Research Methods

HideShow resource information


What is an experiment? Main method of the NATURAL SCIENCES. The key feature of an experiement, is the high level of control the researcher has over the situation. The researcher can identify and control all the variables that might effect the outcome of the situation being studied.

By manipulating the variables and observing what happens, the researcher can discover cause-and-effect relationships. 

There are 2 types:

  • Laboratory - gives the researcher more control over the variables, but its artificial.
  • Field - they take place in 'real world' situations and are more true to life but researchers can't control all the variables.


Positivists: experiments are very reliable as they can be repeated exactly to allow previous  findings to be checked. Also the data is quantitive and scientifically collected.

Interpretivists: experiments don't translate easily to the study of social behavoir - low validity.

1 of 13



They take place in the real social world, where the sociologist creates a situation or adapts a real life situation to their research purpose.

Those involved are usually unaware the experiment is taking place.

The aim of field experiments is to obtain some element of control whilst avoiding the artificiality of the laboratory.

2 of 13


Surveys ask people about their lives, attitudes, opinions and behavior. They take 2 forms: Self-completion written questionnaires and Interviews

The questions used can be one of 2 types:

  • Closed-ended - respondents choose their answer from a limited range of answers designed by the researcher in advance. They are pre-coded for the ease of analysis.
  • Open-ended - respondents can give any answer they wish, in their own words without any pre-selected choice.

Conducting a survey

  • AIM - most studys have an aim/seek to test a hypothesis - to collect data on a topic.
  • HYPOTHESES - more specific than an aim, its a possible explanation that needs evidence.
  • OPERATIONALISING CONCEPTS - researcher needs to define their sociological concepts in ways that can be measured - operationalisation. When different sociologists operationalise the same concepts differently, it becomes harder to compare their findings.
  • PILOT STUDY - draft questionnaire/interview for a trial run - irons out any problems.
3 of 13


SAMPLE - smaller part of the whole research population that the sociologist selects for study.

SAMPLING FRAME - a list of all the members of a research population from which the sample can be chosen.

Samples and representativeness

  • A sample should have the same characteristics, in the same proportions, as the wider research population - a cross section of the whole group.
  • If the sample is a representative cross section, then whats true of the sample is likely to be true of the whole group.
  • Representativeness is important to Positivists as they want to make generalisations and discover the general laws of social behavior.

Are all samples representative?

  • SMALL samples are less likely to be representative of large populations.
  • If the researcher doesnt have a sampling frame, that includes all members they can't create a representative sample.
4 of 13

Types of sample

  • RANDOM - every member of the sampling frame has an equal chance of being selected. It eliminates BIAS. A large enough, random sample should reflect the characteristics of the whole research population - not all random samples are large enough to ensure this happens.
  • SYSTEMATIC/QUASI-RANDOM - selecting every nth person in the sample frame. E.g. every 10th person on the list.It reduces the chance of biased sample being randomly selected.
  • STRATIFIED - the researcher first stratifies (breaks down) the population by age, class and gender. The sample is the created in the same proportions. E.g. if 20% of the population are under 16 then 20% of the sample have to be under 16.
  • QUOTA - the population is stratifed as above, then each interviewer is given a quota of say 20 females, 10 of whom are 60+, which they have to fill with respondents that fit these characteristics. The interviewer keeps at this task until their quota is filled.
  • SNOWBALL SAMPLING - used when its difficult to find a sample as the behaviour under study is seen as deviant by society.
5 of 13


  • Written or self-completed questionnaires are the most common form of social survey.
  • They can be distributed to people at home and returned by post, emailed or collected on the spot.
  • Questionnaires ask respondents pre-set questions, which tend to be closed ended with pre-coded answers.

Why do positivists use questionnaires?

POSITIVISTS - start from the assumption there is a measurable, objective social reality out there. They take a scientific approach, using standardised methods of research to obtain quantitive data - can produce generalisations and cause-and-effect statements.

  • They deliver reliable data - by using the same set of questions, they can be repeated exactly so that previous findings can be re-tested.
  • Questionnaires generate QUANTITATIVE data that can be used to test hypotheses and identify correlations between variables.
  • They can be used on a large scale to produce representative data.
  • Interpretivists claim the data produced by questionnaires is low in validity.
6 of 13

Structured Interviews

  • Involves a face-to-face or over the phone delivery of a questionnaire. They use and interview schedule - a pre-set list of questions designed by the researcher and asked of all the interviewees in the same way. Interviewees then choose from a limited list of possible answers. They are usually brief.

Why do positivists use structured interviews?

  • Structured interviews employ fixed lists of close-ended questions, so answers can be classified, counted and qualified.
  • This allows the researcher to identify patterns and produce generalisations and cause-and-effect statements.
  • They are reliable - easily replicated by other researchers.
  • Can produce fairly large-scale, representative data.

Interpretivists - reject their use as they see them as lacking validity.

7 of 13

Unstructured Interviews

  • Ask mainly open-ended questions, with no fixed set of questions to be asked of every respondent.
  • Produce QUALITATIVE data as the interviewer can respond in words that are meaningful to them.
  • They are guided as much by the interviewee and the interviewer.
  • They are informal and free-flowing, and are more 'normal' than a structured interview.
  • Build a stronger relationship between the researcher and the research subject.

Why do interpretivists use unstructured interviews?

INTERPRETIVISTS - seek to discover the meanings that underlie our actions and this means using open-ended research methods, that produce valid, qualitative data.

  • They give people the opportunity to talk openly, unrestricted by a fixed list of questions and possible responses - more likely their meanings and worldview will emerge more clearly.

Positivists - reject unstructured interviews as their lack of standardised questions and answers means that reliable, quantitative data cannot be generated.

8 of 13

Types of Observation

PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION - the research joins in the activities of the group they are researching, involving themselves in their daily life.

NON-PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION - the observer avoids any direct involvment with the research group, keeping a distance.

OVERT OBSERVATION - the researcher explains their research intention to the group, so the research subjects know they are being observed.

COVERT OBSERVATION -  the reseacher keeps their real identity and purpose secret from the research subjects - pose as a genuine member of the group.

STRUCTURED OBSERVATION - the researcher systematically classifies the behavior they observe into distinct categories.

UNSTRUCTED OBSERVATION - the observer simply records what they see and experience in whatever way they can.

9 of 13

Participant Observation

  • The observer finds a role within the group that allows them to study the group's behaviour.
  • Observations are recorded in field notes.
  • The research often includes years of fieldwork.
  • Researchers start with an open-mind and research ideas emerge during the study.
  • It can either by overt or covert.

Why do interpretivists use participant observation?

  • They find PO an effective way of uncovering people's meanings.
  • Sustained partcipation in a group's activites allows the observer to gain a clear understanding of their worldview that can be constantly checked against their daily experience of the group.
  • The researcher sees what people actually do, rather than what they say they might do.

Positivists - reject its use as they argue it lacks reliabilty and representativeness.

10 of 13

Structured Observation

  • Uses an observation schedule to identify and measure patterns of behaviour.
  • The researcher divides in advance how to categorise the behaviour they will observe.
    • The categories are CODED so the data collected can easily be counted and turned into statistics.

Why do positivists use structured observation?

  • It uses fixed categories so observations can be easily quantified.

11 of 13

Official Statistics

  • They are quantitive data collected by government bodies. 
  • They come from 2 main sources: the day-to-day activities of the government departments and surveys (e.g. the census). 
  • HARD STATS - simple counts that register events like births and deaths - aren't easily manipulated
  • SOFT STATS - they are more easily manipulated. E.g. crime stats.
  • They are SECONDARY data, so the collection processes are not in the sociologists control.

Why do positivists use official stats?

  • They deliver large-scale, representive, quantitative data, collected by reliable methods such as questionnaires.

Interpretivists - reject their use as they see them as socially constructed and lacking validity.

12 of 13


  • Documents are secondary data created by individuals, groups and organisations that sociologists may find useful in their research. We can distinguish between:
    • PERSONAL - letters, diaries, memoirs etc.
    • PUBLIC - reports from governments, charites and businesses.
  • Contain mainly qualititative data that expresses the beliefs and meanings held by individuals and organisations.
  • Some documents contain statistical data aswell. E.g. the Black Report about health inequalties.

Why do interpretivists use documents?

  • Most documents meet interpretivists' requirement that data should be qualititative and allow the researcher to explore  the meanings people attach to events.
  • They regard documents as high in validity as they are the freely expressed meanings of those who produce them.

Positivists -reject their use as they believe they lack reliability and  representativeness.

13 of 13


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Sociological research methods resources »