on Suicide. How do sociologists study problems?
What do sociologists actually do when they conduct research? What would you do if you were a sociologist faced with a problem or question for which you wanted more information, or a better explanation?
The usual procedure for conducting sociological research is to follow the steps of the scientific method. These steps include isolating the problem, forming a hypothesis, building a research design, collecting the data, analyzing the data collected, and making generalizations.
first step is to isolate the problem. You
may think of a problem as something that is troubling you or society.
In terms of the scientific method, however, a problem refers to
any question for which we seek an answer. It
is not necessarily a personal or social problem.
It is simply some matter about which we want to know the answer.
Sociologists usually choose to research problems that are related to
their areas of interest and their particular specialty in the field of
next step is to develop a hypothesis. In Chapter 1, we defined a hypothesis
as a tentative assumption, an untested generalization.
What is the purpose of a hypothesis?
Why waste time with assumptions and educated guesses?
The hypothesis is essential because it sets the stage for the research
and gives it direction. A hypothesis always states a relationship between two or
more situations, events, or factors. The
purpose of the research is to test the hypothesis to see if this statement of
the relationship is accurate.
third step is to build a research design.
A research design is a set of directions for research. A builder would have a hard time constructing a house without
detailed and accurate blueprints. Similarly,
a sociologist would have great difficulty in carrying out research without a
carefully built research design. To set up a research design, the sociologist must determine
the variables and how they will be measured.
The sociologist must then decide what sample will be used. Finally,
the sociologist must determine what tools and techniques to use in collecting
the data. Should observation be used?
Or the survey method? Or the
case study method?
fourth step is to collect the data accurately.
The collecting process must be done carefully to avoid error.
If the data are inaccurate, the results will be useless.
the data have been collected, the sociologist analyzes them to determine their
meaning. On the basis of the data,
the sociologist decides whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.
last step is to decide what generalizations can be made.
What can we say about the population on the basis of the sample actually
investigated? What conclusions
can we draw about the whole on the basis of examining a part?
see how a sociologist follows these steps, we can look at an actual study. A classic example of sociological research is Emile
Durkheim's study of suicide, published by the French sociologist in 1897.
Let's examine just what Durkheim did, how he did it, and what he
The Proble m
Durkheim's France, as in societies today, the question of suicide was one of
great popular concern. For suicide
represents a problem. It raises not
only specific questions for the relatives and friends of the victims, but also
larger questions of causation. Why
do people commit suicide? Why
don't some people do it? Why
does the rate of suicide vary from place to place?
Durkheim noted that suicide rates differed, depending on the society and
the conditions. He felt that
differences in the rates of suicides suggested that more than individual
factors were operating. He thought
that suicide must reflect changes in social or environmental circumstances.
The problem was to discover the nature of these circumstances and their
first explored the current explanations for suicide.
One explanation was that suicide resulted from individual psychological
conditions. Another explanation
assigned the cause of suicide to factors in the natural environment, such as the
time of year, the climate, or the temperature. After examining case histories and statistical records,
however, Durkheim concluded that such explanations were not adequate.
In investigating individual psychological conditions, he found that
though many of the people who committed suicide were mentally ill, many others
were not. Furthermore, no one
type of mental illness was always associated with suicide.
Neither could he find a clear relationship between alcoholic consumption,
or between age, race, or sex, and the suicide rate.
such forces as seasonal variation and climate did not cause suicide.
When Durkheim separated these environmental factors, he could find no
meaningful relationship between them and the suicide rate.
For example, if warm weather increased the number of social interactions,
and the suicide rate was affected, the important factor was the increased social
interactions and not the warmer weather.
observing available evidence and using reason and common sense, then, Durkheim
arrived at his hypothesis that the basic causes of suicide were social in
nature. It seemed to him that the
main determinants of suicide were such social factors as religion, marital
status, and the pace of social change. He
therefore hypothesized that the degree of social attachment, or the lack of
it, explained the variations in the suicide rate.
The Research Design
test his hypothesis, Durkheim reasoned that he would need statistics on the
number of suicides in given areas at given times.
To be able to talk about the rate of suicide, he would also need
accurate figures for the total population of these areas.
Furthermore, he would need all these statistics from a variety of
places. Then he could make
comparisons between the suicide rate and different social conditions.
found that most of the European countries, as well as the United States, had
relatively accurate statistics on the number of suicides, who committed them,
and the total population. All Durkheim had to do was to get at these already
existing sources of information.
comparing the suicide rates of Protestants and Catholics, of urban and rural
areas, and so on, Durkheim could test his hypothesis.
He could find out if the degree of social attachment determined the rate
of suicide, and if suicide was, therefore, a social phenomenon.
and Analyzing the Data Building a research design and collecting data are
closely related. What Durkheim
found was that the data he collected did seem to fit a pattern, and that this
pattern confirmed his hypothesis.
found, for example, that the suicide rates were higher among Protestants than
among Catholics. This was so even
when he allowed for other differences in the social climate that may have
affected the suicide rate. In other
words, he did not simply compare the rates of Protestant countries with Catholic
ones. Instead, he carefully compared Protestant and Catholic
villages within a single area, Bavaria, and still found important differences in
the suicide rates.
taking other factors into account, he found that single people had higher
suicide rates than married ones. Married
but childless people had higher suicide rates than people with children.
City dwellers had higher suicide rates than people living in rural areas. Men had higher suicide rates than women.
And soldiers had a higher suicide rate than civilians.
his evidence, Durkheim concluded that the suicide rate was determined by the
degree of social attachment. He
discovered, however, that the relationship was a complex one.
Suicide seemed to result from both unusually high levels and unusually
low levels of social attachment. From his findings, he was able to generalize
that there were three basic types of suicide: altruistic, egoistic, and anomic.
suicide occurs when the degree
of attachment of the individual to the society is very great.
It is not always defined by the society as suicide.
Rather, the, individuals may be regarded as heroes.
This would be the case with soldiers who volunteer for a dangerous
mission, in which they are likely to lose their lives, out of zeal for and
devotion to their country.
suicide, on the other hand,
results from a lack of attachment of the individual to the society.
The less integrated into society individuals are, and the more they must
depend on their own egos or selves, the more likely they are to commit suicide.
He found Protestants, who make more theological decisions on their own
than Catholics and are therefore less attached to their society, have a higher
suicide rate than Catholics. In
the same-manner single people, city dwellers, and men have higher suicide
rates than married people, rural people, and women.
They tend to have fewer attachments and responsibilities, more social
freedom, and more dependence on their own egos.
suicide, like egoistic
suicidal occurs because the individual is forced to make decisions without any
strong social attachments. However,
in anomic suicide the individual is unattached because the whole society is
undergoing rapid change and the old rules no longer seem to apply. Anomic
means normlessness. Anomic suicide
occurs during periods of uncertainty, such as times of crisis, revolution, or
But it is not Durkheim's conclusions that interest us so much as the
steps of his sociological research. His
work is an example of a clear, simple, yet thorough application of scientific
procedures. Other sociologists
continue to use his study of suicide as a model for their own work to this day.
Further reading on the subject may be found at: