Formulating a Sociological Research Question

adapted from Queens College, CUNY Writing in Sociology

In most cases, you will be asked to pick a question that you would like to research. How do you pick a good one?

  • Pick a topic that really interests you. Don’t start by trying to figure out what is the “right” question to pick. Start by thinking of topics that really grab your attention and that you really want to know more about.
  • Narrow it down to a question. For example, let’s say that you are really interested in how residential housing segregation contributes to education. That is a great question, but it is a big one. You will not be able to answer it in a twenty-five page paper. You could narrow it down by focusing on a particular case: for eg. looking at a particular housing intervention (say the Gattreaux housing program or the impact of gentrification in Harlem on black families) or a specific but broader experience – for eg. African Americans living in the suburbs.
  • Is your question sociological? Since sociology is such a big academic tent, it’s always hard to figure out if what you are writing is actually sociological.  One of the biggest insults I’ve heard in Yale graduate seminars is for a professor to say, “This isn’t sociology.”  The Queens College folks have a great basic definition of a sociological question: Sociological questions are questions that examine the social meaning or patterns of a phenomenon.  The key here is that it has to be social – involving groups rather than individuals – and it has to address patterns or meanings.

Let’s take the example of college admissions. Here are three very interesting questions about college admissions.

  1. How has college admissions changed over time?
  2. Are college admissions officers more likely to favor cross country runners over golfers?
  3. What is the experience of low income white students navigating the college admission process?

The first question is a historical question addressing the change over time.  But if we add in consideration of a key sociological concept – say privilege, we get Sociologist Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen (2005), the definitive historical study of elite Ivy League admissions. (see a nice David Brooks discussion of Karabel’s book here)

The second question is more of a factual, journalistic inquiry.  To make this more sociological, we might consider what are the cultural meanings and shared group characteristics of being a golfer or a cross country runner that shape these athlete’s applications in a consistent pattern, or how admissions officers perceive these applicants and project characteristics onto them.

The third question is well stated as a sociological question.The key for all 3 is to make sure that you are looking at patterns and meaning for groups, not individuals.

Here are some things that sociology research can do:

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