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Field Of Investigation

( Originally Published 1915 )

Human Society. The field of sociological investigation is very broad, covering the phenomena of human society, i.e. of human association. The laboratory method involving the same principles as those used in the physical sciences in this field is exceedingly difficult to apply. Human society cannot be controlled for study as a frog, an insect, or a plant. Fortunately, in studying society the microscope and the telescope are not needed. The sociologist's laboratory is the world of men and women in their social relations. These, however, he must carefully and patiently observe under all kinds of changing circumstances.1 He must observe and recount the facts of society, classify them in proper categories and on the basis of careful comparisons thus made possible draw generalizations. Therefore, the student should begin early to make observation of the character of social structure and movements. Wherever people are associated there will appear facts of social relations to be observed and classified.

But in this only certain phenomena should be observed. We are concerned only with the social relationships which produce association or grow out of association. The human relationships which arise in response to a special set of motives, like the economic, is the business of the economist, those arising from the political motive, of the political scientist, but those fundamental facts of association, the processes by which society develops from one stage to another and the groupings and their causes which operated previous to special motives, belong to the field of sociology. While all society may be its field of operation, sociology seeks only certain facts of society which pertain to its scope as a science. The boundary of the science indicates the kind of facts that may be useful for its purpose. There are phases of ethics, politics, and economics which, al-though they are social, do not come within the special province of sociological investigation, but belong to their respective sciences. But when necessary for its purpose, sociology may consider the same phenomena as other social sciences in a different way and for a different purpose, just as biology uses certain facts in the fields of plant life and animal life as the raw materials of its broader generalizations.

The Use of the Library. A well-selected library is absolutely essential for well-directed investigation, for the student must know what others have accomplished and recorded before he can succeed in the field of practical investigation. While one might begin to investigate the facts of society by personal observation, nevertheless it would be idle not to profit by the experience of others. He will want to know their methods that he may not experiment with methods already proven useless. He will not wish to waste time on problems solved by others. Hence, the facts that have been gathered, classified, and re-corded and the principles which have been established through the use of these facts call for thorough library research.

The reports of government departments and commissions, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Census Bureau, the United States Bureau of Labor, the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the various state commissions on railroads, labor, charities, and correction, as well as numerous reports of special investigations, such as those of the industrial commission, represent to a certain extent the field of investigation. The results of the investigation of such men as Spencer, Darwin, Huxley, and others are invaluable to the student. Not less valuable, from a sociological standpoint, are the standard writers on sociology, such as De Greef, Ward, Tarde, Gumplowicz, Small, Ross, Giddings, Thomas, Simmel, Ratzenhofer, Tonnies, and others.

It is necessary for the student to distinguish between the facts of society and the theories about society, and to classify sources and authorities as primary and secondary. For one of the first principles of sociology is to learn to estimate values. As soon as the student begins to follow the text and the lecture course with collateral reading, he should be given some specific subject to follow out in the library and to report on it. These subjects should be selected at first with a view to giving the student practice in the methods of investigation rather than to adding to the sum of human knowledge. There are thousands of topics suggested by writers and investigators which have not been worked out carefully, and which present a fruitful field of investigation for the student.

Field Work. But the social investigator must go beyond the library. Just as the chemist must experiment in his laboratory, the geologist reconnoiter the earth, or the biologist study the forms of life, so sociologists must enter and study society at first hand. It must, however, be a process of observation rather than of experimentation.

While many general social problems seem to baffle every effort to bring them under scientific methods, there are many which await only the investigator of insight and resource. The patient gathering of facts concerning the social life and activities of the backward nature-peoples has gone on apace. Begun by Spencer in his encyclopedic, but rather one-sided, Descriptive Sociology, the collection of ethnographic and sociological material since his time has gone on with startling rapidity. Observation of social life among various peoples is gradually being made with increasing care and scientific precision. While still much remains to be done in gathering such material and verifying reports of previous observers in that field, the major task remains of carefully digesting for sociology the mass of information already secured. Aside from this formal side of social structure and process, there remains the great field of social psychology. The ground in this field has been cleared by the psychologists and the social psychologists. There remains the task of devising methods by which the data in this field can be carefully gathered and treated by scientific methods on a large scale. Sociologists cultivating this field need to apply more vigorously the scientific method to the now chaotic and seemingly unmanageable mass of material in the realm of social motive. The field has been roughly charted, and the categories suggested. What is needed now is a regiment of workers to scientifically control the wealth of material, to classify and to interpret it.

The problems awaiting solution are many and varied. Such problems as whether the tall, the dark-haired, dark-eyed members of one sex choose the short, light-haired, blue-eyed of the other sex for mates, and if they do, whether they do so instinctively or from social motives ; whether the motive which leads people from the country to the city is social or economic or both, and if the motives are mixed, which is dominant ; whether the basis of social choice is a biological, or a sociological factor await the sociologist. We need careful statistical work in the field of social theory. In the field of applied sociology we need less theorizing on the basis of individual observation and more careful gathering of facts in order that we may be more certain of our generalizations. We prate about the causes of poverty, for example, when as a matter of fact we do not know even its extent. As for causes we are in the midst of a somewhat heated dispute as to whether drunkenness is a cause of poverty or poverty a cause of drunkenness. Which is cause and which effect? Is each now cause, and now effect? Or are both caused by nervous instability ? These are questions about which we can debate until doomsday without result unless we get more facts. In this and many other fields of social life, they wait for the patient scholar to gather and interpret them.

In general there are two separate lines of work or divisions of the subject for investigation, namely those which tend to show the normal development of society and those which have for their purpose the determination of abnormal conditions. In the former the phases of cooperate social life, as found in industry, the church, education, the family, and social life in general, represent the field of research. The study of a rural district, of a mining town, of a large manufacturing plant, including all forms of the labor and life of the people, are examples of studies of normal types of social action. On the other hand, the search for the defects of society, with a view to their correction, is of great value. The pathological condition of different classes of labor, such as miners, laborers in factories, clerks in stores, farm laborers, and kitchen help, should be studied. Care should be taken to inquire into the housing of the poor, methods of employment, and the various evil influences of promiscuous drinking saloons and of the liquor traffic in general. The evil influences of the herding of boys together without proper supervision, the conditions of jails and lockups, the social life of our public schools, truancy, and a hundred other questions involving social problems, furnish fields of social investigation in the other field.

The aim of social investigation is, first, to furnish exact knowledge of conditions and, second, to provide means of remedying evil conditions so that social life may be improved. To this end the student should acquaint himself with all the special movements like social settlements, children's home-finding societies, local charity organizations, industrial schools, free kindergartens, and other similar movements that tend to better the condition of human society. One of the primary purposes of investigation to the young student of sociology, however, is to vitalize his work. Human society being his laboratory, his knowledge from books should be a guide to his actions, furnish a normal standard of life and normal types of social institutions. But since library work without practical observation has a tendency to give students unreal conceptions of life, some study of actual social conditions is needed to vitalize one's knowledge gained from books and lectures.

But the more mature sociologist must extend his work much farther than this and with a more definite object. He must secure accurate data to verify his hypotheses. He is forced to determine the form, structure, and operations of society by actual observation. Having obtained sufficient data of this nature, he is prepared to classify, combine, and generalize, and thus obtain general principles of sociology. Without this he cannot establish a science.

The Data of Other Sciences. The sociologist will be free to use any data relating to the origin, growth, processes, motives, and structures of society which will answer his purpose of investigation. While sociology is an independent science with a special field of work, the data and the generalizations of other sciences may be of great assistance. A large amount of material obtained from biology, anthropology, economics, ethics, history, and psychology must be worked over by the sociologist to enable him to reach his conclusions. For example, some of the conclusions drawn by prehistoric archaeology, for instance that the Swiss Lake Dwellers probably had bridles for horses and therefore we know had domesticated them, throw light upon the origins of social life and cooperative activities. Or that feeblemindedness is inherited according to the Mendelian Law, should such a fact be firmly established, would enter at once into the presuppositions of sociology and into consideration in the formation of any theory of social degeneration. This opens up a wide field of research and puts the investigator in the attitude of a generalizer of the knowledge of human relationships. But one must not infer from this that sociology includes all social sciences, nor is it made up of a synthesis of them, nor is it a general amalgamation of the results of other social sciences. Sociology no more includes all the social sciences than architecture includes metallurgy, geology, physics, and chemistry. Sociology is no more an amalgamation of the results of other social sciences like economics, political science, and history, than landscape art is made up of botany, civil engineering, and agriculture. The data of other sciences, however, are used by the sociologist for his specific purposes.


BLACKMAR, F. W. The Study of History, Sociology, and Economics.

KELLOR, FRANCES. Experimental Sociology.

GIDDINGS, F. H. Inductive Sociology; Sociology, New York, 1909, pp. 21-25, 36-38.

MAYO-SMITH, RICHMOND. Statistics and Sociology.

SMALL, A. W. Methodology in Sociology; Sociology as Social Science.


1. List the subjects which might be investigated in your own community which are strictly sociological in their nature.

2. Show that while the investigation of the motives which lead to a particular sort of activities among men, such as the economic motives and activities, is not sociological, the findings of such an investigation may serve as data for the sociologist who is trying to formulate the regularities of all kinds of social motives and activities and thus establish generalizations concerning human motives and activities in all kinds of associated life.

3. Go through the volume of the Census on Population and show one thing which the sociologist may find of value therein.

4. Read one good elementary text on sociology and point out what parts of it represent social philosophy and what parts belong to social science.

5. Choose some one social problem in your community, such as the recreation facilities, vice, the customs of courtship prevailing there, etc., and make a careful sociological study of it according to the strictest scientific methods.

6. Make a study of feeblemindedness in your community, being careful to indicate what part of that study is strictly biological and what sociological.

Outlines Of Sociology:
Poverty - Its Causes And Remedies

Charities And Charity Organization

Crime - Its Causes And Prevention

Social Degeneration

Administration Of Charitable And Correctional Affairs

Field Of Investigation

Methods Of Investigation

Social Philosophy

Science Of Society

Read More Articles About: Outlines Of Sociology

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