The most commonly used form of observation in education are lesson observations carried out as part of OFSTED inspections – technically these are a form of quantitative non-participant structured observation: OFSTED inspectors have half a dozen criteria to look out for and grade each criteria 1-4, with 1 being outstanding and 4 meaning unsatisfactory; observers will also add in some qualitative notes.
If a researcher is using previously gained records of lesson observations from OFSTED, this of course would count as a form of secondary data, but such a method is relatively easy (compared to participant-observation) for researchers to carry out as a part of their own primary research into schools.
One example of a structured observational schedule which has been used by education researchers is the Flanders System of Interaction Analysis (FIAC) which has been used to measure pupil and teacher interaction quantitatively. The researcher uses a standard chart to record interactions at three second intervals, placing each observation in one of ten pre-defined behaviour categories:
Teacher accepts pupils’ feelings
Teacher praises or encourages pupils
Teacher accepts or uses ideas of pupils
Teacher asks questions
Teacher gives directions
Terrace criticises pupils or justifies authority
Pupils talk in response to teacher
Pupils initiate talk
Silence or confusion.
Flanders used this form of quantitative behavioural analysis to discover than the typical American classroom is taken up by teacher talk 68% of the time, pupil talk 20% of the time with 12% spent in silence or confusion.
The advantages and disadvantages of OFSTED style non-participant observations applied to education
A practical problem is gaining access to observe lessons – although this is easier than with participant observation, it would still be relatively difficult to get schools and teachers to agree to this
Structured observations are relatively quick to carry out and don’t required much training on the part of the researcher.
Funding would be more likely than with more unstructured forms of observation.
Validity might be an issue – You can only observe with Non Participant Observation, you have little opportunity to get people to explain why they are doing what they are doing.
The Hawthorne Effect can be an issue – students and teachers act differently because they know they are being observed.
Reliability is good if the observation is structured because someone else can repeat the research looking for the same things.
Representativeness is easier than with unstructured observations because they are quicker to do thus larger samples can be achieved. HOWEVER, it is likely that you’ll end up with a self-selecting sample because better schools and teachers are more likely to give their consent to being observed than bad ones.
Dis-empowering for teachers and pupils – The observer is detached and acts as an expert.
Schools might give permission for observers to come in without getting the consent of the pupils.
A brief summary of Young, Gifted and Black (1988) by Mairtin Mac an Ghaill and a consideration of the practical, ethical and theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the method in this educational context.
In Young, Gifted and Black (1988) Mairtin Mac an Ghaill carried out two ethnographic studies in inner-city educational institutions where he worked. The first study looked at the relations between white teachers and two groups of male students with anti-school values – the Asian Warriors and the African Caribbean Rasta Heads – and the second study looked at a group of black female students, of African Caribbean and Asian parentage, called the Black Sisters.
Why study this subject?
Because of opportunity – He originally wanted to study Irish school students but no one could help him do this, so he was advised to study African Caribbean students instead. As to the Black Sisters he never intended to study them, but they found him – because he was perceived as being on the side of the students they were happy to talk to him about their views of racism.
Because Mac an Ghaill wanted to gain a close insight into the culture and values of respondents, he chose participatory methods – he became friendly with the students and they visited his home regularly… ‘The experience of talking, eating, dancing and listening to music together helped break down the potential social barriers of the teacher-researcher role that may have been assigned to me and my seeing them as students with the accompanying status perception’
At the time the dominant theories argued that black underachievement was due to subcultures of resistance – the problem was seen as being with the students themselves.
However, following his in-depth research, and his adoption of a ‘black perspective’ he realised that racism rather than the students themselves was the biggest problem in their schooling – their subcultures were a response to a racially structured institution.
Mac an Ghaill does not claim to be value free in his research – he was committed to helping students overcome their perceived racial barriers.
The research also brought him into conflict with some other members of staff, as he found himself becoming the defender of ethnic minority students against what he perceived to be a racist institution.
Practical Issues with this research
Mac an Ghaill was only able to do this research because of his position as a teacher, it would have been practically impossible otherwise.
Reliability and Representativeness are both low.
Validity is an interesting one – given the in-depth and participatory nature of the method we might assume that we are gaining a true insight into the thoughts and feelings of the respondents. However, the research has only given us an insight into student perceptions of racism, not whether the institution was actually racist. However, even if the institution wasn’t actually racist, understanding the students perception that it was provides us with new insight into why they formed subculture.
Finally, given that Mac an Ghaill was both researcher and teacher, this may have meant some of the student respondents didn’t open up to him fully.
Participant Observation in the Context of Education
Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘ Learning to Labour (1977)
Learning to labour
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.
Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.
Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.
Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.
One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.
Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.
For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’
Practical Issues with Learning to Labour
The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.
It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)
Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.
Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour
An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.
An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.
A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on
Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour
Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.
Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.
Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.
Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.
Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.
You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.
An interview involves an interviewer asking questions verbally to a respondent. Interviews involve a more direct interaction between the researcher and the respondent than questionnaires. Interviews can either be conducted face to face, via phone, video link or social media.
Types of interview, and key terms
Structured or formal interviews are those in which the interviewer asks the interviewee the same questions in the same way to different respondents. This will typically involve reading out questions from a pre-written and pre-coded structured questionnaire.
Unstructured or Informal interviews (also called discovery interviews) are more like a guided conversation. The interviewer has complete freedom to vary the questions from respondent to respondent, so they can follow whatever lines of enquiry they think are most appropriated, depending on the responses given by each respondent.
Semi-Structured interviews are those in which respondents have a list of questions, but they are free to ask further, differentiated questions based on the responses given.
Group interviews – Interviews can be conducted either one to one (individual interviews) or in a a group, in which the interviewer interviews two or more respondents at a time. Group interviews have their own unique strengths and limitations which we”ll return to later.
Focus groups are a type of group interview in which respondents are asked to discuss certain topics.
The Interview Schedule – A list of questions or topic areas the interviewer wishes to ask or cover in the course of the interview. The more structured the interview, the more rigid the interiew schedule will be. Before conducting an interview it is usual for the reseracher to know something about the topic area and the respondents themselves, and so they will have at least some idea of the questions they are likely to ask: even if they are doing ‘unstructred interviews’ an interviewer will have some kind of interview schedule, even if it is just a list of broad topic areas to discuss, or an opening question.
Transcription of interviews -Transcription is the process of writing down (or typing up) what respondents say in an interview. In order to be able to transcribe effectively interviews will need to be recorded.
The problem of Leading Questions – In Unstructured Interviews, the interviewer should aim to avoid asking leading questions.
The Strengths and Limitations of Unstructured Interviews
The advantages of unstructured interviews
Respondent led – unstructured interviews are ‘respondent led’ – this is because the researcher listens to what the respondent says and then asks further questions based on what the respondent says. This should allow respondents to express themselves and explain their views more fully than with structured interviews.
Flexibility – the researcher can change his or her mind about what the most important questions are as the interview develops. Unstructured Interviews thus avoid the imposition problem – respondents are less constrained than with structured interviews or questionnaires in which the questions are written in advance by the researcher. This is especially advantageous in group interviews, where interaction between respondents can spark conversations that the interviewer hadn’t thought would of happened in advance, which could then be probed further with an unstructured methodology.
Rapport and empathy – unstructured interviews encourage a good rapport between interviewee and interviewer. Because of their informal nature, like guided conversations, unstructured interviews are more likely to make respondents feel at ease than with the more formal setting of a structured questionnaire or experiment. This should encourage openness, trust and empathy.
Checking understanding – unstructured interviews also allow the interviewer to check understanding. If an interviewee doesn’t understand a question, the interviewer is free to rephrase it, or to ask follow up questions to clarify aspects of answers that were not clear in the first instance.
Unstructured interviews are good for sensitive topics because they are more likely to make respondents feel at ease with the interviewer. They also allow the interviewer to show more sympathy (if required) than with the colder more mechanical quantitative methods.
Empowerment for respondents – the researcher and respondents are on a more equal footing than with more quantitative methods. The researcher doesn’t assume they know best. This empowers the respondents. Feminists researchers in particular believe that the unstructured interview can neutralise the hierarchical, exploitative power relations that they believe to be inherent in the more traditional interview structure. They see the traditional interview as a site for the exploitation and subordination of women, with the interviewers potentially creating outcomes against their interviewees’ interests. In traditional interview formats the interviewer directs the questioning and takes ownership of the material; in the feminist (unstructured) interview method the woman would recount her experiences in her own words with the interviewer serving only as a guide to the account.
Practical advantages – there are few practical advantages with this method, but compared to full-blown participant observation, they are a relatively quick method for gaining in-depth data. They are also a good method to combine with overt participant observation in order to get respondents to further explain the meanings behind their actions. So in short, they are impractical, unless you’re in the middle of a year long Participant Observation study (it’s all relative!).
Disadvantages of unstructured interviews
The main theoretical disadvantage is the lack of reliability – unstructured Interviews lack reliability because each interview is unique – a variety of different questions are asked and phrased in a variety of different ways to different respondents.
They are also difficult to repeat, because the success of the interview depends on the bond of trust between the researcher and the respondent – another researcher who does not relate to the respondent may thus get different answers. Group interviews are especially difficult to repeat, given that the dynamics of the interview are influenced not just by the values of the researcher, but also by group dynamics. One person can change the dynamic of a group of three or four people enormously.
Interviewer bias might undermine the validity of unstructured interviews – this is where the values of the researcher interfere with the results. The researcher may give away whether they approve or disapprove of certain responses in their body language or tone of voice (or wording of probing questions) and this in turn might encourage or discourage respondents from being honest.
The characteristics of the interviewer might also bias the results and undermine the validity – how honest the respondent is in the course of an hour long interview might depend on the class, gender, or ethnicity of the interviewer.
Unstructured interviews also lack representativeness – because they are time consuming, it is difficult to get a large enough sample to be representative of large populations.
It is difficult to quantify data, compare answers and find stats and trends because the data gained is qualitative.
Practical disadvantages – unstructured Interviews may take a relatively long time to conduct. Some interviews can take hours. They also need to be taped and transcribed, and in the analysis phase there may be a lot of information that is not directly relevant to one’s research topic that needs to be sifted through.
Interpersonal skills and training – A further practical problem is that some researchers may lack the interpersonal skills required to conduct informal unstructured interviews. Training might need to be more thorough for researchers undertaking unstructured interviews – to avoid the problem of interviewer bias.
There are few ethical problems, assuming that informed consent is gained and confidentially ensured. Although having said this, the fact that the researcher is getting more in-depth data, more of an insight into who the person really is, does offer the potential for the information to do more harm to the respondent if it got into the wrong hands (but this in turn depends on the topics discussed and the exact content of the interviews.
These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam
The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –
There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)
You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.
Durkheim and Functionalism
Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.
Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’
Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns
He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly
He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order
1. There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’
Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.
Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…
2. Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour
Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.
3 Individuals need to be restrained
Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.
Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.
Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.
Key Term – Social Solidarity
Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.
Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult
Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.
In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.
In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.
Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’ and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference
Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.
Key Term – Anomie
Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.
Talcott Parson’s Functionalism
Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work
4. The Organic Analogy – we should see society as a system
Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.
The Organic Analogy
Each Organ has a unique function
Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously
All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent
Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary
Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts
The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: low rates social problems.
5. Institutions perform positive functions
Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below
Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.
The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites
Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.
According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency. In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems
Parson’s name for each function (AGIL)
Performed by what institutions?
Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance)
Socialise the young into shared values
Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.
Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.
6. Social change and social evolution
Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)
Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.
Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective
1. Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals?
2. It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.
3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it
4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.
5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.
6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.
7. Functionalism is Ideological – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions
So is Functionalism still relevant today?
Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –
The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.
Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.
Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….
This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…
Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone? (Scroll down for a video summary)
According to a recent book by Eric Klinenberg: Explaining the Rise of Solo Living, this is a global phenomenon and mainly reflects the increasing degree of individual choice that comes with increasing wealth.
A review of the trends in Single Person Households
29% of UK Households are single person households.
Most people who live alone are 65+ and increasing numbers of those aged 45-60 are living alone. However, the numbers of younger people living alone are declining (so Wayne in the video above is actually wrong when he says solo living is on the increase among younger people!)
A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg
Klinenberg argues that the rise of solo living is an extremely important social trend which presents a fundamental challenge to the centrality of the family to modern society. In the USA, the average adult will now spend more of their life unmarried than married, and single person households are one of the most common types of household. We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population.
Eric Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing 300 single Americans who lived alone, and the general picture he got was that these people were exactly where they wanted to be – living on their own was not a transitory phase, it was a genuine life choice. On the whole, living alone is seen as a mark of social distinction, living as part of a couple is for losers.
While single by choice is very much on the up among younger people who have never settled down into a long term cohabiting relationships and have no intention of doing so, it is also the norm among older people who have come out of relationships. Where older people living alone are concerned, and these are mostly women, they are not all chasing the dwindling population of men in their age group (given the higher life expectancy for women). Most of them are in fact wary of getting involved in relationships because doing so will probably mean becoming someone’s carer (again), and similarly they are skeptical about moving back in with their children (and possibly their grandchildren too) because of fear that they will become an unpaid domestic and child-sitting slave.
NB, as a counter to the above, not all singles are happy about it, however. One such group consists of mainly men on low wages who are unmarriageable and live in ‘single room occupancy facilities’ often suffering from various addictions and who practice ‘defensive individualism’ in order to cope with their bleak situation.
So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?
Klinenberg suggests four reasons…
The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – the basic thesis is that the rise of single living is basically just a reflection of increasing wealth. When we can afford to live alone, more of us choose to do so. We especially see this where Scandinavia is concerned, and nearly half of the adult population live alone.
The communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of his thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
Mass urbanization – Klinenberg suggests that Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life. In short, it’s easier to connect with other singles where people live closer together.
Increased longevity – because people are living longer than ever and because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.
Video version of some the above.
In the video below, Wayne discusses his motivations for ‘going solo’ with his friend Archie, and together they explore some of the reasons for the increase in single person households.
To what extent do you think Kleinberg’s findings apply to the increase in Solo Living in the UK?
What other ‘deeper’ Sociological reasons might explain the increase in Solo Living?
Do you agree that the rise of Solo Living challenges the centrality of the family in modern society?
‘Who Tweets’ is an interesting piece of recent research which attempts to determine some basic demographic characteristics of Twitter users, relying on nothing but the data provided by the users themselves in their twitter profiles.
Based on a sample of 1470 twitter profiles* in which users clearly stated** their age, the authors of ‘Who Tweets’ found that 93.9% of twitter users were under the age of 35. The full age-profile of twitter users (according to the ‘Who Tweets’/ COSMOS data) compared to the actual age profile taken from the UK Census is below:
Compare this to the Ipsos MORI Tech Tracker report for the third quarter of 2014 (which the above research draws on) which used face to face interviews based on a quota sample of 1000 people.
Clearly this shows that only 67% of media users are under the age of 35, quite a discrepancy with the user-defined data!
The researchers note that:
‘We might… hypothesis that young people are more likely to profess their age in their profile data and that this would lead to an overestimation of the ‘youthfulness’ of the UK Twitter population. As this is a new and developing field we have no evidence to support this claim, but the following discussion and estimations should be treated cautiously.
Looking again at the results from the Technology Tracker study conducted by Ipsos MORI, nearly two thirds of Twitter users were under 35 years of age in Q3 of 2014 whereas our study clearly identifies 93.9% as being 35 or younger. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the older population is less likely to state their age on Twitter. The second is that the age distribution in the survey data is a function of sample bias (i.e. participants over the age of 35 in the survey were particularly tech-savvy). This discrepancy between elicited (traditional) and naturally occurring (new) forms of social data warrants further investigation…’
This comparison clearly shows how we get some very different data on a very basic question (‘what is the age distribution of twitter users’?) depending on the methods we use, but which is more valid? The Ipsos face to face poll is done every quarter, and it persistently yields results which are nothing like COSMOS, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to get a persistent ‘tech savy’ selection bias in every sample of over 35 year olds, so does that mean it’s a more accurate reflection of the age profile of Twitter users?
Interestingly the Ipsos data shows a definite drift to older users over time, it’d be interesting to know if more recent COSMOS data reflects this. More interestingly, the whole point of COSMOS is to provided us with more up to date, ‘live’ information – so where is it?!? Sort of ironic that the latest public reporting is already 12 months behind good old Ipsos –
At the end of the day, I’m not going to be too harsh about the above ‘Who Tweets’ study, it is experimental, and many of the above projects are looking at the methodological limitations of this data. It would just be nice if they, err, got on with it a bit… come on Sociology, catch up!
One thing I am reasonably certain about is that the above comparison certainly shows the continued importance of terrestrial methods if we want demographic data.
Of course, one simple way of checking the accuracy of the COSMOS data is simply to do a face to face survey and ask people what there age is and whether they state this in their Twitter profiles, then again I’m sure they’ve thought of that… maybe in 2018 we’ll get a report?
Field Experiments take place in real-life settings such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street. Field experiments are much more common in sociology than laboratory experiments. In fact sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real life that most sociologists believe that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.
It is actually quite easy to set up a field experiment. If you wanted to measure the effectiveness of different teaching methods on educational performance in a school for example, all you would need to do is to get teachers to administer a short test to measure current performance levels, and then get them to change one aspect of their teaching for one class, or for a sample of some pupils, but not for the others, for a period of time (say one term) and then measure and compare the results of all pupils at the end.
The advantages of Field Experiments over Lab Experiments
Better external validity – The big advantage which field experiments obviously have better external validity than lab experiments, because they take place in normally occurring social settings.
Larger Scale Settings – Practically it is possible to do field experiments in large institutions – in schools or workplaces in which thousands of people interact for example, which isn’t possible in laboratory experiments.
The disadvantages of Field Experiments compared to Lab Experiments
It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – With the Rosenthal and Jacobson experiment, for example we simply don’t know what else might have influenced the ‘spurting group’ besides ‘higher teacher expectations’.
The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results. The Hawthorne effect is where respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment. The Hawthorne Effect was a phrase coined by Elton Mayo (1927) who did research into workers’ productivity at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant. With the workers agreement (they knew that an experiment was taking place, and the purpose of the experiment), Mayo set about varying things such as lighting levels, the speed of conveyor belts and toilet breaks. However, whatever he did, the worker’s productivity always increased from the norm, even when conditions were worsened. He concluded that the respondents were simply trying to please the researcher. NB – The Hawthorne effect can also apply to laboratory experiments.
Practical Problems – Access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.
Ethical Problems – Just as with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.
Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1968 Field Experiment on Teacher Expectations (Pygmalion in the Classroom)
This classic field experiment illustrates some of the strengths and limitation of this method.
The aim of this research was to measure the effect of high teacher expectation on the educational performance of pupils.
Rosenthal and Jacobson carried out their research in a California primary school they called ‘Oak School’. Pupils were given an IQ test and on the basis of this R and J informed teachers that 20% of the pupils were likely ‘spurt’ academically in the next year. In reality, however, the 20% were randomly selected.
All of the pupils were re-tested 8 months later and he spurters had gained 12 IQ points compared to an average of 8.
Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that higher teacher expectations were responsible for this difference in achievement.
Limitations of the Experiment
Firstly, deception/ Lack of Informed Consent is an issue – In order for the experiment to work, R and J had to deceive the teachers about the real nature of the experiment, and the pupils had no idea what was going on.
Secondly, there are ethical problems – while the spurters seem to have benefited from this study, the other 80% of pupils did not, in fact it is possible that they were harmed because of the teachers giving disproportionate amounts of attention to the spurting group. Given that child rights and child welfare are more central to education today it is unlikely that such an experiment would be allowed to take place.
Thirdly, reliability is a problem while the research design was relatively simple and thus easy to repeat (in fact within five years of the original study this was repeated 242 times) the exact conditions are not possible to repeat – given differences between schools and the type and mixture of pupils who attend different schools.
Finally, it’s not possible to rule out the role of extraneous variables. Rosenthal and Jacobson claim that higher teacher expectation led to the higher achievement of the ‘spurters’ but they did not conduct any observations of this taking place. It may have been other factors.
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This post focuses on strengths and limitations of laboratory experiment, applied to the psychology and sociology…
Laboratory experiments take place in controlled environments and are the main method used in the natural sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. There are numerous experiments which have been designed to test numerous scientific theories about the temperatures at which various substances freeze or melt, or how different chemicals react when they are combined under certain conditions.
The logic of the experimental method is that it is a controlled environment which enables the scientist to measure precisely the effects of independent variables on dependent variables, thus establishing cause and effect relationships. This in turn enables them to make predictions about how the dependent variable will act in the future.
For a general introduction to the key features of experiments and the experimental method (including key terms such as hypothesis and dependent and independent variables) and some of their advantages please see this post: experiments in sociology: an introduction.
The laboratory experiment and is commonly used psychology, where experiments are used to measure the effects of sleep loss and alcohol on concentration and reaction time, as well as some more ethically dubious experiments designed to measure the effects of media violence on children and the responses of people to authority figures.
However, they are less common in sociology, so this post draws on the example of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of laboratory experiment in sociology.
Milgram’s Obedience Experiment – A Brief Summary
Milgram (1963) was interested in researching how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person.
Milgram recruited 40 Volunteers all of whom were paired up with another ‘participant’, who was actually an associate of the experimenter (Milgram). They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an “experimenter” dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor.
Two rooms were used – one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.
The “learner” was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.
The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).
The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock the experimenter was to give a series of orders / prods to ensure they continued.
65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e. teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts. All the participants continued to 300 volts.
Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up. People tend to obey orders from other people if they recognize their authority as morally right and / or legally based. This response to legitimate authority is learned in a variety of situations, for example in the family, school and workplace.
See this post for a more detailed account of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment: https://revisesociology.com/2017/06/15/milgram-experiment-phsychology-evaluation/
Advantages of Laboratory Experiments
Accuracy and Precision– Laboratory experiments allow the precise effects of independent variables on dependent variables to be measured. This in turn makes it possible to establish cause and effect relationships between variables.
Isolation of Variables – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allows researchers to isolate variables more effectively than with any other research method. This further allows researchers to precisely measure the exact effect which one or more independent variables have on the dependent variable. With the ‘tomato experiment’ for example, laboratory conditions would allow the researcher to control precisely variations in temperature, moisture and light, this would not be possible in a field (no pun intended).
Controlled conditions also allow the researchers to eliminate the effects of ‘extraneous variables’. Extraneous variables are undesirable variables which are not of interest to the researcher but might interfere with the results of the experiment. If you were trying to measure the effects of alcohol on reaction time for example, keeping respondents in a lab means you could make sure they all at and drank similar things, and did similar things, in between drinking the alcohol (or placebo) and doing the reaction time test.
Laboratory experiments have excellent reliability for two major reasons:
Firstly, the controlled environment means it easy to replicate the exact environmental conditions of the original experiment and this also means it is relatively easy for the researcher to clearly outline the exact stages of the experiment, again making exact replication easier. This is not necessarily the case in a field experiment, where extraneous variables may interfere with the research process in different ways with repeat-experiments.
Secondly, there is a high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent. In an experiment, the researcher typically takes on the role of ‘expert’ and simply manipulates variables, trying to have as little interaction with the respondents as the experiment will allow for. This means there is little room for the researcher’s own values to influence the way the respondent reacts to an experiment.
In terms of practical advantages experiments (assuming they are ethical) are attractive to funding bodies because of their scientific, quantitative nature, and because science carries with it a certain prestige. Also, once the experiment is set up, if it takes place in a lab, researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – there is no travelling to visit respondents for example, everyone comes to the researcher.
Disadvantages with Laboratory Experiments
Laboratory experiments lack external validity – sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real-life that most Sociologists agree that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life. Take the Milgram experiment for example – how likely is it that you will ever be asked by scientist to give electric shocks to someone you’ve never met and who you can’t see when they give the wrong answer to a question you’ve just read out? Moreover, when was they last time you were asked to do anything to anyone by a scientist? In the real world context, many of the Milgram respondents may have responded to real-world authority figure’s demands differently.
Deception and lack of informed consent – The Hawthorne effect gives rise to the firs ethical disadvantages often found in experiments – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently, meaning that they are not in a position to give full, informed consent. This was the case in the Milgram experiment, where the research subjects thought the (invisible) person receiving the shocks was the actual subject rather than themselves.
A second ethical problem concerns harm to respondents. In the case of the original Milgram experiment, ‘many research participants were observed to sweat, stutter, tremble, bit their lips and dig their nails into their flesh, full-blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for three subjects’.
Practical problems include the fact that you cannot get many sociological subjects into the small scale setting of a laboratory setting. You can’t get a large group of people, or a subculture, or a community into a lab in order to observe how the interact with ‘independent variables’. Also, the controlled nature of the experiment means you are likely to be researching one person at a time, rather than several people completing a questionnaire at once, so it may take a long time to get a large-sample.
Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, which cites Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram�s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.
Experiments aim to measure the effect which an independent variable (the ’cause’) has on a dependent variable (‘the effect’).
The key features of an experiment are control over variables, precise measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.
In order to establish cause and effect relationships, the independent variable is changed and the dependent variable is measured; all other variables (known as extraneous variables) are controlled in the experimental process.
Different types of experiment
There are three main types of experimental: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.
Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory
Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.
The comparative method – involves comparing two or more similar societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.
The Key Features of the Experiment
It’s easiest to explain what an experiment is by using an example from the natural sciences, so I’m going to explain about experiments further using an example used from biology
NB – You do need to know about the scientific method for the second year sociology theory and methods part of the course ( for an overview of theories and methods click here), so this is still all necessary information. I’ll return to the use of laboratory and field experiments in sociology (/ psychology) later on…
An example to illustrate the key features of an experiment
If you wished to measure the precise effect temperature had on the amount* of tomatoes a tomato plant produced, you could design an experiment in which you took two tomato plants of the same variety, and grow them in the same greenhouse with same soil, the same amount of light, and the same amount of water (and everything else exactly the same), but grow them on different heat pads, so one is heated to 15 degrees, and the other 20 degrees (5 degrees difference between the two).
You would then collect the tomatoes from each plant at the same time of year** (say in September sometime) and weigh them (*weighing would be a more accurate way of measuring the amount of tomatoes rather than the number produced), the difference in weight between the two piles of tomatoes would give you the ‘effect’ of the 5 degree temperature difference.
You would probably want to repeat the experiment a number of times to ensure good reliability, and then average all the yields of tomatoes to come up with an average difference.
After, say, 1000 experiments you might reasonably conclude that if you grow tomatoes at 20 degrees rather than 15 degrees, each plant will give you 0.5 kg more tomatoes, thus the ’cause’ of the 5 degree temperature increase is 0.5 Kg more tomatoes per plant.
In the above example, the amount of tomatoes is the dependent variable, the temperature is the independent variable, and everything else (the water, nutrients, soil etc. which you control, or keep the same) are the extraneous variables.
** of course, you might get different results if you collected the tomatoes as they ripened, but for the sake of controlling extraneous variables, you would need to collect all the tomatoes at the same time.
The Role of Hypotheses in Experiments
Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis which is a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a specific, testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.
The point of using a hypothesis is that it helps with accuracy, focussing the researcher in on testing the specific relationship between two variables precisely, it also helps with objectivity (see below).
Having collected the results from the above experiment, you might reasonably hypothesise that ‘a tomato plant grown at 25 degrees compared to 20 degrees will yield 0.5K.G. more tomatoes’ (in fact a proper hypothesis would probably be even tighter than this, but hopefully you get the gist).
You would then simply repeat the above experiment, but heating one plant to 20 degrees and the other to 25 degrees, repeat 1000 (or so times) and on the basis of your findings, you could either accept or reject and modify the hypothesis.
Experiments and Objectivity
A further key feature of experiments are that they are supposed to produce objective knowledge – that is they reveal cause and effect relationships between variables which exist independently of the observer, because the results gained should have been completely uninfluenced by the researcher’s own values.
In other words, somebody else observing the same experiment, or repeating the same experiment should get the same results. If this is the case, then we can say that we have some objective knowledge.
A final (quick) word on tomato experiments, and objective knowledge…
NB – the use of tomato plants is not an idle example to illustrate the key features of the experiment – nearly everyone eats tomatoes (unless you’re the minority of Ketchup and Dolmio abstainers) – and so there’s a lot of profit in producing tomatoes, so I imagine that hundred of millions, if not billions of dollars has been spent on researching what combinations of variables lead to the most tomatoes being grown per acre, with the least inputs…. NB there would have to be a lot of experiments because a lot of variables interact, such as type of tomato plant, altitude, wave length of light, soil type, pests and pesticide use, as well as all of the basic stuff such as heat, light, and water.
The importance of objective, scientific knowledge about what combination of variables has what effect on tomato production is important, because if I have this knowledge (NB I may need to pay an agricultural science college for it, but it is there!) I can establish a tomato farm and set up the exact conditions for maximum production, and predict with some certainty how many tomatoes I’ll end up with in a season…(assuming I’m growing under glass, where I can control everything).
In summary so far… the general advantages of the experimental method
It allows us to establish ’cause and effect relationships’ between variables.
It allows for the precise measurement of the relationship between variables, enabling us to make accurate predictions about how two things will interact in the future.
The researcher can remain relatively detached from the research process, so it allows for the collection of objective knowledge, independent of the subjective opinions of the researcher.
It has excellent reliability because controlled environments allow for the exact conditions of the research to be repeated and results tested.
Disadvantages of the experimental method/ why it may not be applicable to studying society as a whole or even individual humans…
There are so many variables ‘out there’ in the real world that it is impossible to control and measure them all.
Most social groups are too large to study scientifically, you can’t get a city into a laboratory to control all it’s variables, you couldn’t even do this with a field experiment.
Human beings have their own personal, emotionally charged reasons for acting, which often they don’t know themselves, so they are impossible to measure in any objective way.
Human beings have consciousness and so don’t just react in a predictable way to external stimuli: they think about things, make judgements and act accordingly, so it’s impossible to predict human behaviour.
There are also ethical concerns with treating humans as ‘research subjects’ rather than equal partners in the research process.
June 2017 – In the middle of updating this, I promise I’ll get onto experiments in sociology shortly!
Experiments – Key Terms
Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.
Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.
Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.
Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment
Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.
Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.