This 20 mark methods in context question came up in the 2018 A-level sociology 7192/1 paper, below is the full question and some thoughts about how you might go about answering it!
Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using participant observation to investigate pupil exclusions
Hints for answering
The item mentions many different types of exclusion, you should address them all and contrast the usefulness of participant observation for researching different types. E.G….
Permanent (although you are really directed away from this
Fixed (1/20 pupils)
Pupils excluded from lessons (‘no reliable data’)
Self-exclusion for truanting
Self-exclusion by ‘switching off’.
You’re also directed to discuss particular types of students – those with special educational needs and those from traveller backgrounds for example.
The paragraph on the method directs you to discuss the role you would take amongst other things. NB the method is participant observation in general, so you could contrast overt and covert.
Here are some of the points you could develop:
Overt participant observation as a learning support assistant is probably the only way you could do this – useful for gaining insight into pupils being excluded from lessons and those self-excluding by switching off, but not for truancy.
If you took that role you could get close to SEN students – some of the students more likely to be excluded, but less so for traveller children.
An SEN learning support assistant could view more than one teacher/ classroom over the course of a few weeks, so reasonable representativeness.
You could check for teacher bias agains certain students in terms of why they get excluded – but this might be difficult IF you are actively trying to support learners in your role.
Also, your presence might improve behaviour and lesson the likelihood of exclusion.
Practically you’re limited to one school.
To be ethical you would have to tell management your true purpose for wanting to join in as an assistant, maybe investigating teachers with the highest exclusion rate, but you would have to not tell them for validity purposes, which would be unethical.
Practically you would still have to be trained as an LA.
Exclusions are rare, so you might be hanging around a long time waiting for one to happen.
You could embed yourself within a group of traveller or SEN children to get their take on school, which might give you insight, but this is not practical for adults.
Ultimately you’d have to combine it with Unstructured Interviews to really find out why exclusions take place, which is possible if you’re overt, not covert.
Not an exhaustive list, just a few ideas…. NB you would have to use more methods concepts.
Interviews are one of the most commonly used qualitative research methods in the sociology of education. In this post I consider some of the strengths and limitations of using interviews to research education, focussing mainly on unstructured interviews.
This post is primarily designed to get students thinking about methods in context, or ‘applied research methods’. Before reading through this students might like to brush up on methods in context by reading this introductory post. Links to other methods in context advice posts can be found at the bottom of the research methods page (link above!)
Practical issues with interviews
Gaining access may be a problem as schools are hierarchical institutions and the lower down the hierarchy an individual is, the more permissions the interviewer will require to gain access to interview them. For example, you might require the headmaster’s permission to interview a teacher, while to interview pupils you’ll require the headmasters and their parent’s permission.
However, if you can gain consent, and get the headmaster onside, the hierarchy may make doing interviews more efficient – the headmaster can instruct teachers to release pupils from lessons to do the interviews, for example.
Interviews tend to take more time than questionnaires, and so finding the time to do the interviews may be a problem – teachers are unlikely to want to give up lesson time for interviews, and pupils are unlikely to want spend their free time in breaks or after school taking part in interviews. Where teachers are concerned, they do tend to be quite busy, so they may be reluctant to give up time in their day to do interviews.
However, if the topic is especially relevant or interesting, this will be less of a problem, and the interviewer could use incentives (rewards) to encourage respondents to take part. Group interviews would also be more time efficient.
Younger respondents tend to have more difficulty in keeping to the point, and they often pick up on unexpected details in questions, which can make interviews take longer.
Younger respondents may have a shorter attention span than adults, which means that interviews need to be kept short.
Students may see the interviewer as the ‘teacher in disguise’ – they may see them as part of the hierarchical structure of the institution, which could distort their responses. This could make pupils give socially desirable responses. With questions about homework, for example, students may tell the interviewer they are doing the number of hours that the school tells them they should be doing, rather than the actual number of hours they spend doing homework.
To overcome this the teacher might consider conducting interviews away from school premises and ensure that confidentiality is guaranteed.
Young people’s intellectual and linguistic skills are less developed that adults and the interviewer needs to keep in mind that:
They may not understand longer words or more complex sentences.
They may lack the language to be able to express themselves clearly
They may have a shorter attention span than adults
They may read body language different to adults
Having said all of that, younger people are probably going to be more comfortable speaking rather than reading and writing if they have poor communication skills, which means interviews are nearly always going to be a better choice than questionnaires where younger pupils are concerned.
To ensure greater validity in interviews, researchers should try to do the following:
Avoid using leading questions as young people are more suggestible than adults.
Use open ended questions
Not interrupt students’ responses
Learn to tolerate pauses while students think.
Avoid repeating questions, which makes students change their first answer as they think it was wrong.
Unstructured interviews may thus be more suitable than structured interviews, because they make it easier for the researcher to rephrase questions if necessary.
The location may affect the validity of responses – if a student associates school with authority, and the interview takes place in a school, then they are probably more likely to give socially desirable answers.
If the researcher is conducting interviews over several days, later respondents may get wind of the topics/ questions which may influence the responses they give.
Schools and parents may object to students being interviewed about sensitive topics such as drugs or sexuality, so they may not give consent.
To overcome this the researcher might consider doing interviews with the school alongside their PSHE programme.
Interviews may be unsettling for some students – they are, after all, artificial situations. This could be especially true of group interviews, depending on who is making up the groups.
Peer group interviews may well be a good a choice for researchers studying topics within the sociology of education.
Group interviews can create a safe environment for pupils
Peer-group discussion should be something pupils are familiar with from lessons
Peer-support can reduce the power imbalance between interviewer and students
The free-flowing nature of the group interview could allow for more information to come forth.
The group interview also allows the researcher to observe group dynamics.
They are more time efficient than one on one interviews.
Peer pressure may mean students are reluctant to be honest for fear of ridicule
Students may also encourage each other to exaggerate or lie for laffs.
Group interviews are unpredictable, and very difficult to standardise and repeat which mean they are low in validity.
Useful links to quantitative and qualitative research studies, statistics, researchers, and news paper articles relevant to gender and education. These links should be of interest to students studying A-level and degree level sociology, as well as anyone with a general interest in the relationship between gender, gender identity, differential educational achievement and differences in subject choice.
Just a few links to kick-start things for now, to be updated gradually over time…
A link to Professor Becky Francis’ research, which focuses mainly on gender differences in educational achievement – at time of writing (November 2017) her main focus seems to be on girls lack of access to science and banding and streaming (the later not necessarily gender focused)
Specific resources for exploring gender and differential educational achievement
Education as a strategy for international development – despite the fact that girls are outperforming boys in the United Kingdom and most other developed countries, globally girls are underachieving compared to boys in most countries. This link takes you to a general post on education and social development, many of the links explore gender inequality in education.
Specific resources for exploring gender and subject choice
Dolls are for Girls, Lego is for Boys – A Guardian article which summarizes a study by Becky Francis’s on Gender, Toys and Learning, Francis asked the parents of more than 60 three- to five-year-olds what they perceived to be their child’s favourite toy and found that while parental choices for boys were characterised by toys that involved action, construction and machinery, there was a tendency to steer girls towards dolls and perceived “feminine” interests, such as hairdressing.
Girls are Logging Off – A BBC article which briefly alerts our attention to the small number of girls opting to do computer science.
This my very simply ‘research’ project task for summer timetable 2018. I’m experimenting with going back to a very open ended project!
The AQA Sociology specification states that you should be able to cite examples of your own research, hence this summer term research project (which is also useful for introducing theories of crime and deviance.
Select one ‘type’ of crime from the list below and produce a 1500 -2000 word report applying perspectives and incorporating some independent research exploring how and why this crime occurs.
Examples of crimes you might look at
Knife crime/ gun crime
Any other type of crime or deviance of your choice
Section 1: Introduction
Outline what crime you’ve chose to focus on, define it, and provide a few basic statistics to outline the extent of it.
Section 2: Theoretical context
Summarise how conflict, consensus and action theories would explain this crime. Use the following links or your main text books as necessary:
Bryman (2016) identifies four criticisms of quantitative research:
Quantitative researchers fail to distinguish people and social institutions from the world of nature
Schutz (1962) is the main critique here.
Schutz and other phenomenologists accuse quantitative social researchers of treating the social world as if it were no different from the natural world. In so doing, quantitative researchers tend to ignore the fact that people interpret the world around them, whereas this capacity for self-reflection cannot be found among the objects of the natural sciences.
The measurement process possesses an artificial and spurious sense of precision and accuracy
Cicourel (1964) is the main critique here.
He argues that the connection between the measures developed by social scientists and the concepts they are supposed to be revealing is assumed rather than real – basically measures and concepts are both effectively ‘made up’ by the researchers, rather than being ‘out there’ in reality.
A further problem is that quantitative researchers assume that everyone who answers a survey interprets the questions in the same way – in reality, this simply may not be the case.
The reliance on instruments and procedures hinders the connection between research and everyday life
This issue relates to the question of ecological validity.
Many methods of quantitative research rely heavily on administering research instruments to participants (such as structured interviews or self-completion questionnaires), or controlling situations to determine effects.
However, these instruments simply do not ‘tap into’ people’s real life experiences – for example, many of the well known lab experiments on the A-level sociology syllabus clearly do not reflect real life, while surveys which ask people about their attitudes towards immigration, or the environment, do not necessarily tell us about how people act towards migrants or the environment on a day to day basis.
The analysis of relationships between variables creates a static view of social life that is independent of people’s lives.
The main critique here is Blumer (1956).
Blumer (1956) argued that studies that seek to bring out the relationships between variables omit ‘the process of interpretation or definition that goes on in human groups’.
This is a combination of criticisms 1 and 3 above, but adds on an additional problem – that in isolating out variables, quantitative research creates an artificial, fixed and frozen social (un)reality – whereas social reality is (really) alive and constantly being created through processes of interaction by its various members.
In other words, the criticism here is that quantitative research is seen as carrying an objective ontology that reifies the social world.
The above criticisms have lead intepretivists to prefer more qualitative research methods. However, these too have their limitations!
Quantitative researchers generally have four main preoccupations: they want their research to be measurable, to focus on causation, to be generalisable, and to be replicable.
These preoccupations reflect epistemological grounded beliefs about what constitutes acceptable knowledge, and can be contrasted with the preoccupations of researchers who prefer a qualitative approach.
It may sound like it’s stating the obvious – but quantitative researchers are primarily interested in collecting numerical data, which means they are essentially concerned with counting social phenomena, which will often require concepts to be operationalised.
In most quantitative research there is a strong concern with explanation: qualitative researchers are more concerned with explaining why things are as they are, rather than merely describing them (which tends to be the focus of more qualitative research).
It follows that it is crucial for quantitative researchers to effectively isolate variables in order to establish causal relationships.
Quantitative researchers tend to want their findings to be representative of wider populations, rather than the just the sample involved in the study, thus there is a concern with making sure appropriate sampling techniques will be used.
If a study is repeatable then it is possible to check that the original researchers’ own personal biases or characteristics have not influenced the findings: in other words, replication is necessary to test the objectivity of an original piece of research.
Quantitative researchers tend to be keen on making sure studies are repeatable, although most studies are never repeated because there is a lack of status attached to doing so.
‘Evaluate the Strengths of Using Social Surveys in Social Research’ (20)
This is an essay plan for a possible essay for the AQA’s A Level Sociology paper 3: Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods. This essay plan uses the TPEN structure which covers the theoretical, practical, ethical and ‘nature of topic’ factors relevant to this research method.
Theoretical Factors: Positivists/ Interpretivists – Positivists generally like social surveys because the data from Structured Social Surveys is easy to put into graphs and charts – it is easy to make comparisons, find trends and uncover the ‘laws’ of human action
Theoretical: Representativeness/ Sampling – It is generally easy to obtain large samples
Theoretical: Reliability – Surveys generally have good reliability because….
Theoretical: Validity – Validity should be good for simple topics and it is less likely that the researcher’s opinions will affect the research process as with more qualitative methods
Practical Factors: Social surveys are one of the cheapest methods for collecting data from a wide, geographically dispersed sample of the target population; they are generally one of the quickest ways of collecting data
Ethical Factors: There are few ethical issues with this method compared to more qualitative methods.
Nature of Topic: Social surveys are best used for simple, straightforward topics.
Conclusion: Social Surveys are good for gaining an ‘overview’ of social trends
A Likert* scale is a multiple-indicator or multiple-item measure of a set of attitudes relating to a particular area. The goal of a Likert scale is to measure intensity of feelings about the area in question.
A Likert scale about Likert scales!
In its most common format, the Likert scale consists of a statement (e.g. ‘I love Likert scales’) and then a range of ‘strength of feeling’ options which respondents choose from – in the above example, there are five such options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.
Each respondents reply on each item is scored, typically with a high score (5 in the above example) being given for positive feelings and a low score (1 in the above example) for negative feelings.
Once all respondents have completed the questionnaire, the scores from all responses are aggregated to give an overall score, or ‘strength of feeling’ about the issue being measured.
Some examples of sociological research using Likert scales:
The World Values Survey is my favourite example – they use a simple four point scale to measure happiness. The poll below gives you the exact wording used in the survey…
The results on the web site (and below) show you the percentages who answer in each category, but I believe that the researchers also give scores to each response (4 to 1) and then do the same for similar questions, combine the scores and eventually come up with a happiness rating for a country out of 10. I think the USA scores around 7.2 or something like that, it might be more! Look it up if you’re interested….
Important points to remember about Likert scales
The items must be statements, not questions.
The items must all relate to the same object being measured (e.g. happiness, strength of religious belief)
The items that make up the scale should be interrelated so as to ensure internal reliability is strong.
*The Likert Scale is named after Rensis Likert, who developed the method.
Within sociology, one might even say that there’s a more ‘fundamental’ layer of concepts that lie behind the above – such as ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘socialization‘, even ‘sociology’ itself is a concept, as are ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’.
Concepts also include some really ‘obvious’ aspects of social life such as ‘family’, ‘childhood’, ‘religious belief’, ‘educational achievement’ and ‘crime’. Basically, anything that can be said to be ‘socially constructed’ is a concept.
Each concept basically represents a label that researchers give to elements of the social world that strikes them as significant. Bulmer (1984) suggests that concepts are ‘categories for the organisation of ideas and observations’.
Concepts and their measurement in quantitative research
If a concept is to be employed in quantitative research, a measure will have to be developed for it so it can be quantified.
Once they have been converted into measures, concepts can then take the form of independent or dependent variables. In other words, concepts may provide an explanation of a certain aspect of the social world, or they may stand for things we want to explain. A concept such as educational achievement may be used in either capacity – we may explore it as a dependent variable (why some achieve fewer GCSE results than others?) Or: as an independent variable (how do GCSE results affect future earnings?).
Measures also make it easier to compare educational achievement over time and across countries.
As we start to investigate such issues we are likely to formulate theories to help us understand why, for example, educational achievement varies between countries or over time.
This will in turn generate new concepts, as we try to refine our understanding of variations in poverty rates.
Why Measure Concepts?
It allows us to find small differences between individuals – it is usually obvious to spot large differences, for example between the richest 0.1% and the poorest 10%, but smaller once can often only be seen by measuring more precisely – so if we want to see the differences within the poorest 10%, we need precise measurements of income (for example).
Measurement gives us a consistent device, or yardstick for making such distinctions – a measurement device allows us to achieve consistency over time, and thus make historical comparisons, and with other researchers, who can replicate our research using the same measures. This relates to reliability.
Measurement allows for more precise estimates to be made about the correlation between independent and dependent variables.
Indicators in Quantitative Social Research
Because most concepts are not directly observable in quantitative form (i.e. they do not already appear in society in numerical form), sociologists need to devise ‘indicators’ to measure most sociological concepts. An indicator is something that stands for a concept and enables (in quantitative research at least) a sociologist to measure that concept.
We might use ‘Average GCSE score’ as an indicator to measure ‘educational achievement’.
We might use the number of social connections an individual has to society to measure ‘social integration’, much like Hirschi did in his ‘bonds of attachment theory‘.
We might use the number of barriers women face compared to men in politics and education to measure ‘Patriarchy’ in society.
NB – there is often disagreement within sociology as to the correct indicators to use to measure concepts – before doing research you should be clear about which indicators you are using to measure your concepts, why you are choosing these particular indicators , and be prepared for others to criticize your choice of indicators.
Direct and Indirect indicators
Direct indicators are ones which are closely related to the concept being measured. In the example above, it’s probably fair to say that average GCSE score is more directly related to ‘educational achievement’ than ‘bonds of attachment’ are to ‘social integration’, mainly because the later is more abstract.
How sociologists devise indicators:
There are a number of ways indicators can be devised:
through a questionnaire
through recording behaviour
through official statistics
through content analysis of documents.
Using multiple-indicator measures
It is often useful to use multiple indicators to measure concepts. The advantages of doing so are three fold:
there are often many dimensions to a concept – for example to accurately tap ‘religious belief’ questionnaires often include questions on attitudes and beliefs about ‘God’, ‘the afterlife’, ‘the spirit’, ‘as well as practices – such as church attendance. Generally speaking, the more complex the concept, the more indicators are required to measure it accurately.
Some people may not understand some of the questions in a questionnaire, so using multiple questions makes misunderstanding less likely.
It enables us to make more nuanced distinctions between respondents.
Measuring the effectiveness of measures in quantitative social research
It is crucial that indicators provide both a valid and reliable measurement of the concepts under investigation.
Quantitative research is a strategy which involves the collection of numerical data, a deductive view of the relationship between theory and research, a preference for a natural science approach (and for positivism in particular), and an objectivist conception of social reality.
It is important to note that quantitative research thus means more than the quantification of aspects of social life, it also has a distinctive epistemological and ontological position which distinguishes it from more qualitative research.
An ideal-typical outline of the stages of quantitative research:
The fact that quantitative research starts off with theory signifies the broadly deductive approach to the relationship between theory and research in this tradition. The sociological theory most closely associated with this approach is Functionalism, which is a development of the positivist origins of sociology.
It is common outlines of the main steps of quantitative research to suggest that a hypothesis is deduced from the theory and is tested.
However, a great deal of quantitative research does not entail the specification of a hypothesis, and instead theory acts loosely as a set of concerns in relation to which social researcher collects data. The specification of hypotheses to be tested is particularly likely to be found in experimental research but is often found as well in survey research, which is usually based on cross-sectional design.
3. Research design
The next step entails the selection of a research design which has implications for a variety of issues, such as the external validity of findings and researchers’ ability to impute causality to their findings.
4. Operationalising concepts
Operationalising concepts is a process where the researcher devises measure of the concepts which she wishes to investigate. This typically involves breaking down abstract sociological concepts into more specific measures which can be easily understood by respondents. For example, ‘social class’ can be operationalied into ‘occupation’ and ‘strength of religious believe’ can be measured by using a range of questions about ‘ideas about God’ and ‘attendance at religious services’.
5. selection of a research site or sites
With laboratory experiments, the site will already be established, in field experiments, this will involve the selection of a field-site or sites, such as a school or factory, while with survey research, site-selection may be more varied. Practical and ethical factors will be a limiting factor in choice of research sites.
6. Selection of respondents
Step six involves ‘choosing a sample of participants’ to take part in the study – which can involve any number of sampling techniques, depending on the hypothesis, and practical and ethical factors. If the hypothesis requires comparison between two different groups (men and women for example), then the sample should reflect this.
Step six may well precede step five – if you just wish to research ‘the extent of teacher labelling in schools in London’, then you’re pretty much limited to finding schools in London as your research site(s).
7. Data collection
Step seven, is what most people probably think of as ‘doing research’. In experimental research this is likely to involve pre-testing respondents, manipulating the independent variable for the experimental group and then post-testing respondents. In cross-sectional research using surveys, this will involve interviewing the sample members by structured-interview or using a pre-coded questionnaire. For observational research this will involve watching the setting and behaviour of people and then assigning categories to each element of behaviour.
8. Processing data
This means transforming information which has been collected into ‘data’. With some information this is a straightforward process – for example, variables such as ‘age’, or ‘income’ are already numeric.
Other information might need to be ‘coded’ – or transformed into numbers so that it can be analysed. Codes act as tags that are placed on data about people which allow the information to be processed by a computer.
9. Data analysis
In step nine, analysing data, the researcher uses a number of statistical techniques to look for significant correlations between variables, to see if one variable has a significant effect on another variable.
The simplest type of technique is to organise the relationship between variables into graphs, pie charts and bar charts, which give an immediate ‘intuitive’ visual impression of whether there is a significant relationship, and such tools are also vital for presenting the results of one’s quantitative data analysis to others.
In order for quantitative research to be taken seriously, analysis needs to use a number of accepted statistical techniques, such as the Chi-squared test, to test whether there is a relationship between variables. This is precisely the bit that many sociology students will hate, but has become much more common place in the age of big data!
10. Findings and conclusions
On the basis of the analysis of the data, the researcher must interpret the results of the analysis. It is at this stage that the findings will emerge: if there is a hypothesis, is it supported? What are the implications of the findings for the theoretical ideas that formed the background of the research?
11. Writing up Findings
Finally, in stage 11, the research must be written up. The research will be writing for either an academic audience, or a client, but either way, a write-up must convince the audience that the research process has been robust, that data is as valid, reliable and representative as it needs to be for the research purposes, and that the findings are important in the context of already existing research.
Once the findings have been published, they become part of the stock of knowledge (or ‘theory’ in the loose sense of the word) in their domain. Thus, there is a feedback loop from step eleven back up to step one.
The presence of an element of both deductivism (step two) and inductivism is indicative of the positivist foundations of quantitative research.