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4.2: Is It Empirical?

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    Learning Objectives

    • Define empirical questions, and provide an example.
    • Define ethical questions, and provide an example.

    As you probably recall from Chapter 3, sociologists do, indeed, consider questions of ethics during the research process. These questions have to do with a researcher’s behavior while gathering empirical data and reporting findings. But questions about sociologists’ professional behavior are distinct from sociological research questions. When it comes to research questions, sociologists are best equipped to answer empirical questions—those that can be answered by real experience in the real world—as opposed to ethical questions—questions about which people have moral opinions and that may not be answerable in reference to the real world. While sociologists do study phenomena about which people have moral opinions, our job is to gather social facts about those phenomena, not to judge or determine morality.

    Let’s consider a specific example. Early in my senior year of college, I took a class on comparative perspectives in health care. We started in the United States and then traveled to Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to learn about how health care is administered in each country. One thing that struck me at the time was the differences in how funding for our health care system works compared to systems in the countries I visited. When I learned about how much our health care institutions depend on private donations to pay for needed equipment and facilities, I knew instantly what I would choose as the topic for a research project I had coming up that year. I wanted to learn what the most morally upstanding way to fund health care was—was it the US model or was it the European models I’d learned about?

    I returned from my trip, visited my sociology advisor, and shared my research project idea. Much to my dismay, my advisor told me my question wasn’t sociological. “Not sociological,” I asked. But sociologists study inequality, I argued, and understanding the most morally upright way of administering health care certainly had something to do with issues of inequality. True, my advisor agreed. The problem was not with my topic per se but instead with my framing of the topic. I was asking an ethical question about health care when I should be asking an empirical question. He helped me tweak my research question to make it empirical by focusing not on the comparable morality of each approach to health care but instead on the process by which health care institutions in the United States obtain funding for needed equipment and facilities. While not as sweeping or as grand as I’d originally envisioned, my advisor’s help in bringing me down to earth and helping me identify an empirical question about the topic led to a more sociological project than I might have otherwise conducted.

    Not too long ago I had another opportunity to think about the differences between ethical and empirical questions. In 2008, I was interviewed by a writer working on a piece for Marie Clairemagazine on men who are sexually harassed in the workplace by women (Voss, 2008).Voss, G. (2008, May 26). Women harassing men. Marie Claire. Retrieved from Because I had published several scholarly articles on this topic (with several wonderful collaborators), the writer wanted me to assert a position about what she viewed as a new and terrible phenomenon. While I don’t personally support the sexual harassment of anyone, woman or man, and even though I’ve been involved in the anti–sexual violence movement personally for many years, I wasn’t able to give the reporter the juicy quote about my feelings on the subject that she seemed intent on eliciting from me. Why? Because I was interviewed as a sociologist, not as a concerned member of the community. What I was able to talk about were the empirical findings from my research, including the finding that the stigma of reporting harassment can be quite high for men because of the cultural stereotype that men enjoy any and all forms of sexual attention.

    In order to help you better understand the difference between ethical and empirical questions, let’s consider a topic about which people have moral opinions. How about SpongeBob SquarePants?Not familiar with SpongeBob SquarePants? You can learn more about him on Nickelodeon’s site dedicated to all things SpongeBob: In early 2005, members of the conservative Christian group Focus on the FamilyFocus on the Family. (2005, January 26). Focus on SpongeBob. Christianity Today. Retrieved from denounced this seemingly innocuous cartoon character as “morally offensive” because they perceived his character to be one that promotes a “progay agenda.” Focus on the Family supported their claim that SpongeBob is immoral by citing his appearance in a children’s video designed to promote tolerance of all family forms (BBC News, 2005).BBC News. (2005, January 20). US right attacks SpongeBob video. Retrieved from They also cited SpongeBob’s regular hand-holding with his male sidekick Patrick as further evidence of his immorality.

    So can we now conclude that SpongeBob SquarePants is immoral? Not so fast. While your mother or a newspaper or television reporter may provide an answer, a sociologist cannot. Questions of morality are ethical, not empirical. Of course, this doesn’t mean that sociologists and other social scientists cannot study opinions about or social meanings surrounding SpongeBob SquarePants (Carter, 2010).In fact, a recent MA thesis examines representations of gender and relationships in the cartoon: Carter, A. C. (2010). Constructing gender and relationships in “SpongeBob SquarePants”: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea. MA thesis, Department of Communication, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL. In fact, sociologists may be among the most qualified to gather empirical facts about people’s moral opinions. We study humans after all, and as you will discover in the following chapters of this text, we are trained to utilize a variety of scientific data-collection techniques to understand patterns of human beliefs and behaviors. Using these techniques, we could find out how many people in the United States find SpongeBob morally reprehensible, but we could never learn, empirically, whether SpongeBob is in fact morally reprehensible.


    • Empirical questions are distinct from ethical questions.
    • There are usually a number of ethical questions and a number of empirical questions that could be asked about any single topic.
    • While sociologists may study topics about which people have moral opinions, their job is to gather empirical data about the social world.


    1. Think of some topic that interests you. Pose one ethical question about that topic. Now pose an empirical question about the same topic.
    2. Read a few news articles about any controversial topic that interests you (e.g., immigration, gay marriage, health care reform, terrorism, welfare). Make a note of the ethical points or questions that are raised in the articles and compare them to the empirical points or questions that are mentioned. Which do you find most compelling? Why?

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