research methods

Research method in sociology - introduction

Subjective knowledge - is knowledge based purely on the opinios of the individuals, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view

Objective knowledge - is knowledge which is fre of the biases, opinions and values of the researchers, it reflects whtat is really 'out there' in the social world.


Quantitative Data refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.

Qualitative Data refers to information that appears in written, visuals or audio form, such as transcript of interviews, newspatpers and websites.

Secondary data is data that has been collected by previous researchers or organisations such as the government.

Primary data is data collected first hand by the researcher herself.

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Factors affecting choice of research methods


Time and money - different methods require differnent amount of time and money. e.g. interviews: you would need to train staff, therefore becomes costly.

Personal skills and characteristics - each sociologists possess different persnal skills which affects their ability to use different methods. e.g. the ability to mix with poeple easily.

Research Opportunity - some research topics and some kinds to respondents are more difficult to gain access to.


Informed consent - participants are given comprehensive information about the true aims & purpose of the experiment. Informed consent can be difficult with young children, because they may not have the capacity to fully understand the purpose of the research.

Confidentiality and privacy - keep identity of research participants a secret to help prevent possible negative effects on them. Personal information - kept confidential.

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Factors affecting choice of research methods

Effects on research participants - be aware of the possible effects of theri work on those they study (prevent harmful effects).

Vulnerable groups - special care should be taken where research participants are vulnerable (age/ disability).

Research shouldn't involve law breaking behaviour - research should also take place within the boundaries of legality. This is only really an issue when researching criminal and deviant behaviour using pariticipatory methods.


Validity - a picture of what somethins is really like. Allows researchers to get closer to the truth.

Reliability - a reliable method is one which when repeated by another researcher, give the same results.

Representativeness - refers to whether or not the people we study are a typical reflection of the target population.

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Positivism VS. Interpretivism


  • Prefers quantitative methos such as social surveys, structured questionnaires & official stats. as they have good reliability and representativeness.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research, such as large scale surveys in oder to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends
  • Positivists also believe that sociolgoy can and should use the same methods and approaches to sutdy the social world that 'natural' sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.


  • Favour qualitative research methods such as the unstructured interviews or participant observation.
  • Want research to be in-depth, rich data, valid, and respondent led
  • Interpretivists argue that we need to achieve empathetic understanding - we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.
  • Interpretivists actually criticise 'scientific sociology' (positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed
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Experiments aim to measure the effect which an independent variables (the cause) has on the dependent variables (the effect).


Takes place in controlled environments and are the main methods used in the natural sciences.


  • Accuracy & precision - lab experimetn aloow the precise effects of independent variables on dependent variables to be measured. Makes it possible to establish cause and effect relationships.
  • Reliable data - other researchers can replicate the experiment
  • detached method - the researcher mainly manipulates the variables & records the results.
  • Careful control of experimental conditions
  • Allows the researchers to identify and measure behaviour patterns quantitatively and to manipulate variables.
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  • lab experiments lack external validity (theoretical)
  • Lab experiments can't study the past (practical)
  • Small samples - not representative (practical)
  • Deception & lack of informed consent - it's often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiments so that they do not act differently (no Hawthorne effect).
  • Harm to respondents
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Experiments - methods in context

Mason (1973) researched whether negative or positive expectations had a greater effect. Teachers were given positive, negative and neutral reports of pupils. The teachers were then given videotapes of the pupil doing an exam, watching to see whether any mistakes were made. Finally, the teachers ask to predict the pupil's attainment at the end of the year.

They found that negative expectations had a greater effect on a teacher's expectations.

Ethical issues - Lab experiments rarely use real children = so no children suffer negative effects. Psychological damage. Lack of informed consent.

Narrow focus - Lab experiments focus on one aspect of teacher expectations (e.g body language)= allows researcher to isolate variable & examine it more thoroughly.

Practical issues - Schools are large, complex institutions in which many variables may affect teacher expectations, e.g. their expectations may be influenced by a wide range of variables, such as class size, streaming, type of school and so on = impossible to identify and control variables which may affect teacher expectation.

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Field experiment

Takes place in the subject's natural surroundings rather than in an artificial lab experiment. Those involved are generally not aware that they are the subjects of an experiment, in which case there is no Hawthorne effect.


  • High validity as it was conducted in natural settings
  • Can observe how people operate in institutions
  • Large scale research - representativeness


  • Reliability is lower than lab experiments as it is difficult to replicate the same conditions.
  • Hawthorne effect - people may act differently when they know they are part of the research.
  • Practical issues - difficult to access institutions
  • Ethical issues - often necessary to deceive respondents to achieve valid results.
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Field experiments - methods in context

Rosenthal & Jacobson's (1968) investigated the extent of self-fulfilling prophecy. Rosenthal & Jacobson gave all the children in an elementary class a test and told teachers that some of the children were unusually clever (though they were actually average). They came back at the end of the school year and tested the same class again. The children singled out had improved their scores far more than other children.

They found that if a person thinks were clever or stupid, they will treat us that way. If we are treated as if we are clever, stupid, we will act, and even become this way. The person has thus had their prophecy about us fulfilled.

Ethical issues - deception. Best work when pupils are unaware of their involvement. Some children may have been held back emotional because they were seen as less and given less attention.

Reliability - research's simple research were easy to repeat. But, must consider individual differences, e.g age of pupils & teaching style = unlikely original can be replicated exactly.

Validity - their research claimed teacher expectations were passed through the classroom interactions yet had no collected no data to support.

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The comparative method

Carried out only in the mind of the sociologist. It's a 'thought experiment' and it doesn't involve the researcher actually experimenting on real people at all.

Step 1: Identify two groups of people that are alike in all major respects except for the one variable we are interested in.

Step 2: Then compared the two groups to see if this one difference between them has any effects.

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A list of pre-set questions to which the participant are asked to answer. There are two types of question: closed-ended (must choose from a limited range of possible answers that the researcher) open-ended (respondents are free to give whatever answer they wish, in their own words, and without any pre-selected choices being offered by the researcher.


  • Practical: quick and cheap mean of gathering large amounts of data, no need to recruit or train interviewers to collect data, data is usually easy to quantify.
  • Reliability: the questionnaire can be replicated by other researchers.
  • They allow comparisons to be made with other sets of data.
  • Detachment & objectivity: positivist favour questionnaire because they are a detached and objective method. e.g postal questionnaires are completed at a distance so researchers have little involvement.
  • Representativeness: can collect information from a large number of people,
  • Ethical: Fewer ethical issues
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  • Practical - data tends to be limited and superficial.
  • Low response rate - only a few people actually complete & return it. E.g. Hite's (1991) study of 'love, passion and emotional violence' sent out 100,000 questionnaires, but only 4.5% were returned.
  • Inflexibility - cannot explore any new areas of interest should they come up during the research.
  • You cannot follow up with extra questions to gain richer data.
  • Detachment - Cicourel (1968) argue that data from questionnaire lacks validity & does not give a true picture of what has been studied. Detachment means lack of contacts means there is no way to clarify what the questions mean to the respondent or to deal with misunderstanding.
  • Lying and 'right answerism' - respondents may lie, forget, not understand ( and not wish to admit that they don't understand), or some may feel they ought to give, rather than tell the truth.
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Questionnaire - methods in context

Rutter (1979) used questionnaires to collect large quantities of data from 12 inner London school. He was able to compare achievement, attendance and behaviour.


  • Anonymity & detachment - useful when researching sensitive educational issues, such as bullying, where their anonymity may overcome pupils' embarrassment or fear of retribution from bullies = response rate may be higher & produce more valid data.
  • If this research is allowed, there could be a high response rate as the headteachers pressure teachers and students to cooperate.


  • data is limited and superficial
  • Pupils' may not be able to understand and read the question.
  • Children may have a shorter attention span than adults, so questionnaire must be brief.
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Structured interviews

Involves one person asking another person a list of predetermined questions about a carefully-selected topic.


  • Cheap - all the interview really required to do is follow a set of instructions. However, this is more.
  • Representative - surveys that use structured interviews can cover quite large numbers of people with relatively limited resources.
  • Structured interviews are sustainable for gathering straightforward information.
  • Response rate - hight response rate because people may find it hard to turn down face to face request.
  • Reliable - easy for the interviewer to standardise and control them and ensure that each interview is conducted in precisely the same way.


Validity - often produce a false picture of the subjects they are trying to study.

Inflexibility - can't add additional question = lack validity.

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Unstructued interview

The interviewer has the complete freedom to vary the interview.


  • Rapport and sensitivity - allows to develop a rapport (relationship of trust & understanding) with the interviewee.
  • Practical - cover a quite large number of people with limited resources.
  • Flexibility - the interviewer is not restricted to a fixed set question = can formulate new ideas and hypothesis.
  • Reliability - easy for the researcher to standardise & control them.


  • Time & sample size - take a long time to conduct, which limits the number that can be carried out.
  • Reliability - free to ask questions, which means it makes it impossible for another researcher to replicate the interviews & check the findings.
  • Validity - the fact that it involves interactions distorts the information obtained.
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Interview - methods in context

Labov (1973) used a formal interview to study the language of black American children, Labov found that they appeared to be tongue-tied & 'linguistically deprived'. However, he used an informal style and the children opened up and spoke freely.

Practical issues - young people's linguistic & intellectual skills are less developed than those of adults. This leads to misunderstanding and incorrectly/incomplete answers (invalid).

Unstructured interviews are better to conduct - allows the interviewer more scope to clear up misunderstanding by re-wording questions/explaining their meaning

Reliability - structured interviews in schools are unlikely to be valid because young people are unlikely to respond favourably to such formal style.

Access & response rate - when interviewing teachers, the researcher might first have to obtain the permission of both the: local education authority and headteacher. Schools might be reluctant because interviews disrupt lesson time.

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Participant observation

Is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their baheviour. Participant observation is closely relatied to the ethnographic method, which consists of an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people.

An important distinction in participation is between:

  • Overt observation - this is where the group being studied how they are being observed.
  • Covert observation - this is where the group being studeied doesn't know they are being observed, or where the research goes 'undercover'.
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Participant observation


  • Natural settings - Hawthorne effect will be less, especially with covert.
  • Digging deep and gaining insight - alot of time is spent so close bonds can be established and enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods
  • Empathetic understanding - allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes of the people in the group.
  • Practical - few practical advantages


  • Time consuming - it can take time to gain trust and build rapport. Requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses. Gaining access can be a problem
  • Ethical - respondents are deceived and thsu cannot give informed consent to participate in the research (covert).
  • Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researcher working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts ot maintain their cover.
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Non-Participant observation


  • Gaining access to observe lesson
  • validity may be an issue - you have little opportunity to get people to explain why they are doing what they are doing.
  • Hawthorne Effect - students and teachers act differently because they know they are being observed
  • Disempowering for teachers and pupils.
  • schools might give permissions for observers to come in without getting the consent of the pupils.
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Official statistics

Quantitative data gathered by the government or other official bodies. Examples include statistics on births, deaths, marriages and divorces. The government collects official statistics to use in policy-making.


  • Practical - free source of huge amounts of data, allows comparisons between groups, can show patterns and trends.
  • Representativeness - often cover large numbers, provide a better basis for making generalisations.
  • Reliable - As they are compiled in a standardised way by trained staff, following set procedures.


  • Practical - the government collects data for its own purpose & not for the benefit of the sociologist.
  • The definitions that the state uses in collecting the data may be different from those that sociologists would use. Definitions may change over time.
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Official statistics


  • Validity - 'soft' statistics give a much less valid picture. E.g police statistics don't record all crime
  • Reliability - members of the public may fill in the form incorrectly and make errors.

Positivism - see statistics as a valuable resource for sociologists. Positivists often use official statistics to test their hypotheses.

Interpretivism - regard official statistics as lacking validity. They argue that statistics don't represent real things or 'social facts' that exist out there in the world.

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A secondary data developed by individuals, group and organisations.

Refers to any written texts, such as personal diaries, government reports, medical records.

Public documents are produced by organisations, such as government departments, schools, welfare agencies and charities.

Personal documents include items, such as letters, diaries, photo albums and autobiographies. These are first-person accounts of social events and personal experiences.

Interpretivists tend to favour documents because they achieve their main goal of validity. By: they provide us with qualitative data that gives us insight into the author's world view and meanings.

Positivists reject documents because they do not achieve reliability, generalisability and representativeness: they are often unstandardized and unreliable and often unrepresentative as only literate people can write letters and diaries.

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  • Practical - free source of huge amounts of quantitative data, only has the government has the power to compel people to provide them with information and statistics allow for comparison between groups.
  • personal documents enabled the researcher to get close to the social actor's reality, giving insight through their richly detailed qualitative data.
  • Documents are sometimes the only source of information
  • A cheap source of data


  • May be seen as subjective
  • Can be time-consuming
  • Ethical - may not have been made for research purpose so need informed consent.
  • Bias
  • Misinterpret the documents - lacks validity
  • Representativeness - lost or destroyed
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Involves obtaining information in a standardised from large groups of poeple. The main survey methods are questionnaires & structured interview. For example, UK National Census.


  • Detachment and objectivity & validity (Theoretical) - Positivist favour questionnaires.
  • Hypothesis testing (Theoretical) - good for testing the cause and effect relationships and allows us to find correlations.
  • Representativeness - allows the researcher to collect information from a large number of people.
  • Reliability - when the research is repeated, it is easy to use the exact same questionnaire meaning the respondents are asked the exact same questions in the same order.
  • Good method of conducting longitudinal research - we find differences in answers because the opinions of the respondents have changed overtime.
  • Practical - quick and cheap means of gathering large amounts of data.
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Survey - methods in context

Connor & Dewson (2001) posted nearly 4,000 questionnaires to students at 14 higher education institutions in their study of the factors which influenced w/c decisions to attend university.


  • Ethical - when a respondent is presented with a questionnaire, it is fairly obvious that research is taken place, so informed consent isn't normally an issue.
  • Theoretical - the detached nature of questionnaires and the lack of close contact between researcher and respondent means that there is no way to guarantee that the respondents are interpreting the questions right.
  • Representativeness - can suffer from a low response rate.
  • Practical - questionnaires needs to be brief means you can only ever get relatively superficial data from them.
  • Ethical - they are best avoided when resraching sensitive topics.
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