Choosing research methods
Choice of topic- Sociologists may choose a research topic for several reasons:
- they are intrigued by a sociological problem because of its intrinsic interest. Asking questions about an intriguing subject (such as Why doesn't everyone commit crime?) is called problem raising. People doing research often choose a topic because it has rarely been studied before;
- they are concerned about a social problem that needs a solution. Such sociologists are called problem solvers;
- they feel strongly about it, as it affects their ow group or appeals to their values, for example as a Marxist, feminist or anti- racist. Alternatively, they may be paid by an organisation such as the Home Office to investigate it.
Choice of Method- Sociologists applt theoretical, practical and ethical criteria when choosing their method and deciding how to conduct their research.
Theoretical: What sociologists want to find out determines the type of data they need to collect. If they wish to compare two or more groups, for example to examine their relative criminality or discover which group does most housework, quantitative data will be useful. To collect this, a positivist or scentific approach is likely to be needed, excluding irrelevant variables.
Choosing research methods
Appropriate methods include questionnaires, interviews and observations that are structured, experiments and analysis of published statistics. These methods are relatively reliable as there is little personal input and other researchers can replicate them.
If sociologists want to find out people's feelings or the reasons for their behaviour, such as why they join cults, qualitative data of a descriptive nature will be more useful. This data can be generated by methods favoured by interpretivists, such as unstructured interviews, participant observation and examination of personal documents . Ideally such data will be rich and valid as, where possible, the researcher has taken the time to form a rapport with respondents and is able to empathise with and fully understand them (verstehen).
Practical- A number of factors make some methods more feasible than others. These include:
- Time: The most time-consuming method is probably ethnography (long term observation of a group, usually combined with informal interviews), while structured observation is quicker. To obtain a representative sample, interviews need to approach a wide range of people. Time lags, such as waiting for questionnaires to be returned, are also significant.
- Cost: Postage and travel may be costly and so is loss of earning power if a study takes many months.
Choosing research methods
- Access: It may be difficult for sociologists to gain permission to research in some institutions. With covert observation, being accepted by a group may depend on being the appropriate age and sex and assuming a native costume.
- Danger: Covert methods ris exposing the sociolgist, if discovered, to the anger of the group. Indeed any method conducted with deviant groups indulging in risk-taking activities needs to be considered carefully.
Ethical- researchers may find their research rejected if they ignore ethical guidelines. These include:
- particpants in studies should have gien fully-informed consent. This makes covert studies questionable;
- no participants should be harmed, either physically or through being distressed;
- participants' confidentially should be respected, so in any publications there should be no details that identify them;
- sociologists should not break the law or be present when others are doing so.
Using primary sources for research means obtaining information by directly asking or observing people, as opposed to analysing material that has already been generated by someone else.
Interviews involve asking people questions and writing down their responses. This can be done face to face or by telephone. The questions may be same for everyone (structured or formal), vary a little depending on how people respond (semi- structured), or vary a great deal (unstructured or informal). Questions may be open-ended or closed (fixed choices). Unstructured interviews with mainly open-ended questions tend to be time-consuming but flexible and are more likely than structured interviewsto be used for discussing sensitive topics.
Group interviews may be conducted where respondents are likely to be nervous on their own, such as in schools, but there is danger of peer group pressure to answer in a particular way, so individual interviews may be more valid.
Interviews where researchers return to the same group at regular intervals to see how they have progressed are longitudinal.
- Researchers receive data from their respondents immediately, instead of relying on questionnaires being returned.
- Unstructured interviews are flexible, allowing clarification of meanings and expansion upon areas of interest. They enable researchers to uncover points that they might not have previously considered, especially where good rapport is established. Respondents appreciate expressing opinions in their own words. However, interviews may be relatively unreliable, with respondents providing socially desirable answers because of the interviewer effect. They are time consuming to conduct and to write up because points have to be selected from a wealth of qualitative data.
- As structured interviews can be quick to conduct, a large representative sample can be targeted, enabling comparison between groups. However, the closed questions often fail to cater for allpossiblities and can provide relatively superficial quantitative data.
Adminstering questionnaires meaning asking respondents to write down answers to a series of questions, either on paper or electronically. Althoughmost answers required are likely to be brief and between fixed choices, some questions may be open-ended. Questionnaires may be sent by post or email with instructions to return them to a particular place within a time limit, or may be handed out and completed in a controlled situation such as a classroom. They may be completed anonymously or by named volunteers.
- Great skill is needed in devising questions that are clear and not loaded. Piloting the questions until they are completely effective can be a lengthy process.
- Postage can be expensive considering the very low return rate. Those returning the questionnaire may be untypical of the whole sample.
- Asking all the respondents the same questions enables comparison between groups and the povitist approach facilities multivariate analysis by computer. However, the use of predominantly closed questions is inflexible and answers obtained may be superficial.
- Sensitive topics may be explored if respondents are assured of anonymity, as in the case of self-report studies where respondents tick offences they have committed.
Observation entials watching, listening to and recording people's behaviour. This can be done openly (overt observation) or without those under scruntiny being aware (covert observation). The observer may be participating in the group under observation or be watching from the sidelines (non-participant). Observations may involve the careful recording of specificdetails of behaviour from a checklist (structured observation) over a relatively short period. Alternatively, the sociologists may listen to conversations and absorb general impressions of attitudes, motives and interaction over a longer period, even years. Often long-term observation of a group also presents opportunities for informal interviewsand looking at secondary data, such as students' records in a school. These combined methods are called ethnographic or case studies.
- Watching what people actually do can produce more valid results than asking people what they do, though if they know they are being watched they may behave abnormally (the Hawthorne effect). Watching people covertly, unless in a public place, is unethical and could be dangerous if detected.
- Ethnographers may need to devote several years of theirlife to a study, achieving real empathy with the group (verstehen), especially if fully participant. Structured observation, such as completing tick sheets in classrooms, can be relatively quick but superficial in comparison.
- Not all groups are accessible and willing to be observed: permission from a gatekeeper might be required. Covert participant observation may only be possible if the researcher has appropriate appearance and native costume.
- Long participant observation carries the risks of going native, of influencing the group's values and of becoming involved in dangerous or criminal activities.
- Recording data can be difficult if the observation is participant or covert. Writing it down later poses problems of memory, selectively and bias.
Unlike observation, this method involves the sociologists setting up an artificial situation, usually by involving the experimental group in some activity or situation that would not otherwise occurred. Experimanters usually have a hypothesis that they wish to test by operationalising the relevant concepts (such as ability to concentrate) as types of behaviour they can count or measure scientifically. The experimental group is subjected to a stimulus and its behaviour is watched and compared with that of a control group not subjected to the stimulus. As far as possible,other variables are eliminated. Alternatively, several experimental groups may be subjected to the stimuli or conditions and their resulting behaviour carefully measured and compared, to established cause and effect. Before accepting the hypothesis, the experiment should be repeated many times to demonstrate that the results have not been reached by chance.
Field experiments are conducted in environments where the participants are already situated, such as hospitalsor streets, so they are unlikely to be aware of the study. Laboratory experiments entail researchers inviting volunteers to a prearranged setting where conditions may be easier to control, but they may not necessarily be told precisely what the hypothesis is.
- Experiments appeal to positivists as they are designed to exclude extraneous variables more effectively than if the researcher were to observe natural occurrances. However, the complexity of everyday social life cannot realistically be reduced to an experimental situation, which measures a much narrower range of behaviour and therefore lacks ecological validity.
- If people know the experiment is taking place, they may behave abnormally, yet it is unethical to experiment on people without fully informed consent.
- In field experiments it may be impossible to exclude some variables, such as differing weather conditions. In all experimants, individual differences between respondents and varying responses to particular researchers mean that the conclusions are less reliable than in the natural sciences.
- Permission to carry out experiments in some settings may be refused.
- Despite the apparent objectivity of the method, the experimenter's expectation of obtaining certain outcomes sometimes distorts his or her perceptions of the results obtained.
Virtually all sociologists begin their research by consulting secondary sources of information, such as textbooks , academic articles, government reports and banks of statistics, often written by other sociologists, to obtain background information. After that they move on to the more original part of their research, trying to find out something new.
Many observe people or ask them questions, collecting data from these primary sources, but other sociologists analyse secondary sources as their main research method. They take pre-existing materials such as church records, films or advertisements, which have been created for other reasons, and examine them with sociological questions in mind. Secondary sources are sometimes known as documents, even though not all of them are written on paper.
When members of a congregation are baptised, married or have a funeral, churches record their names, addresses and the date of the cermony. Using these records, researchers can see roughly how long people lived in the past (as most were baptisedsoon after birth), how many children they had and which relatives lived together.
Evaluation- Church records predate the first national census of 1801, so they are one of our few sources of demographic information about the past, though some have been damaged or lost. Peter Laslett (1972) used church records of births and deaths to determine the proportion of families that were extended in earlier centuries.
Wills- Wills may tell us about family size and structure in the past, what goods people valued and how many servants they had.
Evaluation- Wills are less likely to be preserved over time than church records, so those remaining may not be reresentative, even of the more properous members of society.
Novels, short stories, plays, poems, folksongs and pictures are sometimes analysed by sociologists to learn about the past ways of life and attitudes. For example, Philipee Aries (1962) used medieval and more recent pictures as evidence of how childhood how childhood has been constructed differently through the ages.
Evaluation- It is important to analyse sufficient number of examples to gain representative data, as it is likely that some works of art and fiction will exaggerate for dramatic effect.
Diaries Diaries written long ago can provide insights into aspects of daily life that no one alive today could recall, such as gender roles, prevalent norms and values, experiences of and attitudes towards historical events.
Evaluation- Diaries kept for their own interest by people from the past, such as the diaries of Samuel Pepys written in the 17th century and Parson Woodforde's diary, 1759-1802, may provide very rich qualitative data, but some of the allusions may be unclear. Furthermore, only the literate and leisured produced them and few were deliberately preserved.
Letters- Letters provide the sociologist with insights into personal experiences in specific contexts. For example, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1958) by Thomas and Znaniecki was based in part on evidence from the private letters of Polish immigrants.
Evaluation- Letters from the past have much in common with diaries. They may not necessarily tell the truth, bias may be difficult to detect and they reflect the lives of only a small proportion of the population. However, they may provide qualitative data unavailable from any other source.
Mass Media- Socioloigts frequently analyse meia such as soap operas and other television genres, films, newspapers, magazines, lyrics, advertisements and Internet sources, as they reflect every aspect of contemporary life. They may reveal:
- events in the recent past;
- attitudes to particular issues;
- the representation and stereotyping of different groups;
- the amount of coverage given to particular types of crime;
- moral panics- trends that aroused public concern;
- news values- the criteria the madia use to select which events to cover;
- political biases and agendas set by particular media;
- the amount of violence or sexual content to which viewers are sujected.
A positivist approach involves the counting of particular representations or key words in order to see how often they occur. Glenys Lobban (1974) counted the roles in which males and famales were shown in six children's reading schemes to show how readers were being socialised into traditional gender roles, using 'hard', formal or quantitative content analysis.
A more interpretive approach, 'soft', thematic or qualitative content analysis, entails searching texts for synonyms and connected words to gain an overall impression of attitudes. Stanley Cohen used this method to gauge the degree to which news reporters exaggerated disturbances between Mobs and Rockers in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972).
Semiology or semiotics is an even more interpretive approach, involving discussion of the connotations of words, images and styles. A semilogists might note that advertisements for women's beauty products often use soft music, hazy images and curvaceous containers, while products for males are likely to be promoted with music with a strong beat in an active setting and presented in chunky containers, suggesting that traditional attitudesto male dominance are still prevalent.
Evaluation- Quantitative content analysis is relatively reliable but the data may be superficial. The more interpretive methods are likely to examine the topic in greater depth but depend considerably on personal interpretation.
Official Statistics- Official statistics are figures collected and published by governments and similar bodies; for example, the Home Office publishes online crime figures from the police. Other statistics sociologists find particularly useful come from the census, school league tables, government departments, pressure groups, and legal and religious organisations. They provide data about employment, demography, exam results, marriages and divorces, proverty, suicide and church attendance. Durkheim used suicide rates from different parts of Germany to support his theory that suicide was less likely where people were socially integrated, for example by religios bonds, though his methodology was deeply flawed.
Evaluation- Advantages of official statistics include:
- they are often from a whole nation, providing more representative data than an individual sociologistcould collect through primary research;
- comparisons may be made between different groups, periods of history or places;
- statistics can generally be accessed;
- most recent statistics will have been compiled by experts so there are unlikely to be careless errors.
- comparisons may be difficult because of different ways of categorising phenomens over time;
- the government or instution compiling the statistics may have vested interest in presenting a particular picture, such as a low crime rate. This might result in biased mthods of classification, such as not counting thefts of less than £10. Marxists and feminists may distrust the data as they are social constructions often collected at the bidding of powerful men;
- it may not be easy to discover the circumstances in which early circumstances in which early statistics were obtained, what categorieswere used or how accurate they really are;
- statistics may not be available for some topics;
- statistics relating to paricular topics have inherent weaknesses. Crimes figures depend upon the public being aware of crimes, being willing to report them and the police taking them seriously enough to record them. Suicide figures depend on coroners' judgments. Statistics of earnings are flawed by public reluctance to pay income tax.
Many sociologists feel that using just one of the methods described provides inadequate data upon which to base conclusions. Using two or more methods, perhaps from both primary and secondary sources, generating both quantitative and qualitative data, is more satisfactory. This approach is known as triangulation.