The Difficulty of Applying Scientific Methods in Social Science Research


The Difficulty of Applying Scientific Methods in Social Science Research

 Social science is by no means an exact science. Hence, it is not always possible to conduct investigations that are totally scientific. There are difficulties inherent in applying scientific methods in social science. This is primarily because of problems you are likely to encounter in the measurement and collection of data in the subjective areas of feelings, emotions, attitudes, and perceptions. Laboratory conditions cannot be created as done in natural and physical sciences and investigations cannot be undertaken in a controlled environment. Problems crop up whenever you attempt to quantify human behavior. You might also encounter difficulties in obtaining a representative sample, which would restrict the generalizability of the findings. Therefore, research has to be undertaken in social settings where conditions remain uncontrollable. Scientific research is, therefore, not possible in every social science study where the “laboratory” is the wider society and it is extremely difficult to control all the variables.

In spite of the difficulties encountered in bringing scientific principles to the complex areas of social science, success is gradually being achieved. The evolving sophistication in research techniques and methodologies is an important contribution to the use of scientific methods in social science. As a result, many of the difficulties are being reduced as more comprehensive research techniques develop. However, there are many areas or dimensions of social science, where the application of scientific research methods is not possible. The difficulties, which are commonly encountered by the researchers in social science, are as follows:

The complexity of Subject Matter

Social Science basically deals with human beings. Humans are different from each other in their activities, attitudes, motives, beliefs, and values. Hence, social science is a very complex and varied subject. There are almost infinite numbers of uncontrollable variables in social science. You must, therefore, try to measure the influence of one variable upon another in such an uncontrollable environment. Human behavior is so complex that it is virtually not possible to develop an accurate science able of explaining all of them. For example, the question that is still not fully answered despite so much research work being done is: why people behave the way they do? Different research studies give different explanations to this question. Still, these explanations are far from being adequate. There are many other areas in social sciences, which pose particular difficulties to you in exploring and explaining their dynamics scientifically.

The difficulty of Obtaining Accurate Measurement

The scientific method demands precise and accurate measurement. In social science, this type of precise measurement is time and again quite difficult. Human attitudes and opinions or motives cannot be accurately measured. You may also face difficulty in translating the real meaning of such words as “likes” or dislikes”. It is also difficult to ascertain the honesty of the respondents. Many relatively sophisticated techniques have been developed to enhance the accuracy of your attempts to measure human responses. You may use different scales to measure the relative strengths of respondents ‘ preferences, but the process of accurately measuring human attitudes is still full of pitfalls. No legitimate research technique can guarantee that respondents will tell the truth (McGown, 1989).

Influence of the Measurement Process on Results

The respondents, when they know that they are being observed and measured, often tend to react other than normal. A classic example of the process of measurement influencing the results is the case that gave the “Hawthorne Effect” its name. Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company conducted studies in order to determine the effect of lighting on the output of a group of workers involved in assembling electrical components. First, the lighting was increased substantially and worker productivity also increased. Later the light was reduced, and the output increased still more. In this experiment, the real issue was that the process of measurement had influenced the results. People, knowing that they were being measured, responded in unusual ways. In social science research the Hawthorne Effect occurs when, for example, interviewees answer questions in a manner they think will please the researcher.

 The difficulty of Using Experiments to Test Hypotheses

Establishing and testing hypotheses are the key components of the scientific method. In pure sciences, it is possible to establish meaningful laboratory conditions in which the researcher may control all the variables, allow one to fluctuate, and then measure the results. However, the wider society is not a laboratory, and you may face the virtually impossible task of establishing a controlled environment in which to conduct your measurement. Replication – reproducing the same experiment again and again – cannot be carried out completely in social science research Social phenomena are less repeatable than natural phenomena. Activities of human beings, their behavior, the weather, the social setting are all factors that typically are beyond the control of the researcher in such cases (McGown, 1989). They make it difficult to test meaningfully hypotheses developed for research purposes.

The difficulty of Making Accurate Predictions

Accurate prediction, which is a vital step in scientific research, is not always possible in social science research. In a laboratory experiment, the scientist can predict with a great deal of precision the behavior of a dog. However, predicting the behavior of voters in the election is not nearly so exact a science. As the social sciences are integrally interwoven with the social fabric, they present a different situation. Consequently, accurate prediction is more difficult in economics, business, politics, and education than in astronomy or physics. You may face many obstacles in accurately predicting future economic conditions, social mobility, market demand, consumer behavior, and so on. Too many things can happen between the prediction and the actual behavior for predictions to be made with a high degree of accuracy (McGown, 1989 ).

Problematic Objectives of the Investigator

Securing objectivity is the vital condition for scientific research. Scientific research demands impartiality and objective reporting of data. However, in social science research, the investigator often may not be impartial. Many times research is conducted merely to substantiate or “prove” what the client wants to hear. Sometimes, bias may be unconscious. During the interviewing process, researchers may cause bias through the wording of questions or the use of leading questions. This problem can become particularly acute when investigators in the field are relatively untrained and, therefore, ignorant of the bias they may be unconsciously introducing in the interviewing process (McGown, 1989). The answer to this problem lies in better selection and training of data collectors.

These problems encountered in applying the scientific methods in social science research are presented here, not to discourage the use of this method, but to familiarize you with the difficulties. Awareness of these problems should allow you to take corrective actions. You must try to overcome these obstacles if you hope to make a meaningful contribution to your field of study.

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