Primary research methods

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  • Created by: zoolouise
  • Created on: 22-05-16 08:33


A survey isn't a method of collecting data, it refers to the study as a whole. The term refers to a large-scale quantitative study rather than small-scale qualitative studies. Data is collected by means of questionnaires or structured interviews. Examples include the British Social Attitudes Survey and the Crime Survey for England and Wales. 

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A questionnaire is a list of questions, either on paper, or online. Paper questionnaires can be distributed in person or through the post. The person who completes it is called the respondent, the researcher isn't present. 


  • Quick and cheap
  • Answers are closed questions, quickly and easily quantified
  • Researcher doesn't have to be present
  • They're standardised
  • They're usually anonymous
  • Researchers aren't limited to small geographic areas


  • Respondents may not answer all questions and they can't explain answers if they do
  • Postal questionnaires have a very poor response rate
  • We can't be sure that everyone inerprets questons in the same way
  • Creating a good quality questionnaire is hard - pilot study has to be conducted first
  • Respondents may lie
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Structured interview

A structured interview is a questionnaire, the questions are read out and the answers are recordered by the interviewer. This involves the interviewer asking all of the respondents exactly the same questions in the same way. It's used to collect quantitative data.


  • If the respondents unsure about something, the interiewer can explain it
  • The standardised approach helps make the data reliable
  • Data can be collected more quickly this way than other interview methods
  • The presence of the researcher improves response rates


  • It's more time consuming than a questionnaire
  • The presence of the interviewer might result in interviewer bias
  • A rigid interview schedule can limit opportunity for respondent explanations
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Unstructured interview

An unstructured interview is more like a conversation, with the questions and answers not following any fixed, pre-determined path. They're also known as in depth interviews, there's little structure. Unstructured interviews are used when the researcher requires qualitative data.


  • Absense of schedule allows discussion to develop
  • More 'natural' setting encourages openness and honesty
  • Respondent is able to answer in their own words
  • Face-to-face nature means interviewer can tell if respondents lying


  • Time-consuming
  • Interviewer has to be highly skilled
  • Analysing information is complicated and subjective
  • Each interview is different, data is less reliable
  • Interview bias
  • Ethnicity, age and sex of the respondent and interviewer can affect the relationship and answers
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Semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews have less flexibility than unstructured interviews, and less rigidity than structured interviews. They consist of a series of open-ended questions.


  • Falling between structured and unstructured means they avoid some of the disadvantages associated with them.
  • Open-ended questions give opportunities for the interview and respondent to discuss in detail
  • Reseacher can prompt/encourage the respondent to give fuller answers
  • Interviewer can follow up issues that are mentioned by the respondent


  • Falling between the structured and unstructured inviews, they don't have the advantages associated with them
  • The interviews are not standardised, less reliable
  • Interview bias might be a problem
  • Expensive and time-consuming
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Focus Groups

Focus groups can be seen as a development of the interview approach. A group of people discuss an issue, a researcher moderates, keeping discussion on topic. It collects qualitative data.


  • Views and opinions of group members can be explored in detail, can be informative and relieving
  • It's useful when a group and their views are being studied
  • It collects information from several respondents
  • The group members can influence the discussion, introducing ideas the reseacher hasn't considered


  • Group moderator needs to be highly skilled
  • Participants may not feel able to share their views in a group
  • Small numbers are studied so the results are unlikely to be representative
  • A dominant group member might influence the contributions of others, reducing validity
  • It can be difficult to analyse the data
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Covert participant observation

This is where the reseacher joins in the activities of the group. They don't reveal their presence and intentions.


  • It enables sociologists to study hard to reach groups. Detailed qualitative data can be obtained.
  • If the group behaves normally then the resulting data will be valid.
  • The data records what actually happens as the method doesn't rely on the respondents answering questions honestly.


  • Reseacher has to rely on their memory of events and who said what. 
  • There's a practical problem of gaining access to a hard to reach group.
  • The reseacher has to be careful not to draw attention to him or herself or to interfere with the normal behaviour of the group.
  • It raises ethical issues, especially those of consent and deception.
  • There's an issue of safety for the researcher
  • There's a danger of losing the objectivity and starting to identify with the group under study
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Overt participant observation

Overt participant observation is when you join in with a group and they know you are also observing them.


  • The ethical issues of deception and obtaining consent are resolved.
  • The reseacher can ask questions openly without the fear of 'giving the game away'
  • Record making and note-taking is easier


  • The Hawthorne Effect is more likely to occur if the group is aware of the presence of the reseacher
  • The question of how far the researcher should become involved, especially in deviant activity, remains.
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Overt non-participant observation

Overt non-participant observation is when you are observing the group and they are aware of your presence, you are not involved.


  • Easier to make a record of what's happening
  • The ethical issues of deception and obtaining consent are resolved
  • The reseacher can ask questions openly without the fear of 'giving the game away'
  • This method allows the collection of quantitative data as well as qualitative data.
  • The reseacher is not likely to be involved in behaving illegaly.


  • In everyday life we don't expect those we are with to be taking notes or recording events. This affects the usefulness of overt research, the Hawthorne Effect has an impact.
  • By remaining on the edge of the group, the reseacher isn't fully experiencing their lives, therefore this may undermine the aim of the research.
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