Research methods

  • Created by: holly6901
  • Created on: 30-12-19 09:52


  • The main method for gathering large amounts of data from large numbers of people
  • Usually handed out for self-completion or posted
  • Can be found in magazines or newspapers or online
  • Often made up of closed questions with tick boxes
  • Produce quantitative data
  • Advantages
  • Low cost and not time-consuming
  • Can be distributed to large sample which increases representativeness and generalisability
  • Usually accompanied by a letter for informed consent and anonymity and confidentiality is usually ensured
  • Positivists like questionnaires because they are reliable and objective
  • Disadvantages
  • Questionnaires can suffer from non-response or low response which can undermine validity 
  • People may misunderstand or misinterpret questions and people may refuse to cooperate if the survey is about deviant behaviour
  • Interpretivists dislike questionnaires as they are low in validity
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Structured interviews

  • Usually take the form of a questionnaire with closed questions which produce quantitative data
  • The interview schedule is completed by the interviewer rather than the respondent
  • The interviewer behaves as much like a machine as possible
  • He or she cannot deviate from the schedule to gain clarity or ask more
  • Advantages
  • They can ensure the right person responds to the right questions and the interviewer can reduce non-response by clarifying and making sure the participant is happy
  • There are better response rates as the interviewer can revisit the house
  • Positivists like structured interviews as they are regarded as scientific and reliable
  • Disadvantages
  • Interviewing is expensive and time-consuming
  • Structured interviews are inflexible
  • Interpretivists argue the data is invalid because it is artificial
  • People often don't put their beliefs or prejudices into action
  • Gomm argues that the major problems of interviews are'demand characteristics' - artificial responses based on what the participants think the researchers want
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Official and non-official statistics

  • Usually gathered through surveys carried out by the government or agencies
  • The most commonly available source is statistics from the Census
  • Other government surveys include the General Household Survey, the Family Expenditure Survey and the British Crime Survey
  • Non-official statistics are gathered by non-government organisations to highlight a social problem
  • Advantages
  • Official statistics are easy and cheap to access
  • They are normally very up to date and are usually close together to spot trends
  • Positivists favour official statistics because they see them as reliable, scientific, representative and quantifiable
  • Avoids ethical obstacles
  • Disadvantage
  • May not present a full picture
  • They are open to political abuse
  • Interpretivist sociologists don't like statistics as they see them as social constructs and they tell us very little about human stories
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Content analysis

  • Media products such as newspapers and magazines are secondary sources which can give sociologists an insight into how societies operate
  • Some positivist sociologists have used media extracts or items to examine and analyse  the values, priorities or concerns of a society at a particular time
  • Positivist sociologists have generally used the methodological technique of content analysis  to analyse how particular social groups are stereotyped by society
  • Content analysis involves counting ways in which the media present a certain group or issue. This might mean counting particular words or phrases in headlines, news stories or adverts or images such as photographs
  • Therefore, this produces mainly quantitative data
  • Most sociologists will design a content analysis schedule that records the frequency of different themes.
  • Advantages
  • Content analysis is cheap and can be used to compare the representation of groups
  • Disadvantages
  • Content analysis is can be very time-consuming and assumes media content has and effect on the audience
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There are two different types of observation: non-participant and participant.

Non-participant observation involves the researcher sitting and watching an activity such as doctor-patient or student-teacher interactions. The researcher has no active part.

  • It is argued by supporters of this type of observation that because the researcher is detached and therefore objective, he or she is less likely to take sides or be biased.
  • Because the researcher isn't involved, they shouldn't influence the group
  • However, critics  disagree saying that artificial behaviour is caused by the researcher
  • Participant observation can either be overt (open) or covert (hidden)
  • The research is ethnographic and qualitative data
  • Interpretivist sociologists prefer participant observation however positivist sociologists do not like it
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Unstructured interviews

An unstructured interview resembles an informal conversation. The researcher usually has a basic list of topics but no set questions. 


  • Very flexible as no interview schedule and can often result in unexpected findings
  • Unstructured interviews are seen as particularly suited to researching sensitive groups
  • Trust is established by the interviewer making the interviewee feel their contribution is valid and worthwhile
  • This rapport and trust  may reduce the possibility of the "interviewer effect"
  • Unstructured interviews happen in a regular setting
  • Disadvantages
  • More time-consuming and expensive
  • Some people can't tell the truth as they aren't aware of their behaviour
  • Positivists regard them as unscientific, unreliable and too subjective
  • The data is mainly qualitative
  • The samples are small so they aren't generalisable
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Semi-structured interviews

Many sociological interviews are a mix of structured and unstructured interviews. semi-structured interviews contain lots of closed questions to generate facts but also a few open questions.

The reliability of semi-structured interviews has been questioned because an interviewer may find some interviewees may need more probing than others. This may mean that every interview is different and the data may not be strictly comparable.

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Some sociological research involves ethnography or 'fieldwork' carried out in the naturalistic and everyday setting or environment of the research subjects. Ethnographic methods are mainly preferred by interpretivist researchers. 

  • Ethnographic methods are designed to depict and fully describe the characteristics of a research population
  • Ethnographic research usually produces qualitative data and is therefore difficult to analyse
  • Therefore it involves a degree of interpretation by the researcher and can be open to bias
  • Unstructured interviews and participant observation are ethnographic methods
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