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Sociology Research Methods

in an hour
Why sociologists do research
What you need to know:
Quantitative and qualitative research methods
their strengths and weaknesses
Sources of data
Evaluation of research validity, reliability,
representativeness, generalisability
Primary and secondary data
Positivism, interpretivism and their effect on
choice of method
Ethical considerations
A theory is a collection of linked ideas
which explain some observable facts
think of Darwins theory of evolution
Sometimes the theory comes first and
sociologist attempts to test it (e.g.
Durkheim and suicide)
Sometimes the theory comes as a result
of exploratory research (grounded theory)
Data and quality issues in research
Types of Data
Primary those collected by the researcher
themselves experiments, surveys,
observations, interviews. All of these methods
together are known as Empirical research.

Secondary those which have been collected

by other people or organsiations e.g. using
health statistics in the Black Report or even TV
and historical documents
Types of data
Quantitative That type of data which produces
numeric information in the form of charts,
statistics, tables. And answers questions like :
how many times. It is generally objective

Qualitative That type of data which produces

descriptive information conveying words,
feelings. It is rich, complex and difficult to
analyse e.g. Beckers work on The Outsiders. It
is generally subjective
Evaluating Data
If a research method or approach is weak it will
produce innacurate results
Remember : GIGO (garbage in garbage out)
There are five measures of quality:
Reliability -can it be repeated and get the same result?
Validity -Does it reflect a true picture of events?
Representativeness -Does the sample of pps reflect the
target group?
Generalisability can the results be generalised from this
research to the whole of the population ? (needs large pps)
Objectivity Has the researcher tried to keep their own
values and beliefs out of the research process ?
Choice of subject
Are sociologists more interested in some
people more than others
Are funds limited to certain areas
(perceived problems)
Personal bias to prove a point
The values beliefs of sociologists
Access to some groups difficult because
of power so why should we focus on the
powerless ?
Ethical Issues
Choice of topic we may draw negative attention to a
disadvantaged group victim blaming e.g. Afro
Caribbean youth
Choice of group some groups dont have the power to
say no
Effects on people to be studied may find out
negative things about themsleves Effects on wider
society public policy, victims of crime etc..
Legality and immorality committing illegal acts during
a study
Consent - asking peoples permission to study them and
their lives
Anonymity The right to remain anonymus and not to
be able to be identified from the report or study
Choices in Research
Theory influences choice of
research topic
Feminists interested in uncovering relationships
between patriarchy and womens lives
Marxists interested in how a relatively small
group of people oppress the masses
Functionalist explore values consensus and
are interested in how society maintains
Interactionists are interested in social action
and context
Relationship between theory and
Positivism is the approach based on the
natural sciences. Central is the idea of objectivity
and science. This approach was favoured by
earlier sociologists and tended to be top down
Interpretivism is the approach which tries to
see the world from the subjects perspective.
Tends to be bottom up and qualitative. This
research approach came originally from
There is no perfect research method
Qualitative and quantitative methods both have
weaknesses which tend to be the inverse of
each other.
The use of mixed methods which is known as
triangulation can overcome some of the
weaknesses of a method
E.g. A quantitative study on health an d lifestyle
could be supplemented by the use of in-depth
interviews or focus groups thus increasing
validity of the research
Quantitative Methods
Surveys- standardised questionnaire to find out reliable
facts, or test an hypothesis (cross sectional or
longitudinal e.g. The BCS)

Experiments- to artificially create a situation which tests

a theory or hypothesis e.g. Rosenhans study into mental

Comparative research- collecting and anyalysing

statistics e.g. The Black Report or Durkheims study on

These methods all tend to be high reliability but low

Representative sampling where
attempts are made to accurately sample
the target population to ensure
representative and generalizable results
Non-representative sampling where a
valid study of the experiences of a group
is more important than accuracy e.g.
studying prostitution
Random sampling
Where every possible participant has an equal
chance of being chosen
Advantages: least biased, most accurate
Disadvantages: need to know the extent of the
target population and be able to get hold of them
e.g. via postcode list or electoral register
Three main types:
Systematic sampling every nth on list
Stratified divided on known criteria but you have to
know the % of characteristic in population
Cluster e.g. geographic
Quota sampling
Often used by market researchers
Sampling based on proportions in UK population
e.g. age, sex, income, ethnicity
Each pp would be chosen on the basis that they
fulfil these e.g. if 1% of population is Asian and
female 1% of those sampled will be like that.
Advantages: economic, requires smaller
sample and can choose to sample in one
location but make it generalisable
Disadvantages you need to know the
demographics of the population and
innacuracies are hard to spot
Non-representative sampling
Snowball where each participant is
asked to refer researcher on to someone
of interest the the researcher. Highly
biased but useful for investigating
marginalised groups
Theoretical where a researcher selects
an non typical group so that they can
evaluate whether a charaqcteristic is
biological or socially constructed e.g.
mental illnesses
Pilot Study
sampling frame
Response rate
Research instrument e.g. questionnaire

Allows amendment for full research study

Qualitative Methods
Some sociologists interested in
understanding the qualities of social life

The favoured methods are:

Informal interviews
Focus groups
Not a single method but 4 choices:
Non participant or participant

And if participant then

Covert or overt
Participant observation
+ -
Experiences Bias
Getting to the Researcher influence
truth Ethics
Depth Too close
Dynamic Going native
Getting to hard to Studying the
reach groups powerless
Keeping accurate field
Non participant
Less likely to go native
Less likely to accidentally influence group


Desirability bias or Hawthorne effect

Observing without being part may be
The overt / covert dilemma
Overt Covert
Trusted outsider Access to forbidden
Honest and ethical areas
Can use supplemental See normal behaviour
research methods such Dangerous
as interviews Ethical dilemmas
Can ask questions Recording
Can keep
contemporaneous notes
But people may lead
you on
Ethnographic Research
Ethnography means writings about a
group or culture.
A researcher joins a group and uses a
range of methods to record the lives of the
people in the group.
There are issues about how to gain
access, acceptance, recording, maintining
objectivity and if the group changes as a
result of researchers presence
Informal interviews
More like a conversation with prompts
Open questions which will allow subject to
explore or talk rather than give short
Researcher must be skilled
Advantages high validity, lots of info
Disadvantages- hard to analyse, time
consuming and dependent upon skill of
Focus Groups
Small group
Series of prompts
Facilitated by researcher
Used a lot in market research to test ideas
In sociology useful to get people to speak when
Weaknessss- can over represent the views of
one or two dominant individuals
And lost of rich data hard to analyse
Questionnaires, interviews &
Large numbers of people
Handed out, internet or posted less often, face
to face e.g. consumer surveys
Quantitative categories or Likert scales for
Can contain a mixture of closed and open
A good questionnaire is easy to understand and
complete, gets the right info and preferably
Good for complex or sensitive subjects
Researcher can clarify
Higher response rate
Bias people want to present themselves
Recording of information
Operationalizing concepts
Turning an abstract idea into something which can be
seen, counted, measured in some way.
Health can be operationalized as:
Weight / height ratio (because people who are overweight tend
to have more ill health)
Blood pressure (vulnerability to heart attacks / strokes)
Healthy diet (what you eat, smoke and drink affects your health)
Feelings of happiness (measured on a likert scale)
These concrete measures such as blood pressure are
known as indicators, but their weakness is they are not
the thing itself so car needs to be taken when using
them instead
Leading questions must be avoided e.g.
wouldnt you agree that
It is hard not to agree

Emotive language or labelling language avoided

E.g. describing someone as disabled rather than
talking about the disability the former implies
that every aspect of their life is disabled
Use of secondary sources
Secondary data
Not collected by the sociologist themselves
Collected by someone else for their own
purpose e.g. Government statistics such as the
Or produced for personal use e.g. photos and
Useful to sociologists, particularly when
formulating research reference to previous
research in the field
Why use secondary sources:
Information is already available e.g.
SMRs (standard mortality ratios)
Historical events where participants cant
be interviewed
Cost to high to visit places
Issues of safety for the researcher e.g.
researching role of women in Afganistan
Groups who dont want to be researched
e.g. the super rich..
Types of secondary data
Previous sociological research
Official publication
Diaries, letters and personal documents
Treaties, company records
Oral histories
Documentaries, newspapers, internet
Advantages of using secondary
Statistics can illustrate trends e.g. health
improvement, trends in crime
Personal documents may give a more
valid picture of someones life
Oral histories rich picture
Media and content analysis turn opinion
into fact e.g. yes the Daily Mirror does
seek to create moral panics about black
youth. GUMG analysis of topics covered
Issues with secondary data
Statistics/ previous research: may not be exactly
what you need, also bias in collecting e.g.
suicide statistics
Previous research studies you cant check
validity e.g. Margaret Mead and growing un in
Personal documents self serving bias or edited
by someone e.g. Otto Frank
Oral histories memories may be distorted
Media and content analyis different tools can
give different results, huge amount of data.