The Research Process and Stages of Social Research

Social research is the act of gathering data that can help a person to answer questions about the various aspects of society. These questions can be generalized, or very specific in terms of the problems.

The research methods, such as surveys and experiments have a major impact on society through their findings. They are increasingly being used outside of the social sciences, in the other sectors of the society. For example– surveys being conducted to determine proper voting hours in presidential elections. Traditionally, there were two ways of determining voting hours. The scientist would develop a theory concerning the voting hours that would best meet the goals of democracy, and then the survey could be used to gather data for testing the theory. This was one way. The other way could be by conducting surveys to directly ask people when it would be most convenient for them to vote, and to open polls at those hours to ensure a maximum number of voters.

In the presidential elections of 1980, the surveys turned out to have a beneficial impact on the voting pattern. Surveys that were conducted by major television networks showed that Ronald Regan was ahead of president carter. As a result, Carter conceded, and some of the potential voters believed that their vote would not play a part in the outcome of the election. There was a difference of three hours in the closing of east coast polls and the west coast polls. Therefore, there was the talk of closing the poll at the same time across the country. A study shows that exit polls suggest a clear winner when previously the race has been considered close.

Gathering of data is done through personal interviews of eyewitnesses and other ‘non-scientific’ manner. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 not only were widely reported by the international media, but also spawned a number of social surveys designed to gather data about not only opinions concerning the underlying cause of the riot, but a number of other matters as well.

It is not necessary that research methods, including exit polls, are always correct. For example- November 1989 exit poll in Virginia, US which accurately showed Democrat L. Douglas Wilder as the winner over the republican j. Marshall Coleman. However, there was an error of 5 percentage points between the victory, which is outside of the normally accepted standards of sampling error. The reason for the same could be the reluctance to accept that some of them were not voting for the black candidate (welder) for the fear of being labeled as racist.


The society in which we live is very complex and is needed to be understood, since, the social environment affects us just as directly and deeply as the physical environment, although in different ways. It has been relatively recent, that we have started to study the social sciences. However, there has been much less funding for social science research than for other physical sciences. One explanatory answer for this has always been that physical scientists could expect a more satisfactory result than social sciences. As a result, most of the funding was spent on the space programs and as a result, social science was so poorly developed, that it would achieve very little. But soon, due to certain world events, they recognized the importance of the study of social sciences with the physical sciences and the interdependency of the two.

A crucial question in social sciences concerns the nature of social phenomena and how they can best be understood. Different sociologists had a different perspective on it. Wilhelm Dilthey, a nineteenth-century sociologist, believed that no one can generalize or predict their actions of humans. Whereas Emile Durkheim had the opposite view. He said, that social phenomena can be generalized. According to him, there was a little difference between physical science and social science except for subject matters. Weber, however, took an intermediate approach between the two extremes and stated his view that though humans have free will, the actions are in a rational pattern, that can be predicted.

Most social scientists believed that social phenomena are orderly enough to be explained and predicted. But some believed that not all social phenomena could be explained or predicted accurately. Others believed that the phenomena contain some random element or margin of error. The social scientists agreed to the view of positivism. This means that social phenomena are considered to be objectively occurring phenomena. It came to be seen as pure science rather than applied (its task is to gather information rather than to use it), abstract rather than concrete, it does not concern itself with history, but with the generations of scientific laws.


Though different sociologists have a different point of view, they have a common goal of understanding society, and hence will have common stages of research. There are five stages of research, as discussed below. Each of the stages is dependent on the other.


The research process is in the form of a circle. After the researcher completes stage 5, and the study is found to be unsuccessful or partially successful, the researcher has to return to the early stages of the investigation, and repeat all the stages beginning with the faulty stage.


Once the research is completed and proved successful, the researcher must re-analyze all the stages of his research to ensure better accuracy of the hypothesis. But due to lack of money and funding, it usually repeats the hypothesis with few modifications. Nevertheless, research is a never-ending process, it may be proved wrong in further investigations.

Examples: density research

While all social research projects share the five basic stages, but they are very different in how they are carried out. Different approaches were carried out for the study on the effects of density on the human population. One of the studies is “population density and pathology: what are the relations for man?’ by Galle, Gove, and McPherson (1972). The other study by Griffith and Veitch (1971) is “hot and crowded: influence of population density and temperature on interpersonal affective behavior”. There is a comparison made on these studies through the five stages of research.

  1. Choosing the problem and stating the hypothesis- it is obvious, that the first step towards research is to know the subject matter and form an adequate hypothesis to formulate the hypothesis and gather facts and information.
  2. Research design– in this stage, the researcher has to decide how to measure the two main variables (density and social effects) and on what group/how many people to test the hypothesis.
  3. Gathering the data– here, people are chosen for surveys, and the data is collected. Griffith and Veitch decided to conduct a laboratory study, about the degree of aggressiveness by how well the subject like the hypothetical stranger. There was a total of 8 experimental conditions by varying density and heat of the room. Galle also performed the experiment. Persons in Griffith’s study were randomly assigned the experimental conditions. In the Galle study, data had already been collected. The researchers could not collect exactly the data they wanted but had to use whatever was available in the factbook
  4. Coding and analyzing the data– through analyzing the data, Griffith and Veitch concluded, that high density increases the tendency of people to dislike one another. Density analysis was more complicated in the Galle study since there were many confounding factors that might affect the relationship between density and pathology.
  5. Interpreting the result and testing the hypothesis– Griffith and Veitch found evidence to support the hypothesis. Now the next step was to replicate the study, make some changes or conduct study with a larger sample of people to make sure that their finding was no fluke. The evidence in Galle’s study seemed to indicate that density does not cause pathology, but that both density level and pathology level vary with social class. They left the hypothesis unchanged and revised the study. They found that when density is measured by persons per room, there is a relation between density and pathology, hence the hypothesis was supported.


Bailey, K. (1994). The Research Process in Methods of social research. Simon and Schuster, 4th ed. The Free Press, New York 10020. Pp.3 -19

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Sabnam, pursuing Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University hails from the land of red River, Assam. She is a pure non-realist, because, as she puts it, "reality hurts and pain is not what I endure but what I pour into paper!".