Choice of method and the research process

  • Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 18-05-19 18:20

Positivism vs. interpretivism

Positivists argue that there is a measurable, objective social reality that exists 'out there', just like the physical world. They see our behaviour as the result of social forces shaping what we do, and the aim of research  is to discover the underlying causes of our behaviour. 

They use standardised methods of research, such as questionnaires, structured interviews, structured observation and official statistics. This enables them to obtain reliable and representative quantitative data. They use this data to identify general patterns and trends in behaviour, from which they produce cause-and-effect explanations like those in the natural sciences.

Interpretivists claim that there is no objective social reality, just the subjective meanings that social actors give to events. Therefore, the aim of research is to undercover actors' meanings or worldview. 

For interpretivists, this means using open-ended research methods that produce valid, qualitative data, such as unstructured interviews, participant observation and personal documents. Such methods enable the sociologist to gain understanding by experiencing the group's lifestyle for themselves, or by allowing individuals to explain their worldview in their own words, without the sociologist imposing their own views on the research subjects.  

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Choice of topic

The sociologist's choice of topic is affected by several factors, including:

Practical factors Some topics may not easily be studied, e.g. high-level political decision-making may be inaccessible to the sociologist.

Funding bodies These have enormous influence because they will only fund studies of topics that they consider to be important.

Governments are much more likely to fund research that links to their policies.

Society's values change and the interest in particular topics and issues moves with them.

The sociologist's theoretical perspective may affect whether or not they will become involved in studying a particular topic - e.g. feminists are likely to study gender issues.

Chance Sometimes, sociologists find themselves in a potential research situation by pure chance - e.g. hospitalisation as a result of illness gave one researcher the opportunnity to do a study of a hospital ward. 

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The process of research

Aims Most studies either have a general aim or seek to test a specific hypothesis. An aim is a statement that identifies what a sociologist intends to study. Often the aim is simply to collect data on a particular topic, for example, people's leisure patterns.

Hypotheses Other studies seek to test one or more hypotheses. A hypothesis is more specific than an aim. It is a possible explanation that can be tested by collecting evidence to prove it true or false, e.g. that educational achievement is affected by gender. 

Operationalising concepts Before research can begin, the researcher needs to define their sociological concepts or ideas in ways that can be measured. 

The pilot study if the researcher is using a survey method (a questionnaire or structured interview), the next stage is to produce a draft questionnaire or interview schedule (the list of interview questions) and to give this a trial run.

This is called a pilot study and its aim is to iron out any problems, refine or clarify questions and their wording, give interviewers practice etc. 

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It is often impractical to study all the members of te research population or 'target group' that we are interested in, e.g. because of its sheer size, lack of time, money or other resources.

Therefore researchers may only be able to study a sample of it. A sample is a smaller part of the whole research population that the sociologist selects for study.

Sampling frames To select a sample of the research population, the sociologist first finds or creates a sampling frame - a list of all the members of the research population from which the sample can be chosen. For example, the electoral register is a list of all of those people who are entitled to vote.

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Samples and representativeness

  • To be representative, a sample should have the same characteristics, in the same proportions, as the wider research population. It should be a cross-section of the whole group.
  • If the sample is a representative cross-section, then what is true of the sample is likely to be true of the whole group.
  • Representativeness is important to positivists because they want to make generalisations and discover general laws of social behaviour. 
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Are all samples representative?

  • Small samples are less likely to be representative of large populations
  • Interpretivists are more interested in the meanings held by social actors. Because they are not trying to establish 'laws' of social behaviour that might apply to large social groups, they feel it is less important to use representative samples.
  • If the researcher does not have a sampling frame that includes all members of the research population, they cannot create a representative sample.
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Types of sample

Sociologists use several types of sampling:

Random sampling This is where every member of the sampling frame has an equal chance of being selected (e.g. names drawn out of a hat). This eliminates bias in sample selection. A large enough random sample should reflect the characteristics (e.g. gender, class etc.) of the whole research population. However, not all random samples are large enough to ensure this happens.

Systematic or quasi-sampling Some sociologists introduce an element of structure into sampling by selecting every nth person in the sampling frame - e.g. every tenth name in the list. This can reduce the chance of a skewed (biased) sample being randomly selected.

Stratified sampling The researcher first stratifies (breaks down) the population by age, class, gender etc. The sample is then created in the same population, e.g. if 20% of the population are under 16, then 20% of the samoke also have to be under 16.

Quota sampling The population is stratified as above, and then each interviewer is given a quota of say, 20 females, 10 of whom are aged 60 or over etc., which they have to fill with respondents who fit these characeristics. The interviewer keeps at this task until their quota is filled. 

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