Research Methods


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Key Words

Cultural Diversity: describes a society in which many different cultures exist.

Culture: the way of life of a particular society or social group.

Customs: traditional forms of behaviour associated with particular social occasions.

Deviance: rule-breaking behaviour.

Ethnocentrism: the belief that one culture is 'normal' and others inferior.

Norms: rules of behaviour in social situations.

Primary Socialisation: socialisation in the very early years of life, normally through parents.

Roles: positions in society such as 'mother' or 'police officer'. Roles are made up of norms.

Secondary Socialisation: socialisation that continues throughout life (eg. education, the media and religion are all important influences).

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Key Words

Socialisation: the process by which we learn acceptable cultural beliefs and behaviour

Sub-culture: a group within a larger subculture that shares aspects of that culture but also has some of its own values, customs etc.

Values: widely accepted beliefs that some things are worthwhile.

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Influences on the Choice of Research Methods


  • argues that logic and methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of society;
  • study of social facts;
  • requires quantification;
  • methods: experiments, comparative research, social surveys, structures surveys, structures questionaires, formal/structured interviews, use of official statistics.


  • emphasis on consiousness;
  • personal beliefs, values and interpretations;
  • do not simply respond to outside forces;
  • verstehen;
  • methods: participant and non participant observation, informal (unstructured/in-depth) interviews, open-ended questionaires, personal accounts like diaries and letters.
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Influences on the Choice of Research Methods


  • expressed in statistical or number form;
  • can be measured in some way;
  • presented in form of statistic tables, graphs etc.;
  • large-scale (macro) research;
  • used by positivists;
  • reliable.


  • concerned with peoples feelings  and views;
  • sociologist describing and interpreting people's feelings and life styles;
  • use direct quotations for the people studied;
  • valid.
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Influences on the Choice of Research Methods


  • gain understanding of interpretations and meanings;
  • need to discuss and become involved with people;
  • small scale or micro research on small numbers of people.
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Key Words (Continued)

Verstehen: refers to understanding the meaning of an action from the actor's point of view - putting yourself in their shoes.

Triangulation: term often used to describe the use of multiple methods (qualitative and quantitative) in research.

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Ethical Constraints

Harm: Care should be taken so that no physical or mental harm comes to the participants of the social research that you are carrying out yourself.

Consent: Voluntary participation should be adhered to. (Those under 16 must have parental permission.)

Privacy: Respect of people's privacy should be paramount.

Deception: Some research techniques can be difficult without deception (eg. covert observation). A moral judgement has to be drawn.

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Key Words (Continued)

Casual Relationship: where there is a relationship between two social events where one causes the other.
Correlation: a statistical relationship between two things. It does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.
Generalisability: if the group sociologists choose to study are representative of the population as a whole, then they will be able to make generalisations about the whole society. If the group is not representative, they will only be able to speak about the particular group studied.
Objectivity: quality achieved when a researcher's values do not affect their work.
Primary Data: information obtained directly by the sociologist.
Reliability: quality of repeatability: if the same piece of research were repeated by different sociologists, then it should produce the same results.
Representativeness: situation where the people sociologists study are a cross section of the group they wish to generalise about.
Secondary Data: information obtained from sources originally collected by someone other than the sociologist conducting the research.
Validity: the extent to which data gives a true picture of the subject being studied. 

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Influences on the Research Process


  • Funding: who is paying the costs of the research?
  • Academic Interest: the researcher might want to study a particular area.
  • Personal Reasons: the researcher might want a promotion or to obtain a qualification.


  • Ethical Constraints: there are limits to what researchers are prepared to do to obtain information, as research could cause harm.
  • Appropriate Methods: some are more appropriate than others in studying certain issues.
  • Costs - both financial and effort: researchers are constained by costs and by energy / time available.
  • Theoretical Approaches: different theoretical approaches suggest different forms of research.
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Influences on the Research Process


  • Theoretical Orientation: theoretical approaches often provide different ways of interpreting data.
  • Personal Beliefs: at worst, interpretation of results can be biased, but even good researchers are influenced by their personal beliefs.
  • Methods Used: different methodologies often provide different 'slants' on an issue and can influence the interpretation.
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Quantitative Research Methods


  • Method: questonaires or, less often, interviews.
  • Used to:
    - find out 'facts' about the population
    - uncover differences in beliefs, values and behaviour
    - test a hypothesis
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Quantitative Research Methods


  • All the variables are closely controlled so that the effort of changing one or more of the variables can be understood.
  • Experiments are rarely used in sociology because:
    - it is impossible to recreate normal life in the artificial environment of an experiment;
    - there are many ethical problems in performing experiments on people;
    - there is the possibility of the Hawthorne effect (otherwise known as the experimenter effect), where the awareness of being in an experiment affects the behaviour of the participants.
  • Ocassionaly, field experiments are used. (eg. Rosenhan 1982 who sent 'normal' people to psychiatric institutions to see how the staff treated them.) 
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Quantitative Research Methods


  • The sociological version of an experiment is the comparative method.
  • By comparing the different social variables in the different societies and their effects upon the issues being studied, it is sometimes possible to identify a particular social practise or value which is the key factor in determining that issue.
  • eg. Emile Durkheim (1897-1952) collected official statistics from a number of different countries and then compared the different levels of suicide, linking them to cultural differences, including religion and family relationships, which varied across different countries.
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Quantitative Research Methods


  • Detailed studies of a particular group or organisation.
  • Produces extremely detailed results with an abnormal depth of information.
  • However other issues may be missed because of this intense scrutiny.
  • eg. Grieshaber's work (1997) where she conducted case studies about how families ate their meals.
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Stages of a Survey-Based, Quantitative Research



  • Snowball: a sample is obtained using a series of personal contacts. Usually used for the study of deviant behaviour.
  • Quota: a representative sample of the population is chosen using known characteristics of the population.
  • Theoretical: an untypical sample of the population is chosen to illustrate a particular theory.
  • Random: a representative sample of the population is chosen by entirely random methods such as:
    - systematic = where every nth name (eg. every 10th) on a list is chosen;
    - stratified = where the population under study is divided according to known criteria, such as sex and age, in order to make the sample more representative;
    - cluster = the researcher selects a series of different places and then chooses a sample at random within the cluster of people within these areas. 
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Stages of a Survey-Based, Quantitative Research


  • Comparative: a comparison across countries / cultures (sociological experiment)
  • Case Study: a hightly detailed study of 1 or 2 social situations / groups.
  • Longitudinal: a survey carried out over a considerable number of years on the same group of people.
  • Cross-Sectional (also known as a social survey / snapshot survey): a survey conducted at one time with no attempt to follow up on the people surveyed over a longer time.



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Key Words (Continued)

Field Experiment: an experiment undertaken in the community rather than in a controlled environment.

Pilot Survey: a small-scale survey carried out before the main one, to iron out any problems. It is intended to:
- help evaluate the usefullness of the larger survey;
- test the quality and the acuracy of the questions;
- test the accuracy of the questions;
- find out if they there are any unforeseen problems.

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Qualitative Methods of Research

 - Participant Observation

Where the sociologist joins a group of people and studies their behaviour.


  • Experience: allows them to join the group fully and see things through the eyes of the group, They can fully experience what's happening and gain the same perspective.
  • Generating New Ideas: can lead to completely new insights and new theoretical ideas.
  • Getting the Truth: prevents the participants from lying, which is commonly found in questionaries, because the researcher can see the person in action.
  • Digging Deep: the researcher can create a close bond with the participants and so they may be more willing to confide in the researcher.
  • Dynamic: the observation is less 'static' than a questionnaire or interview because it takes place over a period of time and allows an understanding of how changes in attitudes and behaviour take place.
  • Researching Into Difficult Areas: it is usually used to obtain information on hard to reach groups, eg. religious sects and young offenders. 
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Qualitative Methods of Research


  • Bias: the observer may be drawn into the group which may blind them to the insights that would otherwise be available.
  • Influence of the Researcher: the presence of the researcher may then make the results subject to the Hawthorne effect; make the grouo act less naturally as they are aware they are being studied. Less likely to happen if the researcher is operating covertly.
  • Ethics: there is a moral issue of how far the researcher should be drawn into the group especially if they are engaged in deviant behaviour.
  • Proof/Reliability: the observation cannot be replicated and therefore cannot be proved. This makes it less reliable.
  • Too Specific: as participant observation is usually used to study small groups of people who are not typical of the wider population, it can be said that it's not generalised enough.
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Qualitative Methods of Research

 - Non-Participant Observation:

Where the sociologist simply observes the group but does not seek to join in their activities.


  • Bias: as the researcher is less likely to be drawn into the group, the researchers' views are also less likely to be biased.
  • Influencing the Group: as the reseacher is not making any decisions or joining in activities, the group may be less influenced than in participant observation.


  • Superficial: the whole point of participant observation is to be a member of the group and experience life as the group experiences it. Merely observing the group leaves the researcher on the outside and may limit understanding.
  • Altering Behaviour: people may well act differently if they know they are being watched.
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Qualitative Methods of Research

 - Covert and Overt Methods:

The researcher can either tell the group that they are doing this research (overt) or they can lie and pretend to just be part of the group (covert).


  • Researchers can generate a real understanding of the group by immersing themselves totally in the group and becoming fully accepted and trusted.
  • The group will be unaware that they're being studied and will act normally.


  • If the researcher is discovered then they may be in danger.
  • It can be argued that it is wrong to study a group without telling them.
  • If the group is involved in illegal or dangerous activities then the researcher will have to get involved in those activities as well.
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Qualitative Methods of Research


  • Because the researcher is not within the group, they may be considered a 'trusted outsider' and become a confidante of the group members.
  • The researcher is able to be honest which will minimize ethical dilemmas.
  • Researchers can also use other methods, like interviews and questionnaires, to add to their research.


  • In a lot of groups, you have to become part of the group to be trusted. The researcher in an overt observation will be left out of a lot of things and will not be able to reach a lot of information.
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Qualitative Methods of Research


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Qualitative Methods of Research

Doing Ethnographic Research:

1) Joining the group: the sociologist can either find a place where the group goes and a situation in which they would accept the researcher or use a gatekeeper (someone who can allow a researcher access to an individual, group or event). eg. Andy Bennett (2004) used a local breakdancer who also worked as an instructor at a community dance project to get him into the local hip hop scene in Newcastle.

2) Acceptance by the group: there are often barriers of age, ethnicity and gender to overcome if the group are to accept the researcher. Moore (2004) researched young people 'hanging around'. He was initially unable to gain full acceptance because of his age. He overcame this by using young, female researchers.

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Qualitative Methods of Research

3) Recording information: it is difficult to make notes while observing a group, particularly if the research is covert. Even if the research was overt, constant note-taking would disrupt normal activity and the researcher would be unable to pay full attention to what was going on. Therefore in participant observation, researchers generally use a field diary (a detailed record of events, conversations and thoughts, written up as often as possible). However researchers do not keep regular hours and their observation can easily run on into the night. Therefore it can be difficult to write up a diary every evening. Because of this a lot of quotes and facts get forgotten or distorted, meaning the research could end up being inacurate.

4) Maintaining objectivity: in observational research, it is hard to remain objective. Close contact with the group under study means that feelings almost always emerge. In the introduction to Bougois' study (2003) of crack cocaine dealers, he comments on how these dealers are his friends and how much he owes to the "comments, corrections and discussions" provided by one particular dealer.

5) Influencing the situation: the more involved the researcher is with the people being studied, the greater the chance of influencing what happens. Stephen Lyng (1990) joined a group of males who put their lives at risk through high-risk activities. Lyng became so involved that he encouraged others into life-risking behaviour.

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Qualitative Methods of Research


  • The aim is to try and focus on a particular issue with one person and to guide them into explaining how they percieve that issue.
  • It is otherwise known as a 'controlled conversation'.
  • Qualitative researchers tend to use 'open questions' which allow the respondant to talk in some depth, choosing their own words.
  • Usually, the conversations are recorded (with the respondant's permission) and the sociologist later listens again to the interview and makes notes. There's a special software which analyses conversations and collects words or themes that recur if there are a large number of recorded interviews.

- They allow a person to talk in depth about their views and it is often possible to get a real sense of a person's understanding of a situation.
- Often, new ideas are generated which the researcher had not previously thought of.

- Qualitative interviews do not lend themselves to statistical analysis and so it is difficult to generalise from them. 

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Qualitative Methods of Research


  • Focus groups are one of the more common types of research now used in sociology.
  • These groups consist of a group of people who are gathered together by the researcher and asked to discuss a particular issue.
  • Focus groups can be seen in many ways as a group informal interview - the researcher leads with an introduction and then allows the group to discuss the particular issue.
  • The researcher must be very careful not to 'lead' the group in a particular direction.
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


  • Questionnaires are used for reaching:
    - a large number of people, since the forms can just be handed out;
    - a widely dispered group of people, as they can simply be posted out.
  • Types of questionnaires:
    Closed: They have a series of questions with a choice of answers - all the respondant has to do is tick the box next to the most appropriate answer.
    Open: These questionnaires seek the respondant's opinion by leaving space for their response.
    Mixed: Some questionnaires contain a mixture of both open and closed questions.
  • The essense of a good questionnaire:
    - it asks the right questions to unearth exactly the information wanted;
    - the questions are asked in a clear and simple manner that can be understood by the people completing the questionnaire;
    - it is as short as possible, since people cannot usually be bothered to spend a long time completing questionnaires. 
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


  • Self-completion questionnaires are less time consuming for the researchers than interviewing, as they do not have to go and talk to people face to face.
  • Anonymous questionnaires are very useful if the researcher wishes to ask embarrassing questions about such things as sexual activities or illegal acts. People are more likely to tell the truth if they can do so anonymously than if they have to face an interviewer.
  • Questionnaires (particularly closed questionnaires) are a favoured method used by positivists as they can be used in large numbers and the answers can be codified and subjected to statistical tests.
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


  • Many people cannot be bothered to reply to questionnaires unless there is some benefit (eg. the change to win a prize).
  • low response rate makes it useless, as you do not know if the small number of replies is representative of all who were sent the questionnaire.
  • It is difficult to go into depth in a questionnaire, because the questions need to be as clear and simple as possible.
  • You can never be sure that the correct person answers. If you mail a questionnaire to one member of a household, how do you know that that person answers it?
  • You can never be sure that the person who replies to the questionnaire interprets the question in the way that the researcher intended.
  • People may simply not tell the truth when answering questionnaires. 
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


An interview can either be a series of questions asked directly by the researcher to the respondant or it can be conducted as a discussion. Sociologists generally use interviews:

  • if the subject of enquiry is complex, and a questionnaire would not allow the researcher to probe deeply;
  • when they want to compare their observations with the replies given by respondants, to see if they appear true or not.
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews

Types of interviews:

  • Structured: Very tightly organised, with the interviewer simply reading out the questions from a prepared questionnaire.
  • Unstructured: The interviewer simply has a basic area for discussion and asks any questions that seem relevant.
  • Semi-Structured: Interviews that fall between the two extremes.


  • Individual Interviews: The most common form of interview - between only the interviewer and the one respondant.
  • Group Interviews: A group of people get together to discuss an issue, rather than simply giving an answer to a question. Group interviews are commonly used where the researcher wants to explore the dynamics of the group, believing that a 'truer' picture emerges when the group are all together, creating a 'group dynamic'.
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


  • The interviewer can help explain questions to the respondant if necessary.
  • Researchers are also sure that they are getting information from the right person.
  • They can be organised virtually on the spot and so can be done immidiately (as opposed to preparing a questionnaire, finding a sampling frame and posting the questionnaires out).
  • There is a much higher response rate with interviews than questionnaires as the process is more personal and it is more difficult to refuse.


  • The interviewer must ensure that they do not influence the replies in any way (interviewer bias).
  • People may choose to lie to the researchers, especially if the questions are about a sensitive topic.
  • If interviews are actually different from each other as a result of the interaction, then it is wrong to make generalisations from the interviews.
  • Unstructured interview recordings take a long time to transcribe.
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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


The process of defining concepts in a way that makes them measurable.

Indicators: An indicator is something 'concrete' that stands in for the abstract concept, but which people can understand and sociologists can actually measure. However it is important to remember that it's the indicators that are actually being measured rather than the actual concept.

Coding: Using clear indicators in research allows answers to be coded - that is broken down into simple, distinct answers that can be counted. The researchers can simply add up the numbers of people replying to each category of indicator and then make statements.

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Asking Questions: Questionnaires & Interviews


Both questionnaires and interviews share the problem of the values of the researcher creeping into the questions asked.

Two problems are particularly important:

  • Leading questionnaires: researchers write or ask questions that suggest what the appropriate answer is, eg. 'wouldn't you agree that...?'
  • Loaded words or phrases: researchers use particular forms of language that either indicate a viewpoint or will generate a particular positive or negative response, eg. 'termination of pregnancy' (positive) / 'abortion' (negative).
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Secondary Sources of Data


  • The information required already exists as secondary data.
  • Historical information is needed but the main participants are dead or too old to be interviewed.
  • The researcher is unable for financial or other reasons to visit places to collect data at first hand.
  • The subject of the research concerns illegal activities and it is unsafe for the researchers to collect primary data.
  • Data collected can be about groups who are unwilling to provide accounts of their activities.


It is important to remember that each piece of data is created for a reason, and so secondary data is likely to be biased.

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Secondary Sources of Data


Previous Sociological Methods
 - Previous studies as a starting point:

Before sociologists undertake a study, they have to carry out a literature search (look up any previous sociological research on the subject). The sociologist can then explore a different 'angle' on the subject or attempt to avoid any previously made mistakes. However, some previous studies may contain methodological errors or bias which could cause the new research to be incorrect.

eg. Mead made a number of mistakes in her study 'Coming of Age in Samoa' (1928). She mis-interpreted some of the behaviour of the people she was studying, but as no one knew this, many later studies used her (incorrect) findings in their work.

 -  Reinterpreting previous studies:

Often sociologists do not want to carry out a new research project, but prefer instead to examine previous research in great detail in order to find a new interpretation of the original results. Secondary data then provides all the information that is needed.

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Secondary Sources of Data

Official Publications
 - Statistics:

Statistics often provide far greater scale and detail than a sociologist could manage, as well as it also being much cheaper for a researcher to work on statistics already collected rather than repeating the work. The government will usually produce these statistics over a number of years so comparisons can be made over a long period of time.

However statistics are collected for administrative reasons and not to use in research and so they may miss some vital information that the researcher needs to their study. They may also be affected by political considerations and could reflect a complex process of interaction and negotiation.

 - Reports and government enquiries:

The civil service and other linked organisations will often produce official reports which investigate important problems or social issues. However they are constrained by their 'remit', which states the limit of their investigations. Therefore the government will exclude the discussion of private issues.

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Secondary Sources of Data

Diaries and Letters

These are useful if a sociologist is researching a historical period or social event and there is no one who was involved who is available to be interviewed. They provide an insight into how participants in the events felt at the time. However the writers may have a distorted view or may be attempting to justify or glorify themselves.


Although they can give insight into the attitudes and behaviour of particular groups, they are fiction and will therefore exaggerate for the sake of entertainment. Also, writing is typically a middle to upper class activity which may limit the insight that can be gained from the novel.

Oral History and Family Histories

There may be older people alive who can recall events from a long time ago or were themselves told about them. There may also be recordings, videos or pictures of people or events that have now passed that are useful for the study. However stories of the past can be re-interpreted or parts could be forgotten or purposely left out.

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Secondary Sources of Data

The Media and Content Analysis

There is a lot of material available from newspapers, magazines and television. However it is important not only to look out for bias but to be careful how we interpret the material. We must not let out own bias influence the way we percieve that they would have understood the material at the time.

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Key Words (Continued)

Content Analysis: exploring the contents of the various media to find out how a particular issue is presented.

Meta-Study: a secondary analysis using all or most of the published information on a particular topic.

Secondary Data: data already collected by someone else for their own purposes.

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