Discussion Questions

  1. There’s a lot of “sound and fury” in the social science literature about units of analysis and levels of explanation. Some social researchers may call another a reductionist if the latter explains a problem such as substance abuse as caused by “lack of self-control.” The idea is that the behavior requires consideration of social structure—a group level of analysis rather than an individual level of analysis. Another researcher may be said to commit an ecological fallacy if she assumes that group-level characteristics explain behavior at the individual level (such as saying that “immigrants are more likely to commit crime” because the neighborhoods with higher proportions of immigrants have higher crime rates). Do you favor causal explanations at the individual or the group (or social structural) level? If you were forced to mark on a scale from 0 to 100 the percentage of crime that results from problems with individuals rather than from problems with the settings in which they live, where would you make your mark? Explain your decision.
  2. Researchers often try to figure out how people have changed over time by conducting a cross-sectional survey of people of different ages. The idea is that if people who are in their 60s tend to be happier than people who are in their 20s, it is because people tend to “become happier” as they age. But maybe people who are in their 60s now were just as happy when they were in their 20s, and people in their 20s now will be just as unhappy when they are in their 60s. (That’s called a cohort effect.) We can’t be sure unless we conduct a panel or cohort study (survey the same people at different ages). What, in your experience, are the major differences between the generations today in social attitudes and behaviors? Which would you attribute to changes as people age, and which to differences between cohorts in what they have experienced (such as common orientations among baby boomers)? Explain your reasoning.
  3. The chapter begins with some alternative explanations for recent changes in the crime rate. Which of the explanations make the most sense to you? Why? How could you learn more about the effect on crime of one of the “causes” you have identified in a laboratory experiment? What type of study could you conduct in the community to assess its causal impact?
  4. This chapter discusses both experimental and nonexperimental approaches to identifying causes. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches for addressing each of the three criteria and two cautions identified for causal explanations?
  5. Construct an idiographic causal explanation for a recent historical or personal event. For example, what was the sequence of events that led to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? What was the sequence of events that led to the replacement of Travis Kalanick as the CEO of Uber? (I know, you thought this would be easy.)