Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sample surveys focus our explanations on individuals' characteristics

Certain research designs—especially, sample surveys of individuals—have an often unrecognized tendency to focus explanations on the characteristics of individuals in contrast to the structure of circumstances and opportunities that broader social forces make available to some groups of individuals. This distinction—often referred to as the difference between agency and structure—runs deeply throughout the history of the social sciences and policy research. The tension between these two perspectives is unlikely to be resolved. It is nonetheless important to be aware of the possibility that different research designs can unwittingly cause us to fall into one of these two camps, just as the fashion of a discipline at any point in time can lead us to explore some questions rather than others.

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