Based on their observations of real world phenomena, sociologists develop theories to explain and predict the behavior of humans within society. One of the first steps in testing the validity of a theory is to develop a hypothesis. A hypothesis is an empirically verifiable declaration that certain variables and their corresponding measures are related in a specific way proposed by a theory. To be of use in testing the validity of a theory, hypotheses must be stated so that they can be tested with the tools of inferential statistics. To this end, hypotheses express the relationship between the independent and dependent variables proposed by a theory in a way that permits them to be tested to determine the statistical likelihood of the observed results being due to chance or an underlying factor.
No matter where we are or what we are doing, we are constantly bombarded with all sorts of information. Sometimes this information is relevant to our current or future activities, and sometimes it is not. For example, as I sit in my office dictating this article to my computer, I am primarily aware of the process of trying to transform my thoughts into words. However, if I pay attention, I am also aware of other experiences, too. Certainly I hear my voice as I dictate, but I can also hear my headset amplifying my voice, telling me that my voice recognition software is receiving the data it needs to transcribe my words. In addition, I receive other sense experiences that I am choosing to ignore at this time: the heat of the halogen lamp sitting on my desk, the sunlight streaming through my office windows, the noise of the printer as it spits out a draft copy of the article, and the warm air softly blowing from a heating vent. If I am quiet and listen carefully, I can also hear my heart beating as well as noises coming from outside my office.
Obviously, I do not care about all this information, nor can I process it all at the same time. Unless I am in danger of touching my lamp, the heat it puts off is irrelevant. My heartbeat is not important either, unless it develops an arrhythmia or other aberration.
Even the sound of my voice is irrelevant as long as I hear the words in my head and they get correctly transcribed onto the computer screen. I simply cannot maintain a high degree of attention to all these sense experiences at the same time, so I ignore most of them and focus merely on the ones that are important to the task at hand.
Just as I need to pay attention to or ignore the various inputs I receive as I sit in my office, so, too we must pay attention to or ignore the various inputs we receive as we interact with others. For example, if I am having difficulty downloading an article from a database, there are many potential reasons for the problem: I may have entered an incorrect access code; I may no longer have access authorization; my computer hardware or software may be malfunctioning; the database may be experiencing a technical problem; or the host server or my Internet service provider may be experiencing a technical problem. If I am unable to troubleshoot the problem on my own, I may contact technical support to gather additional data so that I can narrow down the source of the problem. Technical support may be able to give me additional data, or point out data that I am ignoring so that, between us, we can solve the problem.
As we work together, we develop and test hypotheses. For example, our initial hypothesis might be that I have entered an incorrect access code. The technical support person could then look up my account, confirm my access code, and ask me to enter it again. If this does not work, we might formulate a new hypothesis: that I no longer have access authorization. The technical support person could then contact the department that sets up authorizations and see if I have lost mine.
As complex as this process may be, however, troubleshooting a computer problem is a relatively simple task compared to interpreting human behavior. Sociologists task themselves with this work as they constantly formulate and reformulate hypotheses based on their observations in order to describe and predict the behavior of people within society.
What is a Hypothesis?
Hypotheses are developed from the observations of a researcher or research team. For example, based on my observation that I am much more likely to receive prompt and courteous service when I go to a department store while I am wearing my business clothes than when I am wearing my old gardening clothes, I may develop the hypothesis that clerks in retail stores give differential service depending on the perceived socioeconomic status and social capital of the person they are serving.
In scientific terms, a hypothesis is more than a question. For example, I may wonder aloud whether there is any relationship between the way that I dress and the way that I am treated by a sales clerk. To be useful from a scientific point of view, however, I need to operationally define my terms so that I can get a testable answer to my question. An operational definition is a definition that is stated in terms that can be observed and measured. For example, "the way that I dress" is open to many interpretations. To turn my question into a hypothesis, I need to operationally define all the terms in my question. So, I might operationally define "well-dressed" to mean being clean, well groomed, and wearing business attire, and "poorly dressed" to mean being dirty, poorly groomed, and wearing old, dirty clothes. Notice that by defining the terms in this manner I have left out a number of other possible scenarios, such as wearing old but clean and mended clothes, wearing formal wear, and wearing business clothes but not being well groomed. Similarly, I need to operationally define the meaning of "good service." To do this, I might develop a series of rating scales or criteria that measure the various components of service (e.g., the number of minutes it takes for the sales clerk responds to the customer standing at the counter, how much eye contact the sales clerk makes with the customer, how long the sales clerk listens before making a suggestion). Although these operational definitions (and their concomitant simplification of the original question) may not answer all the nuances of the original question, they do allow me to develop a hypothesis that I can actually test in the field.
Scientifically speaking, a hypothesis is an empirically verifiable declaration describing the relationship between and corresponding measures of the independent and dependent variables as proposed by a theory. The independent variable is the variable that is manipulated by the researcher. In the example above, the independent variable is the manner in which a person is...
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