Research Methods in Sociology: An Introduction

A guide to Sociology research methods, including primary, secondary, quantitative and primary data.
Why do social research?

Without it, our knowledge about the social world is limited by our limited experience and immediate life experiences. Without systematic research, it is impossible to answer even the most basic questions, such as how many people reside in the United Kingdom. We also cannot answer more complicated questions, like why working-class children do worse at school, or why crime rates have been declining every year since 1995.

Social research serves two main purposes: To describe the social environment around us and to find out how people feel about social issues. Without research, it is impossible to know what is happening in the world.

Most research is not just about description. Sociologists tend to be limited to a single topic of research and do research to address a specific question or research goal.
Social Research: Subjective and Objective Knowledge

Sociology research is typically carefully planned. The procedures used to gather the knowledge are well-established. It is the careful, systematic, and thorough use of research techniques that sociological knowledge is “objective” rather than “subjective”.

Subjective Knowledge – knowledge that is purely based on the opinions of an individual. It reflects their values and biases as well as their point of views.

Objective knowledge – knowledge that is free from the biases and opinions of the researcher. It is a reflection of what really is ‘out there in the social universe.

NB: While Sociologists generally believe we should aim to make data collection objective, some Sociologists (also known as Phenomenologists), think it is impossible to collect data that is objective. Researcher’s opinions are always a hindrance to data being collected and filtered to be published.
Sources and types

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

Quantitative data refers only to information in numerical form or as statistics.

Qualitative data can refer to information that is written, visual, audio, or in written form. (Qualitative data can be analysed and numerically displayed.

Secondary data is data collected by other researchers, or organisations like the government. The government statistics are quantitative sources while the qualitative sources include government reports, newspapers, diaries and audio-visual content.

Primary data is data that the researcher has firsthand. A sociologist will usually have specific research questions that she needs answered. She can then tailor her research methods to gather the data she desires. Social surveys (normally using questionnaires), interviews, experiments, and observations are the main methods sociologists use for generating primary data.
The main methods of primary research

Social Surveys – These are usually structured questionnaires used to collect data from large groups of people in a standardised manner.

Researchers write Social Surveys in advance. They tend to be pre-coded with a limited number closed-questions. One example of this is the UK National Census. Social Surveys can be administered in many ways. One option is self-completion, where the respondents complete the survey themselves. Another alternative is structured interviews on the high street. This is also the case for some market research.

Experiments – These are used to quantify the effects of one variable on another. They also aim to establish cause-and effect relationships.

The hypothesis is the foundation of experiments. This is usually a theory or explanation based on limited evidence. It typically takes the form of a testable statement about what effect one or more variables will have on the dependent variables. An experiment that is well designed will establish objective cause and effect relationships so that the original hypothesis can be confirmed or rejected.

There are two kinds of experiments: laboratory and ground. Laboratory experiments take place in controlled environments, like a laboratory. Field experiments occur in real-life settings, like a classroom or the workplace.

Interviews – A way to gather information by asking questions orally orally, either face-to-face or via telephone.

Structured Interviews are basically surveys about social issues that are completed by the researcher. They are based on pre-set, standardised and often closed questions. Structured interviews aim to generate quantitative data.

Unstructured Interviews (also called informal interviews) can be described as a conversation that is more relaxed than a guided conversation. They involve the researcher asking questions open-ended which produce qualitative data. The researcher will ask the respondents questions about a broad topic and then continue to ask them questions. Unstructured Interviews can be used to gather information from respondents.

Semi-Structured interviews are a schedule of questions that allows respondents to answer in depth. The researcher might ask 10 questions (hence structured) to all respondents and then ask them more differentiated (unstructured), questions based upon the answers.

Participant Observation is when the researcher joins a group to observe what they do.

Participant Observation can be overt where respondents know that researcher conducts sociological studies. Or it could be covert (undercover), in which respondents are fooled into thinking the researcher’s a friend.

Ethnographies, Case Studies

Ethnographies allow for in-depth research into the daily life of a group of people within their natural surroundings. Ethnographies are often very detailed and long-lasting. They seek to give a complete (or ‘thick,’ multi-layered account about a group’s culture. Participants Observation is the most commonly used method. However, researchers will employ all available methods to obtain richer data, such as interviews and analysis on any documents related to that culture.

Case Studies involve researching a single instance of something, using multiple methods. For example, researching a school or factory. An ethnography simply refers to a case study that is very detailed.

Longitudinal Studies: Studies of a group of people where information is collected at regular intervals over a long duration. One example is that a researcher might begin in 2015 with a 1000-person sample to complete a questionnaire. Then, in 2020, the same people would be contacted again to gather more information.

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