Research Methods

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Types of Data

We can classify different data into two categories:

  1. Primary and secondary sources of data

  • Primary data is information collected by sociologists themselves for their purposes. These allow them to have a first-hand picture of a group in society. Methods for gathering this data include:

    • Social surveys- asking people questions in a questionnaire or interview.

    • Participant observation- sociologist joins the group that they are studying and partakes in their activities.

    • Experiments- they sometimes use field experiments and the comparative method but hardly ever use laboratory experiments.

  • Secondary data is information that has been collected by someone else for their own purpose but that the sociologist can use because it fits the topic that they are studying. Sources of secondary data include:

    • Official statistics- produced by the government in a wide range of issues as well as other statistics like charities, businesses and churches.

    • Documents- like letters, diaries, photographs and novels or newspapers.

  1. Quantitative and qualitative data

  • Quantitative data is anything collected in a numerical form. Examples come from official statistics like the number of people getting 5 A*-C at GCSE or the percentage of marriages ending in divorce. Also, information that is collected by opinion polls usually comes in the form of quantitative data.

  • Qualitative data, on the other hand, gives a ‘feel’ for what something is like. Examples could be what it feels like to get good GCSE’s or why marriage ends in divorce. It aims to give us a sense of what it feels like to be part of a certain group. Also, in-depth interviews might give us their point of view on something and are usually collecting qualitative data. 

Factors influencing choice of methods

There are a number of strengths and limitations of using different research methods and these can be explained using a number of practical, ethical and theoretical issues:

  1. Practical issues

  • Different methods need different lengths of time and money which can influence the choice of the sociologist. For example, a large scale study may have many different people involved behind the scenes and will cost a lot whereas a small scale study with only one researcher will be cheaper but might take a long time to complete.

  • Research and funding bodies might require data collected to be in a certain form and this will influence the sociologists choice of data collection method.

  • Each sociologist will have different skills and this can affect their ability to perform different tasks- in a participant observation they will want the researcher to be outgoing and to mix into the group well so they don’t stand out.

  • It might be hard to study a certain group or subject matter with a certain method so you cannot give people who cannot read a questionnaire which means that you need to think about the people involved.

  • Sometimes the chance to conduct research comes about as a surprise and this means that you may not be able to use a method such as a questionnaire which needs time to…


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