AS Sociology Research Methods

Most of the research methods topics.

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  • Created by: Chantel
  • Created on: 24-05-12 21:37

Types of Research

Primary Research - Research carried out by the researcher themselves, its findings are called Primary Data.

Secondary research - Research used by the researcher but has already been carried out by another researcher, its findings is called Secondary Data.

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Advantages and disadvantages of secondary data


  • Readily available - no need to spend money collecting data
  • Cheap and easy to use.


  • Information may be unrepresentative and may not apply to the whole population
  • Could be biased
  • Personal documents can be biased due to feelings, attitudes
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Examples of Primary Methods

  • Participant observation: taking part in research but observing behaviour.
  • Content analysis: counting the number of times something appears/occurs.
  • Semiology: the study of signs and symbols and how we take meaning from them.
  • Life history method: methods comparing and contrasting someone's life, e.g questionnaires.
  • Non-participant observation: when you observe behaviour from a distance without taking part.
  • Lab experiments: controlled conditions where the researcher can manipulate what happens
  • Informal interviews: unstructured interviews
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Examples of Secondary Research

Official Statistics (produced by government or private companies):

  • crime 
  • health figures
  • briths
  • deaths
  • marriages

Expressive Documents:

  • diaries
  • biographies
  • autobiographies

Problems with documents:

  • lack of representativeness
  • difficult to access and interpret author's meaning.
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Types of Data

Quantitative Data - statistical data, figures and numbers. Allows resarcher to detect patterns and trends. OBJECTIVE

Qualitative Data - rich in depth information about people's lives. SUBJECTIVE.

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Approaches to sociological research


  • See sociology as a science
  • Seek to uncover patterns of behaviour
  • Prefer quantitative data


  • Reject the view of sociology as a science
  • Seek to understand people's meanings
  • Prefer qualitative data

TRIANGULATION: the use of two or more research methods of sources of data that complement each other.

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Research Method - Practical Issues


TIME and MONEY - the length of your research

                             -  the amount of money you will need

PERSONAL SKILLS AND CHARACTERISTICS: different sociologists have different personal skills and this may affect their ability to use different methods, e.g participant observation requires the ability to easily mix with others.

IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT: does the researcher have to adopt a role?

SUBJECT MATTER: the topic researcher may be studying may be sensitive, need to consider certain groups. e.g difficult for male sociologist to study an all female group by means of participant observation

ACCESS - getting in, staying in, getting out, CRB check for vulnerable groups (children), may be difficult to access certain groups

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Research Method - Ethical Issues

INFORMED CONSENT: making sure that your participants are aware that they are taking part in a research or are being studied.


CONFIDENTIALITY AND PRIVACY: keeping identify of participants secret.

EFFECTS ON RESEARCH PARTICIPANTS: psychological harm, harm to employment prospects, researcher needs to prevents these effects.

VULNERABLE GROUPS: age, disability, physical and mental health. 

DECEPTION: covert research

MORAL JUDGEMENTS: presented with a situation in the research whether it is right or wrong. 

OBSERVER FATIGUE: overwhelmed and tired.

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Research Method - Theoretical Issues

VALIDITY:  does the research/method produce a true or genuine picture of what something is really like?

RELIABLITY: can you repeat the research again and get the same/similar results?

REPRESENTATIVENESS: are the people being studied representative of the population?



OBSERVER EFFECT: When participants know that they are being studied.









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Sample - when an individual or a group is selected from a wider population to take part in research

Sampling frame - a list of research population.

Survey population - the selction of the group to be studied. 

Types of Sampling:

Random sampling: the idea that by choosing randomly each peron has an equal chance of being selected as part of the research. Therefore the sample represents a  cross-section that are representative of the whole population

Strengths of random sampling: everyone has an equal chance of being selected.

Weakness of random sampling: biased - by chance - sample might be unrepresentative

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Sampling - Continued

Systematic sampling: when every nth person is selected from a sampling frame, for example every 10th person. Not truly random, close enough. 

Strength of systematic sampling: reliable

Weakness of systematic sampling: by chance might get same results.

Quota sampling: used by market researchers where they delibrately choose certain characteristics of the UK population. They may be under instruction to select a quota (a fixed number) of individuals to find and question them.

Stratified sampling: when the people that are being studied are divided into known criteria (e.g 60% women and 40%  men to reflect the sex composition in the UK). Within these strata people are chosen at random.

Snowball sampling: involves finding one respondent and getting this individual to put you in touch of one or several more respondents, e.g when interviewing gang members.

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Types of Surveys

Survey: a large scale way of gathering information about a group of people.

Surverys: produce quantitative data, are reliable and representative because they involve large numbers of people.

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Postal Questionnaires

Postal Questionnaire: questionnaire sent through post with a pre-paid envelope for reply, the respondents fill in the questionnaire themselves.

Strengths of postal questionnaires:

  • Cheap compared to paying an interviewer.
  • Personal, embrassing questions are likely to be answered as researcher is not present.
  • Quantitative data: statistics, patterns and trends.
  • Results can be obtained quickly.
  • Respondents have more time to answer questions - accurate answers can be obtained.
  • Large number of people over a geographical area can be questioned.
  • No interviewer bias. 
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Postal Questionnaires - Continued

Weakness of postal questionnaires:

  • A high non response rate can occur if people fail to send back their questionnaires - UNREPRESENTATIVE
  • You do not know who is filling in the questionnaire
  • Respondents can ask family members and friends about how to answer questions. 
  • If respondents do not understand questions, no interviewer to explain to them. 
  • You can't add on questions - not flexible
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Self completion questionnaires

Self-completion questionnaires: questionnaire given to a respondent to fill in without the researcher's presence.

Strengths of using Self-completion questionnaires:

  • Absense of researcher means people do not feel intimated or influenced by researcher in their answers.
  • Have time to answer the questions properly. 
  • Quantitative data - patterns and trends

Weaknesses of Self-completion questionnaires:

  • respondent may not give the questionnaire back
  • respondent may ask people about how to answer questions
  • respondent may not be able to understand questions, no one to ask
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Structured Interview

Definition: using a questionnaire, researcher asks a set of questions to the respondent and records the answers. 

Strengths of structured interview:

  • researcher can explain any questions that the respondent does not understand.
  • researcher can make sure that they have answered all questions
  • researcher can ensure that respondent is not asking others about how to answer the questions.
  • Quantitative data - patterns and trends

Weaknesses of structured interviews:

  • Interviewer presence may make the respondent feel intimidated
  • Cannot add on questions to get rich in dept information.
  • respondents might rush their answers to please the researcher.
  • interviewer bias - leading and loaded questions.
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Unstructured interview

Definition: an informal interview that mainly uses open-ended questions.

Strengths of Unstructured interview:

  • Flexible - interviewer can add on questions 
  • Can build a rapport with respondent. - honest and open in their answers.
  • Qualitative data - rich in depth data.
  • Respondents can express their ideas in their own words. Answers are not imposed on them. 

Weaknesses of Unstructured interview:

  • Time consuming - as questions can lead on to other questions
  • Small number of people can only take part - unrepresentative
  • Topic of interview - some people may not want to relive traumatic experiences.
  • Money - have to pay interviewers over long period of time
  • Interviewer bias - interviewer might influence respondent's answers.
  • The success of the interview depends on the skill and personality of the interviewer in preventing the respondent from being distracted.
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Focus Group

Definition: is a small carefully selected group of people invited to a discussion on whatever topic is under review.

Strengths of Focus Group:

  • people may feel comfortable about being with others, as they are more likely to open up.
  • people can expand on other people's ideas - rich and reflective data.
  • researcher can combine questioning and observing group dynamics and social norms.
  • useful way of generating initial ideas that can be followed up in later research. 
  • qualitative data - in depth information

Weaknesses of Focus Group:

  • one or two people may dominate the discussion, leaving others with lack of speech - unrepresentative
  • qualitative data - complex and difficult to analyse.
  • the success of the discussion depends on the skills and personality of the interviewer. 
  • peer pressure to conform to group norms lead to participants not saying what they really want to say.
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Group Interviews

Definition: form of qualitative research in which a group of people are asked to give their perceptions, opinions, attitudes and beliefs about a certain issue.

Strengths of Group Interviews:

  • allows interviewers to study people in a more natural setting than a one to one interview
  • high validity - the idea is easy to understand
  • results can be obtained relatively quickly
  • participants build on each others' ideas and stimulate each others' thinking. produces rich and more reflective data.

Weaknesses of Group Interviews:

  • results obtained may be influenced by the researcher, respondents may say what they think the researcher wants to hear.
  • lack of anonymity - with other participants present, you cannot guarantee confidentiality. 
  • peer group pressure to conform to group norms may lead to participants not saying what they really think.
  • Qualitative data - complex and difficult to analyse.
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The Longitudinal study

Definition: a long term study that is done over a period of time, generally using a survey or unstructured interviews.

Strengths of The Longitudinal study:

  • can build a rapport with the researcher over a long period of time
  • researcher can obtain versthen
  • more background information can see changes, can compare and contrast events

Weaknesses of The Longitudinal study:

  • people can withdraw
  • unrepresentative
  • money - equipment - resources
  • time - takes a long time
  • observer effect - people might change their behaviour
  • sociologists might lose interest.  
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Non-participant observation - the researcher observes a group or situation without taking part in any way. 

Advantage because the sociologist can study people in their natural setting without their behaviour influencing or changing how people behave.

Disadvantage because the researcher may not understand what is really happening as they cannot ask questions. 

Participant observation: where the researcher joins in with the group/situation that they are studying and observes their behaviour.

Covert observation: the researcher conceals his/her indentity from those he/she is studying.

Overt observation: the researcher tells those those he/she is studying that they are carrying out the research. 

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Laboratory experiments:researcher creates an artifical situation possible in a laboratory to try and test what is happening by altering key variables.

Strengths of lab experiments:

  • reliable
  • objective
  • the researcher manipulates the variables and records the results. Personal feelings do not affect the outcome of the experiment.
  • allow researcher to identify and measure behaviour patterns and manipulate variables to establish cause and effect.

Weaknesses of lab experiments:

  • unethical to control variables
  • ethical problems such as gaining informed consent may arise. It may be difficult to obtain fron vulnerable groups who may not understand the nature and purpose of the experiment.
  • Small scale means unrepresentative
  • No validity
  • ignores the fact that human have free will and can make free choices.
  • Hawthorne effect.
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Field experiment

Definition: a method which examines an intervention in the real world and not in a lab setting. 

Strengths of field experiment:

  • strong ecological validity: takes place in the subject's natural surroundings such as school or workplace rather than in an artificial laboratory environment.
  • Those involved are generally not aware that they are part of a field experiment so there is no hawthorne effect. 
  • it allows the researcher to uncover the taken for granted assumptions - things we dont really question.

Weaknesses of field experiment:

  • it is difficult to control variables 
  • can be criticised for being unethical as they involve carrying out an experiment without consent. 
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Community Studies

  • a team of researchers live amongst the community and use a variety of research methods to obtain their data.

Strengths of community studies:

  • can gain a complete picture of what life is like because their research may produce quantitative and qualitative data

Weakness of community studies:

  • become too involved in the community and lose thier objectivity - going native
  • group may feel invaded might not make you feel welcome.
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Case Studies

Definition: a study of a single event or institution


  • generates a large amount of in-depth data
  • it is possible to build up a complete picture of the place/situation and to understand a place's historical development.


  • too small scale
  • difficult to generalise from the study's findings
  • not reliable - qualitative data
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A great set of flashcards which summarises all the aspects of research methods in a generic way great for basic understanding of research methods.


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