Approaches to social research

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  • Created by: zoolouise
  • Created on: 21-05-16 16:43

Key concepts

  • Validity - data is said to be valid if it's genuine and an accurate reflection of what's being studied. Demographic data's seen as valid. Crime statistics aren't valid.
  • Reliability - if a research study is repeated and similar findings recorded, then the data and the method are seen as reliable.
  • Representativeness - research is carried out on a small section of society, only the Census studies the whole population. When considering reliability it's important to ask how representative those studies are of the rest of society.
  • Generalisability - when data obtained from a small group of people can be applied to a whole population. If the data isn't representative it can't be generalised.
  • Objectivity - to remain objective means that your personal values and beliefs shouldn't affect how the issue is approached or how the data collected is interpreted.
  • Ethics - are the issues of right and wrong. It's wrong to harm anyone in research, steps should be taken to protect people.

There are two major approaches to research: sociologists who adopt a scientific approach, collecting quantitative data are known as positivists. Interpretivists prefer looing at qualitative data, looking for meanings and emotions. The realist approach suggest there's strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.

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Positivism, Interpretivism and Realism

Positivism involves collecting information about social facts, which are aspects of behaviour that can be counted and measured. As data is collected, trends and patterns can be identified in these statistics. It's quantitative data. It can be possible to detect correlations between two sets of infirmation. 

Interpretivism is the approach which prefers to collect detailed accounts in words. It enables the researcher to find out people's feelings, attitudes and experiences. It's qualitative data. Instead of counting why students go university, they want to know why. 

Realism cricises postivists as social research can't exact mimic the approach of natural sciences. It's clear that humans are reflexive; things have meaning for us and we respond to our emotions. However, it's also clear there's trends and patterns in social behaviour, these can be observed and measured. Realists argue that the best way to proceed is to recognise that both interpretivism and positivism are useful. They select the method which is most suitable to what's being studied. 

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Selecting research methods

Sociologists will select what research method they wish to use depending on the following factors:

  • What they wish to find out
  • The topic or issue being studied
  • What information is already available
  • Their preference for quantitative or qualitative data
  • How much time and money they have

Some of these factors might be connected; a starting point may be a secondary source. When the researcher collects their own data it's primary data.

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Primary data and secondary sources

Sociologists can collect their own information or make use of data collected by others:

  • Primary data/sources has been collected by those who are using it. e.g. Jan Pahl used interviews to investigate how families made decisions.
  • Secondary data/sources is information collected by others; a common source of statistics collected by the government such as the Census or the British Household Panel survey. Other sources that can be referred to include media content and contemporary letters and diaries.

Quantiative data

Positivists tend to favour quantitative data, counting and measuring aspects of social behaviour. Such data is needed if they're testing a hypothesis which suggest there's a casual or non-casual relationship between two social variables.

Qualitative data

Interpretivists prefer qualitative data. The key feature of this type of data is the absence of number. Qualitative data attempts to capture how people experience social events and what they mean to them. Answers from interviews or summaries of what has taken place and been said in a group provide descriptive accounts.

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