The Research Paper
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THE RESEARCH PAPER
There is a standard format for all research reports, whether they be of the natural or social sciences. The ultimate goal is to test hypotheses, the predictions derived from ones theory and built upon the findings of others.
The structure of the research paper reflects the profound relationship between theory and fact. Facts do not speak for themselves. As Marvin Harris (Cultural Materialism 1979:7) observed, “facts are always unreliable without theories that guide their collection and that distinguish between superficial and significant appearances.” On the other hand, theories without facts are meaningless. The premise of science (and what distinguishes it from dogma and armchair philosophizing) is the authority of experiment and observation over reason, ideology, and intuition.
Also reflected in a research paper is the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. In the “Review of Literature” section one reports on the findings of others relevant to ones own inquiry. Your enterprise may be simply attempting to replicate others findings using a different population at a different point in time. Or you may be addressing contradictory predictions derived from two different theories, or noting inconsistencies in findings of different researchers. In the “Discussion” section you will be communicating to future investigators: what did you find and where does one now go?
Finally, its worth stressing that the evaluation of your paper will never be determined by whether or not your hypotheses are verified. It is important to remember that a hypothesis supported by the data does not mean that it is true as there conceivably is an infinite number of other theories that lead to the same prediction. Similarly, failure of support does not necessarily mean that your hypothesis is wrong: it may be hold true in some populations, you may have incorrectly measured your theorys concepts, your sampling may be flawed, etc. Philosopher Karl Popper, in fact, argues that science is not a method for verifying hypotheses. Instead, all that science can logically lead to is the falsification of hypotheses. In sum, negative results can be every bit as important as positive ones.
We expect clear and polished prose, not something that reads like some last-minute late Sunday night effort. In this era of word processing there is little excuse for misspellings. The outline of your papers should be organized in the following way (Here examples are given for a research question involving the effects of religiosity on Americans attitudes toward euthanasia):
Statement of Problem
Describe what precisely you intend to show/argue and why (i.e., address the ever-lurking “So What?” question). Is your research problem addressing a significant social problem, or is it testing some theoretical hypothesis, such as the Marxist argument that high television viewing levels make people feel apolitical and powerless?
The success of any “science,” whether it be natural or social, depends on asking the proverbial “right” question. What distinguishes good questions from bad? In part, good questions advance knowledge about significant issues, issues that are timely (e.g., why the growing homicide rates of American adolescents), that advance our ability to predict future events, that test theoretical hypotheses or resolve contradictory theoretical predictions. And what constitutes a good sociological question? First, are important issues even raised? Obviously why violent gangs appear in the poorer parts of some cities and not others is more important than whether blue or brown eyed children are more likely to prefer playing with a yo-yo. The issues raised ideally are timely, relevant to the problems or trends of the present time, and have broad applicability. Good questions are those allowing theories to be tested or, as when two theories make opposing predictions, be compared. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a good sociological question is value-free. If, for instance, you are analyzing Americans attitudes toward government intervention in family life (such as the government intervening when Christian Science parents refuse to give their children life- saving medical treatment), the question is not “Are there circumstances demanding government intervention?” This is a question for lawyers and political philosophers. Instead, a more appropriate question is “Which social groups are most likely to endorse government government intervention when parents, because of their religious beliefs, refuse to allow their seriously ill