A selected list of some of the most important key terms in AS Level and A Level Sociology – families and households. NB this is not an exhaustive list, just a starting point!
Bean Pole Family
A family with a long, thin structure. For example, there might be 4 generations alive, but each generation hasn’t had many children. This is a 21st century example of an extended family, but its members are more likely to live apart than in the past.
The number of babies born per thousand per year.
The legally or formally recognised union of a man and a woman (or in some countries two people of the same sex) in a committed relationship.
Two people living together in the same household in an emotionally intimate, committed relationship without being officially married.
Commercialisation of Housework
Where new technologies lead to new products which people can buy which reduces the amount of domestic labour people have to do at home – e.g. hoovers, washing machines, microwaves and microwave meals reduce the amount of time spend cleaning, washing and cooking.
The number of deaths per thousand members of a population per year.
When someone does both paid work and a significant amount of the domestic labour, such as housework at home. According to radical feminists, it is mainly women who suffer this.
Refers to things to do with money – for example how wealth a society is and the amount of wealth and income an individual or family has.
Thinking about the emotional well-being of other members of the family and acting in ways which will be of emotional benefit to others. For example, hugging and reassuring children when they have nightmares, organizing Christmas and birthday parties so that everyone feels included and has a good time.
Family beyond the traditional nuclear family, incorporating aunts, uncles, and grandparents. In the traditional extended family, members live in the same household, in more modern extended families
The ‘expected’ patterns of behaviour associated with masculinity and femininity – for example, femininity = caring, masculinity = competitive.
The social positions and occupations we associate with men and women – for example we tend to associate the caring role with women, and the ‘provider role’ with men.
Globalisation (simple definition) – The increasing interconnectedness of societies across the globe.
Refers to the ways in which the ideas spread through institutions work top maintain the power of dominant groups in society.
The process where individuals have more freedom to make life-choices and shape their identities because of a weakening of traditional social structures, norms and values. For example, secularization means people have more choice over whether they should get married or simply cohabit.
The provider or breadwinner role which involves going out to work and earning money for the family – the traditional male role within the family.
A family structure in which mothers are the heads of household and fathers have less power and control in family life and the allocation of resources.
Moving from one country or area to another.
Vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. Negotiated families are more equal than traditional nuclear families, but more unstable. This is the typical type of family in postmodern society.
The difference between the numbers of people immigrating to and emigrating from a country.
Nuclear Family – A man and a woman and their dependent children, either their own or adopted.
A society where men hold the power and women are excluded, disadvantaged or oppressed. An example of a patriarchal society is one which women are not allowed to vote, but men are.
Personal Life Perspective
A sociological perspective which believes we should understand family life from the perspective of the individuals who make up the family, focusing on the diverse ways in which different individuals within the family define and perceive their own experiences of family life.
The view that social changes (such as globalisation and more consumerism) since the 1950s have resulted in a world in which individuals have much more choice and freedom than is suggested by Modernists social theories such as Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism.
The first stages of learning the norms and values of a society; learning basic skills and norms, such as language, and basic manners.
Where an individual has a string of committed relationships, one after the other.
Social Construction of Childhood
The idea that the norms and values and social roles associated with childhood are influenced by society, rather than being determined by the biological age of a child.
Symmetrical Family – A family in which the roles of husbands and wives, although not identical are more similar. There are three elements:
– Both men and women do paid work.
– Men and women both do housework.
– Couples spend their leisure time together rather than separately
Total Fertility Rate
The average number of babies a woman will have during her fertile years (15-44).
Where social changes, especially the invention of new technologies, does increasing amounts of harm to children. For example, the internet and mobile phones results in screen saturation with increases anxiety and reduces attention spans.
Definitions and examples of the most important key concepts for the A level sociology 7192 (1) exam, including the definition of labelling, the correspondence principal, meritocracy, privatization, and lots more. All of the concepts below are most relevant to the education module within A-level sociology, but many have wider application.
Initially I include only the ‘most important’ sociology words. More to follow later, as with all tings in life, this is work in progress.
Where schools focus a disproportionate amount of their resources on making sure ‘middling’ students get 5 A*-Cs, rather than helping to boost more able students or getting less able students passes below the 5- A*C threshold.
Where individuals gain their social position in society through their own efforts, rather than that position being based on their ascribed characteristics such as their ‘race’ or their class background.
Where an individual’s position in society is pre-determined by their birth or social characteristics. An example of this is the royal inheritance in the United Kingdom: only a son of Queen Lizzie II can become King when she dies.
Grouping students by ability. Students are put into the same group across all subjects (unlike setting, which is where students might be placed in different ability groups in different subject.
Where choices of subjects become gradually more limited as children progress through school.
Educational policies which provide additional money or resources for students facing cultural or material deprivation. The idea is that the extra money/resources helps overcome disadvantage and boost results.
One type of school for all students. Non-selective schools where all students have an equal opportunity within the same school.
The establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s which replaced the selective tripartite system.
The Marxist idea that the norms and values pupils learn in school prepare them for their future exploitation at work.
For example, schools teach pupils to be ‘motivated by external rewards’ – they learn to put up with boring lessons in order to achieve higher grades, thus focussing on the end result of learning rather than the ‘joy of learning’ itself’. This corresponds (relates) to putting up with the dull routine of working life in a factory day to day, while focussing on the pay packet at the end of the month.
Related concepts: ideological state apparatus, Marxism, socialisation, hidden curriculum.
Counter school culture
A group within a school which has norms and values in direct opposition to the mainstream culture of the school. E.G. a group of students who see value in messing around and ‘having a laugh’ or disrupting lessons rather than working hard and studying. Status will be rewarded within the counter school culture on the basis of how deviant they are, how far they go against school rules.
The skills, knowledge and attitudes associated with the dominant culture, possessed by the middle classes, which give middle class parents and children an advantage in life.
Cultural capital is a Marxist concept used to explain why middle-class pupils achieve more than working class pupils do. As part of the dominant culture, middle class pupils have an automatic advantage over working class pupils because they share the culture of the school. Their language is like that of teachers (also middle-class) and their values correspond more closely to those of the school. This ‘cultural capital’ enables middle class families to pass on their superior position to their children and in so doing, reproduce class inequalities.
Related concepts: skilled and disconnected choosers, habitus, social capital.
Where some groups, such as the lower social classes have inferior norms, values, skills and knowledge which hold them back in life.
Cultural deprivation can have a negative effect on the education of working class children: poor language skills can mean the students struggle to understand what they are taught, and the fact that working class parents do not value education means that their children are less likely to stay on at school post-16.
Related concepts: material deprivation, immediate and deferred gratification, restricted and elaborated speech codes.
Cycle of Deprivation
Where one aspect of material disadvantage has a knock on effect and leads to other types of disadvantage, such that poverty is reinforced and carries on, often across generations. For example, being poor, means a poor diet , means more sickness, means more time of work, means more poverty.
Where one delays immediate reward and instead works hard now in order to receive a greater reward in the future.
Self-fulfilling prophecy theory is often criticised as being deterministic, because it assumes that a particular input (labelling) always has the same affect (the subject accepts their label), without taking into account the fact that individuals respond in different ways based on their different subjective views of the situation in which the labelling takes place.
Working class parents who simply send their children to local schools rather than researching different schools and then making their choice. The opposite of ‘skilled choosers’
Division of Labour
Where production is broken down into a number of small, specialized tasks to improve efficiency. For example, instead of one person constructing a whole car, each individual specializes in adding different bits.
Education Action Zones
A New Labour Education policy which promoted links between clusters of schools (typically around 20) in deprived areas and local businesses and parents, with the intention of getting business to provide extra funds to those schools. This policy was introduced in the late 1990s, but after running for five years it had largely failed to generate any additional funds and so was axed.
Where schools sort students into three groups: those who will pass without help, those could pass with help, and those who probably won’t pass even if they do get help. Schools then focus most of their resources on helping the middle of these groups, while leaving the former alone and effectively ‘writing off’ the later.
Elaborated Speech Code
Language consisting of a wide vocabulary, complex sentences and which is context-free, so able to express abstract ideas. Used by the middle class and the opposite of restricted speech code.
Equality of opportunity (within education)
Where everyone has an equal chance to get into the best schools and universities and achieve good qualifications, and everyone competes for the best results on a level playing field, without being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, disability or social class.
Ethnocentric means seeing or judging things in a biased way. An ethnocentric curriculum is one which treats middle class European white culture as superior – having Christian assemblies or teaching history from a European rather than an Indian or African perspective are examples of this.
The culture of a school – including its expected norms of behaviour, core values and especially the aspirations for its students.
Where pupils are either suspended for a set period or permanently expelled from school, typically for breaking school rules.
Exogenous Privatisation (of education)
Where schools, or school services, are taken over by private businesses such as academy chains, rather than being run directly by the state.
A related concept here is ‘endogenous privatisation’, where schools are made compete like businesses while still being run by the state. This was the idea behind marketization.
Related concepts: neoliberalism, the new right, marketization.
A school with formal ties to a particular faith. Many have different admissions (selection) criteria to regular state schools and select a proportion of their students on the basis of their faith.
According to Bernstein this is an attitude held by working class children and parents. It is the belief that they will inevitably end up in working class jobs, and so prevents them from aspiring to do any better.
Schools set up and run by groups of parents, charities or businesses and run directly by them. They are funded directly by the government and not by Local Education Authorities.
The activities that boys and girls see as typically the territory of their gender. E.g. playing football for boys and playing with dolls for girls.
The increasing interconnectedness of people and societies across the world.
A selective school catering to students who pass their 11+. Offers an academic education catered to high achieving students. Part of the ethos of grammar schools is that students should aspire to go to university.
The Hidden Curriculum refers to the norms and values not taught directly as part of the official curriculum, but passed on informally in schools.
Whereas the official curriculum is made up of subjects, subject content, formal lessons etc. the hidden curriculum is composed of teacher attitudes and expectations, and the general ethos of school which includes such things as attitudes to punctuality, attendance, dress codes and future career aspirations.
Related concepts: Feminists argue that the hidden curriculum works against girls. Marxists believe it works against working-class pupils.
The idea of the perfect pupil which teachers have in their heads. Such pupils are smart, have good manners, obey school rules and work hard. According to Howard Becker they are typically middle class.
Ideological state apparatus
This is main function of education in a capitalist society according to Marxists. Education works to transmit an ideological justification of capitalism, presenting the unequal capitalist system as normal and inevitable.
Schools do this directly by ‘agenda setting’ – not teaching subjects which criticise capitalism such as sociology (at least until much later on in life), and they do it indirectly by mirroring the inequality found in wider society (teacher-pupil relations, banding and streaming), thus getting students used to the idea that inequality is normal.
Related concepts: passive subservience, Marxism, socialisation, hidden curriculum, power, inequality.
Wanting instant reward, right now. The opposite of deferred gratification
Independent (Private) Schools
Schools which are not state-funded and are paid for by parents. They do not have to follow the national curriculum, but most choose to do so.
Discrimination which is built into the everyday workings of institutions such as schools.
‘Labelling’ is where someone judges a person based on the superficial ‘surface’ characteristics such as their apparent social class, sex, and ethnicity.
In the case of education, the main ‘labeller’ is the teacher, the main ‘labelled’ the pupil. Howard Becker has shown that teachers have an ‘ideal type’ of a pupil. The ‘ideal’ pupil is courteous, hard working and academically able. Middle-class pupils are far more likely to fit this model than are working class students, and thus middle class students get a positive label working class students a negative label.
Related concepts: Interactionism, self-fulfilling prophecy, ideal pupil.
*American misspelling: ‘labeling’
Published documents which show the GCSE and A level results of all schools in England and Wales. Schools are effectively ranked against each other and thus are easy to compare.
Legitimation of class inequality
A Marxist term – where schools justify inequality through teaching the myth of meritocracy. Schools teach working class pupils that it is their fault if they fail their exams and end up in working class jobs, rather than the fault of the unequal and unfair system which is biased towards the middle class.
Making schools compete for pupils, like businesses compete for clients or consumers.
This was the basic principle behind the 1988 education act: the government introduced open enrollment (parental choice), formula funding and league tables to introduce endogenous privatisation.
Related concepts: New Right, neoliberalism, privatisation, league tables, 1988 education act.
Where someone cannot afford or lacks access to basic, material resources such as food and heating.
Material deprivation can have a negative effect on educational achievement because students may not have access to computers and the Internet at home and poor diet and housing conditions may lead to health problems which can result in time off school.
Related concepts: social class, cultural deprivation, differential educational achievement.
The idea that what an individual achieves is based on a combination of their ability and effort.
In education this is where the qualifications one achieves is based on a combination of their intelligence and the amount of effort they put in during their time in school.
Marxists argue that meritocracy is a myth because in reality an individual’s educational achievement is more a reflection of their class background, a result of their material and cultural capital, rather than their ability or effort. However, the working classes believe the myth of meritocracy and thus blame their own failure on themselves rather than the unequal opportunities in the system.
Related concepts: achieved status, ascribed status, Marxism, Functionalism, equality of opportunity.
Motivation by external rewards
Being motivated by the end result, not the act itself. In education this means being motivated by exam results rather than the ‘joy of learning’.
Any education that raises awareness of the different cultures, traditions and religions in a society, typically aimed at promoting acceptance of (or at least tolerance of diversity).
Myth of meritocracy
Part of Marxist Theory – the idea that schools are not meritocratic but teach students that they are so as to legitimate inequality (see the legitimation of class inequality).
Set subjects (and the content within those subjects) laid down by the government that all state funded schools must teach.
The government body which inspects schools and publishes reports, grading schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘in need of improvement’. Has the power the put schools into special measures and change the management and staffing of failing schools.
Literally ‘the rule of the parents’. It is where parents have a choice over which school to send their children to.
Parity of Esteem
Where schools teach different subjects and have a different ethos but have equal status.
The specific standards by which parents judge their children.
Accepting authority and doing what you are told without questioning it.
Norms and values which make patriarchy seem natural. E.g. the idea that women should be the primary child carers because they give birth to children.
A system of male domination, or one in which men have advantage over women.
Moving further apart. In education, marketisation is said to have caused this: the best schools improved and the worst schools got worse.
The changes associated with the move to a postmodern society, including globalization, more consumerism, more individual choice and diversity.
Where schools, or school services, are taken over by private businesses such as academy chains, rather than being run directly by the state.
Where schools are made to compete like businesses while still being run by the state. This was the idea behind marketization.
Reproduction of inequality
Where inequality is carried on from one generation to the next.
Restricted Speech Code
Language consisting of limited vocabulary, simple sentences, and which is context specific. According to Bernstein, this is what the working class speak. It is the opposite of the elaborated speech code.
Where pupils are sifted and sorted into appropriate jobs based on their abilities, reflected in the qualifications they achieve.
Society requires the most able to be in the most important and demanding jobs. Education makes sure this happens- only the most able and hardest working can rise to top and get the three A grades in science required to go on to do a medical degree and become a doctor for example.
Related Concepts: achieved status, Functionalism, division of labour, meritocracy.
This is where someone acts according to their label and the label becomes true in reality.
In education a pupil who is repeatedly told that they are unlikely to achieve may consequently give up their efforts which in turn will reduce the likelihood of gaining a qualification. The teachers’ label has thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Related concepts: interactionism, labelling, deterministic.
Subculture and Counter School Culture
A subculture consists of a group of people who share norms and values which are different to mainstream values.
An important type of subculture is the counter-school culture – identified by Paul Willis (1977). A counter school culture has norms and values which are in direct opposition to the mainstream culture of the school. Thus the lads who made up the counter-school culture valued messing around and ‘having a laugh’ and got status for doing so, and did not value working hard to achieve good grades.
Related concepts: pro-school subculture; myth of meritocracy, white working class underachievement; the young entrepreneurs (Mac An Ghail), active-passive, Marxism.
Definitions of core concepts covered as part of the research methods component of AS and A Level Sociology. Organised in alphabetical order – so effectively this is a research methods A-Z. If this is too much for you, then have a look at my ‘top ten research methods concepts‘ first!
Anthropology – the study of humans, past and present. Historically, anthropologists mostly studied traditional (e.g. tribal) cultures using participant observation as its main method, however, more recently anthropologists have increasingly focused much a greater array of aspects of culture within modern and post-modern societies using a more diverse range of methods. One of the key aims of anthropology is to explore and explain the enormous diversity as well as the commonalities within and between human cultures.
Attrition rate – the percentage of respondents who drop out of a research study during the course of that study. This can often be a problem with longitudinal research.
Bias – where someone’s personal, subjective feelings or thoughts affect one’s judgement.
Case study – researching a single case or example of something using multiple methods, for example researching one school or factor
Closed Questions – Questions which have a limited range of answers attached to them – such as Yes/ No or Likerhert Scale answers.
Confidentiality – the idea that the information respondents give to the researcher in the research process is kept private. This is usually achieved through anonymity.
Covert research – where the researcher is undercover and respondents do not know they are part of a research study. The opposite of covert research is overt research – where respondents know they are part of a research study.
Dependent and independent variables – a dependent variable is the object under study in an experiment, the independent variables are what the researcher varies to see how they effect the dependent variable.
For example, if you grow tomato plants as a hobby and wanted to find out the effect which the amount of water, the temperature, and the amount of light has on the amount of tomatoes each plant produces you could design a series of experiments in which you varied the amount of light etc. and then measure the effects on the amount of fruit produced. In this example, the amount of tomatoes produced is the dependent variable and the water, the temperature and the amount of light are the independent variables.
Ethnography – an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people in their natural setting. Ethnographies are typically long-term studies (over several months or even years) and aim for a full (or ‘thick’), multi-layered 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.
Ethics/ ethical factors – ethics means taking into consideration how the research impacts on those involved with the research process. Ethical research should gain informed consent, ensure confidentiality, be legal and ensure that respondents and those related to them are not subjected to harm. Ultimately research should aim to do more good than harm to society.
Experiments – experiments aim to measure the effect which one or more independent variables has on a dependent variable. Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis, and a good experiment will be designed in such a way that objective cause and effect relationships can be established between variables, so that the original hypothesis can verified, or rejected and modified.
Extraneous variables – undesirable variables which are not of interest to the researcher but might interfere with the results of the experiment.
Field diary – A notebook in which a researcher records observation during the research process. One of the key tools of Participant Observation.
Field experiments – experiments which take place in a real-life setting such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street. See experiments and related terms for a fuller definition.
Focus groups – a type of group interview in which respondents are asked to discuss certain topics.
Formal content analysis – a quantitative approach to analysing mass media content which involves developing a system of classification to analyse the key features of media sources and then simply counting how many times these features occur in a given text.
Going native – where a researcher becomes biased or sympathetic towards the group he is studying, such that he or she loses their objectivity.
Group interviews – where an interviewer interviews two or more respondents at a time.
Hawthorne effect – where respondents alter their behaviour because they know they are being observed. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of overt laboratory and field experiments.
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.
Imposition problem – the imposition problem limits the validity of social surveys. It is where respondents may not be able to express their true feelings about the topic under investigation because the questions (and the range of possible responses) which have been pre-chosen by the researcher limits what they are able to say, and may not reflect the issues that respondents themselves feel are important.
Independent variable – see dependent variable.
Informed consent – where the respondent agrees to take part in a research study with full awareness that research is taking place, what the purpose of the research is and what the researcher intends to do with the results.
Interpretivism – an approach to social research which tries to understand human action through the eyes of those acting. Interpretivists want to know the meanings actors give to their own actions, what their own interpretation of their action is. They thus emphasise respondent-led qualitative methods to achieve insight, in-depth explanations and empathy, in order to realise a humanistic, empathetic understanding from the respondents’ point of view.
Interviews – a method of gathering information by asking questions orally, either face to face or by telephone. Interviews can be individual or group and there are three main types of interview – structured, unstructured and semi-structured.
Interviewer bias – where the values and beliefs of the researcher influence the responses of the interviewee. If an interviewer feels strongly about a subject, then he or she might ask leading questions, or even omit certain questions in order to encourage particular responses from a respondent.
Interview schedule – A list of questions or topic areas the interviewer wishes to ask or cover in the course of an interview.
The more structured the interview, the more rigid the interview schedule will be. Before conducting an interview it is usual for the researcher to know something about the topic area and the respondents themselves, and so they will have at least some idea of the questions they are likely to ask: even if they are doing ‘unstructured interviews’ an interviewer will have some kind of interview schedule, even if it is just a list of broad topic areas to discuss, or an opening question.
Laboratory experiments – experiments which take place in an artificial, controlled environment, such as a laboratory. See experiments and related terms for a fuller definition.
Leading questions – questions which subtly prompt a respondent to provide a particular answer when interviewed. Leading questions are one way in which interviewer bias can influence the research process, reducing the validity of data collected.
Life documents – written or audio-visual sources created by individuals which record details of that person’s experiences and social actions. They are predominantly qualitative and may offer insights into people’s subjective states. They can be historical or contemporary and can take a wide variety of forms.
Longitudinal studies – a study 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.
Likert scale – used to measure strength of opinion or feeling about a statement in social surveys. For example respondents might be asked whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with a particular statement.
Multistage sampling – with multistage sampling, a researcher selects a sample by using combinations of different sampling methods. For example, in Stage one, a researcher might use systematic sampling, and in Stage two, he might use random sampling to select a subset for the final sample.
Non-participant observation – where the researcher observes a group without taking part with that group. This method can either be overt or covert, and data may be recorded quantitatively or qualitatively. Probably the most commonly experienced example of non-participant observation is the OFSTED inspection.
Objective knowledge – knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world.
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.
Official statistics – numerical information collected and used by the government and its agencies to make decisions about society and the economy. Examples include the UK National Census, police recorded crime and data on educational achievement.
Open-ended question – questions for which there are no set answers. Open questions allow individuals to write their own answers or dictate them to interviewers. For example ‘have you enjoyed studying Sociology this year?’
Operationalising concepts – the process of defining a concept precisely so that it can be easily understood by respondents and measured by the researcher. The term may also be applied to the process of determining variables in experiments.
For example, rather than ask a respondent ‘are you religious’, which is a vague question with many interpretations, a researcher might operationalise the concept of religion by using a range of more precise questions such as ‘do you believe in God’, ‘do you believe in the idea of heaven and hell’, ‘ how often do you pray’, and so on.
Overt research – see covert research.
Participant observation – involves the researcher joining a group of people, and 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’ and do not know the researcher is conducting research.
Personal documents – first-hand accounts of social events and personal experiences, which generally include the writer’s feelings and attitudes about the events they think are personally significant. Examples of personal documents are letters, diaries, photo albums and autobiographies.
Pilot study – a test study carried out before the main research study and on a smaller scale, to uncover and iron potential problems which may occur in the main programme of research.
Positivism – an approach to social research which aims to be as close to the natural sciences as possible. Positivists emphasise the use of quantitative data in order to remain detached from the research process and to uncover social trends and correlations which are generaliseable to society as a whole. Their ultimate aim is to uncover the objective social laws which govern human action.
Practical factors – include such things as the amount of time the research will take, how much it will cost, whether you can achieve funding, opportunities for research including ease of access to respondents, and the personal skills and characteristics of the researcher.
Pre-coded, or closed questions – questions where the respondent has to choose from a limited range of responses. Two of the most common types of closed question are the simply yes/no questionnaire and the Likehert Scale (a strength of feeling scale).
Primary data – 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.
Public documents – are produced by organisations such as government departments and their agencies as well as businesses and charities and include OFSTED and other official government enquiries. These reports are a matter of public record and should be available for anyone who wishes to see them.
Qualitative data – refers to information that appears in written, visual or audio form, such as transcripts of interviews, newspapers and web sites. (It is possible to analyse qualitative data and display features of it numerically).
Quantitative data – refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.
Quota sampling – In this method researchers will be told to ensure the sample fits with certain quotas, for example they might be told to find 90 participants, with 30 of them being unemployed. The researcher might then find these 30 by going to a job centre. The problem of representativeness is again a problem with the quota sampling method.
Random sampling – in random sampling everyone in the population has the same chance of getting chosen. A simple example of random sampling would be picking names out of a hat.
Rapport – a close and harmonious relationship between researcher and respondents, such that both parties understand each other’s feelings and communicate well.
Reliability – if research is reliable, it means if someone else repeats the same research with the same population then they should achieve the same results.
In order to be reliable, research needs to be easily repeatable. Self-completion questionnaires have high reliability because it is easy for another researcher to administer the questionnaire again. More in depth methods such as participant observation, where the researcher can spend several months or even years with a small group of respondents are not very reliable as it is impossible to replicate the exact procedures of the original research. More qualitative methods also open up the possibility for the researcher to get more involved with the research process, with further detracts from the reliability.
Representativeness – research is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider target population that is being studied.
Representativenessthus depends on who is being studied. If one’s research aim is to look at the experiences of all white male AS Sociology students studying sociology, then one’s sample should consist of all white, male sociology students. If one wishes to study sociology students in general, one will need to have a proportionate amount of AS/ A2 students as well as a range of genders and ethnicities in order to reflect the wider student body.
Research sample – the actual population selected for the research – also known as the respondents.
Sampling – the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research.
Sampling frame – a list from which a sample will be drawn.
Secondary data – data that has been collected by previous researchers or organisations such as the government. Quantitative sources of secondary data include official government statistics and qualitative sources are very numerous including government reports, newspapers, personal documents such as diaries as well as the staggering amount of audio-visual content available online
Self-Selecting Sample Bias – where individuals choose whether they take part in the research and the results end up being unrepresentative because certain types of people are more willing or able do participate in the research.
Semi-structured interviews – those in which researchers have a pre-determined list of questions to ask respondents, but are free to ask further, differentiated questions based on the responses given.
Snowball sampling – with this method, researchers might find a few participants, and then ask them to find participants themselves and so on.
Social surveys – typically 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.
Socially constructed – Interpretivists argue that official statistics are socially constructed – that is they are the result of the subjective decisions made by the people who collect them rather than reflecting the objective underlying reality of social life. For example Crime Statistics do not reflect the actual crime rate, only those activities which are defined as crimes by the people who notice them and who then go on to report those activities to the police.
Stratified sampling – this method attempts to make the sample as representative as possible, avoiding the problems that could be caused by using a completely random sample. To do this the sample frame will be divided into a number of smaller groups, such as social class, age, gender, ethnicity etc. Individuals are then drawn at random from these groups. If you are observing doctors and you had split the sample frame into ethnic groups you would draw 8% of the participants from the Asian group, as you know that 8% of doctors in Britain are Asian.
Structured or formal interviews – those in which the interviewer asks the interviewee the same questions in the same way to different respondents. This will typically involve reading out questions from a pre-written and pre-coded structured questionnaire.
Subjective knowledge – knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view. See also ‘objective knowledge’.
Systematic sampling – an example of a systematic sample would be picking every 10th person on a list or register. This carries a similar risk of being unrepresentative as random sampling as, for example, every 10th person could be a girl.
Target population – all people who could potentially be studied as part of the research.
Textual analysis – involves examining how different words are linked together in order to encourage readers to adopt a particular view of what is being reported.
Textual analysis also involves the use of semiology – which is the analysis of signs and symbols.
Thematic analysis – involves trying to understand the intentions which lie behind the production of mass media documents by subjecting a particular area of reportage to detailed investigation.
Theoretical factors – validity, reliability, representativeness and whether research is being carried out from a Positivist or Interpretivist point of view.
Positivists prefer quantitative research methods and are generally more concerned with reliability and representativeness. Interpretivists prefer qualitative research methods and are prepared to sacrifice reliability and representativeness to gain deeper insight which should provide higher validity.
Transcription – the process of writing down (or typing up) what respondents say in an interview. In order to be able to transcribe effectively interviews will need to be recorded.
Triangulation – the use of more than one method in social research. For example a researcher might combine structured questionnaires with more in-depth interviews. Triangulation is often used to verify the validity of other data sources and is a good way of improving the reliability of research.
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.
Validity – research is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in the world.
Generally speaking, the more in depth the research, the fuller picture we get of the thoughts and feelings of the individuals acting, so the more valid the data; and the more the researcher stands back and allows the respondents to ‘speak for themselves’ the more valid the data. In more quantitative research, such as social surveys, validity may be lacking because the researcher has decided on what questions should be answered by respondents, rather than letting the respondents decide on what they want to say for themselves, as is typically the case with more qualitative methods.
Value Freedom – where a researcher’s personal opinions, beliefs and feelings are kept out the research process so that data collected is not influenced by the personal biases of the researcher.
Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes.
Interpretivists argue that to achieve Verstehen (or empathetic understanding) we should use in-depth qualitative research such as participant observation.