Why It Matters: Sociological Research

Why study sociological research?

Everything–and I mean everything–would be lost if the cops saw me. I was sitting at a table by myself in the back of a heavy metal bar I had visited off and on for the past year and a half. About a third of the faces in the crowd were now familiar to me, and I nodded affirmatively to acknowledge the presence of acquaintances. The place was packed, dark, and sweaty. Long-haired leather-clad men and women broke sweat moving feverishly to the deafening wall of sound produced by the live band on stage.

However, my sense of calm and comfort suddenly turned to mortification when I noticed the faces of two uniformed police officers in the dim light of the long bar off to my left. They had just arrived to case the joint, and I had a lot at stake in staying out of sight. For the next forty minutes I hid under tables, crouched on the dance floor, and in bathroom stalls as the officers methodically scoped out every inch of that club. More than once, those I knew figured out something was up and assisted me by standing in between myself and the panoptical gaze of the officers. When they finally left, others smiled at me knowingly as I breathed a sigh of relief. Not only had I dodged the officers, but my actions had increased my street-cred among the regulars.

I was in the club that night because, as a sociologist, I was conducting a long-term participant observation study of the heavy metal scene. Of all the nights in all the bars in a city exceeding one million people, my then-brother-in-law and his partner, both beat cops, decided to unknowingly case the very place in which I was making some observations. I had already been approached at least a half dozen times that evening by regulars asking if I wanted to buy drugs of various sorts. I rejected their offers, but I knew that exchanging pleasantries with an officer of the law would have immediately pegged me as a narc (undercover narcotics officer). Not only would this have destroyed my credibility in that particular bar but the entire city scene, which would have prematurely ended my research project. I was indeed fortunate to have avoided contact with the police.

Welcome to the exciting (and sometimes dangerous!) world of sociological research. Sociologists study society and human behavior, and in order to do so, they sometimes go to extreme measures to do research that will provide insightful and valuable results. They go beyond common sense understandings in trying to explain or understand social phenomena. Sociologists do not see the world as we normally do, instead they question and analyze why things happen and ask if there is a way to stop a problem before it emerges.

The field notes from the sociologist above illustrate just one way sociologists study social groups and human behavior. Participant observation is one methodology, but we will learn about several other ways in which sociologists conduct research and not all of them include going to heavy metal bars! For example, a sociologist could learn more about heavy metal song lyrics through content analysis (a different methodology), or learn more about a particular group, like heavy metal fans, through surveys or interviews.

In this module, we will learn about sociological research and research methods.