Key Question 1 Research Methods



  • Natural scientists believe behaviour in natural world = product of natural laws
  • Positivists believe human behaviour = product of social laws or social facts (arise out of societies structure and organisation 
  • Think sociology is a science
  • Sociological researchers should adopt logic and methods of natural sciences
  • Research should be carried out under controlled conditions
  • Aim to achieve control through use of random sampling techniques, standardised and scientific measuring tools e.g. survey questionnaires and structured interview schedules 
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Positivism: Patterns and trends

  • Macro 
  • Believe society more important than individual 
  • Human/social behaviour product of social forces or laws e.g. class, patriarchy, racism which people have little or no influence over 
  • People as puppets who behave in predictable ways
  • Groups follow patterns and trends
  • Job of sociologist is to uncover social laws and document predictable patterns in social behaviour
  • Positivist methods favoured by structualists e.g. functionalists and marxists, interested in how large scale social processes, structures and institutions influence patterns and trends of behaviour 
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Positivism: Objectivity/Value Freedom

  • Carry out and interpret research with open mind setting aside own prejudices, values, poilitical and religious beliefs
  • Subjectivity undermines reliability and results in findings that lack validity
  • Objectivity central to reliability - replicate and obtain similar results to verify results
  • Research should demonstrate representativeness - those who take part are typical of social group being studied - generalise from findings
  • Aim to make generalisations - what is true of the group is true of the wider group to which they belong
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Positivism: Quantitative data

  • Prefer quantitative data - comparable, patterns and trends, correlations, cause and effect, deduce 'facts' about human behaviour
  • Quantitative methods e.g. social surveys which incorperate questionnaires and/or structured interviews
  • Keen on using official statistics, public documents, especially historical ones
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Positivism


  • Objective
  • Repeatable - reliable 


  • Doesn't provide meaning or reasons behind data
  • Can't see it from participants point of view
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  • Anti-positivist rejects social laws shape human behaviour
  • Micro - believe individual more important than society
  • Society is product of social interactions
  • Observe humans have consciousness other subject matter of natural world don't
  • People have free will - unique, cannot be predicted
  • Argue cause and effect relationships impossible to establish because unpredictable
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Interpretivism: Meanings and experience

  • See society as product of choosing to come together e.g. family, religions or peer groups
  • People are architects of society
  • Research should focus on meanings or interpretations people use to make sense of their social world 
  • People know how to behave in most social situations - learnt shared meanings
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Interpretivism: Verstehen, empathy, subjectivity

  • Important to look at how world works from point of view of those being studied (subject) - subjectivity
  • Need to get inside heads of subjects in order to document how they understand reality - form of empathy called VERSTEHEN
  • Emphasise validity rather than reliability
  • Unique, trusting relationships should be established to get a true picture of their lives - even though relationships are difficult to replicate and data collected can be difficult to verify
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Interpretivism: Reflexivity and rapport

  • Keen on reflexivity - sociologists periodically review degree of objectivity, their rapport with research subjects and the way they have collected and processed data in order to ensure methodological integrity
  • Respondent validation - observer cross checking interpretation of particular situation
  • Ethnography important aspect - research should be naturalistic, conducted when possible in everyday environment or context which subjects normally live
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Interpretivism: Researcher imposition

  • Researcher should always be aware of how presence influences behaviour of subjects
  • If research tool undermines validity = researcher imposition
  • Believe positivist methods such as questionnaires and structured interviews are artificial and alien - people may feel threatened, tempted to give false information
  • In contrast, interpretivists involve minimal interference 
  • Believe researchers should be flexible enough to change content if they believe research method is negatively impacting data
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Interpretivism: Qualitative data

  • Interpretivists prefer use of qualitative primary methods e.g. unstructured interviews and participant observations
  • Richer in detail and validity than statistical 
  • Words of those being presented - lets subjects speak for themselves
  • Gives insight into attitudes and beliefs, motivation for behaviour and how people interpret social reality around them 
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Interpretivism


  • Understand meaning behind actions = detailed


  • Time consuming
  • Researcher affects results
  • Expensive
  • Hard to recreate
  • Unrepresentative = select certain info
  • Difficult to control cofounding variables 
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The positivist view: Durkheim (1897)

  • Positivists argued understanding 'social laws' can help solve social problems and change society for better
  • Durkheim studied suicide statistics from 19th century across Europe
  • Observed suicide rates remain constant over time, between societies and within societies 
  • Concluded suicide rates not free will but social law caused by social organisation of a society - specifically how well or bad society promotes social integration or sense of belonging 
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The interpretivist view: Atkinson (1978)

  • Observed suicide statistics not social facts
  • Suicide statistics socially constructed by coroners who investigate suspicious deaths, interpret and categorise some as suicides based on previous experiences 
  • Atkinson critical of Durkheim - saying fails to recognise subjective factors that contribute to coroners reaching verdict of suicide
  • e.g. interaction between deceased and family members up to death, chosen means of death, presence or absence of suicide note and especially interaction between coroner and family and friends of the deceased.
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Key concept: Validity

  • True picture of what is being studied
  • Sociologists should always ask whether data collected is really evidence of what it claims to be 
  • Difficult to achieve because people not truthful or not be aware of their behaviour
  • Validity further undermined by fact that people unconsciously change their behaviour when they know they're being observed 
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Key concept: Reliability

  • Anybody else can replicate and get similar results - research repeated and same results would be obtained and therefore verified
  • Some methods regarded as more reliable than others 
  • Any method that involves one researcher in a non-repeatable situation, like observation, always in danger of being thought unreliable 
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Key concept: Representativeness

  • Sample representative of wider population
  • When assessing effectiveness sociologist need to ask about representativeness of the group - whether it includes the right sorts of people
  • Larger the sample = more representative it is 
  • Questionnaire = more representative because larger group is easier
  • Observation = less representative because focused on smaller groups 
  • Most attempt to collect data that is representative, reliable and valid 
  • Collecting quantitative data focus on representativeness and reliability 
  • Collecting qualitative data aim for more validity
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Key concept: Generalisability

  • Important sample is representative so it can be generalised 
  • Will want to say certain behaviour found in sample are typical of wider population
  • What is true of smaller group is true of larger group
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Steps to creating a study

Stage 1: decide topic and method

Stage 2: read research, avoid repeating

Stage 3: hypothesis

Stage 4: primary/secondary data or comclination

Stage 5: operationalism

Stage 6: data collection

Stage 7: pilot study 


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Social Action Theory

  • Labelling theory
  • Interactionism
  • Micro
  • Bottom up - view society from individuals perspective
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SAT - Labelling Theory

  • Howard Becker 1963 - self, how we see ourselves, how we interact with others
  • Other people categorise us and attach identities to us
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy 
  • Master status - a label can override other aspects of a persons self 
  • E.g. labelling someone as a criminal may mean everyone treats them as one even though they may not be and there may be more positive aspects to oneself.
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SAT - Interactionism

  • People interpret social world around them but how they do so is influenced by how they interact with others
  • Norms, values, identities not handed down through socialisation but redefined and renegotiated by individuals in their interactions with others
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