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Research Methods – Key Terms for A Level Sociology

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!

For more information about research methods in general please see my main page of links to posts on research methods in sociology!

Research Methods Concepts Sociology

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 interviewswhere 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 questionsquestions 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 documentswritten 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 samplingwith 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.

research methods key concepts

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 samplingin 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.

Rapporta close and harmonious relationship between researcher and respondents, such that both parties understand each other’s feelings and communicate well.

Reliabilityif 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.

Representativenessresearch is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider target population that is being studied.

Representativeness thus 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 samplingwith 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.

Validityresearch 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.

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Non-Participant Observation

Non-Participant Observation is where researchers take a ‘fly on the wall approach’ and observes individuals and groups without getting involved in the life of the group. You would have come across this type of method in the form of the OFSTED lesson observation.

Non-Participant Observation can either be structured or unstructured – the former is where you have an ‘observation schedule’ and look for certain things happening, the latter is where you just observe and note down anything that stands out.

NPO can also be overt (like the OFSTED inspection) or covert, in which case it would either involve some infiltrating a classroom, or a workplace and observing without people being informed (as you can imagine this would be quite difficult to do in practice, or more realistically it might involve the use of hidden cameras to film covertly.

Some General Advantages of Quantitative Non Participant Observation

They have good reliability and are good for making comparisons

They are relatively quick and cheap to carry out

Some General Disadvantages of Quantitative Non Participant Observation

They lack validity because you are less able to ask why people are acting in the way that they do compared to participant observation

Ethically they can be dis empowering for respondents (OFSTED inspections)

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Participant Observation in Social Research

Participant Observation is where the researcher joins in with the group being studied and observes their behaviour. This post covers the theoretical, practical and ethical strengths and limitations of using overt and covert participant observation in social research.

participant-observationParticipant observation is closely related to the ethnographic method (or ‘ethnography’), which consists of an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people.

Ethnography is traditionally associated with anthropology, wherein the anthropologist visits a (usually) foreign land, gains access to a group (for example a tribe or village), and spends several years living with them with the aim of uncovering their culture. The ethnographic method involves watching what participants do, listening to them, engaging in probing conversations, and joining them in day to day tasks as necessary; it also involves investigating any cultural artefacts such as art work and any written work if it exists, as well as analysing what religious rituals and popular stories can tell us about the culture. Ethnographic research has traditionally involved taking copious field notes, and the resulting ‘monographs’ which are produced can take several months, if not a year or more to write up.

To cut a long winded definition short, ethnography is basically the same as participant observation, but includes the writing up of a detailed account of one’s findings:

Ethnography = participant observation + a detailed written account of one’s findings.

Participant Observation and the use of other methods

Most participant observers (or ‘ethnographers’) will combine their observations with other methods – most obviously unstructured interviews, and some will combine them with more formal questionnaire based research, normally towards the end of their study period, meaning many of these studies are actually mixed-methods studies. Nonetheless, Participant Observation is still technically classified, for the purposes of A-level sociology as a ‘qualitative’ method.

Overt and Covert Observation

An important distinction in Participation/ Ethnography is between covert and over observation.

  • Overt Observation – this is where the group being studied know they are being observed.
  • Covert Observation – this where the group being studied does not know they are being observed, or where the research goes ‘undercover’.

These both have their strengths and limitations – overt research is obviously more ethical because of the lack of deception, and it allows the researcher to ask probing questions and use other research methods. Covert research may be the only way to gain access to deviant groups, it may enable you to gain fuller ‘immersion’ into the host culture and avoids the ‘Hawthorne Effect’. However, ethically it involves deception and can be very stressful for the researcher.

The Strengths of Participant Observation

Theoretical Advantages

The most significant strength of both types of participant observation is the high degree of validity the method achieves. There are at least five reasons for this:

participant observation anthropologyYou can observe what people do, not what they say they do – In contrast to most other methods, participant observation allows the researcher to see what people do rather than what people say they do.

 

Participant Observation takes place in natural settings – this should mean respondents act more naturally than in a laboratory, or during a more formal interview. This should mean the Hawthorne effect will be less, especially with covert research. You also get more of a feel for respondents’ actions in context, which might otherwise seem out of place if in an artificial research environment.

Digging deep and gaining insight – the length of time ethnographers spend with a community means that close bonds that can be established, thus enabling the researcher to dig deeper than with other methods and find out things which may be hidden to all other means of enquiry.

Verstehen/empathetic understanding– participant observation allows the researcher to fully join the group and to see things through the eyes (and actions) of the people in group. Joining in allows the researcher to gain empathy through personal experiences. This closeness to people’s reality means that participant observation can give uniquely personal, authentic data.

Flexibility and generating new ideas – when completing questionnaires researchers begin with pre-set questions. Even before starting to collect the data, therefore, the researchers have decided what’s important. The problem with this is what if the questions the researcher thinks are important are not the same as the ones the subject thinks are important. By contrast, participant observation is much more flexible. It allows the researcher to enter the situation with an open mind and as new situations are encountered they can be followed up.

Practical Advantages

There are few practical advantages with this method, but participant observation might be the only methods for gaining access to certain groups. For example, a researcher using questionnaires to research street gangs is likely to be seen as an authority figure and unlikely to be accepted.

Ethical Advantages

Interpretivists prefer this method because it is respondent led – it allows respondents to speak for themselves and thus avoids a master-client relationship which you get with more quantitative methods.

The Limitations of Participant Observation

Theoretical Disadvantages

One theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of reliability. It would be almost impossible for another researcher to repeat given that a participant observation study relies on the personal skills and characteristics of the lone researcher.

Another theoretical disadvantage is the low degree of representativeness. Sociologists who use quantitative research methods study large, carefully selected, representative samples that provide a sound basis for making generalisations, In contrast, the groups used in participant observation studies are usually unrepresentative, because they are accessed through snowball sampling and thus haphazardly selected.

Critics also question how valid participant observation really is. They argue the method lacks objectivity. It can be very difficult for the researcher to avoid subjectivity and forming biased views of the group being studied. Also researchers decide what is significant and worth recording and what’s not, therefore, it depends on the values of the researcher. In extreme cases, researchers might ‘go native’, where they become sympathatic with the respondents and omit any negative analysis of their way of life.

A further threat to validity is the Hawthorne Effect, where people act differently because they know they are being observed, although participant observers would counter this by saying that people can’t keep up an act over long time periods: they will eventually relax and be themselves.

Also, the methods lack a concept of social structures such as class, gender or ethnicity. By focussing on the participants own interpretation of events, the researcher tends to ignore the wider social structures, which means giving only a partial explanation.

Practical Disadvantages

Firstly, this method tends to be time consuming and expensive in relation to the relatively small amount of respondents. It can take time to gain trust and build rapport, and so for this reason, it may take several days, weeks or even months, before the respondents really start to relax in the presence of the researcher.

Participant Observation also requires observational and interpersonal skills that not everyone possesses – you have to be able to get on with people and understand when to take a back seat and when to probe for information.

Gaining access can also be a problem – many people will not want to be researched this way, and where covert research is concerned, researchers are limited by their own characteristics. Not everyone can pass as a Hells Angel if covert observation is being used!

Ethical Disadvantages

Ethical problems are mainly limited to Covert Participant Observation, in which respondents are deceived and thus cannot give informed consent to participate in the research.

Legality can also be an issue in covert research where researchers working with deviant groups may have to do illegal acts to maintain their cover.

Some advantages of Overt compared to Covert Observation

Students often think that Covert Observation is superior to Over Observation, however there are five reasons why Overt might be a better choice of research method:

1. You can ask awkward, probing questions

2. You can combine it with other methods

3. You can take on the role of the ‘professional stranger’ – respondents might tell you things because they know you are not ‘one of them’

4. It is less stressful and risky for the researcher

5. It is easier to do follow up studies.

Related Posts

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – A Summary

https://revisesociology.com/2016/01/25/learning-to-labour-by-paul-willis-summary-and-evaluation-of-research-methods/

 

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-level Year 1 and AS Student Book

 

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Semi-Structured Interviews to Research Education

Semi-Structured interviews are the most common primary qualitative research methods used in education. There are many studies which employ them. Here I focus on just one, which is adapted from ‘Sociology Since 2000’.

Class, gender, (hetero) sexuality, and schooling: working-class girls’ engagement with education and post-16 aspirations by Louise Archer, Anna Halsall and Sumi Hollingworth, 2007

Context

Working-class girls may not be doing as badly as working-class boys, but a significant number are leaving school at the age of 16 with few or no qualifications. In order to explain this, feminists have drawn attention to two processes. While at school, working-class girls may engage in subcultural forms of resistance to schooling by behaving in a hyper-heterosexual manner. This behaviour – which is focused on sexuality, dress and appearance – often results in teacher-pupil conflict as teachers interpret this behaviour as deviant. Second, a number of studies have suggested that the choices of working-class girls are structured by the expectation of leaving school at the age of 16 to work locally, settle down in a heterosexual relationship and have children.

Methods

The researchers used a multi-method, mainly qualitative, approach. First, data was collected from 89 pupils aged 14 to 16 using semi-structured interviews. Six London comprehensive schools were selected, chosen because they served working-class areas suffering from severe economic and social deprivation.

The sample of 89 pupils was made up of pupils who had been identified by their schools as being at risk of dropping out of schooling at 16. The sample included boys and girls from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, although over 50 per cent were White.

Discussion groups were set up with an additional 36 pupils. Third, eight female pupils were asked to complete photographic diaries, focusing on their everyday activities and interests. Finally, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 19 members of staff and a small sample of five parents.

Findings

The researchers found that most of the female pupils were keen to be seen as ‘desirable’ and ‘glamorous’. They spent a great deal of time and effort working on their hair, make-up and dress styles, in order to construct what the researchers called a ‘sexualised hyper-feminine identity’. This ‘work’ was regarded by the girls as far more important than the academic work demanded by the school. The primary importance placed on appearance was highlighted in the sample’s photo-diaries, which included pictures of their favourite glamour products.

The researchers observed that the girls constructed their appearance by combining a range of styles taken from diverse sources such as sport, Black culture and global brands. For example, girls often combined elements of Black, urban US styles (notably ‘bling-bling’ fashion) with various items of sportswear (e.g. Nike trainers and tracksuits) and hyper-feminine ‘sexy’ clothes, make-up and hairstyles. This construction of a hyper-feminine identity gave these young women a form of cultural power, which they used to resist school rules about uniform. This capital also led to the acquisition of status from their peer group and boyfriends.

However, this identity often led to conflict with the school. For example, girls were frequently reprimanded for their failure to conform to school-defined standards of appearance. Teachers often confronted them about the application of make-up or the maintenance of hairstyles during lesson time.

Interviews with staff suggested that they saw the girls’ construction of appearance as the opposite to what they interpreted as a ‘good pupil’. Working-class girls’ appearances were generally seen by teachers as inappropriately ‘sexual’ and a distraction from learning. On the other hand, staff saw middle-class pupils as ‘ideal pupils’. Middle-class girls were interpreted as high-achieving, hard-working, rule-following and respectable.

The researchers noted that peer-group pressure was mainly responsible for the construction of working-class femininity. Appearance was bound up with this because girls’ inclusion in, or exclusion from, their peer group was based on their conformity to particular performances of style and appearance. Most girls wanted to avoid being ridiculed, mocked and called a ‘tramp’ for wearing the ‘wrong’ brand of trainers or style of clothing. Many girls indicated their desire to leave school and to start work in order to earn the money required to continue performing fashionable identities. Boyfriends, too, had a profound and negative effect on girls’ engagement with schooling. Girls with boyfriends had low aspirations and attainment and many expressed the desire to leave and to live with or marry their boyfriend.

Evaluation

The strength of this study is its multi-strategy approach to gathering a range of qualitative data over a significant period of time. The longitudinal nature of the research allowed trends over time to be identified and the development of pupils to be regularly monitored in terms of their interaction with teachers and their peer group.

The sample appears to be representative of ‘at risk’ students in the London area. However, further research would be required to find out whether or not the findings are generalisable to other parts of the UK, as the cultures and types of deprivation found in London may be qualitatively different to those found in other places.

The qualitative nature of the data obtained from both the teachers and the pupils suggests that the researchers managed to obtain the trust of both parties. For the pupils, guarantees of anonymity and confidentiality contributed to this. However, although extensive qualitative data resulted from the group discussions, we need to be aware that the validity of the data can be affected by peer pressure and fears of ridicule and exclusion. If these discussions were not properly managed by the researchers, some pupils may have imposed their interpretations of schooling on the others.

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Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – Summary and Evaluation of Research Methods

Participant Observation in the Context of Education

Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘  Learning to Labour (1977)

Learning to labour

learning-to-labourLearning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.

Sampling

Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.

Data Collection

Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.

Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.

Findings

One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.

Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.

For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’

Practical Issues with Learning to Labour

The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.

It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)

Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.

Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour

An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.

An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.

A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on

Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour

Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.

Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.

Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.

Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.

Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.

 Related Posts

You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.

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Factors Affecting Choice of Research Methods

What are the theoretical, ethical and practical factors which influence a sociologist’s choice of research method?

1. Theoretical factors: 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.

2. 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.

3. Ethical factors: thinking about 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. All this needs to be weighed up with the benefits of the research.

4. A fourth factor is the Nature of the Topic to be studied. Some topics lend themselves to certain methods and preclude others.

Remember this by using the most handy and memorable mnemonic: TPEN

Factors effecting choice of research method

1. Theoretical Factors Affecting the Choice of Research Method

Theoretical Factors include Positivism and Interpretivism, Validity, Reliability and Representativeness

Positivist and Interpretivist approaches to research are dealt with in this post: Positivism and Interpretivism: A Very Brief Overview, and a more detailed post on the Positivist approach to social research can be found in here: Positivism, Sociology and Social Research.

The three terms Validity, Reliability and Representativeness are are fundamental to evaluating the usefulness of research methods. They should appear in any essay you do on any research methods, without exception!

Validity – Research is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in 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 then 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.

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, probing respondents for very detailed information.

Representativeness – Research is representative if the research sample reflects the characteristics of the wider population that is being studied. Whether a sample is representative thus 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.

2. Practical Factors and Research Methods

All Social Research must take place within the practical constraints of the real world. Social researchers need to plan, collect, analyse and publish their data with limited budgets; they need to secure funding from somewhere willing to fund their research; they need to publish their research within a realistic time frame, otherwise, the data they collect may be worthless because it is so out of date; they also need to manage their own lives at the same time, and a final constraint on choice of research methods is the choice of topic itself!

Five practical constraints on social research

Time – As a general rule, the more in-depth the method the more time consuming it is. Also, doing your own primary research tends to take longer than using secondary sources.

Money – As a general rule, the more in-depth the method the more money it costs. Also, doing your own primary research tends to be more expensive than using secondary sources.

Funding – There are numerous organisations that fund sociological research including charities and businesses, but the largest by far is the government. In the past the government has been far more likely to fund quantitative research than qualitative. Can you suggest why this might be the case? The government is also more likely to fund research that fits in with its present aims. What kind of research topics would be more likely to get funding in contemporary Britain?

Opportunity and Access to Respondents – Some research topics and some kinds of respondents are more difficult to gain access to. It will probably be more difficult to gain access to research pupils in schools compared to teachers for example, and some people may be less willing to engage with research than others – those engaged in deviant or illegal activity might not want to be researched because what they are doing is not socially acceptable.

Personal Situation, Characteristics and Skills of the researcher – Family and work commitments may prevent researchers from doing long term field work such as participant observation, and not everyone has the emotional intelligence or resilience required to engage in long-term empathetic field work. Some research topics might also be better suited to researchers with certain personal characteristics – girls in education might respond more openly to female researchers for example.

3. Ethical Factors and Social Research

Ethical behaviour helps protect individuals and communities and offers the potential to improve the quality of life of individuals within society. Much social research is designed to tackle social problems such as social exclusion, and so sets out to collect knowledge in order to make the the world a ‘better place’. Understanding the causes of poverty, for example, can help us to reduce poverty, and understanding how people come to be involved in crime can help us to figure out how to prevent this from happening.

However, the actual process of doing research involves interfering with people’s lives and so could potentially be harmful to those involved, and in order minimise harm, most research follows ethical guidelines laid down by The British Sociological Association. There are five ethical criteria which should inform sociological research.

  • Respondents should be able to give informed consent

  • Information which the respondents give should be kept confidential (if they ask for it to be kept confidential)

  • Research should not involve law breaking behaviour

  • Research should not involve harming the respondents or anyone else involved in the research process

  • Research should, ultimately, aim to do more good than harm for society.

Respondents should give informed consent

Respondents should be able to give informed consent to take part in the research process. In order to do this, they should know that research is taking place, what the purpose of the research is and what the researcher intends to do with the results.

Informed consent can be difficult with young children, because they may not have the capacity to fully understand the purposes of the research. Informed consent can also be a problem because respondents might influence the results if they know the purpose of the research, and some experiments have deliberately misled respondents in order to ensure results are valid – Field experiments where actors act in a deviant way (vandalising property for example) in order to measure public responses are an example of this.

Informed consent is also not possible covert research – both in covert participant observation and in covert non-participant observation.

Respondents’ information should be kept confidential.

It is often important for some aspects of research to remain confidential, especially when it could harm the respondents or an institution if others became aware of their responses. For example a teacher might have their career affected if a senior manager became aware of any negative comments she may have made, or accounts of disruptive behaviour of pupils were made public. For these reasons, researchers often have to guarantee anonymity and they often change the names of respondents and institutions when writing up results.

However, where case-studies are concerned and there is a lot of in-depth information being published about just a handful of people, confidentiality is less likely as the chances of being able to guess who said what might be fairly high. Anonymity also compromises reliability, as it makes it more difficult for other researchers to verify the results from particular respondents.

Some sociologists have taken the issue of confidentiality to extremes. While undertaking research on a particular prisoner In the USA Keith Tunnel (1998) discovered that the prisoner had taken on the identity of someone else in order to avoid a much larger prison sentence. The prison authorities became suspicious and investigated the prisoner’s background. Thought Tunnel knew the truth, he felt he owed the prisoner confidentiality and deliberately lied, stating that he knew nothing about the ‘identity theft’. As a result the prisoner was released many years early.

Research should avoid harming respondents

Research can often have an effect on the people being studied, and researchers need to think of this impact before they begin their research. When researching victims of crimes such as domestic abuse, or bullying in schools, this could bring up painful memories which could result in trauma in the respondents, and, if the abusers find out that respondents have spoken up to researchers this could result in further victimisation. Within the context of education, even researching something such as reasons for educational underachievement need to be treated sensitively, as people who have a past history of failing in school probably won’t be happy about being reminded of it.

Research should not involve law breaking behaviour

Research should also take place within the boundaries of legality. This is only really an issue when researching criminal and deviant behaviour using participatory methods where researchers may have to take drugs to fit in with the group, or witness or even commit crimes in order not to blow their cover. A classic case of where this happened was with Sudhir Venkatesh’ study Gang Leader for a Day where he participated in beating up a member of the gang he was studying as a form of punishment.

The social impact of research: research should, ultimately, aim to do more harm than good.

As mentioned earlier, much research aims to make society a better place, and choice of research topic is sometimes based on this ethical decision to generate knowledge in order to improve society. The problem is that there are many competing (subjective) ideas about the kind of topics, the kind of data (quantitative or qualitative) and the kind of research process which are the best suited to improving society.

Positivists would argue that quantitative research which collects ‘objective’ and generalisable data about the causes of social problems such as crime, unemployment, educational underachievement is the best suited to improving society because governments can use this data to enact large scale social changes.

Marxists and Feminists would not necessarily agree, however, because people in power would not necessarily fund the type of research that could harm them, and would not act on any research which was done but was harmful to their interests. If research found that high levels of inequality is what causes educational underachievement among the lower classes, they would not expect those in power to adopt social policies to reduce inequality because that would mean the rich and powerful becoming poorer. For this reason some Marxist and Feminist researchers engage in smaller scale research and focused on highlighting social injustices in order to galvanise people into political action and make more radical changes. Some Marxist inspired sociologists have focused on issues such as Corporate Crime for example to highlight the extent to which this often hidden crime harms society, while a major focus of Feminist research has been to do with issues such as Domestic Violence and the persistence of sexist attitudes in social media.

Feminists and Interactionist researchers also believe the most ethical research is qualitative in nature – where the researcher co-creates the data on an equal basis with the respondents – using methods such as the unstructured interview – such methods are seen as ethical because they empower the respondents, allowing them to speak for themselves, which is especially useful when researching the powerless, or the voiceless, the kinds of people who are invisible (victims of domestic violence for example) or who are typically talked about in a negative way by people in power (criminals for example).

4. The nature of the topic to be studied

The methods chosen will vary with the topic being studied. If one wishes to find out more about criminal gangs, for example, these will not respond well to survey based research and other methods of study will need to be used. Similarly, if one wishes to do research on sensitive issues such as domestic violence, a closed question questionnaire may be a little ‘cold’ for such emotive issues.

Other topics lend themselves very naturally to survey based research, such as voting intentions in the run up to an election, or market research to glean people’s feelings about new products.

The nature of the topic will also influence the way in which the research is administered. The British Crime Survey asks about people’s experiences as victims of crimes, and so lends itself to a structured interview, given the sensitive nature of the topic and the possible need for clarification of the definitions of certain crimes.

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Related Posts:

Research Methods in Sociology – An Introduction (good to brush up on basics!)

Factors Effecting Choice of Research Topic (Different to choice of methods!)

Official Statistics in Sociology (I teach this as method number one after this basic intro!)

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Research Methods in Sociology – An Introduction

An introduction to research methods in Sociology covering quantitative, qualitative, primary and secondary data and defining the basic types of research method including social surveys, experiments, interviews, participant observation, ethnography and longitudinal studies.

Why do social research?

The simple answer is that without it, our knowledge of the social world is limited to our immediate and limited life-experiences. Without some kind of systematic research, we cannot know the answer to even basic questions such as how many people live in the United Kingdom, let alone the answers to more complex questions about why working class children get worse results at school or why the crime rate has been falling every year since 1995.

So the most basic reason for doing social research is to describe the social world around us: To find out what people think and feel about social issues and how these thoughts and feelings vary across social groups and regions. Without research, you simply do not know with any degree of certainty, what is going on in the world.

However, most research has the aim of going beyond mere description. Sociologists typically limit themselves to a specific research topic and conduct research in order to achieve a research aim or sometimes to answer a specific question.

Subjective and Objective Knowledge in Social Research

Research in Sociology is usually carefully planned, and conducted using well established procedures to ensure that knowledge is objective – where the information gathered reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social, world rather than ‘subjective’ – where it only reflects the narrow opinions of the researchers. The careful, systematic and rigorous use of research methods is what makes sociological knowledge ‘objective’ rather than ‘subjective’.

Subjective knowledge – is knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view

Objective knowledge – is knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world.

NB – 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.

Sources and types of data

In social research, it is usual to distinguish between primary and secondary data and qualitative and quantitative data

Quantitative data refers to information that appears in numerical form, or in the form of statistics.

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!)

Secondary data is 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.

Primary data is 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.

The major primary research methods

Social Surveys – are typically structured 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.

Experiments – aim to measure as precisely as possible the effect which one variable has on another, aiming to establish cause and effect relationships between variables.

Experiments typically start off with a hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation, and will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable. A good experiment will be designed in such a way that objective cause and effect relationships can be established, so that the original hypothesis can verified, or rejected and modified.

There are two types of experiment – laboratory and field experiments – A laboratory experiment takes place in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory, whereas a field experiment takes place in a real-life setting such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street.

Interviews – A method of gathering information by asking questions orally, either face to face or by telephone.

Structured Interviews are basically social surveys which are read out by the researcher – they use pre-set, standardised, typically closed questions. The aim of structured interviews is to produce quantitative data.

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.

Semi-Structured Interviews consist of an interview schedule which typically consists of a number of open-ended questions which allow the respondent to give in-depth answers. For example, the researcher might have 10 questions (hence structured) they will ask all respondents, but ask further differentiated (unstructured) questions based on the responses given.

Participant Observation – involves the researcher joining a group of people, 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’ do not know the researcher is conducting research.

Ethnographies and Case Studies

Ethnographies are an in-depth study of the way of life of a group of people in their natural setting. They are typically very in-depth and long-term and aim for a full (or ‘thick’), multi-layred 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.

Case Studies involves researching a single case or example of something using multiple methods – for example researching one school or factory. An ethnography is simply a very in-depth case study.

Longitudinal Studies – studies 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.

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Related Posts 

Factors Effecting the Choice of Research Method

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

my main research methods page contains links to all of my posts on research methods.

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Factors Influencing a Sociologist’s Choice of Research Topic

What are the factors which influence a sociologist’s choice of research topic?

  • The personal interests and values of the researchers themselves. A Sociologist is obviously going to be more motivated to study something they are interested in – and nothing motivates quite like personal experience – Tony Sewell is an example of a Sociologists who studied a group with who he shared personal characteristics.

  • Theoretical perspective/ political beliefs. Whether one is a Feminist, Marxist or Functionalist/ New Right Thinker/ or Post-Modernist can influence what one studies. Feminists emphasise the importance of focussing on issues of gender inequality, so might choose to research issues such as domestic violence or the impact of the Beauty Myth, while Marxists focus on researching the impact of wealth inequalities, so might research things such as class inequalities in education. All of this raises the question of whether Sociology can remain value-free (unbiased)

  • Opportunity also matters when it comes to research topic – Mac An Ghaill wanted to study the experiences of Irish students but he couldn’t study, so instead he focused on the black and Asian students in his own college.

  • Funding – Sociologists are professionals and need get funding for their research, so funding bodies can influence topics of research.

  • Society – Societies change, and so new topics of study will emerge with social changes. For example, sociologists have studied things such as rave culture, and virtual gaming communities as these have emerged, which overlaps with the first point above!