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Methods Of Investigation

( Originally Published 1915 )

Sociological Purpose. — Whatever methods are employed in investigation, a sociological purpose is necessary in order to obtain satisfactory results. In natural science, a beginner may be sent into the field or laboratory to see what he can find, with a view to training his observation. But what he discovers will never be of permanent value until he goes into the field or laboratory to find out certain things or to test certain hypotheses. The complexity of social phenomena and the wide range of observation make it idle for him to waste his energies in a purposeless search for the facts of human society. He may have, indeed, a very broad subject, such as the unity of the human mind, which will oblige him to study the mental types of different tribes and races. Nevertheless, without this definite purpose he could study psychical phenomena of tribes and races forever without reaching any definite conclusion. It may be a some-what narrower subject, like the labor problem of America that he is studying, but even in that he should limit his subject to the closed shop, the pathology of the strike, or the effect of the union label, in order to reach results of value. The purpose having been once determined, all facts relating to it should be used, and all others for the time being excluded.

On the other hand, one must ever guard himself against allowing his bias or even his hypothesis to blind him to any relevant facts. Sometimes, after sufficient experience has been gained in first hand study of a social subject, one may well begin the study of a certain field without any previous hypothesis. A definite sociological purpose will not hinder careful scientific work by the trained worker, but may prove to be a pitfall for the beginner. In either case, whether he starts with a theory or without one, his scientific interest should dominate any religious or social motive which he may have. For example, one may start out to ascertain what function the saloon serves. He may begin with a theory that it serves a useful purpose in providing a place where the poor man may meet his fellows on terms of equality and where the process of socialization may take place, or that the saloon is entirely antisocial in its tendencies, and serves no useful social purpose, or he may seek to get all the facts without any hypothesis as to whether it functions as a social agent or not. In either case he will endeavor to get all the facts and make up his mind from his findings, not from his beliefs.

Limitation of the Subject of Study. — To succeed in sociological investigation, it is necessary to consider only the relevant facts. Take, for instance, a subject such as the relation of the colored to white children in mixed schools. A great many facts may be gathered concerning both of these classes of pupils, but it would be better to narrow the work to relative progress of the two races. Even this would require a wide range of re-search. The vital object of such study would be a fair test of relative mental ability of the two races. The sociological purpose being narrowed down to the determination of racial mental capacity, it would be necessary to consider all the environments — in fact the entire social life — of the respective races. Be-ginning with the kindergarten it will be found, perhaps, that children of the colored race are as bright, and learn as rapidly as those of the white race. In the grades, the former begin to decline in relative ability and progress. In order to determine whether this is due to environment or racial characteristics, it will require an investigation into the home surroundings and the wider social life. By a careful study of his nature the relative mental powers may be determined„ While all of the data of every kind that relate to the subjects well may be considered, all else will be excluded.

Selection of Facts Bearing upon the Problem. — There must be a perpetual selection of the right data or nothing will be accomplished. Certain facts must be cast away and the remainder carefully compared as to relative values. It would be idle if one were investigating the subject of apples to gather in his basket cherries, pears, grapes, and peaches along with the apples, simply because they may all be classified under the term fruit, and so for every subject in statistics the necessary data vary from those of any other subject. Take, for example, the labor problem. If one were to consider the whole subject of labor in a descriptive way he might consider all of the facts in connection with its history and progress. But, should he de-sire to determine one point only, that of the relative rate of wages between two communities, occupations, or groups, he need not consider all of the numberless facts about strikes, boycotts, the closed shop, injunctions, nonunion labor, the walking delegate, etc. All this matter he would exclude and confine himself strictly to the fact of real and nominal wages, within the respective groups compared. Every beginner in the scientific study of a subject must throw away much material which at first sight seems to bear upon the problem, but which on careful examination and further study is seen to be irrelevant, al-though perhaps interesting in some other connection.

General Investigation. — Perhaps the simplest method of investigation is found in a general subject, about which the student collects all of the available data concerning a given group or society and classifies them. The investigator in such a study seeks to present the nature of the society described as a whole rather than to deduce any principles relating to its existence. A town, a rural community, a city, a communistic society, or a special community of laborers may be taken. All of the sociological characteristics of the group must be enumerated and recorded. Occupation, income, religion, education, amusements, general social characteristics, political organization, and government should be carefully noted and described. A mining camp in Colorado or Nevada would furnish an inviting study of this nature. A careful description of society in a foreign country offers great possibilities for this kind of scientific work. Examples are to be found in Nansen's The Esquimos and Ross's The Changing Chinese. Moreover, such studies are sadly needed to supply sociological material supplied at present too often by the reports of untrained observers or persons interested in other than sociological facts. Soon many of the customs, practices, ideals, institutions, etc., of these backward and isolated people will pass away. Unless the trained sociologist observes and describes them the world will lose some of the most valuable data bearing upon the problem of social origins. If only the early Spanish writers who described the customs and rites of the Aztec Indians had been trained in sociology ! Such work is especially valuable to beginners because it is descriptive rather than analytical in its nature, and because it shows them what society really is and how it has developed. While the results of the novice may not be of permanent value and his descriptions will always have to be checked up by the trained observer, the value of such studies to the student himself is such that he may well begin with such descriptive labor. Thus he learns to observe correctly and to describe accurately what he sees. He is led to see the significant things in social life and to set them forth in their proper relations.

Special Investigation. Following the above method of investigation a very limited subject, extending over a wide range of facts, may be taken by the student. Feeblemindedness as a cause of poverty in the United States, the relation of the volume of circulating money to prices, or some such subject may be chosen. A more difficult subject than either of the above mentioned would be a specific subject covering a very narrow field, such as the effect of the beef trust on prices, the relation between the procedure of juvenile courts and child psychology, the conditions of jails in a state, and popular education. In order to accomplish anything in a field of this nature it is necessary to obtain all the facts relating to the specific subject with great accuracy and comprehensiveness, to make a very careful comparison of them, and to deduce conclusions by rational processes.

Specific Methods. — All investigation of social phenomena before it is of any service to science involves both the inductive and the deductive methods. Sociology has gained just in pro-portion as it has followed the inductive methods of the natural sciences. Gathering and classifying phenomena with a distinct purpose in view is the foundation of the sociological method. But this knowledge is of no use until it is arranged, classified, generalized, and the principles deduced therefrom.

The statistical method is a scientific device to ascertain the facts about society and the relations between groups of facts. It is an attempt to measure social forces or values in terms of number. Its fundamental principle is accurate counting. The first movement is to determine the given unit, and the second to notice its recurrence within a given time or given space. To use a simple illustration, if one were to break a piece of chalk into very many pieces by a blow from a hammer and then were to ask, " How many pieces of chalk are there as a result of the blow? " the first thing to be considered would be what constitutes a piece of chalk, for there are pieces of all sizes, from the particle of dust so small as to be scarcely visible to the naked eye, to those of the size of a marble.

In the enumeration of social phenomena the unit of enumeration is more difficult to determine. For example, if you are enumerating the Negro race or the Indian race in the United States, it is important to determine the distinguishing mark of the Negro or the Indian. How should an individual having one thirty-second part Negro or Indian blood in his veins be classified ? If you are investigating the wage system it is necessary to determine who are the wage earners those who work by the day, the week, the month, or the year, or whether all of these shall be so included. Having determined the unit, one must find its recurrence within a given time and space.

Social forces may be measured by the statistical method as to what is accomplished in a certain time and space and in a given direction. The increased productiveness of a given working population by the use of a new invention may be determined. The market reports have a purpose of this kind in the estimation of prices and crops.

There are various specific purposes to be served by a statistical treatment of social phenomena. The principal ones are the static and the dynamic. The first seeks to see society or any part of it in its various relationships at a given time. It has no reference to progress or change, but seeks an instantaneous view of social relationships covering a given social mass. As society is never without change, and as it takes time to carry on an investigation, the purpose is never exactly realized. A very good illustration of an attempt to secure a static conception of society is the taking of the United States census. Take, for example, the subject of population alone. Working as rapidly as possible, the director of the census must spend some months in obtaining an accurate enumeration of the population. During this time society has changed by emigration, immigration, birth, and death, and the compilation of the census represents not the present but the past. So it is with every attempt to get a static view of relationships, the constant movement of society, always shifting, changing, progressing or retarding, renders it impossible to obtain an exact, instantaneous view of society. Perhaps if one could invent a social kinetoscope he might obtain such a picture of society.

The dynamic purpose supplements the static by recognizing the constant change of society. It seeks to show the movement of social forces and their results. It represents a series of static views of relationships put together in natural sequence. It involves the investigation of such questions as the increase in wages, the rise and fall of prices, the increase or decrease of population, the increase or decrease of crime or suicide, the development of morality, the decline or growth of the war spirit, or, in fact, any subject moving over a given period of time. Its success depends a good deal upon the accuracy of the successive static views which one may take of the subject. Since most societies are actually changing, one cannot fully understand society without investigation with the dynamic purpose in mind.

Analysis. — Facts collected are of little value unless intelligently used. A careful analysis is necessary before they are made of service in determining social relationships or social progress. Even the best results that may be had will possess only a high degree of probability. The difficulty of getting exact information, the failure to get universal returns, and the numerous processes involved before the final deduction is made, give it only a degree of certainty. In proof of this it will be found that the United States census, although of great value in many ways, gives only approximate rather than mathematical accuracy.

Nevertheless, the closer the student gets to the real mechanism of society, the better acquainted he becomes with the real forces of society through personal observation and the more vital and serviceable will be his work.

The Social Survey. — A good illustration of the application of the statistical method is to be found in what has come to be called the social survey. This new application of an old method, to which the name social survey has been given, has been characterized as follows by Paul U. Kellogg, who conducted the Pittsburgh Survey in 1907-1908. It takes its unit of work from the surveyor in that it is limited to social conditions within a given geographical area, a city, a county, etc. It takes from the physician his art of applying to the problems at hand standards and experience worked out elsewhere, such as what good ventilation and good sanitation are. It takes from the engineer his working conception of the structural relation of things. It deals with the various problems of the community not as isolated problems but as integral parts of one problem, the welfare of the community. Again, the social survey borrows from the charity organization movement its case-counting method of bringing the problem down to human terms. It deals with actual human beings, their needs and conditions. And finally it borrows from the newspaper the art of graphic presentation of the truth as found by investigation.1 Therefore, it may be said that a social survey is an application of the statistical method to a study of the social problems of a community confined within certain geographical limits, and the publication of the results in such a way as to lead to the information of the whole community concerning itself.

The history of the social survey movement takes us back to the great work of Mr. Charles Booth, who devoted his fortune and a great part of his later life to a study of social conditions in London, the results of which are published in his Life and Labor of the People of London. Mr. Rowntree's study of York set forth in his Poverty, A Study of Town Life, is another example of the application of the statistical method to the study of a phase of a city's life. Other studies by individuals and groups which approximated the methods of the social survey are Jane Addams's Hull House Maps and Papers, Mr. Woods's South End House Studies, The City Wilderness, Americans in Process, etc., Mr. Roberts's The Anthracite Coal Communities, and various other studies of specific communities. Phases of a community's life were furnished by Hunter's Tenement House Conditions in Chicago, and The First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York, 1902-1903. The first social survey in the sense of our definition given above ever attempted in this country, however, was the Pittsburgh Survey, promoted by the Charities Publication Committee and financed by the Russell Sage Foundation, the results of which are published in a series of volumes. Since then a number of places have introduced this method of social stock taking. Buffalo undertook to study the Polish section of that city and financed the undertaking itself. Mrs. Caroline Bartlett Crane made a preliminary survey of a group of smaller communities of Kentucky under the supervision of the State Board of Health and the Federation of Women's Clubs of that state. Various cities have been surveyed since then, among them, to name only a few, were Providence under the leadership of Mr. Aronovici, Newark, New Jersey, and Sag Harbor, under Mr. St. John, and Mr. Stelzle of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions. Since then the Russell Sage Foundation has organized a Department of Surveys and Exhibits with a director and staff which under-takes to survey communities which are in a position to finance the undertaking. The Department of Church and Country Life has been organized within the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions and has made a number of surveys of rural communities throughout the eastern and middle western parts of the United States. Some of the state universities are taking up the matter of social surveys within their respective states, among them being the University of Minnesota, the University of Kansas, and the University of Wisconsin.

There is danger that the making of social surveys may become a fad and degenerate into dilettanteism. There is great need of a standardization of methods and a perfecting of technique which will preserve the good in social surveying. If the universities will take hold of it, as they have of civil, mechanical, and mining engineering, the dangers mentioned will be minimized because the commercial element will be eliminated. As practiced at the present time by the professional, social, and educational surveyor, it is liable to be brought into disrepute. Too often it is made with a destructive bias by the surveyor, on the theory, conscious or unconscious, that unless he finds something wrong with the place or institution surveyed he will have no reason for his existence. Moreover, it is tending in some quarters to degenerate into an attempt to apply to such matters as methods of education, standards of efficiency which may be useful in checking clerks or workers in a factory, but which when applied to testing the work of people who are dealing with the more delicate matters of education and religious instruction are like trying to mend a watch with a crowbar. The limitations of this method must be clearly recognized by those who are its friends. Its application to certain problems in connection with all kinds of institutions will prove beneficial, but to try to bend all kinds of social phenomena to its stiff and undeveloped methods is to distort the facts out of all semblance to reality and make them the instrument of error rather than of truth.


PEARSON, KARL. The Grammar of Science, Chap. I.

JEVONS, W. S. Principles of Science, Chap. XIV.

See also the series of papers in Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in the City of New York, Vol. II, pp. 475—544 on "Social Surveys"; Riley, "Sociology and Social Surveys," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XVI (May, 1911), pp. 818—836; Gillin, "The Application of the Social Survey to Small Communities," Ibid., Vol. XVII (March, 1912), pp. 647—658; "The Social Survey and its Further Development," Publications of the American Statistical Association, 1915.


1. Look over a volume of the Census, Volume I of Booth's Life and Labor of the People of London, Volume I of The Pittsburgh Survey, and state the sociological purpose in each.

2. Would the study of family life among the Bantoc Igorotes of the Philippines be a special or a general sociological study?

3. Cite a book aside from those mentioned in the text which is a descriptive sociological study.

4. Let the class organize itself for a complete survey of some community or some one social problem therein. There is great need of a careful looking into the situation with respect to the means of social recreation in most communities. Other subjects will naturally suggest themselves.

5. When the Census Report on Marriage and Divorce sets forth the number of marriages in the United States in a certain year, is it following the static or the dynamic method? Which is illustrated when it compares the number of divorces in r887 with the number in 1906?

6. Are Riis's books, How the Other Half Lives, The Battle with the Slum, and The Children of the Poor sociological investigations? If so, what kind?

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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