Key Question 2 Research Methods

Key Question 2: What are the main stages of the research process?


Factors influencing the choice of research topic

  • Interests and values of researcher 
  • Current debates in academia
  • Funding: 

Some funding is impartial e.g. uni's and Economic and Social Research Council

Some charities have interests 

Some funders may only fund research that supports their cause or agenda

  • Access to research subjects:

Sociologists may be rejected by subjects e.g. if researching crime

Some topics too sensitive, may have negative repercussions for those taking part e.g. the reason there are so little sociological studies of child abuse

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Aims/Hypothesis/Research Questions

  • Aims: refer to overall purpose of research
  • Comprise broad statements, or research questions, about the desired outcome
  • Each project usually has one or two aims which incorperated into hypothesis 
  • Hypothesis: proposition or inspired guess based on observation of phenomena, can be scientifically tested to work out if true, or whether correlation exists between variables
  • A.K.A. Conjecture
  • Two types of variable: Independent: cause of change, Dependent: the change or effect
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Primary and Secondary data

  • Primary data is gathered 'first hand' using questionnaires, interviews or observations 
  • Secondary data = been collected by people who are not sociologists and published or written down e.g. official statistics are collected by government and available to public
  • Other types of secondary data available include:
  • Mass media reports such as journalistic accounts or analysis of social events or social problems
  • Documents such as diaries, autobiographies, government reports
  • Private/personal documents: produced by individuals e.g. diaries of Anne Frank, some people especially politicians write these with future publication in mind, sometimes individual might be asked to keep a diary by sociologists or the government
  • Public documents are formal reports based on evidence submitted by various experts into specific events or problems e.g. government commissioned Chilcot inquiry into Britain's involvement in invasion of Iraq, produced public report 2.6mil words, 12 volumes.
  • Other well-known public reports include Hillsborough disaster and the police mishandling of the murder of the Black student Stephen Lawrence
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  • Hypotheses are tested through operationalisation
  • Hypothesis broken down into parts which can be quantified and measured e.g. Noble and Davies operationalised the concept of cultural capital by asking students about educational and occupational backgrounds of their parents.
  • Also asked students about leisure activities they enjoyed and which culutral pursuits their parents encouraged them to take interest in
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Pilot studies

  • Dress rehearsal - questionnaire given to few individuals or couple of interviews conducted to uncover potential research problems relating to response rate, questionnaire design, suitability of sample, efficiency of interview

It can:

  • Check everyone understands questions in same way
  • Give an idea of how many questionnaires will be returned
  • Check questions don't upset or lead participants
  • Check sample is truly representative
  • Check interviewers are well trained
  • Check data is the type required 
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Data collection

  • Quantitative or qualitative
  • Quantitative: statistical, primary methods, questionnaires and structured interviews, presented in graphs, tables, bar charts etc
  • Qualitative: written form, more personal and ethnographic account of social world, transcripts of interviews, quotations from conversations, diary entry, focuses on how people see the world around them 
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Respondent validation

  • Involves researcher obtaining feedback from subjects to make sure they have agreed on what was happening.
  • Bryman notes point of validation, mainly in interpretivist, to reduce any bias arising from researchers interpretation of events
  • However, validation dependent on subject understanding aims of the research 
  • If they believe research is critical of their actions they may refuse to cooperate
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Longitudinal studies

  • Gathers info from one group over time 
  • Data gathered repeatedly using questionnaires and/or structured interviews
  • Some follow individuals born in a particular year e.g. National Child development Study researching individuals born in 1958
  • Recent example - BBC series 'Child of our time' following children born in 2000
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Strengths of longitudinal studies

  • Qualitative and valid data focused on peoples interpretation of reality - verstehen
  • Method allows sociologists to document how influence of social factors e.g. social class impact peoples lives over period of years
  • Allow hypotheses to be modified as long term influences become clearer
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Limitations of longitudinal studies

  • Original sample may become too survey/research friendly and work out what researcher wants and gives it to them - biasing results
  • Original sample may drop out, move away or die - remaining members may not be representative 
  • Original research team may change and lose sight of original goals 
  • Expensive 
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Interpretation of data

Positivists interested in collecting quantitative data:

  • Argued data needs to be objectively converted in graphical form so correlations can be established 
  • Argue interpretation of data must avoid subjective bias and be objective in that data should not be excluded if it does not fit the hypothesis 
  • Researchers should avoid being selective with data only highlighting aspects that support the hypothesis

Interpretivists collect qualitative data = hard to correlate:

  • Are aware of the dangers of subjectivity and have strategies e.g. reflexivity and respondent validation to ensure interpretation coincides with group they are studying 
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The relationship between socio and social policy

  • Social policy refers to government attempts to influence how society is organised by bringing in new laws, guidelines and controls 
  • Change may be immediate (e.g. NHS introduced overnight) or may be gradual influence (e.g. government tinkers with education system)

Social problem: social behaviour that casuses friction and misery e.g. crime, poverty etc and governments may be called upon to produce social policies to tackle them

Sociological problem: focus on all relationships that members of society enter into. People get married and have children, sociologists interested in explaining why companionate marriage is more popular than open uncommitted relationships with a range of partners - marriage is therefore a sociological 'problem' that requires explaination

  • Normal behaviour just as interesting however most research aimed at solving social problems or explaining sociological problems 
  • Even when sociologists conduct research there is no guarantee policy makers will use findings because may result in policy that is too expensive or doesn't receive many votes
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Sampling process

  • Sample = group of people who take part in sociological research 
  • Prefer to use representative sample
  • Hope to generalise from results
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Sampling techniques: Simple Random

  • Sampling frame = list of people who might become research sample
  • Most common sampling frame = electoral register - people over 18 eligible to vote 
  • Some use Postcode Address File, school or college registers 
  • For research relating to health sociologists can get permission to access GP's Patient list
  • Advantage: minimise probability of bias in selection 
  • Should objectively select impartial cross-section of population being studied
  • Simple random sample: selecting names randomly from sampling frame - every member of research population has an equal chance of being included - those chosen are likely to be a cross-section of the population
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Sampling techniques: Systematic Random

  • Take sample frame, randomly choose number between 1 and 10 and selecting every tenth name beginning at the selected number 
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Sampling Techniques: Stratified Random

  • Most common type of random sampling
  • Sampling frame is divided into sub frame listings e.g. boys and girls
  • Systematic random sample then taken from each sub frame 
  • Advantage: distinct groups in research population can be represented within sample according to their proportions in wider population - producing a sample that faithfully represents variations that exist in research population
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Sampling techniques: Snowball

  • Used to access deviant or criminal groups
  • e.g. sociologist access to addict which introduces to another user who introduces to another user and so on until sample builds up good number
  • Danger: people who are willing to be a part may not be representative of group, especially if group is criminal or deviant which is normally secretive
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Sampling techniques: Volunteer

  • Used when subject makes it difficult to find a quota, purposive or snowball sample 
  • e.g. study of sexual acitivity among uni students might place posters in SU bar or adverts in student newspapers asking for people to take part
  • Danger: volunteers may not be representative of average student 
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Sampling techniques: Opportunity

  • Similar to purposive
  • Involves making the most of situations or oppurtunities to identify and locate group of people who might take part
  • e.g. Stark trek convention, sociologists will plan ahead and make most of oppurtunity 
  • Sociologists interested in peoples voting behaviour may target people on day of General Election as they come out of polling booths 
  • Danger: purposive or opportunity may not be representative
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Sampling techniques: Purposive

  • Researcher will seek out specific groups to take part on purpose because it would make no sense to use other groups 
  • e.g. if research focused on drug users would make no sense to target people who don't use drugs
  • Goldthorpe wanted to study manual workers with high incomes so he purposely targeted workers in a car factory because he knew they were well paid 
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Sampling techniques: Quota

  • Researcher will approach people in street or shopping centre who have characteristics they are looking for e.g. housewives or the elderly
  • Often used by market researchers
  • Lots of bias because demonstrated researchers more likely to approach people they believe will be cooperative 
  • Tendency for researchers to unconciously neglect marginalised groups such as homeless, the young etc
  • Less likely to guarantee objectively gathered representative sample from which researchers can confidently generalise.
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Access and gatekeeping

  • Gaining access to exclusive deviant groups that cut themselves off from society not impossible but needs to be sensitively thought through in ethics and personal safety
  • Attempt to solve problem by using intermediary or gatekeeper who can gain them entry and explain research is not threatening 
  • Beneficial if gatekeeper is someone who group trusts and looks up to 
  • e.g. Venkatesh able to access crack dealing gang in Chicago called Black Kings because he was befriended by gang leader who ordered gang to cooperate
  • Some sociologists have managed to gain access because they have been able to offer a service e.g. legal advice
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Ethical factors influencing choice of research top

  • Subjects must know research being carried out on them + aims & objectives
  • Sociologist avoid deception
  • Subjects should be offered anonymity and confidentiality
  • Sociologists should avoid harm on subject, generally 3 types of harm;

Physical harm - if research subject can be identified by others because confidentiality was not maintained could be subject to violence e.g. gang members 

Emotional harm - sociologists should avoid opening old emotional wounds causing further psychological trauma 

Professional harm - if research subject can be identified by others because confidentiality was not maintained could lose jobs, be bullied or reputations may be damaged

  • Sociologists not engage in criminal or immoral activity 
  • Leader of sociological research team must ensure no harm to members 
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Practical factors influencing choice of research m

Cost and funding 

  • If sociologist does not have access to large sums they may have to find a cheaper alternative

Time available

  • If sociologist does not have a lot of time to complete research they might have to choose a quicker research method than the preffered one and vice versa for a more in depth research method if there is more time

Participants required

  • Some groups are too powerful or deviant so access to them is hard
  • If group is large questionnaires may be used to gets lot of data
  • If only wanting quantitative (e.g. questionnaires or structured interviews) or qualitative data (unstructured interviews or participant observation) certain methods would be chosen
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Practical factors influencing choice of research m

Subject matter of research 

  • Nature of topic may determine specific research methods
  • Social characteristics of research team e.g. if subjects are black or asian, research team made of black and asian people may get more valid data
  • If research subjects are young may be better with young research team - see older as authoritive and fail to cooperate
  • Female victims of certain crimes may be more open with female researchers
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