Sociological methods

  • Created by: Elise
  • Created on: 14-04-13 21:42

Qualitative methods of research

Qualitative research where the sociologist aims to understand the meaning of social action

Sociologists who want to collect primary qualitative data will often use observation, either covert or overt. Many sociologists often use unstructured interviews where the researcher has a relatively informal conversation with the participant and ensures the converation focuses on the topic.

Qualitative secondary data often takes the form of letters, diaries, and other personal documents, as well as film, video and TV. These can be analysed in terms of their meanings, symbols and use of language.

E.g. Laud Humphreys- Tearoom Trade (1970)

Uses covert observation to study male sexual encounters in public toilets. Then tracked down subjects and interviewed them in their homes (faced ethical issues)

  • Advantages
  • Takes the view point of the partcipants rather than the researcher
  • May dig into deep social interaction- the researcher is open to new insights
  • Disadvantges
  • As studied in small groups may not be representative
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Quantitative methods of research

Quantitative research that concentrates on collecting statistical data

A researcher who wants to obtain primary quantitative data about how people live their lives, about their attitudes or beliefs, will usually carry out a survey on a representative sample of the population being studied. These may be in the form of a questionnaire or a structured interview

E.g. the British Cohort Study (2004) reveals how poor literacy and numeracy at the age of 21 affects every aspect of the lives of adults, especially women

  • Advantages
  • can reach a large sample
  • personal influence of researcher is slight
  • produces reliable and representative data
  • Disadvantages
  • response rate may be low
  • data may not be valid (Hawthorne effect)
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Sources of data


  • Advantages
  • analysed with relative ease
  • offer a way of gaugung the extent of belief, action and opinion
  • anonomous
  • Disadvantages
  • rely on reading and writing; the less literate may be omitted from data
  • suffer from low response rates which might lead to sample bias


  • Advantages
  • can be used to generate either qualitative or quantititative data
  • can give a powerful tool as a means of understanding how people think
  • Disadvantages
  • what people say they do is not necessarily how they behave
  • must be careful not to lead participants to particular answers- through leading questions, body language etc.
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Sources of data pt. 2

Observation- can include both participant and non-participant 

  • Advantages
  • researcher able to directly observe behaviour e.g. in school to undertstand preferential treatment by teachers (Rosethall & Jacobson)
  • Disadvantages
  • participants tend to not act 'normally' when they know they are being observed (Hawthorne effect) (Rosenhan (1973)'s mental institution experiment)
  • researcher has to interpret different reasons behind behaviour


  • Advantages
  • can begin to test claims about cause and effect (Bandura)
  • Disadvantages
  • lacks to control, precision and certainty offered by truly scientific laboratory experiments
  • manipulating environments (e.g. Rosenthal & Jacobson) raises ethical problems relating to deception and harm
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Sources of data pt. 3

Official statistics

  • Advantages
  • data collected centrally and regularly so it gives an overview of the population and a sense of trends and changes over time
  • Disadvantages
  • Governments may manipulaate data to make themselves look good
  • Data may be distorted- e.g. schools may 'work the system' to improve their place in the league tables. e.g.2 police may not record all crimes correctly so that clear up rate is better
  • the way results are recorded has changed over time- comparisons may be problematic
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Primary and secondary data

Primary data

  • By survey: usually involving questionnaires
  • By observation: may be participant or non-participant and generally produces qulitiative data

Secondary data

Data which is already avaliable to sociologists:

  • official statistics (quantitative) e.g. the census
  • reports in newspapers, TV, and radio (mostly qualitative) e.g. Butler & Paisley 
  • Historical documents (quantitative and qualitative)
  • Personal letters and diaries (qualitative)
  • Research done by private or business organisations
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Positivism and Interpretivism

Positivist approach

Social phenomena are as real and as objective as natural phenomena. Sociologists should study only what they can objectively see, measure and count. Sociologists should use methods that produce quantitative data, aim to avoid personal involvement a produce value-free evidence.

e.g. Durkheim's social facts

Interpretivist approach 

The social phenomena are different from natural phenomena, and people are active, conscious beings who act with intention and purpose. Researchers need to be able to investigate these shared understandings, generating qualitative data. 

e.g. Blumer's symbolic interactionism

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Theoretical, practical and ethical considerations

Practical- MALT

Ethical- HIPAC






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Theoretical, practical and ethical considerations

Practical issues

  • Money
  • Access
  • Labour
  • Time

Ethical issues

  • Harm
  • Informed consent
  • Privacy
  • Anonymity
  • Consent
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