Many of the studies I presented in this blog aim at nothing else than at reporting on the reality. They do not explain, for example, why people live in special family forms, why the fertility rate went down or why the majority in a country share an opinion. Nor do they suggest that the mother should stay at home during the first year of her baby’s life. These studies simply wish to describe the reality as it is. Therefore, we can label them as empirical descriptive approaches.
The biggest issue empirical approaches need to solve is to define concepts in a measurable way. This is often not an easy task to perform and readers should always look at the definitions used when reading a study.
Take, for example, as clear a term as ’fertility rate’: How should it be measured? By the number of births given by women between 15 and 45 years of age during a certain period, for instance, one year? Or by the cohort fertility, meaning by looking at a number of births by a cohort? Or should we be looking at the number of births a woman gave in her life?
All the rates make different sense and if we read studies on this we should carefully look at the definition given by the authors as to the indicators they measured.
If fertility is not easy to measure, family forms are a lot more complicated to operationalize, meaning that it is difficult to make it measurable and to transfer the concept into a questionnaire. It is easy to count the number of people married, yet it is not so easy to count the number of people cohabiting: When do we consider a couple is cohabiting? Do they have to live together for a few months, half a year, or longer? Shall we accept a person’s answer or shall we only count cohabitation if both are registered as resident at the same address and in the same household? And what would we make of a situation when, in contrast, partners live in different households and therefore apart but are thinking of themselves as a couple? ‘Living Apart Together’ is a term social scientists use. Originally, this implied couples living very far away from each other, for instance, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, mainly for business reasons. Today, some sociologists apply it also to couples where the partners live narrow it down to only living in different households even if they are in the same block.
Empirical studies mostly rely on the intentions of the researchers, on conventions arising from previous research and on common sense, which is all right because as long as it is clear what is understood by family forms, by living apart together and by the fertility rate, the reader can then comprehend what is being measured. It offers much-needed clarity because we know what we are addressing and measuring.
The first quality criteria for those studies is a clear definition of what is being measured, whether the researchers defined the criteria specifically for their current research or whether they – most suitably – refer to the conventional definitions applied by large bodies such as statistical offices or were they looking at publications of the World Bank, United Nations or the OECD. The quality of a study is also shown when researchers interpret their findings, often in the concluding section of a research paper. Are they referring to the definitions and are they aware of the limitations every data have ?
It is important to consider carefully if we know from the report what the study really measured.
This will be the last blog I publish here, due to retirement. Thank you for following, reading and looking at the posts. If you want a collection of the posts, you might download this pdf file: EuropeanFamilies_Blogposts2018