Problems of researching globalisation

Globalisation refers to the increasing interconnectedness of different regions across the world. Globalisation is one of the core themes within AQA A-level sociology, while research methods is a compulsory element.

It follows that the exam board could legitimately ask a question about the problems of researching globalisation. This post is just a few thoughts on how you might answer an exam question, which would probably be in the form of a 10 mark ‘Outline and explain two problems’ type question.

problems researching globalisation.png

Two problems of researching globalisation

The first problem is that globalisastion is a difficult concept to define and operationalise. Sociologists disagree over what aspects are the most significant and worthy of study – economic, cultural and political globalisation are all possibilities. There is also disagreement over whether it’s a one way or two way process and whether it necessarily means the decline of the nation state.

This partly stems from the fact that it’s such an enormous process, reaching across the whole world,

Even within one aspect of globalisation such as economic globalisation there are so many things that we could look at to study – such as TNCs, GDP, the international division .of labour, free-trade policies, the WTO and so on, that it’s difficult to decide what to select as an indicator of globalisation.

These differences of opinion over what aspects of globalisation to focus on means that everyone ends up defining globalisastion differently and researching different things.

This means it’s hard to make sense of all the research on globlisation, hard to make comparisons, and hard to escape from the biases of the people who have selected different things to focus on.

As a result, new researchers can pretty much find justification for researching anything in relation to this topic, which can make the study of globalisation a bit ‘postmodern’ and lacking objectivity, direction, clarity and certainty.

A second problem is that it’s difficult to get data from every country, let alone every region in the world. There might be lots of official statistics collected in developed countries, but this is not the case in less developed countries.

In poorer regions of the world, there might not even be reliable information on birth and death statistics, making it difficult to keep track of even the most basic information. Another example is that school enrolment stats in many regions of Africa are notoriously invalid as an indicator of how many children attend school – they may enrol, but many fail to attended afterwards, meaning such stats could not be used to measure the quality of education globally.

Stats might also be collected in different ways – categories of crime might be different in different countries, or not even recorded in the case of lawless states. Governments are also well known for under-reporting war-deaths, especially civilian casualties, meaning it’s a problem to measure trends in global peacefulness.

If you’re doing qualitative research to make global comparisons, some countries might be hard to access because of conflicts, or simply time it would take to adjust to local cultures and languages and it would be difficult to do research in several countries at once within an appropriate time frame.

This could be overcome by employing teams of researchers in different countries, but this would mean more expense, be difficult to co-ordinate and you’d have to make sure everyone is researching in a similar way, which, given the problems with defining globalisation, could also be a tough call.

Doing Social Research – From Research Design to Data Collection, Analysis and Publication

There are several stages of the research process in social research, and the actual data-collection phase is often only a small part of this process. Preparation for data collection and analysis of data post-data collection often take up considerably more time than the actual gathering of data itself.

The process of data collection will of course vary depending on the topic being studied, and the situation of the researcher, but the following stages of research are common to many research studies.

  1. Deciding on a topic to research and narrowing down a field of study
  2. Doing an extensive literature review
  3. Devising research questions and (if desirable) operationalising concepts
  4. Selecting a sample of the population to be studied
  5. Conducting a pilot study
  6. Carrying out the research (gathering data)
  7. Interpreting and analysing one’s findings – thick description versus correlation and causation
  8. Publication, publicity and follow up tasks
  9. Using one’s research data – developing theories and making an impact

The discussion below compares a Positivist and Interpretivist approach to conducting research through these nine stages:

Deciding on a topic area to research

There are many broad topics within Sociology, and many sub-topics within those topics. In a two year A level Sociology course we cover the sociology of the family, education, crime and deviance and global development, and the range of topics under investigation becomes even broader when you get up to university level.

As a general rule Sociologists tend to focus on just one broad subject area and within that topic area they specialise in just one sub-topic – For example Becky Francis has tended to specialise in researching the relationship between social class, gender and identity within education, while Tony Sewell has tended to focus on the experience of black boys in the education system.

What are the factors which influence a sociologist’s choice of research topic?

  • The personal interests and values of the researchers themselves. A Sociologist is obviously going to be more motivated to study something they are interested in – and nothing motivates quite like personal experience – Tony Sewell and Marc McCormack are two examples of Sociologists who studied groups with whom they shared personal characteristics.
  • Theoretical perspective/ political beliefs. Whether one is a Feminist, Marxist or Functionalist/ New Right Thinker/ or Post-Modernist can influence what one studies. Feminists emphasise the importance of focussing on issues of gender inequality, so might choose to research issues such as domestic violence or the impact of the Beauty Myth, while Marxists focus on researching the impact of wealth inequalities, so might research things such as class inequalities in education. All of this raises the question of whether Sociology can remain value-free (unbiased)
  • Opportunity also matters when it comes to research topic – Mac An Ghaill wanted to study the experiences of Irish students but he couldn’t study, so instead he focussed on the black and Asian students in his own college.
  • Funding – Sociologists are professionals and need get funding for their research, so funding bodies can influence topics of research.
  • Society – Societies change, and so new topics of study will emerge with social changes. For example, sociologists have studied things such as rave culture, and virtual gaming communities as these have emerged, which overlaps with the first point above!

Doing an extensive literature review of existing research

Before undertaking research it is customary to do an extensive review of existing research relevant to one’s topic. There are several reasons for doing this:

  • To make sure no one else has already done what you’re about to do
  • So you can locate your research in wider research and develop already existing knowledge and theories
  • To find ideas about questions to ask respondents
  • To find ideas about how to go about conducting the research
  • To uncover any potential problems you may encounter during the research process.

This links to secondary qualitative and quantitative data.

Devising research questions and (if desirable) operationalising concepts

A Positivist approach to devising research questions

Broadly speaking Positivists aim to conduct social research using the methods of the natural sciences – which means using methods such as social surveys so that data can be easily quantified and correlations between variables uncovered.

Positivists will typically start off with a relatively narrow research agenda, seeking to find how a handful of independent variables effect a dependent variable. For example, when researching differential educational achievement, positivists might be interested in seeking to find what aspects of home background are most closely correlated with educational success or failure.

This means that Positivists need to think up their questions in advance, In order to successfully address the above question, you need a whole range of sub-questions to make up the survey – you need to ask about educational achievement, social characteristics such as class, gender and ethnicity and your need to ask about a whole range of things which may have affected achievement – level of parental interest, income of parents and so on…. If you don’t put it in the questionnaire, then you can’t find out about it! In Positivist research operationalising concepts in advance of data collection is crucial.

Operationalising concepts

Operationalising a concept means translating abstract concepts into specific questions that can be understood and measured in practice.

In the above example, almost everything has to be operationalised – you can’t ask about class, for exmaple, you need to ask about occupation, and you can’t ask about ‘parental interest’, you have to think of other questions that would measure this.

A Interpretivist approach to designing research questions

Given that Interpretivists are interested in qualitative data collection, and want to here respondents talk in their own words, all they need to do in advance of the research is have an idea of the kind of questions they want to ask, and some sensitive ways of prompting for further information. Essentially, Interpretivists don’t start off with specific research questions, they start off with a general aim and a few starter questions and then ask further questions as the research evolves.

Selecting a Sample

Sampling is the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research. Key terms associated with sampling include:

The Target Population – All people who could potentially be studied as part of the research

The sampling Frame – A list from which the sample will be drawn

The research sample – The actual population selected for the research – also known as the respondents.

A sample is said to be representative if the characteristics of the sample reflect the characteristics of the target population.

There are many different types of sampling technique which you need to know about, including Random sampling

  • Random sampling
  • Systematic sampling
  • Stratified random sampling
  • Quota sampling
  • Multistage sampling
  • Snowball sampling

Doing a Pilot Study

A pilot study is a test study done in advance of the actual study. Some of the advantages of doing a pilot study include:

  • To find out any practical difficulties you might come across before the actual research.
  • To see if the questions you are asking make sense to respondents
  • To see if response rates differ between different groups (in which case you might need a ‘booster’ sample of under-represented groups
  • To familiarise yourself with respondents so you feel more at ease when doing the actual research.

Pilot studies are easier with more quantitative methods, and may not be possible with more in-depth, qualitative research.

Conducting the research/ gathering data

Once the researcher has gone through all of the above stages, they are finally ready to collect data, where all of the practical, ethical and theoretical issues discussed in the previous pages apply.

For positivist inspired quantitative researchers this is a relatively easy phase of the research process. With some survey based research, for example, researchers don’t need to interact with respondents, and all you need do is to keep an eye on response rates, and maybe prompt certain groups to respond as necessary.

Obviously this is going to more difficult with qualitative research where the researcher is more involved with the respondents – here the researcher needs to think about how to record data – interviews need to be taped for example, and with observational studies, a field diary is often used to keep track of observations.

Analysing the Data

With Positivist research where researchers have used closed questions such as yes/ no answers and Likehert scales which are be pre-coded, the questionnaires can be fed straight into a computer which will read and analyse the data, turning it into statistics automatically . This can then be presented in the form of a bar chart or graph so we can easily see the relationship between such things as class and educational achievement.

Interpretivist research which is qualitative, and may amount to thousands of sides of notes may take much longer to analyse after data has been collected and cannot so easily be translated into statistics.

Stages 8 and 9: Publication and following up research

During the final write up of the research it is usual for Sociologists to comment on whether their data supports or refutes existing theories, hence relating their research back to wider theoretical debates (structure/ agency etc.)

Following research, researchers also need to think about how much effort they are going to put into feeding back to respondents and taking their views on board, which could be challenging in Interpretivist research where some of the respondents may not agree with the information the sociologist has selected for publication.

There is also the issue of how the data is to be used – Should Sociologists publicize their findings to the broader public, or should they leave this to their employers and the media? Should Sociologists get involved in government policy, or leave this to public officials

Find out more

If you like this sort of thing then you can find out more at my page on research methods.

Social Surveys – Strengths and Limitations

Social Surveys are a quantitative, positivist research method consisting of structured questionnaires and interviews. This post considers the theoretical, practical and ethical advantages and disadvantages of using social surveys in social research. 

The strengths and limitations below are mainly based around surveys administered as self-completion questionnaires.

Social Surveys.png

Theoretical Factors

slide showing the theoretical strengths and limitations of social surveys

Theoretical strengths of social surveys

Detachment, Objectivity and Validity

Positivists favour questionnaires because they are a detached and objective (unbiased) method, where the sociologist’s personal involvement with respondents is kept to a minimum.

Hypothesis Testing

Questionnaires are particularly useful for testing hypotheses about cause and effect relationships between different variables, because the fact that they are quantifiable allows us to find correlations.

For example, based on government statistics on educational achievement we know that white boys on Free School Meals achieve at a significantly lower level than Chinese girls on Free School Meals. We reasonably hypothesise that this is because differences in parental attitudes – Chinese parents may value education more highly, and they may be stricter with their children when it comes to homework compared to white parents. Good questionnaire design and appropriate sampling would enable us to test out this hypothesis. Good sampling would further allow us to see if those white working class boys who do well have parents with similar attitudes to those Chinese girls who do well.


Questionnaires allow the researcher to collect information from a large number of people, so the results should be more representative of the wider population than with more qualitative methods. However, this all depends on appropriate sampling techniques being used and the researchers having knowledge of how actually completes the questionnaire.


Questionnaires are generally seen as one of the more reliable methods of data collection – if repeated by another researcher, then they should give similar results. There are two main reasons for this:

When the research is repeated, it is easy to use the exact same questionnaire meaning the respondents are asked the exact same questions in the same order and they have the same choice of answers.

With self-completion questions, especially those sent by post, there is no researcher present to influence the results.

The reliability of questionnaires means that if we do find differences in answers, then we can be reasonably certain that this is because the opinions of the respondents have changed over time. For this reason, questionnaires are a good method for conducting longitudinal research where change over time is measured.

Social surveys are a good method for measuring change over time.

Theoretical Limitations

Issues affecting validity – Interpretivists make a number of criticisms of questionnaires.

The Imposition Problem

The imposition problem is when the researcher chooses the questions, they are deciding what is important rather than the respondent, and with closed ended questions the respondent has to fit their answers into what’s on offer. The result is that the respondent may not be able to express themselves in the way that want to. The structure of the questionnaire thus distorts the respondents’ meanings and undermines the validity of the data.

Misinterpetation of questions

Interpretivists argue that the detached nature of questionnaires and the lack of close contact between researcher and respondent means that there is no way to guarantee that the respondents are interpreting the questions in the same way as the researcher. This is especially true where very complex topics are involved – If I tick ‘yes’ that I am Christian’ – this could mean a range of things – from my being baptised but not practising or really believing to being a devout Fundamentalist. For this reason Interpretivists typically prefer qualitative methods where researchers are present to clarify meanings and probe deeper.

Researchers may not be present to check whether respondents are giving socially desirable answers, or simply lying, or even to check who is actually completing the questionnaire. At least with interviews researchers are present to check up on these problems (by observing body language or probing further for example).

Issues affecting representativeness

Postal questionnaires in particular can suffer from a low response rate. For example, Shere Hite’s (1991) study of ‘love, passion, and emotional violence’ in the America sent out 100, 000 questionnaires but only 4.5% of them were returned.

All self-completion questionnaires also suffer from the problem of a self-selecting sample which makes the research unrepresentative – certain types of people are more likely to complete questionnaires – literate people for example, people with plenty of time, or people who get a positive sense of self-esteem when completing questionnaires.

Practical Factors

Slide showing the practical strengths and limitations of social surveys.

Practical Strengths of Social Surveys

Questionnaires are a quick and cheap means of gathering large amounts of data from large numbers of people, even if they are widely dispersed geographically if the questionnaire is sent by post or conducted online. It is difficult to see how any other research method could provide 10s of millions of responses as is the case with the UK national census.

In the context of education, Connor and Dewson (2001) posted nearly 4000 questionnaires to students at 14 higher education institutions in their study of the factors which influenced working class decisions to attend university.

With self-completion questionnaires there is no need to recruit and train interviewers, which reduces cost.

The data is quick to analyse once it has been collected. With online questionnaires, pre-coded questions can be updated live.

Practical Limitations

The fact that questionnaires need to be brief means you can only ever get relatively superficial data from them, thus for many topics, they will need to be combined with more qualitative methods to achieve more insight.

Although questionnaires are a relatively cheap form of gathering data, it might be necessary to offer incentives for people to return them.

Structured Interviews are also considerably more expensive than self-completion questionnaires.

Ethical Factors

slide showing the ethical strengths and limtiations of social surveys

Ethical strengths of surveys

When a respondent is presented with a questionnaire, it is fairly obvious that research is taken place, so informed consent isn’t normally an issue as long as researchers are honest about the purpose of the research.

It is also a relatively unobtrusive method, given the detachment of the researcher, and it is quite an easy matter for respondents to just ignore questionnaires if they don’t want to complete them.

Ethical Limitations

They are best avoided when researching sensitive topics.

Related Posts 

An Introduction to Social Surveys – Definition and Basic Types of Survey

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research – Positivists like the survey method.

Please click here for more posts on research methods.

Social Surveys – An Introduction to Structured Questionnaires and Structured Interviews

Social Surveys, conducted by various organizations, are standardized procedures to gather information from large populations. Using methods like questionnaires and structured interviews, they collect data on diverse topics. Prominent examples include the England and Wales Census and the British Social Attitudes Survey. These surveys can involve pre-coded or open-ended questions. While useful for broad social studies, surveys can impose researcher’s perspective or encounter interviewer bias, reducing their reliability and necessitating careful interview design and conduct.

A Social Survey involves obtaining information in a standardised way from large groups of people. The main survey methods are questionnaires and structured interviews.

A wide range of organisations carry out surveys, such as government departments, schools and colleges, businesses, charities, market research and consumer groups. You may well have been stopped in a high street by a market researcher asking your opinion about a new design of chocolate bar wrapper, or phoned by an independent polling company such as Mori asking you to do a brief survey on any number of social issues.

PowerPoint slide showing definition of social survey.
  • surveys
  • basic definition surveys
  • two basic types of survey
  • administering surveys
  • interviewer bias

Examples of Social Surveys

Two well-known examples of Social Surveys in the United Kingdom include:

The England and Wales Census – The Census has taken place every ten years except for 1941. The sample for the Census is every household in England and Wales. The government conducted the last Census in 2021 and achieved a response rate of 97%. Most people completed it online during the Pandemic in the spring of 2021, but postal options were available. The Census asks basic information about who lives in the household, employment, education, religion, and health. You can find out more about the Census through the Office for National Statistics Census page.

First page of the England and Wales Census, 2021
The England and Wales Census

The British Social Attitudes Survey – started in 1983 and has now been tracking social attitudes for 40 years. The main method of the BSA is face to face household interviews. However, the latest survey round in 2022 used a slightly different method. Because of the Pandemic, respondents had the option to do the survey by phone following an initial house call. The survey asks respondents about attitudes to a range of social issues: immigration, politics, gender and sexuality, social class, vaping, and marriage, for example.  

Types of Social Survey

Social Surveys are typically questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form. Researchers prepare surveys in advance of giving them to respondents, and so they have a ‘structure’ to them. Most questionnaires will have a high degree of structure, and it is difficult to see how one could have an ‘unstructured questionnaire’. Because of this questionnaires tend to be a very formal means of collecting data, allowing the researcher little freedom to ‘follow her nose’ unlike other methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation.

Pre-coded, or closed question questionnaires are those in which the respondent has to choose from a limited range of responses. Two of the most common types of closed questionnaire are the simply yes/no questionnaire and the scaled questionnaire. These ask respondents to either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement. This later form of scaling is referred to as a ‘Likert Scale’ (basically a strength of feeling scale).

Examples of Likert Scale questions from the 2021 Census
Examples of Likert Scale questions from the British Social Attitudes survey.

One of the main problems of this type of questionnaire is the imposition problem, which refers to the risk that the research might be imposing their view, or framework on respondents rather than getting at what they really think about the issue.

Open-ended question questionnaires are less structured than pre-coded questionnaires. Although open-ended questionnaires will still usually have set questions, there is no pre-set choice of answers. Open questions allow individuals to write their own answers or dictate them to interviewers.

Different ways of administering surveys

The researcher has a choice of administering her questionnaire in a number of different ways. The most obvious difference choice is between whether respondents complete the surveys themselves, making it a ‘self-completion questionnaire’, or whether the researcher fills in the information, effectively making it a structured interview.

Some of the more obvious choices for ‘administering’ questionnaires include:

  • Sending questionnaires by post, or by email.
  • Simply putting the questionnaire online so that people can complete it.
  • Doing a structured interview in person, either on the street, house to house.
  • Doing the interview by phone.

Structured interviews with closed questions

One obvious way of improving the response rate to questionnaires is to conduct a face to face interview by paying a researcher to read out the questionnaire to the respondent and writing down their responses on their behalf. Having an interviewer present can also reduce misinterpretation of questions as respondents can ask for clarification where necessary and an interviewer can also target specific groups if necessary, as with much market research.

On the downside, structured interviews are more time consuming. One researcher can only do one interview at a time whereas thousands of people can complete a self completion questionnaire within minutes.

Structured Interviews and Interviewer Bias

At a more theoretical level, having an interviewer present opens up the possibility of interviewer bias occurring, where the presence of the researcher interferes with the results obtained. The social characteristics of the interviewer may affect the responses, depending on the age, gender and ethnicity of the researcher in relation to the respondent. If one is researching the prevalence of domestic violence against women, for example, one might reasonably expect a female victim to give different responses to a female researcher rather than a male researcher.

Each interviewer will have their own style of interviewing; right from selecting who they ask questions to if they are on the street, to the tone of voice, facial expressions, and pacing of the interview. Such differences can make it difficult for another researcher to repeat the exact conditions under which previous interviews took place. This will reduce the reliability of the results.

Training interviewers is one way to reduce interviewer bias, which is quite easy with structured interviews. These problems are likely to be more exaggerated with more qualitative unstructured interviews.

Signposting and Related Posts

I usually teach this material as part of the research methods module within A-level sociology.

Positivists prefer this method and you might like to read this post for more details: Positivism and Social Research (Positivists like the survey method).

Immediately after reading this post you should read Social Surveys – Advantages and Disadvantages which is more evaluative.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the quality and methodology of the UK 2021 Census.

If you’re interested in seeing example of the British Social Attitudes survey questionnaire. NB the 2019 questionnaire contains 170 pages of instructions for interviewers. It also contains a self-completion questionnaire towards the back. The later has some good examples of Likert scale responses for questions.

Please click here to return to the homepage –

Content Analysis of The Mass Media in Social Research

This post looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative textual and thematic analysis of media sources.

(NB For some reason, all of the AQA approved text books only seem to expect you to know about content analysis applied to film/ TV and Print Media, rather than applying this to online media (web sites/ social media/ dating sites) – So I’m only here focusing on analysis of ‘traditional media’ rather than ‘new media’ – DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – if you want to know why AQA insist on being stuck in dark ages – ask them!)

Mass Media resources are widely used in Social Research. Some Mass Media sources may provide sociologists with information about the social world, but their main interest to Sociologists is as objects of study rather than as sources of information.

Sources produced for entertainment purposes (films/ TV shows, special interest magazines) cannot reasonably be expected to paint a true picture of the social world, but they of interest to sociologists because they can tell us what media producers think people want to see, and it also interesting to see how different groups are represented in fictional TV shows, and the extent to which distortion takes place. When we look at the issue of crime, for example, we find that violent crime is disproportionately featured in crime dramas, whereas 75% of crime is less-serious property crime, and where groups are concerned, sociologists are interested in the extent to which the media perpetuates stereotypes.

News sources may claim to provide accurate information about what is going on in society – but to most sociologists the news is a social construction – it may reflect reality to an extent, but it also reflects the selection biases (what people think are important) and political prejudices of journalists and news editors. NB In the UK Journalists disproportionately come from private school (wealthy middle class backgrounds) – and so there is an inherent right wing bias in media reporting.

Below I distinguish between two basic types of content analysis – formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative content analysis

Formal (Quantitative) Content Analysis

Formal Content Analysis is a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content and involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.

The simplest form of content analysis is a word or phrase count, which these days can be done on millions of books which have been scanned into Google’s database, more complex forms involve looking at broader categories of content – which types of crime appear in news media for example, or what are the major categories of news (entertainment/ sport/ politics) – or one can analyse pictures to see the representation of men compared to women for example.

The strengths and limitations of formal content analysis

It minimises researcher bias and typically has good reliability because there is less room for the researcher’s interpretations to bias the analysis.

It is quicker to do than qualitative forms of content analysis.

Weaknesses emerge when you start to use broader categories – which can be interpreted differently by different people.

Simply counting the content of a media text tells you nothing about the context in which it takes place, or the broader meaning which the words or pictures convey.

Qualitative Content Analysis: Thematic and Textual Analysis

Thematic Analysis involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.

A good example of this is Soothill and Walby’s (1991) study of newspaper reporting of sex crime. They found that the reporting tended to emphasise the danger of being raped in public places and the pathological nature of individual rapists. It tended to ignore the prevalence of rape by partners and friends of victims and the wider context of patriarchal power within sex crimes.

Textual Analysis involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.

A classic example of this is the Glasgow University Media Group’s reporting of the miner’s strikes in the 1980s. They found that the miners ‘demanded’ better working conditions, while the managers ‘offered’ certain changes to working conditions.

Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.

The strengths and limitations of qualitative content analysis

Qualitative content analysis allows the researcher to look at the full context in which media reporting takes place, it thus allows for a fuller description of what the media is portraying.

Both thematic and textual analysis lack objectivity and are reliant on the researcher’s own interpretation of the meaning of media texts.

Critics of these forms of analysis have also suggested that those who use these methods tend only to pick samples which reflect their own views, and it would be difficult to do such detailed analysis on a wide range of texts.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology

Official Statistics in Sociology

The theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of official statistics in sociology.

Official Statistics are numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy.

This post considers some of strengths and limitations of using official statistics in social research,  focusing on practical, theoretical and ethical factors.

Official statistics are a type of secondary quantitative data and are one of the main methods you need to know about for the research methods component of A-level sociology.

Theoretical Factors

Theoretical advantages

Official Statistics make it very easy to get an overview of social life in Britain by, for example, clicking on the ‘UK snapshot’ or ‘focus on’ links on the ONS homepage.

Official statistics enable us to make comparisons between social groups and regions. The UK National Census is a good example of this.

They enable us to make historical comparisons over time because they often go back a long way – The British Crime Survey goes back to 1982 for example, League Tables go back until 1988 and and the UK Census goes back to 1841.

One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time
One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time

Some large data sets might not exist if they were not collected by the government – because individuals and universities simply don’t have the funds to do such large-scale research as required by the Census, while large private companies would only focus on data collection which is profitable.

Official Statistics are favoured by Positivists because they allow us to spot trends, find correlations and make generalisations. They also allow the research to remain detached so there is less room for the subjective bias of the researcher to interfere with the research process.

Theoretical Disadvantages

Some Official Statistics lack validity. Crime statistics are a good example of this – certain crimes are notorious for being under-reported to the police – such as Rape and Domestic Violence for example.

The way that some social trends are measured changes over time – sometimes making historical comparisons difficult. For example, they way the Police Recorded Crimes changed twice in 2000s.

Official statistics may also lack validity because they are collected by the state and massaged to make things look better than they actually are. The UK government has changed the way unemployment is measured several times over the last decades, typically bringing the number of officially unemployed people down – for example by reclassifying anyone who is receiving unemployment benefit but on a work-related training course as not being unemployed.

Marxist and Feminist Sociologists argue that official statistics serve the interests of elite groups – Data is only collected on things which do not harm those in power. Marxists argue that Corporate Crime and Financial Crimes of elites are not focused on by the government, while Feminists argue that domestic violence is not taken seriously by the state.

Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually
Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually

Similarly, official statistics reflect the biases and prejudices of those in power – The fact that African-Caribbeans and Muslims are over represented in prison suggests people from these groups have higher levels of criminality. But according to Marxist criminologists this is not the case – such groups are over-represented in jail because of racial profiling by the police – the police spend more time actively policing the black and Muslim communities (with more stop and searches for example) and this is what leads to the higher arrest and imprisonment rates. Official Statistics thus give us a misleading impression of reality.

Practical Factors

Practical advantages

Many official statistics are freely available to researchers and the general public. This is a distinct advantage over ‘privately collected data’ which is collected by companies – Facebook and Amazon, for example, have a lot of data on individuals, but they are not going to share it for free! Official Statistics are more likely to shared with the public because they are paid for by taxes.

They are generally easy to access and to navigate – by using the Office for National Statics (ONS) web site for example.

It is possible to access many official statistics from home, and you can do comparative social research without needing any ‘people skills’.

Practical Disadvantages

Even though these statistics are free, they are far from cheap to collect. The ONS employs 4000 people merely to collate this data. On top of this, think of the time it takes other government officials to collect data. The Census in 2011 cost hundreds of million pounds to produce.

Official Statistics are collected for administrative purposes rather than for research purposes. Thus the data which exists and the categories and indicators used might not fit a researcher’s specific research purposes.

Ethical Factors

Ethical Advantages

Official Statistics are collected in the ‘national interest’ and so avoid the biases of private research, which would only collect data which would be of interest to the particular researcher, or data which is is profitable.

Official Statistics enable us to check up on the performance of public bodies such as the police and schools, making sure tax payers’ money is spent efficiently.

Ethical Disadvantages

The collection of some statistics can have harmful effects.

The introduction of school league tables and the requirement that schools publish there results has led to more teaching the test, a decline in creativity in education, and education generally being much more stressful for both pupils and teachers.

The collection of statistics might really be about surveillance and control – The collection of data on school performance for example enables control of teachers while the collection of data on pupils allows ‘problem pupils’ to be identified and managed by social services from a young age.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Family Trends in the UK (2016) – outlines some official statistics on families

Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world? (looks at the problems of official statistics on gender equality)