7400.685-080 - Research Methods in FCS
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
Spring Semesters - Tuesday Evenings 5:20-7:55pm in 220 Schrank Hall South
Instructor: David D. Witt, Ph.D.
Science and Research
Introduction to Research Methods in Family and Consumer Sciences

The purpose of this course is to give graduate students an introduction to research methodology sufficient for the performance of supervised research required for graduate students at the master's level. As graduates in FCS, students should study to become good consumers of research in their various specialty areas. Basic methods of research and analysis, experimental designs, secondary and content analysis, small group designs and historical perspectives are all important. Each of these methodology groups are driven by theory, lest they become useless techniques.

As undergraduates, most FCS students were not oriented towards the application of the scientific method.  The plain truth is that science is nothing without two main features - theory and research methodology.  Science can be defined as "an interconnected series of concepts and conceptual schemes that have developed as a result of experimentation and observation and are fruitful of further experimentation an dobservation." Sax 1968, p.7.  In other words, science links elements of the everyday world together using the scientific method to do so. Science starts at the elementary end of descriptions (the what) and progresses over time to increasingly more encompassing explanations (the why), and with the devotion of enough time and energy to the generation of predictions (the if this-then that). 

Science consists of theoretical statements that are used to generate hypotheses for testing in controlled environments.  What is meant by control is that the scientist attempts to eliminate or reduce the effects of irrelevant or extraneous variables by contrived or artificial means.  Theoretical statements may be fully defined theories or simplistic statements of belief, or even faith.  The key difference between science and everyday life is the element of control.  In both everyday life and in scientific investigation, you are making and remembering cumulative observations. In everyday life, we aren't systematic in our recording of these observations, nor do we observe things in exactly the same way every time.  In science, we try to do both.

Science makes certain assumptions, which are fundamental beliefs that cannot be fully tested. For example, science assumes that the natural world has order instead of chaos.  Further, science assumes that knowledge of the order of the natural world is  worth knowing.  The scientist assumes that the world consists of elements that can be known through the senses and through reason, and that the processes of the world follow rules (i.e., the axiomatic rules of chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology). 

Knowledge gained by following the scientific method has no good or evil feature, but such knowledge can be used for either good or evil.  But the knowledge gained, in and of itself, is good.  Thus, the fruit of scientific investigation may be postively used (nuclear research leading to reliable, efficient energy) or misused (nuclear research has also led to the development of weapons of mass destruction). A free society will uphold the principles of academic freedom of inquiry precisely because of the importance of knowing about the world in which we live. Thus, the aims of social science are simple - to 1) describe, 2) explain and 3) predict events and investigate the processes most essential to the human condition.  To accomplish all this, scientists always begin with theory.

Theory and Its Scientific Functions

Theory describes situations and events, as nearly as possible, as they occur in reality. Theoretical statements about some aspect of family life should paint a meaningful and accurate picture of the events in question. When reading scholarly literature about the differences between girls and boys as they develop through adolescence, for example, one should be able to imagine the reality of a typical teenager as he or she normally matures.

Social Theory delimits the picture of phenomena it creates by cropping reality to exclude portions of social organization not covered by the theory. Good social and psychological theories should specifically state to which groups, to what portions of the population, or to whom the theory applies.  This feature allows social scientists to generalize theory in specific ways. Thus, adolescent development will obviously be somewhat different for boys versus girls, for Koreans compared to Canadians, and for rich and poor teens. Thus, a theory of adolescent development would necessarily specify appropriate delimiting factors.

Theory describes things by defining the terms in relational statements, and using ideal typologies. After a some systematic observations about the spiritual side human nature, an observer may begin to theorize that there are three types of people who attend regular religious services - those who fear punishment, those who seek forgiveness, and those who like the music. This fledgling theory will need much more systematic observation, using standard scientific methodology, but it is a start at descrption.

Theory explains, or provides the "why" of, various aspects of individual experience and social events. For example, theories dealing with teenage pregnancy should explain why so many teens find themselves pregnant even though information about contraception is readily available. A good theory will explain the "why" of events using "relational" statements (i.e., as self-esteem increases among teenage girls, their risk of premarital pregnancy decreases).

Finally, theory predicts behavior or events. Often the prediction is inherent in the explanation. Given the statement about self-esteem and pregnancy, we could theoretically predict outcome (i.e., if parents, teachers, and others increase the number of self-esteem building messages aimed at teenage girls, this will effectively reduce the number of pregnant teenagers over time).   Note that any of the theoretical statements above are testable in the real world, and can be put to empirical tests to see if theoretical tenets are observable in reality.

These are some of the rules that guide the generation of social theories. However, social theory is constantly evolving as more and more theory based research is initiated and completed. This means that theories start out rather imprecisely. They often lack one or more of the functions of description, explanation, and prediction.  Social scientists, like their counterparts in the "hard sciences", often talk about the cumulative nature of science in the study of their field. Theory is continually in a state of refinement as research interests conspire to test each and every component of the theory under a wide range of conditions.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Robert King Merton, a well known theoretician in sociology, said this: "For in building the mansion of sociology during the last decades, theorist and empiricist have learned to work together ... All this has led not only to the realization that theory and empirical research should interact but to the result that they do interact." (Merton, 1967: 156).
This idea of theorizing and empirical testing, followed by refinement of theory and further testing applies to all of social science. Merton is said to have uttered one of the classic lines in sociology. Loosely paraphrased, he said that we stand on the shoulders of giants in order to have the vision that we now take for granted. In other words, the precision and sophistication of our knowledge base continues to mount up over time to the point that mediocre thinkers of today can solve problems that brilliant minds of yesterday could not even conceive.  There is easily more scientific "truth" in a seventh grade science book than was cumulatively possessed by the entire population of the earth during the 17th century.  Sometimes, as we sit in front of our microcomputers, clicking away at the keyboard, deeply involved in word processing, we may forget about the problems under which our intellectual forbearers scratched out a little theory. But we can get an inkling of the enormity of the task of fundamental thought set upon by those early philosopher/scientists just by contemplating the stars in the heavens - there's still a lot to find out about.

For example, if one were to make a list of the inventive contributors who made the personal computer a desktop reality, one might have to begin with the person who first discovered fire, because that is a key factor necessary to extract the metal from copper ore so that the hundreds of little wires could be made to allow electrons to flow through the computer's "veins".  Along these lines, the importance of the ideas of early social thinkers fundamental to the creation of new therapies, treatments, educational curricula, social controls and other things that have become necessary.  It is extremely important that we know the giants (or at least appreciate their ideas) on which current practice is based.  The names below are only a few of the hundreds of academic thinkers who have contributed to our theoretical understanding of the family (Mullins, 1973). The chart is a genealogy of dissertation teachers and students who became teachers with students. To update the theory family tree for yourself would require inquiries of your own professors about their old teachers.

As one of my students, you may be interested to know that you have a direct, intellectual "blood line" to the beginnings of American pragmatic philosophy and the very foundations of modern social scientific thought. The point is that social science has come a long way since 1890. As new students of family and consumer sciences, you are preparing to do your part to extend the discipline's knowledge base. A point not illustrated by the figure above is that it wasn't until around 1950 that theoreticians became familiar with the techniques of research and put to use the advances in computer technology of the times.  Not one name on the list has achieved theoretical prominence without doing research. This is the next important part of the discussion about theory.

The Theory - Research Methodology Connection

Merton tells us that theory and research are linked together by logic and observation. Famous writer of methodology textbooks, Babbie (1993) illustrates the cumulative nature of science and the principles by which social theory is created by theorizing about social relationships and then testing hypotheses, in other words, the use of the scientific method.  We theorize, then we test, then we publish, then others find fault or agreement, we and they re-test, re-theorize, then publish again - and so on until we begin to more or less agree.  Meanwhile, humans, including the scientists themselves, continue to live their lives in relative ignorance while they strive to find more of the world knowable.   Our hearts will continue to beat whether or not we know they beat.  But knowing why and how they beat, and the conditions that stop hearts from beating could come in handy sometime.

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974), there's a discussion about the scientific method and why it is important to think about that which one intends to theorize about. Here, a boy, his father, and some friends are camping by the side of the road. It is night and everyone is gazing into the campfire: After a while the boy, Chris, asks his dad a question:
    "Do you believe in ghosts?"
"No," I say.
    "Why not?", Chris asks.
"Because they are un-sci-en-ti-fic", I say. "They contain no matter and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws of science, do not exist except in people's minds."
   I add, "Of course, the laws of science contain no matter and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's minds. It is best to be completely scientific about the whole thing and refuse to believe in either ghosts or the laws of science. That way you're safe. That doesn't leave you very much to believe in, but that's scientific too."
    "I don't know what you're talking about," Chris says. "One of the kids at YMCA camp says he believes in ghosts".
"He was just spoofing you."
    "No he wasn't. He said that when people haven't been buried right, their ghosts came back to haunt people. He really believes in that."
"What's his name?" Sylvia says.
    "Tom White Bear."
"Ohhh, Indian!" . . . "I guess I'm going to have to take that back a little. I was thinking of European ghosts."

    "What's the difference?"
"Well, Indians sometimes have a different way of looking at things, which I'm not saying is completely wrong. Science isn't part of the Indian Tradition. I guess I believe in ghosts too. My own opinion is that the intellect of modern man isn't that much different." "Those Indians and medieval men were just as intelligent as we are, but the context in which they thought was completely different. Within that context of thought, ghosts and spirits are quite as real as atoms, particles, photons and quants are to a modern man. In that sense I believe in ghosts. Modern man has his ghosts and spirits too, you know. The laws of physics and of logic ... the number system ... the principle of algebraic substitution. These are ghosts. We just believe in them so thoroughly that they seem real."
    "I don't get it", says Chris.
(Pirsig, 1974: 28-29).

To help his son, and himself, (and hopefully the reader) understand the difference between Native Ameican and European ghosts, the father begins to tell his theory about solving mysteries using logic and science:
Mysteries. You're always surrounded by them. But if you tried to solve them all, you'd never get (anything done). Take Nature - When you've really hit a tough one, tried everything, racked your brain and nothing works and you know this time Nature has really decided to be difficult, you say "Okay, Nature, that's the end of the nice guy," and you crank up the formal scientific method. For this you keep a lab notebook.
Everything gets written down, formally, so that you know at all times where you are, where you've been, where you're going and where you want to get....otherwise the problems get so complex you get lost in them and confused and forget what you know and what you don't know and have to give up.

The logical statements entered into the notebook are broken down into six categories:
  • 1) statement of the problem,
  • 2) hypotheses as to the cause of the problem,
  • 3) experiments designed to test each hypothesis,
  • 4) predicted results of the experiments,
  • 5) observed results of the experiments and
  • 6) conclusions from the results of the experiments.
This is just like a high school or college lab project, but the purpose here is no longer busy work. The purpose now is precise guidance of thoughts that will fail if they are not accurate. The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know. There's not a scientist or mechanic alive who hasn't suffered from that one so much that he is not instinctively on guard. That's the main reason why so much scientific and mechanical information sounds so dull and so cautious. If you get careless or go romanticizing scientific information, giving it a flourish here and there, Nature will soon make a complete fool out of you.

Class - listen up.  Aside from reading this Pirsig book this summer, you need to know this:
Those six categories listed above are precisely and exactly the steps of the scientific method.  The scientific method is just about the only method to rely upon when attempting to uncover "truths" or "facts" because: nothing is so simple and straightforward that it can simply be true or right. Science allows us to create an environment within which our little models of reality will work for the time being.

Our theory will be tested and interpreted and published. And it may be right for a month, a year or a decade. But sooner or later, it will fade in its "truthfulness", become surpassed by even stronger "truths", and then we have to start to extend, modify, or abandon old theory in order to cover new intellectual ground.   Don't forget - we used to think the earth was flat (some still do), or that the earth was the center of the universe (some still do), or that taking too many baths would be unhealthy and lead to misery and pain (alas, some still do).   To forge ahead inspite of our human inclination to cut corners and sumarize too soon, we try (sometimes we make fools of ourselves in the process) to be precise and exact while faithfully employing scientific methodology that has worked in the past.  The field of FCS has been applying scientific principles for some time, and of course we have a long way to go. 

We need a plan - here's a good one, from Walter Wallace's THE LOGIC SCIENCE IN SOCIOLOGY (1971).

This is a wheel which means we can start from almost any point, as long as we continue around the wheel for a few interations. Traditionally, researchers begin with a review of the literature of past findings and theories to get a strong sense of what the field knows about a research topic.  Using the method of  Deductive Logic, the researcher derives Hypotheses from the literature review (hypotheses theoretical statements made testable by defining each concept in literal, measurable terms.

The methods that get our social scientist from the hypothesis stage to the observation stage of theory construction are many. Because concepts related to each other hypothetically are abstract, there is a need to first Operationalize of each concept in all hypotheses. This refers to a specification of the steps, procedures, or operations necessary to accurately and precisely measure each concept. Concepts are abstract, while measures are concrete. Concepts reside in the minds of people, like ghosts and the laws of science. Measures reside in rules, on paper, in tools. Intelligence is a concept that is measured by a calculated score on an intelligence test. Height is a concept that is measured in feet and inches. Age is a concept that is measured in days, months, years. 

With measures for every concept in every hypothesis, the researcher needs to draw a representative sample of subjects or respondents.  The sample must be drawn so that it is not biased some way. After a sampling method is chosen, the researcher is ready to apply the measuring instruments and make observations, then data can be collected.  After all observations are made, the scientist is ready to use methodologies for analysis of data.  Here, statistical designs that include the measurements chosen are applied. Depending on the quality of the measures and the representativeness of the sample and the soundness of the logic used to derive hypotheses, the researcher should be able to generalize her findings to the larger population.

By making generalizations, the research uses inductive logic to apply findings back to theory.  Over time and several similar forays into hypothesis testing, possibily using with a variety of measures and samples, the cumulative nature of science begins to transform what we know about the topic, as theory is transformed closer to fact than belief.

It is much easier to rely on erroneous past information and allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking we know more than we really do know. It isn't very romantic to be so precise and accurate all the time, but this specific time allows for no substitute for precision.  Experience will tell us that precision employed in research when we are safe and secure will ultimately pay off in results at times when enormous problems require immediate action.  A very appropriate time for precise, conservative, informed opinions is when researchers are working in the service of the family. To be effective, advocates of the family must be able to cut through inaccuracies with a superior knowledge base. Families unknowingly wagering their very existence on our ability to provide solutions to problems. 

Types or Classifications of Research

There are two basic categories of research - Basic (pure, fundamental) research is conducted for the sake of knowing.  Basic research tests hypotheses and builds theory and is the foundation on which all theory in Family and Consumer Science is based.  From these basic elements of theory comes Applied research which the aim of which is to apply what we know to the solution of a problem.  Because applied research is dependent on the quality of fundamental research, no solution can be derived without free scientific inquiry. We'll get to these types in the coming weeks.