Lecture 2: Science, Paradigms, Theory and Research

Welcome Back!

Welcome to the second online lecture for SSC 320, the Research Methods in Social Science course at the University of Maine at Augusta.  Please be sure to participate fully, reading and thinking about each written passage, image, activity and video you see below.  At the top of this lecture is a “Padlet,” an open space for you to ask any questions you might have about our reading for the week (all of Dixon Chapter 2 and Dixon Chapter 14, pp. 428-435).  At the end of each lecture there is also a general comments section; I encourage you to post any questions about the lecture you might have there.  Keep in mind that to protect your privacy, I don’t require you to sign your name to any comment or lecture response on this page.  Please feel free to use a pseudonym in your online interactions should you choose.

Remember, every week’s assignments are included in the course syllabus.  Here’s a gentle reminder:

  • Read Dixon Chapter 2, Dixon Chapter 14, pp. 428-435.
  • DIY Activity #2, “Paradigms, Theories and Hypotheses in the News,” due by September 10
  • Complete this lecture, Lecture 2
  • Problem Set 1 due September 10 (via Blackboard, in the “Problem Sets” section of the course)

Any Questions About This Week’s Reading?

This week, I’m asking you to read two sections of our course textbook, The Process of Social Research: all of Chapter 2 and pages 428-435 about reading and using social science research.  As you read, do you find yourself asking questions?  Is there a passage you don’t understand?  Is there an idea you’d like to hear more about? Please don’t keep those questions to yourself!  Instead, ask away using the “Padlet” gizmo you should see below.  Just double-click on the space that looks like a chalkboard below in order to start writing your question.  I’ll check in every day or so during Week 2 and add answers to your questions where appropriate.  After Week 2, the Padlet will be closed for new questions, but will stay open for you to read throughout the course.  Remember, you can use a pseudonym or remain anonymous if you’d like to protect your privacy on this public website.

Science as an Approach

As we study research methods in social science, it is important to keep the “science” in mind.  As the following video makes clear, a scientific approach to studying a phenomenon has a distinctly different approach from the modes of inquiry taken in theology, literary studies, and the law.  The act of “research” in social science does not entail what an act of “research” in these other fields entails.  All paths to knowledge are important, but it is crucial to understand the social scientific difference.

Pages 428-435 of your textbook are a guide for you in reading and getting understanding out of social science publications, the documents that share social science research with the world. Just as you wouldn’t read the Christian Bible the same way you’d read a state law, you wouldn’t want to read a social science research publication the same way you’d read a book of fiction. The following video compares social science documents to other kinds of documents and considers the important differences in how the documents should be read and understood:

Paradigms of Social Science

On page 24 of The Process of Social Research, the logic of research is presented as a narrowing triangle, with data being the narrowest point and theory being the broadest point:

Dixon Textbook Figure 2.2, featuring a triangle working down from theory to hypothesis to data

While that’s a perfectly good starting point, I think that the authors’ triangle doesn’t expand out broadly enough and leaves a gap between “hypothesis” and “data.”  If I were to draw a revised triangle depicting the logic of inquiry, it would look like this:

Triangle of the logic of inquiry revised to include variables and paradigms

Above the level of theory, paradigms help guide the formation of theory. Hypotheses describe data in terms of variables.  We’ll talk about variables later down in the lecture.  For now, let’s think about paradigms.

The development of theory in social science does not progress willy-nilly, but rather is guided by a set of intellectual traditions called paradigms that help guide us in building theories about the world. A paradigm is a very general image of what the “social” is, a way of framing it that leads to certain consequences in thinking.

A theory is a story about the world around us that, if told well, leads directly to a hypothesis (a prediction about how societies work).  A social scientist may develop a theory about any subject involving human or social behavior: a theory of anger, or a theory of families, or a theory of voting, or a theory of markets, or a theory of sexual behavior, or a theory of aging, or a theory of political protest, for example.

Paradigms are subtly but importantly different from theories that try to predict social behavior in a particular context.  A paradigm involves a general overarching image of society that describes the way a society is organized.  A paradigm describes the sort of behavior that is meant to be explained, and helps guide a social scientist into asking particular kinds of questions.  A paradigm is a guidebook, in other words, for how to build a theory.

That may sound abstract, so please bear with me while I use an analogy.  Have you ever opened the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook?  The chances are good that you, your parents, or your grandparents have owned a copy.  When you open that cookbook, you’ll see a series of tabs: Meats, Breads, Cakes, Cookies, and so on.  The tab doesn’t itself tell you how to make any particular kind of food.  Still, each tab directs a cook to a particular kind of recipe for preparing a different kind of food.  The sections of the book marked off by tabs contain recipes that hold a great deal in common.

The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook: a Metaphor for Paradigms in Sociology

Think about “cookies,” for instance.  The idea of cookie is a paradigm, because within the cookie paradigm there are certain consistent elements you’ll always find in a recipe.  They are:

  • A cookie is baked in an oven.
  • Unless you’re making a weird cookie, there will be eggs, sugar, butter, flour, salt, and either baking soda or baking powder.
  • A cookie is to be eaten after dinner or as a snack, not as a main course.

The fine details of any particular cookie recipe may vary, but 90% of the time, a cookie will contain the above elements.  The meats tab will have different recipes with different common elements.  So will the breads tab.  A recipe is a particular theory of a particular kind of cookie.  A cookbook tab organizes recipes according to particular common elements that will almost always be there.

So it works in the social sciences.  We have many particular theories that we use in our research, but many of them can be classified into one of three paradigms.  Each of these paradigms tells us how to build a particular kind of theory, just like each section of a cookbook tells us how to build a particular kind of recipe.

Perhaps the largest overarching paradigms of the social sciences are the three major divisions of thought represented by economics, psychology and sociology.  I’m characterizing the disciplines in broad strokes, to be sure, but generally speaking:

  • Economics conceives of humanity as a set of rational calculators in competition,
  • Psychology conceives of humanity as a set of cognitions — as thinking, perceiving and feeling beings,
  • Sociology conceives of humanity as a set of associations in relationships, groups and institutions.

But we can get into greater detail than this.  Within each discipline, there are further paradigms that treat those general orientations differently.  Each paradigm explains particular kinds of phenomena, and allows certain kinds of research questions to be asked.

You may have already taken other social science courses and been made familiar with some essential paradigms in those courses.  Just in case you haven’t, here’s a cookbook-like shorthand guide to understanding the differences between the major social science paradigms, with the paradigms themselves organized into the major divisions of economics, psychology and sociology:

Paradigms in Economics

Paradigm Level of Analysis General Overarching Image of Humanity What is to be Studied? What Kind of Questions are Appropriate?
Classical/Neoclassical Economics Macro Human beings are, or behave as if they are, capable of rationally calculating and striving after maximization of profit and minimization of loss.  These rational calculations add up to produce society. Markets — domains of exchange, with prices, costs, and profits as features How do individual attempts to maximize gain lead to patterns of supply and demand?
Institutional Economics
Macro Society is driven by the individual desire to maximize gain and minimize loss, but is constrained by institutions Institutions — regularized patterns of rules that regulate and manage competition. Examples: trade associations, governments How do institutions reflect and shape supply and demand?

What are the conditions under which regulation is stronger or weaker?

Behavioral Economics
Micro Human beings are not rational maximizers of profit. Rather, they are irrational and prone to various biases in their thinking about economic activity Bias as a persistent, predictable modifier of outcomes in individual and market behavior

Heuristics as a human attempt to approximate rationality

Norms as socially-learned differences in economic behavior

How can irrational decision-making lead to predictably inefficient outcomes in markets?

How do economic systems vary between societies with different norms?

Paradigms in Psychology

Paradigm General Overarching Image of Humanity What is to be Studied? What Kind of Questions are Appropriate?
Cognitive Human beings are a set of conscious and subconscious processes of thinking, feeling, perceiving, creating, remembering and problem solving The mind — the aspect of the human being that has cognition. How does cognition develop?

How does cognition function?

What are the connections between mind, brain and body?

How and why does cognition go wrong?

Behaviorist Human beings cannot be understood in terms of their cognition, but only in terms of their observable behaviors Individual actions and changes in individual actions as responses to stimuli. How can individual behavior be predicted?

How can individual behavior be controlled?

Social and Community Psychology
Individuals do not engage in cognition or behavior on their own, but shape and are shaped by dyadic relations, group memberships and community affiliations Persuasion, Learning, Conformity, Identity


Attraction and Enmity

How are feelings, thoughts, beliefs and values shaped in interaction?

How do individuals respond to social pressure?

Evolutionary Psychology
Traits in human cognition that are observed cross-culturally are likely to have a genetic basis and to serve some evolutionary advantage for the individual or the group. Adaptations to problems

Exaptation of old cognitive features to serve new needs

Byproducts accompanying adaptation that serve no purpose.

Genetic correlates of psychological traits

How do common features of human cognition increase the likelihood that a person will pass on her or his genes by assisting survival and reproduction?

Paradigms in Sociology

Paradigm Level of Analysis General Overarching Image of Humanity What is to be Studied? What Kind of Questions are Appropriate?
Functionalism Macro A society is like a body made of organs (called institutions) that must work together to support the health and stability of the whole (aka organicism) Institutions (regularized, interdependent relations and behaviors) that are functional (contributing to social stability and health) or Dysfunctional (leading to social instability and social ills) What are the most influential social institutions in any society?  How do they interact with and affect one another?

How does each institution make a society healthy when it works as it should?

Conflict Macro Society is riven with conflict between sets of people occupying the same position, with competing interests, battling for scarce resources, with the result determined by power Social positions with different interests.

Differences in resources and power.

Inequality in outcomes.

Where does power come from?

What are the kinds of positions between which inequality exists?

How is inequality maintained or changed?

Symbolic Interactionism Micro Society is a set of interactions between people that lead to the development of values, beliefs, and expectations for behavior as people develop symbols to communicate meaning. Roles, norms, symbols, meanings and cultures How do people create and sustain meaning in interaction?

How are people socialized into a culture with certain symbols, values, beliefs and practices?

How do expectations change as social context changes?

Social Network Analysis Micro to Meso A society is like a fisherman’s net, containing an overlapping web of human relations Group membership, contagion of disease, diffusion of innovation, patterns of exclusion Between which individuals are ties most and least likely to form?

How do ties lead to groups?

How does position in a network affect the social experience of the individual and the group?

That’s a lot of paradigms, isn’t it?  The social sciences cover a lot of territory.  Don’t worry — I’m not expecting you to memorize each individual paradigm by any means.  Instead, I’d like you to take away from this part of the lecture the recognition that each of these paradigms is a very different way of seeing society that leads to different questions about society.  These in turn lead to very different theories and hypotheses, and different ways of studying society through research.’

To dive a bit deeper into understanding what paradigms are and how they work, this video portion of the lecture examines the four paradigms of sociology (functionalism, conflict, symbolic interactionism, and social network) in greater detail.  The video describes an underlying image of society for each and describes the kind of research questions one might ask if one were to adopt a particular paradigm:


Variables in Social Science

If the paradigm is the largest-scale feature of social science, the smallest-scale feature of social science is data, and although your textbook authors don’t make this clear, data is organized into variables.  A variable is a characteristic of some object you observe in the world, a characteristic that takes on different attributes in different cases.  “Length of lecture” is a variable, for instance.  Some lectures are long, and some lectures are short — “long” and “short” are different attributes of the variable “length of lecture.”

Once you start looking for them, you’ll find that variables are everywhere: even on a bookshelf, as I show in this brief video snippet:


Hypotheses are Predicted Relationships between Variables

In your textbook (p. 22), the term hypothesis is defined as “an expected but unconfirmed relationship among two or more phenomena.”  A hypothesis is a prediction that a researcher makes, based on theory. In deductive research, the prediction made in a hypothesis is tested by going out and obtaining data from the observable world.

That’s all well and good.  But what kind of “relationship” are the authors talking about?  What is a “phenomenon?”  To get a bit more specific, the “phenomena” are variables, and the “relationship” describes how a change in one variable is associated with change in another variable.  A fuller definition of the term “hypothesis” is therefore:

Hypothesis: A prediction describing how change in one variable is expected to be associated with change in another variable.


Let’s look at the two examples of hypotheses from p. 26 of our textbook to flesh out this expanded definition.

Example 1: “Whites who have black relatives will be less likely to hold anti-black stereotypes than whites who do not have black relatives.”

Remember, a variable is a characteristic that takes on different attributes.  So what are the variables in Example 1?  One such variable is whether one has black relatives, and the possible attributes of that variable for a person is “yes, I do” and “no, I don’t.”  A second variable in the the hypothesis is whether one holds anti-black stereotypes, and again the possible attributes of that variable seem to be “yes, I do” and “no, I don’t.”  The relationship between the variables is that an attribute of “yes” on the variable whether one has black relatives will tend to lead to an attribute of “no” on the variable whether one holds anti-black stereotypes, and that an attribute of “no” on the variable whether one has black relatives will tend to lead to an attribute of “yes” on the variable whether one holds anti-black stereotypes.

Here’s the second hypothesis named on p. 26:

Example 2: “Whites who personally know blacks from school will be less likely to hold anti-black stereotypes than whites who do not know blacks from school.”

Can you name the two variables in this hypothesis?  Can you name the possible attributes of these two variables?  Can you describe the predicted relationship between the variables?  Give it a try.

This Week’s DIY Activity: Paradigms, Theories or Hypotheses in the News

For this week’s DIY Activity, I’d like you to head over to the “DIY Activities” section of our course Blackboard page and upload a well-written 2-3 page paper in which you:

1. Summarize a newspaper article or editorial published in the year 2016. This summary should take no more than two paragraphs.

2. Demonstrate convincingly that this article either:

  • adopts the approach of one of the paradigms described in Lecture 2, or
  • describes a social science theory as described in your reading or Lecture 2, or
  • declares a hypothesis as described in Dixon Chapter 2.

Not every newspaper article will do any of these, so succeeding in Step 2 will depend on the clever selection of a relevant newspaper article.  Choose carefully!

3. Cite the newspaper article correctly using both parenthetical references and a listing under a “References” section, using the American Sociological Association Quick Tips for Style.

Where can you find a newspaper article?  You could buy some papers at your local grocery store this week if you don’t already subscribe.  You could visit your town’s public library, which should have a paper or two at hand.  You could use a computer with internet access to visit Google News, which is a repository of current newspaper articles from around the country and around the world.  You could also visit our wonderful online library database system, click the “guides and databases” tab, and select “Maine Newsstand” or “Lexis/Nexis Academic Universe” to search through recent newspaper articles.  However you do it, be sure that the reading you discuss is a newspaper article or editorial.  I also suggest you take the time to read through a number of newspaper articles, because some of those articles surely won’t touch on a social science paradigm, or theory, or hypothesis.  I promise, however, that if you read long enough and think broadly enough, you’ll be able to find one of these in a newspaper article.

Why am I asking you to use parenthetical references and a “References” section with a full bibliographic listing using the American Sociological Association Quick Style?  I have two reasons.  First, you’ve just read the student academic integrity policy for the University of Maine at Augusta, so we should definitely be practicing what it preaches — and that means citing your sources.  Second, I’d like you to start getting used to the standard mode of writing in social science research, which involves parenthetical references and a concluding “References” section.  If you’ve practiced that kind of writing before writing up your end-of-semester projects, you won’t find it so hard come December.


Getting Set for the Rest of the Semester: Reminders on Office, Problem Sets and Arranging for Exams

Very soon, you’ll need to start using a spreadsheet to complete your work.  There’s no time like the present to get yourself a fully-functioning spreadsheet program… for free!  Every registered UMA student can now download a copy of the latest Microsoft Office at no cost.  This is a big deal: when I was a student, Microsoft Office cost more than two hundred dollars!  Click this link to find out how to take advantage of the UMA-Microsoft offer.

This is the first week in which you are expected to complete a problem set.  You can find this week’s problem set by logging in to our course page on Blackboard and clicking on the “DIY Activities” link.  Remember, problem sets may be completed on an “open-book” basis: this means that you may refer to your textbook and this lecture when finding answers to the problem set questions.  However, the answers you produce must be your own; no copying from other sources or other people is permitted.  Best of luck!

This is also the week when you should be finalizing your plans for a proctored midterm exam: Although this is an online course, you will have a midterm exam that will be completed using pen and paper and will be proctored, requiring you to travel to an ITV site, University Center or another location near you. There are dozens of these sites peppered across the state of Maine, so if you live in Maine there should be a location convenient to you.

Because I’m asking you to travel a short distance to take the exam, you will be able to schedule a block of 3 hours for the exam at a time that works best for you within a 5-day period on Week 9 — but you need to take action to make the exam system work. Please go to the website http://www.learn2.maine.edu/exam during the first two weeks of the semester and choose a location at which to take your exam.  Look for the “SSC 320” choice in that website’s menu.  You MUST sign up for an exam site during the first two weeks of the semester to ensure that appropriate exam materials will be delivered to your proctor site in a timely fashion.It is also your responsibility to contact the location you’ve chosen, before the exam, to arrange a specific day and time which is practical for both you and the site staff. If you need help contacting the site to arrange a specific day for your exam, please let me know by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu) and I’ll be glad to help — but this is your primary responsibility.

If you are a student who does not live in Maine, please find a local education professional who is willing to proctor your exam. E-mail me (james.m.cook@maine.edu) with the name, title, work address and e-mail address of your proposed proctor.  There are many of these across the country at public universities and public libraries; if you have trouble finding a proctor where you live please let me know during the first two weeks of the semester by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu) and I’ll be glad to lend you a hand. After you’ve found a proctor, visit the website https://sites.google.com/a/maine.edu/testing-location-registration/home/university-college-out-of-state-testing and fill out the web form you find there so that the folks at UMA can get a copy of my exam to your proctor.

Remember, if you have any questions about this lecture, please send them my way, by leaving a comment below (feel free to use a pseudonym for your anonymity), by phone (207-621-3190), by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu), or in office hours (see the top of the syllabus).

Assistant Professor James CookBest,

James Cook

Assistant Professor of Social Science

University of Maine at Augusta

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