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Are female surgeons better?

New research suggests that women make better surgeons than men. For the study, a team at the University of Toronto compared like for like procedures performed by 3,314 surgeons at a single Canadian based hospital over an eight-year period.

This revealed that the post-operative death rages for female surgeons were 12% lower than for their male counterparts – a figure that equates to one less patient dying per every 230 operations a woman performs. (Clearly the death rates are very low!).

Previous research has also found that women doctors have, on average, slightly better outcomes than male ones and that they are less likely to be struck off.

How might we explain these disparities?

  • Researchers speculate that women may be more better communicators and more cautious than men.
  • However, it may also be that women face greater obstacles to entering a male-dominated profession – with the result that only the most skilled qualify as surgeons.
  • You also have to question the representativeness of the Canadian study – in only one hospital in one country, you can hardly generalise from this!

Sources

The Week, 21 Oct 2017

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Some (Relatively) Recent Examples of Participant Observation Studies

Participant observation is one the main research methods on the A level sociology syllabus, but many of the examples in the main text books are painfully out of date.  This post provides some more recent examples of research studies which employed participant observation as their main research method.

Covert Participant Observation

Pearson’s (2009) covert participant observation study of Blackpool Football Club’s supporters

Pearson carried out covert participant observation of supporters of Blackpool Football Club between 1995 and 1998. He was known to other supporters as a student pursuing a degree in law, but his status as an academic researcher was unknown to them. His approach was to meet up with them in the pub before a match or sometimes on entering the stadium, and to meet up with them afterwards for a drink. He attended seventy-eight matches but notes that because he did not live in the area, he was unable to observe the supporters outside of a football context.

He chose Blackpool F.C. because it was close to Lancaster, where he was a student, and because of its reputation as having problems with football hooliganism. He seems to have been able to gradually insinuate himself into the supporters’ world by being recognised as a regular fan. Pearson played up his knowledge of the game and the club and was able to integrate himself into their world.

Dr Geoff Pearson – only committed ‘minor’ offences while doing covert research

Pearson says of his research…’ whilst it was possible to avoid committing some individual offences, a refusal to commit crimes on a regular basis would have aroused suspicions and reduced research opportunities. As a result I committed ‘minor’ offences (which I tentatively defined as those would not cause direct physical harm to a research subject). My strategy was to commit only the offences which the majority of the research subjects were committing and that I considered necessary to carry out the research. Furthermore, whilst I would commit lesser offences with regularity, I would, if possible, avoid more serious ones.’ (Pearson, 2009).

You can read an interview with Dr Geoff Pearson here.

Pearson’s research is a good example of covert research in which Pearson participated fully with the activities of the group…he was a ‘covert full member’ of the group he was observing.  

Overt Participant Observation

Khan’s (2011, 2014) ethnography of an elite high school in the United States

The majority of ethnographic work seems to have been carried out with (on?) the poor and the marginalised, Khan’s work provides us with a rare ethnographic study of an elite institution.

Khan says: ‘ethnography is a method wherein the scholar embeds himself in the relations under study, spending long periods of time with research subjects. For me, it meant getting a job at St. Paul’s School… I moved into an apartment on campus, and… observed the daily life of the school. After my years at St. Paul’s I returned many times, and I sought out alumni to interview and discuss some of the things I’d learned (Khan 2014).

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School – link to Amazon. The first few reviews summarise aspects of the book!

Similarly to Pearson, Khan is also a full member of the group which he is observing, it’s just that his group knows he is doing research.

In contrast to Pearson’s research, this ethnography by Khan illustrates one of the main advantages overt participant observation has over covert: you can carry on collecting data from the respondents afterwards!

Mears’s (2011) ethnography of the world of the fashion model

Ashley Mears (NB this may have been before she started her formal research!)

‘Two and a half years would be spend in participant observation, or more like ‘observant participation’ (a term borrowed from Wacquant 2004) working for both agencies in the full range of modelling work, including five Fashion Weeks, hundreds of castings, and dozens of jobs in every type of modelling work – catwalk shows, magazine shoots in studios and outdoors…. I sat besides bookers at their table in the office drank with them at their favourite pubs, and hung out with them backstage at fashion shows. As I was nearing the end of the participant observation phase… and withdrawing from modelling work, I formally interviewed a sample of bookers, managers and accountants’ (Mears, 2013).

Mears’s ethnography is reviewed in this London School of Economics book review post

In contrast to Khan’s research, Mears explicitly puts the observation before the participation, which suggests she is less immersed in the day to day life of her group than Kahn was.

Sampson’s (2013) ethnographic research on international seafarers

In April 1999, Sampson boarded her first cargo ship. ‘Contrary to my fears, the crew of Swedish and Filipino seafarers welcomed me into their lives and for forty-two days I lived and worked alongside them, painting the ship with them, venturing ashore to Seamen’s bars with them, laughing with them, even dancing and singing with them’. (2013)

Sampson’s study actually won Thinking Allowed’s first ethnography award in 2014 – A summary of the research can be found at the end of the show here – Thinking Allowed ethnography awards 2014.

This final example is what Bryman refers to as a ‘participating’ observer’ rather than a ‘full member’ – Sampson is working for the shipping company with the men on a very temporary basis.

The above four examples of participant observation studies are all taken from Bryman’s (2016) research methods book. Bryman ranges several studies (23 in total) on a scale ranging from ‘full member’ through to ‘partially participating observer’ down to ‘non-participating observer with interaction’.

Students might find it interesting to note that the well known study ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ (Venkatesh, 2008) is in Bryman’s ‘minimally participating observer’ category, 17th out of 23rd on the above scale, which makes it closer to a non-participant study! Actually I’ve read it, and I can see his point.

Sources

Bryman, Alan (2016) Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press

Related Posts

Participant Observation in Social Research

 

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Good Resources for Teaching and Learning Research Methods

Being able to choose appropriate research methods and executing those methods effectively are absolutely essential if we are to collect valid, reliable and representative data, and below I present some links to some of the best resources which enable us to do so. These are mainly relevant to the selection, application and evaluation of research methods within sociology, but might also be of interest to students of other social science related subjects such as psychologists, business studies students, international relations students, and anthropologists. 

I start off below by including some good ‘general resources’ such as text books and general web sites, followed by some links which focus on specific research methods – surveys, experiments, interviews, participant observation and secondary quantitative and qualitative data.

The point of this post is to provide links which take you to sources which are as broad as possible but where this isn’t possible, I provide links to specific examples of studies using certain research methods.

links to my own posts on research methods can be found at my main page on research methods!

This list is very much a work in progress and will be updated in an ongoing manner. 

Good general resources 

Bryman, Alan (2015) Social Research Methods – A great introductory book on research methods organised by the major different types of research method (surveys, interviews, etc.), with supplementary material including PowerPoints and mutli-choice quizzes.

Gilbert, Nigel (2015) Researching Social Life – A classic introductory text book which takes you through the research process step by step, from research design, to data collection and analysis.

Supporting web site for ‘Researching Social Life’ – I’ve set the link to the Sage Journal publication links page, which is probably the most useful of the supporting pages, but if you want something a bit more advanced than A-level then you might like to check out their Quizlet Flash Cards too – definitely first year degree level (or maybe even beyond that)

The British Sociological Association Code of Ethics – A very thorough consideration of what counts as ‘ethical research’ according to the BSA.

Good Resources for Quantitative Data 

Data Science Central – The online resource center for big data practitioners. Big data ‘scientists’ analyse huge data sets to reveal insights into human interactions. The link takes you to ’38 seminal articles about big data’.

YouGov is a great site for finding out results of recent surveys of public opinion on a range of issues. Of special interest at the moment (July 2017 at time of writing this paragraph!) are the election results, which give details of how different ages voted. If you like this sort of thing, you can even sign up to take part in YouGov surveys, which will give you a chance to find out some of the limitations of the survey method, and earn some cash.

The Office for National Statistics – ‘The UK’s largest provider of official statistics – it’s not actually that useful as a ‘search site’ (you’re better off just using Google), but you cant’ not include this!

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (about) – Crime stats are one of the most useful sources for illustrating how statistics are socially constructed – this is a useful Q and A on England and Wale’s massive annual victim survey.

The Crime Survey of England and Wales – The Results… A link to the results of the 2016 crime survey, towards the end is a discussion of methodology.

NB – these research methods resources are not meant as an exhaustive list, nor are they meant as a ‘good sources for A-level students’ list – this is more meant for first year degree students and people with a more general interest in learning about research methods.

As a final note, these are the resources which I have used (in modified form) to write many of the blog posts here on research methods.

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Evaluate the strengths and limitations of using questionnaires to the role of parents in pupils’ achievement

An example of a ‘methods in context’ question take from an AQA specimen paper – suggested strategy below…

(05) Read item B, then answer the question below (hooks in bold)

Item B

Investigating the role of parents in pupils’ achievement

 Parents play a vital role in pupils’ achievement. There may be social class differences in parents’ income levels, cultural capital, educational qualifications, attitudes to school and how they socialise their children, for example into using different speech codes. Similarly, ethnic differences among parents, for example in family structure, discipline styles or home language, may affect pupils’ achievement.

Questionnaires may be a good way of investigating the role of parents in pupils’ achievement. Pupils can be asked to distribute them to parents at no cost, giving wide coverage. Parents are accustomed to supplying information to the school on a regular basis and this will help to ensure a good response. However, the questions asked may be very personal and some parents may feel that they are being judged. However, they may be less useful when dealing with sensitive issues

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using questionnaires to the role of parents in pupils’ achievement (20 marks)

 Section 1 – Deal with the method –

Remember to deal with

  • Theoretical
  • Practical
  • Ethical

And link education in general, or the topic at this stage if you can…

Section 2 – Link the method to the specific topic.

Examples of top mark band statements – these will be quite different from the previous exemplar because the topic under investigation is different, although there will also be some overlap because there are similarities.

  • Questionnaires might be a quite useful method for researching some aspects of the role of parents in pupils’ achievement because they make it easy to compare differences in home background. Some aspects, such as income levels and educational qualifications of the parents are relatively easy to measure, and would be simple to correlate this with the educational achievement of the child.
  • However, other aspects of home life would be more difficult to measure – cultural capital for example is much more complex than income levels, as it appears in many different forms – how could you measure how ‘skilled’ a parent is at choosing a school in a questionnaire, for example?
  • Similarly with speech codes and language differences, if parents have linguistic deprivation, they may not be happy completing a questionnaire designed to measure their poor language skills, they may not even be able to, thus you would get poor representativeness from such parents.
  • Again with socialisation practices, which takes place over many years, questionnaires wouldn’t allow you find out with any depth the many interactions that go into making up the child.
  • A stated strength in the item is that parents are used to giving information to schools, and so would be happy to complete a questionnaire, this may be true of parents who have a good relationship with the school, but less so with those who value education less, or feel that school is biased against them, maybe because they perceive it as ethnocentric.
  • Also, as stated in the item, if you were going to give the questionnaires to students, those students with poor performance in school may not give their parents the questionnaires, possibly because they think it may harm them.
  • A final problem mentioned is that parents may feel they being judged, and the formal nature of the questionnaire wouldn’t help this, again meaning a low response rate is likely from such parents.

Conclusion

You decide! Personally I think it’s not as stupid a choice of method for this topic as compared to some others, as it’s not that sensitive or complex.

 

 

 

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Using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties

An example of how you might answer a methods in context question on the AQA’s A level sociology paper 1.

(05) Read item B, then answer the question below (hooks in bold)

Item B

Investigating pupils with behavioural difficulties

Some pupils experience behavioural difficulties and problems interacting with others. This can create a major obstacle to learning, for both themselves and their classmates. In some cases, they are taught in specialist schools or in pupil referral units separate from mainstream education. Often, their behavioural difficulties result from problems outside school and many pupils come from materially deprived and chaotic home backgrounds.

Some sociologists may study pupils with behavioural difficulties using covert participant observation. This method enables the researcher to witness directly the pupils’ behaviour and its context. It may also allow the researcher to build a relationship of trust with pupils and parents. However, the researcher may find it difficult to fit in and he or she may need to adopt a specialised role such as teacher or support worker.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties.

 Section 1 – – Deal with The Method (and hit the middle mark band, 9-12) – If possible, link to education general or even the topic using words in the item from the beginning.

  • Covert participant observation is generally preferred by interpretivists – good for insight, depth.
  • Validity is generally good, but in this case it may not be (see below)
  • Reliability and representativeness are poor
  • Practically – difficult to do, especially with closed institutions like PRUs
  • Ethically – highly problematic, especially within education, researching vulnerable students.

Section 2 – Main body – Covert PO directly applied to the specific topic of pupils with behavioural difficulties – all of these hit the top mark band descriptor (17-20)

  • Students with behavioural difficulties are vulnerable, thus gaining access would be a problem, especially with any type of PO given the close contact you would have with the students. Gatekeepers would be reluctant to let people in in order to protect students, they may also not be keen for a researcher to see how chaotic life is in such institutions. Thus Covert PO is a sensible choice because you’re more likely to get into a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) if you pose as a professional and thus appear on ‘the side of the institution’.
  • However, covert would still be difficult to gain access, because getting into a PRU covertly would require you to be trained as a teacher or LF, they won’t just let anyone in!
  • In terms of validity, while PO is good for getting respondents to trust you, if you were covert, apparently working with the PRU, then they may not open up to you because such students wouldn’t trust authority figures, thus this major advantage is nullified.
  • Having said this, it would still allow the researcher to observe how peer groups reinforce bad behaviour in the context of the institution.
  • Ethically, there is a possibility of the researcher being put in danger, they may come across violent students and not be able to break cover easily if in a class room.
  • Practically, if you were to adopt to role of covert observer as a support worker, you would not be able to follow the students to their home backgrounds or onto ‘the street’ to see how they behaved outside of the institution where you ‘worked’, thus you wouldn’t get any insight into where they spend most of their time. Thus this method is pretty useless for this topic.
  • On a similar level, you wouldn’t be able to gain access to their homes either, to explore their ‘chaotic’ backgrounds, so you wouldn’t be able to observe this, you’d be stuck with asking them about it while in the PRU.

Section 3 – Conclusion

Overall, participant observation may well be a sensible choice of method for researching this topic, but there is nothing to be gained from doing covert compared to overt, and with covert, it probably wouldn’t happen because no one would fund it given the ethical problems surrounding researching vulnerable students, so all of this has been a rather pointless discussion.

The last sentence is optional!

Methods in Context CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then why not purchase my handy ‘How to Write Methods in Context Essays‘ hand-out, a bargain at only £1.49, and who knows, it may prevent you from being the victim in a future research study focusing on why certain students fail their A levels… 

It covers the following processes of how to deal with Methods in Context (MIC) questions.

  1. It starts off by looking at an example of a methods in context question and a mark scheme and outlines what you need to do to get into the top three mark bands.
  2. It tells you how to plan methods in context essays.
  3. It tells you how to actually write methods in context essays – presenting a ‘safe’ strategy to get into at least mark band 4 (13-16)
  4. In total it provides three examples of how you might go about answering a three different MIC questions.

 

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Methods in Context – Possible Method and Topic Combinations

Methods in Context- Here you need to be able to assess the strengths and limitations of using any method to research any topic within education.

The different methods you need to be able to consider include –

  1. Secondary documents
  2. Official statistics
  3. Lab/ field experiments
  4. Questionnaires
  5. Interviews
  6. Participant observation (overt and covert)
  7. Non participant observation (overt and covert)

Some of the different topics within education you might be asked to consider include

  • Researching how the values, attitudes, and aspirations of parents contribute to the achievement of certain groups of children
  • Why boys are more likely to be excluded than girls
  • Why white working class boys underachieve
  • Exploring whether teachers have ‘ideal pupils’ – whether they label certain groups of pupils favourably!
  • Looking at whether the curriculum is ethnocentric (racist/ homophobic)
  • Exploring the extent to which sexist ‘bullying’ disadvantageous children
  • Examining how ‘gender identities’ enhance or hinder children’s ability to learn
  • Assessing the relative importance of cultural deprivation versus material deprivation in explaining underachievement
  • Assessing the success of policies aimed to improve achievement such as ‘employing more black teachers’.

The above isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

A useful activity is to pick one method and go through 2 or more of the topics, stating how you might use the method to research the topic, and what SPECIFIC advantages are and what SPECIFIC problems you might face.

For example:

Structured questionnaires would be a good method to research the values and attitudes of parents and how these affect achievement, because this is a relatively simple topic, and it would be quite easy to operationalise and measure how long parents spend helping with homework, or whether they want their child to go to university. However, a problem is that if parents aren’t that interested in their children’s education, they wouldn’t bother to fill in a questionnaire.

Structured questionnaires would be a bad method to research ‘gender identities’, especially from a postmodernist perspective, because gender identities are quite complex, and ‘played out’ within groups. It would be an especially bad method to use to explore the gender-identities of groups of boys – ‘lads’ are unlikely to take structured questionnaires seriously, as if one member of a laddish subculture completed it, he would be ridiculed by the group for doing so.

The above two sentences are examples of ‘top band’ (17-20) statements – they relate an aspect of the method to the topic.

You need to include good knowledge and evaluation of the method in addition to a number of such question-specific-statements, ideally developed even further, to get into the top mark band.

For more examples of model answers to exam questions, please see the links on my main page on exam advice

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Qualitative Data – Strengths and Limitations

Qualitative data includes….

  • Open question questionnaires
  • Unstructured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Public and private documents such as newspapers and letters.

Theoretical strengths

  • Better validity than for quantitative data
  • More insight (Verstehen)
  • More in-depth data
  • More respondent-led, avoids the imposition problem.
  • Good for exploring issues the researcher knows little about.
  • Preferred by Interpretivists

Practical strengths

  • A useful way of accessing groups who don’t like formal methods/ authority

Ethical strengths

  • Useful for sensitive topics
  • Allows respondents to ‘speak for themselves’
  • Treats respondents as equals

Theoretical limitations

  • Difficult to make comparisons
  • No useful for finding trends, finding correlations.
  • Typically small samples, low representativeness
  • Low reliability as difficult to repeat the exact context of research.
  • Subjective bias of researcher may influence data (interviewer bias)
  • Disliked by Positivists

Practical limitations

  • Time consuming
  • Expensive per person researched compared to qualitative data
  • Difficult to gain access (PO)
  • Analyzing data can be difficult

Ethical limitations

  • Close contact means more potential for harm
  • Close contact means more difficult to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality
  • Informed consent can be an issue with PO.

Nature of Topic – When would you use it, when would you avoid using it?

  • Useful for complex topics you know little about
  • Not necessary for simple topics.

Crunch Paragraph/ Conclusion – Generally, how important is qualitative research to Sociology?

  • More hassle practically, lacks objectivity, but good for validity which is probably the most important factor required when doing research.

 

 

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Assess the Usefulness of Positivist Approaches to Social Research (30)

Just a few thoughts on how you might go about answering this question… if it comes up on paper 3 of the A level sociology exam

 Paragraph one – outline the key ideas of Positivism

  • Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.
  • By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action
  • Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.
  • To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys
  • These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

An example of the Positivist tradition in Sociological research – Durkheim’s cross national study of suicide in 1897. Durkheim believed that if he could prove that one of the most individual acts any human being could perform, that is, killing himself or herself, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s analysis of official statistics, showed that rates of suicide were higher in countries experiencing rapid economic growth , among unmarried men rather than married men and in Protestant countries rather than Catholic countries.

Durkheim further theorised that the ‘causes’ of a higher suicide rate were low social integration and low social regulation. Thus Durkheim’s ‘general law of social action’ is that if people become detached from society they are more likely to kill themselves.

Paragraph two – Two Interpretivist criticisms of Positivism

Firstly, they argue that the ‘objective’ quantitative methods favoured by positivists are not actually objective at all, arguing that if we look at positivist methods in more detail, there are a number of subjective factors that influence the research process. Somebody has to write the structured questionnaires that are used to collect quantitative data, meaning there is probably selection bias over the questions used – and official statistics are collected by people.

Atkinson criticised Suicide Stats and Interpretivists more generally have criticised both police crime stats and imprisonment stats for being socially constructed.

Secondly, Interpretivists argue that human beings are not just puppets, merely reacting to social forces. In order to fully understand human action, once again, we need more in depth qualitative approaches to see why and how certain students can turn disadvantage around and make schooling work for them! People are also unpredictable, and sometimes irrational. Because individuals are thinking and self-aware, they can react to their situations in different ways.

Max Weber argued that human behaviour that has a “sense of purpose”. Human beings attribute their own meanings to their actions, and different people can engage in the same action for different reasons.   In order to understand human action, we need to ask individuals why they are doing what they are doing!

Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that one can only truly understand social action by understanding the meanings and motivations that people give to their own actions. They don’t believe that one’s actions are simply shaped by one’s position in the social structure, rather that they are a result of micro level interactions in daily life and how individuals interpret these micro-level interactions.

An Interpretivist approach to social research – An Interpretivist Approach to social research would be much more flexible and qualitative seeking to see the world through the eyes of the respondents. Good examples of Interpretivist research include Paul Willis’ study of ‘The Lads’, Venkatashes’ study – gang leader for a day and Douglas’s study of suicide – which explored the different meaning behind suicide.

What all of these qualitative studies provide is an in depth account of the lives of the people being researched. You get ‘their story’ and get to see the ‘world through their eyes’ – the researcher allows the respondents to speak for themselves and we can an empathetic understanding as they tell us what they think is important, find out why they act in the way they do according to their interpretation of the world.

The rich data the above studies doesn’t easily translate into stats and you can’t generalise these findings to the wider population, but Interpretivists argue that these qualitative studies are better because you get a much fuller understanding, at a human level, of why people act in the way that they do.

Paragraph three – Positivist criticisms of Interpretivism

A Positivist Criticism of Interpretivist research is that it may lack objectivity because of the intense involvement of the researcher with the respondents and that the government cannot use Interpretivist research to inform social policy because it is too expensive to get sample sizes that represent the whole of the population

Positivists are also uncomfortable with the idea that there is no ‘end goal’ to Interpretivist research, it just goes on and on, leading to an open ended post-modern relativism.

Paragraph four – Positivist research today/ Conclusion  

Sociologists have not completely abandoned the positivist tradition today – many researchers still do quantitative research focusing on correlations and generalisations. Two excellent recent examples of this are Inglehart’s World Values Survey and Richard Wilkinson’s cross national research on the effects of inequality – published in the spirit level – both suggest that a general ‘law’ of society is that the greater the level of inequality in a society, the more social problems such as crime and depression there are.

However, most researchers today have abandoned the extreme idea that society exists independently of the individual and that people are predictable – for example Anthony Giddens developed the concept of structuration to point out that people have to consciously make society, even though they often end up reproducing similar structures, while many recent events such as Brexit clearly show that people are not that predictable.

In conclusion, there is clearly still some usefulness in understanding society at a macro level and recognising the fact that individuals are ‘steered’ by the social structure, but we need to combine this will understanding people’s thoughts and feelings to truly explain human action.

Related Posts 

You might like this post: Positivism and Interpretivism in social research. 

 

 

 

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Evaluate the View that Theoretical Factors are the most Important Factor Influencing Choice of Research Method (30)

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.

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’.
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AS and First Year A Level Sociology – Whole Course Overview

An overview of the entire course for AS and first year A level sociology covering the following ‘modules’:

The overview below is taken directly from the AQA’s scheme of work and broken down further into more sub-topics to make it more teachable/ learnable. Within each ‘module’ there are about 7 sub-topics, and any of which could (although not necessarily) form the basis of one essay question, so you need to be able to write on each sub-topic for a solid 30 minutes.

This will relevant to most teachers and students teaching the AQA syllabus, unless you do an alternative option to families and households (which I don’t cover!)

My advice is that students generally need at least one side of revision notes for each of the subtopics below, with three-five points/ explanations/ examples and with evaluations (e.g. one side for Functionalism, another for Marxism etc…)

Education

Education brief

  1. Perspectives on Education

    1. Functionalism

    2. Marxism

    3. Neoliberalism and The New Right

    4. New Labour (a response to the New Right)

    5. Postmodernism

  1. In school process and education

    1. Teacher Labelling and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy

    2. School organisation (banding and streaming)

    3. School Type, School Ethos and the Hidden Curriculum

    4. School Subcultures

    1. Pupil Identities and the Education System

  1. Education Policies

    1. The strengths and limitations of successive government education polices:

      1. 1944 – The Tripartite System – brief

      2. 1965 – Comprehensivisation – brief

      3. 1988 – The 1988 Education Reform Act

      4. 1997 – New Labour’s Education Policies

      5. 2010 – The Coalition and the New New Right’s Education Policies

    1. Evaluating Education Policies

      1. To what extent have policies raised standards in education?

      2. To what extent have policies improved equality of opportunity?

      3. Perspectives on selection as an educational policy

      4. Perspectives on the increased privatisation of education

      5. How is globalisation affecting educational and educational policy?

  1. Social Class and Education

    1. Material Deprivation

    2. Cultural Deprivation

    3. Cultural Capital Theory

    4. In-School Factors

    5. The strengths and limitations of policies designed to tackle working class underachievement

  2. Gender and Education

    1. Out of school factors which explain why girls do better than boys in education

    2. In-School factors which explain why girls do better than boys in education

    3. Explanations for gender and subject choice

    4. Feminist Perspectives on the role of education in society

    5. The strengths and limitations of policies designed to tackle gender differences in educational achievement

  3. Ethnicity and Education

    1. Cultural factors which might explain ethnic differences in educational achievement

    2. In-School Factors which might explain ethnic differences in educational achievement

    3. The strengths and limitations of policies designed to tackle ethnic differences in educational achievement

Methods in Context

Here you need to be able to assess the strengths and limitations of using any method to research any aspect of education.

The different methods you need to be able to consider include –

1. Secondary Documents

2. Official statistics

3. Field Experiments

4. Lab experiments

5. Questionnaires

6. Unstructured Interviews

7. Overt Participant Observation

8. Covert Participant Observation

9. Non Participant Observation

The different aspects of education you might consider are

Researching how the values, attitudes, and aspirations of parents contribute to the achievement of certain groups of children

• Why boys are more likely to be excluded than girls

• Why white working class boys underachieve

• Exploring whether teachers have ‘ideal pupils’ – whether they label certain groups of pupils favourably!

• Assessing the relative importance of cultural deprivation versus material deprivation in explaining underachievement

• Assessing the success of policies aimed to improve achievement such as ‘employing more black teachers’

Families and Households

AS Sociology Families and Households

  1. Perspectives on Families

1.1 Functionalism

1.2 Marxism

1.3 Feminisms

1.4 The New Right

1.5 Postmodernism and Late Modernism

1.6 The Personal Life Perspective

  1. Marriage and Divorce

2.1: Explaining the trends in marriage

2.2: Explaining the trends in divorce

2.3: Perspectives on the consequences of declining marriage and increasing divorce

2.4: Examining how marriage, divorce and cohabitation vary by social class, ethnicity, sexuality and across generations.

3. Family Diversity

3.1 – The underlying causes of the long term increase In Reconstituted families, Single parent families, Multi-generational households, Single person households and ‘Kidult’ households.

3.2 Perspectives on the social significance of the increase of all of the above (covered in 3.1).

3.3 – The extent to which family life varies by ethnicity, social class and sexuality.

4. Gender Roles, Domestic Labour and Power Relationships

4.1. To what extent are gender roles characterised by equality?

4.2. To what extent is the Domestic Division of Labour characterised by equality?

4.3. Issues of Power and Control in Relationships

4.4. To what extent has women going into paid work resulted in greater equality within relationships?

5. Childhood

5.1 – To what extent is ‘childhood socially constructed’

5.2 – The March of Progress view of childhood (and parenting) – The Child Centred Family and Society?

5.3 – Toxic Childhood and Paranoid Parenting – Criticisms of ‘The March of Progress View’

5.4 – Is Childhood Disappearing?

5.5 – Reasons for changes to childhood and parenting practices

Topic 6 – Social Policy

6.1 You need to be able to assess the effects of a range of policies using at least three key perspectives

• The New Right

• New Labour

• Feminism (Liberal and Radical)

6.2 You need notes on how the following policies affect men and women and children within the family

• Changes to the Divorce law

• Tax breaks for married couples

• Maternity and paternity pay

• Civil Partnerships

• Sure Start – early years child care

Topic 7: Demography

7.1: Reasons for changes to the Birth Rate

7.2: Reasons for changes to the Death Rate

7.3: The consequences of an Ageing Population

7.4: The reasons for and consequences of changes to patterns of Migration

Research Methods

Factors effecting choice of research method copy

  1. The Factors Affecting Choice of Research Method – Theoretical, Ethical and Practical Factors.Introduction to Research Methods – Basic types of method and key terms

  1. Secondary Quantitative Data – Official Statistics

  1. Secondary Qualitative Data – Public and Private Documents

  1. Experiments – Field and Laboratory

  1. Interviews – Structured, Unstructured and Semi-Structured

  1. Observational Methods – Cover and Overt Participant and Non-Participant Observation

  1. Other methods – e.g. Longitudinal Studies

  1. Stages of the Research Process

Crucial to the above is your mastery of the TPEN structure

  1. Theoretical factors – Positivism, Interpretivism, Validity, Reliability, Representativeness

  1. Practical factors –Time, Money, funding, opportunities for research including ease of access to respondents, and the personal skills and characteristics of the researcher.

  1. Ethical factors – Thinking about how the research impacts on those involved with the research process: Informed consent, ensure confidentiality, be legal and ensure that respondents and those related to them are not subjected to harm. All this needs to be weighed up with the benefits of the research.

  1. The Nature of the Topic studied. Some topics lend themselves to certain methods and preclude others!