Research methods

Qualitative research

primary methods include:

  • participant and non-participant observations
  • open-ended questionnaires
  • informal or unstructured interviews

secondary methods include:

  • diary entries
  • Facebook entries;
  • letters and other personal accounts
  • newspapers,
  • novels
  • police records,
  • government reports;
  • school records;
  • parish registers
  • content analysis
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Quantitative research

Primary and secondary research.

  • closed/structured questionnaires
  • structured interviews
  • the experiment
  • the comparative method
  • official statistics
  • social surveys
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Sampling methods

  • Random sampling – people selected at random
  • Stratified random sampling – a random sample is chosen from a subdivided group of people eg a specific age range
  • Quota sampling – researcher selects people by a certain criteria eg gender
  • Snowball sampling – the researcher selects a respondent meeting their requirements, then asks them to recommend someone meeting the same criteria
  • Cluster or multistage sampling – selecting your sample in various stages eg 1st – take a random sample of hospital patients; 2nd – select a random sample from within those patients for your study
  • Systematic sampling – selecting from the sampling frame at regular intervals until the size of sample is reached
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Primary and Secondary data

Primary research- Primary data is that collected by sociologists themselves through social surveys such as structured interviews.

Secondary research- Secondary data is data which already exists such as that found in newspapers, novels, literature, letters, diaries, police records,  school results, government reports etc.

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Secondary research methods- official statistics

Advantages of official statistics

  • they’re relatively easy and inexpensive to access
  • they’re readily available
  • they’re often the only source of data on a topic area
  • as they’re so comprehensive they’re more likely to be representative
  • they’re more likely to cover a long time span (crime figures and education data) and so it’s easier to see the influence of government policies ‘before and after’

Disadvantages of official data

  • as official data isn’t collect by sociologists problems are likely in the recording and accuracy of the data, for example the British Crime Survey exists to overcome the ‘dark-figures’ of unrecorded crime
  • some of these ‘dark figures’ come from policemen having to interpret a situation as being criminal or not. This shows how official data might not be as objective as expected
  • officials recording data are doing so for administrate reasons and so they’re not using terms and classifications used by sociological researchers
  • official figures are sometimes ‘massaged’ by the state to avoid embarrassing the government of the day for example hospital waiting times
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Secondary research methods- content analysis

Content analysis involves the analysis of ‘messages’ in mass media content (secondary sources) which can generate both quantitative and qualitative data.

The sociologist can analyse any form of media content such as TV reports; newspaper reports; magazine content etc in order to see how a social group or social situation is portrayed.

The Glasgow University Media Group used this method to study TV news reports on industrial action so they could assess the content. Their study produced statistic evidence of television’s biases by portraying management in a positive light as more rational individuals while the workers in a negative way and so less rational.

This occurred through managers being interviewed in calm surroundings while the workers were often reported in nosier environments.

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Secondary research methods- Personal documents

Diaries; letters; etc which provide a rich source of qualitative data on feeling; motives etc

Strengths

  • Provide a rich insight into a person’s feelings and motivations
  • They are usual in providing insights where no other data exists such as being held captive
  • They are often the only insight sociologists have into the past such as war veterans diaries or letters home
  • Personal documents can supplement official data such as school performance. A school might be high in league tables but pupils dislike the regime in which they learn

Weaknesses

  • They are a one person view of events which can be biased in order to justify a person’s actions and therefore invalid
  • The data is likely to be unreliable
  • The data is likely to be unrepresentative
  • The authenticity of the data is open to question
  • The sociologist might interpret the data in a way the author never intended
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Secondary research methods- Public and historical

Historical and public documents are reports made by governments; companies; trade unions; schools; hospital trusts etc; therefore they can be contemporary (current) or historical (from the past).

Strengths of public and historical documents are:

  • They are more than likely the only way we can gain insights into past events
  • They allow comparisons over time for example birth; death and marriage rates
  • They are useful when assessing the outcomes of various social policies such as raising the school leaving age

Weaknesses of public and historical documents

  • The validity of the documents are open to question as they may have been written selectively
  • The authenticity of a document is open to question as it might not have been written by the person it is attributed to; therefore undermining its reliability
  • The documents content is open to misinterpretation
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Primary research methods- experimental method

Scientists researching the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) conduct their research in laboratories. In laboratories scientists are able to control the variables (e.g. temperature, light etc.) so an experiment can be undertaken in order to test out a hypothesis (a prediction which can be tested). The strength and weaknesses of the experimental method in sociology are:

The advantage of laboratory experiments are:

  • makes isolating and manipulating variables easier so causes of events can be identified
  • other scientists can easily repeat the same experiment
  • they’re high in reliability as other researchers can replicate the same experiment and achieve the same results
  • comparisons can be made with similar experimental research
  • scientists can test their hypothesis in controlled conditions
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Primary research methods- field experiments

Some experimental methods have been used in sociology in the guise of field experiments. Field experiments are conducted in the real world in real conditions such as a school while at the same time trying to follow similar procedures to those found in any laboratory experiment.

They tend to be carried out by interpretivists who are interested in looking for meanings in the social world.

Rosenthal and Jacobson conducted a field experiment in a school in 1968. This involved testing the hypothesis teacher expectations hand important effects on pupils academic performance in order to see if the self-fulfilling prophecy existed.

The trouble is this form of ‘real-world’ experiment is fraught with ethical problems as it could have been the teachers expectations and those students labelled with low expectations could have been damaged by the label.

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Primary research methods- social survey

Survey’s are used to collect primary data from large numbers of people in a standardised statistical form (when questions are standardised it means everyone is asked the same set of questions) in order to make generalisations about the population as a whole. Postal questionnaires are a common form of social survey.

The emphasis on standardisation shows how social surveys are driven by positivist principles through the use of pre-coded questionnaires or structured interviews (occasionally there are open or free choice questions).

As the aim of any survey is to form a conclusion or conclusion (generalisations) it is important that a sample is chosen which is representative (known as a representative sample) of the population or group (known as survey population) being studied.

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Primary research methods- questionnaire

Closed or structured or pre-coded questionnaires

Advantages

  1. relatively quick to complete by respondent
  2. easier, quick, and less costly to analyze
  3. data produced ought to be reliable (easy to repeat) allowing other researchers to test the findings (replicating the method of the natural scientists)
  4. they produce data which is relatively easy to categorise and present in statistical form such as graphs and charts
  5. make it easy for comparisons to be between different groups. This is because respondents are all answering the same questions

Disadvantages

  1. possible misinterpretation of questions
  2. limited choice of answers puts artificial limits on how the respondent answers
  3. if answered with researcher present respondent might ‘lie’ as they’re too embarrassed to tell the truth
  4. the responses set out are those of the sociologist and not necessarily those of the respondent (imposition problem)
  5. too many options might confuse the respondent
  6. no way of knowing  if respondent understood the question/questions
  7. response options can put ideas into the respondents mind

Open or unstructured questionnaires

Advantages

  1. responses are in the respondents own words, rather than those of sociologist as with closed questionnaires, which improves validity
  2. the imposition problem found in closed questionnaires is less of an issue as the respondent is using their own words and not those of the researcher as with closed questionnaires
  3. they provide more detailed and deeper answers including more information such as feelings and attitudes
  4. open-ended questions simply do not allow respondents to speed read or avoid reading the questions and so “fill in” the answer without thinking

Disadvantages

  1. with such a broad range of answers it can be hard to classify and quantify the date into graphs and charts
  2. with such a broad range of answers it can be difficult to compare results with similar research
  3. response rate can lower than with those that use closed-ended questions as people have to fill them in and they might feel awkward regarding their spelling and or hand-writing
  4. responses might be ‘skip’ to the point as the respondent is in a rush and so the answers given are too vague
  5. hand-writing might be illegible through the respondent rushing
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Primary research methods- participant observation

Overt observation is where the researcher will disclose themselves to the the participants so they know they’re being observed.

Covert observation is where those being observed are unaware they are being observed (the researcher’s undercover – ‘gone native’); this usually involves the researcher assuming a false identity for example if you were researching the behaviour of football supporter you’d pretend you were a supporter so you could conduct the research.

A famous example was John Howard Griffin who dyed his skin black and lived as a black man in the southern states of America in 1960. 

Advantages

  1. you have high validity doesn’t disturb the normal behaviour of the group – no risk of the Hawthorne effect
  2. no prior knowledge of social dynamic being observed is required
  3. allows the observer to dig deeper into groups/individual behaviour
  4. research can be sustained over a long period of time giving greater depth

Disadvantages

  1. ethical issues just by participating in criminal activity
  2. ethical issues if covertly witnessing criminal activity
  3. tend to be small scale and the group being studied might not be typical
  4. the researcher may be exposed to danger for example if participating in criminal activity
  5. if the identity of researcher is uncovered the whole research could be ruined
  6. the participants may feel betrayed and used if/when they find out their activities were being recorded and could take out revenge
  7. difficult to record observations without being found out
  8. difficult to leave the group having been a part of the group for so long
  9. difficult to remain covert for long periods of time

Positivists question the reliability of participant observation because they are difficult to replicate and so check the validity of any findings.

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Primary research methods- non-participant observat

Some sociologists conduct observational research without participating in the activity being studied in order to reduce the risk of those being observed will be affected by the presence of the researcher. An example of covert non-participant observation is – ‘The survival time of chocolates on hospital wards: covert observational study.’

This process also avoids the Hawthorne Effect, though to achieve this the observer has to conduct their research in a manner which prevents the participants knowing they are being researched for example by a hidden camera (though this does raise ethical issues).

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Primary research methods- postal questionnaires

Most social surveys are conducted via postal questionnaires because:

Advantages of postal questionnaires:

  • Tend to be cheap
  • Can use larger samples
  • Have a quick turnaround period
  • Can be closed questions which are user-friendly
  • Easily quantified

Disadvantages of postal questionnaires:

  • Can be costly in regard to stamp prices
  • Need return envelops
  • Respondent needs incentive to return questionnaire
  • Low response rate
  • May not be representative
  • Cannot control who completed questionnaire
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Primary research methods- structured interviews

Advantages

  1. There is less of a problem with interviewer bias than unstructured (open interviews) as there’s less involvement of the interviewer
  2. As they usually have pre-planned (pre-coded) questions  it’s relatively easy to put the data gathered into statistical forms such as graphs (positivist in nature)
  3. As the questions are pre-coded the data gathered is often seen as more reliable as all respondents are answering the same questions which makes it easier to replicate the process by other interviewers
  4. They’re generally seen as more effective way of getting questionnaires completed particularly postal questionnaires which have a high non-response rate particularly as it overcomes the problems of illiteracy

Disadvantages

  1. Their pre-coded structure means it puts limits on what respondents can say a) which means the interviewer can’t probe the respondent beyond what the set questions b) these limitations mean it’s difficult for the interviewer to gain understanding (verstehen) of what the respondents means
  2. Although the in the advantage is seen to be the lack of interviewer bias, there is still remains a possibility of interviewer bias caused by non-verbal cues such as frowning
  3. In relation to postal questionnaires and questionnaires, interviews are more costly (interviewers have to be paid and the interview process is much slower) than either postal questionnaires or questionnaires

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Primary research methods- unstructured interview

Advantages

  1. Often a good deal of rapport develops between interviewer and interviewee allowing a detailed and honest information to be obtained. This is very useful where the subject being researched might be particularly sensitive
  2. It allows the respondent (interviewee) to speak for themselves so the researcher can gain a better understanding (verstehen) of the topic being discussed
  3. The interviewer can easily develop points raised by the respondent to gain an even deeper meaning by exploring the meanings and motivations behind a particular action or event

 Disadvantages

  1. The success of the interview often depends on the quality and skills of the interviewer
  2. The interview itself can be very time consuming and playing back what’s been recorded is also very time consuming which means fewer interviews take place meaning samples tend to be small
  3. As the interviews are open, the lack of non-standardised questions make generalisations and the production of statistics difficult
  4. There’s a good chance of interviewer bias: a) The interviewer could give non-verbal cues such as smiling which could influence an interviewee’s response b) The interviewer may only follow up leads in the interview they deem important, which could contradict what the respondent feels as important
  5. The fact you ask questions about something sometimes affects the dynamic of the interview to the extent the respondent changes their behaviour
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secondary research mehtods- official statistics 2

Disadvantages of official data

  • as official data isn’t collect by sociologists problems are likely in the recording and accuracy of the data, for example the British Crime Survey exists to overcome the ‘dark-figures’ of unrecorded crime
  • some of these ‘dark figures’ come from policemen having to interpret a situation as being criminal or not. This shows how official data might not be as objective as expected
  • officials recording data are doing so for administrate reasons and so they’re not using terms and classifications used by sociological researchers
  • official figures are sometimes ‘massaged’ by the state to avoid embarrassing the government of the day for example hospital waiting times
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secondary research methods- personal documents 2

Weaknesses

  • They are a one person view of events which can be biased in order to justify a person’s actions and therefore invalid
  • The data is likely to be unreliable
  • The data is likely to be unrepresentative
  • The authenticity of the data is open to question
  • The sociologist might interpret the data in a way the author never intended
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Primary research methods- questionnaire 2

Open or unstructured questionnaires

Advantages

  1. responses are in the respondents own words, rather than those of sociologist as with closed questionnaires, which improves validity
  2. the imposition problem found in closed questionnaires is less of an issue as the respondent is using their own words and not those of the researcher as with closed questionnaires
  3. they provide more detailed and deeper answers including more information such as feelings and attitudes
  4. open-ended questions simply do not allow respondents to speed read or avoid reading the questions and so “fill in” the answer without thinking

Disadvantages

  1. with such a broad range of answers it can be hard to classify and quantify the date into graphs and charts
  2. with such a broad range of answers it can be difficult to compare results with similar research
  3. response rate can lower than with those that use closed-ended questions as people have to fill them in and they might feel awkward regarding their spelling and or hand-writing
  4. responses might be ‘skip’ to the point as the respondent is in a rush and so the answers given are too vague
  5. hand-writing might be illegible through the respondent rushing
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Primary research methods-participant observation 2

Disadvantages

  1. ethical issues just by participating in criminal activity
  2. ethical issues if covertly witnessing criminal activity
  3. tend to be small scale and the group being studied might not be typical
  4. the researcher may be exposed to danger for example if participating in criminal activity
  5. if the identity of researcher is uncovered the whole research could be ruined
  6. the participants may feel betrayed and used if/when they find out their activities were being recorded and could take out revenge
  7. difficult to record observations without being found out
  8. difficult to leave the group having been a part of the group for so long
  9. difficult to remain covert for long periods of time

Positivists question the reliability of participant observation because they are difficult to replicate and so check the validity of any findings.

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Primary research methods-structured interview 2

Disadvantages

  1. Their pre-coded structure means it puts limits on what respondents can say a) which means the interviewer can’t probe the respondent beyond what the set questions b) these limitations mean it’s difficult for the interviewer to gain understanding (verstehen) of what the respondents means
  2. Although the in the advantage is seen to be the lack of interviewer bias, there is still remains a possibility of interviewer bias caused by non-verbal cues such as frowning
  3. In relation to postal questionnaires and questionnaires, interviews are more costly (interviewers have to be paid and the interview process is much slower) than either postal questionnaires or questionnaire
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Primary research methods- unstructured interview 2

 Disadvantages

  1. The success of the interview often depends on the quality and skills of the interviewer
  2. The interview itself can be very time consuming and playing back what’s been recorded is also very time consuming which means fewer interviews take place meaning samples tend to be small
  3. As the interviews are open, the lack of non-standardised questions make generalisations and the production of statistics difficult
  4. There’s a good chance of interviewer bias: a) The interviewer could give non-verbal cues such as smiling which could influence an interviewee’s response b) The interviewer may only follow up leads in the interview they deem important, which could contradict what the respondent feels as important
  5. The fact you ask questions about something sometimes affects the dynamic of the interview to the extent the respondent changes their behaviour
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