Methods in context


Methods Link: Using official statistics

Methods Link: Using official statistics - Class Differences in Achievement

The government collects official statistics on education, so using them can save sociologists time and money.

Sociologists use official statistics to establish correlations between social factors. For example, statistics on exam results of children eligible for free school meals show a correlation between material deprivation and achievement.

However, statistical correlations in themselves cannot prove that deprivation is the cause of under-achievement.

Also, the government does not always collect statistics that might be of interest to sociologists.

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Methods Link: Using documents

Methods Link: Using documents - Class Differences in Achievement

Gerwitz studied the ways in which schools respond to being part of an 'education market'. She collected a range of school documents including brouchures, prospectuses and planning reports. These gave her an insight into the increasing amount of resources schools were now devoting to 'selling' themselves to potential 'customers', i.e. parents.

However, such documents need to be treated with caution. They are part of a school's public relations effort and their content may give a selcetive and distorted picture.

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Methods Link: Using experiments

Methods Link: Using experiments - Class Differences in Achievement

Rosenthal and Jacobson used a method known as a field experiment. Sociologists occasionally use field expermients because they allow the researcher s to manipulate a real, naturally occuring social situation to discover cause-and-effect relationships.

Rosenthal and Jacobson were able to manipulate classroom interaction by labelling some pupils as 'spurters' to see whether this would cause a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the researchers cannot control all the possible factors that might have led to the pupils 'spurting', so they cannot be certain that they have in fact discovered the real cause of their improved performance.

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Methods Link: Using observation

Methods Link: Using observation - Class Differences in Achievement

Lacey used a variety of methods, including participant and non-participant obervation. He immersed himself in school life, teaching some lessons and observing others, as well as helping with the cricket team and going on school trips. He was able to gain detailed insight into social relations within the school to show how pupils opposed into pro- and anti-achool subcultures and the impact that this had on their achievement.

However, observational methods can be very time consuming. Lacey's fieldwork took him 18 months. Also, while observation can provide detailed insight into a single school, this school may not be representative of others and so the results of the study may not be generalisable.

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Methods Link: Using official statistics

Methods Link: Using official statistics - Ethnic Differences in Achievement

Governments collect a vast amount of statistical data on educational achievements of different ethnic groups. Given that there are millions of pupils in schools, sociologists would not be able to collect this data themselves, so official statistica save them time and money. This data allows sociologists to identify the patterns of differences in achievement between ethnic groups.

However, simply  knowing the patterns of ethnic differences in achievemnt does not in itself explain them. A further problem is that the government's definition of ethnicity may be different from that of the sociologist and so the way that official data is categorised may not be useful to the researcher. 

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Methods Link: Using observation

Methods Link: Using observation - Ethnic Differences in Achievement

Wright observed the classroom interactions of over 1000 pupils and teachers. This enabled her to see how teachers actually behaved towards their pupils – rather than how they claimed they behaved. As a result, she witnessed how teachers sometimes labelled Asian pupils negatively.

However, with this method, the researcher cannot hide their presence in the classroom and this may change the teacher's behaviour. If so, then Wright would not see their 'real' behaviour, thereby reducing the validity of the results.

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Methods Link: Using unstructured interviews

Methods Link: Using unstructured interviews - Dender Differenes in Education

Sharpes study included using unstructured interviews to study girls’ attitudes to education, family and work. By asking open ended questions and allowing the girls to respond in their own words, she was able to obtain rich qualitative data that gave her a valid picture of their feelings and views.

However, open ended questions do not usually produce data that can be easily categorised. There is also a danger that the interviewer will unintentionally influence the interviewee’s answers. This may be even more of a ris where the interviewees are much younger than the researcher.

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Methods Link: Using documents

Methods Link: Using documents - Gender Differences in Education

Sociologists have analysed the contents of educational documents such as reading schemes and textbooks for evidence of gender stereotyping. Glenys Lobban examined 179 stories in 6 reading schemes used in primary schools and found that females were nearly always presented in traditional domestic roles.

Quantitative content analysis of schoolbooks can reveal statistical patterns of gender images in learning materials. It is easily replicated to show trends overtime in stereotyping.

However, content analysis merely tells us how often an image appears in a document it tells us nothing about its meaning to those who see it.

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Methods Link: Using surveys

Methods Link: Using surveys - The Role of Education and the New Right

Chubb and Moe carried out a survey of parental attitdes to schooling. Surveys involve asking people a fixed list of questions either through interiews or written questionnaires. This is a very quick way of collecting data from a large sample of people. Chubb and Moe chose this method so as to make generalisations about parents' views on the way schools should be run and on how much choice parents should have.

However, interpretivist sociologists argue that using a fixed list of questions imposes the researcher's meanings on respondents by limiting what answers they can give. Chubb and Moe's survey may thus have produced results that suited their New Right perspective.

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Methods Link: Using questionnaires

Methods Link: Using questionnaires - The Role of Education

Bowles and Gintis measured students’ personality traits using a questionnaire similar to those used to reveal the traits valued by employers. They compared their questionnaire results with students’ school grades averages and exam scores. They found a correlation between personality traits valued by employers, such as obedience and high scores at school. The quetonnaire allowed Bowles and Gintis to study a large sample and to establish a correlation that supported their hypothesis.

However, questionnaires about attitudes and personality traits may lack depth, and students who complete them may misunderstand the questions or may not take them seriously.

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Methods Link: Using group interviews

Methods Link: Using group interviews - The Role of Education

Willis carried out unstructured interviews to uncver the counter-school culture of the 'lads'. These interviews allowed the lads to talk freely in their own words about the way they viewed school, teachers and work. The interviews gave Willis an insight into their world.

However, critics argue that unstructured group interviews are an unreliablele method - they cannot be repeated in exactly the same way with other groups. Also, the meaning of what is said in a group interview is so open to the researcher's own biased interpretation that the results may be of little value.

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Methods Link: Using documents

Methods Link: Using documents - Educational Policy and Inequality

Educational policies are usually set out in official documents such as Acts of Parliament or governmet regulations and guidance issued to school. This makes such documents a useful source of information about policies. Other documents include parliamentary debates and speeches by politicians. These can give us insight into the resaons for educational policies as well as criticisms of them.

However, documents do not tell the whole story about educational policies. Politicians try to present their policies ina as favourable a way as possible, so documents need to be treated with care and not simply taken at face value. Furthermore, schools do not alwys carry out policies in the way government expects them in.

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