Methodology Matters


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MATTERS: DOING RESEARCH IN THE BEHAVIORAL and SOCIAL SCIENCES JOSEPH E. MCGRATH PSYCHOWGY, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, URBANA 23 OCTOBER 1994 Material in this chapter draws on ideas from a number of my earlier publications, including: McGrath, J.E., 1984; McGrath and Brinberg, 1984; Brinberg and McGrath, 1985; Runkel and McGrath, 1972; McGrath, Martin, and Kulka, 1982. " D oing research" simply means the systematic use of some set of theoreti- cal and empirical tools to try to increase our understanding of some set of phenomena or events. In the social and behavioral sciences, the phenomena of interest involve states and actions of hwnan systems - of individuals, groups, organizations, and larg- er social entities - and the by-products of those actions. The meaning of research evidence, in any area of science, is inherently tied to the means or methods by which that evidence was obtained. Hence, to understand empiri- cal evidence, its meaning, and its limitations, requires that you understand the concepts and techniques on which that evidence is based. This chapter is about some of the tools with which researchers in the social and behavioral sciences go about "doing" research. It raises some issues about strategy, tac- tics and operations. Especially, it points out some of the inherent limits, as well as the potential strengths, of various features of the research process by which behavioral and social scientists do research. SOMEBASICFEATURESOF THE RESEARCHPROCESS Doing research, in the behavioral and social sciences, always involves bringing together three sets of things: . (a) some content that is of interest, (b) some ideas that give meaning to that content, and (c) some techniques or procedures by means of which those ideas and contents can be studied. For example, the contents of a study might involve the behavior of a jury, conversa- . tions in a family about buying a new car, the voting behavior of members of a commu- nity, littering in a park, courtship patterns in a small town, and so forth. The ideas might include the concept of attitudes, the notion that education affects political preferences, the concept of conformity, the hypothesis that groups whose members like one anoth- er perform tasks better than groups whose members do not like each other, and so forth. The techniques might include a questionnaire to assess individual attitudes, toward a car or a candidate or group mates; a set of procedures for observing family discussions about cars and money; a means to gather election returns; a plan to evaluate the quali- ty of group task products; and so forth. I will refer to these three sets of things more formally, as three distinct, though inter- related, domains: (a) The Substantive domain, from which we draw contents that seem worthy of our study and attention; (b) The Conceptual domain, from which we draw ideas that seem likely to give meaning to our results; and (c) The Methodological domain, from which we draw techniques
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