Methods in Context – Possible Method and Topic Combinations

Methods in Context- Here you need to be able to assess the strengths and limitations of using any method to research any topic within education.

The different methods you need to be able to consider include –

  1. Secondary documents
  2. Official statistics
  3. Lab/ field experiments
  4. Questionnaires
  5. Interviews
  6. Participant observation (overt and covert)
  7. Non participant observation (overt and covert)

Some of the different topics within education you might be asked to consider include

  • Researching how the values, attitudes, and aspirations of parents contribute to the achievement of certain groups of children
  • Why boys are more likely to be excluded than girls
  • Why white working class boys underachieve
  • Exploring whether teachers have ‘ideal pupils’ – whether they label certain groups of pupils favourably!
  • Looking at whether the curriculum is ethnocentric (racist/ homophobic)
  • Exploring the extent to which sexist ‘bullying’ disadvantageous children
  • Examining how ‘gender identities’ enhance or hinder children’s ability to learn
  • Assessing the relative importance of cultural deprivation versus material deprivation in explaining underachievement
  • Assessing the success of policies aimed to improve achievement such as ‘employing more black teachers’.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

A useful activity is to pick one method and go through 2 or more of the topics, stating how you might use the method to research the topic, and what SPECIFIC advantages are and what SPECIFIC problems you might face.

For example:

Structured questionnaires would be a good method to research the values and attitudes of parents and how these affect achievement, because this is a relatively simple topic, and it would be quite easy to operationalise and measure how long parents spend helping with homework, or whether they want their child to go to university. However, a problem is that if parents aren’t that interested in their children’s education, they wouldn’t bother to fill in a questionnaire.

Structured questionnaires would be a bad method to research ‘gender identities’, especially from a postmodernist perspective, because gender identities are quite complex, and ‘played out’ within groups. It would be an especially bad method to use to explore the gender-identities of groups of boys – ‘lads’ are unlikely to take structured questionnaires seriously, as if one member of a laddish subculture completed it, he would be ridiculed by the group for doing so.

The above two sentences are examples of ‘top band’ (17-20) statements – they relate an aspect of the method to the topic.

You need to include good knowledge and evaluation of the method in addition to a number of such question-specific-statements, ideally developed even further, to get into the top mark band.

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The strengths and limitations of secondary data

What is secondary data?

Information which has been collected previously, by someone else, other than the researcher. Secondary data can either be qualitative, such as diaries, newspapers or government reports, or quantitative, as with official statistics, such as league tables.

Strengths of using secondary data in social research

  • There is a lot of it! It is the richest vein of information available to researchers in many topic areas. Also, some large data sets might not exist if it wasn’t for the government collecting data.
  • Sometimes documents and official statistics might be the only means of researching the past.
  • Official statistics may be especially useful for making comparisons over time. The U.K. Census for example goes back to 1851.
  • At a practical level, many public documents and official statistics are freely available to the researcher.

Limitations of using secondary data

  • Official statistics may reflect the biases of those in power – limiting what you can find out.
  • Official statistics – the way things are measured may change over time, making historical comparisons difficult (As with crime statistics, the definition of crime keeps changing.)
  • Documents may lack authenticity– parts of the document might be missing because of age, and we might not even be to verify who actually wrote the document, meaning we cannot check whether its biased or not.
  • Representativeness – documents may not be representative of the wider population –especially a problem with older documents. Many documents do not survive because they are not stored, and others deteriorate with age and become unusable. Other documents are deliberately withheld from researchers and the public gaze, and therefore do not become available.

This was a brief post, for revision purposes, designed as last minute revision for the AS and A Level sociology exams.

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Qualitative Data – Strengths and Limitations

Qualitative data includes….

  • Open question questionnaires
  • Unstructured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Public and private documents such as newspapers and letters.

Theoretical strengths

  • Better validity than for quantitative data
  • More insight (Verstehen)
  • More in-depth data
  • More respondent-led, avoids the imposition problem.
  • Good for exploring issues the researcher knows little about.
  • Preferred by Interpretivists

Practical strengths

  • A useful way of accessing groups who don’t like formal methods/ authority

Ethical strengths

  • Useful for sensitive topics
  • Allows respondents to ‘speak for themselves’
  • Treats respondents as equals

Theoretical limitations

  • Difficult to make comparisons
  • No useful for finding trends, finding correlations.
  • Typically small samples, low representativeness
  • Low reliability as difficult to repeat the exact context of research.
  • Subjective bias of researcher may influence data (interviewer bias)
  • Disliked by Positivists

Practical limitations

  • Time consuming
  • Expensive per person researched compared to qualitative data
  • Difficult to gain access (PO)
  • Analyzing data can be difficult

Ethical limitations

  • Close contact means more potential for harm
  • Close contact means more difficult to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality
  • Informed consent can be an issue with PO.

Nature of Topic – When would you use it, when would you avoid using it?

  • Useful for complex topics you know little about
  • Not necessary for simple topics.

Crunch Paragraph/ Conclusion – Generally, how important is qualitative research to Sociology?

  • More hassle practically, lacks objectivity, but good for validity which is probably the most important factor required when doing research.

 

 

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An Overview of the Education Module for A Level Sociology

The AQA Specification – Education

Students need to know….

  • The role and functions of the education system, including its relationship to the economy and to class structure (the perspectives: functionalism etc.)
  • Differential educational achievement of social groups by social class, gender and ethnicity in contemporary society.
  • Relationships and processes within schools, with particular reference to teacher/pupil relationships, pupil identities and subcultures, the hidden curriculum, and the organisation of teaching and learning.
  • The significance of educational policies, including policies of selection, marketisation and privatisation, and policies to achieve greater equality of opportunity or outcome, for an understanding of the structure, role, impact and experience of and access to education; the impact of globalisation on educational policy.

Education brief

How most text books break the specification down further….

Topic 1 – Perspectives on Education (‘role and function of education’)

There are 4 Main Perspectives:

  • Functionalism
  • Marxism
  • The New Right
  • Postmodernism
  • You can also use knowledge from these perspectives: Feminism/ Social Democratic/ Liberalism

Functionalism

  • Focuses on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs
  • Creating social solidarity (value consensus)
  • Teaching skills necessary for work
  • Bridge between home and school
  • Role Allocation and meritocracy

Marxism

  • Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. The education system performs three functions for these elites:
  • Reproduces class inequality.
  • Legitimates class inequality.
  • The Correspondence Principle – School works in the interests of capitalist employers

The New Right 

  • Created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given choice. This required league league tables
  • Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work, Hence education should be aimed at supporting economic growth.  Hence: New Vocationalism!
  • The state was to provide a framework in order to ensure that schools were all teaching the same thing and transmitting the same shared values – hence the National Curriculum

Postmodernism

  • Not a major perspective on education.
  • Use to criticise the relevance of the previous three perspectives.
  • A ‘one size fits all’ education system does not fit with a post-modern society
  • Education needs to be more flexible and targeted to individuals.

Topic 2 – In-School Processes

Make sure you explain the difference between Interactionism and Structural Theories

School Ethos and The Hidden Curriculum

Teacher Stereotyping and the halo effect

  • The ideal pupil
  • Labelling and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Banding, streaming and setting
  • Definitions of banding/ streaming setting
  • Summaries of evidence on the effects of banding etc.
  • Unequal access to classroom knowledge
  • Educational triage

Student responses to the experience of schooling: school subcultures

  • Differentiation and Polarisation
  • Pro-School subcultures
  • Anti-school (or counter-school) subcultures
  • Between pro and anti-school subcultures: a range of responses

Gender and differential educational achievement 

There are three main types of question for gender and education – achievement, subject choice the trickier question of how gender identities affect experience of schooling and how school affects gender identities. 

Distinguishing between out of school and in-school factors in explaining these differences is one of the key analytical skills for this topic (and in class/ ethnicity)

Achievement (why do girls generally do better than boys)

  • In the 1980s boys used outperform girls
  • Today, girls do better than boys by about 8% points at GCSE.
  • There are about 30% more girls in University than boys.

Subject Choice (why do they choose different subjects)

  • Subject choice remains heavily ‘gendered’
  • Typical boys subjects = computing/ VOCATIONAL especially trades/ engineering
  • Typical girls subjects = dance, sociology, humanities, English, hair and beauty.

Experience of Schooling/ Gender Identity

  • Pupils’ gender identities may influence the way they experience school.
  • Schools may reinforce traditional (hegemonic) and femininity
  • Gender identity varies by social class and ethnicity.

Out of school factors and differential educational achievement

  • Changes in Employment – Rise of the service, decline in manufacturing sector, crisis of masculinity.
  • Changes in the family – dual earner households, more female worker role models. LINK TO FAMILY MODULE
  • Changing girls’ ambitions – from marriage and family to career and money (Sue Sharp)
  • Differential socialisation –girls socialised to be more passive/ toys related to different subjects (Becky Francis) LINK TO FUNCTIONALISM/ PARSONS.
  • Parental attitudes – traditional working class dads may expect boys to not try hard at school.
  • Impact of Feminism – equal opportunity policies.
  • Policy changes – introduction of coursework in 1988/ scaling back of coursework in 2015.

Gender and In-School Factors

  • Teacher Labelling – typical boys = disruptive, low expectation, typical girls = studious, high expectations (Jon Abraham) – LINK TO INTERACTIONISM, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Subcultures –boys more likely to form counter-school cultures (Willis) – LINKS to out of school.
  • Feminisation of teaching – increase in female teachers puts boys off
  • Subject counsellors advise boys to choose boys subjects
  • Gendered subject images match traditional gender domains
  • Boys’ domination of equipment puts girls off practical subjects like PE
  • Traditional masculine identities – boys just don’t see school as a ‘boy thing’ – Working class boys saw school as ‘queer’, middle class work hard but hide this (Mac An Ghail)
  • Hyper-Feminine identities (hair/ make up) clash with the school (Carolyn Jackson)
  • Verbal Abuse – boys who study hard get called ‘gay’ as a term of abuse.

Social class differences in educational achievement

Why do working class kids do worse than middle class kids? (Free School Meals to measure, not class!)

Material Deprivation

  • Lots of ways!
  • Hidden costs
  • The cycle of deprivation
  • Selection by mortgage

Cultural Deprivation – blame the working classes

  • Immediate/ deferred gratification
  • Restricted/ elaborated speech codes

Cultural Capital – Marxist – blame the middle classes

  • Skilled and Disconnected Choosers
  • In-School Processes
  • Labelling, the ideal pupil (Becker)
  • Counter School Culture (Willis)
  • Aspirational culture in school (links to cultural capital)

Ethnicity and differential educational achievement

Chinese/ Indian kids do best/ African-Caribbean, Gypsy Roma worst.

Material Factors

  • Differences in income/ class don’t explain the difference (poor Chinese kids compared poor white kids)

Cultural factors

  • Family structure (single parent households)
  • Parental attitudes (Steve Strand 2007)
  • Language differences (linguistic deprivation)
  • Black anti-school masculine street cultures (Tony Sewell)

In-School Processes

  • Teacher racism/ labelling (Gilborn)
  • Subcultures and anti-school attitudes (Tony Sewell)
  • Subcultures as a means of resisting racism (Mac An Ghail).
  • Banding and Streaming/ Educational Triage
  • Ethnocentric Curriculum
  • Experiences of institutional racism and from other pupils (Crozier)
  • Also – racism in admissions at Oxford University

Education Policies

Main policies 

  • 1944 – The Tripartite System
  • 1965 – Comprehensivisation
  • 1988 – New Right – Education Act – Marketisation
  • 1997 – New Labour – Academies, Expansion of HE, Sure Start, EMA.
  • 2010 – Coalition/ New Right – Forced Adacademisation, Free Schools, Funding Cuts, Pupil Premium, and MORE STATE GRAMMARS.
  • Compenstory Education – E.G. EMA.
  • Vocationalism – e.g, Apprenticeships.

Policies – key questions

  • To what extent have policies raised achievement?
  • To what extent have policies improved equality of opportunity?
  • How have policies changed the way schools select pupils and what are the consequences (apply the perspectives)
  • In what ways has education becoming more privatised and what are the consequences (apply the perspectives)?
  • What is the relationship between globalisation and education policy?

 

 

 

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Assess the view that education policies since 1988 have improved equality of educational opportunity (30)

 

If you get a question of education policies, the chances are you will be asked about ‘education policies since 1988’. This handout is designed to get you thinking about how you could use the info on the New Right’s 1988 Education Act and New Labour’s policies from 1997 onwards to answer an exam question in this area.

The New Right’s 1988 Education Act
Not interested in equal opps, mainly interested in raising standards… 

• Parentocracy – parents get to choose schools
• Marketisation – schools have to compete like businesses for students
• League tables to be published
• The above should raise standards as no parent would send child to failing school
• National Curriculum – ensures all schools teach core subjects
• OFSTED inspections

How 1988 worsened equality of opportunity… 
• Middle classes had more choice – cultural capital/ skilled choosers
• School/ parent alliance (Stephen Ball)
• Also selection by mortgage
• Polarisation of schools – sink schools

New Labour’s Policies
More interested in equal opps  

• Academies (Mossbourne) – set up in poorer areas
• EMA
• Sure start
• Expanded Vocationalism

Other aims of New Labour/ criticisms of the idea that New Labour’s policies raised standards

• Sure start didn’t work
• EMA did work but the Tories have now scrapped it
• Academies did work but new Tory academies are more selective
• Vocationalism offers more opportunities to the lower classes, but it is regarded as inferior.

Other Information you could include…

• Compensatory Education – lots to say here….

• You could talk about Gender and Ethnicity too….

• Private schools…

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Key Concepts for Sociology – Education

Starting off with gender and education, gradually going to be populated with more! 

Crisis of Masculinity         

Where men are uncertain about what it means to be a man because of the decline of traditional masculinity. Men used to get a sense of purpose and identity simply by going to work and performing the breadwinner role, now that more women are taking on these roles, this no longer defines masculinity, resulting in men wondering what the point of their existence is (anomie).

Feminisation of Teaching           

This involves more women taking up jobs in teaching.  There are now more female than male teachers, especially in primary education.

Gender Domains   

Gender domains are the tasks which are typically seen as either male or female – in terms of household chores, for example, DIY is part of the male gender domain, whereas doing the laundry may be seen as part of the female gender domain.

Gender Norms

Gender norms are the behaviours and attitudes which are associated with masculinity and femininity; gender roles are the social positions we typically associate with masculinity/ femininity.

Gender identities

How one understands and expresses (acts out) one’s own sense of masculinity/ femininity

Hegemonic Masculinity

Ideas about masculinity should involve being in control, dominant, aggressive, competitive, striving for success in the public spheres of work and/ or politics, and limiting their role in the family to that of bread winner and disciplinarian.

Patriarchy    

A system dominated by men or run by men/ in the interests of men, which typically involves the oppression and subordination of women.

Sexism         

This involves prejudice or discrimination against women on the basis of their sex.

 All (or at least most!) Education Concepts – Check List

Achieved status

 

Division of Labour Labeling

 

Ascribed status Education Action Zones League Tables

 

Banding/ Streaming

 

Elaborated Speech Code

 

Legitimation of class inequality
Beacon School

 

Equality of opportunity

 

Marketisation
Canalisation

 

Ethnocentric Curriculum

 

Material Deprivation
City Academy

 

Faith school

 

Meritocracy

 

Compensatory Education

 

Fatalism

 

Meritocracy
Comprehensive School

 

Gender regime

 

Modern Apprenticeships
Comprehensivisation

 

Globalisation

 

Motivation by external rewards
Correspondence theory Grammar School

 

Multi cultural education

 

Counter school culture Grant Maintained School

 

Myth of meritocracy
Cultural Capital Hidden Curriculum National Curriculum

 

Cultural Deprivation Ideal Pupil New Deal

 

Curriculum 2000

 

Ideological state apparatus OFSTED
Cycle of Deprivation Immediate Gratification Parentocracy

 

Deferred Gratification

 

Independent (Private) Schools Parity of Esteem

 

Deterministic

 

Patriarchy

 

Particularistic values
Post-Fordism

 

Polarization

 

Passive subservience
Postmodernisation

 

Positional Theory

 

Patriarchal Ideology

 

Restricted Speech Code

 

Reproduction of inequality

 

Role Allocation
School- Parent Alliance Self Fulfilling Prophecy

 

Vocationalism
School/ Parent alliance

 

Disconnected Choosers

 

Institutional Racism

 

Sink schools Social Capital Specialist School

 

Skilled Choosers

 

Social Class State Schools
Sure Start

 

Universalistic values Secondary Socialisation
Value Consensus Social Solidarity Teaching to the Test
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Gender and Education Summary Grid for A Level Sociology.

There are three main types of question for gender and education – achievement (why do girls generally do better than boys); subject choice (why do they choose different subjects) and the trickier question of how gender identities affect experience of schooling and how school affects gender identities.

Below is the briefest of overviews(*it would be a grid, but wordpress doesn’t like them, so it’s just linear!) designed to cover all three areas within gender and education for A level sociology.

 Achievement

  • In the 1980s boys used outperform girls
  • Today, girls do better than boys by about 8% points at GCSE.
  • There are about 30% more girls in University than boys.

Subject Choice

  • Subject choice remains heavily ‘gendered’
  • Typical boys subjects = computing/ VOCATIONAL especially trades/ engineering
  • Typical girls subjects = dance, sociology, humanities, English, hair and beauty.

Experience of Schooling/ Gender Identity

  • Pupils’ gender identities may influence the way they experience school.
  • Schools may reinforce traditional (hegemonic) and femininity
  • Gender identity varies by social class and ethnicity.

Out of School and Home Factors

  • Changes in Employment – Rise of the service, decline in manufacturing sector, crisis of masculinity.
  • Changes in the family – dual earner households, more female worker role models. LINK TO FAMILY MODULE
  • Changing girls’ ambitions – from marriage and family to career and money (Sue Sharp)
  • Differential socialisation –girls socialised to be more passive/ toys related to different subjects (Becky Francis) LINK TO FUNCTIONALISM/ PARSONS.
  • Parental attitudes – traditional working class dads may expect boys to not try hard at schoo.
  • Impact of Feminism – equal opportunity policies.
  • Policy changes – introduction of coursework in 1988/ scaling back of coursework in 2015.

In School Factors

  • Teacher Labelling – typical boys = disruptive, low expectation, typical girls = studious, high expectations (Jon Abraham) – LINK TO INTERACTIONISM, Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Subcultures –boys more likely to form counter-school cultures (Willis) – LINKS to out of school.
  • Feminisation of teaching – increase in female teachers puts boys off
  • Subject counsellors advise boys to choose boys subjects
  • Gendered subject images match traditional gender domains
  • Boys’ domination of equipment puts girls off practical subjects like PE
  • Traditional masculine identities – boys just don’t see school as a ‘boy thing’ – Working class boys saw school as ‘queer’, middle class work hard but hide this (Mac An Ghail)
  • Hyper-Feminine identities (hair/ make up) clash with the school (Carolyn Jackson)
    Verbal Abuse – boys who study hard get called ‘gay’ as a term of abuse.

Be sure to check the more detailed revision sheets for each of the 3 sub topics above!

You could also link in different types of Feminism to many of these subtopics 

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Assess the Usefulness of Positivist Approaches to Social Research (30)

Just a few thoughts on how you might go about answering this question… if it comes up on paper 3 of the A level sociology exam

 Paragraph one – outline the key ideas of Positivism

  • Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.
  • By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action
  • Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.
  • To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys
  • These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

An example of the Positivist tradition in Sociological research – Durkheim’s cross national study of suicide in 1897. Durkheim believed that if he could prove that one of the most individual acts any human being could perform, that is, killing himself or herself, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s analysis of official statistics, showed that rates of suicide were higher in countries experiencing rapid economic growth , among unmarried men rather than married men and in Protestant countries rather than Catholic countries.

Durkheim further theorised that the ‘causes’ of a higher suicide rate were low social integration and low social regulation. Thus Durkheim’s ‘general law of social action’ is that if people become detached from society they are more likely to kill themselves.

Paragraph two – Two Interpretivist criticisms of Positivism

Firstly, they argue that the ‘objective’ quantitative methods favoured by positivists are not actually objective at all, arguing that if we look at positivist methods in more detail, there are a number of subjective factors that influence the research process. Somebody has to write the structured questionnaires that are used to collect quantitative data, meaning there is probably selection bias over the questions used – and official statistics are collected by people.

Atkinson criticised Suicide Stats and Interpretivists more generally have criticised both police crime stats and imprisonment stats for being socially constructed.

Secondly, Interpretivists argue that human beings are not just puppets, merely reacting to social forces. In order to fully understand human action, once again, we need more in depth qualitative approaches to see why and how certain students can turn disadvantage around and make schooling work for them! People are also unpredictable, and sometimes irrational. Because individuals are thinking and self-aware, they can react to their situations in different ways.

Max Weber argued that human behaviour that has a “sense of purpose”. Human beings attribute their own meanings to their actions, and different people can engage in the same action for different reasons.   In order to understand human action, we need to ask individuals why they are doing what they are doing!

Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that one can only truly understand social action by understanding the meanings and motivations that people give to their own actions. They don’t believe that one’s actions are simply shaped by one’s position in the social structure, rather that they are a result of micro level interactions in daily life and how individuals interpret these micro-level interactions.

An Interpretivist approach to social research – An Interpretivist Approach to social research would be much more flexible and qualitative seeking to see the world through the eyes of the respondents. Good examples of Interpretivist research include Paul Willis’ study of ‘The Lads’, Venkatashes’ study – gang leader for a day and Douglas’s study of suicide – which explored the different meaning behind suicide.

What all of these qualitative studies provide is an in depth account of the lives of the people being researched. You get ‘their story’ and get to see the ‘world through their eyes’ – the researcher allows the respondents to speak for themselves and we can an empathetic understanding as they tell us what they think is important, find out why they act in the way they do according to their interpretation of the world.

The rich data the above studies doesn’t easily translate into stats and you can’t generalise these findings to the wider population, but Interpretivists argue that these qualitative studies are better because you get a much fuller understanding, at a human level, of why people act in the way that they do.

Paragraph three – Positivist criticisms of Interpretivism

A Positivist Criticism of Interpretivist research is that it may lack objectivity because of the intense involvement of the researcher with the respondents and that the government cannot use Interpretivist research to inform social policy because it is too expensive to get sample sizes that represent the whole of the population

Positivists are also uncomfortable with the idea that there is no ‘end goal’ to Interpretivist research, it just goes on and on, leading to an open ended post-modern relativism.

Paragraph four – Positivist research today/ Conclusion  

Sociologists have not completely abandoned the positivist tradition today – many researchers still do quantitative research focusing on correlations and generalisations. Two excellent recent examples of this are Inglehart’s World Values Survey and Richard Wilkinson’s cross national research on the effects of inequality – published in the spirit level – both suggest that a general ‘law’ of society is that the greater the level of inequality in a society, the more social problems such as crime and depression there are.

However, most researchers today have abandoned the extreme idea that society exists independently of the individual and that people are predictable – for example Anthony Giddens developed the concept of structuration to point out that people have to consciously make society, even though they often end up reproducing similar structures, while many recent events such as Brexit clearly show that people are not that predictable.

In conclusion, there is clearly still some usefulness in understanding society at a macro level and recognising the fact that individuals are ‘steered’ by the social structure, but we need to combine this will understanding people’s thoughts and feelings to truly explain human action.

 If you like this sort of thing, you might like to purchase more of the same, a bargain for only £1.49, which may just help you pass your A level. 

Slide2

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Assess the View that Theoretical Factors are the most Important Factor Influencing Choice of Research Method (30)

Just a few thoughts on how you might answer this in the exam. 

Introduction – A variety of factors influence a Sociologist’s decision as to what research method they use: the nature of topic, theoretical, practical and ethical factors.

Theoretical factors – Positivism vs Interpretivism – Positivists are interested in uncovering the underlying general laws that lie behind human action. They thus prefer quantitative methods because these enable large samples to be drawn and allow for the possibility of findings being generalised to the wider population.

They also prefer quantitative methods because the data can be put into graphs and charts, allowing for easy comparisons to be made at a glance.

Another method that is linked to the positivist tradition is the experiment – laboratory experiments allow researchers to examine human behaviour in controlled environments and so allow researchers to accurately measure the effects of one specific variable on another

Interpretivists generally prefer qualitative methods which are regarded as having high validity. Validity is the extent to which research provides a true and accurate picture of the aspect of social life that is being studied. Most sociologists would agree that there is little point doing sociological research if it is invalid.

Theoretical factors – Validity – Qualitative methods should be more valid because they are suitable for gaining an in depth and empathetic understanding of the respondent’s views of life. Qualitative methods are flexible, and allow for the respondents to speak for themselves, which avoids the imposition problem as they set the research agenda. Qualitative methods also allow for rapport to be built up between the respondent and the researcher which should encourage more truthful and in depth information to flow from the respondents.

The final reason why qualitative methods such as Participant Observation should yield valid data is that it allows for the researcher to see the respondents in their natural environment.

Theoretical factors – Reliability – Is the extent to which research can be repeated and the same results achieved. Positivists point out that it is more difficult for someone else to replicate the exact same conditions of a qualitative research project because the researcher is involved in sustained, contact with the respondents and the characteristics and values of the researcher may influence the reactions of respondents.

Moreover, because the researcher is not ‘detached’ from the respondents, this may detract from his or her objectivity. Participant Observers such as Willis and Venkatesh have, for example, been accused of going native – where they become overly sympathetic with the respondents.

Interpretivists would react to this by pointing out that human beings are not machines and there are some topics that require close human contact to get to the truth – sensitive issues such as abuse and crime may well require sympathetic researchers that share characteristics in common with the respondents. Interpretivists are happy to forgo reliability if they gain in more valid and in depth data.

 Representativeness – Obviously if one wants large samples one should use quantitative methods – as with the UK National Census. However, one may not need a large sample depending on the research topic.

 Practical Factors – Practical issues also have an important influence on choices of research method. As a general rule quantitative methods cost less and are quicker to carry out compared to more qualitative methods, and the data is easier to analyse once collected, especially with pre-coded questionnaires which can simply be fed into a computer. It is also easier to get government funding for quantitative research because this is regarded as more scientific and objective and easier to generalise to the population as a whole. Finally, researchers might find respondents more willing to participate in the research if it is less invasive – questionnaires over PO.

However, qualitative methods, although less practical, may be the only sensible way of gaining valid data, or any data at all for certain topics – as mentioned above UI are best for sensitive topics while participant observation may be the only way to gain access to deviant and criminal groups.

Ethical Factors – Ethical factors also influence the choice of research methods. In order for research to gain funding it will need to meet the ethical guidelines of the British Sociological Association. How ethical a research method is depends on the researcher’s efforts to ensure that informed consent is achieved and that data is kept confidential and not used for purposes other than the research.

Real ethical dilemmas can occur with covert participant observation. However, sometimes the ethical benefits gained from a study may outweigh the ethical problems. McIntyre, for example, may have deceived the hooligans he researched but at least he exposed their behaviour.

Howard Becker also argued that there is an ethical imperative to doing qualitative research – these should be used to research the underdog, giving a voice to the marginalised whose opinions are often not heard in society.

Nature of topic – There are certain topics which lend themselves naturally to certain modes of research. Measuring how people intend to vote naturally lends itself to phone surveys for example while researching sensitive and emotive topics would be better approached through UI.

Conclusion – In conclusion there are a number of different factors that interrelate to determine a sociologist’s choice of research method – practical, ethical, theoretical and the nature of the topic under investigation. In addition, sociologists will evaluate these factors depending on their own individual values. Furthermore it is too simplistic to suggest that sociologists simply fall into two separate camps, Positivists or Interpretivists.  Many researchers use triangulation, combining different types of method so that the advantages of one will compensate for the disadvantages of another.

 If you like this sort of thing, you might like to purchase more of the same, a bargain for only £1.49, which may just help you pass your A level. 

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The US bombing of Afghanistan – A $16 million distraction from the harms of neoliberal policies at home?

America’s two latest attacks on Syria and Afghanisatan have been headline news in the last fortnight – in case you missed either of them…

In Syria – the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles to damage and air base in response to the claimed use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against civilians.

In Afghanistan they deployed the biggest ever non-nuclear bomb, at a cost of $16 million, to take out an ISIS stronghold.

The US claims the Syrian attack was because Assad crossed a line in using chemical weapons, and much of the news has focused on the declining relations with Russia (who support Assad), and they claimed the scale of second attack was to get into the underground bunkers used by ISIS, and here the news has focused on the message this sends to North Korea.

But why is the Trump administration playing ‘global policeman’ when just 6 months ago they campaigned on a ticket of focusing on domestic policy and making life better for ordinary America?

Noam Chomsky offers an interesting perspective and answer…

Noam Chomsky recently claimed that the Trump administration would need some kind of scapegoat or distraction to disguise the fact that their neoliberal policies are clearly in favour of big business and against the interests of the ordinary working class American, whose side Trump claimed to be on during the election campaign.

One good example of a recent neo-liberal policy which will make life worse for especially poorer working class Americans is the abolition of Obama’s anti wage-theft legislation this required a company to publish details of any violations of minimum wage or health and safety law that they’d made. The regulation forced businesses to disclose each time they broke a law in the past three years, including violations relating to civil rights, health and safety, and minimum wage and overtime violations.

There was also Trump’s recent attempt to repeal ‘Obamacare’ – which would have left 20 million more (poor) Americans without health insurance, but that was defeated, however, the defeat is an embarrassment which fuels the need for a distraction according to Chomsky.

So maybe there is some truth in this? Maybe now the real Trump is showing his colours and enacting policies which support big business and make life worse for the working man, what’s needed is a distraction – and what better than to bomb a few people, which will obviously just generate more problems abroad and more terrorist attacks on US citizens, possibly all ending up in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you like this sort of Chomskian analysis, you might also want to check out Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’, what’s going on here seems to be an evolution of what she argues too.

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