Topic 1 Choosing a research method

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  • Created on: 20-02-19 15:30
Primary data
Is information collected by sociologists themselves for their own purposes. These purposes may be to obtain a first hand picture of a group or society or to test a hypothesis.
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What are the methods for gathering primary data?
Social surveys, participant observation and experiments
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What are social surveys?
These involve asking people questions in a written questionnaire or interview.
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What are participant observations?
The sociologists joins in with the activities of the group he or she is studying.
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Sociologists rarely use laboratory experiments, but they sometimes use field experiments and the comparative method.
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Advantage of primary data
A big advantage of using primary data is that sociologists may be able to gather precisely the information they need to test their hypotheses. However doing so can often be costly and time consuming.
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Secondary data
Is information that has been collected or created by someone else for their own purposes, but which the sociologist can then use.
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What are the sources of secondary data?
Official statistics and documents
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Official statistics
Produced by government on a wide range of issues such as education, crime, divorce and unemployment as well as other statistics produced by charities, businesses, churches and other organisations
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Such as letters, emails, diaries, photographs, official reports, novels, newspapers, the internet and television broadcast.
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Advantage of using secondary data
Using secondary data can be a quick and cheap way of doing research, since someone else has produced the information. However those who produce it may not be interested in the same questions as sociologists.
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Quantitative data
Refers to information in a numerical form. Examples of quantitative data include official statistics on how many girls passed five or more GCSEs, the percentage of marriages ending in divorce or the number of people who are unemployed.
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Quantitative data (2)
Similarly information collected by opinion polls and market research surveys often comes in the form of quantitative data.
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Qualitative data
By contrast gives a feel for what something like- for example what it feels like to get good GCSE results or for ones marriage to end in divorce.
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Qualitative data (2)
Evidence gathered by using participant observation aims to give us a sense of what it feels like to be a member of a particular group.
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Qualitative data (3)
Similarly in-depth interviews that probe deeply into a person's views can give us an insight into what it is like to be in the person's shoes.
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Factors influencing choice of methods
Given the wide range of methods available, how do we select the right one for our research? Different methods and sources of data have different strengths and limitations and we need to be able to evaluate these when selecting which to use.
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Practical issues
Different methods present different practical problems. These include: time and money, requirements of funding bodies, personal skills and characteristics, subject matter and research opportunity.
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Time and money
Different methods require different amounts of time and money and this may influence the sociologist's choice. For example, large-scale surveys may employ dozens of interviewers and data inputting staff and cost a great deal of money.
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Time and money (2)
The researcher's access to resources can be a major factor in determining which methods they employ. A well known professor will probably have access to more research funds than a young student, for example.
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Requirements of funding bodies
Research institutes, businesses and other organisations that provide the funding for research may require the results to be in a particular form.
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Personal skills and characteristics
Each sociologist possess different personal skills and this may affect their ability to use different methods. For example, participant observation usually require the ability to mix easily with others as well as good powers of observation and recall
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Subject matter
It may be much harder to study a particular group or subject by one method than by another. For example it might prove difficult for a male sociologist to study an all-female group by means of participant observation.
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Research opportunity
Sometimes the opportunity to carry out research occurs unexpectedly and this means that it may not be possible to use structured methods such as questionnaires which take longer to prepare.
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Ethical issues
Ethics refers to moral issues of right and wrong. Methods that sociologists use to study people may raise a range of ethical questions. The British sociological Association sets out the ethical guidelines for the conduct of research.
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Informed consent
Research participants should be offered the right to refuse to be involved. The researcher should also tell them about all relevant aspects of the research so that they can make a fully informed decision. Consent should be obtained before research.
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Confidentiality and privacy
Researchers should keep the identity of research participants secret in order to help to prevent possible negative effects on them. Researchers should also respect their privacy. Personal information about research participants should be kept private
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Harm to research participants
Researchers need to be aware of the possible effects of their work on those they study. These could include police intervention, harm to employment prospects, social exclusion and psychological damage.
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Vulnerable groups
Special care should be taken where research participants are particularly vulnerable because of their age, disability, or physical or mental health.
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Covert research
Covert research is when the researcher's identity and research purpose are hidden from the people being studied. This can create serious ethical problems such as deceiving or lying to people in order to win their trust or obtain information.
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Covert research (2)
Clearly it is impossible to gain informed consent while at the same time keeping the research or its purpose secret. However some sociologists argue that use of covert methods may be justified in certain circumstances.
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Theoretical issues
This refers to questions about what we think society is like and whether we can obtain an accurate, truthful picture of it. Our views on these issues will affect the kinds of methods we favour using.
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A valid method is one that produces a true or genuine picture of what something is really like. It allows the researcher to get closer to the truth.
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Validity (2)
Many sociologists argue that qualitative methods such as participant observation give us a more valid or truthful account of what it is like to be a member of a group than quantitative methods such as questionnaires.
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Another word for reliability is replicability. A replica is an exact copy of something so a reliable method is one which when repeated by another researcher gives the same result.
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Representativeness refers to whether or not the people we study are a typical cross-section of the group are interested in. Imagine for example that we want to know about the effects of divorce on children. It would take a great deal of time
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Representativeness (2)
and money to study every child of divorced parents and we might only be able to afford to study a sample of say 100 such children.
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Representativeness (3)
However if we ensure our sample is representative or typical of the wider population, we can use our findings to make generalisations about all children of divorced parents, without actually having to study them all.
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Representativeness (4)
Large-scale quantitative surveys that use sophisticated sampling techniques to select their sample are more likely to produce representative data.
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Methodological perspective
Sociologists' choice of method is also influenced by their methodological perspective- their view of what society is like and how they should study it. There are two contrasting perspectives on the choice of methods: positivism and interpretivism.
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What do positivists prefer?
Positivists prefer quantitative data, seek to discover patterns and see sociology as a science.
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What do interpretivists prefer?
Interpretivists prefer qualitative data, seek to understand social actors' meanings and reject the view that sociology can model itself on the natural sciences.
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Methodological perspective (2)
Functionalists and Marxists often take a positivist approach. They see society as a large scale structure that shapes our behaviour. By contrast interactionists favour an interpretivist approach. They take a micro-level view of society.
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The sociologist's theoretical perspective is usually the most important factor when choosing which method to use. Whenever possible they will want to obtain the type of data that their perspective view as most appropriate.
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Conclusion (2)
However, practical and ethical factors usually limit the choice. Just because a sociologist prefers a particular kind of method doesn't mean that they can simply go ahead and use it. Time, resources, access, consent, privacy are constraints
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Conclusion (3)
Finally even sheer chance may determine the method used. For example, David Tuckett (2001) describes how one postgraduate sociology student found himself taken ill with tuberculosis and confined to a hospital ward so, he used this as an opportunity
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Conclusion (4)
to conduct a participant observation study.
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Factors influencing choice of topic
Before choosing which method to use sociologists need to decide what topic they wish to study. Several factors influence their choice such as the sociologists perspective, society's values, practical factors and funding bodies.
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The sociologist's perspective
The sociologist's theoretical perspective is a major influence on their choice of research topic. For example a New Right researcher may study the effects of welfare benefits on the growth of lone-parent families since the idea of welfare dependency
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The sociologist's perspective (2)
Is central to their standpoint. By contrast, a feminist researcher is more likely to choose to study domestic violence, as opposition to gender oppression lies at the heart of the feminist perspective.
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Society's values
Sociologists themselves are part of the society they study and thus are influenced by its values. As these values change, so does the focus of research. The rise of feminism in the 1960s led to focus on gender inequality and today's enviornmentalist
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Society's values (2)
concerns have generated interest in 'green crimes' such as toxic waste dumping.
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Practical factors
Practical factors such as the inaccessibility of certain situations to the researcher may also restrict what topic they are able to study. For example although sociologists may wish to study the ways in which global corporations make their decisions
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Practical factors (2)
this may not be possible because there are made in secret.
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Funding bodies
Most research requires funding from an external body. These bodies include government agencies, the Economic and Social Research Council, charities and businesses. As the funding is paying for the research it will determine the topic to investigate.
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The process of research
Once we have chosen a topic for research and a method for investigating it there are a number of further steps we need to go through. The first one of these is to formulate an aim or hypothesis for the research.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis
Most studies either have a general aim or a specific hypothesis. A hypothesis is a possible explanation that can be tested by collecting evidence to prove it true or false.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (2)
For example, we may suggest that family size affects educational achievement. If so we can formulate a specific hypothesis as a cause -and-effect statement such as 'differences in family size cause differences in achievement'.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (3)
We can then collect evidence to test whether or not this is true. If the hypothesis turns out to be false, we must discard it. Discarding a hypothesis might seem like a bad thing, but in fact it means we have made some progress.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (4)
For example, if our research reveals no link with family size we have learned something new and so we can turn our attention to another possible cause instead-perhaps parental attitudes, or income?
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (5)
The advantage of a hypothesis is that it gives direction to our research. It will give a focus to our questions, since their purpose is to gather information that will either confirm or disprove our hypothesis.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (6)
Positivists favour a hypothesis as the starting point for research. This is because they seek to discover cause-and effect relationships. Using quantitative methods such as questionnaires, they formulate questions designed to discover whether and why
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (7)
these factors are linked. While a hypothesis is a statement about a specific relationship an aim is more general. It identifies what we intend to study and hope to achieve through the research.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (8)
The advantage of an aim is that it is more open-ended.We are not tied to trying to prove a particular hypothesis; instead we can gather data on anything that appears interesting about a situation. This can be very useful at the start of our research
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (9)
when we know little about the topic-since by definition in this situation we would have no real idea about what hypothesis we wanted to test.
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Formulating an aim or hypothesis (10)
Interpretivists often favour a broad aim rather than a hypothesis since they are interested in understanding actors' meanings so the task is to find out what the actors themselves think is important.
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Operationalising concepts
Suppose our hypothesis is that working-class pupils achieve lower qualifications because of lower parental income. Before we can test it we need a working or 'operational' definition of our key ideas- in this case, social class.
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Operationalising concepts (2)
The reason is simple: without a working definition we wont be able to count the numbers of working-class pupils who have or don't have qualifications.
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Operationalising concepts (3)
Now 'social class' is a fairly abstract concept so we need a way of measuring what class each pupil belongs to. Most sociologists would probably would use parental occupation as an indicator of a pupil's social class.
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Operationalising concepts (4)
This process of converting a sociological concept into something we can measure is called 'operationalisation'.
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Operationalising concepts (5)
Once we have operationalised our concept, we can start devising questions that measure it. For example we might ask parents 'what is your job'?. This will allow us to see what social class each pupil belongs to.
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Operationalising concepts (6)
We can then correlate this with information we collect about their qualifications to find out whether our hypothesis is true or false.
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Operationalising concepts (7)
Operationalising a concept may seem straightforward, but a problem can arise when different sociologists operationalise the same concept differently. For example we might disagree about whether a routine office worker is working-class or middle-class
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Operationalising concepts (8)
This can make it hard to compare the findings of different pieces of research. Positivists are concerned to operationalise concepts because of the importance they place on creating and testing hypotheses. By contrast interpretivists put less emphasis
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Operationalising concepts (9)
operationalising concepts. This is because they are more interested in actors' own definitions and understandings of ideas such as 'class', 'achievement' etc than in imposing their own definitions. of these concepts.
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The pilot study
Sociologists who use social surveys often carry out a pilot study before conducting their main survey. This involves trying out a draft version of the questionnaire or interview schedule on a small sample.
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The pilot study (2)
The basic aim of the pilot study is to iron out any problems, refine or clarify questions and their wording and give interviewers practice, so that the actual survey goes as smoothly as possible.
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The pilot study (3)
For example Young and Willmott (1962) carried out just over 100 pilot interviews to help him decide on the design of their study, the questions to ask and how to word them.
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The pilot study (4)
A pilot study may reveal that some questions are badly worded and hard to understand, or that the answers are difficult to analyse. After carrying out the pilot study it should be possible to finalise the questionnaire or interview schedule.
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Samples and sampling
Sociologists often aim to produce generalisations that apply to all cases of the topic they are interested in. For example, if we were interested in educational achievement, we would ideally want our theory to explain the achievement levels of pupils
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Samples and sampling (2)
Obviously, however we do not have the time or money to include every pupil in the UK study so we have to choose a sample of pupils to include. A sample is a smaller sub-group drawn from the wider group that we are interested in.
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Samples and sampling (3)
The basic purpose of sampling is usually to ensure that those people we have chosen to include in the study are representative or typical of the research population.
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Samples and sampling (4)
So long as our sample is representative we should be able to generalise our findings to the whole research population. This is attractive to positivist sociologists who wish to make a general law-like statements about wider social structure.
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The sampling frame
To choose a sample, we first need a sampling frame. This is a list of all the members of the population we are interested in studying. For example Young and Willmott used the electoral register as their sampling frame.
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The sampling frame (2)
It is important that the list we use as a sampling frame is as complete and accurate as possible. It should also be up-to-date and without duplication- otherwise the sample chosen from it may not be truly representative of the population.
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The sampling frame (3)
Once we have obtained our sampling frame, we can choose our sample from it. In selecting the sample, we need to ensure it is representative of the wider population we are interested in.
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Sampling techniques
Sociologists use various sampling techniques to obtain a representative sample such as random sampling, quasi-random or systematic sampling, stratified random sampling and quota sampling.
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Random sampling
Is the simplest technique, where the sample is selected purely by chance. For example names may be drawn out of a hat. Everyone has a equal chance of being selected. A large enough random sample should reflect characteristics of research population.
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Quasi-random or systematic sampling
Is where every nth person in the sampling frame is selected. Young and Willmott used every thirty-sixth name on the electoral register for their sample.
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Stratified random sampling
The researcher first stratifies (breaks down) the population in the sampling frame by age, class, gender. The sample is then created in the same proportions e.g. if 20% of the population are under 18 then 20% of the sample also have to be under 18.
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Quota sampling
The population is stratified and then each interviewer is given a quota of say 20 females and 20 males which they have to fill with respondents who fit these characteristics. The interviewer keeps at this task until their quota is filled.
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Non-representative sampling
The purpose of sampling is usually to ensure that the people we include in our study are representative of the research population. However for both practical and theoretical reasons not all studies use representative sampling techniques.
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Practical reasons
There are several practical reasons why it may not be possible to create a representative sample.
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Practical reasons (2)
The social characteristics of the research population such as age, gender and class may not be known. It would thus be impossible to create a sample that was an exact cross-section of the research population.
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Practical reasons (3)
It may be impossible to find or create a sampling frame for that particular research population. For example not all criminals are convicted so there is no complete list available from which to select a sample.
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Practical reasons (4)
Potential respondents may refuse to participate. For example some criminals may refuse for fear that their responses may be passed to the police.
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Practical reasons (5)
Where it is not possible to obtain a representative sample, sociologists sometimes uses snowball or opportunity samples.
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Snowball sampling
Involves collecting a sample by contacting a number of key individuals, who are asked to suggest others who might be interviewed and so on adding to the sample 'snowball' fashion until enough data has been collected.
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Opportunity sampling
Sometimes called convenience sampling, involves choosing from those individuals who are easiest to access. Examples include selecting from passers-by in the street or from a captive audience such as a class of pupils.
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Theoretical reasons
Even where it is possible to create a representative sample, some researchers may not choose to do so because of their methodological perspective. Interpretivists believe that it is important to obtain valid data and an authentic understanding of
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Theoretical reasons (2)
social actors' meanings than to discover general laws of behaviour. Because interpretivists are less concerned to make generalisations they have less need for representative samples.
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