Why bother with Statistics?
While you may not hear the words “statistics” or “sociology” in day-to-day conversation, these two sciences play a larger role in your life than you may think. In fact, if you’ve ever watched a newscast, read an op/ed, or followed the election polls, you’ve been an amateur social scientist. To do a better job at your amateur avocation, a basic understanding of sociology and its use of statistics is needed.
Sociology is a Science
Sociology is a social science: it seeks to apply the scientific method to wide array of commonly recognized social issues. Although many people may have their own insights into social phenomena, Sociologists use scientific data to make objective assertions about social problems.
Like any other science, sociologists formulate and validate their insights using the scientific method. To recap: the scientific method seeks to link up concrete observations with abstract theories. In sociology, a commonly acknowledged social problem is reduced to a single, testable hypothesis, then tested using carefully selected instruments of observation and meticulously collected data. After the data is collected, researchers analyze it determine its implications for their original hypothesis (1). Upon the study’s conclusion, it is translated into a research publication and communicated to scientists and the general public.
Problems with the Social Sciences
The scientific method may be a well-known and highly regarded means of acquiring knowledge, but academics have criticized its applicability to Sociology. Although it’s theoretical basis is the same in social science as it is in natural science, it’s implementation is very different: unlike say, Physics, Social Science is a “soft science,” meaning that in the phenomena it studies (social phenomena), causality is not as readily apparent or testable as it is in “hard sciences”. Whereas chemicals or bodies in motion can be reduced to their most basic components and tested in a closed experiment, social phenomenon are built upon one, irreducible, fundamental: people, whom cannot be fully understood outside of their real-world social context, and whom are immensely complex and varied units of analysis unto themselves.
Statistics are what makes Sociology “Science”
In the general sense, statistics are defined as, “a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data.” For the specific purpose of sociology, statistics are collected to describe, compare, or make positive statements about a people, behaviors, or societies. With proper sampling methods, statistics can be conducted in accordance with the scientific method, thus legitimizing Sociology as a science.
The next article in the series, “Sampling Methods for Sociological Statistics,” is available on my homepage.
1. Statistics, merriam-webster.com
2. Levin, Jack , and James A. Fox. Elementary Statistics in Social Research. Boston, Ma: Allyn & Bacon, 2004.