A GUIDE TO RESEARCH TOPICS, ANYWAY

There may not be a list of research topics, but there are some useful guidelines. First of all, there are very few big-theory issues—I call them research arenas—in all of social science. Here are four of them: (1) the nature-nurture problem, (2) the evolution problem, (3) the internal-external problem, and (4) the social facts or emergent properties problem.

1. The nature-nurture problem. This is an age-old question: How much of our personality and behavior is determined by our genes and how much by our exposure to different environments? Many diseases (cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia) are highly determined by our genes, but others (heart disease, diabetes, asthma) are at least partly the result of our cultural and physical environment.

Schizophrenia is a genetically inherited disease, but its expression is heavily influenced by our cultural environment. Hallucinations are commonly associated with schizophrenia, but when Robert Edgerton (1966) asked over 500 people in four East African tribes to list the behavior of people who are severely mentally ill, less than 1% of them mentioned hallucinations (see also Edgerton and Cohen 1994; Jenkins and Barrett 2004).

Research on the extent to which differences in cognitive functions of men and women are the consequence of environmental factors (nurture) or genetic factors (nature) or the interaction between those factors is part of this research arena (Caplan et al. 1997). So are studies of human response to signs of illness across cultures (Hielscher and Sommerfeld 1985; Kleinman 1980).

  • 2. The evolution problem. Studies of how groups change through time from one kind of thing to another kind of thing are in this arena. Societies change very slowly through time, but at some point we say that a village has changed into a town or a town into a city or that a society has changed from a feudal to an industrial economy. All studies of the differences between small societies—Gemeinschaften—and big societies— Gesellschaften—are in this arena. So are studies of inexorable bureaucratization as organizations grow.
  • 3. The internal-external problem. Studies of the way in which behavior is influenced by values and by environmental conditions are in this arena. Studies of response effects (how people respond differently to the same question asked by a woman or by a man, for example) are in this arena, too. So are studies of the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do.
  • 4. The social facts, or emergent properties problem. The name for this problem comes from Emile Durkheim’s (1933 [1893]) argument that social facts exist outside of individuals and are not reducible to psychological facts. A great deal of social research is based on the assumption that people are influenced by social forces that emerge from the interaction of humans but that transcend individuals. Many studies of social networks and social support, for example, are in this arena, as are studies that test the influence of organizational forms on human thought and behavior.
 
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