Finance and funding
An important factor is the availability of funding. Money for research comes from a variety of sources. Government departments may directly commission and pay for research into issues they regard as important. Businesses are also interested in knowing more about society, so they use knowledge to develop new goods and services, targetting marketing campaigns. Sociologists might respond to government/business invitations to conduct research.
Sociologists could have their own agenda, and seek funding to conduct their work. Some money is made avaialble through the Economic and Social Research Council; in 2014/15 its budget was £213 million. It supports research which contributes to the economic competitiveness of the UK, the effectiveness of public services and policy, and the quality of life. Unless funding is available, the project won't happen.
Sociologists often wish to know about concepts: social inequality, power or gender. Before these concepts can be investigated, they must first be defined. Without a definition to guide the research, there would be no clear idea of what precisely was under study. Moving from a concept to something defined and measurable is known as operationalising the concept.
Having defined educational success in a way that can be measured, data can be collected to test hypotheses. It has been suggested that the introduction of coursework into the examination system has benefitted girls, and their examination results have improved more rapidly tha those of boys.
Other examples of operationalising the concept include:
- Social class is usually studied by arranging different types of jobs into groups
- Marital breakdown is measured by the number of separations and divorces recorded
- Attendance at religious services is one way in which secularisation is studied
Identifying target popuation
A key stage in any research project is identifying the target population. It's from the target population that the sample to be studied is drawn. Any conclusions drawn from the data collected about the sample can only be generalised to the population the sample came from.
For example, researchers exploring gender differences in education at 16-plus may identify their target population as students making their A level choices. If the conclusions are to be generalised to this population then the sample should be representative and include males and females, those at single-sex and co-educational schools, sixth-form and further education colleges and so on.
Once the target population has been identified and the sampling method decided upon the researcher has to make contact with the potential research participants. Initially this can involve access to an organisation, for example a school or workplace. Access here is in the hand of the organisation's management, they're gatekeepers. They must be sure the research is worthwhile before giving the researcher permission.
The practical concern is closely linked to the ethical issue of 'consent', those taking part in research should agree to take part and have the opportunity to withdraw. This is true of organisations as well as individuals.
Time and money
The amount of time and money available to any research project will be limited. These resource limits affect the size of the reseach team that can be involved and more importantly the research methods that are used and the size of the sample studied. With more money a larger sample can be used. A bigger sample is more likely to be representative and therefore your data will be more generalisable. Interviews can be used as well as or instead of questionnaires, providing more detail.
With more time available, time-consuming methods like participant observations become an option. With more time a longitudinal study becomes possible, enabling the investigation of social changes over time.