Just a few thoughts on how you might answer this in the exam.
Introduction – A variety of factors influence a Sociologist’s decision as to what research method they use: the nature of topic, theoretical, practical and ethical factors.
Theoretical factors – Positivism vs Interpretivism – Positivists are interested in uncovering the underlying general laws that lie behind human action. They thus prefer quantitative methods because these enable large samples to be drawn and allow for the possibility of findings being generalised to the wider population.
They also prefer quantitative methods because the data can be put into graphs and charts, allowing for easy comparisons to be made at a glance.
Another method that is linked to the positivist tradition is the experiment – laboratory experiments allow researchers to examine human behaviour in controlled environments and so allow researchers to accurately measure the effects of one specific variable on another
Interpretivists generally prefer qualitative methods which are regarded as having high validity. Validity is the extent to which research provides a true and accurate picture of the aspect of social life that is being studied. Most sociologists would agree that there is little point doing sociological research if it is invalid.
Theoretical factors – Validity – Qualitative methods should be more valid because they are suitable for gaining an in depth and empathetic understanding of the respondent’s views of life. Qualitative methods are flexible, and allow for the respondents to speak for themselves, which avoids the imposition problem as they set the research agenda. Qualitative methods also allow for rapport to be built up between the respondent and the researcher which should encourage more truthful and in depth information to flow from the respondents.
The final reason why qualitative methods such as Participant Observation should yield valid data is that it allows for the researcher to see the respondents in their natural environment.
Theoretical factors – Reliability – Is the extent to which research can be repeated and the same results achieved. Positivists point out that it is more difficult for someone else to replicate the exact same conditions of a qualitative research project because the researcher is involved in sustained, contact with the respondents and the characteristics and values of the researcher may influence the reactions of respondents.
Moreover, because the researcher is not ‘detached’ from the respondents, this may detract from his or her objectivity. Participant Observers such as Willis and Venkatesh have, for example, been accused of going native – where they become overly sympathetic with the respondents.
Interpretivists would react to this by pointing out that human beings are not machines and there are some topics that require close human contact to get to the truth – sensitive issues such as abuse and crime may well require sympathetic researchers that share characteristics in common with the respondents. Interpretivists are happy to forgo reliability if they gain in more valid and in depth data.
Representativeness – Obviously if one wants large samples one should use quantitative methods – as with the UK National Census. However, one may not need a large sample depending on the research topic.
Practical Factors – Practical issues also have an important influence on choices of research method. As a general rule quantitative methods cost less and are quicker to carry out compared to more qualitative methods, and the data is easier to analyse once collected, especially with pre-coded questionnaires which can simply be fed into a computer. It is also easier to get government funding for quantitative research because this is regarded as more scientific and objective and easier to generalise to the population as a whole. Finally, researchers might find respondents more willing to participate in the research if it is less invasive – questionnaires over PO.
However, qualitative methods, although less practical, may be the only sensible way of gaining valid data, or any data at all for certain topics – as mentioned above UI are best for sensitive topics while participant observation may be the only way to gain access to deviant and criminal groups.
Ethical Factors – Ethical factors also influence the choice of research methods. In order for research to gain funding it will need to meet the ethical guidelines of the British Sociological Association. How ethical a research method is depends on the researcher’s efforts to ensure that informed consent is achieved and that data is kept confidential and not used for purposes other than the research.
Real ethical dilemmas can occur with covert participant observation. However, sometimes the ethical benefits gained from a study may outweigh the ethical problems. McIntyre, for example, may have deceived the hooligans he researched but at least he exposed their behaviour.
Howard Becker also argued that there is an ethical imperative to doing qualitative research – these should be used to research the underdog, giving a voice to the marginalised whose opinions are often not heard in society.
Nature of topic – There are certain topics which lend themselves naturally to certain modes of research. Measuring how people intend to vote naturally lends itself to phone surveys for example while researching sensitive and emotive topics would be better approached through UI.
Conclusion – In conclusion there are a number of different factors that interrelate to determine a sociologist’s choice of research method – practical, ethical, theoretical and the nature of the topic under investigation. In addition, sociologists will evaluate these factors depending on their own individual values. Furthermore it is too simplistic to suggest that sociologists simply fall into two separate camps, Positivists or Interpretivists. Many researchers use triangulation, combining different types of method so that the advantages of one will compensate for the disadvantages of another.
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