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Types of research
As their name suggest, life histories are accounts of people's lives which they tell to researchers.
Something of the flavour & significance of life histories can be obtained from a brief discussion of
Cheyenne Memories, the life history of John Stands in Timber (18841967) as told to the anthropologist
Margot Liberty. He was a member of the last generation who experienced the traditional way of life of
the Cheyenne Indians during the 19th Century.
The Cheyenne were a nonliterate society, so oral accounts are particularly important. Stands in
Timber's account of his life & the history & culture of his people is given from the Cheyenne point of
view. In Margot Liberty's words, `John has given us the history of the Cheyenne's as they themselves
recall & interpret it' (1967). Much of the material is new, that which isn't confirms, complements &
amplifies 19th century ethnographic accounts.
Advantages life histories have illuminated many areas of social life. Eg, the Polish Peasant in Europe &
America, a 5 volume work 1st published from 1918 to 1920, included an extensive life history of a Polish
Peasant which provided many valuable insights into the experience of migration from Poland to the USA
(Thomas & Znaniecki, 1958). The Jack Roller (Shaw, 1930) is a story, written in his own words & from his
own point of view, of a young American `jack roller', the 1930s equivalent of today's `mugger'. It is this
firsthand account of people's experience of their life as they see it which many researchers regard as
the main value of the life history. It can provide insights & information which are not obtainable from
any other source, as Stands In Timber's life history shows. It can give a picture of the process &
development of social life over time. It can also serve as a basis for confirming or questioning other
interpretations & accounts. And it can direct researchers into new areas & encourage them to ask new
Disadvantages However, as the title Cheyenne Memories suggests, the life history is heavily dependent
on people's memory which is inevitably patchy & selective. To some extent, it will also reflect their
attitudes & opinions. Some would see this as a serious criticism of the life history. Eg, Stands In Timber
has been criticised by other members of his tribe for being too proCrow the Crow are traditional
enemies of the Cheyenne.
A further criticism concerns the researcher. There is a temptation for researchers to lead the
respondent as life histories are recounted, particularly when areas of interest to them are touched upon.
Eg, Margot Liberty (1967) writes, `my tendency was at first to press him for stories. I soon found it far
better to trust his own instinct. Where he did not volunteer material freely he usually had a little to say.'
While accepting many of the criticisms of life histories, supporters argue that they are far outweighed
by the valuable information that a good life history can provide.
A case is a study of one particular case or instance of something. It may be a study of a particular
school, factory or hospital, or a study of a single individual such as a manual worker, a mother with
dependent children, or a retired person. The life history is an eg of a case study.
Case studies have a number of advantages.
By focusing on a particular case, they can provide a richer & more detailed picture than research
based on large samples.
This may result in new insights & fresh ideas.
Case studies can provide useful information for a larger research project. Eg, the experiences of 1
retired person could be used in a questionnaire in order to discover how far they apply to other
There is a better chance of a questionnaire or interview being relevant & meaningful if it is based, at
least in part, on a case study.
Theories can be tested to see whether they apply in particular situations. Sociologists at Lancaster
University tested the theory of secularisation i(the idea that religion is becoming less important in
modern societies) by conducting a case study of religion in a single town Kendal in the Lake
Some of the advantages of case studies can be seen from Macbeth & Mortimore's (2001) study of
school effectiveness. They used case studies of a small number of schools in addition to a largescale
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The case studies helped them identify key themes to explore in their survey, allowed them
to check their survey findings held true in particular schools, & added depth to their quantitative data.
Case studies have sometimes been criticised as limited & unrepresentative. Since they are oneoff
instances, they cannot be used as a basis for generalisations. However, this is their strength. They are a
valuable warning to rash & sweeping generalisations.…read more
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The comparative method helps sociologists to investigate what causes what causes what. Eg,
Durkheim's study suggested that religion may be a factor affecting the suicide rate. His figures
indicated that the suicide rate for Protestants within particular societies was higher than the rate for
Catholics. The same applied to comparisons between societies the suicide rate for protestant
countries was significantly higher than the rate for Catholic Societies.…read more