As sociology methods

Here are the key sociological methods where i have included the strengths and weaknesses of each.

I really hope this helps you on this section of the exam! :)

  • Created by: Lucy Kent
  • Created on: 08-05-13 15:33


scientific approach - focusses on sociological explanations where sociologists use the logic, methods and procedures of natural science


Strengths: - scientists and sociologists must be personally objective in their research, the resulting data would be reliable.

- Positivists see the need to rely on empirical evidence in testing their assumptions.

Weaknesses: - positivism fails to understand that individuals create social reality through their interactions

- it assumes that there is only one view of social reality.

- it does not allow us to see the world from the position of  social actor.


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 Weber's vershehen (the idea of having an empathetic understanding)  sociology emphasised that sociologists had to interpret the meanings of social action. They tend to favour qualitative methods .e.g observation, participant observation, unstructured and semi-structured interviews and field experiments.


Strengths - interpretivism allows us to see that individuals perceive social reality in different ways.

-individuals are not passive, active individuals making choices and acting on social meanings.

Weaknesses - methods used tend to rely on the subjectivity of the researcher

- it fails to examine the effects of power differences on social interaction

- it underestimates the extent and impact of social structure on individuals.

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Sampling Methods

  • This is a technique aiming to reduce the number of respondents ina piece of research, whilst retaining as accurately as possible the characteristics of the whole group.
  • The purpose of taking a sample is to investigate features of the population in greater detail than could be done if the total population was used.
  • A sample is likely to be both cheaper and quicker to investigate.

Sampling frame: a sampling frame is the list of members of the total population of interest. from this list a sample to study can be drawn for example, an electoral register or vehicle registration lists.

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Types of sampling

The random sample

  • for inferences about a population to be valid, the sample must be truly representative. A random sample involves using either random numbers or systematic sampling, which involves randomly selecting the first individual from the list.
  • An example of systematic random sampling is Willmott and Young's sample of Bethnal green families.
  • One way to increase the precision of sampling is through stratification.
  • Non-Representative sampling also occurs, the logic of this approach is that non-representative sample might present a more demanding test of a researcher's hypothesis. They argued that if the hypothesis was not true among affluent workers, it was not likely to be true with any other workers.
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Types of sampling

Stratified sample:

  • When the population to be studied is large and the sample relatively small it may be efficient to use stratified sampling, for exmaple classroom research- school classes are already stratified and research then often takes a sample from each point on the strata.
  • Stratified samples tend to have smaller sampling errors than random samples of the same size.

Quota sample:

  • This is a sample method in which a sample is selected by quotas from each defined portion of the population. It involves breaking down the parent populations into strata according to relevant features and calculating how many individuals to include in each of these categories to reflect the parent population structure.
  • No attempt at randomness is made
  • Therefore, non-response may occur, however the choice is limited by avaliability and the diligence and honesty of the viewer, the method is much used by market research and opinion pollsters.
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Types of sampling

Panel sample:

  • A logitudinal study, but is usually of shorter duration and more focused. with this sort of sample, as opposed to cross sectional studies, change over time can be monitored.
  • A disadvantage is that respondents are lost through death or lack of interest or moving and those who remain may become atypical through the very experience of being panel members.

Cluster sample:

  • This is a method of smapling which selects from groups already existing in the parent population rather than assembling a random sample.
  • This tends to be quicker and cheaper, but may lead to a biased sample if the clusters are not representative of the parent population.
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Types of sampling

Snowball sample:

  • This is a method of selecting by starting with a small selected group of respondents and asking them for further contacts.
  • It's use is primarily in the collection of in depth qualitative data, perhaps on sensitive topics, where an abvious sampling frame does not exist and the best method of selection is through personal contacts.


  • If a sample is large enough and properly selected it will increase its representational accuracy.
  • Bias develops in several ways:
  • thorugh self-selection
  • there will be choice involved at three levels in the sample and all can introduce bias - the choosing of the sample, the choosing of questions, and the choosing of significant responses.
  • there is judgement of interviewers.
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Methods of sociological research

Lab experiments: are designed to achieve rigorous empirical test in which variables are closely controlled and observations and measurements are accurately recorded so that the effect of changing one or more of the variables can be analysed. The researcher aims to identify 'cause' and 'effect'. Lab experiments have been widely used in psychology to examine social behaviour in controlled conditions

Key study: Mayo believed the hawthorne studies with an experiment to test the effects of illumination on productivity.

Strengths - The experiment is internally valid.

Weaknesses - They are rarely used, due to practical, theoretical and ethical reasons.

- Ipossible to recreate normal life

- Many sociologists would question the ethics of conducting experiments on human beings, they are being decieved about the real nature of the experiment.

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Methods of sociological research

Experiments: are the classic research method of the natural sciences, it is the means by which hypothesis are empirically tested.

Field experiments: test the social behaviour in the real world in everyday social contexts, for example, a study of social class conducted on Paddington railway station. 

Social Surveys: social surveys are the most popular social research method  because they gather a great deal of data from a large section of the population in a relatively short space of time.

Ackroyd and Hughes (1981) distinguish three types of survey:

1. Factual - the government census is a factual survey a it collects descriptive data.

2. Attitude - opinion polls come into this category as they collect people's attitudes to events and issues,

3. Explanatory - these are more sociological as they are used to test hypothesis.

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Methods of sociological research

Questionnaires: are a pre-set, pre-coded list of standard questions given to a respondent. Postal questionnaires are mailed to respondents, usually with a stamped adressed envelope or a small incentive to return the form. Questionnaires produce a large amount of quantitative data, questions can be open ended, which gives the respondents the opportunity to expand on their answers. Closed/fixed choice questions were the respondents have limited choices.

Key study: Peter Townsend (1979) looked at questionnaires so could measure extent of poverty in UK.

Strengths: - highly reliable and objective.

- little personal involvement on the part of the researcher

- large quantities of data can be produced, and quickly and easily analysed by a computer.

- Postal questionnaires can cover a wide range geographically.

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Methods of sociological research

Weaknesses: - They argue that questionnaires are not appropriate if we want to find meanings of and motivation s for social behaviour.

- May not actually reflect real differences, as respondents may be interpreting questions in different ways.

- Can be too flexible.

- Problems concerning the language used and the ways in which the questions are worded.

- Validity may be low as a result of misunderstanding, dishonesty or embarassment.

- Low response rate and a lack of representativeness.

- operationalizing concepts can involve subjectivity.

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Methods of sociological research

Interviews: include structured, semi-structured and unstructured interviews; group and focus interviews, face to face or phone interviews. They range from highly formal to a relaxed conversation. the legth of an interview also varies.

Structured interviews: these are pre-coded questionnaires where standardised closed questions are asked by the interviewer to all the interviewees. Positivists prefer structured interviews because they are relaible and can produce fairly large sclae, representative data.

Strengths: - reliable --> structured interviews produce easily quantifiable data.

- representativeness --> relatively quick to conduct, higher response rate and larger sample can be interviewed.

- cost --> cheap, limited amount of training required.

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Methods of sociological research


- lack of validity --> researchers decide questions in advance, fixed response questions may prevent the interviewee from saying ehat they really think, difficult to know if respondent is being truthful etc

- reliability --> interviewer effect may also reduce reliabilty, so interviewer will not be able to replicate.

- cost --> training of interviewers incurs a cost, therefore they are not cheap.

- sensitive issues --> not particularly useful for investigating sensitive issues where a rapport is needed.

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Methods of sociological research

Unstrustuctured interviews: are in-depth and non-standardised, where the rapport and trust can be built up over a long period of time. This approach is flexible, uses open-ended questions and give the interviewees more freedom to express their views.

Strengths: - validity --> conversational nature- increases chance of getting full and honest responses, the interviewee has the opportunity to raise issues they think are important, flexibility.

Weaknesses:- the researcher has to be selective about what is presented in the final research report.

- lack of reliability --> this means statistical evidence cannot be created from informal interviews, preventing comparisons being drawn or correlations established.

- lack of representativeness --> limits the size of research sample, may limit the ability of the researcher to make generalisations.

- relevance --> alot of time may be wasted and irrelevant data collected.

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Methods of sociological research

Semi-structured interviews: the researcher can access data from standardised questions and the interviewee is able to elaborate where necessary, thus producing both qualitative and quantitative data.

key study: Dobash and Dobash (1980) violence against wives they interviewed 109 women who had reported domestic violence to the police. They argued that their approach was the most appropriate because the subject matter of the research was very sensitive

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Methods of sociological research

Participant Observation: is characterized by the extent to which its advocates insist on observation and interpretation of a situayion, informed by an understanding of the situation from the point of view of the participants rather than the observer.

Gold, rules in sociological field observation (1958) proposed a four fold classification:

1. the complete observer - no joining in by observer.

2. the participant  as observer - the observers activities are not always concealed - informats may become so identified that they become observers themselves.

3. the observer as participant - one-visit interviews when some formal observation may be possible.

4. the complete participant - identity and motives of the researcher are not known, researcher may go native.

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Methods of sociological research

Getting in, staying in, getting out, getting in:

  • some researchers emphasise the need to move slowly into the group setting
  • entry is made easier when the researcher has a contact in the group who invites the researcher into the group.
  • much depends on the researchers personality and the way in which his/her front is acceptable to the group under observation.
  • Parker found entry easy and rapid, possibly because he was 'young, hairy, boozy and willing to keep long hours'

Stayin in:

  • the observer has to come to terms with a complete set of norms, the researcher therefore requires skill in questioning, watching and listening.
  • researchers take on a particular role amoung their subjects, as a vantage point for observation.
  • a long-term problem with P.O is observer fatigue.
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Methods of sociological research

Getting out:

  • this is always a problem whether the study is overt or covert

Strengths: - interpretivists claim that the participant observation produces highly valid data.

- the researcher's aim is to achieve verstehen.

Weaknesses: - ethical issues, group has not given consent to being observed.

- researcher can become over-involved with the group's activity.

- could be highly unreliable and unscientfic.

- both joining and leaving a group can be difficult.

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Methods of sociological research

Case studies: is a detailed in depth study of one gorup or event, this approach is sometimes referred to as ethnographic. The aim of a case study is to gain a detailed understanding of the way of life of those observed.

Key studies: - Paul Willis' study learning to labour (1977)

                   - Eileen Barker's research for the making of a moonie (1984)

Strengths: - provide sociologists with detailed and valid data.

- challenge and disprove existing assumptions about social groups

Weaknesses: - the group under study may be atypical and therefore the results will not be generalisable.

- data collected may be valid but are not reliable.

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Methods of sociological research

Primary/Secondary data: primary data is that collected by the sociologist herself by experiment, observation or survey method. Secondary data is collected by other sociologists; government departments or official bodies or individuals.

Official statistics: are quantitative data collected by government bodies. They come from two main sources  1. Hard statistics --> simple counts that register events such as births and deaths these are not easily manipulated

2. Soft statistics: these are more easily manipulated e.g crime statistics.

Why do positivists use official statistics?

They prefer official statistics because these deliver large-scale, representative data, collected by reliable methods such as questionnaires. Interpretivists however, reject their use because they see them as socially constructed and lacking validity.

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Methods of sociological research

Strengths: - availability --> already in existence, cheap and readily available

- representativeness --> based on a very large sample`and are highly representative.

- coverage --> they cover most important aspects of social life.

- comparability of data --> their quantitative nature makes it easy to draw comparisons and identify trends.

- reliability--> research can be easily replicated by others.

Weaknesses: - reliabiliy and validity --> recording errors are made.

- political bias --> not politically neutral, but reflect ruling-class ideology.

- male bias --> feminists argue official statistics are biased against women.

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Methods of sociological research

Documents: 1. personal documents- letters, diaries, autobiographies

                   2. public/semi-public- school records, perish registers etc

                   3. mass media- TV, newspapers, novels

(personal documents) Key studies: Plummer - sees the documentary method as an example of humanistic sociology.

- Brown and Gilmartin - note 90% of articles published in the 1960s presented questionnaire data, life histories and personal documents were seldom gathered.

- Thomas and Znaniecki - polish peasant in Europe and America' (1919) a study of polish migration to the USA based on first hand accounts from letter, diaries etc.

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Methods of sociological research

Public documents: 1. scarmen report on the Brixton riots 1981

                            2. Black report 1980 ob health inequalities

                            3. school records, parish/church records

                            4. Mass media - TV, newspapers, novels (e.g Akenfeld)

Problems: - practical --> access, time, money.

- Thheoretical --> reliability, validity, generalisation, abjectivity

- reliability -->how accurate the documents are

- validity --> how truthfu; the documents are, are they authentic?

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Choice of methods

sociologists face various decisions when conducting research, the most important one is which methods to choose, but thius decision is effected by some other factors.

Practical decisions:

  • funding --> depends on the availability of money
  • time --> several interviews can take place over a period of time or if only one interview is possible.
  • access --> researchers may be asked to take on a role in return for access.
  • danger --> the researcher may be placed at risk of physical harm by certain covert activities.
  • opportunity --> researcher needs to have research opportunities in oder to undertake the research programme, often relies on permission being granted from those in position in authority.
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Choice of methods

Ethical decisions:

  • moral issues --> must be aware of some areas and the possible impact of their research on respondents. In using covert observation the subjects are always deceived.
  • illegality --> researchers may be called upon to engage in criminal acts or to witness others doing so.
  • danger --> researchers may place their subjects in danger during their study.
  • after effects --> some methods such as experimentation may have short term or more lasting effects on respndents who might have been misinformed about the nature of the study.
  • informed consent --> should try to conduct the research with the consent of the subjects, gicing them the opportunity to refuse to participate or withdraw.

Theoretical decisions:

  • the methodological approach to the research is likely to affect the choic of method.
  • whether he/she is marxist, interpretivist's, feminists will effect the choice of method and the nature of the research.
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