The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam

The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –

  1. There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
  2. We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
  3. Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
  4. We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
  5. Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
  6. Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)

You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.

 Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’ Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns

  • He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly  
  • He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order

1.    There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’

Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.

Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…

Durkheim

2.     Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour

Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.

3 Individuals need to be restrained

Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.

Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.

Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.

Key Term – Social Solidarity Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.

Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult

Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.

In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.

In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.

Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’  and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving  ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference

Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.

Key Term – Anomie Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.

 

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

4.    The Organic Analogy[1] – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

5.    Institutions perform positive functions

Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below

  • Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
  • The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
  • Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
  • Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.

The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites

Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems

Parson’s name for each function (AGIL) This means…. Performed by what institutions?
Adaptation Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Goal Attainment Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Integration Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance) Socialise the young into shared values

Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.

Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this  would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.

 

6. Social change and social evolution

Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)

Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.

Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

1.    Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals? 

 2.    It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.

3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it

4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.

5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.

 6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion  – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.

7.    Functionalism is Ideological  – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions

So is Functionalism still relevant today?

Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –

The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.

Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.

Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on The Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Modernisation Theory (kind of Functionalist applied to Global Development)

Find out More: Basic info

This History Learning Site post has a very basic overview of Functionalism

Find out More: Extension sources

This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…

 

Sociological Perspectives on Single Person Households

Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone? (Scroll down for a video summary)

According to a recent book by Eric Klinenberg: Explaining the Rise of Solo Living, this is a global phenomenon and mainly reflects the increasing degree of individual choice that comes with increasing wealth.

A review of the trends in Single Person Households

  • 29% of UK Households are single person households. 

single people UK

  • Most people who live alone are 65+ and increasing numbers of those aged 45-60 are living alone. However, the numbers of younger people living alone are declining (so Wayne in the video above is actually wrong when he says solo living is on the increase among younger people!)

solo living UK

A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg

single person householdsKlinenberg argues that the rise of solo living is an extremely important social trend which presents a fundamental challenge to the centrality of the family to modern society. In the USA, the average adult will now spend more of their life unmarried than married, and single person households are one of the most common types of household. We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population.

Eric Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing 300 single Americans who lived alone, and the general picture he got was that these people were exactly where they wanted to be – living on their own was not a transitory phase, it was a genuine life choice. On the whole, living alone is seen as a mark of social distinction, living as part of a couple is for losers.

While single by choice is very much on the up among younger people who have never settled down into a long term cohabiting relationships and have no intention of doing so, it is also the norm among older people who have come out of relationships. Where older people living alone are concerned, and these are mostly women, they are not all chasing the dwindling population of men in their age group (given the higher life expectancy for women). Most of them are in fact wary of getting involved in relationships because doing so will probably mean becoming someone’s carer (again), and similarly they are skeptical about moving back in with their children (and possibly their grandchildren too) because of fear that they will become an unpaid domestic and child-sitting slave.

NB, as a counter to the above, not all singles are happy about it, however. One such group consists of mainly men on low wages who are unmarriageable and live in ‘single room occupancy facilities’ often suffering from various addictions and who practice ‘defensive individualism’ in order to cope with their bleak situation.

So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?

Klinenberg suggests four reasons…

  1. The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – the basic thesis is that the rise of single living is basically just a reflection of increasing wealth. When we can afford to live alone, more of us choose to do so. We especially see this where Scandinavia is concerned, and nearly half of the adult population live alone.
  2. The communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of his thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
  3. Mass urbanization – Klinenberg suggests that Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life. In short, it’s easier to connect with other singles where people live closer together.
  4. Increased longevity – because people are living longer than ever and because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.

Video version of some the above.

In the video below, Wayne discusses his motivations for ‘going solo’ with his friend Archie, and together they explore some of the reasons for the increase in single person households.


 
Questions 

  • To what extent do you think Kleinberg’s findings apply to the increase in Solo Living in the UK?
  • What other ‘deeper’ Sociological reasons might explain the increase in Solo Living?
  • Do you agree that the rise of Solo Living challenges the centrality of the family in modern society?

Related Posts

Explaining the reasons for the increase in family diversity (explores further reasons for the increase in single person households and other ‘family’ types).

How Old are Twitter Users?

‘Who Tweets’ is an interesting piece of recent research which attempts to determine some basic demographic characteristics of Twitter users, relying on nothing but the data provided by the users themselves in their twitter profiles.

Based on a sample of 1470 twitter profiles* in which users clearly stated** their age, the authors of ‘Who Tweets’ found that 93.9% of twitter users were under the age of 35. The full age-profile of twitter users (according to the ‘Who Tweets’/ COSMOS data) compared to the actual age profile taken from the UK Census is below:

The age profiles of Twitter users - really?
The age profiles of Twitter users – really?

 

Compare this to the Ipsos MORI Tech Tracker report for the third quarter of 2014 (which the above research draws on) which used face to face interviews based on a quota sample of 1000 people.

Ages of twitter users according to a face to face Mori Poll
Ages of twitter users according to a face to face Mori Poll

Clearly this shows that only 67% of media users are under the age of 35, quite a discrepancy with the user-defined data!

The researchers note that:

‘We might… hypothesis that young people are more likely to profess their age in their profile data and that this would lead to an overestimation of the ‘youthfulness’ of the UK Twitter population. As this is a new and developing field we have no evidence to support this claim, but the following discussion and estimations should be treated cautiously.

Looking again at the results from the Technology Tracker study conducted by Ipsos MORI, nearly two thirds of Twitter users were under 35 years of age in Q3 of 2014 whereas our study clearly identifies 93.9% as being 35 or younger. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the older population is less likely to state their age on Twitter. The second is that the age distribution in the survey data is a function of sample bias (i.e. participants over the age of 35 in the survey were particularly tech-savvy). This discrepancy between elicited (traditional) and naturally occurring (new) forms of social data warrants further investigation…’

Comment 

This comparison clearly shows how we get some very different data on a very basic question (‘what is the age distribution of twitter users’?) depending on the methods we use, but which is more valid? The Ipsos face to face poll is done every quarter, and it persistently yields results which are nothing like COSMOS, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to get a persistent ‘tech savy’ selection bias in every sample of over 35 year olds, so does that mean it’s a more accurate reflection of the age profile of Twitter users?

Interestingly the Ipsos data shows a definite drift to older users over time, it’d be interesting to know if more recent COSMOS data reflects this. More interestingly, the whole point of COSMOS is to provided us with more up to date, ‘live’ information – so where is it?!? Sort of ironic that the latest public reporting is already 12 months behind good old Ipsos –

Age profiles of Twitter users in final quarter of 2015 according to MORI
Age profiles of Twitter users in final quarter of 2015 according to MORI

 

 

At the end of the day, I’m not going to be too harsh about the above ‘Who Tweets’ study, it is experimental, and many of the above projects are looking at the methodological limitations of this data.  It would just be nice if they, err, got on with it a bit… come on Sociology, catch up!

One thing I am reasonably certain about is that the above comparison certainly shows the continued importance of terrestrial methods if we want demographic data.

Of course, one simple way of checking the accuracy of the COSMOS data is simply to do a face to face survey and ask people what there age is and whether they state this in their Twitter profiles, then again I’m sure they’ve thought of that… maybe in 2018 we’ll get a report?

*drawn from the  Collaborative Online Social Media Observatory (COSMOS)

**there’s an interesting discussion of the rules applied to determine this in the ‘Who Tweets’ article.

 

Field Experiments in sociology

The practical, ethical and theoretical strengths and limitations of field experiments in comparison to lab experiments, relevant to sociology.

Field Experiments take place in real-life settings such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street. Field experiments are much more common in sociology than laboratory experiments. In fact sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real life that most sociologists believe that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.

It is actually quite easy to set up a field experiment. If you wanted to measure the effectiveness of different teaching methods on educational performance in a school for example, all you would need to do is to get teachers to administer a short test to measure current performance levels, and then get them to change one aspect of their teaching for one class, or for a sample of some pupils, but not for the others, for a period of time (say one term) and then measure and compare the results of all pupils at the end.

You need to know about field experiments for the research methods component of A-level sociology and the AQA exam board does seem to like setting exam questions on experiments!

Field experiments.png

The advantages of Field Experiments over Lab Experiments

Better external validity – The big advantage which field experiments obviously have better external validity than lab experiments, because they take place in normally occurring social settings.

Larger Scale Settings – Practically it is possible to do field experiments in large institutions – in schools or workplaces in which thousands of people interact for example, which isn’t possible in laboratory experiments.

The disadvantages of Field Experiments compared to Lab Experiments

It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – With the Rosenthal and Jacobson experiment, for example we simply don’t know what else might have influenced the ‘spurting group’ besides ‘higher teacher expectations’.

The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results. The Hawthorne effect is where respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment. The Hawthorne Effect was a phrase coined by Elton Mayo (1927) who did research into workers’ productivity at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant. With the workers agreement (they knew that an experiment was taking place, and the purpose of the experiment), Mayo set about varying things such as lighting levels, the speed of conveyor belts and toilet breaks. However, whatever he did, the worker’s productivity always increased from the norm, even when conditions were worsened. He concluded that the respondents were simply trying to please the researcher. NB – The Hawthorne effect can also apply to laboratory experiments.

Practical Problems – Access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.

Ethical Problems – Just as with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1968 Field Experiment on Teacher Expectations (Pygmalion in the Classroom)

This classic field experiment illustrates some of the strengths and limitation of this method.

Aim

The aim of this research was to measure the effect of high teacher expectation on the educational performance of pupils.

Procedure

Rosenthal and Jacobson carried out their research in a California primary school they called ‘Oak School’. Pupils were given an IQ test and on the basis of this R and J informed teachers that 20% of the pupils were likely ‘spurt’ academically in the next year. In reality, however, the 20% were randomly selected.

All of the pupils were re-tested 8 months later and he spurters had gained 12 IQ points compared to an average of 8.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that higher teacher expectations were responsible for this difference in achievement.

Limitations of the Experiment

Firstly, deception/ Lack of Informed Consent is an issue – In order for the experiment to work, R and J had to deceive the teachers about the real nature of the experiment, and the pupils had no idea what was going on.

Secondly, there are ethical problems – while the spurters seem to have benefited from this study, the other 80% of pupils did not, in fact it is possible that they were harmed because of the teachers giving disproportionate amounts of attention to the spurting group. Given that child rights and child welfare are more central to education today it is unlikely that such an experiment would be allowed to take place.

Thirdly, reliability is a problem while the research design was relatively simple and thus easy to repeat (in fact within five years of the original study this was repeated 242 times) the exact conditions are not possible to repeat – given differences between schools and the type and mixture of pupils who attend different schools.

Finally, it’s not possible to rule out the role of extraneous variables. Rosenthal and Jacobson claim that higher teacher expectation led to the higher achievement of the ‘spurters’ but they did not conduct any observations of this taking place. It may have been other factors.

Related Posts 

Seven Examples of Field Experiments in Sociology

An Introduction to Experiments in Sociology

Laboratory Experiments in Sociology

Are Chinese Teaching Methods the Best?  – A Field Experiment in ‘tough teaching methods’ in the UK conducted in 2015.

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’.

Experiments in Sociology – An Introduction

Experiments aim to measure the effect which an independent variable (the ’cause’) has on a dependent variable (‘the effect’).

The key features of an experiment are control over variables, precise measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.

In order to establish cause and effect relationships, the independent variable is changed and the dependent variable is measured; all other variables (known as extraneous variables) are controlled in the experimental process.

Different types of experiment

There are three main types of experimental: The Laboratory experiment, the field experiment and the comparative method.

  • Laboratory Experiments take place in an artificial, controlled environment such as a laboratory
  • Field Experiments – take place in a real world context such as a school or a hospital.
  • The comparative method – involves comparing two or more similar societies or groups which are similar in some respects but varied in others, and looking for correlations.

The Key Features of the Experiment

It’s easiest to explain what an experiment is by using an example from the natural sciences, so I’m going to explain about experiments further using an example used from biology

NB – You do need to know about the scientific method for the second year sociology theory and methods part of the course ( for an overview of theories and methods click here), so this is still all necessary information. I’ll return to the use of laboratory and field experiments in sociology (/ psychology) later on…

An example to illustrate the key features of an experiment

If you wished to measure the precise effect temperature had on the amount* of tomatoes a tomato plant produced, you could design an experiment in which you took two tomato plants of the same variety, and grow them in the same greenhouse with same soil, the same amount of light, and the same amount of water (and everything else exactly the same), but grow them on different heat pads, so one is heated to 15 degrees, and the other 20 degrees (5 degrees difference between the two).

You would then collect the tomatoes from each plant at the same time of year** (say in September sometime) and weigh them (*weighing would be a more accurate way of measuring the amount of tomatoes rather than the number produced), the difference in weight between the two piles of tomatoes would give you the ‘effect’ of the 5 degree temperature difference.

You would probably want to repeat the experiment a number of times to ensure good reliability, and then average all the yields of tomatoes to come up with an average difference.

After, say, 1000 experiments you might reasonably conclude that if you grow tomatoes at 20 degrees rather than 15 degrees, each plant will give you 0.5 kg more tomatoes, thus the ’cause’ of the 5 degree temperature increase is 0.5 Kg more tomatoes per plant.

In the above example, the amount of tomatoes is the dependent variable, the temperature is the independent variable, and everything else (the water, nutrients, soil etc. which you control, or keep the same) are the extraneous variables.

** of course, you might get different results if you collected the tomatoes as they ripened, but for the sake of controlling extraneous variables, you would need to collect all the tomatoes at the same time.

The Role of Hypotheses in Experiments

Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis which is a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a specific, testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

The point of using a hypothesis is that it helps with accuracy, focussing the researcher in on testing the specific relationship between two variables precisely, it also helps with objectivity (see below).

Having collected the results from the above experiment, you might reasonably hypothesise that ‘a tomato plant grown at 25 degrees compared to 20 degrees will yield 0.5K.G. more tomatoes’ (in fact a proper hypothesis would probably be even tighter than this, but hopefully you get the gist).

You would then simply repeat the above experiment, but heating one plant to 20 degrees and the other to 25 degrees, repeat 1000 (or so times) and on the basis of your findings, you could either accept or reject and modify the hypothesis.

Experiments and Objectivity

A further key feature of experiments are that they are supposed to produce objective knowledge – that is they reveal cause and effect relationships between variables which exist independently of the observer, because the results gained should have been completely uninfluenced by the researcher’s own values.

In other words, somebody else observing the same experiment, or repeating the same experiment should get the same results. If this is the case, then we can say that we have some objective knowledge.

A final (quick) word on tomato experiments, and objective knowledge…

NB – the use of tomato plants is not an idle example to illustrate the key features of the experiment – nearly everyone eats tomatoes (unless you’re the minority of Ketchup and Dolmio abstainers) – and so there’s a lot of profit in producing tomatoes, so I imagine that hundred of millions, if not billions of dollars has been spent on researching what combinations of variables lead to the most tomatoes being grown per acre, with the least inputs…. NB there would have to be a lot of experiments because a lot of variables interact, such as type of tomato plant, altitude, wave length of light, soil type, pests and pesticide use, as well as all of the basic stuff such as heat, light, and water.

A woman picks tomatoes at a desert experimental farming greenhouse.

The importance of objective, scientific knowledge about what combination of variables has what effect on tomato production is important, because if I have this knowledge (NB I may need to pay an agricultural science college for it, but it is there!) I can establish a tomato farm and set up the exact conditions for maximum production, and predict with some certainty how many tomatoes I’ll end up with in a season…(assuming I’m growing under glass, where I can control everything).

The advantages of the experimental method

  • It allows us to establish ’cause and effect relationships’ between variables.
  • It allows for the precise measurement of the relationship between variables, enabling us to make accurate predictions about how two things will interact in the future.
  • The researcher can remain relatively detached from the research process, so it allows for the collection of objective knowledge, independent of the subjective opinions of the researcher.
  • It has excellent reliability because controlled environments allow for the exact conditions of the research to be repeated and results tested.

Disadvantages of the experimental method

(Why it may not be applicable to studying society as a whole or even individual humans…)

  • There are so many variables ‘out there’ in the real world that it is impossible to control and measure them all.
  • Most social groups are too large to study scientifically, you can’t get a city into a laboratory to control all it’s variables, you couldn’t even do this with a field experiment.
  • Human beings have their own personal, emotionally charged reasons for acting, which often they don’t know themselves, so they are impossible to measure in any objective way.
  • Human beings have consciousness and so don’t just react in a predictable way to external stimuli: they think about things, make judgements and act accordingly, so it’s impossible to predict human behaviour.
  • There are also ethical concerns with treating humans as ‘research subjects’ rather than equal partners in the research process.

Experiments – Key Terms

Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.

Dependent Variable – this is the object of the study in the experiment, the variable which will (possibly) be effected by the independent variables.

Independent variables – The variables which are varied in an experiment – the factors which the experimenter changes in order to measure the effect they have on the dependent variable.

Extraneous variables – Variables which are not of interest to the researcher but which may interfere with the results of an experiment

Experimental group – The group under study in the investigation.

Control group – The group which is similar to the study group who are held constant. Following the experiment the experimental group can be compared to the control group to measure the extent of the impact (if any) of the independent variables.

Related Posts 

Laboratory experiments: definition, explanation, advantages and disadvantages

Field experiments: definition, explanation, advantages and disadvantages.

Useful Introductory Sources on Experiments

Simply Psychology – The Experimental Method

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – A Summary

A summary of The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, and a brief discussion of its relevance to A level Sociology. 

Executive Summary

The best way to understand human action is by seeing people as actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves for the benefit of an audience (and, ultimately themselves).

When we act in the social world, we put on a ‘front’ in order to project a certain image of ourselves (call this part of our ‘social identity’ if you like) – we create a front by manipulating the setting in which we perform (e.g. our living room), our appearance (e.g. our clothes) and our manner (our emotional demeanour).

In the social world we are called upon to put on various fronts depending on the social stage on which we find ourselves and the teams of actors with whom we are performing – the work-place or the school are typical examples of social stages which require us to put on a front. On these social stages we take on roles, in relation to other team-members and carefully manage the impressions we give-off in order to ‘fit in’ to society and/ or achieve our own personal goals

Impression management involves projecting an ‘idealised image’ of ourselves, which involves concealing a number of aspects of a performance – such as the effort which goes into putting on a front, and typically hiding any personal profit we will gain from a performance/ interaction.

Unfortunately because audiences are constantly on the look-out for the signs we give off (so that they can know who we are) ‘performers can stop giving expressions, but they cannot stop giving them off’. This means that we must be constantly on our guard to practice ‘expressive control’ when on the social stage. There are plenty of things that can go wrong with our performance which might betray the fact that we are not really the person who our act suggests that we are – we might lose bodily control (slouch), or make mistakes with our clothing (a scruffy appearance) for example.

Acting out social roles is quite demanding and so in addition to the front-stage aspect of our lives, we also have back-stage areas where we can drop our front and be more relaxed, closer to our ‘true-selves’, and where we can prepare for our acting in the world.

We generally tend to think of performances as being of one or two types – the sincere and the contrived. Some people sincerely believe in the parts they are playing, they invest their true selves in the impression they give off, this is the typical case. However, other people act out their roles more cynically – they do not believe the parts they are playing are a reflection of their ‘true selves’ but instead only play their part in order to achieve another end.

However, most performances on the social stage fall somewhere between these two realities. What is required in social life is that the individual learn enough about role-playing to fulfil the basic social roles that are required of him during his life – most of us ‘buy into this’ and act out what is expected of us, so we invest an element of ourselves into our roles, but at the same time we don’t necessarily get into our roles in a gung-ho sort of way…. So most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ or fully ‘contrived’ and most people oscillate between sincerity and cynicism throughout the day and throughout the role they are playing.

Some of the roles we play contradict each other – and so we need to keep audiences separate – some performances are only meant for certain audience members – For example a student might act studiously while at school but more care-free while amongst his friends outside of school.

Thankfully most audience members are tactful and voluntarily stay away from back-stage areas where we prepare for our social roles, and if we ever ‘fall out of character’ they tend to engage in ‘tactful inattention’ in order to save the situation.

The significance of Goffman’s work for A level Sociology

From a theoretical point of view Goffman criticises structuralist (Functionalist and Marxist) theories of socialisation – Marxism for example argues that school socialises children to passively accept authority and hierarchy thus preparing them for exploitation in later life. What Goffman’s theory suggests is that many children might just be acting out this acceptance of hierarchy in order to get through school with as little hassle as possible, while backstage they may think school is not particularly important, and they may not accept authority.

From a research methods point of view the significance of Goffman lies in the fact that f we really want to understand people, we would need to engage in participant-observation in order to get back-stage with them, because we only get to see peoples true feelings when they stop performing.

If a researcher merely gave people a questionnaire to fill out, or even if they did an in-depth interview with them – they could be perceived by the respondent as a member of an audience – and the results we get could just be a performance put on for the benefit of the researcher.

Ultimately from this Interactionist/ dramaturgical perspective human interaction is so intricately complex that the correct way to study human action is to look at either individuals or small groups and focus on the efforts they make to maintain their identities in public, and how these social identities differ from their more relaxed selves when they are back-stage.

Social Surveys – Advantages and Disadvantages

Social Surveys are a quantitative, positivist research method consisting of structured questionnaires and interviews. This post considers the theoretical, practical and ethical advantages and disadvantages of using social surveys in social research. 

Social Surveys.png

The Theoretical Advantages of Social Surveys

Detachment, Objectivity and Validity

Positivists favour questionnaires because they are a detached and objective (unbiased) method, where the sociologist’s personal involvement with respondents is kept to a minimum.

Hypothesis Testing

Questionnaires are particularly useful for testing hypotheses about cause and effect relationships between different variables, because the fact that they are quantifiable allows us to find correlations.

For example, based on government statistics on educational achievement we know that white boys on Free School Meals achieve at a significantly lower level than Chinese girls on Free School Meals. We reasonably hypothesise that this is because differences in parental attitudes – Chinese parents may value education more highly, and they may be stricter with their children when it comes to homework compared to white parents. Good questionnaire design and appropriate sampling would enable us to test out this hypothesis. Good sampling would further allow us to see if those white working class boys who do well have parents with similar attitudes to those Chinese girls who do well.

Representativeness

Questionnaires allow the researcher to collect information from a large number of people, so the results should be more representative of the wider population than with more qualitative methods. However, this all depends on appropriate sampling techniques being used and the researchers having knowledge of how actually completes the questionnaire.

Reliability

Questionnaires are generally seen as one of the more reliable methods of data collection – if repeated by another researcher, then they should give similar results. There are two main reasons for this:

When the research is repeated, it is easy to use the exact same questionnaire meaning the respondents are asked the exact same questions in the same order and they have the same choice of answers.

With self-completion questions, especially those sent by post, there is no researcher present to influence the results.

The reliability of questionnaires means that if we do find differences in answers, then we can be reasonably certain that this is because the opinions of the respondents have changed over time. For this reason, questionnaires are a good method for conducting longitudinal research where change over time is measured.

Practical Advantages

Questionnaires are a quick and cheap means of gathering large amounts of data from large numbers of people, even if they are widely dispersed geographically if the questionnaire is sent by post or conducted online. It is difficult to see how any other research method could provide 10s of millions of responses as is the case with the UK national census.

In the context of education, Connor and Dewson (2001) posted nearly 4000 questionnaires to students at 14 higher education institutions in their study of the factors which influenced working class decisions to attend university.

With self-completion questionnaires there is no need to recruit and train interviewers, which reduces cost.

The data is quick to analyse once it has been collected. With online questionnaires, pre-coded questions can be updated live.

Ethical Issues

When a respondent is presented with a questionnaire, it is fairly obvious that research is taken place, so informed consent isn’t normally an issue as long as researchers are honest about the purpose of the research.

It is also a relatively unobtrusive method, given the detachment of the researcher, and it is quite an easy matter for respondents to just ignore questionnaires if they don’t want to complete them.

Theoretical Disadvantages of Questionnaires

Issues affecting validity – Interpretivists make a number of criticisms of questionnaires

Firstly there is the imposition problem – When the researcher chooses the questions, they are deciding what is important rather than the respondent, and with closed ended questions the respondent has to fit their answers into what’s on offer. The result is that the respondent may not be able to express themselves in the way that want to. The structure of the questionnaire thus distorts the respondents’ meanings and undermines the validity of the data

Secondly, Interpretivists argue that the detached nature of questionnaires and the lack of close contact between researcher and respondent means that there is no way to guarantee that the respondents are interpreting the questions in the same way as the researcher. This is especially true where very complex topics are involved – If I tick ‘yes’ that I am Christian’ – this could mean a range of things – from my being baptised but not practising or really believing to being a devout Fundamentalist. For this reason Interpretivists typically prefer qualitative methods where researchers are present to clarify meanings and probe deeper.

Thirdly, researchers may not be present to check whether respondents are giving socially desirable answers, or simply lying, or even to check who is actually completing the questionnaire. At least with interviews researchers are present to check up on these problems (by observing body language or probing further for example)

Issues affecting representativeness

Postal questionnaires in particular can suffer from a low response rate. For example, Shere Hite’s (1991) study of ‘love, passion, and emotional violence’ in the America sent out 100, 000 questionnaires but only 4.5% of them were returned.

All self-completion questionnaires also suffer from the problem of a self-selecting sample which makes the research unrepresentative – certain types of people are more likely to complete questionnaires – literate people for example, people with plenty of time, or people who get a positive sense of self-esteem when completing questionnaires.

Practical Problems with Questionnaires

The fact that questionnaires need to be brief means you can only ever get relatively superficial data from them, thus for many topics, they will need to be combined with more qualitative methods to achieve more insight.

Although questionnaires are a relatively cheap form of gathering data, it might be necessary to offer incentives for people to return them.

Structured Interviews are also considerably more expensive than self-completion questionnaires.

Ethical Issues with questionnaires

They are best avoided when researching sensitive topics.

Related Posts 

An Introduction to Social Surveys – Definition and Basic Types of Survey

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research – Positivists like the survey method

Arguments for International Development Aid

Jeffry Sachs in ‘The End of Poverty’ (2005) makes the case for increasing spending on aid to developing countries. 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

  1. Agriculture
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Power, transport and communications infrastructure
  5. 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:

  1. High infant mortality rates (which indicate low levels of material well-being)
  2. Openeness of the economy – the more open, the less stable
  3. 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%.

Social Surveys – An Introduction to Structured Questionnaires and Structured Interviews

Social Surveys – Definition and Examples

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.

Related Posts

Social Surveys – Advantages and Disadvantages

Positivism and Social Research (Positivists like the survey method)

How to End Poverty in 15 years

In this hour long programme Hans Rosling asks how we can eradicate extreme poverty in 15 years, which is goal number 1.1 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to which 193 nations signed up to in September 2015, in New York.

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.

Poverty infographic rosling

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:

  • Britain
  • China
  • South Korea
  • Ethiopia.
  • 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.

    Poverty Infographic Hans Rosling

    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%).