Making a Sociological Argument: Orienting Students to a New Field

Greta Krippner, Sociology

“Of course the method of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry.” (Karl Marx,1867)


Once you have developed a viable research question, your next task is to review the evidence in order to formulate an answer to your question. The answer to your question is your thesis, or your argument. Typically, researchers do original research at this point—they analyze statistical data, go to the field, administer surveys, conduct experiments, etc. We don’t have time for that in the course of one semester, so we will use existing research (also called secondary research) as evidence. Even though we are not collecting our own data, the logic is the same—you will use data (collected by others) to support your position. This does not mean simply parroting another researcher’s results; the unique (and creative!) part of your research project comes in assembling evidence from a variety of sources.

So, for example, you may want to argue that birth order does not provide a good explanation of (conservative) social attitudes. You are taking the same position that Freese et al. do, but while you will report their findings, you will not limit yourself to their research. Rather you will look for other researchers who have considered the relationship between birth order theory and social attitudes. How do their findings compare with the findings of Freese et al.? If they are also arguing against birth order theory, they support your argument, and you will include their findings as additional evidence in support of your position. If they contradict Freese et al.’s position, you will also include them in your discussion, but here your task is to explain why Freese et al.’s findings are more persuasive.

Perhaps you want to take another tack not by arguing for or against birth order theory with respect to a specific outcome per se, but rather by comparing how birth order theory “performs” as compared to the standard sociological variables (age, race, gender, etc.) across a variety of social outcomes. Perhaps Freese et al. convinced you that birth order is not a good predictor of social attitudes, but does birth order do a better job predicting other social outcomes, including education, achievement, personality, etc.? In this case, you would still present the findings of Freese et al. as evidence about the effect of birth order on social attitudes, but then you would go on to examine research on birth order and education, achievement, and personality.

Keep in mind the difference between summarizing and making an argument here. You are not merely summarizing Freese et al.’s paper; you are using their findings to make your own argument. The distinction is tricky, because making an argument requires you to summarize the research of others, but for your own purposes.

Two Strategies for Making a Sociological Argument

What you do in your argument depends a great deal on how your question is framed. Generally, there are two different tasks you can take on in making a sociological argument:

  1. Establish a relationship between two or more phenomena (variables).

This is the mode of sociological thinking/argumentation we have stressed most in class. We have already discussed several questions that involve this kind of argument:

Example 1: Does birth order affect social attitudes?

Example 2: How does co-habitation prior to marriage affect the probability of marital success/stability?

Example 3: Is low voter turnout explained by the educational levels of the population?

Each of these questions asks about a presumed relationship: does a relationship exist between cohabitation and marital success? Between birth order and social attitudes? Between voting and educational levels? Presuming that the variables are measurable, these sort of questions lend themselves to quantitative analysis: most of the relevant evidence will be of a statistical variety. Where variables aren’t measurable, though, qualitative research may be used to establish a relationship.

Example 4: Do families with only girl (or only boy) children exhibit more closeness?

This question is again asking about a relationship between variables: does the quality of family interaction (i.e., “closeness”) differ in families with all-girl (or all-boy) children as compared to families where the children are mixed-gender? Note that “closeness” is a subjective characteristic, and not easily measured. Very likely, then, research on this topic will be qualitative.

Regardless of whether the research you are using is quantitative, qualitative, or a mixture of both, if your question is about establishing a relationship then your argument will generally involve adjudicating contradictory findings. You will find research that both supports and contradicts the existence of the relationship you are assessing. You must first decide, based on all the evidence you have reviewed, where you come down on the issue: are you persuaded that the posited relationship exists? You will then systematically make a case in support of your position, citing the relevant findings as evidence. You will also discuss findings that contradict your position, explaining why you find them less credible. Eliminating alternative explanations is an important component of making a convincing sociological argument. More on this in a moment. . . .

  1. Establish a mechanism.

We haven’t talked about this a lot in class, but there is another type of research question in sociology. These are “how” and “why” questions—rather than attempting to establish (and quantify) a relationship between two variables, this kind of research question is oriented towards explaining how something works or why a particular phenomenon is occurring. These are questions about process. Often (but not always!) qualitative research is better suited to addressing process questions than quantitative research.

Example 5: What explains the recent influx of Latino immigrants to the United States?

Example 6: Why aren’t third parties successful in the United States?

Note that this kind of question can’t be expressed as easily or naturally in the language of independent and dependent variables. This difficulty reflects the fact that while this type of question does specify an “outcome” (dependent) variable (e.g., Latino immigration, third party success), independent variables (causes) are left open.

The task here is to provide a plausible explanation for an event. The relevant evidence may be more institutional or structural than statistical in nature. For example, in order to explain the influx of Latino immigration, relative levels of socio-economic development in the United States and Latin America might be relevant to your argument. Perhaps political events in Latin countries in recent years, or changes to U.S. immigration law are important. Here the task of constructing a sociological argument consists of weighing these factors in order to determine which are most important. As before, you will want to consider and eliminate alternative explanations. If you believe, for example, that the most fundamental reason for third party failure in the United States is the structure of campaign finance laws, then you may want to argue against an alternative (contradicting) explanation for that failure, such as the position that the existing two-party system effectively meets the needs of a wide variety of Americans.

Finally, note that some arguments accomplish both of these tasks: they establish a relationship and posit a mechanism. For example, research on the cohabitation question could first establish that there is a relationship between cohabitating prior to marriage and marital success and then try to explain how that relationship works. Does cohabitating allow couples a “trial” period in which to determine if they are truly compatible prior to marriage? Does it enable couples to negotiate difficult issues before committing to a permanent relationship? Does cohabiting provide couples an opportunity to practice interpersonal skills that, once acquired, strengthen the marital relationship? Establishing a relationship and explaining how the relationship works will often involve combining quantitative and qualitative research.

Making Your Argument Convincing

Your goal is to convince a skeptical reader of the correctness of your claim. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Making a sociological argument involves selecting and prioritizing key factors or causes from a multitude of possible factors or causes. A paper in which you argue that everything under the sun is related to your problem is not particularly useful or informative. Instead, your task is to simplify a complex reality by telling the reader which factors or causes are most important for a given phenomenon you are trying to explain. It is not your task to be exhaustive; it is your task to convince readers as to what is most central. So, for example, “Residential segregation is a key cause of urban poverty,” is a stronger, more interesting claim than, “Social, political, and economic factors contribute to urban poverty.” In general, strong (specific) claims are preferable to weak (non-specific) ones.
  2. However, if your claim is too strong for you to defend with believable evidence, you are better off backing down to a thesis you can squarely defend with the available evidence.
  3. Use the facts, figures, statistics, interview data, etc. of other researchers to support your points. Don’t just recite the claims that others make based on their data, show the evidence behind their claims.
  4. Depending on your question, you may want to introduce and refute counter-arguments or alternative explanations. This strengthens your claims, because instead of allowing the reader to come up with counter-arguments, you are saying, “you might be thinking my thesis isn’t true because of x, well let me tell you why it’s true despite” By eliminating alternative explanations, you are heading off your critics at the pass.
  5. The quote from Marx is intended to remind you that while the process of working out your argument is (necessarily) messy, the presentation of your argument in your paper shouldn’t be. In other words, avoid writing your paper as a blow-by-blow of your thought process while you were working out your argument. Rather, in writing, you begin where you ended in thought—with a clean, concise statement of your argument. You then use your argument to guide and structure the paper. We will deal more specifically with organizational issues in sociological writing in a few weeks.

Finding a Research Question

The research paper assignment is an opportunity for you to make an informed argument about a sociological problem of your choice. In selecting a research question, you should pursue something that is of interest to you that you wish to learn more about. The only restriction on your choice is that there must be some sociological research done on the problem as you will be drawing on the extant research in defining and defending your thesis (i.e., your main argument).

Notice that I have been using the words “problem” and “question” and not “topic.” This is deliberate. A research topic is a very general statement of an area for investigation. A problem or a question is much more focused: it suggests a circumscribed area of debate, not a general field of knowledge. You will start with a topic, but in order to complete the assignment successfully, you must move from a topic to a research question or problem. This is not easy to do, but the following guidelines may help you.

  1. Ask a question concerning differences between individuals, groups, roles, relationships, societies, time periods. Remember the dictum: no comparison, no information.
  2. Ask a question that cannot be simply answered yes or no. A proper sociological question should suggest a debate that is still open. A question that can answered definitively, once and for all, is not likely to be very interesting to sociologists.
  3. Ask a question that has more than one plausible answer. Your task in this paper is to make a case for your position; you can only do this effectively if the other possible positions are real, viable alternatives. Avoid making your argument by setting up straw-man opponents.
  4. Make sure there is data on your question. This is important. There are many wonderful and interesting questions that have not been studied by sociologists. But for the purposes of this course, you are constrained to working on questions on which you can find a body of published work.
  5. Make sure your question is answerable in the space allowed. You have 10-12 pages to make your case. You should break your question down into something that is tractable in a short paper.

So, you will start with a topic, something of interest to you. If you aren’t sure where your interests lie, take a look at the reading list for the course and make a note of the book on the syllabus that most intrigues you. You may want to read this book ahead of schedule. Once you have decided on a general area, go to the library and search the topic. Find some preliminary articles and read them. A review article on your topic, if it exists, may be especially helpful in laying out general debates. You can peruse the Annual Review of Sociology for review pieces. As you become more knowledgeable on your topic, you will be able to formulate various possible questions for research. You should choose the question that is most interesting to you, most tractable, and for which you can find material.

How to Read a (Quantitative) Journal Article

Note: This handout refers to Jeremy Freese, Brian Powell, and Lala Carr Steelman, “Rebel Without Cause or Effect: Birth Order and Social Attitudes,” American Sociological Review 64 (1999): 207-231.

  1. The first thing to realize is that quantitative articles follow a formula. They all have more or less the same structure: an introductory section in which the problem is introduced and the objectives of the paper are previewed; a theoretical section in which the literature that relates to the problem addressed in the paper is described; a data section where the data sources for the analysis are described; the analysis or results section, where the various statistical tests performed are explained and the findings presented; and finally, a discussion or conclusion section in which the main findings are linked back to the theoretical literature.
  2. The most important thing to realize about reading a quantitative article is that (nearly) everything that is presented in the tables is discussed in the text. So read the text along with the tables. The text will draw your attention to which numbers in the tables are important.
  3. Your first task in reading the text is to identify what problem is being addressed by the research. Typically, this will be clear in the first or second page. In the Freese paper, the authors identify their problem (pp. 208-9) as testing the effects of birth order on various social attitudes, including conservatism. In addition to identifying what the problem is, try to determine who or what the author is arguing against—i.e., where does the author situate him/herself in existing debates? In the Freese paper, the authors are arguing against Sulloway, who they recognize has made a major contribution by being the first to study the relationship between birth order and social attitudes (p. 208), but whom they criticize for suggesting that birth order is more important than standard sociological variables (gender, race, class, age, number of siblings).
  4. Next, you should identify the relevant variables in the study and how they are measured. In the Freese (pp. 213-215) study, the main independent variable is birth order, measured dichotomously—i.e., the respondent is first-born or the respondent is not first-born. Similarly, the dependent variable, social attitudes, is operationalized using six specific measures: political self-identification, opposition to liberal social movements, conservative views of race and gender, support for existing authority, and “tough mindedness.” Each of these measures of social attitudes is operationalized in turn. For example, Freese et al. (p. 215) ask respondents to indicate how patriotic they are (“How proud are you to be an American?”) as a measure of the variable “support for existing authority.”
  5. The “Results” section is the core of the article. It is also the hardest to read, because it is the most technical. The text will help you interpret the tables. The first thing you must figure out is how variables are coded—i.e. what does a positive versus a negative coefficient mean? For example, the Freese (p. 215) article notes that measures are coded so that positive coefficients are consistent with the hypothesis that first-borns are more conservative in their social attitudes. Negative coefficients, then, do not support the hypothesis. There are two significant coefficients in the first model (p. 216). “Significance” means that the observed effect is strong enough that we can rule out chance as an explanation of the observation. Significant effects are indicated with an asterisk (or several asterisks—meaning we can be even more confident that the observation is not produced by chance). In this case, the first significant coefficient is a positive number. We can interpret this as saying that first-borns are more likely to vote for Bush, which supports the hypothesis. On the other hand, the negative coefficient on the significant “tough on crime” measure tells us that first-borns are less likely to be tough on crime than later born children—this contradicts the hypothesis. On balance, then, this first model does not lend much credence to birth order theory—only two of 24 measures are significant, and of these two, only one supports the hypothesis that first-borns are more conservative. Not very convincing, right?
  6. The next thing to notice, however, is that there are various “models.” Specifying different models allows the researchers to take more than one crack at discerning a pattern in the table. In this case, Freese and his co-authors know from other research that variables such as sex, age, race, parents’ education, and sibship size are related to social attitudes. So perhaps there really is a relationship between birth order and conservative attitudes, but it is being obscured by these other variables. The way to handle this possibility is to introduce the various demographic variables as control variables, which means holding them constant so that the effect of birth order can be isolated. This is what Freese et al. are doing in Model 2. But they still don’t find much of a relationship between birth order and social conservatism. Look for the significant coefficients in Model 2. What do they indicate?
  7. Not to be dissuaded, the researchers throw more controls into Model 3 and Model 4. The additional controls specify other factors known to be correlates with social attitudes—parents’ occupational prestige, parents’ marital status, the loss of a parent before age 16, childhood religion, region of the country in which the respondent was raised (MODEL 3); and respondent’s education and occupational prestige (MODEL 4). But in Models 3 and 4, just as in Model 2, only 3 of 24 measures of social attitudes are significant, and they are also in the wrong direction! Remember, because of the way the variables are coded, a negative number contradicts the hypothesis that first-borns are more conservative.
  8. So, on this evidence, support for birth order theory is weak. But notice what Freese et al. (pp. 218-219) do next. They now examine each of the variables that served as controls in “Model 2”—sex, age, race, parents’ education, and sibship size—and compare their effect to the effect of birth order. Notice that in Table 2 these variables are no longer functioning as control variables—they are not being held constant, but rather allowed to vary, so that they can be related to variance in the dependent variable. Freese et al. are able to show that these variables are far more powerful predictors of social attitudes than is birth order—for each variable, at least 12 of the measures are significant. However, in looking at the pattern formed by significant measures, Freese et al. (p. 219) note that only age is consistent—the other independent variables tend to contain contradictions. For example, respondents with well educated parents tend to be more liberal on attitudinal measures than respondents with less well educated parents, yet they are also more likely to identify themselves as Republican than Democrat. Freese et al.’s (p. 219) conclusion from all of this is that labels like “conservative” may not actually capture a unified set of values, and that perhaps proponents of birth order theory achieved their results by relying on vague concepts that actually have little purchase in the real world.
  9. Typically, following the main analysis, researchers will try several other tests to establish the robustness of their findings. They want to be sure that the results they are getting are not a quirk of the particular way they manipulated the data. In the Freese paper, the authors establish the robustness of findings by using a different data set—one that has intra-familial data—and by testing a wider variety of measures of social attitudes from the GSS. Neither of these tests changes their results. This increases their confidence that their results are correct.
  10. A final test done by the researchers is for interaction effect. The idea of an interaction effect is that the way a certain variable operates is affected by the presence or absence of another variable. The interaction effect they are testing is birth order and spacing of children: theory suggests that the effect of birth order on social attitudes is most pronounced when there is moderate spacing (2 to 5 years) between adjacent siblings. Again, there is no evidence from their analysis of the data that this is the case.
  11. In sum, in interpreting tables like Table 1 and Table 2 in the Freese paper, there are two things to consider: 1) are any of the variables significant? And 2) if significant, does the given variable affect the dependent variable in the predicted direction?