Five Big Words

Research involves an eclectic blending of an enormous range of skills and activities. To be a good social researcher, you have to be able to work well with a wide variety of people, understand the specific methods used to conduct research, understand the subject that you are studying, be able to convince someone to give you the funds to study it, stay on track and on schedule, speak and write persuasively, and on and on.

Here, I want to introduce you to five terms that I think help to describe some of the key aspects of contemporary social research. (This list is not exhaustive. It’s really just the first five terms that came into my mind when I was thinking about this and thinking about how I might be able to impress someone with really big/complex words to describe fairly straightforward concepts).

I present the first two terms – theoretical and empirical – together because they are often contrasted with each other. Social research is theoretical, meaning that much of it is concerned with developing, exploring or testing the theories or ideas that social researchers have about how the world operates. But it is also empirical, meaning that it is based on observations and measurements of reality – on what we perceive of the world around us. You can even think of most research as a blending of these two terms – a comparison of our theories about how the world operates with our observations of its operation.

The next term – nomothetic – comes (I think) from the writings of the psychologist Gordon Allport1. Nomothetic refers to laws or rules that pertain to the general case (nomos in Greek) and is contrasted with the term “idiographic” which refers to laws or rules that relate to individuals (idios means ‘self’ or ‘characteristic of an individual’ in Greek). In any event, the point here is that most social research is concerned with the nomothetic – the general case – rather than the individual. We often study individuals, but usually we are interested in generalizing to more than just the individual.

In our post-positivist view of science, we no longer regard certainty as attainable. Thus, the fourth big word that describes much contemporary social research is probabilistic, or based on probabilities. The inferences that we make in social research have probabilities associated with them – they are seldom meant to be considered covering laws that pertain to all cases. Part of the reason we have seen statistics become so dominant in social research is that it allows us to estimate probabilities for the situations we study.

The last term I want to introduce is causal. You’ve got to be very careful with this term. Note that it is spelled causal not casual. You’ll really be embarrassed if you write about the “casual hypothesis” in your study! The term causal means that most social research is interested (at some point) in looking at cause-effect relationships. This doesn’t mean that most studies actually study cause-effect relationships. There are some studies that simply observe – for instance, surveys that seek to describe the percent of people holding a particular opinion. And, there are many studies that explore relationships – for example, studies that attempt to see whether there is a relationship between gender and salary. Probably the vast majority of applied social research consists of these descriptive and correlational studies. So why am I talking about causal studies? Because for most social sciences, it is important that we go beyond just looking at the world or looking at relationships. We would like to be able to change the world, to improve it and eliminate some of its major problems. If we want to change the world (especially if we want to do this in an organized, scientific way), we are automatically interested in causal relationships – ones that tell us how our causes (e.g., programs, treatments) affect the outcomes of interest.

  1. My dear friend Dick McCleary from University of California, Irvine found an earlier source for the Allport use of the term nomothetic. I feel like such an academic when we get into this micro checking of the historical record. Thanks Dick! Here’s what he sent me:

    At the end of the 19th Century, Windelband (1894; cited by Mayr, 1997:276) proposed the nomothetic-ideographic dichotomy (Figure 1.3.2) to distinguish among disciplines whose core phenomena were repeatable or interchangeable (“nomothetic”) and disciplines whose phenomena were unique (“ideographic”) and, hence, not repeatable or interchangeable. Windelband counted chemistry as a nomothetic discipline because hydrogen atoms are indistinguishable; physics was a nomothetic discipline because the same mechanical law of gravity applied to a material object every time it was dropped. Because historical phenomena are not repeatable, on the other hand, Windelband characterized history as an ideographic discipline.

    Mayr, E. This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Windelband, W. Geschichte der alten Philosophie: Nebst einem anhang: abriss der Geschichte der Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften. In Altertum von Siegmund Gunter. Munich: Beck, 1894.