- Define starting where you are, and describe how it works.
- Identify and describe two overarching questions researchers should ask themselves about where they already are.
Do you like to watch movies? Do you have a pet that you care about? Do you wonder what you and your peers might do with your degrees once you’ve finished college? Do you wonder how many people on your campus have heard of the BP oil spill of 2010, how many know that Barack Obama is our president, or how many know that their tuition may be raised by 20% next year? Have you ever felt that you were treated differently at work because of your gender? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may have just the sort of intellectual curiosity required to conduct a sociological research project.
The preceding questions are all real questions that real sociology students have asked—and answered—in a research methods class just like the one that you are currently taking. In some cases, these students knew they had a keen interest in a topic before beginning their research methods class. For example, BethAll student names are pseudonyms. was a sociology and political science double major who wanted to know what her peers really knew about current events. Did they know about national events, such as the results of the most recent presidential election? Did they know about disasters that could affect their plans to enjoy the surf on the west coast of Florida over the summer? Did they know that local papers were reporting rumors of a tuition hike that could change their own ability to pay the rent? Matt, a sociology major, also started off with an interest in a focused topic. He had begun to worry about what he would do with his sociology degree when he graduated, and so he designed a project to learn more about what other sociology majors did and planned to do.
In other cases, students did not start out with a specific interest linked to their academic pursuits, but these students, too, were able to identify research topics worthy of investigation. These students knew, for example, how they enjoyed spending their free time. Perhaps at first these students didn’t realize that they could identify and answer a sociological research question about their hobbies, but they certainly learned that they could once they had done a little brainstorming. For example, Dirk enjoyed reading about and watching movies, so he conducted a project on the relationship between movie reviews and movie success. Sarah, who enjoyed spending time with her pet cat, designed a project to learn more about animal–human relationships.
Even students who claimed to have “absolutely no interests whatsoever” usually discovered that they could come up with a sociological research question simply by stepping back, taking a bird’s eye view of their daily lives, and identifying some interesting patterns there. This was the case for Allison, who made some remarkable discoveries about her restaurant job, where she had applied to work as a cook but was hired to work as a waitress. When Allison realized that all the servers at the restaurant were women and all the cooks were men, she began to wonder whether employees had been assigned different roles based on their gender identities. Allison’s epiphany led her to investigate how jobs and workplace stereotypes are gendered. Like Allison, Teresa also struggled to identify a research topic. Her academic experiences had not inspired any specific research interests, and when asked about hobbies, Teresa claimed to have none. When asked what really annoys her, it occurred to Teresa that she resented the amount of time her friends spent watch and discussing the reality television show The Bachelor. This realization led Teresa to her own aha moment: She would investigate who watches reality television and why.
In each of these cases, students did what sociologists refer to as starting where you are, an idea eloquently described in previous research methods texts by John and Lyn Lofland (1995)Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (1995). Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis(3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. and by Kristin Esterberg (2002; MacLeod, 2008).Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill; for a superb account of starting where you already are, see the appendix (On the making of Ain’t no makin’ it) in Jay MacLeod’s book, Ain’t no makin’ it. Incidentally, the research on which MacLeod’s book is based began as his undergraduate sociology thesis. MacLeod, J. (2008). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Whether it was thinking about a question they’d had for some time, identifying a question about their own interests and hobbies, or taking a look at patterns in their everyday life, every student in these research methods classes managed both to identify a sociological research question that was of interest to them and to collect data to help answer that question. In this chapter we’ll focus on how to identify possible topics for study, how to make your topic sociological, how to phrase your interest as a research question, and how to get started once you have identified that question. In later chapters, we’ll learn more about how to actually answer the questions you will have developed by the time you finish this chapter.
Once you have identified where you already are, there are two overarching questions you need to ask yourself: how do you feel about where you already are, and what do you know about where you already are?
How Do You Feel About Where You Already Are?
Once you have figured out where you already are (perhaps not spiritually—we sociologists can’t help you there—but in terms of your interests and everyday activities), your next task is to ask yourself some important questions about the interest you’ve identified. Your answers to these questions will help you decide whether your topic is one that will really work for a sociological research project.
Whether you begin by already having an interest in some topic or you decide you want to study something related to one of your hobbies or your everyday experiences, chances are good that you already have some opinions about your topic. As such, there are a few questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you should try to turn this topic into a research project.
Start by asking yourself how you feel about your topic. Be totally honest, and ask yourself whether you believe your perspective is the only valid one. Perhaps yours isn’t the only perspective, but do you believe it is the wisest one? The most practical one? How do you feel about other perspectives on this topic? If you feel so strongly that certain findings would upset you or that either you would design a project to get only the answer you believe to be the best one or you might feel compelled to cover up findings that you don’t like, then you need to choose a different topic. For example, one student wanted to find out whether there was any relationship between intelligence and political party affiliation. He was certain from the beginning that the members of his party were without a doubt the most intelligent. His strong opinion was not in and of itself the problem. However, the rage that he expressed when he was asked to consider how he might feel if he found that the opposing party’s members were more intelligent than those of his party, combined with his utter refusal to grant that it was even a possibility, led him to decide that the topic was probably too near and dear for him to use it to conduct unbiased research.
Of course, just because you feel strongly about a topic does not mean that you should not study it. Sometimes the best topics to research are those about which you do feel strongly. What better way to stay motivated than to study something that you care about? I recently began a study of child-free adults—people who have made the explicit and intentional choice not to have or rear children—precisely because I’m a child-free adult myself.
Although I have strong opinions about my own child-free status, I also feel OK about having those ideas challenged. In fact, for me one of the most rewarding things about studying a topic that is relevant to my own life is learning new perspectives that had never occurred to me before collecting data on the topic. I believe that my own perspective is pretty solid, but I can also accept that other people will have perspectives that differ from my own. And I am certainly willing to report the variety of perspectives that I discover as I collect data on my topic.
If you feel prepared to accept all findings, even those that may be unflattering to or distinct from your personal perspective, then perhaps you should intentionally study a topic about which you have strong feelings. Sociology professor Kathleen Blee (2002)Blee, K. (2002). Inside organized racism: Women and men of the hate movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; Blee, K. (1991). Women of the klan: Racism and gender in the 1920s. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.has taken this route in her research. Blee studies hate movement participants, people whose racist ideologies she studies but does not share. You can read her accounts of this research in two of her most well-known publications, Inside Organized Racism and Women of the Klan. Blee’s research is successful because she was willing to report her findings and observations honestly, even those with which she may have personally taken strong issue. However, if, after honest reflection, you decide that you cannot accept or share with others findings with which you disagree, then you should study a topic about which you feel less strongly.
What Do You Know About Where You Already Are?
Whether or not you feel strongly about your topic, you will also want to consider what you already know about it. There are many ways we know what we know. Perhaps your mother told you something is so. Perhaps it came to you in a dream. Perhaps you took a class last semester and learned something about your topic there. Or you may have read something about your topic in your local newspaper or in People magazine. Maybe you saw a special on Dateline NBC or heard Snookie discussing the topic with her friends on Jersey Shore. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses associated with some of these different sources of knowledge in Chapter 1 "Introduction", and we’ll talk about other sources of knowledge, such as prior research, a little later on. For now, take some time to think about what you know about your topic from any and all possible sources. Thinking about what you already know will help you identify any biases you may have, and it will help as you begin to frame a question about your topic.
- Many researchers choose topics by considering their own personal experiences, knowledge, and interests.
- Researchers should be aware of and forthcoming about any strong feelings they might have about their research topics.
- There are benefits and drawbacks associated with studying a topic about which you already have some prior knowledge or experience. Researchers should be aware of and consider both.
- Do some brainstorming to try to identify some potential topics of interest. What have been your favorite classes in college thus far? What did you like about them? What did you learn in them? What extracurricular activities are you involved in? How do you enjoy spending your time when nobody is telling you what you should be doing?
- Check out the website thesocietypages.org. This site summarizes work published in Contexts, sociology’s public interest magazine. It also includes links to recent news stories featuring sociological work and a number of sociological insights that are likely to be of general interest. If you are having trouble identifying a topic of interest, this site could be of help.
Learn how other sociologists have started where they are by reading their blogs. A few worth reading include the following:
- Sociological Images: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages
- Sociology Improv: http://thesocietypages.org/improv
- Public Criminology: http://thesocietypages.org/pubcrim
- Sexuality and Society: http://thesocietypages.org/sexuality
- Marx in Drag: http://marxindrag.com/Marxindrag/Blog/Blog.html
- The Sociological Imagination: http://thesociologicalimagination.com
- Scatterplot: http://scatter.wordpress.com