A Social Survey involves obtaining information in a standardised from large groups of people. The main survey methods are questionnaires and structured interviews.
Two well-known examples of Social Surveys in the United Kingdom include:
The UK National Census – which is sent out to every UK household every ten years and asks basic information about who lives in the household, employment, education, religion and health.
The British Social Attitudes Survey – which has a sample of around 3000 and asks people a range of questions to measure opinions on a range of topics – such as family life, religious belief, immigration and environmental issues.
Surveys are carried out by a wide range of organisations such as government departments, schools and colleges, businesses, charities, and market research and consumer groups. You may well have been stopped in a high street by a market researcher asking your opinion about a new design of chocolate bar wrapper, or phoned by an independent polling company such as Mori asking you to do a brief survey on any number of social issues.
Types of Social Survey and Key Terms
Social Surveys are typically questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form. Surveys are prepared in advance of giving them to respondents, and so they have a ‘structure’ to them. Most questionnaires will have a high degree of structure, and it is difficult to see how one could have an ‘unstructured questionnaire’. Because of this questionnaires tend to be a very formal means of collecting data, allowing the researcher little freedom to ‘follow her nose’ unlike other methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation.
Pre-coded, or closed question questionnaires are those in which the respondent has to choose from a limited range of responses. Two of the most common types of closed questionnaire are the simply yes/no questionnaire and the scaled questionnaire, where respondents are asked to either strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement. This later form of scaling is known as a ‘Likert Scale’ (basically a strength of feeling scale).
One of the main problems of this type of questionnaire is the imposition problem, which refers to the risk that the research might be imposing their view, or framework on respondents rather than getting at what they really think about the issue.
Open-ended question questionnaires are less structured than pre-coded questionnaires. Although open-ended questionnaires will still usually have set questions, there is no pre-set choice of answers. Open questions allow individuals to write their own answers or dictate them to interviewers.
Different ways of administering surveys
The researcher has a choice of administering her questionnaire in a number of different ways. The most obvious difference choice is between whether respondents complete the surveys themselves, making it a ‘self-completion questionnaire’, or whether the researcher fills in the information, effectively making it a structured interview.
Some of the more obvious choices for ‘administering’ questionnaires include:
• Sending questionnaires by post, or by email.
• Simply putting the questionnaire online and leaving it to be completed
• Doing a structured interview in person, either on the street, house to house.
• Doing the interview by phone.
Structured interviews with closed questions
One obvious way of improving the response rate to questionnaires is to conduct a face to face interview by paying a researcher to read out the questionnaire to the respondent and writing down their responses on their behalf. Having an interviewer present can also reduce misinterpretation of questions as respondents can ask for clarification where necessary and an interviewer can also target specific groups if necessary, as with much market research.
On the downside, structured interviews are more time consuming. One researcher can only do one interview at a time (although focus groups are an exception to this, they too are limited in terms of the amount of respondents one can deal with in one go) whereas a self completion questionnaire can be administered to hundreds of people within minutes.
Structured Questionnaires and Interviewer Bias
At a more theoretical level, having an interviewer present opens up the possibility of interviewer bias occurring, where the presence of the researcher interferes with the results obtained. The social characteristics of the interviewer may affect the responses, depending on the age, gender and ethnicity of the researcher in relation to the respondent. If one is researching the prevalence of domestic violence against women, for example, one might reasonably expect a female victim to give different responses to a female researcher rather than a male researcher.
Each interviewer will have their own style of interviewing; right from selecting who they ask questions to if they are on the street, to the tone of voice, facial expressions, and pacing of the interview. Each of these nuances may affect the results, meaning the reliability of the research is compromised because it is difficult for another researcher to repeat the exact conditions under which previous interviews took place. To be fair, with closed question, structured interviews, and with trained researchers, such interviewer bias should be kept to a minimum, and such problems are likely to be more exaggerated with more qualitative unstructured interviews, which we will come onto later.
While recognising that relative poverty exists within rich and poor countries alike, the programme focuses on extreme poverty, defined as people living on less than $1 a day, a level at which daily life involves a struggle to get enough food to eat.
Hans (he’s so accessible I’m sure he wouldn’t mind first name terms) starts by putting poverty in historical context, by looking at how wealth (measured by GDP per capita) has changed over the last 200 years. To do this, Hans converts the GDP figures into the amount each person earns per day, ranging from those who live on $1 a day (as many do in Malawi) to those who live on $100 a day (as most people in Sweden do). As shown in the still below – only about 12% of the world’s population today live in extreme poverty.
The story of the last 200 years is that we’ve basically moved from a global situation characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty (broadly speaking 1800-1970) to one in which most people world now live in ‘the middle’ in terms of global wealth distribution. In the video clip below, Hans tells this story.
The biggest shift has occurred in the last 50 years – in the 1970s, 50% of the worlds population lived in absolute poverty (2 billion amongst a 4 billion global population). In 2015, even with world population growing by 3 million to 7+ billion, only 1 billion, or 12.5% of the world’s population live in poverty.
So the best-fit picture of today’s global population isn’t one of a massive divide between the rich and the poor, but one of the expanding or ‘big middle’** – Most people in the world today earn between $1 to $10 a day, and many of these have transitioned out of absolute poverty within the last few decades.
Dollar Street – A Global Family Portrait.
To illustrate the differences in living standards around the globe, Hans draws on a number of case studies.
$1/ day – Malawi – Here the focus is on a couple with eleven children. They are basically subsistence farmers and have a small field of maize which they rely on for their basic food. The field is so small they have to endure a hunger season, during which they only eat once a day, and the children fall sick because of lack of food. In a poor season (As shown later in the video), when the rains are irregular, the food may only last for half the year, so the hungry season is long!)
The children go to school, but there are no school meals, so there’s no food until bed time on some school days. The family struggle to pay for the ‘hidden costs’ of education such as school uniforms and books.
There are no jobs in the area, but the families keep grafting – the father turns old bits of tin into watering cans and the mother makes dumplings, two products which are sold to neighbours. However, local people are too poor to be anything other than occasional customers.
In the household there is no electricity or running water and everyone sleeps on the floor, no mattresses. The house is built from perishable materials and once a week the mother has to spread fresh mud on the walls and ceiling to stop the house falling apart. The husband is gradually building a brick house, but it will take him four years to complete it.
These people are literally struggling to build their future bit by bit.
Countries in which significant numbers of people live on less than $1 a day include Burundi and Malawi.
The Big Middle – Up to $10 a day
To illustrate where the majority of the world’s population now live in income terms, we go to Cambodia to focus on some new arrivals to the ‘big middle’ – We focus on a family who live about an hour away from the capital Phnom Penh, but are still close enough to feel the benefits of its development.
Their house is made from more durable material – bricks and plastic/ iron sheets, they have clean water, bicycles, a little car, beds with mattresses, radios, TVs, and electricity.
The Family’s living conditions are far from easy but there is no hungry season like in Malawi, and they have earned enough to buy various life-changing technologies – such as a water pump so is there more time to devote to paid work.
The nearby capital city Phnom Penh is at the heart of an economic boom, mainly thanks to textile exports, and the benefits reach a long way into rural areas.
The father in this family has benefited from this – migration to the city has meant there are fewer farmers, so he now makes $300 a month from growing and selling grass which people feed to their cattle, and he has bought a small bike so he can deliver more efficiently.
However, the mother is currently pregnant with twins, and one of them is upside down…they want a cesarean and this will cost them $500 which will mean they need to borrow money, a price which could put them back into dire poverty for years to come as they struggle to pay it back.
The crucial thing which prevents this from happening is that the family qualify for Cambodia’s recently introduced free health care, available for free for the poorest families only. This is assessed by means of a ‘Poor Card’ – people are asked a number of questions about their standard of living (which is checked later) and if they score below a certain amount of points they qualify for free health care for the whole family, which ensures that complications in childbirth do not result in financial catastrophe.
Among the many countries included in the ‘big middle’ are The Philippines, Columbia, Rwanda, and Bangladesh. However, there are obviously differences, and if you look carefully, these are not all ‘equally poor’ (but this isn’t expanded on). How to eradicate extreme Poverty
It’s amazing how much life is improving for s many people in so many ways – this is the greatest story in human history, and if we want to lift the remaining billion people out of extreme poverty we need to learn from the lessons of the majority of countries which have lifted themselves out of poverty in the last century.
The basic lesson is that all of these countries have invested in human welfare, in such things as public health care systems and education, which has reduced the child mortality rate, and the birth rate, and altogether this has resulted in economic growth.
Hans demonstrated this by looking at the historical relationship between the child mortality rate and GDP per Capita from 1800-2015. (The child mortality rate depends on many things, such as improved health, education and gender empowerment, so it acts as a proxy indicator for these other aspects of human progress).
The general trend is that in many countries, the child mortality rate goes down first, which is followed by sustained economic growth for many years. It seems that once the Child Mortality rate gets to about 10%, this is when economic take off occurs. This happened in at least the following countries:
In short, the lesson of how to end poverty in 15 years – invest in human progress even when resources are limited.
The video rounds off with going back to Malawi to demonstrate that all is needed to lift many farmers out of poverty is investment in small scale irrigation systems, so crops can be easily watered when rains are irregular. A dam would transform the lives of small farmers in remote areas by allowing them to grow not only more staple food, but also a greater diversity of crops which could be sold.
The investment required is relatively little, but who will pay? The private sector won’t, because there is no profit, and governments in poor countries are still too poor, so the third option is International Development Aid.
However, Development aid needs to be refocused away from the richer developing countries – Currently, countries such as India and China receive aid equivalent to $300 per person, but the poorest countries, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, receive only $100 per person. In short, aid is going to the wrong places.
Hans argues that we should perceive aid to end poverty not as charity, but as an investment. There are three basic arguments for this:
1. Extreme poverty breeds problems such as war and conflict.
2. If we lift people out of extreme poverty, they will become the customers of tomorrow, and possibly the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.
3. It is the most effective way of combating population growth – below $1 a day, the average number of babies per woman is five, above, it the average is 2 or less.
In conclusion, Hans suggests we would be mad not to end poverty in 15 years, and that compared to the other two problems the world faces: climate change and war and conflict, this goal is actually easy to achieve.
**Another way in which Hans illustrates the growth of the ‘big middle’ is by pointing out the following statistics:
80% of people have electricity at home? (the audience thought 40%)
83% have have got vaccinated against measles? (the audience thought 30% )
90% of girls out of ten go to primary school (in that age group) (the audience thought 40%).
This post looks at the advantages and disadvantages of using formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative textual and thematic analysis of media sources.
(NB For some reason, all of the AQA approved text books only seem to expect you to know about content analysis applied to film/ TV and Print Media, rather than applying this to online media (web sites/ social media/ dating sites) – So I’m only here focusing on analysis of ‘traditional media’ rather than ‘new media’ – DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER – if you want to know why AQA insist on being stuck in dark ages – ask them!)
Mass Media resources are widely used in Social Research. Some Mass Media sources may provide sociologists with information about the social world, but their main interest to Sociologists is as objects of study rather than as sources of information.
Sources produced for entertainment purposes (films/ TV shows, special interest magazines) cannot reasonably be expected to paint a true picture of the social world, but they of interest to sociologists because they can tell us what media producers think people want to see, and it also interesting to see how different groups are represented in fictional TV shows, and the extent to which distortion takes place. When we look at the issue of crime, for example, we find that violent crime is disproportionately featured in crime dramas, whereas 75% of crime is less-serious property crime, and where groups are concerned, sociologists are interested in the extent to which the media perpetuates stereotypes.
News sources may claim to provide accurate information about what is going on in society – but to most sociologists the news is a social construction – it may reflect reality to an extent, but it also reflects the selection biases (what people think are important) and political prejudices of journalists and news editors. NB In the UK Journalists disproportionately come from private school (wealthy middle class backgrounds) – and so there is an inherent right wing bias in media reporting.
Below I distinguish between two basic types of content analysis – formal (quantitative) content analysis and qualitative content analysis
Formal (Quantitative) Content Analysis
Formal Content Analysis is a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content and involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.
The simplest form of content analysis is a word or phrase count, which these days can be done on millions of books which have been scanned into Google’s database, more complex forms involve looking at broader categories of content – which types of crime appear in news media for example, or what are the major categories of news (entertainment/ sport/ politics) – or one can analyse pictures to see the representation of men compared to women for example.
The strengths and limitations of formal content analysis
It minimises researcher bias and typically has good reliability because there is less room for the researcher’s interpretations to bias the analysis.
It is quicker to do than qualitative forms of content analysis.
Weaknesses emerge when you start to use broader categories – which can be interpreted differently by different people.
Simply counting the content of a media text tells you nothing about the context in which it takes place, or the broader meaning which the words or pictures convey.
Qualitative Content Analysis: Thematic and Textual Analysis
Thematic Analysis involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.
A good example of this is Soothill and Walby’s (1991) study of newspaper reporting of sex crime. They found that the reporting tended to emphasise the danger of being raped in public places and the pathological nature of individual rapists. It tended to ignore the prevalence of rape by partners and friends of victims and the wider context of patriarchal power within sex crimes.
Textual Analysis involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.
A classic example of this is the Glasgow University Media Group’s reporting of the miner’s strikes in the 1980s. They found that the miners ‘demanded’ better working conditions, while the managers ‘offered’ certain changes to working conditions.
Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.
The strengths and limitations of qualitative content analysis
Qualitative content analysis allows the researcher to look at the full context in which media reporting takes place, it thus allows for a fuller description of what the media is portraying.
Both thematic and textual analysis lack objectivity and are reliant on the researcher’s own interpretation of the meaning of media texts.
Critics of these forms of analysis have also suggested that those who use these methods tend only to pick samples which reflect their own views, and it would be difficult to do such detailed analysis on a wide range of texts.
This is a brief summary of the case Jeffry Sachs made for International Development Aid in his 2005 book ‘The End of Poverty’. Taken mainly from chapters 12-16
(1) Why is Aid needed?
Sachs argues that injections of aid are needed to break the poverty trap –because there is no where else money is going to come from when there is insufficient income to tax or save.
Sachs uses a description of a visit to Sauri village in Western Kenya to describe the poverty trap – the villagers face a range of poverty related problems including poor food yields due to lack of fertilisers and nitrogen-fixing trees, the fallout from diseases such as AIDS and malaria and the fact that children cannot concentrate in school because of malnutrition. All energies and money are basically spent on combating disease and staying alive.
As a result of the poverty trap the village faces under investment in the following five areas
Power, transport and communications infrastructure
Sanitation and water.
Aid needs to be spent boosting whichever of these areas are undeveloped (and all of them, all at once, if necessary) because a weakness in one can mean money is wasted on another (it’s pointless spending billions on education if disease means kids can’t concentrate in school, or lack of roads means they can’t get to school.). This should be based on what Sachs calls a ‘clinical diagnoses‘ of a countries requirements.
(2) How much aid is needed?
There’s a number of ways of looking at this>
$70 per person per year for at least 5 years would being sufficient to provide suitable investment in these five areas for the poorest regions on earth (basically the bottom billion who are stuck in the poverty trap). After an initial 5 year period, Sachs believes that this figure should reduce considerably and that 10 years should be sufficient for a country to be self-sustaining financially.
Looked at globally The World Bank estimates that meeting basic needs costs $1.08 per person per day – 1.1 billion people lived below this with an average income of 77 cents. Making up the short fall would mean $124bn/ year, or 0.7% of rich world GNP.
(3) Arguements for providing International Development Aid
Firstly, using aid to eradicate poverty will make the world a more secure place
The US spends 30 times as much on its military as it does on aid (for the UK it’s about 8 times as much, 2002 figures), but spending money on military solutions is not going to make an insecure world more secure.
A CIA task force examined 113 cases of state failure between 1957 and 1994 and found that three explanatory variables are the most common:
High infant mortality rates (which indicate low levels of material well-being)
Openeness of the economy – the more open, the less stable
Democracy – the more democratic, the more stable.
Sachs rounds off by listing 25 countries which America has intervened in following State Failure since 1962. His point is that state failure typically leads to US intervention, which is more costly than the price of providing aid which would prevent such interventions.
Secondly, Official Development Aid is crucial to provide health, education and infrastructure, and because it makes up a significant part of the total income of many countries.
Thirdly,The public will support a massive increase in aid if there’s leadership on the issue – nearly 90% of the US public support food aid (it depends how you frame the question). Also, broad support was garnered for The Marshall Plan, The Jubilee Drop the Debt Campaign and The Emergency AIDS campaign.
Fourthly – There is evidence that Aid can work:
Besides the usual green revolution and eradication of smallpox examples Sachs also cites…
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation
The Campaign against Malaria
The Eradication of Polio
The spread of family planning
Export Processing Zones in East Asia
The Mobile Phone Revolution in Bangladesh
Five – the West can easily afford it
Sachs points out that the richest 400 individuals incomes stand at just under $70 billion dollars, and the first two years of the Iraq War, which was an unexpected cost, was $60 bn a year, so basically yes. He also recommends a 10% additional tax on the richest for the purposes of development.
(4) Sach’s view of why Aid Doesn’t Always Work – Poor Countries Aren’t Getting Enough Aid! (**This can be used to criticise Dambisa Moyo”s views on aid. )
Poor countries are receiving no where need enough aid to make a difference to development – To demonstrate this he uses the West African Water initiative as an example – Worth $4.4 million over 3 years, but this only worked out at less than a penny per person per year, no where near enough to make a difference.
He also cites the case of Ethiopia – in 2003 it would have needed approx $70 billion to kick start development – half for health and most of the rest split between food productivity and infrastructure. It was then receiving $14 per head per year which was well short of the money needed. At the time the IMF acknowledged in private that this was not sufficient but in public made no mention of this.
Another way of outlining how limited current ODA is lies in the following:
in 2002 of $76 billion total assistance….only $12 billion amounted to what might be called development support to the poorest countries (most of the rest was emergency aid, with $6 billion being debt relief and $16 billion going to middle income countries.
As a result of this countries often don’t get anywhere near what they need – Sachs cites Ghana as an example – it requested $8 billion over 5 years in 2002 and got $2 billion. His point is that $2 billion is no where near enough to kick-start development.
(5)) Myths about why aid doesn’t work (**these could be used to criticise Dambisa Moyo)
He actually lists 10, but I’ve only included the first three!
Myth One – Giving aid is ‘money down the drain’
It is common to hear Americans bemoaning the fact that there is nothing to show for the amount of aid given to Africa. This is, however, unsurprising. The total amount of aid per Africa works out at $30 per head, but of this $5 goes to consultants, $4 was for food aid, $4 went to servicing debts and $5 for debt relief, leaving $12 per African.
Of the $3 of US aid to Africa, approximately 6 cents makes it on the ground African projects.
Myth Two – Aid programmes would fail in Africa because of backward cultural norms
Sachs points out that he frequently encounters prejudiced views based on African stereotypes even among those in senior positions in the aid industry – Such as the idea that Africans don’t understand western concepts of time. He dispels this by simply drawing on his own experiences telling him different things.
Myth 3 – Aid won’t work because of corruption
Nearly all low income level countries have poor levels of governance. However, corruption is not a reason to not invest in a country because the causal relationship runs in the direction of wealth reduces corruption. This is because when incomes increase people have more of an interest in keeping governments in check and there is more money to invest in good governance through better communication systems and a more educated civil service for example.
Looking at cross national comparisons reveals two things – Firstly that African countries governance levels are similar to similarly poor countries. That is to say that governance is not especially poor in Africa, and secondly there must be something else going which results in poverty other than poor governance – there are still some very poor countries in Africa with good governance yet high poverty, he cites Ghana as one such example.
Statistical indicators reveal that African countries grew at 3% percentage points slower than countries with similar levels of governance and income between 1980 and 2000. The reason for their low growth is geography and poorly developed infrastructure.
(6) A more ambitious approach to Development Aid
Ultimately Sachs believes we should be spending more on aid rather than less!
Sachs outlines ‘a needs assessment approach’ to development which basically involves identifying a package of basic needs, figuring out the investments required,, figuring out what poor countries can pay and then working out the finance gap which is what rich countries should meet. The list of basic needs includes such things as:
Primary education for all children, including teacher pupil ratios
universal access to antimalarial bednets
I kilometre of paved road per person
nutrition programmes for all vulnerable populations
access to modern cooking fuels
Access to clean water and sanitation.
To establish these poor countries would need $110 per person per year for 10 years (calculated by the UN for five countries – Bangladesh, Ghana, Cambodia, Tanzania and Uganda.
Of this Sachs believes that households and poor country governments could pay $10 and $35 dollars respectively meaning that $65 per person per year is the finance gap
Who should pay? Basically it breaks down like this…
USA – 50%
Japan – 20%
UK, Germany, France, Italy – 20%.
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
1. Theoretical Factors Affecting the Choice of Research Method
Theoretical Factors include Positivism and Interpretivism, Validity, Reliability and Representativeness
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!
Validity – 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.
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 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.
2. 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.
3. 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).
4. 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.
If you like this sort of thing you might like to purchase my extensive no-nonsense revision notes – over 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.
*Price will fluctuate with the dollar exchange rate
According to the Global Gender Gap Index, the United Kingdom is one of the most gender equal countries in the world, but if you drill down into the statistics, women and men appear to both more and less equal than the headline data suggests.
The BBC’s ‘How equal are you?’ interactive infographic allows you type in any country and see how equal men are to women across a range of different indicators – These statistics come from the latest Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum which analyses more than a dozen datasets in order to compare gender inequality in 144 countries.
For example in the UK we are told that:
The UK ranks 18/ 145 in the world for gender equality.
However, women are still not equal to men
For every £100 a man earns, a woman earns £83
43% of graduates are male (the only statistic where women appear to be outperforming men.
72% of women and 83% of men are either in work or looking for work (so I assume from this we can imply that women are slightly more likely to take on the caring role)
Just a quick glance at the above chart should be sufficient to demonstrate some of the flaws in the Global Gender Gap Index:
We rank 68th out of 144 for primary school enrolment – we couldn’t get any better but I’m guessing we’re brought down because there must be 67 developing countries where more girls are enrolled in primary school than boys (making up for years of gender discrimination)
We rank 1st for sex ratio at birth – OK I know it’s lower in many developing countries because of female infanticide, but in the many countries where this simply isn’t significant, surely we’re just being rewarded here for very minor ‘luck of the draw differences’ in child sex at birth?
We’re 81st for healthy life expectancy – surely here were just being penalised for women suffering from degenerative conditions linked to longer life expectancy compared to men’s? Surely this is a problem of low male life expectancy?
Also, if you look at our real ranking success story – we’re effectively first in the world for gender equality in education, the real story is that despite ranking first in the world for gender equality in education, these gains have not been translated into economic, political or health advantages. This is hardly good for women.
Our other great gender equality success story is the number of years with a female prime minister – Thatcher in other words. Given that Thatcher = neoliberalism and neoliberalism = increasing inequality, there’s plenty of disagreement over the extent to which this particular indicator can be interpreted as being positive for women.
There’s quite a few other things these stats don’t tell you – for example, there are enormous differences in the gender pay gap by age:
There’s also been enormous, rapid progress with women moving into Politics in increasing numbers…. The Gender Gap Index hasn’t been around long enough to show you this….
So how useful is the Global Gender Gap Index?
I’ll be honest, I’m not particularly interested in the issue of gender inequality, so I’m not particularly passionate about tracking down criticisms of data sets related to the issue, but it’s only taken me 30 minutes to find seven criticisms of the validity of this particular data applied to the UK, so I’m left wondering whether these world rankings have any meaning at all?
An introduction to research methods in Sociology covering quantitative, qualitative, primary and secondary data and defining the basic types of research method including social surveys, experiments, interviews, participant observation, ethnography and longitudinal studies.
Why do social research?
The simple answer is that without it, our knowledge of the social world is limited to our immediate and limited life-experiences. Without some kind of systematic research, we cannot know the answer to even basic questions such as how many people live in the United Kingdom, let alone the answers to more complex questions about why working class children get worse results at school or why the crime rate has been falling every year since 1995.
So the most basic reason for doing social research is to describe the social world around us: To find out what people think and feel about social issues and how these thoughts and feelings vary across social groups and regions. Without research, you simply do not know with any degree of certainty, what is going on in the world.
However, most research has the aim of going beyond mere description. Sociologists typically limit themselves to a specific research topic and conduct research in order to achieve a research aim or sometimes to answer a specific question.
Subjective and Objective Knowledge in Social Research
Research in Sociology is usually carefully planned, and conducted using well established procedures to ensure that knowledge is objective – where the information gathered reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social, world rather than ‘subjective’ – where it only reflects the narrow opinions of the researchers. The careful, systematic and rigorous use of research methods is what makes sociological knowledge ‘objective’ rather than ‘subjective’.
Subjective knowledge – is knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view
Objective knowledge – is knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world.
NB – While most Sociologists believe that we should strive to make our data collection as objective as possible, there are some Sociologists (known as Phenomenologists) who argue that it is not actually possible to collect data which is purely objective – The researcher’s opinions always get in the way of what data is collected and filtered for publication.
Sources and types of data
In social research, it is usual to distinguish between primary and secondary data and qualitative and quantitative data
Quantitative data refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.
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!)
Secondary data is 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.
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.
The major primary research methods
Social Surveys – are typically structured questionnaires designed to collect information from large numbers of people in standardised form.
Social Surveys are written in advance by the researcher and tend to to be pre-coded and have a limited number of closed-questions and they tend to focus on relatively simple topics. A good example is the UK National Census. Social Surveys can be administered (carried out) in a number of different ways – they might be self-completion (completed by the respondents themselves) or they might take the form of a structured interview on the high street, as is the case with some market research.
Experiments – aim to measure as precisely as possible the effect which one variable has on another, aiming to establish cause and effect relationships between variables.
Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation, and will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable. A good experiment will be designed in such a way that objective cause and effect relationships can be established, so that the original hypothesis can verified, or rejected and modified.
There are two types of experiment – laboratory and field experiments – A laboratory experiment takes place in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory, whereas a field experiment takes place in a real-life setting such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street.
Interviews – A method of gathering information by asking questions orally, either face to face or by telephone.
Structured Interviews are basically social surveys which are read out by the researcher – they use pre-set, standardised, typically closed questions. The aim of structured interviews is to produce quantitative data.
Unstructured Interviews, also known as informal interviews, are more like a guided conversation, and typically involve the researcher asking open-questions which generate qualitative data. The researcher will start with a general research topic in and ask questions in response to the various and differentiated responses the respondents give. Unstructured Interviews are thus a flexible, respondent-led research method.
Semi-Structured Interviews consist of an interview schedule which typically consists of a number of open-ended questions which allow the respondent to give in-depth answers. For example, the researcher might have 10 questions (hence structured) they will ask all respondents, but ask further differentiated (unstructured) questions based on the responses given.
Participant Observation – involves the researcher joining a group of people, taking an active part in their day to day lives as a member of that group and making in-depth recordings of what she sees.
Participant Observation may be overt, in which case the respondents know that researcher is conducing sociological research, or covert (undercover) where the respondents are deceived into thinking the researcher is ‘one of them’ do not know the researcher is conducting research.
Ethnographies and Case Studies
Ethnographies are an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people in their natural setting. They are typically very in-depth and long-term and aim for a full (or ‘thick’), multi-layred account of the culture of a group of people. Participant Observation is typically the main method used, but researchers will use all other methods available to get even richer data – such as interviews and analysis of any documents associated with that culture.
Case Studies involves researching a single case or example of something using multiple methods – for example researching one school or factory. An ethnography is simply a very in-depth case study.
Longitudinal Studies – studies of a sample of people in which information is collected from the same people at intervals over a long period of time. For example, a researcher might start off in 2015 by getting a sample of 1000 people to fill in a questionnaire, and then go back to the same people in 2020, and again in 2025 to collect further information.
Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of A level sociology papers 1 and 3.
74 pages of revision notes
15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
Global poverty has been falling for decades, but a few countries which are caught in four distinct traps (such as the resource curse) are falling behind and falling apart. Aid does not work well in these places but there are things we can and should do because neglect will pose a security nightmare for the world of our children.
73% of people in the bottom billion countries are in a civil war or have recently been through one. Civil war reduces income and low income increases the risk of civil war. Low income means poverty and low growth means hopelessness and available young men. When the economy is weak the state is weak and rebellion is easier. Sometimes rebel movements get finances from resource exporters in return for future deals.
“Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up. All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel: they just suffer quietly.” Little relationship has been found between the risk of civil war and political repression or intergroup hatreds or income inequality or colonial history. There is some relationship to particular patterns of ethnic diversity.
A civil war doubles the risk of another civil war. “Civil war is development in reverse.” “Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.” Usually there is a further deterioration in political rights. “A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.” “The foot soldiers of rebellion, often do not have much choice about joining the rebel movement.” “Gradually the composition of the rebel group will shift from idealists to opportunists and sadists.” The kind of people most likely to engage in political violence are the young, the uneducated, and those without dependents.
95% of global production of hard drugs comes from conflict countries. Conflict provides territory outside government control for illegal activities to operate.
Three economic characteristics make a country prone to civil war: low income, slow growth, and dependence upon primary commodity exports. “Civil war leaves a legacy of organized killing that is hard to live down. Violence and extortion have proved profitable for the perpetrators. Killing is the only way they know to earn a living. And what else to do with all those guns?”
Trap 2 – The Natural Resource Trap
Paradoxically, the discovery of valuable natural resources in the context of poverty constitutes a trap. It often results in misuse of its opportunities in ways that make it fail to grow and results in stagnation.
Societies at the bottom are frequently in resource-rich poverty. “The heart of the resource curse is that resource rents [rents = excess of revenues over all costs] make democracy malfunction.” “Oil and other surpluses from natural resources are particularly unsuited to the pressures generated by electoral competition.” In the presence of large surpluses from natural resources autocracies produce much more growth than do democracies. When there is plenty of money, leaders tend to embezzle funds, spend on large, pet projects and buy votes through contracts. The corrupt win the elections. Resources reduce the need to tax, undercut public scrutiny, erode checks and balances, and leave electoral competition unconstrained where parties compete for votes by patronage. Alternatively restraints raise the return on investment.
Autocracies work with little ethnic diversity. Diversity tends to narrow the support base of the autocrat and requires greater income distribution to the autocrat’s group. “Becoming reliant upon the bottom billion for natural resources sounds to me like Middle East 2.”
Trap 3 – Landlocked with Bad Neighbours
Geography matters. Landlocked countries must export to neighbouring countries or through their infrastructures to the coast. Uganda is poor and Switzerland is rich because they are dependent upon their neighbours. All countries benefit from the growth of their neighbours but resource-scarce landlocked countries must depend on their neighbours for growth. This includes about 30% of Africa.
Trap 4 – Bad Governance in a Small Country
Terrible governance and policies can destroy an economy with alarming speed. Note President Robert Mugabe. Governance matters, conditional upon opportunities. Differences in opportunities can make a big difference. Countries who have done better since 1980 have generally exported labour-intensive manufactures and services. The government simply has to avoid doing harm. Exporters need an environment of moderate taxation, macroeconomic stability, and a few transport facilities.
Why is bad governance sometimes so persistent? Because some benefit. The leaders of many of the poorest countries in the world are themselves among the global superrich. They like it that way. Many of them are simply villains. But beyond villainy, there is a shortage of people with the requisite knowledge, brave reformers get overwhelmed by the resistance, and there is often not much popular enthusiasm for reforms.
Recent failing states include Angola, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Liberia, Sudan, the Solomon Islands, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is borderline. Turnarounds are rare because reformers are often suppressed and in danger.
Three characteristics encourage a turnaround: larger populations, higher proportion of people with a secondary education, and recent emergence from a civil war. Whether the state was a democracy or granted political rights did not seem to matter. The impetus for change must come from the heroes in the society. The probability for a turnaround in any given year is 1.6%, so they are likely to stay as failing states for a long time.
The New Right believe in Marketisation (schools competing like businesses) and Parentocracy (parental choice) and they are well known for introducing league tables, GCSEs and OFSTED in the UK as part the 1988 Education Reform Act.
This post covers the underlying principles of New Right thought and should be read along with this post on the 1988 Education Act which outlines specific New Right education policies
They believe the state (government) cannot meet people’s needs.
The most efficient way to meet people’s needs is through the free market – through private businesses competing with each other.
Economic growth is an important overall goal – to be achieved by allowing individuals the freedom to compete with each other.
Key ideas of The New Right on Education
The New Right created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given the choice over which school they send their children to rather than being limited to the local school in their catchment area. This lead to the establishment of 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
Evaluation of New Right ideas on Education
Competition between schools benefited the middle classes and lower classes, ethnic minorities and rural communities ended up having less effective choice – refer to the handout criticising the 1988 Education Act
Vocational Education was also often poor – refer to the HO on Vocational Education
There is a contradiction between wanting schools to be free to compete and imposing a national framework that restricts schools
The National Curriculum has been criticised for being ethnocentric and too restrictive on teachers and schools
The Neoliberal and New Right view of education
You might also like the mind map below – a more up to date summary of neoliberalism and the new right
What are the factors which influence a sociologist’s choice of research topic?
The personal interests and values of the researchers themselves. A Sociologist is obviously going to be more motivated to study something they are interested in – and nothing motivates quite like personal experience – Tony Sewell is an example of a Sociologists who studied a group with who he shared personal characteristics.
Theoretical perspective/ political beliefs. Whether one is a Feminist, Marxist or Functionalist/ New Right Thinker/ or Post-Modernist can influence what one studies. Feminists emphasise the importance of focussing on issues of gender inequality, so might choose to research issues such as domestic violence or the impact of the Beauty Myth, while Marxists focus on researching the impact of wealth inequalities, so might research things such as class inequalities in education. All of this raises the question of whether Sociology can remain value-free (unbiased)
Opportunity also matters when it comes to research topic – Mac An Ghaill wanted to study the experiences of Irish students but he couldn’t study, so instead he focused on the black and Asian students in his own college.
Funding – Sociologists are professionals and need get funding for their research, so funding bodies can influence topics of research.
Society – Societies change, and so new topics of study will emerge with social changes. For example, sociologists have studied things such as rave culture, and virtual gaming communities as these have emerged, which overlaps with the first point above!
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.