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Developing a Research Question

18 Hypotheses

When researchers do not have predictions about what they will find, they conduct research to answer a question or questions, with an open-minded desire to know about a topic, or to help develop hypotheses for later testing. In other situations, the purpose of research is to test a specific hypothesis or hypotheses.  A hypothesis is a statement, sometimes but not always causal, describing a researcher’s expectations regarding anticipated finding. Often hypotheses are written to describe the expected relationship between two variables (though this is not a requirement). To develop a hypothesis, one needs to understand the differences between independent and dependent variables and between units of observation and units of analysis. Hypotheses are typically drawn from theories and usually describe how an independent variable is expected to affect some dependent variable or variables. Researchers following a deductive approach to their research will hypothesize about what they expect to find based on the theory or theories that frame their study. If the theory accurately reflects the phenomenon it is designed to explain, then the researcher’s hypotheses about what would be observed in the real world should bear out.

Sometimes researchers will hypothesize that a relationship will take a specific direction. As a result, an increase or decrease in one area might be said to cause an increase or decrease in another. For example, you might choose to study the relationship between age and legalization of marijuana. Perhaps you have done some reading in your spare time, or in another course you have taken.  Based on the theories you have read, you hypothesize that “age is negatively related to support for marijuana legalization.” What have you just hypothesized? You have hypothesized that as people get older, the likelihood of their support for marijuana legalization decreases. Thus, as age moves in one direction (up), support for marijuana legalization moves in another direction (down). If writing hypotheses feels tricky, it is sometimes helpful to draw them out. and depict each of the two hypotheses we have just discussed.

Note that you will almost never hear researchers say that they have proven their hypotheses. A statement that bold implies that a relationship has been shown to exist with absolute certainty and that there is no chance that there are conditions under which the hypothesis would not bear out. Instead, researchers tend to say that their hypotheses have been supported (or not) . This more cautious way of discussing findings allows for the possibility that new evidence or new ways of examining a relationship will be discovered. Researchers may also discuss a null hypothesis, one that predicts no relationship between the variables being studied. If a researcher rejects the null hypothesis, he or she is saying that the variables in question are somehow related to one another.

Quantitative and qualitative researchers tend to take different approaches when it comes to hypotheses. In quantitative research, the goal often is to empirically test hypotheses generated from theory. With a qualitative approach, on the other hand, a researcher may begin with some vague expectations about what he or she will find, but the aim is not to test one’s expectations against some empirical observations. Instead, theory development or construction is the goal. Qualitative researchers may develop theories from which hypotheses can be drawn and quantitative researchers may then test those hypotheses. Both types of research are crucial to understanding our social world, and both play an important role in the matter of hypothesis development and testing.  In the following section, we will look at qualitative and quantitative approaches to research, as well as mixed methods.

Text Attributions

  • This chapter has been adapted from Chapter 5.2 in Principles of Sociological Inquiry , which was adapted by the Saylor Academy without attribution to the original authors or publisher, as requested by the licensor. © Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License .

An Introduction to Research Methods in Sociology by Valerie A. Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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A hypothesis is a statement that is then tested through research. A hypothesis usually consists of what the researcher thinks to be the case, and the purpose of the research is to discover whether she/he was correct. It is a feature of scientific research methodology . Some interpretivist sociologists prefer to use an aim rather than a hypothesis as they are not interested in replicating scientific research methods as they don't believe sociology is, or should try to be, a science.

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Chapter 2. Sociological Research

2.1. Approaches to Sociological Research

New Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine.

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behaviour is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behaviour as people move through the world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have enlightened parents, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms.

Depending on the focus and the type of research conducted, sociological findings could be useful in addressing any of the three basic interests or purposes of sociological knowledge discussed in the last chapter: the positivist interest in quantitative evidence to determine effective social policy decisions, the interpretive interest in understanding the meanings of human behaviour to foster mutual understanding and consensus, and the critical interest in knowledge useful for dismantling power relations and building alternatives to conditions of servitude. It might seem strange to use scientific practices to study social phenomena — a bit like the contents of a petri dish examining themselves — but, as argued above, if the goal of sociology is to improve the operation of society, it is extremely helpful to rely on systematic approaches that research methods provide.

Sociologists often begin the research process by asking a question about how or why things happen. It might be a unique question about a new trend or an old question about a common aspect of life. Once a question is formed, a sociologist proceeds through an in-depth process to answer it. Depending on the nature of the topic and the goals of the research, sociologists have a variety of methodologies to choose from. In deciding how to design that process, the researcher may adopt a positivist methodology or an interpretive methodology . Both types of methodology can be useful for critical research strategies . The following sections describe these approaches to acquiring knowledge.

Science vs. Non-Science

Contemporary society is going through an interesting time in which the certitudes and authority of science are frequently challenged. In the context of the natural sciences, people doubt scientific claims about climate change and the safety of vaccines. In the context of the social sciences, people doubt scientific claims about the declining rate of violent crime or the effectiveness of needle exchange programs.  Sometimes there is a good reason to be skeptical about science, when scientific technologies prove to have adverse effects on the environment, for example. Sometimes skepticism has dangerous outcomes, when people act on conspiracy theories and misinformation or epidemics of diseases like measles suddenly break-out in schools due to low vaccination rates. In fact, skepticism is central to both natural and social sciences; but from a scientific point of view, the skeptical attitude needs to be combined with systematic research in order for knowledge to move forward.

In sociology, science provides the basis for being able to distinguish between everyday opinions or beliefs and propositions that can be sustained by evidence. In his paper, The Normative Structure of Science (1942/1973), the sociologist Robert Merton argued that science is a type of empirical knowledge organized around four key principles, often referred to by the acronym CUDOS :

  • Communalism: The results of science must be made available to the public; science is freely available, shared knowledge, open to public discussion and debate.
  • Universalism: The results of science must be evaluated based on universal criteria, not parochial criteria specific to the researchers themselves.
  • Disinterestedness: Science must not be pursued for private interests or personal reward.
  • Organized Skepticism: The scientist must abandon all prior intellectual commitments, critically evaluate claims, and postpone conclusions until sufficient evidence has been presented; scientific knowledge is provisional.

For Merton, therefore, non-scientific knowledge is knowledge that fails in various respects to meet these criteria. Types of esoteric or mystical knowledge, for example, might be valid for someone on a spiritual path, but because this knowledge is passed from teacher to student through direct transmission and it is not available to the public for open debate, or because the validity of this knowledge might be specific to the individual’s unique spiritual configuration, esoteric or mystical knowledge is not scientific per se . Claims that are presented to persuade (rhetoric), to achieve political goals (propaganda, of various sorts), or to make profits (advertising) are not scientific because these claims are structured to satisfy private interests. Propositions which fail to stand up to rigorous and systematic standards of evaluation are not scientific because they can not withstand the criteria of organized skepticism and scientific method.

The basic distinction between scientific and common, non-scientific claims about the world is that in science “seeing is believing” whereas in everyday life “believing is seeing” (Brym, Roberts, Lie, & Rytina, 2013). Science is, in crucial respects, based on systematic observation following the principles of CUDOS. Only on the basis of observation (or “seeing”) can a scientist believe that a proposition about the nature of the world is correct. Research methodologies are designed to reduce the chance that conclusions will be based on error. In everyday life, the order is typically reversed. People “see” what they already expect to see or what they already believe to be true. They do not systematically test what they believe to be true. Prior intellectual commitments or biases predetermine what people observe and the conclusions they draw.

Many people know things about the social world without having a background in sociology. Sometimes their knowledge is valid; sometimes it is not. It is important, therefore, to think about how people know what they know, and compare it to the scientific way of knowing. Four types of non-scientific reasoning are common in everyday life: knowledge based on casual observation, knowledge based on selective evidence, knowledge based on overgeneralization, and knowledge based on authority or tradition.

Many people know things simply because they have experienced them directly. Someone who has grown up in Manitoba has probably observed what plenty of kids learn each winter, that it really is true that one’s tongue will stick to metal when it is very cold outside. Direct experience may provide accurate information, but only if the observer is lucky. Unlike the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, in general, people are not very careful observers. In this example of the “winged ship” in Figure 2.4, the observation process is not deliberate or systematic. Instead, the observers come to know what they believe to be true through casual observation . The problem with casual observation is that sometimes it is right, and sometimes it is wrong. Without any systematic process for observing or assessing the accuracy of  observations, a person can never really be sure if their informal observations are accurate.

hypothesis definition in sociology

Many people know things because they overlook disconfirming evidence. Suppose a friend declared that all men are liars shortly after she had learned that her boyfriend had deceived her. The fact that one man happened to lie to her in one instance came to represent a quality inherent in all men. But do all men really lie all the time? Probably not. If the friend is prompted to think more broadly about her experiences with men, she would probably acknowledge that she knew many men who, to her knowledge, had never lied to her and that maybe even her boyfriend did not generally make a habit of lying. This friend committed what social scientists refer to as selective observation by noticing only the pattern that she wanted to find at the time. She ignored disconfirming evidence. If, on the other hand, the friend’s experience with her boyfriend had been her only experience with a man, then she would have been committing what social scientists refer to as overgeneralization , assuming that broad patterns exist based on very limited observations.

Another way that people claim to know what they know is by looking to what they have always known to be true. There is an urban legend about a woman who for years used to cut both ends off of a ham before putting it in the oven (Mikkelson, 2005). She baked ham that way because that is the way her mother did it, so clearly that was the way it was supposed to be done. Her knowledge was based on a family tradition or traditional knowledge . After years of tossing cuts of perfectly good ham into the trash, however, she finally asked her mother why she did it and learned that the only reason her mother cut the ends off ham before cooking it was that she did not have a pan large enough to accommodate the ham without trimming it.

Without questioning what one thinks one knows is true, one may wind up believing things that are actually false. This is most likely to occur when an authority tells us that something is true, a case of authoritative knowledge . Mothers are not the only possible authorities people might rely on as sources of knowledge. Other common authorities people might rely on are political figures, churches and ministers, media influencers and social media networks. Although it is understandable that someone might believe something to be true if they look up to, or respect the person who has said it is so, this way of knowing differs from the sociological way of knowing. Whether quantitative, qualitative, or critical in orientation, sociological research is based on the scientific method.

The Scientific Method

Sociologists make use of tried-and-true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, field research, and textual analysis. But humans and their social interactions are so diverse that they can seem impossible to chart or explain. It might seem that science is about discoveries and chemical reactions, or about proving hypotheses about elementary particles right or wrong, rather than about exploring the nuances of human behaviour. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behaviour. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are objective and accurate. Scientific methods provide limitations and boundaries that focus a study and organize its results. This is the case for both positivist quantitative methodologies, which seek to translate observable phenomena into unambiguous numerical data, and interpretive qualitative methodologies, which seek to translate observable phenomena into definable units of meaning. The social scientific method in both cases involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical (i.e., observable) evidence. The social scientific method is defined by its commitment to systematic observation of the social world, and it strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of established steps known as the research cycle .

The scientific method. Long description available.

No matter what research approach is used, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability and validity . Reliability refers to how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced. Reliability increases the likelihood that what is true of one person will be true of all people in a group. Validity refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to measure. If  the researcher wishes to examine people’s depth of religiosity — i.e., how strong is someone’s religious belief? How central is religious belief to their life? — does a measure like “frequency of church attendance” accurately measure that? Maybe not. People attend church for a variety of reasons and some religions are not organized on the basis of churches and congregations.

A subtopic in the field of political violence would be to examine the sources of homegrown radicalization: What are the conditions under which individuals in Canada move from a state of indifference or moderate concern with political issues to a state in which they are prepared to use violence to pursue political goals? The reliability of a study of radicalization reflects how well the social factors unearthed by the research apply to similar individuals who were not directly part of the research. Would another sociologist come up with the same results if they replicated the study? How well can the researcher extrapolate from the research subjects studied to individuals in the broader society? Does research on violent jihadi radicalization apply to violent neo-Nazi radicalization?

Validity ensures that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study. Do the concepts and measures of radicalization accurately represent the actual experience of political radicals? An exploration of an individual’s propensity to plan or engage in violent acts or to go abroad to join a terrorist organization should address those specific issues and not confuse them with other topics such as why an individual adopts a particular faith or espouses radical political views. There is a key difference between religiosity, radicalization, and violent radicalization. As research from the UK and United States on jihadism has in fact shown, while jihadi terrorists typically identify with an Islamic world view, a well-developed Islamic identity counteracts jihadism . Similarly, research has shown that while it intuitively makes sense that people with radical views would adopt radical means like violence to achieve them, there is in fact no consistent homegrown terrorist profile, meaning that it is not possible to predict whether someone who espouses radical views will move on to committing violent acts without taking into account the specific stages in the process (Patel, 2011).

To ensure validity, research on political violence should focus on individuals who engage in political violence and be able to distinguish between simply holding radical political beliefs and acting violently on radical political beliefs. Dalgaard-Nielsen (2010) distinguishes between radical, radicalization, and violent radicalization as follows:

a radical is understood as a person harboring a deep-felt desire for fundamental sociopolitical changes and radicalization is understood as a growing readiness to pursue and support far reaching changes in society that conflict with, or pose a direct threat to, the existing order. [V]iolent radicalization [is]a process in which radical ideas are accompanied by the development of a willingness to directly support or engage in violent acts.

The scientific method provides a systematic, organized series of steps that help ensure objectivity and consistency in exploring a social problem. These steps provide the means for accuracy, reliability, and validity. Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps, which are described below: 1) ask a question; 2) research existing sources; and 3) formulate a hypothesis.

Ask a Question

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a specific geographical location and time frame. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of students at XYZ High School?” would be too narrow. That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study.


Sociologists do not rule out any topic, but would strive to frame these questions in better research terms. That is why sociologists are careful to define their terms. Karl Popper (1902–1994) described the formulation of scientific propositions in terms of the concept of falsifiability (1963). He argued that the key demarcation between scientific and non-scientific propositions was not ultimately their factual truth, nor their verification, but simply whether or not they were stated in such a way as to be falsifiable; that is, whether a possible empirical observation could prove them wrong. If one claimed that evil spirits were the source of criminal behaviour, this would not be a scientific proposition because there is no possible way to definitively disprove it. Evil spirits cannot be observed. However, if one claimed that higher unemployment rates are the source of higher crime rates, this would be a scientific proposition because it is theoretically possible to find an instance where unemployment rates were not correlated to higher crime rates. As Popper said, “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable, observations” (Popper, 1963).

Once a proposition is formulated in a way that would permit it to be falsified, the variables to be observed need to be operationalized. In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health),” and a researcher might ask, “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect the cultural value placed on appearance?” When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition ; that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The concept is translated into an observable variable , a measure that has different values. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept.

By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data in a systematic or replicable manner. The operational definition must be valid in the sense that it is an appropriate and meaningful measure of the concept being studied. It must also be reliable , meaning that results will be close to uniform when tested on more than one person. For example, good drivers might be defined in many ways: Those who use their turn signals; those who do not speed; or those who courteously allow others to merge. But these driving behaviours could be interpreted differently by different researchers, so they could be difficult to measure. Alternatively, “a driver who has never received a traffic violation” is a specific description that will lead researchers to obtain the same information, so it is an effective operational definition. Asking the question, “how many traffic violations has a driver received?” turns the concepts of “good drivers” and “bad drivers” into variables which might be measured by the number of traffic violations a driver has received. Of course the sociologist has to be wary of the way the variables are operationalized. In this example we know that black drivers are subject to much higher levels of police scrutiny than white drivers, so the number of traffic violations a driver has received might reflect less on their driving ability and more on the crime of “driving while black.”

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review , which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to a university library and a thorough online search will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge. It allows them to sharpen the focus of their research question and avoid duplicating previous research. Researchers — including student researchers — are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or sources that inform their work. While it is fine to build on previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about childrearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. At the literature review stage it is important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates a researcher by showing what others have found relevant about a topic, and helps refine and improve a study’s design.

Formulate a Hypothesis

A hypothesis is an assumption about how two or more variables are related; it makes a conjectural statement about the relationship between those variables. It is an educated guess because it is not random but based on theory, observations, patterns of experience, or the existing literature. The hypothesis formulates this guess in the form of a testable or falsifiable proposition. However, how the hypothesis is handled differs between the positivist and interpretive approaches in sociology.

Hypothesis Formation in Positivist Research

Positivist methodologies are often referred to as hypothetico-deductive methodologies . A hypothesis is derived from a theoretical proposition. On the basis of the hypothesis, a prediction or generalization is logically deduced. If the prediction is confirmed by observation, the theoretical proposition is regarded as valid (at least provisionally). In positivist sociology, the hypothesis predicts how one form of human behaviour influences another. How does being a black driver affect the number of times the police will pull the driver over?

Successful prediction will determine the adequacy of the hypothesis and thereby test the theoretical proposition. Typically positivist approaches operationalize variables as quantitative data ; that is, by translating a social phenomenon like health into a quantifiable or numerically measurable variable like “number of visits to the hospital.” This permits sociologists to formulate their predictions using mathematical language, like regression formulas, to present research findings in graphs and tables, and to perform mathematical or statistical techniques to demonstrate the validity of relationships.

Variables are examined to see if there is a correlation between them. When a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable there is a correlation. This does not necessarily indicate that changes in one variable causes a change in another variable, however — just that they are associated. A key distinction here is between independent and dependent variables. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect, or thing that is changed. For example, in a basic study, the researcher would establish one form of human behaviour as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is social class (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)?

For it to become possible to speak about causation , three criteria must be satisfied:

  • There must be a relationship or correlation between the independent and dependent variables.
  • The independent variable must be prior to the dependent variable.
  • There must be no other intervening variable responsible for the causal relationship.

It is important to note that while there has to be a correlation between variables for there to be a causal relationship, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. The relationship between variables can be the product of a third intervening variable that is independently related to both. For example, there might be a positive relationship between wearing bikinis and eating ice cream, but wearing bikinis does not cause eating ice cream. It is more likely that the heat of summertime causes both an increase in bikini wearing and an increase in the consumption of ice cream.

The distinction between causation and correlation can have significant consequences. For example, Indigenous Canadians are overrepresented in prisons and arrest statistics. As noted in Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology , in 2020 Indigenous people accounted for about 5% of the Canadian population, but they made up 30% of the federal penitentiary population (Correctional Investigator Canada, 2020). There is a positive correlation between being an Indigenous person in Canada and being in jail. Is this because Indigenous people are racially or biologically predisposed to crime? No. In fact there are at least four intervening variables that explain the higher incarceration of Indigenous people (Hartnagel, 2004): Indigenous people are disproportionately poor and poverty is associated with higher arrest and incarceration rates; Indigenous lawbreakers tend to commit more detectable “street” crimes than the less detectable and actionable “white collar” crimes of other segments of the population; the criminal justice system disproportionately profiles and discriminates against Indigenous people; and the legacy of colonization has disrupted and weakened traditional sources of social control in Indigenous communities.

The divorce rate in Maine correlates with the per capita consumption of margarine (US).

At this point, a researcher’s operational definitions help measure the variables. In a study asking how tutoring improves grades, for instance, one researcher might define “good” grades as a C or better, while another uses a B+ as a starting point for good. Another operational definition might describe “tutoring” as “one-on-one assistance by an expert in the field, hired by an educational institution.” Those definitions set limits and establish cut-off points, ensuring consistency and replicability in a study. As the chart shows, an independent variable is the one that causes a dependent variable to change. For example, a researcher might hypothesize that teaching children proper hygiene (the independent variable) will boost their sense of self-esteem (the dependent variable). Or rephrased, a child’s sense of self-esteem depends, in part, on the quality and availability of hygienic resources.

Of course, this hypothesis can also work the other way around. Perhaps a sociologist believes that increasing a child’s sense of self-esteem (the independent variable) will automatically increase or improve habits of hygiene (now the dependent variable). Identifying the independent and dependent variables is very important. As the hygiene example shows, simply identifying two topics, or variables, is not enough: Their prospective relationship must be part of the hypothesis. Just because a sociologist forms an educated prediction of a study’s outcome does not mean data contradicting the hypothesis are not welcome. Sociologists analyze general patterns in response to a study, but they are equally interested in exceptions to patterns.

In a study of education, a researcher might predict that high school dropouts have a hard time finding a rewarding career. While it has become at least a cultural assumption that the higher the education, the higher the salary and degree of career happiness, there are certainly exceptions. People with little education have had stunning careers, and people with advanced degrees have had trouble finding work. A sociologist prepares a hypothesis knowing that results will vary.

Hypothesis Formation in Qualitative Research

While many sociologists rely on the positivist hypothetico-deductive method in their research, others operate from an interpretive approach . While still systematic, this approach typically does not follow the hypothesis-testing model that seeks to make generalizable predictions from quantitative variables. Instead, an interpretive framework seeks to understand social worlds from the point of view of participants, leading to in-depth knowledge. It focuses on qualitative data, or the meanings that guide people’s behaviour. Rather than relying on quantitative instruments, like fixed questionnaires or experiments, which can be artificial, the interpretive approach attempts to find ways to get closer to the informants’ lived experience and perceptions.

Interpretive research is generally more descriptive or narrative in its findings than positivist research. It can begin from a deductive approach by deriving a hypothesis from theory and then seeking to confirm it through methodologies like in-depth interviews. However, it is ideally suited to an inductive approach in which the hypothesis emerges only after a substantial period of direct observation or interaction with subjects. This type of approach is exploratory in that the researcher also learns as they proceed, sometimes adjusting the research methods or processes midway to respond to new insights and findings as they evolve.

For example, Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) classic elaboration of grounded theory proposed that qualitative researchers working with rich sources of qualitative data from interviews or ethnographic observations need to go through several stages of coding the data before a strong theory of the social phenomenon under investigation can emerge. In the initial stage, the researcher is simply trying to listen carefully and to tentatively categorize and sort the data. The researchers do not predetermine what the relevant categories of the social experience are, but analyze carefully what their subjects actually say. For example, what are the working definitions of health and illness that hospital patients use to describe their situation? In the first stage, the researcher tries to distinguish and succinctly code or label the numerous themes emerging from the data: different ways of describing the experience of health and illness. In the second stage, the researcher takes a more analytical approach by organizing the initial interview data into a few key reoccurring themes: Perhaps these are key assumptions that lay people make about the physiological mechanisms of the body, or the metaphors they use to describe their relationship to illness (e.g., a random occurrence, a battle, a punishment, a message, etc.). In the third stage, the researcher returns to the interview subjects with a new set of questions that would seek to either affirm, modify, or discard the analytical themes derived from the initial categorization of the interview material. This process can then be repeated back and forth until a thoroughly grounded theory is ready to be proposed. At every stage of the research, the researchers are obliged to follow the emerging data by revising their conceptions as new material is gathered, contradictions accounted for, commonalities categorized, and themes re-examined with further interviews.

Once the preliminary work is done and the hypothesis defined, it is time for the next research steps: choosing a research methodology, conducting a study, and drawing conclusions. These research steps are discussed below.

Making Connections: Classic Sociologists

Harriet martineau: the first woman sociologist.


As was noted in Chapter 1. An Introduction to Sociology , Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) was one of the first women sociologists in the 19th century. She was a British sociologist known at the time especially for her translation of August Comte’s sociological works. Particularly innovative was her early work on sociological methodology, How to Observe Manners and Morals (1838) . In this volume she developed the ground work for a systematic social-scientific approach to studying human behaviour. She recognized that the issues of the researcher-subject relationship would have to be addressed differently in a social science   as opposed to a natural science.

The observer, or “traveler,” as she put it, needed to respect three criteria to obtain valid research: impartiality, critique, and sympathy. The impartial observer could not allow herself to be “perplexed or disgusted” by foreign practices that she could not personally reconcile herself with. Yet at the same time she saw the goal of sociology to be the fair but critical assessment of the moral status of a culture. In particular, the goal of sociology was to challenge forms of racial, sexual, or class domination in the name of autonomy: the right of every person to be a “self-directing moral being.” Finally, what distinguished the science of social observation from the natural sciences was that the researcher had to have unqualified sympathy for the subjects being studied (Lengermann & Niebrugge, 2007). This later became a central principle of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology, although it is not clear whether Weber read Martineau’s work.

A large part of her research in the United States analyzed the situations of contradiction between stated public morality and actual moral practices. For example, she was fascinated with the way that the formal democratic right to free speech enabled slavery abolitionists to hold public meetings, but when the meetings were violently attacked by mobs, the abolitionists and not the mobs were accused of inciting the violence (Zeitlin, 1997). This emphasis on studying contradictions followed from the distinction she drew between morals — society’s collective ideas of permitted and forbidden behaviour — and manners — the actual patterns of social action and association in society. As she realized the difficulty in getting an accurate representation of an entire society based on a limited number of interviews, she developed the idea that one could identify key “Things” experienced by all people — age, gender, illness, death, etc. — and examine how they were experienced differently by a sample of people from different walks of life (Lengermann & Niebrugge, 2007). Martineau’s pioneering sociology, therefore, focused on surveying different attitudes toward “Things,” and studying the anomalies that emerged when manners toward them contradicted a society’s formal morals.

Critical Research Strategies

As Karl Marx (1977 /1845) said: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Critical research strategies build on positivist and interpretive methodologies but bring the focus of research to the problems of social transformation and emancipation. Critical sociologists emphasize that the social world is not simply given or natural. It is the ongoing product of human actions and is therefore transformable. Domination and injustice are not inevitable. In this context, critical sociologists note that in a world characterized by extreme inequities and injustices, knowledge and ways of knowing can be caught up and implicated in power relations. “In a socially unjust world, knowledge of the social that does not challenge injustice is likely to play a role in reproducing it” (Carroll, 2004). Critical research strategies are therefore approaches that utilize positivist, interpretive, and critical methods to produce knowledge that maximizes the human potential for freedom and equality.

hypothesis definition in sociology

Paulo Freire’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed  is a key reference point for critical research. Working with the illiterate poor in North-Eastern Brazil in the 1940s and 1950s, Freire recognized that effective education and knowledge were not simply about things, but were emancipatory practices themselves. Through the development of critical consciousness, people could understand the circumstances in which they were living and act effectively to change the conditions of oppression they experienced. This was the basis of critical pedagogy , an approach to teaching and learning based on fostering the agency of marginalized communities, and empowering learners to emancipate themselves from oppressive social structures.

Carroll (2004) describes three types of critical research strategy: Oppositional or activist strategies investigate and oppose visible structures and practices of domination by taking up the standpoint of the oppressed; Radical strategies focus on analyzing deeper systematic bases of domination at the roots of societal structures; Subversive strategies subvert or deconstruct received notions of reality/identity and everyday, common sense binary oppositions (man/woman, culture/nature, self/other, reason/emotion, Black/white, etc.), which opens the door to alternatives and new political spaces of contestation.

One contemporary application of critical research strategies is in the critique of colonial structures. Decolonization , or the process of dismantling colonial power structures, also involves a process of decolonizing knowledge and research methods. Eurocentric patterns of thinking are often embedded in the concepts and methods used in sociology and other disciplines. In the 19th century, for example, social hierarchies and evolutionary schemes were central to the understanding of Indigenous people in Canada as alternately “savage” and “childlike,” in need of suppressing, civilizing and assimilating. Decolonizing research “means centering concerns and world views of non-Western individuals, and respectfully knowing and understanding theory and research from previously ‘Other(ed)’ perspectives” (Thambinathan & Kinsella, 2021). Thambinathan & Kinsella (2021) outline four practices of decolonization:

  • Exercising Critical Reflexivity: Critical reflexivity in research is about the researcher’s awareness of their own methodological assumptions — what they consider valid knowledge and proper ways of knowing — as well as of their social position (often as privileged outsiders) with respect to the research and the research subjects.
  • Reciprocity and Respect for Self-Determination: Research should be practiced as an ongoing collaboration with research subjects to establish collective ownership over the entire research process, and to make accountable the researchers to the research subjects.
  • Embracing Other(ed) Ways of Knowing:   Research methods should be expanded to integrate traditional knowledge, theories and frameworks used by the research subjects.

Embodying a Transformative Praxis: Along the lines of Freire’s critical pedagogy, the goal of the research is to enable research subjects to transform the colonial conditions of their existence, to bring to light historically silenced voices, and to build capacities and agency in colonized peoples.

Image Descriptions

Figure 2.5 Long Description: The Scientific Method has a series of steps which can form a repeating cycle.

  • Ask a question.
  • Research existing sources
  • Formulate a hypothesis.
  • Design and conduct a study
  • Draw conclusions.
  • Report results. [Return to Figure 2.5]

Media Attributions

  • Figure 2.3   Cover of The Strand Magazine featuring the publication of the last Sherlock Holmes story written by Arthur Conan Doyle from The Strand Magazine , vol. 73, April 1927, via Wikimedia Commons, is used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.
  • Figure 2.4   “Mystery Airship” – Headline  by The San Francisco Call, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain .
  • Figure 2.5 The Scientific Method , by Heather Griffiths and Nathan Keirns, via OpenStax, is used under a CC BY 4.0 licence.
  • Figure 2.6   Karl Popper in the 1980’s  by LSE Library, via Wikimedia Commons, has no known copyright restrictions .
  • Figure 2.7 Mistaking Correlation for Causation  by Altimeter, via Flickr, is used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0  licence .
  • Figure 2.8   Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain .
  • Figure 2.9   Photo of Paulo Freire (1977)  by Slobodan Dimitrov, via Wikimedia Commons, is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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2.1C: Formulating the Hypothesis

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A hypothesis is a potential answer to your research question; the research process helps you determine if your hypothesis is true.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how hypotheses are used in sociological research and the difference between dependent and independent variables
  • Hypotheses are testable explanations of a problem, phenomenon, or observation.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative research involve formulating a hypothesis to address the research problem.
  • Hypotheses that suggest a causal relationship involve at least one independent variable and at least one dependent variable; in other words, one variable which is presumed to affect the other.
  • An independent variable is one whose value is manipulated by the researcher or experimenter.
  • A dependent variable is a variable whose values are presumed to change as a result of changes in the independent variable.
  • dependent variable : In an equation, the variable whose value depends on one or more variables in the equation.
  • independent variable : In an equation, any variable whose value is not dependent on any other in the equation.
  • hypothesis : Used loosely, a tentative conjecture explaining an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further observation, investigation, or experimentation.

A hypothesis is an assumption or suggested explanation about how two or more variables are related. It is a crucial step in the scientific method and, therefore, a vital aspect of all scientific research. There are no definitive guidelines for the production of new hypotheses. The history of science is filled with stories of scientists claiming a flash of inspiration, or a hunch, which then motivated them to look for evidence to support or refute the idea.


While there is no single way to develop a hypothesis, a useful hypothesis will use deductive reasoning to make predictions that can be experimentally assessed. If results contradict the predictions, then the hypothesis under examination is incorrect or incomplete and must be revised or abandoned. If results confirm the predictions, then the hypothesis might be correct but is still subject to further testing.

Both quantitative and qualitative research involve formulating a hypothesis to address the research problem. A hypothesis will generally provide a causal explanation or propose some association between two variables. Variables are measurable phenomena whose values can change under different conditions. For example, if the hypothesis is a causal explanation, it will involve at least one dependent variable and one independent variable. In research, independent variables are the cause of the change. The dependent variable is the effect, or thing that is changed. In other words, the value of a dependent variable depends on the value of the independent variable. Of course, this assumes that there is an actual relationship between the two variables. If there is no relationship, then the value of the dependent variable does not depend on the value of the independent variable.

Definition of a Hypothesis

What it is and how it's used in sociology

  • Key Concepts
  • Major Sociologists
  • News & Issues
  • Research, Samples, and Statistics
  • Recommended Reading
  • Archaeology

A hypothesis is a prediction of what will be found at the outcome of a research project and is typically focused on the relationship between two different variables studied in the research. It is usually based on both theoretical expectations about how things work and already existing scientific evidence.

Within social science, a hypothesis can take two forms. It can predict that there is no relationship between two variables, in which case it is a null hypothesis . Or, it can predict the existence of a relationship between variables, which is known as an alternative hypothesis.

In either case, the variable that is thought to either affect or not affect the outcome is known as the independent variable, and the variable that is thought to either be affected or not is the dependent variable.

Researchers seek to determine whether or not their hypothesis, or hypotheses if they have more than one, will prove true. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they do not. Either way, the research is considered successful if one can conclude whether or not a hypothesis is true. 

Null Hypothesis

A researcher has a null hypothesis when she or he believes, based on theory and existing scientific evidence, that there will not be a relationship between two variables. For example, when examining what factors influence a person's highest level of education within the U.S., a researcher might expect that place of birth, number of siblings, and religion would not have an impact on the level of education. This would mean the researcher has stated three null hypotheses.

Alternative Hypothesis

Taking the same example, a researcher might expect that the economic class and educational attainment of one's parents, and the race of the person in question are likely to have an effect on one's educational attainment. Existing evidence and social theories that recognize the connections between wealth and cultural resources , and how race affects access to rights and resources in the U.S. , would suggest that both economic class and educational attainment of the one's parents would have a positive effect on educational attainment. In this case, economic class and educational attainment of one's parents are independent variables, and one's educational attainment is the dependent variable—it is hypothesized to be dependent on the other two.

Conversely, an informed researcher would expect that being a race other than white in the U.S. is likely to have a negative impact on a person's educational attainment. This would be characterized as a negative relationship, wherein being a person of color has a negative effect on one's educational attainment. In reality, this hypothesis proves true, with the exception of Asian Americans , who go to college at a higher rate than whites do. However, Blacks and Hispanics and Latinos are far less likely than whites and Asian Americans to go to college.

Formulating a Hypothesis

Formulating a hypothesis can take place at the very beginning of a research project , or after a bit of research has already been done. Sometimes a researcher knows right from the start which variables she is interested in studying, and she may already have a hunch about their relationships. Other times, a researcher may have an interest in ​a particular topic, trend, or phenomenon, but he may not know enough about it to identify variables or formulate a hypothesis.

Whenever a hypothesis is formulated, the most important thing is to be precise about what one's variables are, what the nature of the relationship between them might be, and how one can go about conducting a study of them.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D

  • What Is a Hypothesis? (Science)
  • Understanding Path Analysis
  • Null Hypothesis Examples
  • What Are the Elements of a Good Hypothesis?
  • What 'Fail to Reject' Means in a Hypothesis Test
  • How Intervening Variables Work in Sociology
  • Null Hypothesis Definition and Examples
  • Understanding Simple vs Controlled Experiments
  • Scientific Method Vocabulary Terms
  • Null Hypothesis and Alternative Hypothesis
  • Six Steps of the Scientific Method
  • What Are Examples of a Hypothesis?
  • Structural Equation Modeling
  • Scientific Method Flow Chart
  • How To Design a Science Fair Experiment
  • Hypothesis Test for the Difference of Two Population Proportions

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2.2 Stages in the Sociological Research Process

Learning objectives.

  • List the major stages of the sociological research process.
  • Describe the different types of units of analysis in sociology.
  • Explain the difference between an independent variable and a dependent variable.

Sociological research consists of several stages. The researcher must first choose a topic to investigate and then become familiar with prior research on the topic. Once appropriate data are gathered and analyzed, the researcher can then draw appropriate conclusions. This section discusses these various stages of the research process.

Choosing a Research Topic

The first step in the research process is choosing a topic. There are countless topics from which to choose, so how does a researcher go about choosing one? Many sociologists choose a topic based on a theoretical interest they may have. For example, Émile Durkheim’s interest in the importance of social integration motivated his monumental study of suicide that Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” discussed. Many sociologists since the 1970s have had a theoretical interest in gender, and this interest has motivated a huge volume of research on the difference that gender makes for behavior, attitudes, and life chances. The link between theory and research lies at the heart of the sociological research process, as it does for other social, natural, and physical sciences. Accordingly, this book discusses many examples of studies motivated by sociologists’ varied theoretical interests.

Two sociologists laughing together

Many sociologists, such as the two pictured here, have a theoretical interest in gender that leads them to investigate the importance of gender for many aspects of the social world.

Francisco Osorio – CL Society 31: Sociologists – CC BY 2.0.

Many sociologists also choose a topic based on a social policy interest they may have. For example, sociologists concerned about poverty have investigated its effects on individuals’ health, educational attainment, and other outcomes during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Sociologists concerned about racial prejudice and discrimination have carried out many studies documenting their negative consequences for people of color. As Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” discussed and as this book emphasizes, the roots of sociology in the United States lie in the use of sociological knowledge to achieve social reform, and many sociologists today continue to engage in numerous research projects because of their social policy interests. The news story that began this chapter discussed an important example of this type of research. The “Sociology Making a Difference” box further discusses research of this type.

Sociology Making a Difference

Survey Research to Help the Poor

The Community Service Society (CSS) of New York City is a nonprofit organization that, according to its Web site ( http://www.cssny.org ), “engages in advocacy, research and direct service” to help low-income residents of the city. It was established about 160 years ago and has made many notable accomplishments over the years, including aiding the victims of the Titanic disaster in 1912, helping initiate the free school lunch program that is now found around the United States, and establishing the largest senior volunteer program in the nation.

A key component of the CSS’s efforts today involves gathering much information about the lives of poor New Yorkers through an annual survey of random samples of these residents. Because the needs of the poor are so often neglected and their voices so often unheard, the CSS calls this effort the Unheard Third survey, as the poor represent about one-third of the New York City population. The Unheard Third survey asks respondents their opinions about many issues affecting their lives and also asks them many questions about such matters as their health and health care needs, employment status and job satisfaction, debt, and housing. The CSS then uses all this information in reports about the needs of the poor and near-poor in New York that it prepares for city and state officials, the news media, and key individuals in the private sector. In these ways, the CSS uses survey research in the service of society. As its Web site ( http://www.cssny.org/research ) states, “research is a critical tool we use to increase our understanding of conditions that drive poverty as we advocate for public policy and programs that will improve the economic standing of low-income New Yorkers.”

A third source of inspiration for research topics is personal experience . Like other social scientists (and probably also natural and physical scientists), many sociologists have had various experiences during childhood, adolescence, or adulthood that lead them to study a topic from a sociological standpoint. For example, a sociologist whose parents divorced while the sociologist was in high school may become interested in studying the effects of divorce on children. A sociologist who was arrested during college for a political protest may become interested in studying how effective protest might be for achieving the aims of a social movement. A sociologist who acted in high school plays may choose a dissertation during graduate school that focuses on a topic involving social interaction. Although the exact number will never be known, many research studies in sociology are undoubtedly first conceived because personal experience led the author to become interested in the theory or social policy addressed by the study.

Conducting a Literature Review

Whatever topic is chosen, the next stage in the research process is a review of the literature. A researcher who begins a new project typically reads a good number of studies that have already been published on the topic that the researcher wants to investigate. In sociology, most of these studies are published in journals, but many are also published as books. The government and private research organizations also publish reports that researchers consult for their literature reviews.

Regardless of the type of published study, a literature review has several goals. First, the researcher needs to determine that the study she or he has in mind has not already been done. Second, the researcher needs to determine how the proposed study will add to what is known about the topic of the study. How will the study add to theoretical knowledge of the topic? How will the study improve on the methodology of earlier studies? How will the study aid social policy related to the topic? Typically, a research project must answer at least one of these questions satisfactorily for it to have a chance of publication in a scholarly journal, and a thorough literature review is necessary to determine the new study’s possible contribution. A third goal of a literature review is to see how prior studies were conducted. What research design did they use? From where did their data come? How did they measure key concepts and variables? A thorough literature review enhances the methodology of the researcher’s new study and enables the researcher to correct any possible deficiencies in the methodology of prior studies.

In “the old days,” researchers would conduct a literature review primarily by going to an academic library, consulting a printed index of academic journals, trudging through shelf after shelf of printed journals, and photocopying articles they found or taking notes on index cards. Those days are long gone, and thankfully so. Now researchers use any number of electronic indexes and read journal articles online or download a PDF version to read later. Literature reviews are still a lot of work, but the time they take is immeasurably shorter than just a decade ago.

Formulating a Hypothesis

After the literature review has been completed, it is time to formulate the hypothesis that will guide the study. As you might remember from a science class, a hypothesis is a statement of the relationship between two variables concerning the units of analysis the researcher is studying. To understand this definition, we must next define variable and unit of analysis . Let’s start with unit of analysis , which refers to the type of entity a researcher is studying. As we discuss further in a moment, the most common unit of analysis in sociology is a person, but other units of analysis include organizations and geographical locations. A variable is any feature or factor that may differ among the units of analysis that a researcher is studying. Key variables in sociological studies of people as the units of analysis include gender, race and ethnicity, social class, age, and any number of attitudes and behaviors. Whatever unit of analysis is being studied, sociological research aims to test relationships between variables or, more precisely, to test whether one variable affects another variable, and a hypothesis outlines the nature of the relationship that is to be tested.

Suppose we want to test the hypothesis that women were more likely than men to have voted for Obama in 2008. The first variable in this hypothesis is gender, whether someone is a woman or a man. (As Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality” discusses, gender is actually more complex than this, but let’s keep things simple for now.) The second variable is voting preference—for example, whether someone voted for Obama or McCain. In this example, gender is the independent variable and voting preference is the dependent variable. An independent variable is a variable we think can affect another variable. This other variable is the dependent variable , or the variable we think is affected by the independent variable (see Figure 2.3 “Causal Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable” ). When sociological research tests relationships between variables, it normally is testing whether an independent variable affects a dependent variable.

Figure 2.3 Causal Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable

Casual Path for the Independent and Dependent Variable goes from independent to dependent

Many hypotheses in sociology involve variables concerning people, but many also involve variables concerning organizations and geographical locations. As this statement is meant to suggest, sociological research is conducted at different levels, depending on the unit of analysis chosen. As noted earlier, the most common unit of analysis in sociology is the person ; this is probably the type of research with which you are most familiar. If we conduct a national poll to see how gender influences voting decisions or how race influences views on the state of the economy, we are studying characteristics, or variables, involving people, and the person is the unit of analysis. Another common unit of analysis in sociology is the organization . Suppose we conduct a study of hospitals to see whether the patient-to-nurse ratio (the number of patients divided by the number of nurses) is related to the average number of days that patients stay in the hospital. In this example, the patient-to-nurse ratio and the average number of days patients stay are both characteristics of the hospital, and the hospital is the unit of analysis. A third unit of analysis in sociology is the geographical location , whether it is cities, states, regions of a country, or whole societies. In the United States, for example, large cities generally have higher violent crime rates than small cities. In this example, the city is the unit of analysis.

The US separated into sections: west, south, midwest, and northeast

One of the units of analysis in sociological research is the geographical location. The major regions of the United States are often compared on various characteristics. In one notable finding, the South has the highest regional homicide rate.

Source: Adapted from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blank_US_Map.svg .

Measuring Variables and Gathering Data

After the hypothesis has been formulated, the sociologist is now ready to begin the actual research. Data must be gathered via one or more of the research designs examined later in this chapter, and variables must be measured. Data can either be quantitative (numerical) or qualitative (nonnumerical). Data gathered through a questionnaire are usually quantitative. The answers a respondent gives to a questionnaire are coded for computer analysis. For example, if a question asks whether respondents consider themselves to be politically conservative, moderate, or liberal, those who answer “conservative” might receive a “1” for computer analysis; those who choose “moderate” might receive a “2”; and those who say “liberal” might receive a “3.”

Data gathered through observation and/or intensive interviewing, research designs discussed later in this chapter, are usually qualitative. If a researcher interviews college students at length to see what they think about dating violence and how seriously they regard it, the researcher may make simple comparisons, such as “most” of the interviewed students take dating violence very seriously, but without really statistically analyzing the in-depth responses from such a study. Instead, the goal is to make sense of what the researcher observes or of the in-depth statements that people provide to an interviewer and then to relate the major findings to the hypothesis or topic the researcher is investigating.

The measurement of variables is a complex topic and lies far beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that accurate measurement of variables is essential in any research project. In a questionnaire, for example, a question should be worded clearly and unambiguously. Take the following question, which has appeared in national surveys: “Do you ever drink more than you think you should?” This question is probably meant to measure whether the respondent has an alcohol problem. But some respondents might answer yes to this question even if they only have a few drinks per year if, for example, they come from a religious background that frowns on alcohol use; conversely, some respondents who drink far too much might answer no because they do not think they drink too much. A researcher who interpreted a yes response from the former respondents as an indicator of an alcohol problem or a no response from the latter respondents as an indicator of no alcohol problem would be in error.

As another example, suppose a researcher hypothesizes that younger couples are happier than older couples. Instead of asking couples how happy they are through a questionnaire, the researcher decides to observe couples as they walk through a shopping mall. Some interesting questions of measurement arise in this study. First, how does the researcher know who is a couple? Second, how sure can the researcher be of the approximate age of each person in the couple? The researcher might be able to distinguish people in their 20s or early 30s from those in their 50s and 60s, but age measurement beyond this gross comparison might often be in error. Third, how sure can the researcher be of the couple’s degree of happiness? Is it really possible to determine how happy a couple is by watching them for a few moments in the mall? What exactly does being happy look like, and do all people look this way when they are happy? These and other measurement problems in this particular study might be so severe that the study should not be done, at least if the researcher hopes to publish it.

After any measurement issues have been resolved, it is time to gather the data. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the unit of analysis is the person. A researcher who is doing a study “from scratch” must decide which people to study. Because it is certainly impossible to study everybody, the researcher only studies a sample , or subset of the population of people in whom the researcher is interested. Depending on the purpose of the study, the population of interest varies widely: it can be the adult population of the United States, the adult population of a particular state or city, all young women aged 13–18 in the nation, or countless other variations.

Many researchers who do survey research (discussed in a later section) study people selected for a random sample of the population of interest. In a random sample, everyone in the population (whether it be the whole U.S. population or just the population of a state or city, all the college students in a state or city or all the students at just one college, and so forth) has the same chance of being included in the survey. The ways in which random samples are chosen are too complex to fully discuss here, but suffice it to say the methods used to determine who is in the sample are equivalent to flipping a coin or rolling some dice. The beauty of a random sample is that it allows us to generalize the results of the sample to the population from which the sample comes. This means that we can be fairly sure of the attitudes of the whole U.S. population by knowing the attitudes of just 400 people randomly chosen from that population.

Other researchers use nonrandom samples, in which members of the population do not have the same chance of being included in the study. If you ever filled out a questionnaire after being approached in a shopping mall or campus student center, it is very likely that you were part of a nonrandom sample. While the results of the study (marketing research or social science research) for which you were interviewed might have been interesting, they could not necessarily be generalized to all students or all people in a state or in the nation because the sample for the study was not random.

High school students working in groups

High school classes often are used as a convenience sample in sociological and other social science research.

NWABR – 2009 Student Fellows – CC BY 2.0.

A specific type of nonrandom sample is the convenience sample , which refers to a nonrandom sample that is used because it is relatively quick and inexpensive to obtain. If you ever filled out a questionnaire during a high school or college class, as many students have done, you were very likely part of a convenience sample—a researcher can simply go into class, hand out a survey, and have the data available for coding and analysis within a few minutes. Convenience samples often include students, but they also include other kinds of people. When prisoners are studied, they constitute a convenience sample, because they are definitely not going anywhere. Partly because of this fact, convenience samples are also sometimes called captive-audience samples .

Another specific type of nonrandom sample is the quota sample . In this type of sample, a researcher tries to ensure that the makeup of the sample resembles one or more characteristics of the population as closely as possible. For example, on a campus of 10,000 students where 60% of the students are women and 40% are men, a researcher might decide to study 100 students by handing out a questionnaire to those who happen to be in the student center building on a particular day. If the researcher decides to have a quota sample based on gender, the researcher will select 60 women students and 40 male students to receive the questionnaire. This procedure might make the sample of 100 students more representative of all the students on campus than if it were not used, but it still does not make the sample entirely representative of all students. The students who happen to be in the student center on a particular day might be very different in many respects from most other students on the campus.

As we shall see later when research design is discussed, the choice of a design is very much related to the type of sample that is used. Surveys lend themselves to random samples, for example, while observation studies and experiments lend themselves to nonrandom samples.

Analyzing Data

After all data have been gathered, the next stage is to analyze the data. If the data are quantitative, the analysis will almost certainly use highly sophisticated statistical techniques beyond the scope of this discussion. Many statistical analysis software packages exist for this purpose, and sociologists learn to use one or more of these packages during graduate school. If the data are qualitative, researchers analyze their data (what they have observed and/or what people have told them in interviews) in ways again beyond our scope. Many researchers now use qualitative analysis software that helps them uncover important themes and patterns in the qualitative data they gather. However qualitative or quantitative data are analyzed, it is essential that the analysis be as accurate as possible. To go back to a point just made, this means that variable measurement must also be as accurate as possible, because even expert analysis of inaccurate data will yield inaccurate results. As a phrase from the field of computer science summarizes this problem, “garbage in, garbage out.” Data analysis can be accurate only if the data are accurate to begin with.

Criteria of Causality

As researchers analyze their data, they naturally try to determine whether their analysis supports their hypothesis. As noted above, when we test a hypothesis, we want to be able to conclude that an independent variable affects a dependent variable. Four criteria must be satisfied before we can conclude this (see Table 2.1 “Criteria of Causality” ).

Table 2.1 Criteria of Causality

First, the independent variable and the dependent variable must be statistically related . That means that the independent variable makes a statistical difference for where one ranks on the dependent variable. Suppose we hypothesize that age was related to voting preference in the 2008 presidential election. Here age is clearly the independent variable and voting preference the dependent variable. (It is possible for age to affect voting preference, but it is not possible for voting preference to affect age.) Exit poll data indicate that 66% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Obama in 2008, while only 45% of those 65 and older voted for him. The two variables are thus statistically related, as younger voters were more likely than older voters to prefer Obama.

The second criterion is called the causal order (or chicken-and-egg) problem and reflects the familiar saying that “correlation does not mean causation.” Just because an independent and a dependent variable are related does not automatically mean that the independent variable affects the dependent variable. It might well be that the dependent variable is affecting the independent. To satisfy this criterion, the researcher must be sure that the independent variable precedes the dependent variable in time or in logic. In the example just discussed, age might affect voting preference, but voting preference definitely cannot affect age. However, causal order is not as clear in other hypotheses. For example, suppose we find a statistical relationship between marital happiness and job satisfaction: the more happy people are in their marriage, the more satisfied they are with their jobs. Which makes more sense, that having a happy marriage leads you to like your job more, or that being satisfied with your work leads you to have a happier marriage? In this example, causal order is not very clear, and thus the second criterion is difficult to satisfy.

The third criterion involves spurious relationships . A relationship between an independent variable and dependent variable is spurious if a third variable accounts for the relationship because it affects both the independent and dependent variables. Although this sounds a bit complicated, an example or two should make it clear. If you did a survey of Americans 18 and older, you would find that people who attend college have worse acne than people who do not attend college. Does this mean that attending college causes worse acne? Certainly not. You would find this statistical relationship only because a third variable, age, affects both the likelihood of attending college and the likelihood of having acne: young people are more likely than older people to attend college, and also more likely—for very different reasons—to have acne. Controlling for age makes it clear that the original relationship between attending college and having acne was spurious. Figure 2.5 “Diagram of a Spurious Relationship” diagrams this particular spurious relationship; notice that there is no causal arrow between the attending college and having acne variables.

Figure 2.5 Diagram of a Spurious Relationship

Diagram of a Spurious Relationship

In another example, the more fire trucks at a fire, the more damage the fire causes. Does that mean that fire trucks somehow make fires worse, as the familiar saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” might suggest? Of course not! The third variable here is the intensity of the fire: the more intense the fire, the more fire trucks respond to fight it, and the more intense the fire, the more damage it causes. The relationship between number of fire trucks and damage the fire causes is spurious.

The final criterion of causality is that our explanation for the relationship between the independent and dependent variables is the best explanation . Even if the first three criteria are satisfied, that does not necessarily mean the two variables are in fact related. For example, the U.S. crime rate dropped in the early 1980s, and in 1984 the reelection campaign of President Ronald Reagan took credit for this drop. This relationship satisfied the first three criteria: the crime rate fell after President Reagan took office in 1981, the drop in the crime rate could not have affected the election of this president, and there was no apparent third variable that influenced both why Reagan was elected and why the crime rate fell. However, social scientists pointed to another reason that accounted for the crime rate decrease during the 1980s: a drop in the birth rate some 15–20 years earlier, which led to a decrease during the early 1980s of the number of U.S. residents in the high-crime ages of 15–30 (Steffensmeier & Harer, 1991). The relationship between the election of Ronald Reagan and the crime rate drop was thus only a coincidence.

Drawing a Conclusion

Once the data are analyzed, the researcher finally determines whether the data analysis supports the hypothesis that has been tested, taking into account the criteria of causality just discussed. Whether or not the hypothesis is supported, the researcher (if writing for publication) typically also discusses what the results of the present research imply for both prior and future studies on the topic. If the primary purpose of the project has been to test or refine a particular theory, the conclusion will discuss the implications of the results for this theory. If the primary purpose has been to test or advance social policy, the conclusion will discuss the implications of the results for policy making relevant to the project’s subject matter.

Key Takeaways

  • Several stages compose the sociological research process. These stages include (a) choosing a research topic, (b) conducting a literature review, (c) measuring variables and gathering data, (d) analyzing data, and (e) drawing a conclusion.
  • Sociologists commonly base their choice of a research topic on one or more of the following: (a) a theoretical interest, (b) a social policy interest, and (c) one or more personal experiences.
  • Accurate measurement of variables is essential for sound sociological research. As a minimum, measures should be as clear and unambiguous as possible.

For Your Review

  • Consider the following question from a survey: “Generally speaking, are you very happy, somewhat happy, or not too happy?” Write a brief essay in which you evaluate how well this question measures happiness.
  • Think of a personal experience you have had that lends itself to a possible research project. Write a brief essay in which you describe the experience and discuss the hypothesis that the research project based on the experience would address.

Steffensmeier, D., & Harer, M. D. (1991). Did crime rise or fall during the Reagan presidency? The effects of an “aging” U.S. population on the nation’s crime rate. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 28 (3), 330–359.

Sociology Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Research Method

Home » What is a Hypothesis – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

What is a Hypothesis – Types, Examples and Writing Guide

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What is a Hypothesis


Hypothesis is an educated guess or proposed explanation for a phenomenon, based on some initial observations or data. It is a tentative statement that can be tested and potentially proven or disproven through further investigation and experimentation.

Hypothesis is often used in scientific research to guide the design of experiments and the collection and analysis of data. It is an essential element of the scientific method, as it allows researchers to make predictions about the outcome of their experiments and to test those predictions to determine their accuracy.

Types of Hypothesis

Types of Hypothesis are as follows:

Research Hypothesis

A research hypothesis is a statement that predicts a relationship between variables. It is usually formulated as a specific statement that can be tested through research, and it is often used in scientific research to guide the design of experiments.

Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is a statement that assumes there is no significant difference or relationship between variables. It is often used as a starting point for testing the research hypothesis, and if the results of the study reject the null hypothesis, it suggests that there is a significant difference or relationship between variables.

Alternative Hypothesis

An alternative hypothesis is a statement that assumes there is a significant difference or relationship between variables. It is often used as an alternative to the null hypothesis and is tested against the null hypothesis to determine which statement is more accurate.

Directional Hypothesis

A directional hypothesis is a statement that predicts the direction of the relationship between variables. For example, a researcher might predict that increasing the amount of exercise will result in a decrease in body weight.

Non-directional Hypothesis

A non-directional hypothesis is a statement that predicts the relationship between variables but does not specify the direction. For example, a researcher might predict that there is a relationship between the amount of exercise and body weight, but they do not specify whether increasing or decreasing exercise will affect body weight.

Statistical Hypothesis

A statistical hypothesis is a statement that assumes a particular statistical model or distribution for the data. It is often used in statistical analysis to test the significance of a particular result.

Composite Hypothesis

A composite hypothesis is a statement that assumes more than one condition or outcome. It can be divided into several sub-hypotheses, each of which represents a different possible outcome.

Empirical Hypothesis

An empirical hypothesis is a statement that is based on observed phenomena or data. It is often used in scientific research to develop theories or models that explain the observed phenomena.

Simple Hypothesis

A simple hypothesis is a statement that assumes only one outcome or condition. It is often used in scientific research to test a single variable or factor.

Complex Hypothesis

A complex hypothesis is a statement that assumes multiple outcomes or conditions. It is often used in scientific research to test the effects of multiple variables or factors on a particular outcome.

Applications of Hypothesis

Hypotheses are used in various fields to guide research and make predictions about the outcomes of experiments or observations. Here are some examples of how hypotheses are applied in different fields:

  • Science : In scientific research, hypotheses are used to test the validity of theories and models that explain natural phenomena. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a particular variable on a natural system, such as the effects of climate change on an ecosystem.
  • Medicine : In medical research, hypotheses are used to test the effectiveness of treatments and therapies for specific conditions. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a new drug on a particular disease.
  • Psychology : In psychology, hypotheses are used to test theories and models of human behavior and cognition. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a particular stimulus on the brain or behavior.
  • Sociology : In sociology, hypotheses are used to test theories and models of social phenomena, such as the effects of social structures or institutions on human behavior. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of income inequality on crime rates.
  • Business : In business research, hypotheses are used to test the validity of theories and models that explain business phenomena, such as consumer behavior or market trends. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the effects of a new marketing campaign on consumer buying behavior.
  • Engineering : In engineering, hypotheses are used to test the effectiveness of new technologies or designs. For example, a hypothesis might be formulated to test the efficiency of a new solar panel design.

How to write a Hypothesis

Here are the steps to follow when writing a hypothesis:

Identify the Research Question

The first step is to identify the research question that you want to answer through your study. This question should be clear, specific, and focused. It should be something that can be investigated empirically and that has some relevance or significance in the field.

Conduct a Literature Review

Before writing your hypothesis, it’s essential to conduct a thorough literature review to understand what is already known about the topic. This will help you to identify the research gap and formulate a hypothesis that builds on existing knowledge.

Determine the Variables

The next step is to identify the variables involved in the research question. A variable is any characteristic or factor that can vary or change. There are two types of variables: independent and dependent. The independent variable is the one that is manipulated or changed by the researcher, while the dependent variable is the one that is measured or observed as a result of the independent variable.

Formulate the Hypothesis

Based on the research question and the variables involved, you can now formulate your hypothesis. A hypothesis should be a clear and concise statement that predicts the relationship between the variables. It should be testable through empirical research and based on existing theory or evidence.

Write the Null Hypothesis

The null hypothesis is the opposite of the alternative hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that you are testing. The null hypothesis states that there is no significant difference or relationship between the variables. It is important to write the null hypothesis because it allows you to compare your results with what would be expected by chance.

Refine the Hypothesis

After formulating the hypothesis, it’s important to refine it and make it more precise. This may involve clarifying the variables, specifying the direction of the relationship, or making the hypothesis more testable.

Examples of Hypothesis

Here are a few examples of hypotheses in different fields:

  • Psychology : “Increased exposure to violent video games leads to increased aggressive behavior in adolescents.”
  • Biology : “Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to increased plant growth.”
  • Sociology : “Individuals who grow up in households with higher socioeconomic status will have higher levels of education and income as adults.”
  • Education : “Implementing a new teaching method will result in higher student achievement scores.”
  • Marketing : “Customers who receive a personalized email will be more likely to make a purchase than those who receive a generic email.”
  • Physics : “An increase in temperature will cause an increase in the volume of a gas, assuming all other variables remain constant.”
  • Medicine : “Consuming a diet high in saturated fats will increase the risk of developing heart disease.”

Purpose of Hypothesis

The purpose of a hypothesis is to provide a testable explanation for an observed phenomenon or a prediction of a future outcome based on existing knowledge or theories. A hypothesis is an essential part of the scientific method and helps to guide the research process by providing a clear focus for investigation. It enables scientists to design experiments or studies to gather evidence and data that can support or refute the proposed explanation or prediction.

The formulation of a hypothesis is based on existing knowledge, observations, and theories, and it should be specific, testable, and falsifiable. A specific hypothesis helps to define the research question, which is important in the research process as it guides the selection of an appropriate research design and methodology. Testability of the hypothesis means that it can be proven or disproven through empirical data collection and analysis. Falsifiability means that the hypothesis should be formulated in such a way that it can be proven wrong if it is incorrect.

In addition to guiding the research process, the testing of hypotheses can lead to new discoveries and advancements in scientific knowledge. When a hypothesis is supported by the data, it can be used to develop new theories or models to explain the observed phenomenon. When a hypothesis is not supported by the data, it can help to refine existing theories or prompt the development of new hypotheses to explain the phenomenon.

When to use Hypothesis

Here are some common situations in which hypotheses are used:

  • In scientific research , hypotheses are used to guide the design of experiments and to help researchers make predictions about the outcomes of those experiments.
  • In social science research , hypotheses are used to test theories about human behavior, social relationships, and other phenomena.
  • I n business , hypotheses can be used to guide decisions about marketing, product development, and other areas. For example, a hypothesis might be that a new product will sell well in a particular market, and this hypothesis can be tested through market research.

Characteristics of Hypothesis

Here are some common characteristics of a hypothesis:

  • Testable : A hypothesis must be able to be tested through observation or experimentation. This means that it must be possible to collect data that will either support or refute the hypothesis.
  • Falsifiable : A hypothesis must be able to be proven false if it is not supported by the data. If a hypothesis cannot be falsified, then it is not a scientific hypothesis.
  • Clear and concise : A hypothesis should be stated in a clear and concise manner so that it can be easily understood and tested.
  • Based on existing knowledge : A hypothesis should be based on existing knowledge and research in the field. It should not be based on personal beliefs or opinions.
  • Specific : A hypothesis should be specific in terms of the variables being tested and the predicted outcome. This will help to ensure that the research is focused and well-designed.
  • Tentative: A hypothesis is a tentative statement or assumption that requires further testing and evidence to be confirmed or refuted. It is not a final conclusion or assertion.
  • Relevant : A hypothesis should be relevant to the research question or problem being studied. It should address a gap in knowledge or provide a new perspective on the issue.

Advantages of Hypothesis

Hypotheses have several advantages in scientific research and experimentation:

  • Guides research: A hypothesis provides a clear and specific direction for research. It helps to focus the research question, select appropriate methods and variables, and interpret the results.
  • Predictive powe r: A hypothesis makes predictions about the outcome of research, which can be tested through experimentation. This allows researchers to evaluate the validity of the hypothesis and make new discoveries.
  • Facilitates communication: A hypothesis provides a common language and framework for scientists to communicate with one another about their research. This helps to facilitate the exchange of ideas and promotes collaboration.
  • Efficient use of resources: A hypothesis helps researchers to use their time, resources, and funding efficiently by directing them towards specific research questions and methods that are most likely to yield results.
  • Provides a basis for further research: A hypothesis that is supported by data provides a basis for further research and exploration. It can lead to new hypotheses, theories, and discoveries.
  • Increases objectivity: A hypothesis can help to increase objectivity in research by providing a clear and specific framework for testing and interpreting results. This can reduce bias and increase the reliability of research findings.

Limitations of Hypothesis

Some Limitations of the Hypothesis are as follows:

  • Limited to observable phenomena: Hypotheses are limited to observable phenomena and cannot account for unobservable or intangible factors. This means that some research questions may not be amenable to hypothesis testing.
  • May be inaccurate or incomplete: Hypotheses are based on existing knowledge and research, which may be incomplete or inaccurate. This can lead to flawed hypotheses and erroneous conclusions.
  • May be biased: Hypotheses may be biased by the researcher’s own beliefs, values, or assumptions. This can lead to selective interpretation of data and a lack of objectivity in research.
  • Cannot prove causation: A hypothesis can only show a correlation between variables, but it cannot prove causation. This requires further experimentation and analysis.
  • Limited to specific contexts: Hypotheses are limited to specific contexts and may not be generalizable to other situations or populations. This means that results may not be applicable in other contexts or may require further testing.
  • May be affected by chance : Hypotheses may be affected by chance or random variation, which can obscure or distort the true relationship between variables.

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Module 2: Sociological Research

The scientific method, learning outcomes.

  • Describe the scientific method as it applies to sociological research
  • Distinguish reliability from validity in a research study
  • Distinguish an independent variable from a dependent variable

When sociologists apply the sociological perspective and begin to ask questions, no topic is off limits. Every aspect of human behavior is a source of possible investigation. Sociologists question the world that humans have created and live in. They notice patterns of behavior as people move through that world. Using sociological methods and systematic research within the framework of the scientific method and a scholarly interpretive perspective, sociologists have discovered workplace patterns that have transformed industries, family patterns that have led to legislative changes, and education patterns that have aided structural changes in classrooms.

Photograph of a full moon

Figure 1. Research provides no evidence that crime rates increase during a full moon.

The “crime rate during a full moon” discussion mentioned earlier put forth a few loosely stated opinions. The good news is we can look at data sets that show us if there is a connection between full moons and crime rates. If there appears to be a trend of increased crime during those times, we should begin to investigate other variables to see whether there is something else that could account for this relationship. If we were to discover that more crime occurs during full moons, this information could inform policing strategies and potentially make cities safer during full moons. Of course, we would be left with more questions! What is it about full moons that lead to increases in crime? Is this true for men and women? Young and old? In cities and in rural areas?

Connecting crime to a full moon might not seem like common sense to the skeptic. What about crime and hot weather? Or crime and holidays? Or crime during natural disasters? Are there more violent crimes in states with less restrictive gun policies? You can see how there are many, many questions that can be asked about any given topic, also how this type of research can be extremely important for informing and shaping public policy.

Sociologists make use of tried and true methods of research, such as experiments, surveys, and field research, but humans and their social interacti ons are so diverse that these examples might seem un-scientific. However, this is exactly why scientific models work for studying human behavior. A scientific process of research establishes parameters that help make sure results are sound. The scientific method involves developing and testing theories about the world based on empirical evidence. It is defined by its com mitment to systematic observation of the empirical world and strives to be objective, critical, skeptical, and logical. It involves a series of prescribed steps that have been established over centuries of scholarship.

The figure shows a flowchart that states the scientific method. One: Ask a Question. Two: Research Existing Sources. Three: Formulate a Hypothesis. Four: Design and Conduct a Study. Five: Draw Conclusions. Six: Report Results.

Figure 2. The scientific method is an essential tool in research.

Results of studies tend to provide people with access to knowledge they did not have before—knowledge of other cultures, knowledge of rituals and beliefs, or knowledge of trends and attitudes. No matter what research approach they use, researchers want to maximize the study’s reliability , which refers to how likely research results are to be replicated if the study is reproduced. If another sociologist follows the same research protocols, will they come up with the same results? If so, then the study is reliable . The more exciting the findings, and the more they challenge prevailing understandings, the more likely it is that other sociologists will try to replicate them.

Researchers also strive for validity , which refers to how well the study measures what it was designed to measure. Returning to the crime rate during a full moon topic, the reliability of a study would reflect how well the results represent the average adult crime rate during a full moon. Validity would ensure that the study’s design accurately examined what it was designed to study and not something else such as one’s perception of criminal activity. If police officers believe there is more criminal activity during a full moon, they might be more likely to see criminal activity and to formalize it by making arrests instead of giving warnings, which would actually create the appearance of increased criminal activity–via documentation–during a full moon.  This evidence would be created even if the amount of criminal activity were no different than on any other night. Thus, what is actually being measured is police officers’ perception of crime, and their subsequent actions during a full moon, rather than criminal activity.

Sociologists can use the scientific method not only to collect but also to interpret and analyze the data. They deliberately apply scientific logic and objectivity. They are interested in—but not attached to—the results. They work outside of their own political or social agendas. This doesn’t mean researchers do not have their own personalities, complete with preferences and opinions. But sociologists deliberately use the scientific method to maintain as much objectivity, focus, and consistency as possible in a particular study. In the end, the scientific method provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis (Merton 1963). Typically, the scientific method starts with these steps—1) ask a question, 2) research existing sources, and 3) formulate a hypothesis.

Ask a Question

computer-generated image of a man with his hand on his chin in a thinking pose, with a question mark behind him.

Figure 3. The scientific process begins with a good question.

The first step of the scientific method is to ask a question, describe a problem, and identify the specific area of interest. The topic should be narrow enough to study within a geography and time frame. “Are societies capable of sustained happiness?” would be too vague. Are married people happier than single people? Are people with children happier than people without children? These questions are more specific, but how is happiness defined and measured?

The question should also be broad enough to have universal merit. “What do personal hygiene habits reveal about the values of college freshman at XYZ College?” would be too narrow so we might want to broaden it to a particular age group (i.e. traditional college students ages 18-22). Also, if you sensed some implicit bias in this question, you would be correct to question whether hygiene, a series of behaviors, should be studied as behaviors or as values (beliefs).

That said, happiness and hygiene are worthy topics to study but must be framed as research questions. As you can probably see, this is a difficult process even for veteran sociologists. Sociologists are careful to define their terms. When forming these basic research questions, sociologists develop an operational definition , that is, they define the concept in terms of the physical or concrete steps it takes to objectively measure it. The operational definition identifies an observable condition of the concept. By operationalizing a variable of the concept, all researchers can collect data methodically in a way that supports the overarching goals of validity and reliability in sociological research.

In a hygiene study, for instance, hygiene could be defined as “personal habits to maintain physical appearance (as opposed to health);” however that might be difficult to measure. Would brushing one’s teeth be considered physical appearance (i.e white teeth) or health (i.e. healthy gums, prevent tooth decay, etc.)? To operationalize hygiene, one must be clear about what constitutes personal hygiene for appearance. A researcher could develop a checklist, for example, of things that are included.

Many times, a research question changes. Perhaps after thinking about hygiene and values, the question changes to “How do differing personal hygiene habits reflect cultural gender role norms?” Thus, the ways in culture shapes something very personal would be the topic of this study. Should a woman shave or not shave her legs? Should a man have a beard? Some facial hair? No facial hair? What about nail care for women? For men? 

Watch this video to learn more about the importance of using the scientific method in sociology.

Research Existing Sources

The next step researchers undertake is to conduct background research through a literature review , which is a review of any existing similar or related studies. A visit to the library or a thorough online search of research databases will uncover existing research about the topic of study. This step helps researchers gain a broad understanding of work previously conducted on the topic at hand and enables them to position their own research to build on prior knowledge. Researchers—including student researchers—are responsible for correctly citing existing sources they use in a study or that inform their work. While it is fine to borrow previously published material (as long as it enhances a unique viewpoint), it must be referenced properly and never plagiarized. This step might also prompt the researcher to revisit their research question!

To study hygiene and its value in a particular society, a researcher might sort through existing research and unearth studies about child-rearing, vanity, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and cultural attitudes toward beauty. It’s important to sift through this information and determine what is relevant. Using existing sources educates researchers and helps refine and improve studies’ designs.

Formulate a Hypothesis

People commonly try to understand the happenings in their world by finding or creating an explanation for an occurrence, which is what we referred to earlier as common sense. Social scientists may develop a hypothesis for the same reason. A hypothesis is a testable educated guess about predicted outcomes between two or more variables; it’s a possible explanation for specific happenings in the social world and allows for testing to determine whether the explanation holds true in many instances, as well as among various groups or in different places. The hypothesis will often predict how one form of human behavior influences another. The  independent variable s  is the cause of the change or the variable that  in fluences the other variable. The dependent variable is the effect , or variable that is changed. It depends  on the independent variable.

For example, researchers establish one form of human behavior as the independent variable and observe the influence it has on a dependent variable. How does gender (the independent variable) affect rate of income (the dependent variable)? 

How does one’s religion (the independent variable) affect family size (the dependent variable)? How is annual income (the dependent variable) affected by level of education (the independent variable)? It is important to note that we are suggesting relationships or correlations between variables and  not  causation. This is known as  correlation . 

As the table shows, an independent variable is the one that influences the other variable. Rather than being “right,” sociologists are interested in the relationships between variables. If we were to examine the last example, what other variables might come into play? Would we see similar patterns of income for all college-educated people or are there disparities for racial and ethnic minorities? Gender minorities? First, we must move into the next research steps: designing and conducting a study and drawing conclusions. You’ll learn more about these types of research methods in the next section of the course.

Think It Over

Sociology is a broad discipline covering many topics. Think about something that interests you and/or relates to your experience or your life. As a college student, you operate within a social world ripe for research!

  • From competitive sports teams to fraternities or sororities to ROTC to intramural sports and student clubs, there are a plethora of groups on college campuses that would make good topics of study. 
  • The proverbial college experience is different based on one’s statuses, particularly minority statuses, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and social class. 
  • Consider your college’s relationship to the surrounding community and that community’s relationship with the state and/or country. 

If you were to formulate a research question a nd do some preliminary research on these topics, you would likely find that there have been sociological studies conducted on many of these topics. Furthermore, you would find statistical information about student groups and participation, student demographics, and community demographics.

What value does this type of research have for understanding individuals, groups, and communities?


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Hypothesis: Functions, Problems, Types, Characteristics, Examples

Basic Elements of the Scientific Method: Hypotheses

The Function of the Hypotheses

A hypothesis states what one is looking for in an experiment. When facts are assembled, ordered, and seen in a relationship, they build up to become a theory. This theory needs to be deduced for further confirmation of the facts, this formulation of the deductions constitutes of a hypothesis. As a theory states a logical relationship between facts and from this, the propositions which are deduced should be true. Hence, these deduced prepositions are called hypotheses.

Problems in Formulating the Hypothesis

As difficult as the process may be, it is very essential to understand the need of a hypothesis. The research would be much unfocused and a random empirical wandering without it. The hypothesis provides a necessary link between the theory and investigation which often leads to the discovery of additions to knowledge.

There are three major difficulties in the formulation of a hypothesis, they are as follows:

  • Absence of a clear theoretical framework
  • Lack of ability to utilize that theoretical framework logically
  • Failure to be acquainted with available research techniques so as to phrase the hypothesis properly.

Sometimes the deduction of a hypothesis may be difficult as there would be many variables and the necessity to take them all into consideration becomes a challenge. For instance, observing two cases:

  • Principle: A socially recognized relationship with built-in strains also governed by the institutional controls has to ensure conformity of the participants with implicit or explicit norms.

Deduction: This situation holds much more sense to the people who are in professions such as psychotherapy, psychiatry and law to some extent. They possess a very intimate relationship with their clients, thus are more susceptible to issues regarding emotional strains in the client-practitioner relationship and more implicit and explicit controls over both participants in comparison to other professions.

The above-mentioned case has variable hypotheses, so the need is to break them down into sub hypotheses, they are as follows:

  • Specification of the degree of difference
  • Specification of profession and problem
  • Specification of kinds of controls.

2. Principle: Extensive but relatively systematized data show the correlation between members of the upper occupational class and less unhappiness and worry. Also, they are subjected to more formal controls than members of the lower strata.

Deduction: There can numerous ways to approach this principle, one could go with the comparison applying to martial relationships of the members and further argue that such differential pressures could be observed through divorce rates. This hypothesis would show inverse correlations between class position and divorce rates. There would be a very strong need to define the terms carefully to show the deduction from the principle problem.

The reference of these examples showcases a major issue in the hypothesis formulations procedures. One needs to keep the lines set for the deductions and one should be focusing on having a hypothesis at the beginning of the experiment, that hypothesis may be subject to change in the later stages and it is referred to as a „working hypothesis. Hence, the devising and utilization of a hypothesis is essential for the success of the experiment.

Types of Hypothesis

There are many ways to classify hypotheses, but it seems adequate to distinguish to separate them on the basis of their level of abstraction. They can be divided into three broad levels which will be increasing in abstractness.

  • The existence of empirical uniformities : These hypotheses are made from problems which usually have a very high percentage of representing scientific examination of common–sense proportions. These studies may show a variety of things such as the distribution of business establishments in a city, behavior patterns of specific groups, etc. and they tend to show no irregularities in their data collection or review. There have been arguments which say that these aren’t hypothesis as they represent what everyone knows. This can be counter argued on the basis of two things that, “what everyone knows” isn’t always in coherence with the framework of science and it may also be incorrect. Hence, testing these hypotheses is necessary too.
  • Complex ideal types: These hypotheses aim at testing the existence of logically derived relationships between empirical uniformities. This can be understood with an example, to observe ecology one should take in many factors and see the relationship between and how they affect the greater issue. A theory by Ernest W. Burgess gave out the statement that concentric growth circles are the one which characterize the city. Hence, all issues such as land values, industrial growth, ethnic groups, etc. are needed to be analyzed for forming a correct and reasonable hypothesis.
  • Relations of analytic variables: These hypotheses are a bit more complex as they focus on they lead to the formulation of a relationship between the changes in one property with respect to another. For instance, taking the example of human fertility in diverse regions, religions, wealth gap, etc. may not always affect the end result but it doesn’t mean that the variables need not be accounted for. This level of hypothesizing is one of the most effective and sophisticated and thus is only limited by theory itself.

Science and Hypothesis

“The general culture in which a science develops furnishes many of its basic hypotheses” holds true as science has developed more in the West and is no accident that it is a function of culture itself. This is quite evident with the culture of the West as they read for morals, science and happiness. After the examination of a bunch of variables, it is quite easy to say that the cultural emphasis upon happiness has been productive of an almost limitless range.

The hypotheses originate from science; a key example in the form of “socialization” may be taken. The socialization process in learning science involves a feedback mechanism between the scientist and the student. The student learns from the scientist and then tests for results with his own experience, and the scientist in turn has to do the same with his colleagues.

Analogies are a source of useful hypotheses but not without its dangers as all variables may not be accounted for it as no civilization has a perfect system.

Hypotheses are also the consequence of personal, idiosyncratic experience as the manner in which the individual reacts to the hypotheses is also important and should be accounted for in the experiment.

The Characteristics for Usable Hypotheses

The criteria for judging a hypothesis as mentioned below:

  • Complete Clarity : A good hypothesis should have two main elements, the concepts should be clearly defined and they should be definitions which are communicable and accepted by a larger section of the public. A lot of sources may be used and fellow associates may be used to help with the cause.
  • Empirical Referents : A great hypothesis should have scientific concepts with the ultimate empirical referent. It can‟t be based on moral judgment though it can explore them but the goal should be separated from moral preachment and the acceptance of values. A good start could be analyzing the concepts which express attitudes rather than describing or referring to empirical phenomena.
  • Specific Goal : The goal and procedure of the hypothesis should be tangible as grand experiments are harder to carry out. All operations and predictions should be mapped and in turn the possibility of testing the hypothesis increases. This not only enables the conceptual clarity but also the description of any indexes used. These indexes are used as variables for testing hypotheses on a larger scale. A general prediction isn’t as reliable as a specific prediction as the specific prediction provides a better result.
  • Relation to Available Techniques : The technique with which a hypothesis is tested is of the utmost importance and so thorough research should be carried out before the experiment in order to find the best possible way to go about it. The example of Karl Marx may be given regarding his renowned theories; he formulated his hypothesis by observing individuals and thus proving his hypothesis. So, finding the right technique may be the key to a successful test.
  • Relation to a Body of Theory: Theories on social relations can never be developed in isolation but they are a further extension of already developed or developing theories. For instance, if the “intelligence quotient” of a member of the society is to be measured, certain variables such as caste, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are chosen thus deductions are made from time to time to eventually find out what is the factor that influences intelligence.

The Conclusion

The formulation of a hypothesis is probably the most necessary step in good research practice and it is very essential to get the thought process started. It helps the researcher to have a specific goal in mind and deduce the end result of an experiment with ease and efficiency. History is evident that asking the right questions always works out fine.

Also Read: Research Methods – Basics

Goode, W. E. and P. K. Hatt. 1952. Methods in Social Research.New York: McGraw Hill. Chapters 5 and 6. Pp. 41-73

hypothesis definition in sociology

Kartik is studying BA in International Relations at Amity and Dropped out of engineering from NIT Hamirpur and he lived in over 5 different countries.

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Fact, theory, and hypothesis.

The terms fact, theory, and hypothesis are sometimes treated as though they had clear meanings and clear relations with one another, but their histories and uses are more complex and diverse than might be expected. The usual sense of these words places them in a relationship of increasing uncertainty. A fact is usually thought of as a described state of affairs in which the descriptions are true or highly supported. A highly corroborated or supported hypothesis is also a fact; a less well corroborated one is still a hypothesis. A hypothesis which is not supported by or corroborated by other evidence would not be a fact, but could become a fact if it came to be corroborated to a high degree of certainty by other evidence. Similarly, a theory, which is a logically connected set of hypotheses, could come to be a fact if the hypotheses in the theory were to be highly corroborated by the evidence.

The Conceptual Character of “Facts”

Inductivism vs. hypothetico-deductivism, sense making in theories, diversity in theory in sociology.

Even with this simple picture of the relationship between these terms, one can see a number of potential difficulties and raise a number of difficult questions. Begin with the notion of corroboration. If a fact is a highly corroborated hypothesis, this would seem to mean that there is a level that is prior to facts which supplies the evidence that goes into corroboration. If the corroborating evidence consists of other facts, one would want to know how these facts were corroborated. So it is more common to talk about some more fundamental level of evidence, such as data. “Data” literally means “given.” But the idea that there is something in the world that is simply given, and true or valid as such, has its own difficulties.

However, when we collect data we have already described them or have a conceptual category for them. Since the “data” are already in a predefined category, we are not dealing directly with the world but with an already categorized world. This idea of fact as already conceptual had a long history in writing about science and is particularly associated with the nineteenth century philosopher William Whewell. Whewell said the following: “Fact and Theory correspond to Sense on the one hand, and to Ideas on the other, so far as we are conscious of our Ideas; but all facts involve ideas unconsciously; and thus the distinction of Facts and Theories is not tenable, as that of Sense and Ideas is” (Whewell 1984: 249). And this raises the questions of where the categories themselves come from and what their status is. In 1932, L. J. Henderson wrote an article which was cited by the sociologist Talcott Parsons (Parsons 1968: 41) which defined a scientific fact as an empirically verifiable statement about phenomena in terms of a conceptual scheme” (Henderson 1932). What this implied, especially for Parsons, was that to be a fact it was necessary to be a part of or to depend on a conceptual scheme. And conceptual schemes were not givens but were, like theories, invented for the purpose of enabling us to make statements such as the statements in theories.

The question of where categories come from and how something becomes a fact has been a major concern  of sociologists  of scientific knowledge. An important book by Ludwig Fleck (1979), a physician scientist, provided the basic framework for this study. Fleck argued that to be accepted as a fact required something social, which he called a thought collective,” in terms of which a concept is transformed from idea into accepted truth. The emphasis was on the social phenomenon of acceptance, something which, Fleck showed, did not merely result from the accumulation of evidence, but rather from the activity of a community of persons, with a common thought style, exchanging ideas. This implied that discovery” was never an individual act, but rather collective; and that conceptual content was part of the collective thought of the community, which developed in the course of exchange. Only retrospectively, once the discovery had been fit into the collective thought of the community, could the significance of discoveries be fully understood.

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The methodological understanding of science that fits best the insight that facts are already conceptual is hypothetico-deductivism, which contrasts to a different view of methodology called inductivism. Inductivism was the traditional understanding that science consists of generalizations which can be built up on the basis of the collection of information or data which can then be arranged into generalizations. The problem with inductivism is that there is no logical way to get from a collection of finite singular pieces of information to a generalization which goes beyond the particulars that have been collected. Hypothetico-deductivism deals with this limitation by turning the problem upside down by beginning with hypotheses that are generalizations and asking whether the observable particulars are consistent with (because they are implied by) the generalization. The hypothesis all crows are black” has the potential to be contradicted every time we see a crow. Thus, each particular crow can be used as a test of the hypothesis and the more stringently we test the hypothesis, the more secure we are in our belief that the hypothesis is true.

Hypothetico-deductivism has an advantage over inductivism as a method in that hypothetico-deductivism can be used to corroborate theories where the concepts in the theories are not themselves directly observable. The wave hypothesis in physics is a traditional example of this. The hypothesis logically implied generalizations for which observations could be collected. Because the theory correctly predicted these and other facts that could be observed, the claims about what could not be observed were themselves corroborated. This is an especially important possibility in sociology because many of the concepts in sociology do not directly apply to observable facts in the world, but instead to grounding concepts such as “society,” or “role,” or “attitude.” These concepts can be understood as having observable manifestations, but are not limited to or equivalent to observable manifestations.

In physics the term observation and the notion of the logical relations between claims in a theory had a more straightforward meaning. The logical relations were mathematical. The way in which an implication was derived from a theory was by deriving it mathematically through a proof. The theories of sociology, in contrast, rarely if ever have this structure, although in many cases theories are presented with verbal formulations which have ”logical connections” in a looser sense, namely that the claims in the theory provide a good reason, in context, for expectations that can be tested or applied to cases. Sociological theories thus resemble physical theories in the hypothetico-deductive sense in some ways, but differ in others. A ”theory” may be a part of a theoretical structure, such as a system of conceptual categories which enable description. But it may instead be a description of unobservable forces or unobservable mechanisms, such as the mechanism that reinforces social hierarchy by selectively excluding members of the lower classes from the paths which lead to positions of wealth and power.

The major difference between sociological and physical theory is that the concepts in sociology are typically sense making: they serve to enable a fact described in its terms to be more fully intelligible. Making a fact more intelligible will usually make its consequences more predict able. If I even do something as simple as characterizing an action as a product of the agent’s beliefs and positive attitudes towards some outcome specified by the agent’s beliefs, I have improved the prediction over alternative descriptions or over chance. This is not the same thing as a prediction in physics, but it is predictive nevertheless.

If the sociologist can add to this simple situation of explaining in terms of beliefs and attitudes by characterizing the set of beliefs that support the particular belief that relates directly to the action, for example by understanding a religiously motivated action in terms of a typology of religious belief, and if the sociologist can explain how those beliefs come to be distributed in particular groups, she will have something that begins to look like a theory that explains those actions sociologically, that is to say at some level beyond the level of the individual. Similarly, for characterizations about such things as role, for example. If an individual’s behavior can be characterized in terms of the roles which they are fulfilling, this explanation can be extended by accounting for the process of socialization into the role in question and the ways in which role behavior is enforced as normative, or enacted and supported by the expectations of other agents.

These descriptions of mechanisms are more general claims than the explanation of the individual’s action; they are ”social” in the sense that they serve to organize the behavior of individuals in relation to a limited category of individuals. The characterizations are sense making in that they explicate the beliefs and expectations of the people involved, and predictive in the sense that they improve our own expectations about what people will actually do and what role conduct is likely to persist or appear in different social settings. Similarly, a good categorization scheme using intelligibility enhancing concepts (e.g., Weber’s categories of legitimate authority) will enable the sociologist equipped with it to improve expectations as well as achieve understanding.

Sociologists have traditionally differed with respect to the emphasis they place on different aspects   of these kinds of loose theories.

Parsons, for example, was particularly concerned with the elaboration of conceptual distinctions which could be used to organize comprehensively the concepts of sociology and relate them to one another and to the concepts of other disciplines. Parsons placed little emphasis on making individual  actions or beliefs intelligible and little emphasis on prediction; although he envisioned future possibilities of prediction he also believed that many of the central variables of sociology were unquantifiable and that this was an inherent limitation on sociological theories approximating physics.

Some sociologists have tried strictly to adhere to the idea of deductive theorizing as modeled on physics. Typically, these sociologists have attempted to devise experimental settings in which limited variables or sets of variables can be measured in relation to other variables in such ways that predictions can be made and confirmed. This strategy has the potential of illuminating basic concepts which can then be applied to social life outside the laboratory as fundamental theories which approximate the more complex realities of actual social life. One problem with this strategy is that there are often alternative theories which are equally effective or ineffective as means of making sense of and predicting in the more complex actual settings of the real world.

Some theories, generally called interpretive theories, are focused primarily on intelligibility itself. For these theorists, providing a more fully realized and rich interpretation of the actions, attitudes, and beliefs of individuals is the appropriate and most productive strategy for dealing with a world of agents, that is to say a world of individuals who are themselves interpreters of one another and who act in terms of these interpretations.

Other theories, such as rational choice theory, borrow the theoretical structure of decision theory, game theory, or economics to provide a particular kind of intelligibility to actions of individuals who are treated in abstraction from considerations about the specific actual beliefs and attitudes of the individuals, and the explanations are evaluated in terms of their ability to predict the choices of these individuals. In one sense this represents the highest level of intelligibility, namely rational choice. In another sense it is removed from the subjective experience and ongoing interpretive activities of individual agents and thus serves as a poor guide to these aspects of experience.


  • Fleck, L. (1979 [1935]) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Henderson, L. J. (1932) An Approximate Definition of Fact. University of California Studies in Philosophy 14: 179-99.
  • Parsons, T. (1968 [1937]) The Structure of Social Action, Vol. 1. Free Press, New York.
  • Whewell, W. (1984) Selected Writings on the History of Science. Ed. Y. Elkana. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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Ad hoc Hypothesis

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Ad hoc hypothesis denotes a supplementary hypothesis given to a theory to prevent it from being refuted. According to Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, the only way that falsifiable intellectual systems like Marxism and Freudianism have been sustained is through the dependence on ad hoc hypotheses to fill gaps. Ad hoc hypotheses are used to account for abnormalities that the theory’s unaltered form could not foresee.


Ad hoc theories are only acceptable if and only if their non-universal, precise nature can be shown, or, to put it another way, if their potential for direct generalization is disproven. It is the hypothesis that is embraced without any other justification in order to save a theory from refutations or criticism. This technique is deployed in sociological research studies.

The derivation of the particular conclusion in an issue may be deemed invalid if an ad hoc hypothesis was proven to be acceptable and non-universal; as a result, the specific example loses its scientific significance. The necessity of repeat testing is implied in the aforementioned working rule for the acceptance of ad hoc hypotheses, which makes this process seem all the more justifiable.

Notably, the system seems to be in question whenever the introduction of an ad hoc hypothesis is required until the acceptability of the ad hoc hypothesis appears to be established by the requisite falsification attempts. The restriction of ad hoc hypotheses and the continuity principle appear to guarantee the objectivity of falsification; in other words, a theory should only be regarded as falsified if its falsification is theoretically testable.

In addition, because it gives a preferential position to a critical evaluation or falsification, this principle of restriction serves as, in a sense, the second part of the working definition for the idea of a theoretical system’s falsification. Ad hoc hypotheses can be used to attempt to prevent falsification based on the continuity principle, but this can only be done if a different hypothesis, the generalized ad hoc hypothesis (which is also subject to the continuity principle), can also be refuted. Therefore, avoiding falsification depends on (yet another) deception. 

The first falsification will take effect if the second one is unsuccessful. This methodological constraint, or the concept of the restriction of ad hoc hypothesis, has effectively eliminated the “conventionalist argument to falsifiability.” The argument that this system is, in theory, not falsifiable has been demonstrated to be inconsistent (via the principle of the restriction of ad hoc hypotheses) provided that a system enables the derivation of empirically verifiable consequences in the first place.

Since the non-falsifiability of any hypothesis (even a generalized ad hoc hypothesis) would necessitate the falsifiability of other hypotheses, this principle gives a workable definition of the term “falsification” (that is, the falsification of the original axiomatic system). This is obviously inconsistent.

The ad hoc hypothesis “This (otherwise accurate) watch showed the wrong time under such and such circumstances” is only a valid ad hoc hypothesis if the universal statement “All (otherwise accurate) watches show the wrong time under such and such circumstances” can be shown to be false, or refuted, by counterexamples.

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Home >> Socio Short Notes >> Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

In the 1930s, two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, became intrigued when they noticed that the Hopi Indians of the southwestern United States had no words to distinguish among the past, the present, and the future. English, in contrast as well as French, spanish, Swahili, and other languages distinguishes carefully among these three time frames.

From this observation, Sapir and Whorf began to think that words might be more than labels that people attach to things. Eventually, they concluded that language has embedded within it ways of looking at the world. In other words, language not only expresses our thoughts and perceptions but also shapes the way we think and perceive. When we learn a language, we learn not only words but also ways of thinking and perceiving.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis indicates that rather than objects and events forcing themselves onto our consciousness, it is our language that determines our consciousness, and hence our perception of objects and events.

For English speakers, the term nuts combine almonds, walnuts, and pecans in such a way that we see them as belonging together. Although Sapir and Whorf's observation that the Hopi do not have tenses was inaccurate, they did stumble onto a major truth about social life. Learning a language means not only learning words but also acquiring the perceptions embedded in that language. In other words, language both reflects and shapes our cultural experiences.

hypothesis definition in sociology

Open Education Sociology Dictionary

null hypothesis

Table of Contents

Definition of Null Hypothesis

( noun ) In statistical analysis , an hypothesis that predicts the absence of a relationship between two variables .

Example of Null Hypothesis

  • “Education has no effect on mobility.”

Null Hypothesis Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification : null hy·poth·e·sis

Audio Pronunciation

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /nUHl hie-pAHth-uh-suhs/
  • British English – /nUHl hie-pOth-i-sis/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /nʌl haɪˈpɑθəsəs/
  • British English – /nʌl haɪˈpɒθɪsɪs/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: null hypotheses
  • Note : The H is italicized .
  • A null hypothesis can be true but still not discount the substantive hypothesis if it is low enough.

Additional Information

  • Quantitative Research Resources – Books, Journals, and Helpful Links
  • Word origin of “null” and “hypothesis” – Online Etymology Dictionary: etymonline.com

Related Terms

  • control group
  • correlation
  • dependent variable
  • descriptive statistics
  • independent variable
  • random sample
  • reliability
  • statistical analysis

Cite the Definition of Null Hypothesis

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2014. “null hypothesis.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Retrieved February 21, 2024 ( https://sociologydictionary.org/null-hypothesis/ ).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

null hypothesis. (2014). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary . Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/null-hypothesis/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2014. “null hypothesis.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Accessed February 21, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/null-hypothesis/ .

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“null hypothesis.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Ed. Kenton Bell. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2024. < https://sociologydictionary.org/null-hypothesis/ >.

  • 3.2 Elements of Culture
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 What Is Sociology?
  • 1.2 The History of Sociology
  • 1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology
  • 1.4 Why Study Sociology?
  • Section Summary
  • Section Quiz
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  • 3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
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  • 4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
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  • 6.2 Group Size and Structure
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  • 8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology
  • 8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
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  • 9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
  • 9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
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  • 10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
  • 10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
  • 10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification
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  • 11.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity
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  • 12.2 Gender and Gender Inequality
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  • 13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
  • 13.2 The Process of Aging
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  • 14.1 What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
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  • Introduction to Social Movements and Social Change
  • 21.1 Collective Behavior
  • 21.2 Social Movements
  • 21.3 Social Change

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Differentiate values, beliefs, and norms
  • Explain the significance of symbols and language to a culture
  • Explain the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • Discuss the role of social control within culture

Values and Beliefs

The first, and perhaps most crucial, elements of culture we will discuss are values and beliefs . Value does not mean monetary worth in sociology, but rather ideals, or principles and standards members of a culture hold in high regard. Most cultures in any society hold “knowledge” (education) in high regard. Values are deeply embedded and are critical for learning a culture’s beliefs , which are the tenets or convictions that people hold to be true. Individual cultures in a society have personal beliefs, but they also shared collective values. To illustrate the difference, U.S. citizens may believe in the American Dream—that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the American value that wealth is important. In other cultures, success may be tied less to wealth and more to having many healthy children. Values shape a society by suggesting what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, sought or avoided.

Consider the value that the U.S. places upon youth. Children represent innocence and purity, while a youthful adult appearance signifies sexuality. Shaped by this value, individuals spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetic products and surgeries to look young and beautiful. The U.S. also has an individualistic culture, meaning people place a high value on individuality and independence. In contrast, many other cultures are collectivist, meaning the welfare of the group takes priority over that of the individual. Fulfilling a society’s values can be difficult. Marital monogamy is valued, but many spouses engage in infidelity. Cultural diversity and equal opportunities for all people are valued in the U.S., yet the country’s highest political offices have been dominated by white men.

Values often suggest how people should behave, but they don’t accurately reflect how people do behave. Values portray an ideal culture , the standards society would like to embrace and live up to. But ideal culture differs from real culture . In an ideal culture, there would be no traffic accidents, murders, poverty, or racial tension. But in real culture, police officers, lawmakers, educators, and social workers constantly strive to prevent or address these issues. American teenagers are encouraged to value celibacy. However, the number of unplanned pregnancies among teens reveals that the ideal alone is not enough to spare teenagers the potential consequences of having sex.

One of the ways societies strive to maintain its values is through rewards and punishments. When people observe the norms of society and uphold its values, they are often rewarded. A boy who helps an elderly woman board a bus may receive a smile and a “thank you.” A business manager who raises profit margins may receive a quarterly bonus. People sanction unwanted or inappropriate behaviors by withholding support, approval, or permission, or by implementing sanctions. We may think of ‘sanction’ as a negative term, but sanctions are forms of social control , ways to encourage conformity to cultural norms or rules. Sometimes people conform to norms in anticipation or expectation of positive sanctions. Receiving good grades, for instance, may mean praise from parents and teachers. Sanctions can also be negative. . A boy who shoves an elderly woman aside to board the bus first may receive frowns or even a scolding from other passengers. A business manager who drives away customers will likely be fired. Breaking norms and rejecting values can lead to cultural sanctions such as earning a negative label like ‘lazy’ or to legal sanctions, such as traffic tickets, fines, or imprisonment. Utilizing social control encourages most people to conform regardless of whether authority figures (such as law enforcement) are present.

Values are not static. They change across time and between groups as people evaluate, debate, and change collective social beliefs. Values also vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures differ in their values about what kinds of physical closeness are appropriate in public. It’s rare to see two male friends or coworkers holding hands in the U.S. where that behavior often symbolizes romantic feelings. But in many nations, masculine physical intimacy is considered natural in public. This difference in cultural values came to light when people reacted to photos of former president G.W. Bush holding hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2005. Simple gestures, such as hand-holding, carry great symbolic differences across cultures.

So far, many of the examples in this chapter have described how people are expected to behave in certain situations—for example, buying food or boarding a bus. These examples describe the visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured, or what sociologists call norms . Norms are behaviors that reflect compliance with what cultures and societies have defined as good, right, and important. Most members adhere to them.

Formal norms are established, written rules existing in all societies. They support many social institutions , such as the military, criminal justice and healthcare systems, and public schools. Functionalists may question what purpose these norms serve, conflict theorists might be interested in who creates, benefits, and suffers under these formal norms, and symbolic interactionists wonder about how a group that benefits interacts. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and they are the most strictly enforced. But they are enforced to varying degrees.

For example, private property is highly valued in the U.S. Thieves can be fined, imprisoned, or both. People safeguard valuable possessions by locking their doors, buying a safe, and installing alarm systems on homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it’s against the law to drive drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behavior. And though there are laws to punish drunk driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly— “Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while others are learned by observation, including understanding consequences when someone else violates a norm. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need of written rules and so may be difficult to learn when you are new to or not familiar with the culture.

Although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. In the U.S., there are informal norms regarding behavior at fast food restaurants. Customers line up to order their food and leave when they are done. They don’t sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people don’t commit even harmless breaches of informal norms.

Sociological Research

Breaching experiments.

Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1917–2011) studied people’s customs in order to find out how societal rules and norms not only influence behavior but also shape social order. He believed that members of society together create a social order (Weber, 2011). His resulting book, Studies in Ethno-methodology (1967) discusses people’s assumptions about the social makeup of their communities.

One of Garfinkel’s research methods was known as a “breaching experiment,” in which the researcher behaves in a socially awkward manner in order to test the sociological concepts of social norms and conformity. The participants are not aware an experiment is in progress, but their response is recorded. For example, if the experimenter is, say, a man in a business suit, and he skips down the sidewalk or hops on one foot, a passersby is likely to stare at him with surprised expressions. But the experimenter does not simply “act weird” in public. Rather, the point is to deviate from a specific social norm in a small way, to subtly break some form of social etiquette, and see what happens.

For example, he set up a simple game of tic-tac-toe. One player was asked beforehand to mark Xs and Os not in the boxes but on the lines dividing the spaces instead. The other player, in the dark about the study, was flabbergasted and did not know how to continue. The second player’s outrage, anger, puzzlement, or other emotion suggested that a cultural norms had been violated.

There are many rules about speaking with strangers in public. It is okay to tell a woman you like her shoes. It is not okay to ask if you can try them on. It is okay to stand in line behind someone at the ATM. It is not okay to look over his shoulder as he makes a transaction. It is okay to sit beside someone on a crowded bus. It’s weird to sit beside a stranger in a half-empty bus.

For some breaches, the researcher directly engages with innocent bystanders. An experimenter might strike up a conversation in a public bathroom, where it’s common to respect each other’s privacy. In a grocery store, an experimenter might take a food item out of another person’s grocery cart, saying, “That looks good! I think I’ll try it.” An experimenter might sit down at a table with others in a fast-food restaurant or follow someone around a museum and study the same paintings. In those cases, the bystanders are pressured to respond, and their discomfort illustrates how much we depend on social norms. Breaching experiments uncover and explore the many unwritten social rules we live by.

Norms may be further classified as either mores or folkways. Mores (mor-ays) are norms that embody the moral views and principles of a group. They often have a religious foundation. Violating them can have serious consequences. The strongest mores are protected with laws and other formal sanctions. In most societies, for instance, homicide is considered immoral, and it’s punishable by law (a formal norm). But more often, mores are judged and guarded by public sentiment (an informal norm). People who violate mores are seen as shameful. They can even be shunned or banned from some groups.

The mores of the U.S. school system require that a student’s writing be in the student’s own words or use special forms (such as quotation marks and a whole system of citation) for crediting other writers. Submitting or publishing another person’s words as if they are one’s own has a name—plagiarism. The consequences for violating this norm are often severe and can result in expulsion from school or termination from employment.

Unlike mores, folkways are norms without any moral underpinnings. Rather, folkways direct appropriate behavior in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture. We can think of them as ‘traditions’—things we do because we ‘always have.’ They indicate whether to shake hands or kiss on the cheek when greeting another person. They specify whether to wear a tie and blazer or a T-shirt and sandals to an event. In Canada, women can smile and say hello to men on the street. In Egypt, that’s not acceptable. In regions in the southern U.S., bumping into an acquaintance means stopping to chat. It’s considered rude not to, no matter how busy one is. In other regions, people guard their privacy and value time efficiency. A simple nod of the head is enough. Other accepted folkways in the U.S. may include holding the door open for a stranger or giving someone a gift on their birthday. The rules regarding these folkways may change from culture to culture. A folkway in one culture could be extremely rude in another.

Folkways are actions that people everywhere take for granted. People need to act without thinking in order to get seamlessly through daily routines. They can’t stop and analyze every action (Sumner, 1906). Folkways might be small actions, learned by observation and imitated, but they are by no means trivial. An important folkway in many cultures is kissing Grandmother on the cheek. Fail to do so and you will likely be scolded.

Symbols and Culture

Humans, consciously and subconsciously, are always striving to make sense of their surrounding world. Symbols—such as gestures, signs, objects, signals, and words—help people understand that world. They provide communication methods to understanding experiences by conveying recognizable meanings that are shared by societies.

The world is filled with symbols. Sports uniforms, company logos, and traffic signs are symbols. In some cultures, a gold ring is a symbol of marriage. Some symbols are highly functional; stop signs, for instance, provide useful instruction. As physical objects, they belong to material culture, but because they function as symbols, they also convey nonmaterial cultural meanings. Some symbols are valuable only in what they represent. Trophies, blue ribbons, or gold medals, for example, represent accomplishments. But many objects have both material and nonmaterial symbolic value.

Symbols often get noticed when they are out of context. Used unconventionally, they convey strong messages. A stop sign placed on the door of a college building makes a political statement, as does a camouflage military jacket worn in an antiwar protest. Together, the semaphore signals for “N” and “D” represent nuclear disarmament—and form the well-known peace sign (Westcott, 2008). Some college students wear pajamas and bedroom slippers to class, clothing that was formerly associated only with privacy and bedtime. By wearing the outfit, students are defying traditional cultural norms.

Some symbols represent only one side of the story and elicit strong emotions, which can lead to social unrest. Their presence is a reminder of a nation’s worst times and not something to celebrate. Many of these symbols are targets of vandalism as the destruction of these representations is symbolic. Effigies representing public figures are burned to demonstrate anger at certain leaders. In 1989, crowds tore down the Berlin Wall, a decades-old symbol of the division between East and West Germany, communism, and capitalism. In the U.S. beginning in 2019, statues associated with slavery and the Civil War were removed from state capitols, college campuses, and public parks. In Germany, any display of Hitler or Nazi memorabilia or to deny the Holocaust is illegal.

While different cultures have varying systems of symbols, one system is common to all: language. Whatever its form, people learn social and cultural norms through it.

Language and Symbols

Language is a system that uses symbols with which people communicate and through which culture is transmitted. Letters (which make up words), pictographs, and hand gestures are all symbols that create a language used for communication. Sign language, for example, requires an intimate knowledge not only of an alphabet but also of signs that represent entire words and the meaning indicated by certain facial expressions or postures. Its grammar differs from the spoken language. As spoken language is different across regions, nations and cultures, and can even differ by the age of the person, so too does sign language.

All language systems contain the same basic elements that are effective in communicating ideas - object, subject, action. A written language system consists of symbols that refer to spoken sound. Taken together, these symbols convey specific meanings. The English language uses a combination of twenty-six letters to create words. These twenty-six letters make up over 600,000 recognized words (OED Online, 2011). We can compare the reliance on tone and inflection to Mandarin Chinese. It contains over 8,000 characters, but the same character may symbolize different concepts depending on the tone used.

English today contains an English and French version for the same concept. For example, in the English version, one eats, but in French version, one dines. In the English version, we meet someone. In the French version, we encounter someone. Readers of American English may be surprised by the inclusion of a ‘u’ in some spellings of words like ‘behaviour’ or ‘flavour.’ Americans have dropped that ‘u’ that writers of British English include. Billions of people speak English, and there are almost as many pronunciations of it.

Rules for speaking and writing vary even within cultures, most notably by region. Do you eat a grinder, a sub, or a hero/gyro? Do you refer to a can of carbonated liquid as “soda” or “pop”? Is a household entertainment room a “family room,” “rec room,” or “den”? When leaving a restaurant, do you ask your server for a “check,” the “ticket,” or your “bill”? Language is constantly evolving and adding new words as societies create new ideas. In this age of technology, many cultures have adapted almost instantly to new nouns such as “e-mail” and “Internet,” and verbs such as “downloading,” “texting,” and “blogging.” These would have been considered nonsense words in the world just twenty-five years ago.

Language and Culture

Even while it constantly evolves, language shapes our perception of reality and our behavior. In the 1920s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf advanced this idea which became known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity. It is based on the idea that people experience their world through their language, and therefore understand their world through the cultural meanings embedded in their language. The hypothesis suggests that language shapes thought and thus behavior (Swoyer, 2003). For example, words have attached meanings beyond their definition that can influence thought and behavior. In the U.S. where the number thirteen is associated with bad luck, many high-rise buildings do not have a 13 th floor. In Japan, however, the number four is considered unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the Japanese word for “death.”

Many sociologists believe that language can have a broad and lasting impact on perception. In 2002, Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues conducted experiments on native German and Spanish speakers in English. Unlike English, these languages assign genders to nouns. In German, for example, the word for sun, die Sonne, is feminine, but the word for moon, der Mond, is masculine. The team chose a set of nouns with opposite genders in German and Spanish and asked participants to provide adjectives to describe them. They found that German speakers used more masculine adjectives than Spanish speakers when describing a noun that was grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish. For example, the word for key is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers used the adjectives, golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The team concluded that gender perceptions acquired in a person’s native language carry forward to how they see the world even when they switch to a language without grammatical genders (Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips, 2002).

Some sociologists also believe the structure of language can have consequences on both individual and group behavior. For example, a series of studies have found that Finland has a significantly higher rate of workplace accidents than Sweden despite the fact that the languages have similar workplace regulations (Salminen & Johansson, 2000). John A. Lucy explained this discrepancy through differences in the structure of these languages. Swedish places a greater emphasis on the timing of movement in three-dimensional space. Consequently, Lucy argued, the Swedish factories are physically arranged in a manner that supports the smooth running of the product process. Finnish factors experience frequent disruptions, so that workers must rush and have more accidents (Lucy, 1997).

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been interpreted to suggest that if a word does not exist in a language then users of that language cannot have the experience. Studies have shown, for instance, that unless people have access to the word “ambivalent,” they don’t recognize having conflicting positive and negative feelings about an issue as ‘ambivalence.’ However, the hypothesis should not suggest that people do not have conflicting feelings but rather that they interpret the feelings differently.

In addition to using spoken language, people communicate without words. Nonverbal communication is symbolic, and, as in the case of language, is learned through one’s culture. Some gestures are nearly universal; some are not. Smiles often indicate positive reinforcement in the U.S., whereas in some cultures it is rude as you do not know the person. A thumbs-up in Russia and Australia is an offensive curse (Passero, 2002). Other gestures vary in meaning depending on the situation and the person. A wave of the hand can mean many things, depending on how it’s done and for whom. It may mean “hello,” “goodbye,” “no thank you,” or “I’m royalty.” Winks convey a variety of messages, including “We have a secret,” “I’m only kidding,” or “I’m attracted to you.” From a distance, a person may “read” the emotional situation of people just by watching their body language and facial expressions. However, many cultures communicate with lots of physicality, which people outside that culture may interpret as an argument. So, for example, you might believe two people are arguing when, in fact, they are simply having a regular conversation.

Social Policy and Debate

Is the u.s. bilingual.

When she was six, Lucy and her family immigrated to the United States and attended a school that allowed for the use of both English and Spanish. Lucy’s teacher and many staff were bilingual (fluent in English and Spanish), and the district offered books in both languages. While she was being driven to learn English, the dual-language option helped to ensure that she did not become lost and get behind in her learning of all subjects. Having math, science, and computing taught in both languages helped her understand those concepts and skills. Within two years of enrolling in the school, Lucy was getting nearly all of her instruction in English, and rarely used the Spanish-language books or resources. While she still had trouble with some intricacies of English, her math progress was above grade level and she did well in other subjects as well.

Some people might believe that Lucy would have learned faster had she been instructed only in English. But research indicates that is not the case. Johns Hopkins University researchers conducted a series of studies on the effects of bilingual education across multiple subjects (Slavin et al. 2008). They found that students taught in both their native tongue and English make better progress than those taught only in English.

Legally, the U.S. has no official language. But many believe English to be the rightful language of the U.S., and over thirty states have passed laws specifying English as their official tongue. Proponents of English-only laws suggest that a national ruling will save money on translation, printing, and human resource costs, including funding for bilingual teachers. They argue that setting English as the official language will encourage non-English speakers to learn English faster and adapt to the culture of the U.S. more easily (Mount 2010). Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) oppose making English the official language and claim that it violates the rights of non-English speakers. English-only laws, they believe, deny the reality of our nation’s diversity and unfairly target non-English speakers. They point to the fact that much of the debate on this topic has risen since 1970, a period during which the U.S. has experienced new waves of immigration from Asia and Mexico.

Today, a lot of product information gets written in multiple languages. Enter a store like Home Depot and you’ll find signs in both English and Spanish. Buy a children’s product and the safety warnings could be presented in multiple languages. While marketers are financially motivated to reach the largest number of consumers possible, this trend also may help people become accustomed to a culture of bilingualism.

Studies show that most US immigrants eventually abandon their native tongues and become fluent in English. Bilingual education helps with that transition. Today, Lucy is an ambitious and high-achieving college student. Fluent in both English and Spanish, Lucy is studying law enforcement—a field that seeks bilingual employees. The same bilingualism that contributed to her success in grade school will help her thrive professionally as a law officer serving her community.

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  • Authors: Tonja R. Conerly, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang
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