Ever heard a fact from a sociological study that made you say, “That just can’t be true”? Many of us have a fundamental misunderstanding of sociology and how to interpret sociological research findings. In this article Nathan Palmer talks about how these misunderstandings have affected his students and asks us to reconsider the role of sociology in our lives.
She sat third row, second from the end in my sociology 101 class head cocked to the side with her brow scrunched up. She listened to me go on for a while about divorce and then she turned to the students beside her and began talking to them; she appeared to be rallying them because as she talked their heads nodded with increasing speed.
We were talking about the sociological research that suggests that people who’ve been divorced before, are the children of divorced parents, get married as the result of an unplanned pregnancy, and those with out financial resources are, on average, more likely to get divorced.[1. All of these findings are discussed in Society: The Basics by John J. Macionis. Full disclosure: This book is published by Pearson who also sponsors SociologyInFocus.com]
After a beat, she launched her hand into the sky, turned her head toward me, and narrowed her eyes like a predator with it’s pray in sight. “Yes?” I said pointing to her. “Um, professor Palmer, what you said about divorce can’t be true because both my parents are still married and they got married because they got pregnant with me. Also, they are the children of divorced parents and both had been married before they married each other. So I hate to tell you this, but your sociological study got it wrong.”[2. To protect my students anonymity, this student is an amalgam of multiple students I’ve had in the past. She is not representative of any single student.]
The “n of 1 problem”
My student made two mistakes. Her first mistake was she believed her parents alone could discredit the findings of the divorce research we were discussing. This is what could be called the “n of 1 problem”. In research the number of data points you have in your study is referred to as your “n”. Survey research that wants to predict the likelihood of divorce for the entire United States would require hundreds if not thousands of people to complete the survey (aka have an n of 1,000 or more). The findings that we discussed in class were based on the averages of all the questions of these surveys. So one survey that runs counter to the average doesn’t disprove[3. I used disprove here because it is a word that most of us are familiar with. However, sociology can’t “prove” anything. We can find evidence to suggest something or we can say that under certain circumstances people are more likely to do this or that. But to prove something implies a certitude that social research can not provide. Will talk more about this in the We Are Not Atoms or Robots section.] the average.
The “n of 1 problem” can be tricky, so let me give you an example. Pretend you’re in my class and I hand back to the class their graded first exams. Let’s say I told the class, “The average on the test was a 76%,” and you raised your hand and said, “Um, professor Palmer, that can’t be true because I got a 82% on the quiz so your calculation must be wrong.” This would be exactly the same scenario that we saw with the student and the divorce research. One test grade doesn’t prove or disprove the average for the class; every student knows that. Likewise, one family’s experience does not make or break the average for all families in the United States.
We Are Not Atoms or Robots
The second mistake my student made was that she interpreted the sociological research on divorce as being prescriptive, that is she heard the findings as though they were laws of sociology. There are laws of physics (for instance drop something and it will fall to the ground), but there aren’t laws of sociology. Sociologists can’t say that if some couple finds themselves in certain circumstances they will absolutely positively get divorced. It doesn’t work like that.
Sociology is, more often than not, focused on trends, averages, and the big picture.[4. Even when sociology focuses on individuals (what we call micro-level analysis) researchers tend to focus on the patterns, trends, and social structures that guide interactions between individuals rather than what makes a single person make a choice in a specific situation.] Sociologists are most interested in how social forces guide all of us through our lives. The key word in the last sentence is guide. There are no hard laws of sociology similar to the laws of thermodynamics. Sociology, at best, can only talk about probabilities. We can say that couples who meet these criteria are more/less likely to do [blank], but humans are not atoms nor robots. We have free will and we use it all the time to buck the trend and go our own way. We are not atoms governed by the laws of physics nor are we robots governed by some secret laws of sociology.
So the next time you hear of a national study and you are ready to write it off, remember the “n of 1 problem” and that we are not robots. It’s ok if your experience differs from the studies you read about. Those studies don’t disprove your experiences and on the flip-side your experiences don’t disprove the findings of the study.
- Have you ever read a sociological study or sat through a sociology class that made you really question the accuracy of the studies findings? What was it about the study or the subject that made you question it?
- Sociology has, so far, been unable to find any universal laws of human/social behavior. Why do you think this is? Do you think sociology will ever find universal laws of human/social behavior? Is that even possible?
- Where else do you see the “n of one problem” being an issue in your life? For example, are there people around you who think well if I did x, y, or z than anyone can?
- What value does sociology offer us if it can not predict human behavior absolutely? That is, with out universal laws of human/social behavior, what value is there in sociology as a discipline?