How and Why We Study Families

Elizabeth B. Pearce

Families and are of great interest to all of us.  We all have a family, whether or not that family meets the definitions of family that are common in the United States.  Paul Amato separates the definition of family into the “objective” and the “subjective”.[1] The objective definitions are often provided by governmental structures. Employers, schools and agencies also rely on these definitions.

Subjective definitions are both richer in context and more complicated to explain.  We can define for ourselves whom we consider to be family members. When we are discussing equity and families we must attend to the subjective definitions.  Because it is only by measuring the experiences of all families in the United States (whether or not they are sanctioned or favored by programs and societal preferences) that we can really perceive how privilege, power, and affect families

We study families in order to better understand ourselves.  When we can see our own family within the greater context of the experiences of other families and societal influences and trends, we understand ourselves better.  Being able to relate your own experiences to these greater forces and interactions with the world is called the .  C Wright Mills created this term in 1959 in order to help explain the ways that the field of sociology contributes to both everyday life and academia.[2]  Throughout this course and this text you will be given opportunities to develop your sociological imagination.  Ask yourself how your own family’s experiences relate to the broad trends and events in this country.  Where do you fit?  Or find yourself as an outlier, differing from other members of your family, social group, or society?

We also study families in order to better understand other families and society. In this way we recognize both the uniqueness of each family and the ways in which groups share identities and experiences. Let’s say that you feel familiar with the experience of a rural student family, because you are a student and you live in a rural community.  You may be able to speak very eloquently to the challenges students are facing today, and what living in a rural setting means about your access to education, medical care, healthy food, and transportation.  At the same time, you cannot speak for all rural student families, because every family has a unique history and set of circumstances that also affects their lives. So part of your job in studying families is to listen and understand how those other rural student families experience life, what their strengths are, and what they need.

Simultaneously we study families in this class to understand the circumstances and experiences of families that we have never met. It’s even more important to to and understand families whom we might see as quite different from us. You might easily see the differences between a family that has emigrated to the United States in the past ten years as compared to a family made up of people who have lived in the United States for several generations.  Could you imagine living in a country that uses a different language than you grew up speaking? Or visa versa? While we might quickly identify those kinds of differences, we need to study more deeply to understand at least two other themes: how our families share similar love, goals, and needs and how our families may be treated differently by the institutions and the society of the United States.  The greater our ability to comprehend each other’s experiences, the more likelihood we will be able to better understand how families are similar in what they need and what they do, and what the differences are amongst what families experience in the United States.

We study families to make a difference in our everyday lives: to better understand our own families, our neighbors, and our friends.  Studying families also helps us in our work lives. All of us will work with a diverse group of individuals, all of whom have families.  Whether you are a teacher who influences the next generation, a business owner who coordinates benefits for your employees, a marketing director who designs advertising campaigns, a computer programmer who creates code, or a social worker who helps people solve life problems, you will both work alongside a group of diverse individuals who have families, and you will have clients, consumers, or customers who are members of this diverse country, the United States.

Research

Much of what we know about families and comes from research conducted in the United States and in other countries.  In order to be a critical consumer of research, it is helpful to understand what methodologies are used, and what their strengths and limitations are.  In addition, it is useful to be aware that there are myths and beliefs that we hold because society has created and reinforced them.  When learning new information we must be prepared to question our own long-held beliefs in order to incorporate greater understanding. Finally, there are both concepts and theories relevant to the study of families; these will greatly enhance your deeper comprehension of the material that we explore in this text.

Sound research is an essential tool for understanding the sources, dynamics, and consequences of and possible solutions to them. Table 2.1 briefly describes the major ways in which sociologists gather information, the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Survey Many people can be included. If given to a random sample of the population, a survey’s results can be generalized to the population. Large surveys are expensive and time consuming. Although much information is gathered, this information is relatively superficial.
Experiments If random assignment is used, experiments provide fairly convincing data on cause and effect. Because experiments do not involve random samples of the population and most often involve college students, their results cannot readily be generalized to the population.
Observation (field research) Observational studies may provide rich, detailed information about the people who are observed. Because observation studies do not involve random samples of the population, their results cannot readily be generalized to the population.
Existing Data Because existing data have already been gathered, the researcher does not have to spend the time and money to gather data. The data set that is being analyzed may not contain data on all the variables in which a sociologist is interested or may contain data on variables that are not measured in ways the sociologist prefers.

Table 2.1. Advantages and disadvantages of sociological data collection methods.

Surveys

The survey is the most common method by which sociologists gather their data. The Gallup poll is perhaps the most well-known example of a survey and, like all surveys, gathers its data with the help of a questionnaire that is given to a group of respondents. The Gallup poll is an example of a survey conducted by a private organization, but sociologists do their own surveys, as does the government and many organizations in addition to Gallup. Many surveys are administered to respondents who are randomly chosen and thus constitute a random sample. In a random sample, everyone in the population (whether it be the whole US population or just the population of a state or city, all the college students in a state or city or all the students at just one college, etc.) has the same chance of being included in the survey. The beauty of a random sample is that it allows us to generalize the results of the sample to the population from which the sample comes. This means that we can be fairly sure of the behavior and attitudes of the whole US population by knowing the behavior and attitudes of just four hundred people randomly chosen from that population.

Some surveys are face-to-face surveys, in which interviewers meet with respondents to ask them questions. This type of survey can yield much information, because interviewers typically will spend at least an hour asking their questions, and a high response rate (the percentage of all people in the sample who agree to be interviewed), which is important to be able to generalize the survey’s results to the entire population. On the downside, this type of survey can be very expensive and time consuming to conduct.

Because of these drawbacks, sociologists and other researchers have turned to telephone surveys. Most Gallup polls are conducted over the telephone. Computers do random-digit dialing, which results in a random sample of all telephone numbers being selected. Although the response rate and the number of questions asked are both lower than in face-to-face surveys (people can just hang up the phone at the outset or let their answering machine take the call), the ease and low expense of telephone surveys are making them increasingly popular. Surveys done over the Internet are also becoming more popular, as they can reach many people at very low expense. A major problem with web surveys is that their results cannot necessarily be generalized to the entire population because not everyone has access to the Internet.

Surveys are used in the study of s to gather information about the behavior and attitudes of people regarding one or more problems. For example, many surveys ask people about their use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs or about their experiences of being unemployed or in poor health. Many of the chapters in this book will present evidence gathered by surveys carried out by sociologists and other social scientists, various governmental agencies, and private research and public interest firms.

Experiments

Experiments are the primary form of research in the natural and physical sciences, but in the social sciences they are for the most part found only in psychology. Some sociologists still use experiments, however, and they remain a powerful tool of social research.

The major advantage of experiments, whether they are done in the natural and physical sciences or in the social sciences, is that the researcher can be fairly sure of a cause-and-effect relationship because of the way the experiment is set up. Although many different experimental designs exist, the typical experiment consists of an experimental group and a control group, with subjects randomly assigned to either group. The researcher does something to the experimental group that is not done to the control group. If the two groups differ later in some variable, then it is safe to say that the condition to which the experimental group was subjected was responsible for the difference that resulted.

Most experiments take place in the laboratory, which for psychologists may be a room with a one-way mirror, but some experiments occur in the field, or in a natural setting (field experiments). In Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the early 1980s, sociologists were involved in a much-discussed field experiment sponsored by the federal government. The researchers wanted to see whether arresting men for domestic violence made it less likely that they would commit such violence again. To test this hypothesis, the researchers had police do one of the following after arriving at the scene of a domestic dispute: They either arrested the suspect, separated him from his wife or partner for several hours, or warned him to stop but did not arrest or separate him. The researchers then determined the percentage of men in each group who committed repeated domestic violence during the next six months and found that those who were arrested had the lowest rate of recidivism, or repeat offending[3]. This finding led many jurisdictions across the United States to adopt a policy of mandatory arrest for domestic violence suspects. However, replications of the Minneapolis experiment in other cities found that arrest sometimes reduced recidivism for domestic violence but also sometimes increased it, depending on which city was being studied and on certain characteristics of the suspects, including whether they were employed at the time of their arrest.[4]

As the Minneapolis study suggests, perhaps the most important problem with experiments is that their results are not generalizable beyond the specific subjects studied. The subjects in most psychology experiments, for example, are college students, who obviously are not typical of average Americans: They are younger, more educated, and more likely to be middle class. Despite this problem, experiments in psychology and other social sciences have given us very valuable insights into the sources of attitudes and behavior. Scholars of are increasingly using field experiments to study the effectiveness of various policies and programs aimed at addressing social problems. We will examine the results of several such experiments in the chapters ahead.

Observational Studies

Observational research, also called field research, is a staple of sociology. Sociologists have long gone into the field to observe people and social settings, and the result has been many rich descriptions and analyses of behavior in juvenile gangs, bars, urban street corners, and even whole communities.

Observational studies consist of both participant observation and nonparticipant observation. Their names describe how they differ. In participant observation, the researcher is part of the group that she or he is studying, spends time with the group, and might even live with people in the group. Several classical studies of this type exist, many of them involving people in urban neighborhoods.[5][6][7] In nonparticipant observation, the researcher observes a group of people but does not otherwise interact with them. If you went to your local shopping mall to observe, say, whether people walking with children looked happier than people without children, you would be engaging in nonparticipant observation.

Similar to experiments, observational studies cannot automatically be generalized to other settings or members of the population. But in many ways they provide a richer account of people’s lives than surveys do, and they remain an important method of research on social problems.

Existing Data

Sometimes sociologists do not gather their own data but instead analyze existing data that someone else has gathered. The US Census Bureau, for example, gathers data on all kinds of areas relevant to the lives of Americans, and many sociologists analyze census data on such social problems as poverty, unemployment, and illness. Sociologists interested in crime and the criminal justice system may analyze data from court records, while medical sociologists often analyze data from patient records at hospitals. Analysis of existing data such as these is called secondary data analysis. Its advantage to sociologists is that someone else has already spent the time and money to gather the data. A disadvantage is that the data set being analyzed may not contain data on all the topics in which a sociologist may be interested or may contain data on topics that are not measured in ways the sociologist might prefer.

The Scientific Method and Objectivity

This section began by stressing the need for sound research in the study of But what are the elements of sound research? At a minimum, such research should follow the rules of the scientific method. As you probably learned in high school and/or college science classes, these rules—formulating hypotheses, gathering and testing data, drawing conclusions, and so forth—help guarantee that research yields the most accurate and reliable conclusions possible.

An overriding principle of the scientific method is that research should be conducted as objectively as possible. Researchers are often passionate about their work, but they must take care not to let the findings they expect and even hope to uncover affect how they do their research. This in turn means that they must not conduct their research in a manner that helps achieve the results they expect to find. Such bias can happen unconsciously, and the scientific method helps reduce the potential for this bias as much as possible.

This potential is arguably greater in the social sciences than in the natural and physical sciences. The political views of chemists and physicists typically do not affect how an experiment is performed and how the outcome of the experiment is interpreted. In contrast, researchers in the social sciences, and perhaps particularly in sociology, often have strong feelings about the topics they are studying. Their social and political beliefs may thus influence how they perform their research on these topics and how they interpret the results of this research. Following the scientific method helps reduce this possible influence.

Licenses and Attributions

Open Content, Shared Previously

“Research” is adapted from “Understanding Social Problems” in Social Problems: Continuity and Change by Anonymous. License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Adaptation: edited for clarity and relevance.


  1. Amato, P. R. (2019). What is a family? National Council on Family Relations. Retrieved December 31, 2019, from https://www.ncfr.org/ncfr-report/past-issues/summer-2014/what-family
  2. Wright Mills, C. (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press. Retrieved December 31, 2019, from https://sites.middlebury.edu/utopias/files/2013/02/The-Promise.pdf
  3. Sherman, L. W., & Berk, R. A. (1984). The specific deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault. American Sociological Review, 49(2), 261. https://doi.org/10.2307/2095575
  4. Sherman, L. W. (1992). Policing domestic violence: Experiments and dilemmas. Free Press
  5. Liebow, E. (1967). Tally’s corner. Little, Brown.
  6. Liebow, E. (1993). Tell them who I am: The lives of homeless women. Free Press
  7. Whyte, W. F. (1943). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. University of Chicago Press

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How and Why We Study Families by Elizabeth B. Pearce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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