sociology education/ research methods

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  • Created by: Lucy
  • Created on: 19-05-14 21:07

Practical issues

-Time and money; different methods require varying amounts of time and money which could affect a sociologist's choice, as well as their access to resources.

-requirements of funding bodies; institutions that fund research may require results in a particular format, so a sociologist will have to choose a method which produces such data.

-personal skills/characteristics; particular skills and characteristics are needed for certain methods, for example a sociologist would need an ability to establish rapport in an in-depth interview. Not all sociologists require these skills, so would need to factor this into the method of choice. Also, a sociologists appearance/age/gender can also affect their ability to carry out a particular method, e.g. in a covert participant observation of a young male gang- the sociologist would need to share characteristics with those they want to observe to ensure they can gain access.

-Research opportunity; sometimes the chance to carry out research occurs unexpectedly and this may eliminate the chance to choose structured methods. In other words, they may not have time to carefully select their methods. 

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Ethical issues

-informed consent; participants should be allowed to refuse to be studied, and should be told all relevant information so that they can make an informed decision. Consent should be established before the research is carried out, and at regular intervals in lengthy studies. 

-Confidentiality and privacy; the identity of participants should be protected to prevent negative effects, and hence so should the overall confidentiality of the participants be respected by the researcher.

-effects on participants; researchers need to be aware of all possible effects of research on the participants- when possible, researchers need to anticipate harmful effects and try to prevent them. This includes: police intervention, harm to employment, social exclusion and psychological damage.

-vulnerable groups: extra consideration must be taken when research participants are in a vulnerable group, which could be based on age, disability and mental/physical health. E.g. studying children in schools means gaining consent of both the child and their parent(s), and ensure the information provided can be understood easily.

-covert research; hiding the identity of the researcher raises considerate ethical problems, such as decieving/lying to people in order to gain trust and/or consent. It is impossible to gain informed consent and keep the research secret. This could be justified in certain situations however, like in gathering information on secretive/deviant social groups.

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Theoretical issues

-Validity; a valid method produces a true or genuine picture of what something is like in reality- it allows the researcher to get closer to the truth.  Arguably, qualititative methods are more valid because they produce a more true image of what it's like to be part of a particular group- they give greater insight. 

-Reliability; a reliable method is one which when repeated by another researcher, gives the same results. Quantitative methods are more reliable because the results are quantified and structured. 

-Representativeness; this refers to whether or not the people being studied are a typical cross-section of the group that are being studied. If a sample is big enough and representative of the wider population, the results can be used to make generalisations about the whole population, without having to acutally study them all. Large-scale quantitative surveys that use sophisticated sampling techniques will most likely produce the most reliable results. 

-Methodological perspective; a sociologist's perspective may influence their choice of method- positivists prefer quantitative data, seek to discover patterns of behaviour and see sociology as a science. Interpretivists prefer qualitative data and seek to understand meanings behind behaviour, and reject the idea of sociology as a science. Marxist and functionalist generally take a postivist approach (macro-level) and interactionists take a interpretivist approach (micro-level).

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Laboratory experiments

-used to test a hypothesis in laboratory conditions in which all variables are controlled by the researcher. They can manipulate variables and study the results, and the researcher will attempt to test the hypothesis by isolating the causes of the phenomenon under investigation.

-Includes two groups; experimental group and control group. The researcher will alter a factor (independant variable) in the experimental group to see if the dependant variable being investigated changes, and compare this to the control group in which nothing is altered. If nothing changes in the experimental group, then the variable is not the cause of the that which is being investigated, and other variables can be tested. 

-The researcher will eventually arrive at an explanation for the issue being investigated that has been tested against evidence, since the difference between the two groups after the experiment can only be caused by the variable, as they were identical before the experiment. 

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Strengths and weaknesses of lab experiments

-It is highly reliable because it can produce the same results; this is because the original experimenter can specify the exacts steps followed so that other researchers can follow these in the future. It is also a detatched method, so the researchers personal feelings and opinions don't effect the outcome of the experiment. It is a method used to identify causes and effects, so positivists would favour it. 

- However, there are practical problems; you cannot control all variables in sociological research because society is complex. It can also not be used to investigate past events as you can only control present variables. Also, they can only really study small scale samples, which makes it difficult to investigte large-scale social phenomenon. It's small nature also reduces it's representativeness. 

-there are ethical problems with conducting lab experiments on humans. The researcher needs informed consent of the participants which could be hard to gain when investigating vulnerable groups who may not understand the nature of experiments. 

-the hawthorne effect; the unnatural environment of lab experiments can affect the behaviour of participants because the conditions are artificial. This means the results will not be vaild, because people know they are being studied, so subconciously/ conciously change their behaviour. 

-free will; interpretivists argue that human behaviour cannot be explained in terms of cause and effect. We make free choices, and experiments take this away. 

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field experiments

-takes place in the participants natural surroundings rather than an artificial lab environment. Those involved are generally unaware that they are being studied- avoids the Hawthorne effect.

-The research manipulates one or more variables in the situation to see what effect it has on the participants being studied. 

-However, the more realistic a situation is, the less likely it is that the researcher can effectively control all the variables. Thus, it is hard to determine which causes that are identified are the correct ones, which actually have an effect. This also makes it hard to repeat, so it is not  as reliable a method as lab experiments. They may be more valid, however, as the natural enviroment is more true to reality.

-Also, some argue that they are unethical, because the participants cannot give informed consent if they have no knowledge of the experiment being carried out. 

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The comparative method

-This is carried out only in the mind of the sociologist;  it is a 'thought experiment' and it doesn't involve the researcher actually carrying out the experiment at all. It is designed to identify cause and effect relationships. 

-The researcher identifies two groups of similar people in all major respects, aside from the one variable they are interested in. They will then compare the two groups to see if this one difference between them has any effect. 

-This means that it avoids artificiality and can be used to study past events, as well as posing no ethical problems like harming or lying to subjects

-However, the researcher has little control over variables and can be less sure that a thought experiment really identifies the real cause of any phenomenon.

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Pilot study and types of questions

-Close-ended questions; the respondent has a limited choice of answers that the researcher has decided upon in advance. They will most likely be 'yes' or 'no' questions, or simple multiple choice answers. They are often pre-coded for easy analysis later on- each possible answer to a question is given a code, and the respondent/researcher rings this number corresponding to the answer chosen. This information can be fed into a computer and enables the researcher to quantify the number of respondents choosing each answer. THEY ARE QUANTITATIVE.

-Open-ended questions; the respondent answering the questions has the freedom to give any answer they wish, in their own words without any pre-selected choices offered by the researcher. THEY ARE QUALITITATIVE

-A Pilot Study; after a hypothesis is made, the next stage is to make a draft version of the method/study that is intended to be used, and to give it a trial run. The aim is to identify any problems of the method/study and iron these out so that the real research runs as smoothly as possible. It may identify that some questions are hard to understand, or that answers may be difficult to analyse, for example. After the pilot study, the method is finalised. 

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Sample and Sample Frame

Sample; a sample is a smaller sub-group of the wider group/population that the researcher is interested in studying. The basic purpose of of sampling is to ensure that the people included in the study are representative of the research population. As long as they are representative, researchers can make generalisations about the whole research population. Positivists favour this as they wish to make general statements about the wider social structure.

Sampling Frame; this is a list of all the members of the population that the researcher is interested in studying- this could be from the electoral register, or census records. It is important that the list being used for the sampling frame is as complete and accurate as possible so that it is truly representative. 

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Sampling techniques

-Random sampling; the simplest technique- the sample is selected by random chance, for example using a computer generator to produce participants.

-Quasi-random/ systematic sampling; is similar to random, but every tenth or hundredth name on the list is selected. Young and Willmott used systematic sampling in their study of Bethnal Green families.

These may not be entirely representative though, as the there is always a chance that the sample is uneven, for example you may randomly choose 80 males and only 20 females in a study.

-Stratified random sampling; the population is divided into group, such as gender, and then the sample is drawn randomly from each group, so that there are equal numbers of each, so the sample is representative of the whole population.

-Quota sampling; instead of choosing the samples randomly, the researcher will go out looking for the right number (quota) for each group.

-snowball sampling; involves gaining participants from a one first participant, and building the sample through connections, or suggestions from other participants. It is not representative, but useful in sensitive cases such as researching criminals. 

-Opportunity sampling; involves choosing individuals who are easiest to access- not representative. 

Interpretivist have less need for representative samples because they are more interested in unique behaviours. 

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The biggest survey in the UK is the ten-yearly census of the whole population- it is a written questionnaire.

They can be distributed by post, email, completed and collected on the spot, e.g. in  a classroom or in an office.

They ask respondents to provide answers to pre-set questions. They tend to be close-ended with pre-coded answers, but can also used open-ended questions. Written questionnaires are realtively cheap and quick way of gaining information from large-samples of people.

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Advantages of Questionnaires

-Practicality; they are quick and cheap and cover a large-scale sample of peeople. Large quantities of data gain be gained from a large number of people in a short time- especially if a postal questionnaire is used. There is no need to recruit and train interviewers as respondents do it all themselves. The data is usually easy to quantify and analyse and can be processed quickly to reveal relationships between variables.

-Reliability; they can be repeated so are reliable- when the research is repeated, identical questions are used so the new respondents have the same options as the original ones. There is also no influence of an interviewer/researcher to affect the results. If any differences are found, it is not because of the method, but because of real difference between respondents. They also allow comparisons between different societies/ time-periods. 

-Hypothesis testing; can easily identify cause-and-effect relationships- analysis means we can make statements about certain phenomenon.

Detatchment/ objectivity; they are unbiased and the researchers personal influence is minimal.

-Representativeness; They can collect information from a large sample of people so they are more representative of the entire population.

-Ethical issues; there are little ethical problems, as they don't have any obligation to answer certain questions, but the researcher must gain informed consent, obviously. 

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Disadvantages of Questionnaires

  • Practical problems; they tend to be limited and fairly brief, as respondents are unlikely to spend a long time answering a time-consuming questionnaire. There is limited information gained from each respondent. Also, respondents may need incentive such as a prize, which detracts from costs. With postal questionnaires, researchers cannot also be sure if the questionnaire has actually been recieved or if it was actually completed by the correct person it was sent to, and not someone else. 
  • Response rate: few of those who recieve questionnaires actually complete them. Higher response rates can be gained by using follow up questionnaires, or if they are collected  by hand, although this costs time and money. The danger with low response rate is that there must be some difference between those who respond and those who don't, i.e. someone may have stronger views or may be unemployed so have the time/will to complete a questionnaire. This produces distorted and unrepresentative results, and no accurate generalisations can be made.
  • Inflexibility; the researcher is stuck with their finalised questions which can't be changed, and cannot explore areas of interest that may come up in their research.
  • Questionnaires as snapshots; they only provide a picture of social reality in one moment of time- they fail to produce a fully valid picture of people's attitudes and behaviour.
  • Detatchment; the lack of contact means no opportunity to clarify the meaning of the questions or deal with misunderstandings. The respondent and researcher may not interpret the question in the same ways. This is a serious problem in terms of cultural and language differences between respondent and researcher.
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Disadvantages of questionnaires pt.2

  • lying, forgetting and 'right answerism'; depends on the respondent's willingness to provide full and accurate answers. This raises problems of validity when the respondent is not truthful. Respondents may lie, for get, not know or understand, and be embarrassed to admit they do not understand and ask the researcher to clarify. They may also try to please and give respectable answers that they think they should give, not what they truthfully think. 
  • imposing the researcher's meanings; the researcher chooses the questions to ask and has already decided what is important/ what is not. Close-ended questions also mean that the respondent has to try and fit their views into set answers- they may have a more important answer, but no opportunity to give it, thus creating distorted and inaccurate results. Although, open-ended questions are also problematic as the answers can of course vary greatly, and be hard to analyse in a large-scale study, as it will take more time/money. There may also be 'loaded questions' that sway the respondent to answering in a specific way- researcher bias. 
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Structured interviews

Close-ended questions with pre-coded answers are read aloud and the answers filled in by a trained interviewer with a respondent. The interviewer is given strict instructions on how to ask the questions, and the interview is conducted in the same standardised way each time, asking the exact same questions word for word in the the same order and in the same tone of voice, to make each interview as similar as possible. 

  • Practical issues; training interviewers is generally straightforward and cheap, as they simply just have to follow instructions. However this is more expensive than questionnaires.  They can also cover quite large numbers of people with limited resources because they are cheap/fairly quick to administer. However, they can't match the huge numbers questionnaires can reach. They can gather straightforward factual information about respondents, and they can be quantified, so are suitable for hypothesis testing. 
  • Reliable; they can be easily repeated as there are set instructions that can easily be followed, so it is reliable. This also means comparisons can be made without the factor of differences in method. 
  • Validity; they restrict answers and give very little freedom to explain questions or clarify misunderstandings, and people may lie or exaggerate answers; not valid. Also, because of the social interaction, there is still a risk that the presence of the interviewer will influence the answers.
  • feminist criticisms; some feminists argue that structured interviews are patriarchal and give a distorted, invalid picture of women's experiences. 
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unstructured interviews

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer has complete freedom to vary the interview and choose questions, in terms of wording and order. They can follow up on questions and clarify meaning, as well as asking the interviewee to expand on certain answers. 


  • Rapport and sensitivity; the nature of the unstructured interview allows the interviewer to develop rapport, a relationship of trust and understanding, with the interviewee. They feel at ease so will be more open when answering questions. They are particularly useful when investigating sensitive topics as empathy and encouragement from the interviewer helps the interviewee to feel comfortable discussing difficult subjects, such as abuse. 
  • Interviewer's view; the interviewer has freedom to speak about the things they think are most important to the study- this allows a freedom for the interviewee to express their views, thus an unstructured interview is more likely to produce fresh insights and valid data. 
  • Checking understanding; the interviewer and interviewee can check each other's meanings and have them explained, and follow up questions can be asked to clarify meaning.
  • Flexibility; no restriction and more freedom to explore relevant/interesting topics that may arise. 
  • Exploring unfamiliar topics;  the exploratory nature of unstructured interviews allows sociologists a to develop from a starting point and develop initial ideas about a topic. 
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Unstructured interviews pt.2


  • practical problems; they are time-consuming so this limits the sample and thus the representativeness of the data. The training of interviewers is also more thorough and they need to have specialist skills, which may increase costs of conducting unstructured interviews. Interviewers need good interpersonal skills so that they can establish rapport to produce valid data.
  • Reliability; they are not reliable because they are not standardised and are almost impossible to repeat, because each interview is unique.
  • Quantification; Answers are not pre-coded because the questions are open-ended, thus the data is hard to analyse and cannot test hypothesis very well, as cause-and-effect relationships are hard to identify. It also takes more time to analyse the data, as it cannot be done by a computer. 
  • Validity; although they are seen by many as highly valid, some argue that the interactions between the interviewer and interviewee distorts the information obtained. 
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Interviews as a social interaction

Social interactions in interviews can threaten their validity.

  • interviewer bias: the interviewer may ask 'leading' questions in which the wording 'tells' the interviewee how to answer. Interviewers may also consciously or unconsciously influence an answer through facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. Also, an interviewer may identify too closely with the interviewees which can harm validity.
  • artificiality: both parties know that it is an interview, in which one has the initiative to ask questions; it is hardly a normal conversation, no matter how relaxed it is. It is therefore doubtful that truthful answers can be obtained. 
  • Status and power inequalities: a big status difference decrease the validity of the data produced, as it can affect an interviewees willingless and honesty in answering questions. These can be gender differences and ethnic differences too. 
  • Cultural differences: This can undermine validity as there may be misunderstandings as a result of different meanings being given to the same words- a cultural gap.
  • The social desirability effect: people will seek the approval of the interviewer; interviewees are on their best behaviour and give answers that make them seem favourable. They may also not wish to appear ignorant or uninteresting, so instead of asking for meaning they will choose any answer, even if it isn't truthful
  • ethical issues: researchers should gain informed consent and guarantee anonymity, as well as making it clear the interviewees can refuse to answer questions if they want to. 
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participant observation

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