Sociologists use a range of quantitative and qualitative, primary and secondary social research methods to collect data about society.
The main types of research method are:
- Social surveys (questionnaires and structured interviews)
- Experiments (Lab and Field)
- Unstructured interviews
- Partipant Observation
- Secondary qualitative data
- Official Statistics
This page provides links to more in depth posts on all of the above research methods. It has primarily been written for students studying the A Level Sociology AQA 7192 specification, and incorporates Methods in the Context of Education.
Research Methods at a Glance – Key Concepts
Research Methods Top Ten Key Concepts – start here if you’re all at sea – includes simple explanations of terms such as validity, reliability, representativeness, Positivism and Interpretivism
Research Methods A-Z Glossary – a more comprehensive index of the key terms you need to know for AS and A Level Sociology
An Introduction to Research Methods
Without research methods there is no sociology!
This section covers the basics of the different types of research method and factors influencing choice of research methods, also the important distinction between Positivism and Interpretivism!
Research Methods in Sociology – An Introduction – detailed class notes covering the basic types of research method available to sociologists such as social surveys, interviews, experiments, and observations
Factors Effecting Choice of Research Topic in Sociology – detailed class notes on the theoretical, ethical, and practical factors effecting the choice of research methods
Factors Effecting Choice of Research Method in Sociology – detailed class notes covering theoretical, practical and ethical factors and the nature of topic. NB choice of topic will affect choice of research method. Choice of topic and method are different issues!
Positivism and Interpretivism – Positivists generally prefer quantitative methods, Interpretivists prefer qualitative methods – this post consists of brief summary revision notes and revision diagrams outlining the difference between positivist and interpretivist approaches to social research.
Positivism, Sociology and Social Research – detailed class notes on the relationship between The Enlightenment, industrialisation and positivist sociology, which sees sociology as a science.
Stages of Social Research – detailed class notes covering research design, operationalising concepts, sampling, pilot studies, data collection and data analysis.
Outline and explain two practical problems which might affect social research (10) – A model answer to this exam question, which could appear on either paper 7191 (1) or 7191 (3).
Good Resources for Teaching and Learning Research Methods – simply links (with brief descriptions) which take you to a range of text books and web sites which focus on various aspects of quantitative and qualitative research methods. NB this post is very much a work in progress, being updated constantly.
Primary Quantitative Research Methods
An Introduction to Social Surveys – a brief introduction to the use of different types of survey in social research, including structured questionnaires and interviews and different ways of administering surveys such as online, by phone or face to face.
The advantages and disadvantages of social surveys in social research – detailed class notes covering the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of social surveys. Generally, surveys are preferred by positivists and good for simple topics, but not so good for more complex topics which require a ‘human touch’!
An Introduction to Experiments in Sociology – a brief introduction covering definitions of key terms including hypotheses, dependent and independent variables and the Hawthorne Effect. NB sociologists don’t generally use experiments, especially not lab experiments, but you still need to know about them!
Laboratory Experiments in Sociology – detailed class notes on the strengths and limitations of laboratory experiments. Sociologists don’t generally use lab experiments, but examiners seem to ask questions about them more than other methods – one hypothesis for why is that sociology examiners have a burning hatred of teenagers.
Field Experiments in Sociology – detailed class notes on the strengths and limitations of field experiments. Field experiments take place in real life social settings so are more ‘sociological’ than lab experiments.
Seven Examples of Field Experiment for Sociology – class notes outlining a mixture of seven classic and contemporary field experiments relevant to various aspects of the AS and A level sociology syllabus
Longitudinal Studies – These are interval studies designed to explore changes over a long period of time. Researchers start with a sample and keep going back to that same sample periodically – say every year, or every two years, to explore how and why changes occur.
The Seven Up Series – an in-depth look at Britain’s longest running and best loved Longitudinal study.
What Makes a Good Life? – Lessons from a Longitudinal Study – This is one of the longest running Longitudinal studies in the world – the respondents were in their 20s when it started, now those who are still alive are in their 80s.
Primary Qualitative Research Methods
Primary qualitative research methods tend to be favoured by Interpretivists as they allow respondents to speak for themselves, and should thus yield valid data. However, because qualitative methods tend to involve the researcher getting more involved with the respondents, there is a risk that the subjective views of the researcher could interfere with the results, which could compromise both the validity and reliability of such methods.
Qualitative research methods also tend to be time consuming and so it can be difficult to to them with large samples of people.
Overt and Covert Participant Observation – Participant Observation is where researchers take part in the life of respondents, sometimes for several months or even years, and try to ‘see the world through their eyes’. Overt research is where respondents know the researcher is doing research, covert is where the researcher is undercover.
The strengths and limitations of covert participant observation – sociologists don’t generally use covert participant observation because of the ethical problem of deception means they can’t get funding. This methods is more commonly used by journalists doing investigative reporting, or you could even say undercover police officers use it, and you can use these examples to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of this method.
Some recent examples of sociological studies using participant observation – including Pearson’s covert research into football hooligans and Mears’s research into the modelling industry.
Non-Participant Observation – detailed class notes on non-participant observation. This is where the researcher observes from the sidelines and makes observations. Probably the most commonly used form of this is the OFSTED inspection.
Interviews in Social Research – This post consists of detailed class notes focusing strengths and limitations of mainly unstructured interviews, which are like a guided conversation that allow respondents the freedom to speak for themselves.
Secondary Research Methods
Official Statistics in Sociology – class notes on the general strengths and limitations of official statistics, which are numerical data collected by the government. Examples include crime statistics, school league tables and education statistics.
Evaluating the Usefulness of Official Statistics – the UK government collects a wide variety of statistics, the validity of which can vary enormously. This post explores the validity of Religious belief statistics, crime and prison statistics, and immigration data, among other sources of data.
Cross National Comparisons – Comparing data across countries using official statistics can provide insight into the causes of social problems such as poverty, and war and conflict. This post looks at how you might go about doing this and the strengths and limitations of this kind of research.
Secondary Qualitative Data
Secondary Qualitative Data Analysis in Sociology – class notes covering private and public documents. Public documents include any written or visual document produced with an audience in mind, such things as government reports and newspapers, whereas private documents refer to personal documents such as diaries and letters which are not intended to be seen by their authors.
Content Analysis of the Media in Social Research – class notes covering formal content (quantitative) analysis and semiology.
Personal documents in social research – a more in-depth look at the strengths and limitations of using sources such as diaries and letters as sources of data.
Autobiographies in social research – Autobiographies are popular with the British public, but how useful are they as sources of data for the social researcher?
Sociology, Science and Value Freedom (Part of A2 Theory and Methods)
Sociology and Value Freedom – Detailed class notes
Methods in Context – Research Methods Applied to Education
Field Experiments applied to Education – are Chinese Teaching Methods the Best? This is a summary of a documentary in which some students at one school undertook a Chinese style of teaching for 3 months, involving 12 hour days and ‘teach from the front techniques’. The students were then tested and their results compared to students from the same school who stuck to the traditional British way of teaching. The results may surprise you!
Participant Observation in Education – focusing on the work of Paul Willis and Mac An Ghail.
Non-Participant Observation in Education – focusing on OFSTED inspections, as these are probably the most commonly used of all methods in education!
The Strengths and Limitations of Education Statistics – This post discusses the strengths and limitations of results statistics. NB these may not be as valid as you think!
Evaluating the Usefulness of Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education – there are lot of documents sociologists may use to research education, including school promotional literature and web sites, policy documents, written records on students, and, if they can access them, personal messages between students referring to what they think about school.
Focus on the AS and A Level Exams
Research Methods Practice Questions for A-level Sociology – you will get a 10 mark question on both papers SCLY1 and SCLY3 most likely asking you to ‘outline and explain’ the strengths and limitations of any of the main research methods. This post outlines some of the many variations.
Research Methods Essays – How to Write Them – general advice on writing research methods essays for the AS and A level sociology exams. This post covers the PET technique – Practical, Ethical and Theoretical.
Assess the Strengths of Using Participant Observation in Social Research (20) – example essay, top mark band.
Methods in Context Essay Template – a suggested gap fill essay plan on how to answer these challenging ‘applied research methods’ questions.
Methods in Context Mark Scheme – pared down mark scheme – easy to understand! It may surprise you to know that you can get up to 12/20 for just writing about the method, without even applying it to the question!
Outline and explain two advantages of overt compared to covert observation (10) – you might think that being undercover provides you with more valid data than when respondents know you are observing them, however, there are a few reasons why this might not be the case. This post explores why, and some of the other advantages overt has over covert observation. (Honestly, covert is a lot of hassle!). NB this post is written as a response to an exam style question!
Using Participant Observation to research pupils with behavourial difficulties (20) – a model answer for this methods in context style of essay.
For more links to methods and applied methods essays see my page – ‘Exams, Essays and Short Answer Questions‘.
Other Relevant Posts
How old are twitter users? – applied sociology – illustrates some of the problems us using social media to uncover social trends.
Twitter users by occupation and social class – applied sociology – illustrates some of the problems us using social media to uncover social trends.
Other posts and links will be forthcoming throughout 2020, check back soon!
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