Key Question 3 Research Methods

Key Quesiton 3: Which methods are used in sociological research?


Methods: Questionnaires

  • Gathers large amounts of data from large numbers of people
  • Self completion
  • Closed questions - tick boxes
  • Quantitative or statistical data
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Strengths of questionnaires

  • Low cost
  • Not time consuming
  • Distributed to large samples - increases representativeness and posibility of generalisability
  • Ask for informed consent
  • Anonymity and confidentiality easily ensured
  • Positivists like them because they're: standardised, highly reliable, objective, produce lots of quantifiable data for comparison, correlations or cause and effect relationships 
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Limitations of questionnaires

  • Suffer from non-response or low response - undermines representativeness and validity
  • People may misunderstand or misinterpret questions
  • People may not cooperate if its a touchy subject for fear of it being used against them
  • Sensitive or embarassing topic respondent may lie or not tell the whole truth for fear of being judged negatively
  • Interpretivists believe they are low in validity - do not produce trust and rapport required to obtain validity
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Methods: Structured Interviews

  • Take form of questionnaire 
  • Closed questions - fixed choice responses
  • Quantitative statistical data
  • Completed by interviewer not respondent
  • Interviewer behvaes like machine/robot
  • He/She cannot deviate from schedule or ask people to clarify vague responses
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Strengths of structured interviews

  • Interviewer ensures response unlike postal questionnaires
  • Interviewer can explain aims and objectives, clarify instructions, make sure respondent is happy to take part - reduce non response
  • Interviews have better response rates than postal, interviwer can return if respondent is not home
  • Positivists keen because method is regarded as scientific - standardisation - each member of sample exposed to same stimuli
  • Highly reliable - trained to ask questions in exactly same way
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Limitations of structured interviews

  • Expensive 
  • Time consuming 
  • Inflexible - can't pursue any interesting leads
  • May lack validity as they're not a part of everyday reality, people may be suspicious, possibility of evasive, partial or false information
  • Gap between what people say they do and what they acc do - don't put prejudice into action
  • People not aware of their behaviour
  • Different interpretations of questions
  • Some may find interviewer threatening and adjust answers accordingly
  • Gomm - artificical responses shaped by respondents interpretations of researchers aims and motives 
  • Gomm - research subjects may want to please research team - change answers accordingly 
  • Gomm - may under-report activities regarded as undesirable
  • Interviewers may inadvertently influence responses through facial expression, tone, body language
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Methods: Statistical Data (official and non-offici

Official -

  • Surveys carried out by government agencies
  • Most common = census, carried out every 10th year on whole population
  • Other government surveys = General Household Survey, Family Expenditure Survery, British Crime Survey

Non-Official statistics - 

  • Quantitative data produce by non-state organisations such as trade unions, businesses, charities, think tanks etc
  • Publicise social problem or state of affairs in which they have a vested interest
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Strengths of statistics

  • Easy and cheap 
  • Very up to date
  • Correlations can be identified by comparing official statistics 
  • Official Statistics allow trends to be identified over time 
  • Positivists favour official statistics because they see them as highly reliable and scientific, representative, quantifiable data to establish correlations they can test to form theories and uncover social laws that they claim shape human behaviour
  • Avoids ethical obstacles
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Limitations of statistics

  • May not present complete picture
  • Based on state definitions that sociologists don't agree with
  • Open to political abuse - manipulated for political advantage

Interpretivists not keen on sociological use of official statistics because:

  • See official statistics as social constructs - reject positivist view that they are real, objective social facts
  • Believe they are constructed by powerful state agencies
  • Statistics tell us little about human stories or interpretations
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Methods: Content Analysis

  • Media products: newspapers, magazines, advertisements, radio, music products, posters, films, novels, internet, computer products and fanzines - secondary source gives insight into particular societies
  • Positivists used media extracts to examine and analyse values, priorities, concerns of society
  • Positivists use methodological technique to analyse how social groups such as women or ethnic minorities are stereotyped by societies 
  • Involves counting ways which media represents a particular group or issue - count words that appear in headlines, or images.
  • Quantitative data
  • Design schedule that records the frequency of certain images or themes
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Strengths of content analysis

  • Cheap
  • Allows comparison of media representation of groups or issues over long period of time if longitudinal method is used
  • Reliable because others can cross check and verify results
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Limitations of content analysis

  • Time consuming
  • Assumes media content has an effect on audience - it may not
  • Only tell us about the personal and political beliefs of producers of media products - prejudices of journalists and broadcasters
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Methods: Observations

Participant, non-participant (AKA direct), overt, covert:

  • Non-P involves researcher sitting and observing an activity - plays no active role
  • Argued because it's objective researcher less likely to take sides and be biased in interpretation of groups behaviour
  • Group shouldn't be influenced by researcher because no active role
  • Critics disagree and note observer likely observing artificial behaviour caused by presence - also gives little insight into reasons behind behaviour

P can either be:

  • Overt: researcher joins in and all or some of group are aware
  • Covert: researcher conceals fact research is taking place - pretends to be member
  • Aim = understand what's happening from point of view of those involved and understand meaning they give to what they do 
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Methods: Observations - The research

The research:

  • Ethnogrpahic: done in environment respondents usually find themsleves
  • Not based on artificial situation created by interview or questionnaire
  • Produces qualitative data about how people interpret the world aruond them - data 'speaks for itself'
  • Gives real insight into peoples feelings, motives, experiences, attitudes etc 
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Methods: Strengths of observation

Interpretivists are very keen on observations because:

  • Observer sees through eyes of group, experience same things as group
  • Experiences verstehen
  • Highly valid
  • Truth more likely to be recorded
  • Observation can be supplemented with informal questions - although in covert may be suspicious
  • Generates new ideas, lead to new insights 
  • First hand experience not what he/she thinks is important as often the case with questionnaires and interviews
  • Observer discovers priorities, concerns of group and understand meanings and definitions of social reality used in everyday lives in social context
  • Over long period of time = allows understanding of how attitudes and behaviours change
  • Observation may be only practical method to research hard to reach groups - criminal gangs, religious sects - hostile to conventional society or enganged in illegal or deviant behaviour
  • However, observation of these groups is likely to be covert unless a service or role is offered
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Practical limitations of observation

  • Observer effect - problematic for overt - presence of observer causes less natural actions, sociologists suggest a 'setting in' period where no notes are taken. Covert less likely to get this effect
  • Some observers get too close to group - observations become biased
  • Overt - constantly taking notes can be off putting 
  • Covert - making notes or disappearing for long periods of time can arouse suspicion
  • Most observers keep a research diary - documents activities and any influences they may have had on the group
  • Time consuming, dedication, money
  • Difficult for observers to gain an entry point into group, if achieved may be difficult to be totally accepted 
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Ethical limitations of participant observation

  • Involves lying - some sociologists disaprove 
  • Researcher may be forced into criminal/immoral behaviour in order to gain trust or protect cover
  • Can be dangerous for sociologist

CASE STUDY: Ken Pryce murdered whilst doing participant observation of organised drug crime in the Caribbean 

  • Eventually researcher must leave group - raises ethical isssues - is it right to pretend to be someone else and use friendships made for research purposes?
  • Researcher needs to consider if research will get participants in trouble or cause harm 
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Theoretical limitations of observations

  • Positivists question reliability of overt and covert - no way of knowing if findings are true becuase it cannot be repeated
  • Positivists criticise lack of representativeness becuase those in group may not be typical of 'average' people, number of people is small making it difficult to generalise findings
  • Positivists regard as unscientific because theres no standardised or controlled stimuli
  • Positivists do not believe observation is rigorously objective enough and consequently low in reliability and quantifiability
  • In contrast, non-p seen as more scientific because observers as using schedules which list things they should be looking for, other observers can use same list on similar samples and probably get similar results - more reliable
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Methods: Unstructured Interviews

  • Resembles informal conversation
  • List of topics but no pre-determined questionnaire/schedule used
  • Emphasis on interviewer asking open-ended questions 
  • Questions often flexible response to what interviewers say
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Strengths of unstructured interviews

  • Flexible method - can ask questions based on response, can probe for reasons
  • Result in unexpected findings - allow sociologists to learn as they go
  • Particularly suited to sensitive groups - good interviewer skilled at gaining trust 
  • Trust established making interviewee feel time valued and worthwhile
  • Rapport and trust may reduce possibility of interviewer effect - not feel threatened by the interviewer
  • Interpretivists keen on unstructured interviews because believe in validity through involvement - valid data only obtained through getting close to people's experiences and meanings
  • Unstructured interviews normally carried out in everyday environment - reduce threat perceieved by group - ethnographic
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Limitations of unstructured interviews

  • Time consuming, expensive 
  • Not tell truth because not aware of behaviour
  • Positivist regard as unscientific because lack of standardised questions - not reliable
  • Unreliable because data is a result of unique relationship between interviewer and interviewee - cannot be repeated by any other sociologist and verify - second interviewer may end up obtaining completely different qualitative data
  • Positivists regard as too subjective - potentially biased - too friendly, not detached enough to be objective
  • Qualitative data - difficult to present in graph, chart or table form - makes difficult for correlation and analysis
  • Samples small because of length, unlikely to be representative and cannot generalise to wider population
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Methods: Semi-Structured Interviews

  • Mix of structured and unstructured interviews
  • Contain lots of closed questions to generate facts but also a few open questions
  • Reliability is questioned because interviewer may find respondent needs more porbing than others
  • May mean every interview is different - data is not strictly comparable
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Methods: Ethnography

  • Carried out in the natural setting of research subjects
  • Preferred by interpretivists
  • Depict and fully describe characteristics of subjects as fully as possible
  • Qualitative data - descriptive, difficult to analyse
  • Involve a degree of interpretation by researcher - potential to reflect unconscious and subjective biases
  • Unstructured interviews and participant observation most ethnographic methods used
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Mixed Methods: Triangulation

  • Hobson defines as use of more than one method to assess the validity of ones research methods and data produced
  • Involves use of method which generates quantitative data - primary from survey or secondary from official sources
  • Combined with interactive method - unstructured interviews or observations which generate qualitative data
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Strengths of triangulation

  • Used to check accuracy of data gathered by each method
  • Qualitative research produce hypotheses that can be checked by quantitative methods
  • Two approaches give more complete picture of group
  • Qualitative research illustrates statistics by focusing on 'why' and 'how' of patterns and trends
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Mixed Methods: Methodological Pluralism

  • Refers to employment of than one method of research
  • Emphasis not on validity but on fuller more comprehensive picture of social life
  • Useful becuase advantage of one method may compensate limitations of another

Good example of this is the case study:

  • Technique involves in depth study of single person, group, organisation, community, nation or event
  • Involves primary and secondary methods to build up multi-faceted picture
  • May stand alone e.g. Paul Willis's Learning to Labor, which uses primary and secondary research techniques
  • May be used as a part of a wider study e.g. Peter Townsend's survey of poverty contains case studies of particular families and their experience of poverty
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Limitations of mixed methods approach

  • Expensive 
  • Produces lots of data which can be difficult to analyse 
  • Nature of topic will dictate which methods are used and rule out others
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