Research Methods for Sociology – A Introduction

Introduction to Sociology: Qualitative, Primary, Secondary and Quantitative Data. Then, we will define the basic research methods including interviews, social surveys or experiments. We’ll also discuss participant observation, ethnography, longitudinal studies and other types of sociology research methods.
Why do social research?

The simple answer to this question is that we only have limited knowledge of the social realm from our life-experiences. Without systematic research we are unable to answer simple questions like how many people currently live in the United Kingdom. This is not true for more complex questions such as why children of working class get poorer school results or why crime has fallen every year since 1995.

The primary purpose of social research is to explore the social world around us. Without research, there is no way to be sure what is going in the world.

Research is often more than just descriptive. Sociologists usually limit themselves to a certain research topic, and they conduct research to achieve a research goal or answer a specific query.
Social Research: Objective or Subjective Knowledge

Sociology research is carefully planned. Research is conducted using well-established methods that ensure knowledge is objective. Information gathered is objective because it reflects the real world, not the subjective opinions of the researchers. This is why sociological knowledge can be referred to as ‘objective’ instead of’subjective.

Subjective knowledge: Knowledge that is solely dependent on the views of an individual. They reflect their values and biases.

Objective knowledge is knowledge that does not include the biases of the researcher.

NB. Although Sociologists are generally convinced that it’s important to collect objective data, some Sociologists (also called Phenomenologists), believe it is not possible. Researchers’ opinions can often interfere with the data being collected and filtered before publication.
Sources of data

It is common in social research to distinguish between primary, secondary and qualitative data.

Quantitative Data refers either to numerical data or statistics.

Qualitative information refers only to information that is written or visual in any form. (It is possible for qualitative data to be analysed and displayed numerically.

Secondary data can be data that has already been collected by researchers and other organizations, such government agencies. Both quantitative and qualitative sources of secondary data are government statistics. However, there are many sources of qualitative data, such as government reports, newspaper articles, personal documents (such as diaries) as well the astonishing amount of audio-visual material available online.

Primary data is data gathered first-hand by the researcher. A sociologist will typically have her own research questions. If she conducts her own unique sociological research she can tailor her research methods so she gets the data she needs. Sociologists use three main methods to generate primary data: interviews, social surveys (normally using a questionnaire), and experiments and observations.
The principal methods of primary research

Social Surveys: These questionnaires are designed to collect large quantities of information in a uniform format.

Researchers write social surveys ahead of time. They have limited closed-questions. The UK National Census is one example. Social Surveys are available in a variety ways. They might be self-completion (completed directly by the respondents), or they might be structured interviews on high street (as is the case with market research).

Experiments: These experiments aim to measure the effect of one variable on the other as accurately as possible, and to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables.

An experiment usually begins with a hypothesis. This is a theory that uses limited evidence to explain something. It usually looks like a testable statement about whether one or several independent variables has an effect on the dependent. A good experiment should be designed so that objective cause-and effect relationships can easily be established.

There are two types, laboratory and field, of experiment. A laboratory experiment happens in a controlled environment like a lab, while a field experiment takes places in a real-life setting. For example, in a classroom at work or in the high street.

Interviews – This method involves asking questions orally (either face-to–face, or by telephone) to collect information.

Structured interviews can be described as social surveys that are performed by the researcher. They include pre-set, standardised, and usually closed questions. Structured interviews are used to collect quantitative data.

Unstructured interviews, also called informal interviews, can feel more like a guided conversation. In these cases, the researcher asks open-questions, which often generate qualitative data. The researcher will ask questions in response the diverse and varied responses of the respondents. Unstructured interviews can therefore be used as a flexible research tool that is based on the responses of respondents.

Semi-Structured Interviews are comprised of an interview plan that usually consists of several open-ended question which allow the respondent give detailed answers. For example, a researcher might have 10 question (hence structured) and will ask all respondents. However, they may ask additional differentiated (unstructured?) questions based the answers.

Participant Observation: The researcher is asked to join a group of people in order to take an active part in their lives. In-depth recordings are made of what she observes.

Participant observation may be open, where respondents learn that the researcher conducts sociallogical research. Covert (undercover), where respondents are misled into believing that the researcher ‘one’ of them is conducting research.

Ethnographies/Case Studies

Ethnographies give a deep understanding of the culture and way of life of a particular group of people. They are usually very long-term and detailed, and strive to get a rich (or thick’), multi-layered account on a group of people. Although Participant Observation is the most popular method, researchers will use all other available methods to gain richer data. This includes interviews and analysis for any documents that may be associated with that particular culture.

Case Studies allow you to research a specific case or an example using multiple methods. An ethnography is just a thorough case study.

Longitudinal Studies (studies of a larger sample of people) – information is collected from the same people repeatedly over a long time. A researcher might ask 1000 people to fill out a questionnaire in 2015. Then they will return to the same people in 2020 and again in 2025 in order to collect additional information.

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