CHOOSING A RESEARCH METHOD
Sociologists test their theories using quantitative or qualitative data. Sociologists obtain primary data themselves, using methods including questionnaires, interviews and observation. Secondary data are produced by others but used by sociologists.
In choosing a method, sociologists take several issues into account:
- Practical issues include time and funding
- Ethical issues include whether the researcher deceives the subjects
- Theoretical issues include validity (does the method give a truthful picture?), reliability (can it be replicated?) and representativeness (does it study a typical cross-section?)
Perspective also affects choice of method. Positivists prefer quantitative data, Interpretivists favour qualitative data. Choice of topic is affected by society's values and funding bodies.
In laboratory experiments, scientists manipulate variables to discover laws of cause and effect. Although they produce reliable data, experiments are rare in sociology. They suffer from practical problems (e.g. they cannot be used to study the past), ethical problems of experimenting on humans and are prone to the Hawthorne Effect.
Field experiments and the comparative method are used as alternatives to laboratory experiments.
Surveys gather data by asking questions. Before conducting the survey, the researcher needs a hypothesis (a testable statement) or aim, and concepts need to be operationalised (defined so that they are measureable). A pilot study may be used to iron out problems. A representative sample is essential if findings are to be generalised.
Questionnaires are lists of written questions, usually closed ended and often posted. They can gather data on large numbers cheaply and quickly. Positivists favour them because they are reliable and objective. However, low response rates can make findings unrepresentative. Interpretivists claim they lack validity: they are inflexible, superficial snapshots and don't give a true account of the respondents' meanings.
Structured interviews use closed-ended questions. They are quicker and cheaper than unstructured interviews, cover larger numbers and produce reliable data, but lack validity and flexibility.
Unstructured interviews use open-ended questions, producing valid data by allowing interviewees to express themselves fully. However, they are less representative and quantification difficult.
Interviews are social interactions and face problems of interviewer bias, status or cultural differences between interviewer and interviewee.
Group interviews are relatively unstructured, they can be useful in revealing group dynamics.
Participant observation involves joining in with a group to gain insight, and can be overt or covert. Research goes through three phases: getting in, staying in and getting out. Covert PO may produce more valid data but is ethically questionable and faces practical problems of maintaining one's cover.
Interpretivists claim that PO produces valid data but Positivists argue that it is unreliable, unrepresentative and lacks objectivity. They prefer structured observation which is usually non-participant and collects quantitative data.
Secondary data includes official statistics and documents. Secondary sources save time and money and provide useful data, but they may not always be avaliable. Statistics may lack validity, measuring officials' decisions rather than real events. Documents such as diaries, letters and government reports may not be representative. Some sociologists apply content analysis to documents
OTHER TYPES OF RESEARCH
Case studies involve the detailed examination of a single case or example. Longitudinal studies follow the same sample over an extended period of time. Life histories involve collecting and recording individuals' experiences. Sociologists often use traingulation, where two or more methods complement one another. Often this involves combining a qualitative with a quantitative source of data.
EDUCATIONAL POLICY & INEQUALITY
Policies can have important effects on inequalities within the education system. Educational policy has gone through 3 main phases since 1944.
The first was the Tripartite system, with selection at 11+ (based on the idea of innate ability) for either grammar or secondary modern school.
Comprehensivisation from 1965, abolished the 11+, all children went to comprehensive schools, but streaming continued.
Marketisation since 1988 aimed to create an education market, with parental choice and competition between schools.
New Labour policies after 1997 have largely maintained the policy of marketisation, while seeking to reduce educational disadvantage.
Some sociologists see all of these policies as reproducing and legitimating inequality. Some policies have aimed to deal with gender and ethnic differences in achievement.
MARXISM & POSTMODERNISM
Marxists take a class conflict approach. They see education as serving the needs of capitalism. Althusser sees education as an ideological state apparatus that reproduces and legitimates class inequality, ensuring working class pupils end up in working class jobs, and that they accept their exploited role. According to Bowles and Gintis, this is achieved through the correspondence principle and the myth of meritocracy. Willis combines Marxist and interactionalist approaches to argue that, although pupils may resist indocrination, their counter-school culture actually prepares them for unskilled labour.
Postmodernists take a diversity approach. They argue class is no longer important- society has become more diverse and fragmented and the economy has become post-Fordist. Education reflects these changes and is becoming more diverse and flexible.
FUNCTIONALISM & THE NEW RIGHT
Functionalists take a consensus view of the role of education. They see it as performing 3 important functions- socialisation into the shared culture of education, equipping individuals with work skills for the division of labour and selection for work roles. Education is organised on meritocratic principles and rewards pupils' ability, not their social background.
The New Right take a conservative view. They believe education can only perform its role effectively if it is organised on market principles rather than run by the state. In their view, marketisation will increase competition, ensure choice and raise standards.
Girls now do better than boys at all stages of education. Some explanations focus on external factors outside the education system- changes in the family, more employment oppurtunities for women, the impact of feminist ideas and changes in girls' ambitions.
Others focus on changes within the education system, such as the influence of feminist ideas via equal oppurtunities policies and challenges to stereotyping in the curriculum, more female teachers, coursework and exam league tables.
There are gender differences in subject choice. Choices are influenced by early socialisation into gender identities, the image subjects have, peer pressure and career oppurtunities.
Education also reinforces gender identities and hierachies e.g. through verbal abuse, male peer groups, the male gaze, school discipline and double standards of sexual morality.
CLASS DIFFERENCES- EXTERNAL
Middle class pupils tend to achieve more than working class pupils. Some explanations focus on external factors outside school. These include cultural deprivation- working class pupils are seen as lacking the right attitude, values, language and knowledge for educational success (e.g. they lack deferred gratification). Material deprivation means working class children are more likely to have poorer diets, health and housing, and parents who are less able to meet the hidden cost of schooling. The middle class have more cultural capital. They are better placed to take advantage of the choices offered in a marketised education system.
CLASS DIFFERENCES- INTERNAL
Some explanations of class differences in achievement focus on internal factors within the school and the education system. Interactionalists argue that schools actively create inequality through labelling and the self-fulfilling prophecy, streaming and polarisation into pro and anti school subcultures.
Marketisation and selection policies increase streaming within schools and inequalities between schools, through processes such as educational triage and cream skimming and this disadvantages working class pupils.
There are achievement differences between ethnic groups. For example, Indian pupils tend to do better than average, white Bangladeshi and black pupils do worse. There are class and gender differences within groups e.g. black females do better than black males.
Some explanations focus on external factors (outside school) such as cultural deprivation due to unstable family structures or inadequate socialisation. Others argue that the lower class position of many minorities, along with racism in wider society, leads to material deprivation and lower achievement.
Other explanations focus on internal factors. Teachers' racist labelling may create a self-fulfilling prophecy and anti school subcultures. The ethnocentric curriculum and institutional racism disadvantages ethnic minorities. Increased selection in schools resulting from marketisation is producing racial segregation.
EDUCATION: THE RESEARCH CONTEXT
Education is a research context with many distinctive characteristics. For example, the need to protect pupils poses ethical problems. Classrooms are highly controlled settings and this may make it difficult to uncover real attitudes. Teachers are accustomed to being observed and may 'put on a show' when being studied. Schools are closed, hierachical organistions and this may make access difficult. Parents may be difficult to contact without the school's cooperation.