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The Steps of Quantitative Research

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:

quantitative research stages

1. Theory 

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.

2. Hypothesis 

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.

Sources

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

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Postmodern Methods in Louis Theroux Documentaries

Louis Theroux documentaries are a great example of ‘postmodern’ research methods.

I say this for the following reasons:

  • Firstly, these documentaries select unusual, deviant case studies to focus on, which is especially true of the latest series – ‘Dark States’ which consists of three episodes about heroin users, sex trafficking and murder.
  • Secondly, they tend to have a narrative style, focusing on people’s stories.
  • Thirdly, there’s a lack of structure about the documentaries… Theroux makes a connection with people and sees where that leads.
  • Fourthly – there’s no real attempt to be critical, or provide any analyses of the role of economic and political structures which lie behind these stories. In short, they are not properly sociological!
  • Finally, these documentaries seem to be produced for entertainment purposes only – they simply invite us to marvel or gawp at the ‘fantastically fucked up’ individuals before us, without offering any real solutions as to how they might sort their lives out, or how society should deal with them.

A brief analysis of two episodes of ‘Dark States’ demonstrates the postmodern nature of these documentaries:

In the first episode in the series, Heroin Town, Theroux looks at how the over-prescription of painkillers has unleashed a heroin epidemic. Theroux says that he largely steered clear of the pharmaceutical companies, regulators and politicians who permitted the disaster…. Instead, he hung out on streets where heroin and opioid addiction is “off the scale, unlike anything I’d ever seen before” and made addicts the stars, giving them space to express themselves and showing how many are beguiled by the romance of being outlaws.

The third episode, on Sex Trafficking in Houston, focuses on the relationships between sex workers and pimps, also shows the ‘postmodern documentary method – in which Theroux deliberately avoided making any value judgments:

Theroux says that he avoided the term “sex slave”: “If you overdo the abusive dimension, you strip the women of agency – it’s oddly disempowering and kind of neo-Victorian. The women are getting a kind of emotional fulfilment in their relationship with the pimps, even though it is poisonous and often damaging.” The pimps tended to be stylish, eloquent and intelligent. “These guys are, in their own way, deeply damaged, often the children of prostitutes, who may have had dads or family friends who were pimps. The closest analogy I have is that they are living in semi-apocalyptic conditions where the police are just not an option.”

Of course there are both strengths and limitations of these postmodern methods… I guess the biggest strength is that they allow the respondents to speak for themselves, and it’s down to the viewer to interpret the information as they will, and analyse deeper if they feel the need!

Sources:

The Guardian

 

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The Internet as an Object of Content Analysis

Websites, social media posts and similar virtual documents are all forms of secondary data, and thus amenable to both quantitative and qualitative content analysis.

 

global internet use stats.png
The sheer number of internet users creating online documents makes researching them a challenge

 

There are, however, many difficulties in using web sites as sources of content analysis. Following Scott’s (1990) four criteria of assessing the quality of documents, we need consider why a web site is constructed in the first place, whether it is there for commercial purposes, and whether it has a political motive.

In addition, we also need to consider the following potential problems of researching web sites:

  • Finding websites will probably require a search engine, and search engines only ever provide a selection of available web sites on a topic, and the sample they provide will be biased according to algorithm the engine uses to find its websites. It follows that use of more than one search engine is advisable.
  • Related to the above point, a search is only as good as the key words the researcher inputs into the search engines, and it could be time consuming to try out all possible words and combinations.
  • New web sites are continually appearing while old ones disappear. This means that by the time research is published, they may be based on web sites which no longer exist and not be applicable to the new ones which have emerged.
  • Similar to the above point, existing web sites are continually being updated.
  • The analysis of web sites is a new field which is very much in flux. New approaches are being developed at a rapid rate. Some draw on traditional ways of interpreting documents such as discourse analysis and qualitative content analysis, others have been developed specifically in relation to the Web, such as the examination of hyperlinks between websites and their significance.

Most researchers who use documents accept the fact that it can be difficult to determine the population from which they are sampling, and when researching documents online, the speed of development and change of the Web accentuate this problem. The experience of researching documents online can be like trying to hit a moving target that not only moves, but is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

Three examples of content analysis of documents online

Boepple and Thompson (2014) conducted quantitative analysis of 21 ‘healthy living blogs’. Their sampling frame was only blogs which had received an award, and from those, they selected the blogs with the largest number of page views.

They found that content emphasised appearance and disordered messages about food/ nutrition,with five bloggers using very negative language about being fat or overweight and four invoking admiration for being thin. They concluded that these blogs spread messages that are ‘potentially problematic’ for anyone changing their behaviour on the basis of advice contained in them.

Davis et al (2015) conducted an analysis of postings that followed a blog post concerning a cyberbullying suicide y a 15 year old named Amanda Todd. There were 1094 comments of which 482 contained stories about being bullied, 12% about cyberbullying, 75% about traditional bullying, the rest a mixture of both.

The research found that the main reason victims of bullying are targeted is because they do not conform in one way or another to society’s mainstream norms and values, with the most common specific reason for bullying being a victim’s physical appearance.

Humphries et al (2014) conducted content analysis on the kinds of personal information disclosed on Twitter. The authors collected an initial sample of users and they searched friends of this initial sample. In total the collected 101, ,069 tweets and took a random sample of 2100 tweets from this.

One of their findings was that Twitter users not only share information about themselves, they frequently share information about others too.

Concluding Thoughts 

Researching documents online may be challenging, but it is difficult to see how sociologists can avoid it as more and more of our lives are lived out online, so researching documents such as web sites, and especially blogs and social media postings is, I think, very much set to become a growth area in social research.

 

 

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Scientific Quantitative Methodology in Sociology

Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.

This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.

Social Facts

The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.

According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:

  • they exist over and above individual consciousness
  • they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
  • each person is limited (constrained) by social facts

According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.

Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.

For a more in-depth account of social facts, have a look at this blog post: What are Social Facts?

Statistical data, Correlation, and Causation

Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.

The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.

If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.

Multivariate Analysis

Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.

Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.

Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.

Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour

A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.

According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.

Positivism and The Comparative Method

The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time

The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.

The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:

  • Moral problems are not as acute
  • The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
  • The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time

However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.

Related Posts

Positivism and Interpretivism in social research

Social Action Theory – criticises the positivist approach to social research, arguing that human consciousness is too complex to reduce to numbers.

 

 

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Methods in Context Essay Template

A suggested template for the Methods in Context Question on one of the AQA’s 7191 (1)education and methods in context sample exam papers – the template should work for most Method in Context questions, but it won’t work for all of them (it’ll fit less well for secondary data MIC questions)

Question: 06 Read Item B below and answer the question that follows

Item B

Investigating pupils with behavioural difficulties

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

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

Evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties (20)

Suggested Essay Plan

Cover Four things – Sampling/ Representativeness, Access, Validity, Ethics – In relation to the specific topic you are will be researching….

Discuss getting a sample/ Representativeness How might you gain a representative sample of the group you are studying? Are there any reasons why it might be difficult to get a representative sample?

Will the research method in the question make achieving a representative sample easier or more difficult?

What could you do to ensure representativeness?

 

 

 

Discuss gaining access to respondents Once you’ve decided on your sample, why might gaining access to respondents be a problem? (think of who you will be researching, and where you will be researching)

 

 

 

Will the choice of method make gaining access easier or more difficult?

 

 

 

 

What would you have to do to make sure you can gain access to this particular group?

 

 

 

 

Discuss validity/ empathy/ trust/ Insight Think of who you will be researching – are there any specific reasons why they may not wish to disclose information, or be unable to be disclose information?

 

 

 

Will the research method in the question make gaining trust easier or more difficult?

 

 

 

What could you do to make sure you get valid data from the people you will be researching?

 

 

 

Discuss Ethics Think of the specific topic you are researching in relation to who you will be researching – are there any specific ethical problems with researching these people?

 

 

Given these ethical problems, is the research method appropriate?

 

 

How can you make sure research is ethical?

 

 

Conclusion Based on all of the above is this a practical, theoretically sound and ethical method for this topic

 

NB – For the Topic you could discuss any of the following:

Who you might be researching

  • Pupils
  • Teachers
  • Parents
  • Support Staff

Where you might be researching pupils with behavioural difficulties

  • Classrooms
  • Staffrooms
  • Parents’ homes

 Specific characteristics of the subjects under investigation

  • Vulnerability
  • Stigmatisation
  • Parental consent

For the Method – You should consider all of TPEN: See here for the factors you should consider

Also relevant:

Participant Observation

Using Participant Observation to Research Education

 

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Why do White Working Class Kids Lack Aspiration?

This useful Thinking Allowed Podcast summarises two recent pieces of qualitative social research and helps further our understanding of why white working class boys underachieve in education.

The podcast starts with Michael Wilshaw in 2013 (when he was head of OFSTED) pointing out that only 35% of white girls from low income households and 26% of white boys achieved 5 GCSEs at grades A*- C.

Wilshaw states that there is no reason why such pupils shouldn’t be able to achieve, and effectively blames their failure on a lack of aspiration among white working class boys.

Two sociologists who take issue with Wilshaw’s theory are Garth Stahl (spent nine years teaching in state secondary schools in England before conducting interviews in three London schools), and Heather Mendick ( who has researched the relationship between urban youth and schooling more generally). Together Stahl and Mendick effectively argue that white working class boys don’t lack aspiration at all, what they lack is a middle class view of aspiration, and it is this which puts them at a disadvantage in education.

Schools are Based Around a Middle Class Idea of Aspiration

Stahl argues that aspiration is a big thing in contemporary education – the dominant discourse in the system (which is unquestioned) is that learning will eventually equal earning, and that it is up to the individual student to do this on their own – i.e. the right kind of aspiration is to aspire to earn and then sacrifice now in order to get the grades to get you that income in the future.

The podcast also mentions that this discourse is tied up with the neoliberal idea of ‘self-crafting’ – or working on the self to progress – and no doubt this means that part of aspiration means skilling yourself up to make yourself more attractive to employers – you know the sort of thing – D of E and other volunteering, team sports, musical instrument, winner of the Young Apprentice.

The problem with the above is that it is a very middle class definition of aspiration – the kind of thing middle class parents spend a lot more time instilling in their children than working class parents.

White Working Class Aspirations and how They Conflict with School’s 

According to Stahl, working class boys do  have aspirations – they generally wished for a nice, ‘ordinary life’, not to be greedy, just wanting to get a decent job and to  ‘bring home the bacon’for their family.

There was a significant focus on trades (plumbing for example) as being good careers where they could do an honest days work for a decent wage, a focus on ‘authenticity’ (rather than ‘constructing an image of yourself and selling your image,, maybe?)

One point of conflict was over the paid work some of the boys did while at school – for them it was all part of their future ‘honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’ aspiration (demonstrating a clear work ethic) but not for the school, as it conflicted with the ‘learning = earning’ discourse.

Interestingly, the boys didn’t reject school like Willis’ lads did, rather they invested in ‘ordinary learner identities’  – they didn’t want to succeed or fail and settled for middling positions in the school.

The harmful effects of the normalisation of middle class aspiration 

Mendick points out that aspiration is now used to judge people – certain aspirations which do not fit into the ‘learning = earning’ discourse are seen as failures – such as being a celebrity, having a family at a young age, or just wanting to being normal for example, all of these are seen as not good enough. The effective of this is normalises a middle class pathway through life and to further denigrate working class culture and aspiration as inferior.

This is supported by Stahl who found that the boys he interviewed had a sense of working class pride, but they weren’t so loud and proud of this identity like Willis’ lads were in the 1970s.

Mendick also found evidence of some middle class children just wanting out from this competitive culture – it’s not just the working classes who are disempowered.

Finally, and depressingly, the researchers both found a widespread acceptance of self-blaming for failure.

Brief Commentary

I think these pieces of research are an invaluable antidote to the dominant culture of middle class aspiration which has infiltrated our education system.

These ideas about aspiration and individual responsibility haven’t just emerged out of thin air after all – as Zygmunt Bauman would probably out, they’re just part of the wider social process of individualisation – Where individuals are expected to find biographical solutions to system contradictions.

I think more students should question the ‘learning = earning’ equation, because in the future formal education and qualifications may well not be the best way for kids to guarantee a secure income (if, indeed they can ever gain a secure income).

Finally, we should ask ourselves whether there’s anything wrong with ‘merely’ aspiring to having a decent job, paying your way, and feeling like you’re contributing to society, rather than always wanting to ‘work harder, earn more cash and so on….’

This is only a selective commentary from the podcast, read the research if you want to find out more…!

 References

Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration – Educating White Working Class Boys, and Mendick as studied the relationship

Urban Youth and Schooling

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Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two.

 

positivism-interpretivism

Positivism

  • Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.
  • Positivists see society as shaping the individual and believe that ‘social facts’ shape individual action.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research such as large scale surveys in order to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends, such as the relationship between educational achievement and social class. This type of sociology is more interested in trends and patterns rather than individuals.
  • Positivists also believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • In positivist research, sociologists tend to look for relationships, or ‘correlations’ between two or more variables. This is known as the comparative method.

Interpretivism

  • An Interpretivist approach to social research would be much more qualitative, using methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation
  • Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that individuals are not just puppets who react to external social forces as Positivists believe.
  • According to Interpretivists individuals are intricate and complex and different people experience and understand the same ‘objective reality’ in very different ways and have their own, often very different, reasons for acting in the world, thus scientific methods are not appropriate.
  • Intepretivist research methods derive from ‘social action theory
  • Intereptivists actually criticise ‘scientific sociology’ (Positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed.
  • Interpretivists argue that in order to understand human action we need to achieve ‘Verstehen‘, or empathetic understanding – we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.

Positivism and Interpretivism Summary Grid 

Positivism and Interpretivism

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle

Theory Methods Revision CoverIf you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

Contents include:

  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

Related Posts 

Links to more detailed posts on Positivism and Social Action Theory are embedded in the text above. Other posts you might like include:

Positivism in Social Research 

Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary

Links to all of my research methods posts can be found at my main research methods page.