sociology key concepts and choice of method

sociological method choices.

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  • Created on: 03-04-12 15:38


Positivists argue that there is a measurable objective social reality that exists.

they see our behaviour as the result of social forces shaping what we do. 

aim of research is to discover the underlying cause of our behaviour.

use standardised methods of research:
structured interviews,
structured observation,
official statistics,

they obtain reliable and representative quantiative data,

idenitfy general patterns,

cause and effect explanations. 

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claim there is no objective social reality

aim of research is to uncover actors meanings or worldview

use open ended research methods that produce valid qualitative data:
unstructured interviews
participant observation
personal documents

gain an understanding by experiencing the groups lifestyle for themselves 

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exactly repeatable to obtain the same results

positivist favour a scientific approach emphasising the need for reliability and therefore they use structured research methods that can be repeated.

structured interviews 

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researches may choose to study only a sample - a smaller sub group from the wider target group

the characteristics of the sample group need to be the same as the wider group

need to make generalisations on the basis of evidence from the sample

Positivists emphasise the importance of representativeness becasue they wish to discover general patterns and make general cause and effect statements about social behaviour

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how authentic and true the data is 

interpretivists emphasise the need to use methods such as participant observation or unstructured interviews which reveal the meanings people gold

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Primary data and Secondary data

Primary data

evidence is collected by the sociologists themselves for their own purpose

Secondary data

has already been collected by someone else for their own purposes and that may then be used by sociologists

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Practical Factors



Source of funding

personal factors

research subjects

research opportunity 

personal danger 

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Ethical Factors



effects on research subjects 

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high degree of control that the researcher has over the situation 

researcher identifies and controls the variables

by manipulating the variables and observing what happens the researcher can discover cause and effect realtionships

laboratory experiments

field experiments 

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Laboratory experiments

Positivists - standardised method , allowing them to produce generalisations and cause and effect relationships

very reliable can can be repeated exactly , allowing previous findings to be checked.

produce quantitative data and scientifically collected

Interpretivists - produce data that is of low validity 

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problems of laboratory experiments

artificiality - highly artificial environment

often lack validity

identifying and controlling variables  - it is impossible to identify, let alone control all variables

ethical issues

researcher can not contain their informed consent as knowledge may influence their actions

The Hawthorne effect - their knowledge that they are in the experiment is likely to affect their behaviour. reduces the validity of the experiment 

Limited application
small scale social interaction can be studied. Excludes many of the most important sociological issues 

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Field experiments

real social world

those involved are usually unaware that an experiment is taking place

aim of field experiment is to obtain some element of control while avoiding the artificiality of the laboratory 


less artificiality - field experiments are set in real world situations

validity - because people are unaware of experimental situation , they will act normally. reactions will be genuine and the data collected will be of high validity 

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Disadvantages of field experiments

less control over variable

sociologists cant control all the variables in the situation

limited application

ethical problems

do not usually gain the informed consent of those involved becasue to do so would "give the game away"

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Social Surveys

two forms:

self completion written qustionanaires


questions used in surveys can be of two types:

closed ended questions : choose answer from a limited range of answers decided in advance by the researcher. 

open ended questions: respondents are free to give whatever answer they wish

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conducting a survey


a statement that identifies what a sociologists intends to study.


more specific than an aim
is a possible explanation that can be tested by collecting evidence to prove it true or false

operationalising concepts:

researcher needs to define their sociological concepts or ideas in ways that can be measured.

The pilot study:

produce a draft questionnaire or interview schedule and to give this a trial run

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Positivists prefer questionnaires becasue they deliver reliable data 

questionnaires generate quantitative data that can be used to test hypotheses and identify correlations between variables.

can be used on a large scale to produce representative data

Interpretivists claim that data produced by questionnaires is low in validity

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advantages of questionnaires

practical advantages : 

are quick and cheap,

no need to to train interviewers or observers

they gather large quantities of data from large number of people, widely spread geographically,

pre coded closed ended questions make the data easy to quantify 


there is no researcher present to influence the respondents answers.

Hypothesis testing: 

useful to test hypotheses about cause and effect relationships between different variables.

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disadvantages of questionnaires

practical problems :

need to be brief since most respondents are unlikely to complete a long time consuming questionnaire. This limits the amount of information that can be gathered.

Response Rate:
usually very low especially with postal questionnaires.
researchers may increase the response rate by sending out a follow up questionnaire, collecting by hand or offering incentives ( prize draw , persuading respondents to complete the questionnaire) However this adds to costs and time.

once the questionnaire has been finalised , the researcher cannot explore any new areas of interest that might emerge during the course of the research

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questionnaires involve little or no contact between researcher and respondent. This means that questions and answers can not be clarified or misunderstandings cleared up.

Lying, forgetting and "right answerism":

respondents may lie , forget, not know , not understand.
Some may give socailly desirable answers they feel they ought to give rather than telling the truth.
When respondents give answers that are not full or honest this undermines the validity of the data.

Imposing the researchers meanings:
questionnaires may impose the researchers meanings rather than revelaing those of the respondent, 

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types of interviews:

structured interview
unstructured interview

Structured Interview

involves face to face or over the phone delivery of a questionnaire.

Use an interview schedule - a pre set list of questions designed by the researcher and asked of all interviewees in the same way.

structured interviews are usually relatively brief.

structured interviews employ fixed lists or closed ended questions so answers can be classified , counted and quantified.

are reliable and can produce large scale representative data. Interpretivists reject their use because they see them as lacking validity.

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advantages of structured interviews


produce easily quantifiable data.


relatively quick to conduct so a larger scale can be interviews which is likely to produce more representative results. allowing the researcher to make generalisations.

structured interviews have a higher response rate then mailed questionnaires and this also helps with representativeness.


because they are quick to complete , structured interviews are the cheapest form of interview. 
Interviewers also need only limited training  

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interviewer- interviewee contact 

face to face interviews mean a higher response rate 

Limited " interviewer effect" 

contact is limited to asking and responding to a fixed list of questions and possible answers. 

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Disadvantages of structured interviews

lack of validity: 

because the researcher decides the questions in advance , and becasue the interview schedule can not be altered once it has be finalised , this prevents interviewees from raising new issues.

fixed response questions may prevent the interviewee from saying what they really think. 

it is difficult to know whether the respondant is being truthful.

structured interviews are not completely free from interviewer effect . 


employing and training interviewers incurs a cost and even relatively brief striuctured interviews are not as cheap to carry out as mailed questionnaires.

sensitive issues:
fixed list of questions not particularly useful for investigating sensitive issues , where are rapport is needed. 

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Unstructured Interviews

ask mainly open ended questions , with no fixed set questions to be asked of every respondent

produce qualitative data becasue the interviewee can respond in words that are meaningful to them 

are guided as much by the interviewee as by the interviewer

are informal and free flowing , and more "normal" than a structured interview - more like a guided convosation

build a stronger relationship between the researcher and research subject.


give people the opportunity to talk openly , unrestructed by a fixed list of questions and possible responses. As a result it is likely that their meanings and worldwide view will emegre more clearly 

positivists reject unstructured interviews becasue their lack of standardised questions and answers means that reliable , quantitative data can not be generated

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the informal conversational nature means that trust and rapport can be developed.

The more comfortable the interviewee feels the more likely they are to "open up"

often helps when researching sensitive issues and increases the chances of getting full and honest responses.

avoid the danger of the sociologists imposing their ideas onto the interview process.

The flexibility of unstructured interviews also adds to validity.

Open ended questioning allows interviewees scope to give detailed, in depth reactions . The more detailed the response , the greater the likelihood of the sociologists understanding the research subjects viewpoint

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disadvantages of unstructured interviews

the closer the interviewer and intervieweee bond may incfreased the chance of the respondant seeking to please by giving the answer they thing the reseracher wants to hear.

huge amounts of data produced. The researcher has to interpret and be selective about what is presented in the final research.

lack of respresentativeness:

take longer to carry out which usually limits the size of the research sample. May limit the ability of researcher to make generalisations.

Unsuitable for sensitive issues:

some people may prefer to full in a anonymous postal questionnaire rather face to face.

Interviewers need to be trained in sensitivity. Adds to cost. As they take longer to conduct this will also add. 

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a lot of time may be waster and irrelevant data collected.

Group Interviews:

can be influenced by others participating

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participant observation:
the researcher joins in the activities of the group they are researching , involving themselves in their daily lives

non participant observation:
the observer avoids any direct involvement in the research group , keeping a distance.

covert observation:
the research keeps their identity and purpose secret from the research subjects , if participating they usually pose as a genuine member of the group.

structured observation:
the researcher systematically classifies the behaviour they observe into distinct categories

unstructured observation:
the observer simply records what they see and experience in whatever way they can. 

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Participant Observation

the observer finding a role within the group that allows them to study group behaviour

observations are not recorder in field notes

the research often involves years of fieldwork

researchers start with an open mind and research ideas emerge during the study

it can be either covert or overt.

interpretivists use participant observation because:

see it as an effective way of uncovering peoples meanings. 
is an open ended method 

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advantages of participant observation


its naturalistic approach:
the group is observed in a natural setting , acting normally and largely unaffected by the observers presence. The data is more likely to be a true account of the groups behaviour.

An open research process:
is a fluid , flexible approach directed less by the researcher and more by the research subjects. 

offers insight: 
develops a deeper understanding of social behaviour.

the data generated is richly detailed:
the recorder observations of participant observers have a true to life feel about them 

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other advantages:

studying closed groups:
some social groups are difficult to research. Covert participant observation may well be the only way of studying a particular group or issue.

Research opportunity:
is very flexible , so if a research opportunity suddenly occurs , the researcher can seize the chance to join and study a group.

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Disadvantages of Participant observation

Unreliable and unrepresentative:

positivists  say that they are unscientific. being open ended and subjective research , there is no fixed procedure and no standardised system of measurement. so they study can not be replicated.

gives control of the research process to the research subjects , and this with a lack of standardised questioning removes any chance of the data being reliable.

are "one off" investigations of small social groups that are unlikely to be representative and so generalisations can not be made from the findings.

Problems with validity:

Hawthorne effect 

Interpretation problems 

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Ethical issues

the group are under the flase impression that the new memeber is genuinley commited to the group.

The group are deliberately misled and have not given their informed consent , and me may even be place in danger by the research.

the covert observer may also witness or have to participate in illegal or immoral activities , or else risk blowing their cover

it is often difficult to ensure anonymity of those being studied.

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Practical problems

getting in -  joining the group that you wish to study can be difficult

staying in - may be problematic especially covertly since it will involve maintaining a false identity.and role for a long period of time.

writing up notes later from memory is problematic and also threatens validity 

getting out - can be difficult especially if emotional bonds to the group have been formed

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Structured Observation

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