Research Methods



Access means how to get in touch with the target population or a sample of the target population.  Sudhir Venkatesh gained access via gang members to research Gang Leader for a Day. An ethical issue includes invasion of privacy. Access is particularly important for interpretivists as you will be able to study subjectively. In practice access allows the researcher to gather information from the sample by gaining access to the sample often through a gatekeeper, advertising or relying on an insider.

Strengths: Validity; Saves time and money; Allows verstehen.

Weaknesses: Danger; Ethics; Time consuming; Researcher imposition

1 of 54

Case Study

A case study is an approach that looks at a case in depth explores a case in depth or a specific event/place/social group in depth. Ethical issues include the danger of harming the subject by encouraging them to disclose often quite emotional issues. This approach is linked with interpretivist theory as it allows close interpretation of meanings and motives. In practice case studies allow the researcher to select a small unit of analysis – a number of people perhaps from an initial study. Stanley Cohen compiled a case study of Mods and Rockers.

Strenghs: meanings and motives; Detailed picture/Verstehen; Range of methods; Detailed insight; Single researcher can do it.

Weaknesses: Not reliable; Researcher imposition; Bias; Less representative because sample; Less reliable; Danger of generalising.

2 of 54

Cause and Effect

Positivists and realists look at cause and effect – causal relationships – the reasons behind events. It is linked with realism and positivism.Weber's Protestant work ethic looked at cause and effect. Ethics need to be considered. 

Strengths: can promote social policy; Can improve crime statistics; Is active and not passive.

Weaknesses: Could lack validity; Bias; Hard to prove as it is a complex issue.

3 of 54

Content Analysis

A method of collecting quanifitative and qualitative data. It is primarily used to analyse the mass media and historical documents. It is a positivist method. There are 4 strategies which can be used formal, thematic, texual and audience.   Gauntlett 2008 noted shifts away from traditional gender roles on daytime TV.

Strengths: cheap; High in reliability; Allows you to identify trends and patterns.

Weaknesses: analyse eg texts out of context; Not valid on its own for Verstehen; Researcher imposition; bias.

4 of 54


Empathy is a state created by the researcher to put themselves in the shoes of the respondent. Related to Verstehen and linked to interpretivist and feminist approaches. Researcher places themselves in a position of subject. Dobash and Dobash. In practice this is perhaps done by trying to be like the subject or imagining how they would feel if they were the subject.

Strengths: valid; Feminist; Interpretivist

Weaknesses: Ethics – the state such close exploration may lead the person to feel; Not value free/objective; Time consuming and expensive; lacks reliability.

5 of 54


Ethics are codes of practice/procedures which ensure that research participants are guaranteed anonymity privacy and confidentiality e.g. informed consent and safeguarding. Howard Parker delinquents in Liverpool asked to handle stolen goods and be lookout while they stole car radios.  Interpretivism and feminism throw up most ethical issues. In practice informed consent must be gained before the study starts and a risk assessment must take place.

Strengths: protects the vulnerable; Protects the sociologists; Avoids expensive legal action

Weaknesses: reduces validity; Reduces sample size; Less focus on vulnerable groups.

6 of 54


Use participant observation and unstructured interviews to provide an in-depth account and analysis of a social group or culture in their natural setting. Sudhir Venkatesh Gang Leader for a Day. Thiel class and construction workers. Theory – interpretivism and feminism. In practice this is done by following the subjects around and paricipating or not with there day to day lifes with or without them being aware of it.

Strengths: ecological validity; Empathy/Verstehen; Detailed picture of meanings and motives.

Weaknesses: going native; Ethical issues of informed consent; Expensive and time consuming.

7 of 54


Build rapport and empathy.Lack of consensus on feminist theory. Seeks to access views of all to avoid malestream. Deborah Kerr Marxist. Ann Oakley Liberal. Mirza Black Feminism. Skeggs. Fine the sociologist is not the separate other.

Strengths: qualitative; Rapport; Special prominence to the female voice; Reflexive.

Weaknesses: subjective; Unscientific; not generalisable as it is a small study group.

8 of 54

Fitness for Purpose

Most sociologists do not label themselves positivist or interpretivist but select methods that are fit for purpose. Realists will use any method fit for purpose. In practice this means that they look at all of the methods and cafefully select the ones which are most relevant to their study. Jackson Lads and ladettes.



9 of 54

Focus Group

Used to access attitudes feeling beliefs expressions and experiences from a small group of respondents at the same time. In practice a small group of people from the target group are selected to take part in a disscussion. Midgely and Bradshaw – young unemployed in rural locations had no opportunities.

Strengths: explore issues; Empower participants; allows participants to reflect.

Weaknesses: difficult to record and transcribe; Dominated by some individuals; interviewer can have an effect.

10 of 54


Person who allows access to a sociologist eg the vulnerable or the law breakers. In practice the gatekeeper is approached and gives access to the target group. Sudhir Venkatesh Gang leader for a day.

Strengths: Can gain access to inaccessible groups; more detailed; more likely to be honest.

Weaknesses: dangerous; ethical issues; Hawthorne effect can occur.

11 of 54


The extent to which it is possible to apply the findings to the wider target group. In order to do this the sample needs to be large enough and typical of the target population. Positivist seek to make geralisations. Bhopal's research provided an insight into thee working experiences and home life of the women she studied. In practice this is done by collecting enough data from a large enough and typical group of the target population.

Strengths: insight into the lives of the target group.

Weaknesses: may not be able to do if the sample is too small.

12 of 54

Interpretation of data

Deciding what the data collected shows. Through collecting data, positivist sociologists create theory. Interpretivist data gives a detailed picture of meanings and motives. Durkheim suicide statistical data.



13 of 54


Generate qualitative data in text to describe and explain social phenomena rather than measuring it – unstructured interviews and observation. Weber.

Strengths: rich in meaningful data; High in empathy; gain rapport.

Weaknesses: low numbers; Less representative and generalisable; Lacks scientific rigour.

14 of 54


3 Types of interviews, stuctured, semi-structured, unstructed. It is normally conducted face to face.

Qualitative: Unstructured interviews (interpretivists and feminists) and Focus group interviews. Quantitative/qualitative: Semi-Structured interviews. Quantitative: Sructured interviews with a schedule.

In practice these work by conducting interviews with the target group with or without a schedule.

15 of 54

Longitudinal studies

A piece of research carried out over a long period of time. Data collected in time sequence. Can be used to identify casual realtionships and correlations. Can take many forms including panel studies and cohort studies.  7Up, Mirza, Skeggs. In practice these work by conducting the same study with the same people over the course of a number of years.

Strengths: rich data; Snapshots of social inequality to compare; changes in opinions or attitudes can be tracked.

Weaknesses: expensive; Validity affected by drop out over time; researchers could "go native".

16 of 54

Methodological pluralism/Mixed methods

Using more than one method to build a more coherent and fuller set of data.Realists will use methods fit for purpose not just positivist or interpretivist. Combination of methods to access required data. Qualitative and or quantitative. Jones 1997 homeless underclass. Jackson Lads and Ladettes. In practice this is done by using a variety of methods and collecting and using data from all of them.

Strengths: build up a more complete picture; fit for purpose; enhance reliability or validity.

Weaknesses: positivists see qualitative as unreliable; Interpretivists see quantitative as lacking meaningful data; time consuming.

17 of 54


A process that defines and puts into operation the key terms and concepts so that readers know exactly what is meant by each key idea. Palmer monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion. Operationalises low income as 60% below average. In practice this works by defining a key term and having others except it as a defintion.

Strengths: accuracy; Reliability; helps other researchers know what it means in this research.

Weaknesses: don’t allow themes to emerge; Restrictive.

18 of 54


Positivists believe that sociology should produce an objective understanding of society keeping a distance from the subject. Interpretivists also need to maintain some objectivity. Holden Happily Ever After – non participant observation. In practice this works by the reasearcher maintaing a distance from the subjects or if they do get close to them try to make sure they reamain focused.

Strengths: reliable; Lacks bias.

Weaknesses: lacks verstehen; No one can be truly objective; risk of "going native".

19 of 54


Observation is of behaviour and is carried out in the natural environment of those being studied. This type of research is usually used by inerpretivist sociologists who want to collect qualitative data. Parcticipant/non-aprticipant. Structured/ unstructured. Observer's extent of immersopn within the lives of the group being studied, good for studding behaviours. Holden happily ever after = Non-participant psoitivist quanititative. 

Strengths: validity/verstehen; Holistic; participant observation gives data that is high in ecological validity. 

Weaknesses: going native; In practice – note taking schedule; time consuming to gain access; time and place of the observation is fixed.

20 of 54

Ethical issues

Ethics are concerned with the moral issues sociologists need to consider before doing research such as safeguarding and informed consent. In practice these are avioded by asking for consent and making sure that the researcher does not break any moral rules.

Strengths: Excellent for behaviours; Detailed in depth data – valid; rapport can be built if confidentiality is secured.

Weakness: Hawthorne effect – reflexivity; Don’t discover meanings behind actions; Bias; researcher imposition; Empirical; In the natural environment more valid data.

21 of 54

Personal documents

Written and visual including letters diaries and photographs. Mossa 2008 Personal accounts of racism in the House of Commons. In practice this is done by collecting documents which have been published.

Strengths: cheap and easy to access; Permanent; authentic true accounts so high in vaildity.

Weaknesses: not representative; Ambiguous interpretation; many like diaries are a one-off so there is nothing to cross check them against.

22 of 54

Pilot studies

A test or pre run of the research. Aloow the researcher to identify and remove potential problems. Jackson lads and ladettes. In practice this works by conduct the study on a smaller scale before the actual study.

Strengths: enables problems in the research to be detected; Fine tuning of ethics; saves time and money.

Weaknesses: many contaminate main research; Qualitative research already allows fine tuning; valdity can be affected.

23 of 54

Primary data collection methods

Data collected by sociologist first hand eg questionnaires interviews. Holden Happily Ever After. Jackson Lads and Ladettes. In practice this works by planning a study and conducting it and any pilot studies which are needed. 

Strengths: fit for purpose; Tailored to group; specific to the sociologists research area.

Weaknesses: expensive; Time consuming; can be bias.

24 of 54


Generates quantifiable data in numerical form which can be used to establish patterns and trends. Questionnaires structured interviews and statistical data. Palmer Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion. Durkheim Suicide studied through statistical data.

Strengths: comparable; reliable; generalisable.

Weaknesses: social reality cannot be studied in the same way as the natural world; Lacks validity; not objective.

25 of 54

Purposeful sampling

Focusing research on specific types of people needed and seeking them out. In practice this is done by selecting people which are specific to the research area.

Strengths: validity; gain data that is specific; focuses on a few people.

Weaknesses: bias; less rigorous; not representative. 

26 of 54


Data on the feelings and thoughts of subject favoured by interpretivists.Linked with social action theory and symbolic interactionism. Cohen Mods and Rockers.

Strenghts: rich data; Verstehen; useful for studing a limited number cases in depth.

Weaknesses: lengthy; complex; Not reliable.

27 of 54

Qualitative data analysis

Interpretivists are interested in the collection and interpretation of qualitative data we can only understand social action by interpreting the meaning beneath it. Take on the other actors’ viewpoint. Weber. In practice this is done by interpreting the data that has been collected.

Strengths: emerging themes; valid; allows comparisons.

Weaknesses: lengthy process analysing transcripts and field notes; Researcher imposition; bias.

28 of 54

Quota sampling

Sociologist decides they want a certain number with certain social characteristics. In practice this involves selecting a nuber of people that fit the characteristics which are needed in the research.

Strengths: fit for purpose; somewhat scientific; gives specific data.

Weaknesses: could be biased; not representative; difficult to repeat.

29 of 54


Favoured by positivists useful in creating numerical data through standardised measurement replicated when dealing with large samples.

Strengths: high in reliablility; allows comparisons.


30 of 54

Quantitative data analysis

Generally based on statistical analysis.



31 of 54


Designed for self-completion can be face to face post internet favoured by positivists.Holden happily ever after. In practice these work by creating qusetions for the participant to complete and return to the sociologist.

Strengths: avoid researcher bias; High in reliability; cheap and easy.

Weaknesses: low in validity; Can have low response rates; socially constructed.

32 of 54

Random sampling

Selecting from sample frame totally random. Favoured by sociologists who want to gain a totally representative sample. Miller Brent cross shopping centre. In practice it works by randomly selecting a number of entries from a list.

Strengths: no bias; Quick and easy; representative.

Weaknesses: may not be representative or target group; Not generalisable; time consuming.

33 of 54


Creating an atmosphere of trust favoured by feminists and interpretivists. Skeggs. In practice this works by developing a bond between the researcher and the subjects.

Strengths: valid; Feminist; gets information which may not have normally been able to be gained.

Weaknesses: subjective; unreliable.; risk of "going native."

34 of 54


Social research can follow the logic and methods of natural sciences but they adopt and work with a different interpretation of science from positivists. Realist believe that social science works within an open system where causal mechanisms lie beneath. Lea and Young left realists. Charles Murray Right realist.

Strengths: look at causes which can help make social policy.

Weaknesses: contested concept – different interpretations of causes of underclass.

35 of 54

Reflexivity especially relevant in interpretivist

Feminist argue that research cannot be value free. Being aware of one’s own values does not make objectivity unattainable. Self-evaluation of how researcher decision and presence may influence quality of data. Social characteristics may be influential on process. Phoenix black feminist researching white respondents. In practice this involves lokking back on the research and suggesting how it could be improved.

Strengths: striving for objectivity; Meaningful data.

Weaknesses: lacks objectivity; No longer malestream so not needed; ethical issues.

36 of 54


The extent to which data are consistent and capable of verification by another sociologist. It is important to positivists who want to find patterns and trends. In pracice this works by having someone else conduct the same study to get the same or similar results.

Strengths: scientific; Positivist; logical.

Weaknesses: not valid; Not meaningful data; no research can be totally value free; even structured questionnaires are socially constructed.

37 of 54


The extent to which the sample is representative of the target population and are typical of the target population. Positivists want their samples to be this. In practice this is done by gaining a sample group which holds the variety which is displayed in the target group.



38 of 54

Research questions

Aims and hypotheses.These determine what the research is trying to discover. Used to give the research focus and are usually stated at the beginning of a study. Holden happily ever after children’s play and ethnic integration. In practice this is done by creating a question that the research/study aims to answer.



39 of 54

Researcher imposition

Various ways the researcher may influence and shape study eg choice of topic method operationalization selection of data. In pracitice this is happens when the researcher omits infromation which may not be relevent to the question but may be important to sociology overall.

Strengths: feminist; Interpretivist.

Weaknesses: bias; Unreliable.

40 of 54

Respondent validation

Respondents are used to check the data collected from the research are valid accurate account of phenomena studied.Reading and checking transcripts sharing data. Can include triangulation. In practice this is done by having other people check that the data obtained is accurate perhaps by asking another person from the target group who is not in the main sample.

Strengths: valid.

Weaknesses: ethical issues.

41 of 54


Process of selecting a group of respondents from the target population some representative some not sampling frame eg school registers. In practice this is done by selecting a target group and then picking people from that group to take part in the research.  

Strengths: researcher representative; generalisable.

Weaknesses: bias; researcher imposition.

42 of 54

Secondary data

Existing literature data that was collected by another researcher organisation.Texts and statistical data. Official crime figures. In practice this works by finding data which has already been collected by others and using it to support the research.

Strengths: cheap; quick; allows comparisions.

Weaknesses: internet inaccurate or misleading; May be dated; validity may be low.

43 of 54

Semi structured interviews

Contain some pre-set standardised questions or topic areas. Opportunity to add questions. Midgely and Bradshaw should I stay or should I go. In practice they work by having some questions which are set and allows the researcher to deviate from them if the subject brings up something relevant and interesting to the research.

Strengths: can add relevant questions; open questions allows a variety of responses; quantitative data collected.

Weaknesses: adding quictions makes it difficult to repeat; not standardised.

44 of 54

Statistical data

Favoured by positivist produced by questionnaires and stats like official statistics.In practice this is done by looking at losts of statistical data and seeing what they suggest.

Strengths: compares patterns and trends; show cause and effect; cheap.

Weaknesses: lacks verstehen; Open to misuse; can be misinterpreted.

45 of 54

Structured interviews

Interpretivists try to understand from the point of view of those studied eg participant observation the view that values and opinions cannot be suspended.Weber. In practice these are done by asking a set of pre set questions to the subject.

Strengths: valid; Rich and meaningful data; standardised responses.

Weaknesses: bias; lacks reliability; time consuming.

46 of 54

Stratified sampling

A type of random sampling dividing the population such as the numbers of people with required social characteristics eg gender. In pracitce this works by only selecting people who have the characteristics needed for the research.

Strenghts: most representative; evenly proportional.

Weaknesses: more complex; greater effort needed; strata must be carefully identified.

47 of 54

Snowball sampling

A sociologist finds one person they are interested in and asks if they can nominate others. Jones et al study of retirement. In practice this is done by giving one group of people a questionnarie and asking them to pass it on to one other person to gain a larger sample group.

Strengths: convenient; cheap; can get data from groups the researcher cannot access.

Weaknesses: less generalisable; sample may get too large; may not be specific.

48 of 54


Important aspect of mixed methods design allowing findings to be cross checked using more than one method often to enhance the credibility of the findings.In practice this is done by using multiple methods and using all of the data to come to a conclusion about the research area.

Strengths: validity; accuracy improveed.

Weaknesses: time consuming; assumes there is a "truth" to be found; researchers may interpret the results in different ways.

49 of 54

Unstructured interviews

No prescribed interview questions. Thiel construction workers. In practice this is done by conducting interviews with the sample these often involve conversations about the research area with no set questions or areas to cover.

Strengths: empathy; validity; rapport.

Weaknesses: costly; small sample; less generalisable; time consuming.

50 of 54


The extent to which the research gives a true picture of those studied. Interpretivists believe the validity most important. Weber. In practice this is done by making the sample representative of the target group while maintaining an objective view of the research.

Strengths: rapport, verstehen; rich and detailed data.

Weaknesses: "going native"; operationalise terms; researcher imposition.

51 of 54

Value freedom

Realist argue that sociological research cannot be value free.The extent to which research can achieve objectivity. In practice this is done by trying to remain a distance away from the subjects and if people do have to get close they have to step back to gain an objective view again.

Strengths: avoids researcher imposition; Scientific.

Weaknesses: reflexivity; ethics.

52 of 54


Related to empathy try to understand how social actors see the world. Weber. In practice this is done by the researcher trying to place themselves in the position of the subject.

Strengths: valid; feminist; rapport can develop.

Weaknesses: researcher imposition; ethics.

53 of 54

Target population

The target population is the group that the researcher is interested in studying and from whom a sample may be drawn. In practice this is done by working out a research question and then deciding on who the target group is. Ethical issues involved include informed consent and safeguarding.  

Strengths: good one means research can be generalisable and valid.

Weaknesses: ethical issues can be difficult to overcome, can be difficult to work out who the target population is.

54 of 54


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

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