Empirical Social Research

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Empirical social research refers to the systematic collection of data from the social sciences on social facts through observation , questioning / interview , experiment or through the collection of so-called process-generated data and their evaluation. In addition to general sociology and special sociologies (such as family, organizational or occupational sociology), empirical social research is the third major area of ​​sociology. At the same time, it is an interdisciplinary empirical science, as it makes survey procedures and methods available to other social sciences (e.g. political science in election research ; economics and business administration in market research ; social psychology with experiments; economic and social history with quantitative methods ), in the development of which sociology was involved in a prominent but not exclusive way.


Empirical social research developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from various predecessor disciplines. First and foremost, cameralistics is to be mentioned , which developed statistical methods for the mercantilist state administration. Then in the 19th century, especially in Great Britain, social surveys were carried out to investigate integration problems and to fight poverty . In Germany, the Verein für Socialpolitik conducted numerous surveys in the last third of the 19th century that were focused on the “ social question ” and were intended to serve as preparation for social legislation. Since the beginning of the 20th century, research in the United States has given a strong impetus. Primarily community studies (e.g. Middletown by Robert S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynd), company investigations (such as those in the Hawthorn works by Elton Mayo and his colleagues) and finally the ethnographic methods and differentiated survey methods of the so-called Chicago School enriched the repertoire of the empirical social research. From the 1930s, opinion and market research gained great importance. In Europe empirical social research, including empirical electoral research, especially under American influence, did not develop fully until after the Second World War. In the sociology of National Socialism , however, it already played a larger role.


A number of very different goals can be pursued with empirical social research:

  • social issues (e.g. unemployment rates, suicide rates, crime trends, the extent of xenophobia, etc.) can be described using systematically collected data and working hypotheses can be developed on this basis ,
  • social science theories and hypotheses developed from them can be checked using empirical data ( deductive approach),
  • Theories and hypotheses can be developed or modified on the basis of empirical observations ( inductive approach),
  • (e.g. socio-political ) planning and decision-making processes can be supported by scientific results and ways can be shown to cope with social problems practically and politically.

Qualitative vs. quantitative methods in the social sciences

In the social sciences , a very controversial discussion continues to this day about whether it is better to conduct empirical research using qualitative methods or quantitative methods . Methodological , sociological-theoretical and sometimes also political-ideological questions flow into this methodological dispute , which was particularly fierce at the end of the 1960s .

In quantitative social research, standardized data is primarily used (for example, with the results of surveys in which the respondents choose between fixed alternative answers), because standardized information can be processed particularly easily using statistical methods. Certain currents of modern philosophy of science , such as the analytical philosophy or the critical rationalism of Karl Popper and Hans Albert, serve as the methodological basis of quantitative empirical social research . An important principle of quantitative social research is that research should in principle take place independently of the researcher's subjectivity (principle of intersubjectivity ). The goal of quantitative social research can consist on the one hand in the description of social "macro phenomena" (such as birth rates, unemployment rates, etc.) or in the examination of hypotheses derived from social science theories.

In parallel to quantitative social research, qualitative social research has developed since the 1920s , which works with unstandardized data, such as is collected in open interviews that are more like a normal conversation than a standardized survey. In the context of historical sociology and the history of ideas in sociology, source criticism is also a qualitative method. The advantages of the qualitative data collection and combined techniques (e.g. participant observation , qualitative interview, group discussion ), which were further developed in the 1990s, are seen by representatives of qualitative social research in the fact that they often better capture the action orientations, relevance and interpretation patterns of the actors in the subject area could be considered using standardized methods.

As a rule, qualitative social research does not aim at checking a previously formulated scientific hypothesis (i.e. before contact with the empirical field), but rather the aim is to explore and research social structures and processes more deeply and to make social structures of meaning visible. The different forms of qualitative research always start with an individual field access, which with consent (easy access) or which politicizes the field during a sensitive phase (difficult access).


The discussion of three sociologists became the paradigm of different views on the relationship between sociological theory and empirical social research: Paul Lazarsfeld , who is considered the founder of “administrative research”, Theodor W. Adorno , who recently increasingly criticized empirical research from its philosophical position (see On the current position of empirical social research in Germany and sociology and empirical research ), and Robert K. Merton , who, with the concept of the theories of medium range , sought a mediation between large theories and non-theoretical social statistics.

C. Wright Mills , in his influential work The Sociological Imagination , saw the danger of bureaucratism and technocratic subordination of the social sciences on the one hand in the concentration on "administrative research" ( if only because of the need for project funding), and on the other hand in the danger of turning away from real social problems “Great theory” the exclusively ideological utility value of the same.



  • Gerhard Stapelfeldt : Theory of Society and Empirical Social Research. On the logic of the explanation of the unconscious . Ca Ira, Freiburg 2004, ISBN 3-924627-13-4 .
  • Peter Atteslander : Methods of Empirical Social Research. 12th edition. Erich Schmidt, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-503-10690-5 .
  • H. Berger, HF Wolf, A. Ullmann (Hrsg.): Handbook of sociological research - methodology, methods, techniques. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1989.
  • S. Albers, D. Klapper, U. Konradt, A. Walter, J. Wolf (Eds.): Methodology of empirical social research. 2nd Edition. Gabler, Wiesbaden 2007.


For quantitative social research

For qualitative social research

  • Qualitative social research. VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 1999–2006 (over 15 volumes)
  • Uwe Flick, Ernst von Kardorff, Ines Steinke (eds.): Qualitative research. A manual. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2000, ISBN 3-499-55628-6 .
  • Barbara Friebertshäuser, Antje Langer, Annedore Prengel (eds.): Handbook Qualitative Research Methods in Educational Science . Beltz Juventa, Weinheim / Basel 2013, ISBN 978-3-7799-0799-2 .
  • Udo Kuckartz : Introduction to the computer-aided analysis of qualitative data. VS, Wiesbaden 2005, ISBN 3-531-14247-X .
  • Siegfried Lamnek : Qualitative social research. Textbook . 4th edition. Beltz; PVU, Weinheim; Basel 2005, ISBN 3-621-27544-4 .
  • Günther Mey, Katja Mruck (ed.): Handbook Qualitative Research in Psychology . VS, Wiesbaden 2010, ISBN 978-3-531-16726-8 .
  • Aglaja Przyborski, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr : Qualitative social research. A work book . Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-486-58509-4 .
  • Jörg Strübing: Qualitative social research. An introduction . Oldenbourg, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-486-58823-1 .

References and footnotes

  1. One of the most extensive "inquiries" was the 17-volume study of Charles James Booth Life and Labor of the People in London (1880-1891).
  2. Horst Kern: Empirical social research . Munich 1982, p. 67ff.
  3. ^ Robert S. Lynd, Helen M. Lynd: Middletown. A Study in Contemporary American Culture . New York 1929; This: Middletown in Transition. A Study in Cultural Conflicts . New York 1937.
  4. ^ Fritz Roethlisberger , William J. Dickson: Management and the Worker. An Account of a Research Program Conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago . Harvard University Press, Cambridge / Mass. 1939.
  5. Wolf Lepenies : History of Sociology. Studies on the cognitive, social and historical identity of a discipline. Volume 1. (= Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft. 367). Frankfurt am Main 1981.
  6. ^ C. Wright Mills: The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York 1959, pp. 117f.

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