get by? she wondered. Someone should do a study . To her surprise, her editor responded, Why don’t you do it?

That’s how Ehrenreich found herself joining the ranks of the working class. For several months, she left her comfortable home and lived and worked among people who lacked, for the most part, higher education and marketable job skills. Undercover, she applied for and worked minimum wage jobs as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a retail chain employee. During her participant observation, she used only her income from those jobs to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and shelter.

She discovered the obvious, that it’s almost impossible to get by on minimum wage work. She also experienced and observed attitudes many middle and upper-class people never think about. She witnessed firsthand the treatment of working class employees. She saw the extreme measures people take to make ends meet and to survive. She described fellow employees who held two or three jobs, worked seven days a week, lived in cars, could not pay to treat chronic health conditions, got randomly fired, submitted to drug tests, and moved in and out of homeless shelters. She brought aspects of that life to light, describing difficult working conditions and the poor treatment that low-wage workers suffer.

The book she wrote upon her return to her real life as a well-paid writer, has been widely read and used in many college classrooms.


Ethnography is the immersion of the researcher in the natural setting of an entire social community to observe and experience their everyday life and culture. The heart of an ethnographic study focuses on how subjects view their own social standing and how they understand themselves in relation to a social group.

An ethnographic study might observe, for example, a small U.S. fishing town, an Inuit community, a village in Thailand, a Buddhist monastery, a private boarding school, or an amusement park. These places all have borders. People live, work, study, or vacation within those borders. People are there for a certain reason and therefore behave in certain ways and respect certain cultural norms. An ethnographer would commit to spending a determined amount of time studying every aspect of the chosen place, taking in as much as possible.

A sociologist studying a tribe in the Amazon might watch the way villagers go about their daily lives and then write a paper about it. To observe a spiritual retreat center, an ethnographer might sign up for a retreat and attend as a guest for an extended stay, observe and record data, and collate the material into results.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is an extension of basic ethnographic research principles that focuses intentionally on everyday concrete social relationships. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1990), institutional ethnography is often considered a feminist-inspired approach to social analysis and primarily considers women’s experiences within male- dominated societies and power structures. Smith’s work is seen to challenge sociology’s exclusion of women, both academically and in the study of women’s lives (Fenstermaker, n.d.).

Historically, social science research tended to objectify women and ignore their experiences except as viewed from the male perspective. Modern feminists note that describing women, and other marginalized groups, as subordinates helps those in authority maintain their own dominant positions (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada n.d.). Smith’s three major works explored what she called “the conceptual practices of power” and are still considered seminal works in feminist theory and ethnography (Fensternmaker n.d.).

Sociological Research

The making of middletown: a study in modern u.s. culture.

In 1924, a young married couple named Robert and Helen Lynd undertook an unprecedented ethnography: to apply sociological methods to the study of one U.S. city in order to discover what “ordinary” people in the United States did and believed. Choosing Muncie, Indiana (population about 30,000) as their subject, they moved to the small town and lived there for eighteen months.

Ethnographers had been examining other cultures for decades—groups considered minorities or outsiders—like gangs, immigrants, and the poor. But no one had studied the so-called average American.

Recording interviews and using surveys to gather data, the Lynds objectively described what they observed. Researching existing sources, they compared Muncie in 1890 to the Muncie they observed in 1924. Most Muncie adults, they found, had grown up on farms but now lived in homes inside the city. As a result, the Lynds focused their study on the impact of industrialization and urbanization.

They observed that Muncie was divided into business and working class groups. They defined business class as dealing with abstract concepts and symbols, while working class people used tools to create concrete objects. The two classes led different lives with different goals and hopes. However, the Lynds observed, mass production offered both classes the same amenities. Like wealthy families, the working class was now able to own radios, cars, washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. This was an emerging material reality of the 1920s.

As the Lynds worked, they divided their manuscript into six chapters: Getting a Living, Making a Home, Training the Young, Using Leisure, Engaging in Religious Practices, and Engaging in Community Activities.

When the study was completed, the Lynds encountered a big problem. The Rockefeller Foundation, which had commissioned the book, claimed it was useless and refused to publish it. The Lynds asked if they could seek a publisher themselves.

Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture was not only published in 1929 but also became an instant bestseller, a status unheard of for a sociological study. The book sold out six printings in its first year of publication, and has never gone out of print (Caplow, Hicks, & Wattenberg. 2000).

Nothing like it had ever been done before. Middletown was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. Readers in the 1920s and 1930s identified with the citizens of Muncie, Indiana, but they were equally fascinated by the sociological methods and the use of scientific data to define ordinary people in the United States. The book was proof that social data was important—and interesting—to the U.S. public.

Sometimes a researcher wants to study one specific person or event. A case study is an in-depth analysis of a single event, situation, or individual. To conduct a case study, a researcher examines existing sources like documents and archival records, conducts interviews, engages in direct observation and even participant observation, if possible.

Researchers might use this method to study a single case of a foster child, drug lord, cancer patient, criminal, or rape victim. However, a major criticism of the case study as a method is that while offering depth on a topic, it does not provide enough evidence to form a generalized conclusion. In other words, it is difficult to make universal claims based on just one person, since one person does not verify a pattern. This is why most sociologists do not use case studies as a primary research method.

However, case studies are useful when the single case is unique. In these instances, a single case study can contribute tremendous insight. For example, a feral child, also called “wild child,” is one who grows up isolated from human beings. Feral children grow up without social contact and language, which are elements crucial to a “civilized” child’s development. These children mimic the behaviors and movements of animals, and often invent their own language. There are only about one hundred cases of “feral children” in the world.

As you may imagine, a feral child is a subject of great interest to researchers. Feral children provide unique information about child development because they have grown up outside of the parameters of “normal” growth and nurturing. And since there are very few feral children, the case study is the most appropriate method for researchers to use in studying the subject.

At age three, a Ukranian girl named Oxana Malaya suffered severe parental neglect. She lived in a shed with dogs, and she ate raw meat and scraps. Five years later, a neighbor called authorities and reported seeing a girl who ran on all fours, barking. Officials brought Oxana into society, where she was cared for and taught some human behaviors, but she never became fully socialized. She has been designated as unable to support herself and now lives in a mental institution (Grice 2011). Case studies like this offer a way for sociologists to collect data that may not be obtained by any other method.


You have probably tested some of your own personal social theories. “If I study at night and review in the morning, I’ll improve my retention skills.” Or, “If I stop drinking soda, I’ll feel better.” Cause and effect. If this, then that. When you test the theory, your results either prove or disprove your hypothesis.

One way researchers test social theories is by conducting an experiment , meaning they investigate relationships to test a hypothesis—a scientific approach.

There are two main types of experiments: lab-based experiments and natural or field experiments. In a lab setting, the research can be controlled so that more data can be recorded in a limited amount of time. In a natural or field- based experiment, the time it takes to gather the data cannot be controlled but the information might be considered more accurate since it was collected without interference or intervention by the researcher.

As a research method, either type of sociological experiment is useful for testing if-then statements: if a particular thing happens (cause), then another particular thing will result (effect). To set up a lab-based experiment, sociologists create artificial situations that allow them to manipulate variables.

Classically, the sociologist selects a set of people with similar characteristics, such as age, class, race, or education. Those people are divided into two groups. One is the experimental group and the other is the control group. The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable(s) and the control group is not. To test the benefits of tutoring, for example, the sociologist might provide tutoring to the experimental group of students but not to the control group. Then both groups would be tested for differences in performance to see if tutoring had an effect on the experimental group of students. As you can imagine, in a case like this, the researcher would not want to jeopardize the accomplishments of either group of students, so the setting would be somewhat artificial. The test would not be for a grade reflected on their permanent record of a student, for example.

And if a researcher told the students they would be observed as part of a study on measuring the effectiveness of tutoring, the students might not behave naturally. This is called the Hawthorne effect —which occurs when people change their behavior because they know they are being watched as part of a study. The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research studies because sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985).

A real-life example will help illustrate the process. In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology professor at California State University at Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory, she conducted research. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, White, and Hispanic. She chose students who routinely drove to and from campus along Los Angeles freeway routes, and who had had perfect driving records for longer than a year.

Next, she placed a Black Panther bumper sticker on each car. That sticker, a representation of a social value, was the independent variable. In the 1970s, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary group actively fighting racism. Heussenstamm asked the students to follow their normal driving patterns. She wanted to see whether seeming support for the Black Panthers would change how these good drivers were treated by the police patrolling the highways. The dependent variable would be the number of traffic stops/citations.

The first arrest, for an incorrect lane change, was made two hours after the experiment began. One participant was pulled over three times in three days. He quit the study. After seventeen days, the fifteen drivers had collected a total of thirty-three traffic citations. The research was halted. The funding to pay traffic fines had run out, and so had the enthusiasm of the participants (Heussenstamm, 1971).

Secondary Data Analysis

While sociologists often engage in original research studies, they also contribute knowledge to the discipline through secondary data analysis . Secondary data does not result from firsthand research collected from primary sources, but are the already completed work of other researchers or data collected by an agency or organization. Sociologists might study works written by historians, economists, teachers, or early sociologists. They might search through periodicals, newspapers, or magazines, or organizational data from any period in history.

Using available information not only saves time and money but can also add depth to a study. Sociologists often interpret findings in a new way, a way that was not part of an author’s original purpose or intention. To study how women were encouraged to act and behave in the 1960s, for example, a researcher might watch movies, televisions shows, and situation comedies from that period. Or to research changes in behavior and attitudes due to the emergence of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a sociologist would rely on new interpretations of secondary data. Decades from now, researchers will most likely conduct similar studies on the advent of mobile phones, the Internet, or social media.

Social scientists also learn by analyzing the research of a variety of agencies. Governmental departments and global groups, like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics or the World Health Organization (WHO), publish studies with findings that are useful to sociologists. A public statistic like the foreclosure rate might be useful for studying the effects of a recession. A racial demographic profile might be compared with data on education funding to examine the resources accessible by different groups.

One of the advantages of secondary data like old movies or WHO statistics is that it is nonreactive research (or unobtrusive research), meaning that it does not involve direct contact with subjects and will not alter or influence people’s behaviors. Unlike studies requiring direct contact with people, using previously published data does not require entering a population and the investment and risks inherent in that research process.

Using available data does have its challenges. Public records are not always easy to access. A researcher will need to do some legwork to track them down and gain access to records. To guide the search through a vast library of materials and avoid wasting time reading unrelated sources, sociologists employ content analysis , applying a systematic approach to record and value information gleaned from secondary data as they relate to the study at hand.

Also, in some cases, there is no way to verify the accuracy of existing data. It is easy to count how many drunk drivers, for example, are pulled over by the police. But how many are not? While it’s possible to discover the percentage of teenage students who drop out of high school, it might be more challenging to determine the number who return to school or get their GED later.

Another problem arises when data are unavailable in the exact form needed or do not survey the topic from the precise angle the researcher seeks. For example, the average salaries paid to professors at a public school is public record. But these figures do not necessarily reveal how long it took each professor to reach the salary range, what their educational backgrounds are, or how long they’ve been teaching.

When conducting content analysis, it is important to consider the date of publication of an existing source and to take into account attitudes and common cultural ideals that may have influenced the research. For example, when Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd gathered research in the 1920s, attitudes and cultural norms were vastly different then than they are now. Beliefs about gender roles, race, education, and work have changed significantly since then. At the time, the study’s purpose was to reveal insights about small U.S. communities. Today, it is an illustration of 1920s attitudes and values.

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The early sociology, the foundation of social science: statistical studies, the rise of american sociology, the substance of the sociological perspective, the passion for sociology, conclusion: the future of sociology.

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A commonly accepted definition of sociology as a special science is that it is the study of social aggregates and groups in their institutional organization, of institutions and their organization, and of the causes and consequences of changes in institutions and social organization. (Albert J. Reiss, Jr. 1968:1)

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Within the contemporary context, sociologists are interested in human social interaction as people take one another into account as each behaves toward the other. Sociologists also take into analytical consideration the systemic units of interaction within social groups, social relations, and social organizations. As stated by Reiss (1968), the purview of sociology extends to

Governments, corporations, and school systems to such territorial organizations as communities or to the schools, factories, and churches . . . that are components of communities. . . . are also concerned with social aggregates, or populations, in their institutional organization. (P. 1) (adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

Sociology is, as Touraine (1990) suggests, an interpretation of social experience and is thus a part of the reality that the practitioners of the discipline attempt to observe and explain. To these areas we can add that sociology is a discipline that demystifies its subject matter, and it is, as Dennis H. Wrong (1990:21–22) notes, a debunker of popular beliefs, holds skeptical and critical views of the institutions that are studied (Smelser 1990), and challenges myth making (Best 2001).

The early history of sociology is a history of ideas developed in the European tradition, whereas the sociological approach of the last 150 years involved the development of concepts, methodology, and theories, especially in the United States (Goudsblom and Heilbron 2001). As American sociologists trained in the traditional theory and methods developed during the first eight decades of the twentieth century, we acknowledge our intellectual debt to the European founders. But beyond an earnest recognition of the classic work of the early founders, including Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederic LePlay, Marcell Mauss, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Harriet Martineau, most of whom were attracted to the European environment that included the liberalism, radicalism, and conservatism of the early to mid-nineteenth century (Nisbet 1966; Friedrichs 1970) and to what C. Wright Mills (1959) refers to as the sociological imagination that “enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society” (p. 6), our approach to sociology is deeply embedded with and indebted to those individuals who established the Chicago, Harvard, Iowa, and Berkeley schools of thought. Similarly, as practitioners, our approach to the discipline of sociology is reflected in these distinctive American scholarly perspectives.

The American tradition of sociology has focused on social policy issues relating to social problems, the recognition of which grew out of the dynamic periods of social transformation wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the Progressive Era, world crises engendered by war, worldwide population shifts, increasing mechanization, and the effort of sociologists to create a specific niche for the discipline within a growing scientific community. This effort occurred first in North America and Western Europe and then, similar to cultural transitions of the past, within a global context. In every instance, the motives embedded within a science of society lie in the attempt to understand and offer proposals for solutions to whatever problems gain significant attention at a particular point in time.

In a most interesting work, Goudsblom and Heilbron (2001) pose that sociology represents a great diversity, or what some analysts may refer to as fragmentation, because the discipline grew as a part of the processes affecting societies and cultures worldwide throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, as we move well into a new era and a new stage of academic development, it remains important that we recognize the sociological heritage as identified and discussed by these analysts. The five stages that sociology has experienced to date are (1) the predisciplinary stage prior to 1830, further identified as “protosociologies”; (2) the formation of the intellectual discipline, 1830–1890; (3) the formation of an academic discipline with diverging national traditions, 1890–1930; (4) the establishment of an international academic discipline, 1930–1970; and (5) a period of crisis, fragmentation, and attempts to develop a new synthesis, 1970–2000 (Goudsblom and Heilbron 2001:14574–80).

Consistent with the fifth stage, for almost four decades we have been witness to major changes in the substantive topics that undergo sociological inquiry both in the United States and, given the influence on the discipline by Canadian, European, and Scandinavian scholars, internationally. Among the areas more fully developed that might be identified as fragmentation are many of the most interesting sociological topics, including deviant behavior, the family, religion, gender, aging, health, the environment, science and technology, among so many seemingly unrelated topics. The unique conceptual paradigms of sociology serve as a template or pattern for seeing the social world in a special way. Every discipline and, indeed, every occupation employs templates or patterns to see and accomplish things in a unique fashion. Disciplines such as sociology rely on intellectual templates based on certain conceptual schemes or paradigms that have evolved through the development of a body of knowledge in those disciplines.

In its early era of the mid- to late nineteenth century, sociology was understood to represent anything relating to the study of social problems. Indeed, it was thought that the methods of the social sciences could be applied to social problems and used to develop solutions (Bernard and Bernard 1943). In focusing on such substance, O’Neill (1967:168–69) notes that periodicals of this early period had a sociological section in which news items relating to family matters, poverty, and labor often appeared. These early social scientists did not hold any special talents other than their training in theology. This situation was similar in the United States as well. It is not difficult, then, to imagine that, as Bramson (1961) notes, “For many American sociologists these problems evoked a moral response” (p. 75). Thus, the process of solving the problems of society was attempted by application of the conventional morality and the validation of Christian principles of piety rather than reform or progress.

Sociology was born as a result of a process, a process that directed a method of inquiry away from philosophy and toward positivism (MacIver 1934). Sociology was the result of a process caused by two major forces—namely, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. The events, changes, and ideas that emerged from these two revolutions are found in the nineteenth-century thought pertaining to social order (Eisenstadt 1968). Following in the wake of the Age of Reason and the Renaissance, according to Nisbet (1966), this was a period of word formation:

Perhaps the richest period of word formation in history . . . which were either invented during this period or were modified to their present meanings: industry, industrialist, democracy, class, middle class, ideology, intellectual, rationalism, humanitarian, atomistic, masses, commercialism, proletariat, collectivism, equalitarian, liberal, conservative, scientist, crisis . . . [among others]. (P. 23)

These were words that held great moral and partisan interest in the European economy and culture; such passions were identified with politics as well.

Identified with European conservatism, which became infused by and with science, the visionary perspective promoted by Auguste Comte during the 1830s in his six-volume Positive Philosophy, later translated from the French and condensed into two volumes by Harriet Martineau, was based on the medieval model of European society.

This model of family, community, authority, tradition, and the sacred became the core of scientific sociology that was to serve notice that a science of society was essential to provide for more than commonsense analysis and to reestablish social order (MacIver 1934). Although unsuccessful in his quest to secure a professorship, Auguste Comte was a positivist, mathematician, and promoter of the scientific identity of the engineering profession (Noble 1999). Comte argued that positivism and the still-to-beidentified area of “sociology” would serve as a means of supporting his intention to create a unique perspective of human relations and a system to reestablish the social order and organization of society. Reestablishment of this new social order was to proceed in accordance with the positivist stage of evolution with its ineluctable natural laws that could and would be established through engaging the scientific perspective. Along with the arts, the science of sociology, according to Comte, was to emerge as the queen of the sciences, the scientia scientorum, and would ultimately supplant biology and cosmology.

If the restoration of order in French society was a preoccupation for many early-nineteenth-century scholars, including Auguste Comte, it was also the case, as Bramson (1961) notes, that

many of the key concepts of sociology illustrate this concern with the maintenance and conservation of order; ideas such as status, hierarchy ritual, integration, social function and social control are themselves a part of the history of the reaction to the ideals of the French Revolution. What conservative critics saw as resulting from these movements was not the progressive liberation of individuals, but increasing insecurity and alienation, the breakdown of traditional associations and group ties. (Pp. 13–14)

For social scientists of the early nineteenth century, many of the problems of the time were much more well defined than is the case in the contemporary experience.

Comte was fervently religious, and he believed those interested in science would constitute a “priesthood of positivism” that would ultimately lead to a new social order. According to Noble (1999),

A theist in spite of himself, Comte declared that the existence of the Great Being “is deeply stamped on all its creations, in moral, in the arts and sciences, in industry,” and he insisted, as had previous like-minded prophets since Erigena, that all such manifestations of divinity were equally vital means of mankind’s regeneration . . . Comte was convinced that people like himself, science-minded engineering savants occupied with the study of the sciences of observation are the only men whose capacity and intellectual culture fulfill the necessary conditions. (P. 85)

The legacy of this enthusiastic perspective is that sociology has been at the heart of the positivists’ contribution to the understanding of the human condition. It was also to serve in part as a basis for the reactions of conflict theorist Karl Marx, especially as these writings referred to the religious opiate of the masses deemed by Comte as critical to the reorganization of society (Noble 1999:87). The discipline continues to present an array of perspectives that have served to stimulate much controversy within both society and the discipline (see Turner 2001).

Although the sociological legacy of Harriet Martineau is substantial, as outlined by Lengermann and NiebruggeBrantley (1998), it was Martineau’s effort to translate and condense Auguste Comte’s six-volume magnum opus into a two-volume set of writings published in 1853 that allowed this important work to be available to the Englishspeaking world. Interestingly, Comte’s English translation came after Martineau’s sociological contributions, the richness of which was finally recognized by feminist researchers during the 1980s and 1990s. Martineau engaged in “participant observation” of the United States during the mid-1830s and subsequently published the two-volume Society in America (1836/1837), which is based on this excursion to the North American continent. Because of this experience, Martineau was able to lay the foundation for her treatise on research methodology in How to Observe Morals and Manners (1838).

Perhaps it is ironic that the distinctive difference between the European theoretical sociology and the empirical sociology practiced in the United States was advanced by events in Europe. Indeed, the origin of empirical sociology is rooted in Europe. Statistical studies began in the 1660s, thereby preceding the birth of all of the social sciences by a couple of centuries. The early statistical gatherers and analysts were involved in “political arithmetic” or the gathering of data considered relevant to public policy matters of the state, and as noted by Reiss (1968), the gathering of such data may have been accelerated to meet the needs of the newly emerging insurance industry and other commercial activities of the time. But it was the early work of the moral statisticians interested in reestablishing social order in the emerging industrial societies that was to lay the quantitative foundation for the discipline, especially the early scientific work of the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (Whitt 2001:229–35).

The second stage in the early history of quantification may have been related to the development of probability theory, the rise of the insurance industry, other commercial activities, and political necessity (Lecuyer and Oberschall 1968; Reiss 1968). English political arithmeticians, including John Graunt and William Petty, were destined to be followed by the efforts of the moral statisticians who engaged in data gathering in Belgium and France. Indeed, as early as 1831, the Belgian Adolphe Quetelet and the Frenchman Andre Michel de Guerry de Champneuf, in building on the early efforts of the practitioners of the “political arithmetic” that first began in the 1660s, were engaging in the government-sponsored data-gathering activity pertaining to data on moral topics, including suicide, prostitution, and illegitimacy. Such activities would prove quite instrumental in the establishment of the empirical social sciences. Even many of the methodologies developed during this same era of the early nineteenth century, as well as awareness of important ecological methodological issues such as statistical interactions, the ecological fallacy, and spuriousness, were developed by early moral statisticians such as Andre-Michel de Guerry and Adolphe Quetelet. Later, the work of Henry Morselli, Enrico Ferri, and Alfred Maury during this same century were to serve well the needs of aspiring European sociologists and even later members of the Chicago School of Sociology (Whitt 2001:229–31).

American sociology is one of the intellectual creations that has most deeply influenced our century. No other society ( the American ) has been more actively involved in understanding its own organizational change for the sake of knowledge itself. (Touraine 1990:252)

The birth of the social sciences in general and of sociology in particular is traced to the liberal democratic ideas generated by the British social philosophies of the seventeenth century—ideas that later were to be enhanced by the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and then transformed in the United States where these ideas served as the foundation for practical democratic society. The rise of American sociology can be traced to the early-nineteenthcentury social science movement, a movement that by the mid-1800s became a new discipline that was widely introduced into college and university curricula. The movement also led to the establishment of a national social science association that was to later spawn various distinctive social sciences, including sociology, as well as social reform associations (Bernard and Bernard 1943:1–8).

Although the promotion of the social sciences in the United States began as early as 1865 with the establishment of the American Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences and then, in 1869, creation of the American Social Science Association with its associationsponsored publication the Journal of Social Science, prior to the 1880s there had been no organized and systematic scientific research in the United States. This was the case simply because, as Howard W. Odum ([1927] 1965:3–20) noted, there was no university per se in which research as a scientific pursuit could be conducted. It is within the context of the movement to organize such a university that sociology and many other social sciences were embraced as viable academic disciplines, thereby allowing systematic research to be conducted in a rigorous manner. This also was a period of great emphasis on pursuing answers to new research questions through the evaluation of knowledge and the employment of methodological and statistical tools within an interdisciplinary context. Indeed, L. L. Bernard and Jessie Bernard (1943) posit that the vision of the founders of the American Social Science Association was “to establish a unified science of society which could and would see all human problems in their relationships and make an effort to solve these problems as unified wholes” (p. 601).

Thus, the social sciences in general and sociology in particular owe a great intellectual debt to the American intellects who studied at length with the masters of Europe. Included among these are notables such as William Graham Sumner, Lester Frank Ward, Albion Woodbury Small, Franklin Henry Giddings, John William Burgess, Herbert B. Adams, Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson

Turner, James Harvey Robinson, George Vincent, Charles Horton Cooley, Edward Alsworth Ross, George Howard, Frank W. Blackmar, Ulysses G. Weatherly, John R. Commons, and Richard T. Ely (see Odum 1951, [1927] 1965); each of whom were well versed in scholarly areas other than sociology, including history, theology, economics, political science, and statistics. With the decline of the social science movement and its national association, the general discipline that emerged from the remains of social science was in fact sociology (Bernard and Bernard 1943:835).

The development of an intellectual and academic American sociology, like sociology in any part of the world, was and continues to be dependent on the social and political conditions of the country. In the United States, a liberal political climate and, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the advent of a system of a mass public education system, American sociology flourished. Thus, in countries in which the structure of the system of higher education was open to free inquiry, research was supported by private foundations and government contributions (Wright 1895), and the university was organized albeit loosely, sociology, subject to the polemics of its status as an academic science, gained entry if not acceptance among university faculty. Where education was available to the elite rather than the masses, sociology was less apt to flourish (Reiss 1968).

Another important factor is that American sociology arose basically without roots other than the growing influence of the social science movement in the United States and the emphasis on the virtues of science that permeated the intellectual and social environs of this same period. As noted by Neil J. Smelser (1990:49–60), American sociology did not experience the yoke of either European feudalism or any peculiar intellectual history. Rather, sociology came into being within American higher education during the 1880s and only after several other disciplines, including psychology and economics, had been accepted within the academy. Attempts among adherents of these other disciplines led to the establishment of the scientific theme within the social sciences. Early sociologists embraced this same scientific theme.

A second factor that had a profound effect on the early adherents of the sociological perspective is the social reform theme of the 1890s. The legacy of these two themes—namely, scientific respectability and social reform—became the dual platforms on which the unique American sociological perspective was to be based.

Although there was a great, direct influence of European thought, research, and the philosophy of the British Social Science Association on sociology to focus on attempting to solve America’s problems (Odum 1951:36–50), the rise of American sociology, at least during the first half of the twentieth century, was concomitant with the most dynamic period of technological, economic, and social reform changes ever recorded. In this context, Howard W. Odum (1951:52) views sociology as a product of the American social and cultural experience and places sociology’s heritage to be as “American as American literature,American culture, and the freedoms of the new world democracy” (p. 3). American sociology is thus part European and part American. Indeed, American sociology was envisioned early on as a social science that could and would assist policymakers and concerned citizens in creating the “American Dream.”

Consistent with this ideology, Odum (1951:59–60) identified three unique American developments, each of which influenced the direction of American sociology throughout the entire twentieth century. The first of these developments is the symbiotic relationship between the discipline and the American society and culture. The ideology that focused on the American Dream and its realization had a great influence.

The second development, according to Odum, is the emphasis on moral development and the motivation to establish ethics as a component of the educational curricula,American literature, and the social sciences, especially as these relate to ethical conduct, social justice, and public morality. Within sociology, this orientation is found in the application of sociological principles into economic and organizational behavior and the founding of the American Institute of Christian Sociology.

Finally, Odum (1951) notes, the American experience led to a research emphasis on social problems of a moral and economic nature. In an effort to better understand these social problems, sociologists organized the systematic study of issues such as waves of immigration, the working class, public disorder, neglect of children, violence toward women, intergroup conflict, urbanism, alcoholism, suicide, crime, mental illness, delinquency, and poverty (see also Fine 2006). This was the application side of sociology that held important social policy implication. However, there was also an early emphasis on a “general sociology” as opposed to a “special sociology” as was found at the more elite institutions of higher learning. Clearly, this difference foreshadowed the pure versus applied dichotomy that has generated so much discussion within the discipline (see Odum 1951:51–74).

Because of the important influence of the social science movement in the United States, there is some disagreement pertaining to who the founders and members of the first generation of American sociologists are (see Odum 1951, [1927] 1965). But publication of Lester Ward’s book Dynamic Sociology in 1883 does appear to mark the beginning of American sociology (Bramson 1961:84–85). On the other hand, there does not seem to be any disagreement as to the purpose of the American founders, and that was to establish a scientific theoretical base. Later, at the University of Chicago the goals were to establish a relationship between sociology and the classical problems of philosophy by focusing on process issues relating to elements of social control, such as conflict, competition, and accommodation (Kurtz 1986:95).

American sociology emerged concomitant with the challenges to legal philosophy and the discussion of questions relating to myriad questions that arose as the effects of industrialization were observed Calhoun (1919). Such questions have their focus on marriage, divorce, immigration, poverty, and health and how to employ the emerging scientific model to topical data that had been gathered by the nineteenth-century moral statisticians.

Leon Bramson (1961:47–48) observed that the most interesting aspect of American sociology in the first half of the twentieth century is that when affected by European theories of mass behavior and collective behavior, American sociologists, in their haste to establish a role for sociology in America, either transformed the meaning of the concepts to meet their needs or created new concepts to apply to the more liberal American social and political context. American sociologists, according to Bramson, also applied European theoretical concepts such as social pathology, social disorganization, and social control to the data referring to the American experience without regard for whatever special conditions should have been accounted for or even possible theoretical distortions; this issue is also discussed by Lester R. Kurtz (1986:60–83) in his evaluation of the Chicago School of Sociology.

Albert J. Reiss, Jr. (1968) notes that the first formal instruction of a sociology course in the United States was offered by William Graham Sumner, a professor of political and social science at Yale University, during 1876. The first, second, and third American Departments of Sociology were established at Brown University, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University, respectively (Kurtz 1986:93–97). Between 1889 and 1892, 18 American colleges and universities offered instruction in sociology, but in 1893, the University of Chicago was the first to develop a program that led to the granting of a Ph.D.

Despite the recognition of the emerging field of sociology as a distinctive area of inquiry, the focal point of a religious orientation and perhaps fervor expressed by social commentators in their discussions and analyses of the social issues that were to constitute the purview of sociology also engaged the attention of other early practitioners of the discipline. The social problems identified in the wake of expansion of the American West and the building of the railroads included issues relating to “the influx of immigrants, the rise of the factory system and the concentration of people in big cities. These comprised the now familiar catalogue of crime, delinquency, divorce, poverty, suicide, alcoholism, minority problems and slums” (Bramson 1961:75).

Alfred McClung Lee (1978:69) notes that ever since that time, sociologists have been attempting to divorce themselves from an ancestry that is historically rooted in the clergy, the police, utopian ideologues, social reformers, conservative apologists, journalistic muckrakers, radical thinkers, agitators, and civil libertarians.

Given the moral tone of much of the writing of many early American sociologists, it is noteworthy that in articulating the six “aims” of the American Journal of Sociology established at the University of Chicago in 1895, the scientific view of sociological concern so clearly defined several decades later by E. A. Ross (1936) was not so clear to many if not all of the moral philosophers of this earlier period. Witness the following comments offered by the founding editor of the American Journal of Sociology, Albion W. Small (1895):

Sociology has a foremost place in the thought of modern men. Approve or deplore the fact at pleasure, we cannot escape it. . . . To many possible readers the most important question abut the conduct of the Journal will be with reference to its attitude toward “Christian Sociology.” The answer is, in a word, towards Christian sociology sincerely deferential, toward “Christian sociologists” severely suspicious. (Pp. 1, 15)

These comments were of particular significance given that the American Journal of Sociology was not only the first journal of sociology created anywhere, but it was also, until 1936, the official journal of the American Sociological Society. Thus, the influence of both the Chicago School and the large number of contributions by its faculty and students to the American Journal of Sociology placed the work of the Chicago School at the forefront in shaping the early direction and substance of American, Canadian, and Polish sociology (Kurtz 1986:93–97). This was especially true in the subareas of urban and community studies, race and ethnic relations, crime and juvenile delinquency, deviance, communications and public opinion, and political sociology.

Leon Bramson (1961:73–95) identified three important phases in the rise of American sociology. The first period began in 1883 with the publication of Lester Ward’s Dynamic Sociology to about 1915 or 1918 with the publication of Robert E. Park’s essay on the city and/or the end of World War I, respectively. During this period, the founders began their earnest quest to establish the theoretical foundation as it related to the American experience focusing on “a liberal sociology of change and process, rather than one of conservation and equilibrium” (Bramson 1961:85).

This focus on change and process became even more evident during the second stage of American sociology, identified as the period between the two world wars. This was a period of academic expansion, with major increases in faculty and students, but even more important, led by sociologists at the University of Chicago, this was a period of specialization and the beginning of differentiation within sociology as the quest to develop a viable methodology began in earnest. This also was a meaningful period during which sociologists worked to establish the scientific status of the discipline and to earn respectability and academic legitimization. It was also a period during which many of the conceptual problems of sociology first began to emerge as its practitioners developed an increasingly complex technical vocabulary, a vast array of classification schema, and other abstract systems categories of thought. Perhaps assuming the need to compensate for a past that included so many nonscientifically moral reformistoriented representatives of the discipline, sociologists responded during this phase of development by creating complex theories that, for an extended period of time, were not only unintelligible to the layperson, but also the abstract nature of these grand theories exceeded the ability of social scientists to create methodologies appropriate to empirically test these theoretical models (Lee 1978). But despite this theoretical/methodological problem, this second stage of sociological development was also one in which much substance was created.

The history of sociology in America from prior to World War I to approximately the mid-1930s is, according to Kurtz (1986), a history of the school of thought promoted by the University of Chicago. If the second phase of American sociology is to be distinguished as a period dominated by the Chicago sociologists, it is also one that led Pitirim Sorokin to observe that American sociology was emerging as a distinctive brand:

The bulk of the sociological works in America are marked by their quantitative and empirical character while the bulk of the sociological literature of Europe is still marked by an analytical elaboration of concepts and definitions; by a philosophical and epistemological polishing of words. (Cited in Bramson 1961:89)

The period is characterized by a marked increase in the development of new and expanding methodologies and measurement. These new techniques included a plethora of scales intended to measure the theoretical concepts developed previously.

As noted, Goudsblom and Heilbron (2001) identify five phases of development of the discipline that cover the period prior to 1830 to the very end of the twentieth century. But the third phase of the development of American sociology, identified by Bramson (1961) as covering the period from 1940 to 1960, is noteworthy because this was a period during which the development and adoption of theories of the “middle-range” advocated by Robert K. Merton led to even greater specialization and differentiation of the discipline. In turn, sociologists began to develop ever-expanding areas of inquiry. Robert K. Merton ([1957] 1968), who wrote in reaction to the abstractness of the previous dominant position of the functionalist school of sociology, stated that theories of the middle range are

theories that lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day-to-day research and the all-inclusive systematic efforts to develop a unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behavior, social organization and social change. (P. 39)

The all-inclusive efforts refer, of course, to the contributions of Talcott Parsons in The Structure of Social Action, originally published in 1937, and in 1951 with the appearance of The Social System.

The third phase of development can be characterized as the most enthusiastic period during which greater emphasis was placed on the application of sociological knowledge. As the field expanded, new outlets for sociological studies and knowledge were created, sociologists found employment in nonacademic settings such as government and business, and the new specialty areas of interest reflected the changes in American society, including a growing rise in membership in the middle class, the expansion of the suburbs, more leisure time, and the growth of bureaucracy. In lieu of the previous sociological interest in the reform of society and the more traditional social problems orientation of the discipline, the new sociology opted to leave such concerns to the social work profession and to special studies programs such as criminology. Thus, specialty areas emerged—areas such as the sociology of marriage and the family, and aging (later to be defined as gerontology), industrial sociology, public opinion, organizations, communications, and social psychiatry (later called mental health). From this point forward, the continued rise to respectability of sociology is attributed by analysts such as Robert Nisbet (1966) to the public recognition that societal problems are more integrative in nature than previously thought. This may also serve as a partial explanation for why the discipline is viewed by some as fragmented.

The logic and ethos of science is the search for the truth, the objective truth. Thus, the most fundamental problem the social scientist confronts, according to Gunnar Myrdal (1969), is this:

What is objectivity, and how can the student attain objectivity in trying to find out the facts and the causal relationships between facts? [That is,] How can a biased view be avoided? The challenge is to maintain an objectivity of that which the sociologist is a part. (P. 3)

Although the sociologies of the United States and Europe differ in perspective, both attempt to answer similar albeit distinguishable questions. In his discussion of “the two faces of sociology,” Touraine (1990:240) states that these differences lie in the scholarly research response to two problems: (1) How does society exist? (2) How are culture and society historically created and transformed by work, by the specific way nature and its resources are put to use, and through systems of political, economic, and social organization? Because the intellectual legacy of American sociological thought has been shaped to a large extent by the historical experience of creating a nation in which the rights and the will of the American people have been dominant, American sociologists have long focused on “institution” as a central concept and the significance of efforts of reform movements within the American society to affect its social organization. Thus, the substance of American sociology has been on topics such as the family, social organization, community, the criminal justice system, and law and society among the numerous institutionallevel areas of inquiry that are evaluated within the context of yet another American theoretical focus—namely, the emphasis on theories of the middle range. European sociologists, on the other hand, tend to focus on the second question while emphasizing the concept “revolution” in their analyses. Thus, even when similar topics such as social movements serve as the focus of inquiry, the American and European sociology responds from a different perspective (Touraine 1990). To understand the importance of this difference in perspective between the two sociologies, Alain Touraine (1990) poses the view that American sociology has a symbiotic relationship between culture and society, whereas European sociology integrates society and its history. Americans sociologists focus on society; the European sociology is focused on the rich history that serves as the backdrop for any attempt to understand social change.

Because the American experience is predicated on building a nation through the rule of law; the concepts of individualism, capitalism, and territorial conquest; and the attempt at integration of successive waves of immigrants to the North American continent,American sociology began its rise in prominence through an elitist intellectual process that dominated the academy during the early formative years of the discipline. Thus, it is perhaps ironic that an American sociology housed within the university setting would assume a critical teaching and research posture toward an elitist system of institutions that the early sociology assisted in creating. Within the context of certain kinds of social problems areas, such as ethnic studies, discrimination, and segregation, sociology and sociologists have been able to exert some influence. But in other important areas within which issues relating to elitist society may be involved, such as social class relations and economic and political power, the official and public perceptions of the efforts of American sociologists may not be as well received.

Many analysts of the past can be called on to render testimony in support of or apologize for the past efforts of sociologists to provide useful information, but none is perhaps more relevant than the following statement offered by George A. Lundberg (1947): “Good intentions are not a substitute for good techniques in either achieving physical or social goals” (p. 135). During the 1960s and 1970s, sociology, psychology, and other social science undergraduate job candidates customarily responded to interviewer queries with “I want to help people.” Similar to those who attended graduate school after World War II, these individuals were influenced by the potential of sociology to make a difference. But good intentions aside, the real issue is, How do we go about assisting/helping people? Perhaps the more educated and sophisticated we become, the more difficult are the answers to social problems and social arrangements that are deemed inappropriate or at least in need of some form of rearrangement. That is, the more we believe we already know the answers, the less apt we are to recognize the importance of the sociological perspective. Within this context, sociology necessarily must adhere to and advocate the use of the methods of science in approaching any social problem, whether this is local or international in scope.

Sociology has utility beyond addressing social problems and contributing to the development of new social policy. Indeed, the sociological perspective is empowering. Those who use it are in a position to bring about certain behavior in others. It has been said that “behavior that can be understood can be predicted, and behavior that can be predicted can likely be controlled.” It is not surprising that sociologists are often used to help select juries, develop effective advertising campaigns, plan political strategies for elections, and solve human relations problems in the workplace. As Peter Berger (1963) phrases it, “Sociological understanding can be recommended to social workers, but also to salesmen, nurses, evangelists and politicians—in fact to anyone whose goals involve the manipulation of men, for whatever purpose and with whatever moral justification” (p. 5). In some ways, it might be said that the sociological perspective puts one “in control.”

The manipulation of others, even for commendable purposes, however, is not without critical reaction or detractors. Some years back, industrial sociologists who worked for, or consulted with, industrial corporations to aid them to better address problems in the workplace were sometimes cynically labeled as “cow sociologists” because “they helped management milk the workers.” Knowledge is power that can be used for good or evil. The sociological perspective is utilitarian and empowering in that it can accomplish things for whatever purposes. Berger (1963) goes on to reflect the following:

If the sociologist can be considered a Machiavellian figure, then his talents can be employed in both humanly nefarious and humanly liberating enterprises. If a somewhat colorful metaphor may be allowed here, one can think of the sociologist as a condottiere of social perception. Some condottieri fight for the oppressors of men, others for their liberators. Especially if one looks around beyond the frontiers of America as well as within them, one can find enough grounds to believe that there is a place in today’s world for the latter type of condottiere. (P. 170)

Responding to the question, “Can science save us?” George A. Lundberg (1947) states “yes,” but he also equates the use of brain (the mind) as tantamount to employing science. Lundberg also posed the following: “Shall we place our faith in science or in something else?” (p. 142). Physical science is not capable of responding to human social issues. If sociologists have in a vain effort failed to fulfill the promise of the past, this does not indicate that they will not do so at some future time. Again, as Lundberg (1947) heeded long ago, “Science is at best a growth, not a sudden revelation. We also can use it imperfectly and in part while it is developing” (pp. 143–144).

And a few years later but prior to the turmoil that was to embroil the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, John Madge (1962) urged that a century after the death of the positivist Auguste Comte (now 150 years later) the structure of sociology remains incomplete. However, Madge recognized and demonstrates in The Origins of Scientific Sociology that sociology was slowly gaining in maturity and with this growth was on the verge of or within reach of achieving the status of a science. But it is also important to keep in focus the goals of science as articulated by Gunnar Myrdal (1969)—more specifically, “The goals of objectivity and effectiveness in research are honesty, clarity, and effectiveness” (p. 72). If the results of sociological research have been less than to the liking of policymakers and government and corporate leaders, then yet another of Myrdal’s insights is especially germane. That is,

Research is always and by logical necessity based on moral and political valuations, and the researcher should be obligated to account for them explicitly. When these valuations are brought out into the open any one who finds a particular piece of research to have been founded on what is considered wrong valuation can challenge it on that ground. (P. 74)

There are other reasons as well, reasons that complicate the delivery of the important message promoted by the discipline’s practitioners, for as noted by Joel Best (2003:11), sociology “is a perspective built on relativism, built on the recognition that people understand the world differently.” Indeed, many years earlier George C. Homans (1967) observed,

If some of the social sciences seem to have made little progress, at least in the direction of generalizing and explanatory science, the reason lies neither in lack of intelligence on the part of the scientists nor in the newness of the subject as an academic discipline. It lies rather in what is out there in the world of nature. (P. 89)

Such statements lie at the heart of the epistemological debate that began in the 1920s (see Reiss 1968:10–11) and continues into the modern era. Despite the vastness of sociological inquiry, it is obvious that a strong orientation toward the scientific study of human behavior, social interaction, and organizations continues and that this scientific focus is predicated on the assumption that such study is possible because it is based on the examination of phenomena that are subject to the operation of universal laws, a point not lost in the minds of the discipline’s founders. The counterpoint that the social sciences are cultural sciences and thereby fundamentally different from the physical sciences and also subject to different methodology and other evaluative criteria is representative of a longstanding European influence that also began in the 1920s.

Given the diversity and fluidity of the topics addressed and the levels of theories employed by sociologists, it is not surprising that many others do not agree. The counterargument is based on the premise that given the circumstances behind the evolution of science and the support it received in the past and the more repressive attention it receives in the contemporary experience from powerful interest groups, objective social science and the establishment of universal laws that are based on such inquiry may not be possible (see Turner 2001).

Whether or not one argues that the study of human society is unique, it is still extraordinary given the vast array of extant theories used to express the human experience and capacity. Witness the statement of one contemporary analyst who, in an intriguing assessment of the contemporary American “wilding” experience, wrote,

Sociology arose as an inquiry into the dangers of modern individualism, which could potentially kill society itself. The prospect of the death of society gave birth to the question . . . what makes society possible and prevents it from disintegrating into a mass of sociopathic and self-interested isolates? This core question of sociology has become the vital issue of our times. (Charles Derber 2003:18)

Only in part is Derber referring to the American experience. His assessment also speaks to the experience of Western Europe. Much social change has taken place, and the efforts of sociologists to describe and explain this change and to draw upon these insights to develop predictive models has led to a diversity of theories. Indeed, over time, the scientific paradigm shifts more generally described by Thomas Kuhn ([1962] 1970) are obvious in our discipline (see Friedrichs 1970). There have been, there are at present, and there undoubtedly will be future paradigm shifts within this evolving and apparently expanding discipline of sociology, many of which will focus, as has been the case in the past, on the social change process. And for all the so-called objectivity of a scientific sociology advocated by analysts such as George A. Lundberg (1947), the development of which is so eloquently described by Leon Bramson (1961)), sociologists have been involved in social activism and social engineering, that first occurred during the embryonic years of the discipline’s development (Volkart 1968). Such activism occurred again during the 1960s and 1970s, in many social justice areas, and in occupational settings such as those of the criminal justice system.

At present, sociological inquiry represents a vast array of topics and offers many competing theoretical models while its practitioners attempt to make sense of a rapidly changing world. For all its middle-range theories and studies that reflect the efforts of those dedicated to cumulative knowledge, it is also important that we recognize that the building of a paradigm as well as challenges to an extant paradigm are not relegated to the gathering of information alone. Indeed, if sociology is to advantage itself in the twenty-first century, it may be imperative that a dominant paradigm begins to identify the kinds of community needs that it can usually serve, for as Joseph R. Gusfield (1990) so clearly notes, sociology has been at odds with and a critic of the classical economic and individualistic interpretations of American life. Thus, whatever issues sociology may need to address at this juncture, perhaps we are hampered only by the limits of the sociological imagination. Again, the following comment by Homans (1967) is noteworthy:

The difficulties of social science lie in explanation rather than discovery. . . . Our trouble has not been with making discoveries but with organizing them theoretically—showing how they follow under a variety of given conditions from a few general principles. (Pp. 79, 105)

The present diversity of the discipline welcomed by so many social critics also serves as a barrier to the creation of a dominant theoretical paradigm. Without this focus, sociology remains in the minds of many of the discipline’s representatives a less-than-coherent discipline. Perhaps this is not different from the struggle of the 1960s as described by Gouldner (1970), a period that also was far less than organized and coherent and certainly far less civil in disagreement. It is important that sociologists take stock of their trade and question in earnest the utility of the work we do. As noted by Herbert L. Gans (1990),

By and large, we sociologists have been too distant from the society in which we operate and in which we are embedded, which funds us even if too poorly and which influences us surely more than we influence it. We are too busy trying to understand how that society functions . . . that we rarely think about our own functions—and dysfunctions. To some extent our failure to do so stems from a typical professional blindness, which results in our inability to distance ourselves sufficiently from ourselves and our routines to look systematically at what we are for and to whom. (Pp. 12–13)

Not all may agree, of course. Indeed, sociology in the United States and in Europe has been a critique of modern urban life with its emphasis on the individual, capitalism, and bureaucracy. In some instances, this critique of American society has been radical and reformist in its thrust (Gusfield 1990:31–46). And although American sociology had been shaped in part by psychology in establishing its methodology during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, especially through a common socialpsychological area (see, e.g., Reiss 1968), it can be safely stated that American sociology has been transformed during the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Sociologists may be accused of engaging in an affair with their work. Witness the stirring comments of one colleague:

I fell in love with sociology when I was twelve. . . . Sociology was my savior. It saved me from the vexing confusion caused by my once despising the mundaneness of everyday life and deeply loving and admiring my people. It stabilized me by articulating the dedication that I felt for social justice. (Shahidian 1999:303–04)

We share this passionate approach to social science based on the insightful development of theory and empirical research, an approach that has, in turn, led to a vast array of subject matter. In light of these impressive contributions, the only aspect of this endeavor that may seem perplexing to some is that as we move further into the twenty-first century, there are those who continue to believe in and practice the scientific method; there also are those who argue that if the logic of science and the methods of scientific objectivity are to be carried to an extreme, sociology will lose or has already lost its humanistic perspective and, with this loss, the inclination toward active community involvement through social policy advocacy and practical intervention. As Peter L. Berger (1963) phrases it,

At the same time it is quite true that some sociologists, especially in America, have become so preoccupied with methodological questions that they have ceased to be interested in society at all. As a result, they have found out nothing of significance about any aspect of social life, since in science as in love a concentration on technique is quite likely to lead to impotence. (P. 13)

This dichotomy certainly is a matter of considerable debate, but perhaps most advocates and active practitioners of the discipline would fall somewhere in between these two orientations (see, e.g., Reiss 1968:10–11). In this regard, we are also optimistic that the sociological imagination will continue to be an important part of the work of sociologists as they take into consideration “a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves” (Mills 1959:5).

More than 170 years ago, sociology began to emerge from its philosophical and biological roots to it current status as an important social science. Early sociologists achieved renown based on their interest in providing information useful to appraise social policy issues. However, in the contemporary instance, there are strong indicators that sociology has not achieved the eminent position envisioned by the founders. Note the less-than-enthusiastic assessment offered by Black (1999):

The problems endemic to the discipline of sociology include the lack of a paradigm, disciplinary fragmentation, and the irreconcilability of science, ideology, and politics . . . and the lack of an occupational niche—[all these] place sociologists in the position of having constantly to defend the profession. (Pp. 261, 263)

Thus, as we move well into the twenty-first century, it is clear that sociology is engaged in yet another struggle to (re)identify itself. Perhaps such a struggle is to be expected of any science of human behavior. And nowhere is this situation more contentious than in the responses of representatives of the discipline to the question as to whether sociology is or is not yet considered an activity worthy of the label “scientific activity.”

At the center of this struggle lies the heart of any discipline—namely, sociological theory. Among the eminent theorists reporting on the status of sociology in this Handbook are individuals who represent the very best of what the discipline has to offer. That the message is suggestive of a continuing debate within the discipline is both disheartening and encouraging. It is disheartening in that after a period of more than 175 years, representatives of the discipline should be able to exclaim with great pride the accomplishments of so much activity instead of debating their scientific worth. It is encouraging because the current debate over the theory and the substance of the work sociologists engage in can only lead to the exploration of new and challenging frontiers. But the substance of sociological inquiry also represents a matter of contention for many research- and practitioner-oriented representatives of the discipline. Some contemporary analysts who have observed the developments within the academy during the past several decades call for a critical reevaluation of that which sociologists identify as the substance of research and understanding. Sociology has given birth to and generated intense interest in many areas of study that are no longer identified with the discipline. Because the specific subareas developed by sociologists became well accepted as legitimate applied disciplines within the academy, independent, overlapping units within the academy have been created.

If the 1960s represent the golden era of sociology, it is also a period, as described by Turner and Sica (2006), that is “remembered as a time of violence, massive social change, and personal transformation” (p. 4). The period had a profound effect on an entire generation of students, many of whom were instrumental in creating the new sociological emphasis that today is criticized for its diversity, the lack of continuity, and a failure to develop a unified paradigm. Whatever reservations that may continue to exist as we progress well into the twenty-first century, these can be hailed as a challenge. Thus, at the same time that community involvement and applied research are increasingly being devalued in the academic world, there is a distinct pressure, according to Harris and Wise (1998), for sociologists to become increasingly involved in the community and society.

This call to establish a public sociology may well combine with the three types of knowledge identified by Burawoy (2005)—the professional, critical, and policyspecific databases. In each of these areas, the initiative would be consistent with enthusiastic proclamations of the past. George A. Lundberg’s (1947) Can Science Save Us? serves as but one important example of those who promoted the application of social science insights to solve social problems. Of course, one major difference between the time when Lundberg wrote and now is that we are not rebounding from the tragedy of a world war. Indeed, it was during the post-World War II period and during the subsequent several decades that American sociology assumed its theoretical and empirical dominance (Odum 1951), especially in the area of deviant behavior (see Touraine 1990). Yet another important difference between then and now, as Harris and Wise (1998) suggest, is that sociologists need to be perceived as problem solvers rather than as social critics, and similar to the pleas of Marion Talbot (1896) at the end of the nineteenth century, much of the sociological may necessarily become interdisciplinary in nature. This perspective is supported as a portion of a more scholarly editorial philosophy articulated by Wharton (2006:1–2). Most noteworthy for our purpose are points three and four:

(3) Be aware and reflective about the . . . broader contributions to scholarship, policy, and/or activism . . . ; (4) produce useful knowledge—not merely in the applied sense of solving problems, but knowledge that is useful as basic research that can help people better understand and transform the social world. (P. 1)

These same kinds of issues—social activism and public policy research—were recognized at the end of the nineteenth century as strengths of the new discipline.

Thus, there appears to be hopeful as well as worrisome aspects of sociology at the end of the twentieth century (Lewis 1999). But this kind of enthusiasm and concern appears to be periodic throughout the history of the discipline as sociologists attempt to both define and then redefine the parameters of what some argue is too extensive a range of topics to allow practitioners of the discipline to be definitively identified (Best 2003). Witness the statement attributed to one of the coeditors of this Handbook who, in the early 1980s, wrote the following:

Future prospects for sociology(ists) no doubt will depend upon our ability to identify and respond to community needs, to compete for funds available from nontraditional sources, to work in applied areas, and to establish creative problemsolving strategies. The challenge before us should generate a healthy response. (Peck 1982:319–20)

Since that time and in the wake of a declining influence of the social sciences, there has been a response as evidenced by the many new areas of inquiry, many interdisciplinary in nature, that currently curry attention from sociologists. Indeed, there does appear to be a fragmentation, but this so-called fragmentation is consistent with an assessment offered by Beck (1999), “Sociology today, as throughout its history, is not unified. . . . we have never been able to sustain . . . unanimity and consistency for very long. Thank goodness” (p. 121).

Perhaps we do not engage in “normal science,” at least not in the sense that Thomas Kuhn ([1962] 1970) refers to it. That is, academic sociologists continue to function quite well even though they are outside the single frame of reference that usually serves as the paradigmatic foundation for the physical sciences. Normal science is rigid, but it is also burdened by uncertainty and inconsistency, as Friedrichs (1970) observes. In the case of sociology, this is found in the diversity of theoretical models and topical areas. Although some analysts lament the current state of the discipline, Jacobs (2004) recently observed that “some might view this diversity [of topics] as evidence of excessive fragmentation, (but) there are important theoretical connections” (p. v). Of course, the substance of manuscripts submitted for possible publication, the rubrics under which the research can be categorized, is quite different from the search for a common sociological paradigm. To wit, classic studies do exist, but none serve to forge a single paradigm. Thus, the future of the discipline will depend, as usual, on the contributions of those who may be relatively silent in the wake of less-than-acceptable “scholarship,” as suggested by Lewis (1999), but who nonetheless commit themselves to excellence by producing significant contributions to theory and application (see, e.g., Rossi 1999) that should, in the long run, counter the myriad productions that are less significant. Concomitant with this effort will be an increased awareness of and involvement in the applied and an earnest effort to again be a viable force in the policy-related aspects of sociology and society. In other words, we believe there will be a reawakening of and involvement in those aspects of sociology that served the discipline well during its early years of development in the United States (see Ross 1936) even as the applied social work-oriented practitioners broke away to form their own professional association (Odum 1951; Rossi 1999). Indeed, there exists a need for answers to myriad policy-oriented questions as well as applied concerns at all governmental levels.

But in the end, sociologists may, as Beck (1999:123) suggests, go where they go, where they want to go. This may again mean that sociologists will abandon important areas of inquiry that they helped to establish, leaving the sociological legacy to others. Sociologists will also move to create other areas of inquiry while questioning past and present assumptions and knowledge claims in an ongoing quest to better understand social arrangements and to engage in, as Beck (1999) observes, “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the sociological imagination” (p. 124). To this we can add the quest to establish the meaning of social justice in a rapidly changing democratic society.

Thus, contrary to dubious predictions of an ominous obscure future, the content of this Handbook attests to a much more positive and grand future orientation within the discipline that will include much more than the rigorous efforts to clean up conceptual problems that sociologists are supposedly noted for. Moreover, the epistemological debates of the past will undoubtedly continue as Turner (2001) and Best (2003) suggest, but in so doing, the future of academic sociology will again be broadened. This expansion will again, we think, involve the applied aspects of the discipline and engagement of the public through active involvement of sociologists in the four traditional areas—namely, through a public sociology with an emphasis on further development of the profession and a critical civic activism with the intent to broadly influence social policy. Moreover, the increasing influence of European sociology in the global community will undoubtedly continue; this influence is not only important, it is most welcome. Given the above, it may well be that another call to arms will result. There has been a movement, albeit a small movement, among highly regarded intellectuals (the National Association of Scholars) to enhance the substance and quality of academic teaching and scholarly activity. This, too, is welcome in sociology.

The world that engages a scientist, as noted by Friedrichs (1970), is one that emerges from a scientific tradition, along with its special vocabulary and grammar and environment. Sociology’s laboratory is the social world and on occasion its practitioners are criticized by those who argue the arcane nature of all that is considered scientific. If the normal science, as described by Thomas Kuhn ([1962] 1970) and Robert W. Friedrichs (1970), is to be realized within the discipline of sociology, then it may depend on efforts of young sociologists (see, e.g., Frickel and Gross 2005) who may capture the essence of such a paradigm in a general theory of scientific/intellectual movements. Such work may also serve to stimulate more thought as to the requisite initiatives essential for subsequently developing the kind of intellectual movement that will define once again, and actively promote, the substance of the sociological perspective.

If the emphasis of American sociology at the beginning of the twentieth century was unsophisticated, armchair science that “featured the study of general society and the ‘system’ of social theory, it reflected not only the almost universal philosophical approach but also the consistency of the best minds in interaction with European philosophy and American higher education” (Odum 1951:421–22). In the mid-twentieth century, sociology, similar to other social and physical sciences, struggled to determine whether the future of the discipline would continue to pursue a general systems theory of society or whether the discipline’s practitioners would develop more theory and then relate these theories to research and the scientific method (Odum 1951:422). At this critical midpoint of the century past, and in recognition of the importance of the discipline, Odum (1951) wrote that there is

the extraordinary need in the contemporary world for a social science to seek special knowledge of human society and welfare and meet the crises brought on by science and technology, so often out of perspective to human relations, and so to provide the basis for not only a social morale in an age of science but for societal survival as well. (P. 3)

At the end of the twentieth century, these comments rang clear, and as we move forward and well into the greater twenty-first-century experience, Odum’s words seem no less germane today than in the past.

Toward establishing the prospects for the future of this great academic discipline, we hasten to add how critical it is and will be to again acknowledge the important work of the founding mothers and fathers of sociology. Thus, at the end of the twentieth century, the state of sociology may have been debatable, but during the initial decades of the twenty-first century, sociologists will undoubtedly take up the challenge to pursue answers to vexing social problems that are, as Fine (2006:14–15) states, embedded with complex, dynamic, interconnected social systems. Some of the solutions to be tendered in the near future may not serve well the needs of all citizens, but these should nonetheless address policy issues relating to social freedom, social justice, and social equality while recognizing that such policies determine the behavior of those actors whom sociologists are intent to study. Herein American sociologists may now have achieved the requisite disciplinary maturity to employ the kind of sociological imagination envisioned by C. Wright Mills (1959) half a century ago. Such a sociology would, in the tradition of Europe, encompass a biography and history within society, thereby allowing sociology to represent not only a scientific enterprise but also to serve as a sensitizing discipline that allows us to continue to view the world in a new and interpretive fashion.

Finally, in some peculiar ways, the vexing problems that capture our attention during the early portion of the twenty-first century parallel those of the early twentieth century; this is true at all levels of society and perhaps even more so within those sectors that heretofore were barricaded from a critical analyses. The actors may have changed but, in general, the public concerns regarding the kinds of behavior tolerated and considered to be appropriate tend to remain the same. And as the moral entrepreneurs of the twenty-first century push their agendas, the new prohibitionist movements continue to capture the attention of policymakers, which may of necessity be cause for some sociologists at least to revisit many of the same topics that held sway in the past. Thus, we will continue to use templates in our lives to understand the world, physical and social, in which we exist. The sociological templates derived from the many conceptual constructs available provide us with a unique and perceptive perspective. As sociology further develops, new conceptual constructs will be added and will contribute to its unique perspective, thereby enhancing our ability to better analyze and understand human social behavior.


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research report in sociology

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Analyzing a Scholarly Journal Article
  • Group Presentations
  • Dealing with Nervousness
  • Using Visual Aids
  • Grading Someone Else's Paper
  • Types of Structured Group Activities
  • Group Project Survival Skills
  • Leading a Class Discussion
  • Multiple Book Review Essay
  • Reviewing Collected Works
  • Writing a Case Analysis Paper
  • Writing a Case Study
  • About Informed Consent
  • Writing Field Notes
  • Writing a Policy Memo
  • Writing a Reflective Paper
  • Writing a Research Proposal
  • Generative AI and Writing
  • Acknowledgments

The purpose of a field report in the social sciences is to describe the deliberate observation of people, places, and/or events and to analyze what has been observed in order to identify and categorize common themes in relation to the research problem underpinning the study. The content represents the researcher's interpretation of meaning found in data that has been gathered during one or more observational events.

Flick, Uwe. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Collection . London: SAGE Publications, 2018; Lofland, John, David Snow, Leon Anderson, and Lyn H. Lofland. Analyzing Social Settings: A Guide to Qualitative Observation and Analysis. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2022; Baker, Lynda. "Observation: A Complex Research Method." Library Trends 55 (Summer 2006): 171-189.; Kellehear, Allan. The Unobtrusive Researcher: A Guide to Methods . New York: Routledge, 2020.

How to Approach Writing a Field Report

How to Begin

Field reports are most often assigned in disciplines of the applied social sciences [e.g., social work, anthropology, gerontology, criminal justice, education, law, the health care services] where it is important to build a bridge of relevancy between the theoretical concepts learned in the classroom and the practice of actually doing the work you are being taught to do. Field reports are also common in certain science disciplines [e.g., geology] but these reports are organized differently and serve a different purpose than what is described below.

Professors will assign a field report with the intention of improving your understanding of key theoretical concepts by applying methods of careful and structured observation of, and reflection about, people, places, or phenomena existing in their natural settings. Field reports facilitate the development of data collection techniques and observation skills and they help you to understand how theory applies to real world situations. Field reports are also an opportunity to obtain evidence through methods of observing professional practice that contribute to or challenge existing theories.

We are all observers of people, their interactions, places, and events; however, your responsibility when writing a field report is to conduct research based on data generated by the act of designing a specific study, deliberate observation, synthesis of key findings, and interpretation of their meaning.

When writing a field report you need to:

  • Systematically observe and accurately record the varying aspects of a situation . Always approach your field study with a detailed protocol about what you will observe, where you should conduct your observations, and the method by which you will collect and record your data.
  • Continuously analyze your observations . Always look for the meaning underlying the actions you observe. Ask yourself: What's going on here? What does this observed activity mean? What else does this relate to? Note that this is an on-going process of reflection and analysis taking place for the duration of your field research.
  • Keep the report’s aims in mind while you are observing . Recording what you observe should not be done randomly or haphazardly; you must be focused and pay attention to details. Enter the observation site [i.e., "field"] with a clear plan about what you are intending to observe and record in relation to the research problem while, at the same time, being prepared to adapt to changing circumstances as they may arise.
  • Consciously observe, record, and analyze what you hear and see in the context of a theoretical framework . This is what separates data gatherings from reporting. The theoretical framework guiding your field research should determine what, when, and how you observe and act as the foundation from which you interpret your findings in relation to the underlying assumptions embedded in the theoretical framework .

Techniques to Record Your Observations Although there is no limit to the type of data gathering techniques you can use, these are the most frequently used methods:

Note Taking This is the most common and easiest method of recording your observations. Tips for taking notes include: organizing some shorthand symbols beforehand so that recording basic or repeated actions does not impede your ability to observe, using many small paragraphs, which reflect changes in activities, who is talking, etc., and, leaving space on the page so you can write down additional thoughts and ideas about what’s being observed, any theoretical insights, and notes to yourself that are set aside for further investigation. See drop-down tab for additional information about note-taking.

Photography With the advent of smart phones, an almost unlimited number of high quality photographs can be taken of the objects, events, and people observed during a field study. Photographs can help capture an important moment in time as well as document details about the space where your observation takes place. Taking a photograph can save you time in documenting the details of a space that would otherwise require extensive note taking. However, be aware that flash photography could undermine your ability to observe unobtrusively so assess the lighting in your observation space; if it's too dark, you may need to rely on taking notes. Also, you should reject the idea that photographs represent some sort of "window into the world" because this assumption creates the risk of over-interpreting what they show. As with any product of data gathering, you are the sole instrument of interpretation and meaning-making, not the object itself. Video and Audio Recordings Video or audio recording your observations has the positive effect of giving you an unfiltered record of the observation event. It also facilitates repeated analysis of your observations. This can be particularly helpful as you gather additional information or insights during your research. However, these techniques have the negative effect of increasing how intrusive you are as an observer and will often not be practical or even allowed under certain circumstances [e.g., interaction between a doctor and a patient] and in certain organizational settings [e.g., a courtroom]. Illustrations/Drawings This does not refer to an artistic endeavor but, rather, refers to the possible need, for example, to draw a map of the observation setting or illustrating objects in relation to people's behavior. This can also take the form of rough tables, charts, or graphs documenting the frequency and type of activities observed. These can be subsequently placed in a more readable format when you write your field report. To save time, draft a table [i.e., columns and rows] on a separate piece of paper before an observation if you know you will be entering data in that way.

NOTE:   You may consider using a laptop or other electronic device to record your notes as you observe, but keep in mind the possibility that the clicking of keys while you type or noises from your device can be obtrusive, whereas writing your notes on paper is relatively quiet and unobtrusive. Always assess your presence in the setting where you're gathering the data so as to minimize your impact on the subject or phenomenon being studied.

ANOTHER NOTE:   Techniques of deliberate observation and data gathering are not innate skills; they are skills that must be learned and practiced in order to achieve proficiency. Before your first observation, practice the technique you plan to use in a setting similar to your study site [e.g., take notes about how people choose to enter checkout lines at a grocery store if your research involves examining the choice patterns of unrelated people forced to queue in busy social settings]. When the act of data gathering counts, you'll be glad you practiced beforehand.

YET ANOTHER NOTE:   An issue rarely discussed in the literature about conducting field research is whether you should move around the study site while observing or remaining situated in one place. Moving around can be intrusive, but it facilitates observing people's behavior from multiple vectors. However, if you remain in one place throughout the observation [or during each observation], you will eventually blend into the background and diminish the chance of unintentionally influencing people's behavior. If the site has a complex set of interactions or interdependent activities [e.g., a play ground], consider moving around; if the study site is relatively fixed [e.g., a classroom], then consider staying in one place while observing.

Examples of Things to Document While Observing

  • Physical setting . The characteristics of an occupied space and the human use of the place where the observation(s) are being conducted.
  • Objects and material culture . This refers to the presence, placement, and arrangement of objects that impact the behavior or actions of those being observed. If applicable, describe the cultural artifacts representing the beliefs [i.e., the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions] of the individuals you are observing [e.g., the choice of particular types of clothing in the observation of family gatherings during culturally specific holidays].
  • Use of language . Don't just observe but  listen to what is being said, how is it being said, and the tone of conversations among participants.
  • Behavior cycles . This refers to documenting when and who performs what behavior or task and how often they occur. Record at which stage this behavior is occurring within the setting.
  • The order in which events unfold . Note sequential patterns of behavior or the moment when actions or events take place and their significance. Also, be prepared to note moments that diverge from these sequential patterns of behavior or actions.
  • Physical characteristics of subjects. If relevant, document personal characteristics of individuals being observed. Note that, unless this data can be verified in interviews or from documentary evidence, you should only focus on characteristics that can be clearly observed [e.g., clothing, physical appearance, body language].
  • Expressive body movements . This would include things like body posture or facial expressions. Note that it may be relevant to also assess whether expressive body movements support or contradict the language used in conversation [e.g., detecting sarcasm].

Brief notes about all of these examples contextualize your observations; however, your observation notes will be guided primarily by your theoretical framework, keeping in mind that your observations will feed into and potentially modify or alter these frameworks.

Sampling Techniques

Sampling refers to the process used to select a portion of the population for study . Qualitative research, of which observation is one method of data gathering, is generally based on non-probability and purposive sampling rather than probability or random approaches characteristic of quantitatively-driven studies. Sampling in observational research is flexible and often continues until no new themes emerge from the data, a point referred to as data saturation.

All sampling decisions are made for the explicit purpose of obtaining the richest possible source of information to answer the research questions. Decisions about sampling assumes you know what you want to observe, what behaviors are important to record, and what research problem you are addressing before you begin the study. These questions determine what sampling technique you should use, so be sure you have adequately answered them before selecting a sampling method.

Ways to sample when conducting an observation include:

  • Ad Libitum Sampling -- this approach is not that different from what people do at the zoo; they observe whatever seems interesting at the moment. There is no organized system of recording the observations; you just note whatever seems relevant at the time. The advantage of this method is that you are often able to observe relatively rare or unusual behaviors that might be missed by more deliberately designed sampling methods. This method is also useful for obtaining preliminary observations that can be used to develop your final field study. Problems using this method include the possibility of inherent bias toward conspicuous behaviors or individuals, thereby missing mundane or repeated patterns of behavior, and that you may miss brief interactions in social settings.
  • Behavior Sampling -- this involves watching the entire group of subjects and recording each occurrence of a specific behavior of interest and with reference to which individuals were involved. The method is useful in recording rare behaviors missed by other sampling methods and is often used in conjunction with focal or scan methods [see below]. However, sampling can be biased towards particular conspicuous behaviors.
  • Continuous Recording -- provides a faithful record of behavior including frequencies, durations, and latencies [the time that elapses between a stimulus and the response to it]. This is a very demanding method because you are trying to record everything within the setting and, thus, measuring reliability may be sacrificed. In addition, durations and latencies are only reliable if subjects remain present throughout the collection of data. However, this method facilitates analyzing sequences of behaviors and ensures obtaining a wealth of data about the observation site and the people within it. The use of audio or video recording is most useful with this type of sampling.
  • Focal Sampling -- this involves observing one individual for a specified amount of time and recording all instances of that individual's behavior. Usually you have a set of predetermined categories or types of behaviors that you are interested in observing [e.g., when a teacher walks around the classroom] and you keep track of the duration of those behaviors. This approach doesn't tend to bias one behavior over another and provides significant detail about a individual's behavior. However, with this method, you likely have to conduct a lot of focal samples before you have a good idea about how group members interact. It can also be difficult within certain settings to keep one individual in sight for the entire period of the observation without being intrusive.
  • Instantaneous Sampling -- this is where observation sessions are divided into short intervals divided by sample points. At each sample point the observer records if predetermined behaviors of interest are taking place. This method is not effective for recording discrete events of short duration and, frequently, observers will want to record novel behaviors that occur slightly before or after the point of sampling, creating a sampling error. Though not exact, this method does give you an idea of durations and is relatively easy to do. It is also good for recording behavior patterns occurring at a specific instant, such as, movement or body positions.
  • One-Zero Sampling -- this is very similar to instantaneous sampling, only the observer records if the behaviors of interest have occurred at any time during an interval instead of at the instant of the sampling point. The method is useful for capturing data on behavior patterns that start and stop repeatedly and rapidly, but that last only for a brief period of time. The disadvantage of this approach is that you get a dimensionless score for an entire recording session, so you only get one one data point for each recording session.
  • Scan Sampling -- this method involves taking a census of the entire observed group at predetermined time periods and recording what each individual is doing at that moment. This is useful for obtaining group behavioral data and allows for data that are evenly representative across individuals and periods of time. On the other hand, this method may be biased towards more conspicuous behaviors and you may miss a lot of what is going on between observations, especially rare or unusual behaviors. It is also difficult to record more than a few individuals in a group setting without missing what each individual is doing at each predetermined moment in time [e.g., children sitting at a table during lunch at school]. The use of audio or video recording is useful with this type of sampling.

Alderks, Peter. Data Collection. Psychology 330 Course Documents. Animal Behavior Lab. University of Washington; Emerson, Robert M. Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations . 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2001; Emerson, Robert M. et al. “Participant Observation and Fieldnotes.” In Handbook of Ethnography . Paul Atkinson et al., eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 352-368; Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes . 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Hazel, Spencer. "The Paradox from Within: Research Participants Doing-Being-Observed." Qualitative Research 16 (August 2016): 446-457; Pace, Tonio. Writing Field Reports. Scribd Online Library; Presser, Jon and Dona Schwartz. “Photographs within the Sociological Research Process.” In Image-based Research: A Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers . Jon Prosser, editor (London: Falmer Press, 1998), pp. 115-130; Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences . 5th ed. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2005; Report Writing. UniLearning. University of Wollongong, Australia; Wolfinger, Nicholas H. "On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 85-95; Writing Reports. Anonymous. The Higher Education Academy.

Structure and Writing Style

How you choose to format your field report is determined by the research problem, the theoretical framework that is driving your analysis, the observations that you make, and/or specific guidelines established by your professor. Since field reports do not have a standard format, it is worthwhile to determine from your professor what the preferred structure and organization should be before you begin to write. Note that field reports should be written in the past tense. With this in mind, most field reports in the social sciences include the following elements:

I.  Introduction The introduction should describe the research problem, the specific objectives of your research, and the important theories or concepts underpinning your field study. The introduction should describe the nature of the organization or setting where you are conducting the observation, what type of observations you have conducted, what your focus was, when you observed, and the methods you used for collecting the data. Collectively, this descriptive information should support reasons why you chose the observation site and the people or events within it. You should also include a review of pertinent literature related to the research problem, particularly if similar methods were used in prior studies. Conclude your introduction with a statement about how the rest of the paper is organized.

II.  Description of Activities

Your readers only knowledge and understanding of what happened will come from the description section of your report because they were not witnesses to the situation, people, or events that you are writing about. Given this, it is crucial that you provide sufficient details to place the analysis that will follow into proper context; don't make the mistake of providing a description without context. The description section of a field report is similar to a well written piece of journalism. Therefore, a useful approach to systematically describing the varying aspects of an observed situation is to answer the "Five W’s of Investigative Reporting." As Dubbels notes [p. 19], these are:

  • What -- describe what you observed. Note the temporal, physical, and social boundaries you imposed to limit the observations you made. What were your general impressions of the situation you were observing. For example, as a student teacher, what is your impression of the application of iPads as a learning device in a history class; as a cultural anthropologist, what is your impression of women's participation in a Native American religious ritual?
  • Where -- provide background information about the setting of your observation and, if necessary, note important material objects that are present that help contextualize the observation [e.g., arrangement of computers in relation to student engagement with the teacher].
  • When -- record factual data about the day and the beginning and ending time of each observation. Note that it may also be necessary to include background information or key events which impact upon the situation you were observing [e.g., observing the ability of teachers to re-engage students after coming back from an unannounced fire drill].
  • Who -- note background and demographic information about the individuals being observed e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, and/or any other variables relevant to your study]. Record who is doing what and saying what, as well as, who is not doing or saying what. If relevant, be sure to record who was missing from the observation.
  • Why -- why were you doing this? Describe the reasons for selecting particular situations to observe. Note why something happened. Also note why you may have included or excluded certain information.

III.  Interpretation and Analysis

Always place the analysis and interpretations of your field observations within the larger context of the theoretical assumptions and issues you described in the introduction. Part of your responsibility in analyzing the data is to determine which observations are worthy of comment and interpretation, and which observations are more general in nature. It is your theoretical framework that allows you to make these decisions. You need to demonstrate to the reader that you are conducting the field work through the eyes of an informed viewer and from the perspective of a casual observer.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when analyzing your observations:

  • What is the meaning of what you have observed?
  • Why do you think what you observed happened? What evidence do you have for your reasoning?
  • What events or behaviors were typical or widespread? If appropriate, what was unusual or out of the ordinary? How were they distributed among categories of people?
  • Do you see any connections or patterns in what you observed?
  • Why did the people you observed proceed with an action in the way that they did? What are the implications of this?
  • Did the stated or implicit objectives of what you were observing match what was achieved?
  • What were the relative merits of the behaviors you observed?
  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the observations you recorded?
  • Do you see connections between what you observed and the findings of similar studies identified from your review of the literature?
  • How do your observations fit into the larger context of professional practice? In what ways have your observations possibly changed or affirmed your perceptions of professional practice?
  • Have you learned anything from what you observed?

NOTE:   Only base your interpretations on what you have actually observed. Do not speculate or manipulate your observational data to fit into your study's theoretical framework.

IV.  Conclusion and Recommendations

The conclusion should briefly recap of the entire study, reiterating the importance or significance of your observations. Avoid including any new information. You should also state any recommendations you may have based on the results of your study. Be sure to describe any unanticipated problems you encountered and note the limitations of your study. The conclusion should not be more than two or three paragraphs.

V.  Appendix

This is where you would place information that is not essential to explaining your findings, but that supports your analysis [especially repetitive or lengthy information], that validates your conclusions, or that contextualizes a related point that helps the reader understand the overall report. Examples of information that could be included in an appendix are figures/tables/charts/graphs of results, statistics, pictures, maps, drawings, or, if applicable, transcripts of interviews. There is no limit to what can be included in the appendix or its format [e.g., a DVD recording of the observation site], provided that it is relevant to the study's purpose and reference is made to it in the report. If information is placed in more than one appendix ["appendices"], the order in which they are organized is dictated by the order they were first mentioned in the text of the report.

VI.  References

List all sources that you consulted and obtained information from while writing your field report. Note that field reports generally do not include further readings or an extended bibliography. However, consult with your professor concerning what your list of sources should be included and be sure to write them in the preferred citation style of your discipline or is preferred by your professor [i.e., APA, Chicago, MLA, etc.].

Alderks, Peter. Data Collection. Psychology 330 Course Documents. Animal Behavior Lab. University of Washington; Dubbels, Brock R. Exploring the Cognitive, Social, Cultural, and Psychological Aspects of Gaming and Simulations . Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2018; Emerson, Robert M. Contemporary Field Research: Perspectives and Formulations . 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2001; Emerson, Robert M. et al. “Participant Observation and Fieldnotes.” In Handbook of Ethnography . Paul Atkinson et al., eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), 352-368; Emerson, Robert M. et al. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes . 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Pace, Tonio. Writing Field Reports. Scribd Online Library; Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences . 5th ed. Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2005; Report Writing. UniLearning. University of Wollongong, Australia; Wolfinger, Nicholas H. "On Writing Fieldnotes: Collection Strategies and Background Expectancies.” Qualitative Research 2 (April 2002): 85-95; Writing Reports. Anonymous. The Higher Education Academy.

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research report in sociology

14.1 Reading Reports of Sociological Research

Learning objectives.

  • Identify what one can learn from an article simply by reading its abstract and its acknowledgments.
  • Describe how tables presenting causal relationships are typically presented.
  • Identify several key questions to ask when reading research reports.

By now you should have a good idea about the basic components of sociological research projects. You know how sociological research is designed, and you are familiar with how to frame a review of sociological literature. In Chapter 5 "Research Design" , we discussed the various components of a research project and presented some tips on how to review literature as you design your own research project. But I hope that you’ll find the sociological literature to be of interest and relevance to you beyond figuring out how to summarize and critique it in relation to your research plans. We sociologists like to think the research we do matters, but it cannot matter if our research reports go unread or are not understandable. In this section we’ll review some material from Chapter 5 "Research Design" regarding sociological literature and we’ll consider some additional tips for how to read and understand reports of sociological research.

As mentioned in Chapter 5 "Research Design" , reading the abstract that appears in most reports of scholarly research will provide you with an excellent, easily digestible review of a study’s major findings and of the framework the author is using to position her findings. Abstracts typically contain just a few hundred words, so reading them is a nice way to quickly familiarize yourself with a study. Another thing to look for as you set out to read and comprehend a research report is the author’s acknowledgments. Who supported the work by providing feedback or other assistance? If relevant, are you familiar with the research of those who provided feedback on the report you are about to read? Are any organizations mentioned as having supported the research in some way, either through funding or by providing other resources to the researcher? Familiarizing yourself with an author’s acknowledgments will give you additional contextual information within which to frame and understand what you are about to read.

Once you have read the abstract and acknowledgments, you could next peruse the discussion section near the end of the report, as suggested in Chapter 5 "Research Design" . You might also take a look at any tables that are included in the article. A table A tool used by researchers who wish to present large amounts of data in a succinct format. Tables are most commonly used in reports of quantitative research findings. provides a quick, condensed summary of the report’s key findings. The use of tables is not limited to one form or type of data, though they are used most commonly in quantitative research. Tables are a concise way to report large amounts of data. Some tables present descriptive information about a researcher’s sample. These tables will likely contain frequencies (N) and percentages (%). For example, if gender happened to be an important variable for the researcher’s analysis, a descriptive table would show how many and what percent of all study participants are women and how many/what percent are men. Frequencies, or “how many,” will probably be listed as N , while the percent symbol (%) might be used to indicate percentages.

In a table presenting a causal relationship, independent variable attributes are typically presented in the table’s columns, while dependent variable attributes are presented in rows. This allows the reader to scan across a table’s rows to see how values on the dependent variable attributes change as the independent variable attribute values change. Tables displaying results of quantitative analysis will also likely include some information about the strength and statistical significance of the relationships presented in the table. These details tell the reader how likely it is that the relationships presented will have occurred simply by chance.

Let’s look at a specific example. Table 14.1 "Percentage Reporting Harassing Behaviors at Work" , based on data from my study of older workers, presents the causal relationship between gender and experiencing harassing behaviors at work. In this example, gender is the independent variable and the harassing behaviors listed are the dependent variables. It wouldn’t make any sense to say that people’s workplace experiences cause their gender, so in this example, the question of which is the independent variable and which are the dependent variables has a pretty obvious answer. I have therefore placed gender in the table’s columns and harassing behaviors in the table’s rows. Reading across the table’s top row, we see that 2.9% of women in the sample reported experiencing subtle or obvious threats to their safety at work, while 4.7% of men in the sample reported the same. We can read across each of the rows of the table in this way. Reading across the bottom row, we see that 9.4% of women in the sample reported experiencing staring or invasion of their personal space at work while just 2.3% of men in the sample reported having the same experience.

Of course, we cannot assume that these patterns didn’t simply occur by chance. How confident can we be that the findings presented in the table did not occur by chance? This is where tests of statistical significance come in handy. Statistical significance A report of the likelihood that relationships observed could be caused by something other than chance. tells us the likelihood that the relationships we observe could be caused by something other than chance. While your statistics class will give you more specific details on tests of statistical significance and reading quantitative tables, the important thing to be aware of as a nonexpert reader of tables is that some of the relationships presented will be statistically significant and others may not be. Tables should provide information about the statistical significance of the relationships presented. When reading a researcher’s conclusions, be sure to pay attention to which relationships are statistically significant and which are not.

In Table 14.1 "Percentage Reporting Harassing Behaviors at Work" , you’ll see that a p value is noted in the last very column of the table. A p value A statistical measure of the probability that there is no relationship between the variables under study. is a statistical measure of the probability that there is no relationship between the variables under study. Another way of putting this is that the p value provides guidance on whether or not we should reject the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis The assumption that no relationship exists between variables in question. is simply the assumption that no relationship exists between the variables in question. In Table 14.1 "Percentage Reporting Harassing Behaviors at Work" , we see that for the first behavior listed, the p value is 0.623. This means that there is a 62.3% chance that the null hypothesis is correct in this case. In other words, it seems likely that any relationship between observed gender and experiencing threats to safety at work in this sample is simply due to chance.

In the final row of the table, however, we see that the p value is 0.039. In other words, there is a 3.9% chance that the null hypothesis is correct. Thus we can be somewhat more confident than in the preceding example that there may be some relationship between a person’s gender and his experiencing the behavior noted in this row. We might say that this finding is significant at the .05 level. This means that the probability that the relationship between gender and experiencing staring or invasion of personal space at work is due to sampling error alone is less than 5 in 100. Notice that I’m hedging my bets here by using words like somewhat and may be . When testing hypotheses, social scientists generally couch their findings in terms of rejecting the null hypothesis rather than making bold statements about the relationships observed in their tables. You can learn more about creating tables, reading tables, and tests of statistical significance in a class focused exclusively on statistical analysis. For now, I hope this brief introduction to reading tables will give you more confidence in your ability to read and understand the quantitative tables you encounter while reading reports of sociological research.

Table 14.1 Percentage Reporting Harassing Behaviors at Work

Having read the tables in a research report, along with the abstract, acknowledgments, and discussion in the report, you are finally ready to read the report in its entirety. As you read a research report, there are several questions you can ask yourself about each section, from abstract to conclusion. Those questions are summarized in Table 14.2 "Questions Worth Asking While Reading Research Reports" . Keep in mind that the questions covered here are designed to help you, the reader, to think critically about the research you come across and to get a general understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and key takeaways from a given study. I hope that by considering how you might respond to the following questions while reading research reports, you’ll feel confident that you could describe the report to others and discuss its meaning and impact with them.

Table 14.2 Questions Worth Asking While Reading Research Reports

Key Takeaways

  • In tables presenting causal relationships, the independent variable is typically presented in the table’s columns while the dependent variables are presented in the table’s rows.
  • When reading a research report, there are several key questions you should ask yourself for each section of the report.
  • Find a table in a research report of your choosing. Challenge yourself to summarize the relationships represented by the table. Check your work by reading the Findings section of the article.
  • Read a scholarly article from start to finish, answering the questions outlined in Table 14.2 "Questions Worth Asking While Reading Research Reports" as you read through each section.


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