Definitions of the most important concepts you need to know for A Level Sociology research methods. Start with these and then move on to learning the more comprehensive list of concepts. NB – There are actually 14 concepts below!
Ethics/ ethical factors – ethics means taking into consideration 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. Ultimately research should aim to do more good than harm to society.
Interpretivism – an approach to social research which tries to understand human action through the eyes of those acting. Interpretivists want to know the meanings give to their own actions, what their interpretation of their action is. They thus emphasise respondent-led qualitative methods to achieve insight, in-depth explanations and empathy, in order to realise a humanistic, empathetic understanding from the respondents point of view.
Positivism – an approach to social research which aims to be as close to the natural sciences as possible. Positivists emphasise the use of quantitative data in order to remain detached from the research process and to uncover social trends and correlations which are generaliseable to society as a whole. Their ultimate aim is to uncover the objective social laws which govern human action.
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.
Primary data is data collected first hand by the researcher herself. If a sociologist is conducting her own unique sociological research, she will normally have specific research questions she wants answered and thus tailor her research methods to get the data she wants. The main methods sociologists use to generate primary data include social surveys (normally using questionnaire), interviews, experiments and observations.
Qualitative data – refers to information that appears in written, visual or audio form, such as transcripts of interviews, newspapers and web sites. (It is possible to analyse qualitative data and display features of it numerically).
Quantitative data – refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.
Reliability – 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.
Representativeness – research is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider target population that is being studied.
Representativeness 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.
Sampling – the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research.
Secondary data – data that has been collected by previous researchers or organisations such as the government. Quantitative sources of secondary data include official government statistics and qualitative sources are very numerous including government reports, newspapers, personal documents such as diaries as well as the staggering amount of audio-visual content available online.
Theoretical factors – validity, reliability, representativeness and whether research is being carried out from a Positivist or Interpretivist point of view.
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.
Validity – research is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in the world.
Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting himself in the other person’s shoes.
Interpretivists argue that achieving Verstehen (or empathetic understanding) by doing in-depth qualitative research such as participant observation.
Research Methods Key Terms – To be on the safe side I’ll say that this covers most of the concepts you’ll need for the methods aspects of AS and A Level sociology.
See my ‘Research Methods‘ page to links to all posts on research methods
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