An Introduction to Research Methods in Sociology

An introduction to Sociology research methods. Includes quantitative, qualitative and primary data. Also, defining the fundamental types of research method such as social surveys and interviews.
Why do social research?

Simply put, without systematic research, our knowledge of society is limited to our own limited experiences. Without systematic research, we can’t know the answers to basic questions like how many people are in the United Kingdom.

The main reason we do social research, is to discover the social world around ours. This includes how people feel about different social issues as well as how those feelings and thoughts vary between social groups. Without research, you cannot be certain of what is going on around the world.

But most research aims to go beyond just description. Sociologists often limit their research to a topic or question.
Social Research: Objective and Subjective Knowledge

Research in sociology is usually meticulously planned. They use well-established procedures to ensure that knowledge reflects the truth of the world. Research methods that are rigorously used and carefully planned is what makes sociological knowledge objective rather than subjective.

Subjective knowledge – knowledge that is solely based upon the opinions of an individual. This includes their biases and values as well their point-of-view.

Objective knowledge – knowledge that is uninfluenced by biases, opinions or values of the researcher. This knowledge represents what really exists in the world.

NB. While Sociologists tend to believe that we should try to collect as objective data as possible, there is still a subset of Sociologists known as Phenomenologists who think that it is impossible.
Sources and types

In social research, it is not unusual to differentiate between primary and secondary data as well qualitative and quantitative information.

Quantitative information refers to data that is numerically represented or used in statistics.

Qualitative Data refers to information in written, visual and audio form. (It’s possible to analyze qualitative data and show its features numerically!)

Secondary data are data that has been collected previously by researchers or other organisations, such as government. Official government statistics are the most important source of secondary data. Qualitative sources of secondary information include newspapers, government reports, personal documents, such as diaries, as well as the vast amount of audio and visual content that is available online.

Primary data is data that has been collected by the researcher first hand. A sociologist will have her own specific research questions. This allows her to tailor her research methods in order to collect the data she is looking for. Sociologists use several methods to gather primary data. These include interviews, surveys, experiments and observations.
The most important primary research methods

Social Surveys – are often structured questionnaires intended to collect information from large amounts of people in a standardised form.

Researchers write the social survey in advance. These surveys are usually pre-coded, contain fewer closed-questions, focus on simple topics and are often coded by the researcher. The UK National Census is an excellent example. Social Surveys may be administered in a variety of ways. They could be self-completed (by the respondents) or they could take the form a structured interview on high street.

Experiments aim to measure the effect that one variable has upon another.

Most experiments begin with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a theory, explanation or explanation that is grounded on limited evidence. It usually takes the form a testable statement about which independent variables have an effect on the dependent variable. Good experiment design will allow objective cause/effect relationships to be established. This allows the original hypothesis to be validated or rejected, and can then be modified.

There are two types if experiments: laboratory or field. A laboratory experiment occurs in a controlled setting, such as in a laboratory; whereas, a field experience takes place in an actual-life setting, such as in a classroom, at work, or on the street.

Interviews are a way to get information from others by asking them questions, either face-to–face or by phone.

Structured interviews are basically social surveys, which are read out and interpreted by the researcher. They use standardised, pre-set questions, often closed. Structured interviews have the goal of producing quantitative data.

Unstructured Interviews are also known as informal interview. These interviews are more like a conversation. The researcher will ask open-questions that generate qualitative data. The researcher will first ask respondents about their research topic. Next, he or she will ask them questions that allow them to understand the responses. Unstructured Interviews allow for flexible, respondent-driven research.

Semi-Structured interview are those that have a structured interview schedule. These include open-ended questions that allow respondents to provide more detailed answers. One example is that a researcher might have 10 questions (hence, structured), but they will still ask the same questions to all the respondents. They may also ask more differentiated (unstructured), question based on the responses.

Participant observation is where the researcher joins an individual group, takes part in their daily lives and records what she sees.

Participant Observation could be overt, where respondents know that researcher is conducting sociological research. It can also be covert (undercover), which means the respondents believe the researcher is a ‘one of them’ and are not aware that the researcher is actually doing research.

Ethnographies as well as Case Studies

Ethnographies can be used to study the lifestyles of individuals in their environment. They tend to be long-term, in-depth and comprehensive and seek to present a multi-layered (or ‘thicker’) account of a particular culture. Although participant observation is often the primary method used, researchers will use any other methods that can be used to collect richer information, such as interviews with people and analysis of documents associated with that culture.

Case Studies is the process of researching a single example or case using multiple methods. This could include researching one school, factory, or other institution. An ethnography can be described as a deep-dive case study.

Longitudinal Studies is a study of a small group of people that gathers information at different times over a long period. For example, a researcher might get a 1,000-person sample in 2015 to fill out a questionnaire. Next, they would go back to the same people again in 2020 to collect more information.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *