What are the theoretical, ethical and practical factors which influence a sociologist’s choice of research method?
1. Theoretical factors: Positivists prefer quantitative research methods and are generally more concerned with reliability and representativeness. Interpretivists prefer qualitative research methods and are prepared to sacrifice reliability and representativeness to gain deeper insight which should provide higher validity.
2. Practical factors: include such things as the amount of time the research will take, how much it will cost, whether you can achieve funding, opportunities for research including ease of access to respondents, and the personal skills and characteristics of the researcher.
3. Ethical factors: thinking about how the research impacts on those involved with the research process. Ethical research should gain informed consent, ensure confidentiality, be legal and ensure that respondents and those related to them are not subjected to harm. All this needs to be weighed up with the benefits of the research.
4. A fourth factor is the Nature of the Topic to be studied. Some topics lend themselves to certain methods and preclude others.
Remember this by using the most handy and memorable mnemonic: TPEN
Theoretical Factors Affecting the Choice of Research Method
Theoretical Factors include Positivism and Interpretivism, Validity, Reliability and Representativeness
Positivist and Interpretivist approaches to research are dealt with in this post: Positivism and Interpretivism: A Very Brief Overview, and a more detailed post on the Positivist approach to social research can be found in here: Positivism, Sociology and Social Research.
The three terms Validity, Reliability and Representativeness are are fundamental to evaluating the usefulness of research methods. They should appear in any essay you do on any research methods, without exception!
Research is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in world. Generally speaking, the more in depth the research, the fuller picture we get of the thoughts and feelings of the individuals acting, so the more valid the data and then more the researcher stands back and allows the respondents to ‘speak for themselves’ the more valid the data. In more quantitative research, such as social surveys, validity may be lacking because the researcher has decided on what questions should be answered by respondents, rather than letting the respondents decide on what they want to say for themselves.
If research is reliable, it means if someone else repeats the same research with the same population then they should achieve the same results. In order to be reliable, research needs to be easily repeatable. Self-Completion questionnaires have high reliability because it is easy for another researcher to administer the questionnaire again. More in depth methods such as participant observation, where the researcher can spend several months or even years with a small group of respondents are not very reliable as it is impossible to replicate the exact procedures of the original research. More qualitative methods also open up the possibility for the researcher to get more involved with the research process, probing respondents for very detailed information.
Research is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider population that is being studied. Whether a sample is representative thus depends on who is being studied. If one’s research aim is to look at the experiences of all white male AS Sociology students studying sociology, then one’s sample should consist of all white, male sociology students. If one wishes to study sociology students in general, one will need to have a proportionate amount of AS/ A2 students as well as a range of genders and ethnicities in order to reflect the wider student body.
Practical Factors and Research Methods
All Social Research must take place within the practical constraints of the real world. Social researchers need to plan, collect, analyse and publish their data with limited budgets; they need to secure funding from somewhere willing to fund their research; they need to publish their research within a realistic time frame, otherwise, the data they collect may be worthless because it is so out of date; they also need to manage their own lives at the same time, and a final constraint on choice of research methods is the choice of topic itself!
Five practical constraints on social research
Time – As a general rule, the more in-depth the method the more time consuming it is. Also, doing your own primary research tends to take longer than using secondary sources.
Money – As a general rule, the more in-depth the method the more money it costs. Also, doing your own primary research tends to be more expensive than using secondary sources.
Funding – There are numerous organisations that fund sociological research including charities and businesses, but the largest by far is the government. In the past the government has been far more likely to fund quantitative research than qualitative. Can you suggest why this might be the case? The government is also more likely to fund research that fits in with its present aims. What kind of research topics would be more likely to get funding in contemporary Britain?
Opportunity and Access to Respondents – Some research topics and some kinds of respondents are more difficult to gain access to. It will probably be more difficult to gain access to research pupils in schools compared to teachers for example, and some people may be less willing to engage with research than others – those engaged in deviant or illegal activity might not want to be researched because what they are doing is not socially acceptable.
Personal Situation, Characteristics and Skills of the researcher – Family and work commitments may prevent researchers from doing long term field work such as participant observation, and not everyone has the emotional intelligence or resilience required to engage in long-term empathetic field work. Some research topics might also be better suited to researchers with certain personal characteristics – girls in education might respond more openly to female researchers for example.
As a general rule, quantitative research methods such as social surveys are more practical than qualitative research methods like unstructured interviews – conducting research with questionnaires is usually going to be much quicker than researching using interviews!
Ethical Factors and Social Research
Ethical behaviour helps protect individuals and communities and offers the potential to improve the quality of life of individuals within society. Much social research is designed to tackle social problems such as social exclusion, and so sets out to collect knowledge in order to make the the world a ‘better place’. Understanding the causes of poverty, for example, can help us to reduce poverty, and understanding how people come to be involved in crime can help us to figure out how to prevent this from happening.
However, the actual process of doing research involves interfering with people’s lives and so could potentially be harmful to those involved, and in order minimise harm, most research follows ethical guidelines laid down by The British Sociological Association. There are five ethical criteria which should inform sociological research.
- Respondents should be able to give informed consent
- Information which the respondents give should be kept confidential (if they ask for it to be kept confidential)
- Research should not involve law breaking behaviour
- Research should not involve harming the respondents or anyone else involved in the research process
- Research should, ultimately, aim to do more good than harm for society.
Respondents should give informed consent
Respondents should be able to give informed consent to take part in the research process. In order to do this, they should know that research is taking place, what the purpose of the research is and what the researcher intends to do with the results.
Informed consent can be difficult with young children, because they may not have the capacity to fully understand the purposes of the research. Informed consent can also be a problem because respondents might influence the results if they know the purpose of the research, and some experiments have deliberately misled respondents in order to ensure results are valid – Field experiments where actors act in a deviant way (vandalising property for example) in order to measure public responses are an example of this.
Informed consent is also not possible covert research – both in covert participant observation and in covert non-participant observation.
Respondents’ information should be kept confidential.
It is often important for some aspects of research to remain confidential, especially when it could harm the respondents or an institution if others became aware of their responses. For example a teacher might have their career affected if a senior manager became aware of any negative comments she may have made, or accounts of disruptive behaviour of pupils were made public. For these reasons, researchers often have to guarantee anonymity and they often change the names of respondents and institutions when writing up results.
However, where case-studies are concerned and there is a lot of in-depth information being published about just a handful of people, confidentiality is less likely as the chances of being able to guess who said what might be fairly high. Anonymity also compromises reliability, as it makes it more difficult for other researchers to verify the results from particular respondents.
Some sociologists have taken the issue of confidentiality to extremes. While undertaking research on a particular prisoner In the USA Keith Tunnel (1998) discovered that the prisoner had taken on the identity of someone else in order to avoid a much larger prison sentence. The prison authorities became suspicious and investigated the prisoner’s background. Thought Tunnel knew the truth, he felt he owed the prisoner confidentiality and deliberately lied, stating that he knew nothing about the ‘identity theft’. As a result the prisoner was released many years early.
Research should avoid harming respondents
Research can often have an effect on the people being studied, and researchers need to think of this impact before they begin their research. When researching victims of crimes such as domestic abuse, or bullying in schools, this could bring up painful memories which could result in trauma in the respondents, and, if the abusers find out that respondents have spoken up to researchers this could result in further victimisation. Within the context of education, even researching something such as reasons for educational underachievement need to be treated sensitively, as people who have a past history of failing in school probably won’t be happy about being reminded of it.
Research should not involve law breaking behaviour
Research should also take place within the boundaries of legality. This is only really an issue when researching criminal and deviant behaviour using participatory methods where researchers may have to take drugs to fit in with the group, or witness or even commit crimes in order not to blow their cover. A classic case of where this happened was with Sudhir Venkatesh’ study Gang Leader for a Day where he participated in beating up a member of the gang he was studying as a form of punishment.
The social impact of research: research should, ultimately, aim to do more harm than good.
As mentioned earlier, much research aims to make society a better place, and choice of research topic is sometimes based on this ethical decision to generate knowledge in order to improve society. The problem is that there are many competing (subjective) ideas about the kind of topics, the kind of data (quantitative or qualitative) and the kind of research process which are the best suited to improving society.
Positivists would argue that quantitative research which collects ‘objective’ and generalisable data about the causes of social problems such as crime, unemployment, educational underachievement is the best suited to improving society because governments can use this data to enact large scale social changes.
Marxists and Feminists would not necessarily agree, however, because people in power would not necessarily fund the type of research that could harm them, and would not act on any research which was done but was harmful to their interests. If research found that high levels of inequality is what causes educational underachievement among the lower classes, they would not expect those in power to adopt social policies to reduce inequality because that would mean the rich and powerful becoming poorer. For this reason some Marxist and Feminist researchers engage in smaller scale research and focused on highlighting social injustices in order to galvanise people into political action and make more radical changes. Some Marxist inspired sociologists have focused on issues such as Corporate Crime for example to highlight the extent to which this often hidden crime harms society, while a major focus of Feminist research has been to do with issues such as Domestic Violence and the persistence of sexist attitudes in social media.
Feminists and Interactionist researchers also believe the most ethical research is qualitative in nature – where the researcher co-creates the data on an equal basis with the respondents – using methods such as the unstructured interview – such methods are seen as ethical because they empower the respondents, allowing them to speak for themselves, which is especially useful when researching the powerless, or the voiceless, the kinds of people who are invisible (victims of domestic violence for example) or who are typically talked about in a negative way by people in power (criminals for example).
The nature of the topic to be studied
The methods chosen will vary with the topic being studied. If one wishes to find out more about criminal gangs, for example, these will not respond well to survey based research and other methods of study will need to be used. Similarly, if one wishes to do research on sensitive issues such as domestic violence, a closed question questionnaire may be a little ‘cold’ for such emotive issues.
Other topics lend themselves very naturally to survey based research, such as voting intentions in the run up to an election, or market research to glean people’s feelings about new products.
The nature of the topic will also influence the way in which the research is administered. The British Crime Survey asks about people’s experiences as victims of crimes, and so lends itself to a structured interview, given the sensitive nature of the topic and the possible need for clarification of the definitions of certain crimes.
- Research Methods in Sociology – An Introduction (good to brush up on basics!)
- Factors Effecting Choice of Research Topic (Different to choice of methods!)
- Official Statistics in Sociology (I teach this as method number one after this basic intro!)
- For more posts on this topic, see my research methods page!