Research Methods in Sociology – An Introduction

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.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Related Posts 

Factors Effecting the Choice of Research Method

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

my main research methods page contains links to all of my posts on research methods.

Advertisements

The Bottom Billion – Paul Collier – A Summary

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.

Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion Theory can be used to criticise all previous grand-theories of development – modernisation theory, dependency theory and neoliberalism.

The Four Traps

Trap 1- The Conflict Trap

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’s View of Education

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

The New Right is closely associated with Neoliberalism, and this post (Neoliberalism and the New Right – An Introduction) covers the similarities and differences between them.

Underlying principles of the New Right

  • 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

  1. 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

  1. Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work, Hence education should be aimed at supporting economic growth. Hence: New Vocationalism!

  1. 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

Neoliberal new right education.png

Education Revision Bundle CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:

  1. 34 pages of revision notes
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
  4. how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education

 

Related Posts 

Neoliberalism and the New Right – An Introduction

The 1988 Education Reform Act – Class Notes

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

The Marxist Perspective on Education

The New Right View of the Family

Factors Influencing a Sociologist’s Choice of Research Topic

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!

Explaining Social Class Differences in Education Using Longitudinal Studies

Why do working class children do worse than middle class children in education? This post looks at some quantitative, longitudinal data to explore why.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that early intervention is not enough to tackle the persistent differences in class inequalities in educational achievement – The report is a follow up to earlier research published March last year which is summarised below

This four page summary (and the longer document which you can get if you follow the links) is an excellent example of a quantitative approach to social research – in the tradition of Positivism (although strictly speaking, not purely Positivist). NB IF THE IMAGES AREN’T CLEAR JUST CLICK ON THEM! I’ve spent way too long faffing about with them already.

This study uses statistical data from four longitudinal studies  to uncover the main ‘causal factors’ behind why children from low income backgrounds do so badly in education.

Before we get onto the ’causes’ please note that ‘educational achievement gap’ between the social classes widens as children get older. The study notes that –

The research showed that educational deficits emerge early in children’s lives, even before entry into school, and widen throughout childhood. Even by the age of three there is a considerable gap in cognitive test scores between children in the poorest fifth of the population compared with those from better-off backgrounds. This gap widens as children enter and move through the schooling system, especially during primary school years.

The report demonstrates this graphically as follows –

 

Differences in 'cognitive ability' by income and age
Differences in ‘cognitive ability’ by income and age

 

And you can see from the table below how the differences are greater by ages 7 and 11…

untitled8

According to the study The main ’causes’ of class differences in educational achievement are –

  • Children from poorer backgrounds are much less likely to experience a rich home learning environment than children from better-off backgrounds. At age three, for example, reading to the child is less likely to happen in poorer households.

Reasons for the widening gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds are:

  • lower parental aspirations for higher education – (81% of the richest mothers hope their child at age 9 will go to university, compared to only 39% of the poorest mothers)
  • how far parents and children believe their own actions can affecttheir lives;
  • children’s behavioural problems.

• It becomes harder to reverse patterns of under-achievement by the teenage years, but disadvantage and poor school results continue to be linked, including through:

  • – teenagers’ and parents’ expectations for higher education
  • material resources such as access to a computer and the internet at home;
  •  engagement in anti-social behaviour;
  • and young people’s belief in their own ability at school.

What’s interesting is the way the stats visually display the multiple disadvantages people from low incomes face – for example –

untitled

Probably my favourite graphic of all is this – which is hopefully at least partially self explanatory
 
untitled7

If it’s not clear from the graphic – this is saying that family background is correlated with  two thirds of the difference in cognitive ability between the richest and poorest children aged three.

Overall, the main message of this study – that home background and parental aspiration matter a lot when it comes to explaining class differences in educational achievement.

The study also mentions that there are certain policy implications that need to be followed through if the government wishes to address these issues, but of course just because some research suggest certain courses of action, it doesn’t necessarily mean the government will adopt those courses of action, because of funding constraints, or ideological biases.

Related Posts

Sociology and Social Policy

 

Our waning interest in Pornography and Patriarchy?

Here’s an interesting correlation between the quantities of books published on Pornography and Patriarchy…

Patriarchy and Porn

This is from Google ngram viewer, which searches the content of five million books. If you take it at face value, then public interest in both pornography and patriarchy peaked around 1995, and have been declining at a similar rate ever since.

wordpress.com doesn’t allow me to embed html – but click here for the online version:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=patriarchy%2C+pornography&year_start=1940&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpatriarchy%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cpornography%3B%2Cc0

Of course I’m skeptical about whether that’s actually the case, I’ve just been messing around with Google ngrams and wanted to share my pretty graph.

Besides being perty, the above graph is useful to demonstrate the limitations of quantitative secondary  data analysis…

Firstly, public interest in Patriarchy and Pornography haven’t necessarily been declining since 1995 – books may still be written about these topics, but without using these words – So people may be writing about the same things, but just using different words – an important reminder of the limitations of doing quantitative analysis using a limited range of key terms.

Secondly, we can’t necessarily compare over time – this is only a mere book search – I’m damn sure the majority of people who write about the above two topics today do so online, and when did the online writing explosion start – the late 1990, so probably books on everything decline from the mid 1990s!

Thirdly, the above obviously tells you nothing about the quality, tone, ideology of the material being produced. Are these pro or anti-books. Is it that useful to just know merely the topics that people are writing about?

I’d be interested in comments – How much does Google ngrams actually tell us about changing trends in the kind of things people are writing and reading about today?

 

Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education

A range of quantitative and qualitative evidence which both supports and criticises the Functionalist view of education.

Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim and Parsons argue that education systems are meritocracies and that they perform positive functions such as secondary socialization and role allocation, but how valid are these views today?

Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the functionalist view of education. You should have notes, organised into at least four points which functionalists make about the role of education in society. Then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous).

Evidence you could use to evaluate the Functionalist view of education

NB the evidence I present below is far from the only evidence you can use. I have tried to select a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources. You might have your own, more recent evidence you can use to evaluate Functionalism!

Whatever evidence you’re using You need to consider how valid, reliable and representative each piece of evidence is! It might be useful to brush up on your research methods knowledge before looking at the material below!

Education Yorkshire: The Case of Musharaf

Educating Yorkshire was a documentary which aired on British T.V. back in 2013. In terms of methods it used a variety of non participant observation (filmed) and interviews with mainly the students.

Musharaf was one of the main characters from this first series, and to my mind this clip is one of the best pieces of supporting evidence for the functionalist view on education – it’s a really positive story. Watch it to find out more, it’s all in there: especially solidarity at the end!

Cross National Comparisons

Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole, as they are correlated with a society’s level of economic development.

education-country-comparisons

Human Development statistics show a clear relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or  secondary education, with actual enrolment figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).

You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries

Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country. 

School Exclusion Statistics

Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exclusions are small, with only 5% of pupils being given a fixed term exclusion and only 0.1% being permanently excluded.

However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and Black-Caribbean and mixed white and Black-Caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.

Extension work: if you’re interested you can read more about the limitations of school exclusion statistics here.

School Absentee Statistics

You get a very different picture of absenteeism depending on which set of stats you look at!

Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that one in nine, or 11% of pupils are routinely absent from school, missing more than 10% of school in any one term –and the numbers are much higher for special schools, for boys and FSM students.

HOWEVER, if you look at the overall absentee rate (which looks at number of sessions missed for all students, rather than individual students) then the absentee rate is much lower – it stands at around 4.8%

So whether you see these statistics as supporting evidence for Functionalism or as criticizing Functionalism is kind of open to interpretation!

The correlation between employment and education

Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level,  employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonstrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).

This more recent survey of graduate compared to non graduate earnings backs this up – post graduates earn more than graduates, and graduates earn more than non-graduates…

To simplify it – for 16-64 year olds, on average, graduates earn about £8K more a year than non-graduates and postgraduates earn another £8K year a more than graduates.

graduate-earnings

More recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that those with a level 4 qualification earn almost twice as much as those with no qualifications, in 2019.

And data from 2018 suggests that working age graduates earn £10 000 a year more on average than non-graduates.

However, the gap between the earnings of non-graduates and graduates has narrowed in the last decade… .In 2005 graduates earned 55% more than non-graduates, but by 2015, they only earned 45% more.

graduate-earnings-2015

Longitudinal Studies

Criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….

‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.

‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter  the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.

But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.

‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’

Ken Robinson (a Post Modern View)

This TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system –  you could loosly call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticizes the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions:

In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –

  1. It stifles their creativity by focusing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
  2. It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
  3. Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
  4. It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Education – revision notes

The Marxist view of Education  and the New Right view both criticise the Functionalist view of the role of education

This is an evaluative posts – click here for a reminder of the key skills in sociology and an explanation of different ways you can evaluate perspectives.

Are Chinese Teaching Methods Best? (Experiments in Education)

According to recent studies, China is home to one of the best education systems in the world, while Britain is trailing a long way behind. In some studies Chinese students are three years ahead of British students in reading and writing ability.

China is well known for its ‘tough education’ methods, but can these methods be used to improve the performance of British students? In a recent BBC documentary: ‘Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school’ a field experiment was conducted to find out.

five Chinese teachers took over the education of a class of fifty Year 9 pupils at Bohunt School in Liphook and taught them (in one class of 50!) using Chinese teaching methods for a month, and then tested in English, Maths, Science and Mandarin, and the results compared to other students who remained receiving a more typical British Education.

 

The main features of the Chinese School consisted of:

  • The school day being 12 hours long with a 7 a.m. start consisting of a flag raising ceremony and outdoor exercises.
  • In the classroom, most lessons were essentially lectures. Teachers stood at the front writing the theory on the board, while the students (were supposed to) take notes and learn.
  • PE was a compulsory – and students were timed, tested and ranked against each other.

Results

The ultimate test of the experiment was to see if Chinese teaching methods improved educational performance – which they did (or at least appeared to have – see below). Students who attended the Chinese School for four weeks scored about 10% points (on average) higher in Mandarin, Maths and Science and they also did better in English, but with a smaller margin.

The experiment also revealed that there was something of a culture clash – those students were not particularly self-disciplined or well-behaved did not respond well to a Chinese style of teaching which is less student-centered and not as inclined to encourage individualism.

Limitations of the field experiment

I say that the Chinese-School kids achieved better test scores – what we’re not told is how much they improved, or what their ability was compared to the control group. I’m assuming all this was controlled for.

The Hawthorne Effect might apply – the improved results might be a result of the students knowing their involved in an experiment (and knowing they’re on TV) or the better results might simply exposing the kids to something different, rather than it being about those exact Chinese methods (a change is as good as a rest!)

It’s also not clear how representative this school is – Bohunt seems to be a brilliant school, enlightened (which is reflected in getting involved in this whole experiment in the first place). Would you get the same findings somewhere else?

Ethics: Some (wrong) individuals might try and argue that some of the children experienced harm to their self-esteem by being ranked in PE (other (right) individuals might argue this is just life, tough, get over it kiddo).

Related Posts:

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Field Experiments in Sociology

Unstructured Interviews in the Context of Education

 

Official Statistics on Educational Achievement in the U.K. – Strengths and Limitations

How useful are official statistics for understanding differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity?

How do GCSE results vary by social class, gender and ethnicity?

The data below is taken from the Department for Education’s document – GCSE and Equivalent Attainment by Pupil Characteristics 2014

Firstly – GENDER –  Girls outperform boys by about 10 percentage points. 61.7% of girls achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 51.6% of boys; this is a gap of 10.1 percentage points.

Girls Outperform Boys in Education
Girls Outperform Boys in Education

Secondly – ETHNICITY – Chinese pupils are the highest achieving group. 74.4% of Chinese pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics. This is 17.9 percentage points above the national average (56.6%). Almost half of Chinese Pupils are achieving the English Baccalaureate (49.5%); 25.4 percentage points above the national average (24.2%).

Children from a black background are the lowest achieving group. 53.1% of pupils from a black background achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics; this is 3.4 percentage points below the national average (56.6%). However, things are also improving: 75.5% of black pupils are making the expected progress in English and 68.4% in mathematics; both above the national average of 71.6% for English and 65.5% for mathematics.

educational attainment by ethnicity 2014
educational attainment by ethnicity 2014

 

Thirdly – SOCIAL CLASS – Here, instead of social class we need to use Pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) (meaning they come from a household with an income of less than £16000) – FSM pupils are nearly 30% points behind non FSM pupils. 33.5% of pupils eligible for FSM achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 60.5% of all other pupils. This is a gap of 27.0 percentage points. 36.5% of disadvantaged pupils achieved at least 5 A*- C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades including English and mathematics compared to 64.0% of all other pupils, a gap of 27.4 percentage points.

Educational attainment by social class
Educational attainment by social class

 

The government stats also include achievement data by ‘disadvantage’:

Disadvantaged pupils are defined as pupils known to be eligible for free school meals in the previous six years as indicated in any termly or annual school census, pupil referral unit (PRU) or alternative provision (AP) census or are children looked after by the local authority for more than 6 months.

Educational achievement by disadvantage
Educational achievement by disadvantage

 

Other statistical data included in the pupil characteristics report

The Department for Education also collects data and reports on educational achievement by English as a second language, and special educational needs. Look it up if you’re interested, I’m limiting myself here to educational attainment by ‘social class’, gender and ethnicity.

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

ONE – Good Validity (as far as it goes) – These data aren’t collected by the schools themselves – so they’re not a complete work of fiction, they are based on external examinations or coursework which is independently verified, so we should be getting a reasonably true representation of actual achievement levels. HOWEVER, we need to be cautious about this.

TWO – Excellent representativeness – We are getting information on practically every pupil in the country, even the ones who fail!

THREE – They allow for easy comparisons by social class, gender and ethnicity. These data allow us to see some pretty interesting trends – As in the table below – the difference between poor Chinese girls and poor white boys stands out a mile… (so you learn straight away that it’s not just poverty that’s responsible for educational underachievement)

Educational achievement varies hugely by class, gender and ethnicity
Educational achievement varies hugely by class, gender and ethnicity

FOUR – These are freely available to anyone with an internet connection

FIVE – They allow the government to track educational achievement and develop social policies to target the groups who are the most likely to underachieve – These data show us (once you look at it all together) for example, that the biggest problem of underachievement is with white, FSM boys.

Some Disadvantages of the Department for Education’s Stats on Educational Achievement

ONE – We need to be a little cautious about the validity of some of these results, especially when making comparisons over time. This is because until last year schools could count any one of 3000 ‘soft’ subjects as equivalent to a GCSE, which could make the results look better than they actually are. Also, with coursework subjects there is a potential problem with ‘grade inflation’ within schools, and not to mention the fact that with coursework we are least partially measuring the degree to which parents have helped their children, rather than their children’s actual personal achievement.

TWO – comparisons over time might be difficult because of recent changes to the qualifications that are allowed to be counted towards attainment measurements. In 2014 the following changes were made:

1. The number of qualifications which counted towards ‘GCSE or equivalent’ results were drastically reduced – around 3,000 unique qualifications from the performance measures between 2012/13 and 2013/14.

2. The associated point scores for non-GCSEs was adjusted so that no qualification will count as larger than one GCSE in size. For example, where a BTEC may have previously counted as four GCSEs it will now be reduced to the equivalence of a single GCSE in its contribution to performance measures.

3. The number of non-GCSE qualifications that count in performance measures was restricted to two per pupil.

All of this has had the effect of making the results look worse than they actually are:

Effects of Wolfes review on GCSE results

THREE – These stats don’t actually tell us about the relationship between social class background and educational attainment. Rather than recording data using a sociological conception of social class, the government uses the limited definition of Free School Meal eligibility – which is just an indicator of material deprivation rather than social class in its fuller sense. Marxist sociologists would argue that this is ideological – the government simply isn’t interested in measuring the effects of social class on achievement – and if you don’t measure it the problem kind of disappears.

FOUR – and this is almost certainly the biggest limitation – these stats don’t actually tell us anything about ‘WHY THESE VARIATIONS EXIST’ – Of course they allow us to formulate hypotheses – but (at least if we’re being objective’) we don’t get to see why FSM children are twice as likely to do badly in school… we need to do further research to figure this out.

No doubt there are further strengths and limitations, but this is something for you to be going on with at least…

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Assessing the Usefulness of Using Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

Official Statistics in Sociology

The theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of official statistics in sociology.

Official Statistics are numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy.

This post considers some of strengths and limitations of using official statistics in social research,  focusing on practical, theoretical and ethical factors.

Official statistics are a type of secondary quantitative data and are one of the main methods you need to know about for the research methods component of A-level sociology.

Theoretical Factors

Theoretical advantages

Official Statistics make it very easy to get an overview of social life in Britain by, for example, clicking on the ‘UK snapshot’ or ‘focus on’ links on the ONS homepage.

Official statistics enable us to make comparisons between social groups and regions. The UK National Census is a good example of this.

They enable us to make historical comparisons over time because they often go back a long way – The British Crime Survey goes back to 1982 for example, League Tables go back until 1988 and and the UK Census goes back to 1841.

One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time
One of the most obvious strengths of official statistics is easy comparisons over time

Some large data sets might not exist if they were not collected by the government – because individuals and universities simply don’t have the funds to do such large-scale research as required by the Census, while large private companies would only focus on data collection which is profitable.

Official Statistics are favoured by Positivists because they allow us to spot trends, find correlations and make generalisations. They also allow the research to remain detached so there is less room for the subjective bias of the researcher to interfere with the research process.

Theoretical Disadvantages

Some Official Statistics lack validity. Crime statistics are a good example of this – certain crimes are notorious for being under-reported to the police – such as Rape and Domestic Violence for example.

The way that some social trends are measured changes over time – sometimes making historical comparisons difficult. For example, they way the Police Recorded Crimes changed twice in 2000s.

Official statistics may also lack validity because they are collected by the state and massaged to make things look better than they actually are. The UK government has changed the way unemployment is measured several times over the last decades, typically bringing the number of officially unemployed people down – for example by reclassifying anyone who is receiving unemployment benefit but on a work-related training course as not being unemployed.

Marxist and Feminist Sociologists argue that official statistics serve the interests of elite groups – Data is only collected on things which do not harm those in power. Marxists argue that Corporate Crime and Financial Crimes of elites are not focused on by the government, while Feminists argue that domestic violence is not taken seriously by the state.

Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually
Feminists argue that more than 1/1000 women are victims of sexual offences annually

Similarly, official statistics reflect the biases and prejudices of those in power – The fact that African-Caribbeans and Muslims are over represented in prison suggests people from these groups have higher levels of criminality. But according to Marxist criminologists this is not the case – such groups are over-represented in jail because of racial profiling by the police – the police spend more time actively policing the black and Muslim communities (with more stop and searches for example) and this is what leads to the higher arrest and imprisonment rates. Official Statistics thus give us a misleading impression of reality.

Practical Factors

Practical advantages

Many official statistics are freely available to researchers and the general public. This is a distinct advantage over ‘privately collected data’ which is collected by companies – Facebook and Amazon, for example, have a lot of data on individuals, but they are not going to share it for free! Official Statistics are more likely to shared with the public because they are paid for by taxes.

They are generally easy to access and to navigate – by using the Office for National Statics (ONS) web site for example.

It is possible to access many official statistics from home, and you can do comparative social research without needing any ‘people skills’.

Practical Disadvantages

Even though these statistics are free, they are far from cheap to collect. The ONS employs 4000 people merely to collate this data. On top of this, think of the time it takes other government officials to collect data. The Census in 2011 cost hundreds of million pounds to produce.

Official Statistics are collected for administrative purposes rather than for research purposes. Thus the data which exists and the categories and indicators used might not fit a researcher’s specific research purposes.

Ethical Factors

Ethical Advantages

Official Statistics are collected in the ‘national interest’ and so avoid the biases of private research, which would only collect data which would be of interest to the particular researcher, or data which is is profitable.

Official Statistics enable us to check up on the performance of public bodies such as the police and schools, making sure tax payers’ money is spent efficiently.

Ethical Disadvantages

The collection of some statistics can have harmful effects.

The introduction of school league tables and the requirement that schools publish there results has led to more teaching the test, a decline in creativity in education, and education generally being much more stressful for both pupils and teachers.

The collection of statistics might really be about surveillance and control – The collection of data on school performance for example enables control of teachers while the collection of data on pupils allows ‘problem pupils’ to be identified and managed by social services from a young age.

Related Posts 

Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Family Trends in the UK (2016) – outlines some official statistics on families

Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world? (looks at the problems of official statistics on gender equality)