Research Methods – Top Ten Key Terms for A Level Sociology Students

Definitions of the most important concepts you need to know for A Level Sociology research methods. Start with these and then move on to learning the more comprehensive list of concepts. NB – There are actually 14 concepts below!

NB If you want the full list of concepts then you’ll find that here:

Research Methods Key Terms – To be on the safe side I’ll say that this covers most of the concepts you’ll need for the methods aspects of AS and A Level sociology.

Research Methods Key Terms Definitions

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.

Interpretivism – an approach to social research which tries to understand human action through the eyes of those acting. Interpretivists want to know the meanings give to their own actions, what their 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.

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.

Positivism sociology

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.

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.

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.

Reliabilityif research is reliable, it means if someone else repeats the same research with the same population then they should achieve the same results.

reliability sociology

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.

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

representativeness social research

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.

Sampling – the process of selection a section of the population to take part in social research.

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.

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.

Validityresearch is valid if it provides a true picture of what is really ‘out there’ in the world.

validity sociology definition

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 himself in the other person’s shoes.

Interpretivists argue that achieving Verstehen (or empathetic understanding) by doing in-depth qualitative research such as participant observation.

Test Yourself

Research Methods The Basics Flash Cards

https://quizlet.com/181898830/research-methods-the-basics-flash-cards/

Related Posts 

See my ‘Research Methods‘ page to links to all posts on research methods

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Feminist Perspectives on Society – A Summary Grid

feminism definition

Topic Area

Summary

A2 Main Ideas

Feminism the Basics:

  • Gender inequality primary lens for analysis

  • Gender is socially constructed

  • Patriarchy is one of the root causes of sex inequalities

  • Feminism is a political movement

Liberal Feminism

  • Socialisation main cause, not structures

  • What change within the system

  • Seek to eradicate discrimination and stereotyping

Radical Feminism

  • The structure of Patriarchy

  • Patriarchal ideology

  • Rape and Violence as tools of control

  • Radical Libertarian Feminists/ Radical Cultural Feminists

  • Political Lesbianism and Separatism

Marxist Feminism

  • Capitalism main source of oppression, capitalists the main beneficiaries

  • Women reproduce the labour force

  • Women take the shit

  • Men more dependent on wages

  • Ideological conditioning

  • Working class and women should work together

Difference Feminism

  • Do not see women as a single homogenous group

  • Criticised preceding feminist theory for claiming a ‘false universality’ (white, western heterosexual, middle class)

  • Sees Feminists theory – essentialist and part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project

  • Look at discourses and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities’

  • Helene Cixoux – a destabilising theorist

Research Methods Implications

  • Liberal/ Marxist – Prefer quantitative research – trends and bigger picture

  • Radical – mixture of qualitative and quantitative/ also consciousness raising and activism

  • Postmodern – Deconstruction and critique of male language/ researching and celebrating diversity to challenge gender norms.

How they understand family life

  • Liberal – Inequality is primarily to be tackled through improving equality of opportunity in work, politics and education, not the family

  • Marxist – the nuclear family structure and women’s oppression with in it primarily benefits capitalism, and stems from capitalism

  • Radical – The heterosexual nuclear family is one of the main structures through which men oppress and control women – through everything from the dual burden through domestic violence (see Germaine Greer as an example)

How they understand underachievement in education

  • Liberal – The gender gap in education is one of the strongest pieces of supporting evidence for Liberal Feminism

  • Marxist – Gender stereotypes in subject choice still result in a gender pay gap in later life as women go into lower paid jobs

  • Radical – Gender Regimes still make up part of the hidden curriculum – sexual harassment for example often goes unchallenged in schools (Kat Banyard)

Topic Area

Summary

How they understand crime and deviance

  • Hegemonic Masculinity is one of the fundamental drivers of crime (Messerschmitt)

  • Violence against women is one of the primary sources of control of women

  • The courts fail to prosecute and put the ‘victim on trial’ which perpetuates violence against women

  • Cultural norms around sexuality serve to control women – The Beauty Myth and the sexual double standard

Key Studies and Examples to use to illustrate

  • The correlation between economic growth and gender equality in wider society supports Liberal Feminism, and criticises Marxist and Radical Feminism.

  • The Equal Pay Act, Divorce Act, Equality Act and Maternity and Paternity Acts are all good examples of policies which liberal feminists support.

  • The gradual trend towards gender equality in the UK supports liberal feminism

  • The Gender Pay gap – and lack of women in control of Corporations supports Radical Feminism

  • The prevalence of the Beauty Myth supports radical Feminism

  • Stats on anorexia and ‘planet sad’ support radical feminism

  • Stats on Domestic Violence tend to support Radical Feminism

  • Stats on harassment from the Everyday Sexism Project supports radical feminism

  • The link between poverty, sex-trafficking and prostitution supports radical feminism

  • ‘Slutever’ is a case study supporting difference Feminism

  • Documentaries on ‘sex work’ support Difference Feminism

  • Bake off supports difference Feminism (and criticises Liberal Feminism

Evaluations

  • Liberal – Based upon male assumptions and norms such as individualism and competition, and encourages women to be more like men and therefor deny the ‘value of qualities traditionally associated with women such as empathy.

  • Liberal – is an ethnocentric perspective – based mostly on the experiences of middle class, educated women.

  • Radical – The concept of patriarchy has been criticised for ignoring variations in the experience of oppression.

  • Radical – Patriarchal systems existed before capitalism, in tribal societies for example

  • Difference – Walby, women are still oppressed by objective social structures – namely Patriarchy

  • Difference – Dividing women into an infinite number of sub-groups which weakens the movement for change.

Key Concepts

  • Patriarchy

  • Patriarchal ideology

  • Gender scripts

  • Hegemonic masculinity

  • The Beauty Myth

  • Dual Burden/ Triple Shift

Key Studies/ Evidence

  • The global gender gap

  • DV statistics

  • The Everyday Sexism Project

  • Pointlessly gendered products

  • The gender pay gap

  • Only 1/5 MPs are female

Related Posts 

Feminist Perspectives on Society (Summary Sheet)

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

A Feminist Perspective on Education

The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam

The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –

  1. There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
  2. We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
  3. Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
  4. We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
  5. Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
  6. Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)

You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.

 Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’ Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns

  • He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly  
  • He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order

1.    There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’

Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.

Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…

Durkheim

2.     Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour

Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.

3 Individuals need to be restrained

Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.

Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.

Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.

Key Term – Social Solidarity Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.

Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult

Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.

In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.

In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.

Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’  and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving  ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference

Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.

Key Term – Anomie Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.

 

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

4.    The Organic Analogy[1] – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

5.    Institutions perform positive functions

Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below

  • Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
  • The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
  • Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
  • Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.

The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites

Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems

Parson’s name for each function (AGIL) This means…. Performed by what institutions?
Adaptation Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Goal Attainment Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Integration Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance) Socialise the young into shared values

Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.

Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this  would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.

 

6. Social change and social evolution

Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)

Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.

Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

1.    Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals? 

 2.    It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.

3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it

4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.

5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.

 6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion  – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.

7.    Functionalism is Ideological  – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions

So is Functionalism still relevant today?

Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –

The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.

Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.

Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on The Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Modernisation Theory (kind of Functionalist applied to Global Development)

Find out More: Basic info

This History Learning Site post has a very basic overview of Functionalism

Find out More: Extension sources

This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…

 

Sociological Perspectives on Single Person Households

Why are increasing numbers of people all over the world living alone? (Scroll down for a video summary)

According to a recent book by Eric Klinenberg: Explaining the Rise of Solo Living, this is a global phenomenon and mainly reflects the increasing degree of individual choice that comes with increasing wealth.

A review of the trends in Single Person Households

  • 29% of UK Households are single person households. 

single people UK

  • Most people who live alone are 65+ and increasing numbers of those aged 45-60 are living alone. However, the numbers of younger people living alone are declining (so Wayne in the video above is actually wrong when he says solo living is on the increase among younger people!)

solo living UK

A Summary of Going Solo by Klinenberg

single person householdsKlinenberg argues that the rise of solo living is an extremely important social trend which presents a fundamental challenge to the centrality of the family to modern society. In the USA, the average adult will now spend more of their life unmarried than married, and single person households are one of the most common types of household. We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population.

Eric Klinenberg spent seven years interviewing 300 single Americans who lived alone, and the general picture he got was that these people were exactly where they wanted to be – living on their own was not a transitory phase, it was a genuine life choice. On the whole, living alone is seen as a mark of social distinction, living as part of a couple is for losers.

While single by choice is very much on the up among younger people who have never settled down into a long term cohabiting relationships and have no intention of doing so, it is also the norm among older people who have come out of relationships. Where older people living alone are concerned, and these are mostly women, they are not all chasing the dwindling population of men in their age group (given the higher life expectancy for women). Most of them are in fact wary of getting involved in relationships because doing so will probably mean becoming someone’s carer (again), and similarly they are skeptical about moving back in with their children (and possibly their grandchildren too) because of fear that they will become an unpaid domestic and child-sitting slave.

NB, as a counter to the above, not all singles are happy about it, however. One such group consists of mainly men on low wages who are unmarriageable and live in ‘single room occupancy facilities’ often suffering from various addictions and who practice ‘defensive individualism’ in order to cope with their bleak situation.

So how do we account for this increasing in single person households?

Klinenberg suggests four reasons…

  1. The wealth generated by economic growth and the social security provided by the modern welfare state – the basic thesis is that the rise of single living is basically just a reflection of increasing wealth. When we can afford to live alone, more of us choose to do so. We especially see this where Scandinavia is concerned, and nearly half of the adult population live alone.
  2. The communications revolution – For those who want to live alone, the internet allows us to stay connected. An important part of his thesis is that just because we are increasingly living alone, this doesn’t mean that we are becoming a ‘society of loners’.
  3. Mass urbanization – Klinenberg suggests that Subcultures thrive in cities, which tend to attract nonconformists who are able to find others like themselves in the dense variety of urban life. In short, it’s easier to connect with other singles where people live closer together.
  4. Increased longevity – because people are living longer than ever and because women often outlive their spouses by decades rather than years — aging alone has become an increasingly common experience.

Video version of some the above.

In the video below, Wayne discusses his motivations for ‘going solo’ with his friend Archie, and together they explore some of the reasons for the increase in single person households.


 
Questions 

  • To what extent do you think Kleinberg’s findings apply to the increase in Solo Living in the UK?
  • What other ‘deeper’ Sociological reasons might explain the increase in Solo Living?
  • Do you agree that the rise of Solo Living challenges the centrality of the family in modern society?

Related Posts

Explaining the reasons for the increase in family diversity (explores further reasons for the increase in single person households and other ‘family’ types).

Field Experiments: Definition, Examples, Advantages and Disadvantages

Field Experiments take place in real-life settings such as a classroom, the work place or even the high street. Field experiments are much more common in sociology than laboratory experiments. In fact sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real life that most sociologists believe that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life.

It is actually quite easy to set up a field experiment. If you wanted to measure the effectiveness of different teaching methods on educational performance in a school for example, all you would need to do is to get teachers to administer a short test to measure current performance levels, and then get them to change one aspect of their teaching for one class, or for a sample of some pupils, but not for the others, for a period of time (say one term) and then measure and compare the results of all pupils at the end.

Field experiments.png

The advantages of Field Experiments over Lab Experiments

Better external validity – The big advantage which field experiments obviously have better external validity than lab experiments, because they take place in normally occurring social settings.

Larger Scale Settings – Practically it is possible to do field experiments in large institutions – in schools or workplaces in which thousands of people interact for example, which isn’t possible in laboratory experiments.

The disadvantages of Field Experiments compared to Lab Experiments

It is not possible to control variables as closely as with laboratory experiments – With the Rosenthal and Jacobson experiment, for example we simply don’t know what else might have influenced the ‘spurting group’ besides ‘higher teacher expectations’.

The Hawthorne Effect (or Experimental Effect) may reduce the validity of results. The Hawthorne effect is where respondents may act differently just because they know they are part of an experiment. The Hawthorne Effect was a phrase coined by Elton Mayo (1927) who did research into workers’ productivity at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant. With the workers agreement (they knew that an experiment was taking place, and the purpose of the experiment), Mayo set about varying things such as lighting levels, the speed of conveyor belts and toilet breaks. However, whatever he did, the worker’s productivity always increased from the norm, even when conditions were worsened. He concluded that the respondents were simply trying to please the researcher. NB – The Hawthorne effect can also apply to laboratory experiments.

Practical Problems – Access is likely to be more of a problem with lab experiments. Schools and workplaces might be reluctant to allow researchers in.

Ethical Problems – Just as with lab experiments – it is often possible to not inform people that an experiment is taking place in order for them to act naturally, so the issues of deception and lack of informed consent apply here too, as does the issue of harm.

Rosenthal and Jacobson’s 1968 Field Experiment on Teacher Expectations (Pygmalion in the Classroom)

This classic field experiment illustrates some of the strengths and limitation of this method.

Aim

The aim of this research was to measure the effect of high teacher expectation on the educational performance of pupils.

Procedure

Rosenthal and Jacobson carried out their research in a California primary school they called ‘Oak School’. Pupils were given an IQ test and on the basis of this R and J informed teachers that 20% of the pupils were likely ‘spurt’ academically in the next year. In reality, however, the 20% were randomly selected.

All of the pupils were re-tested 8 months later and he spurters had gained 12 IQ points compared to an average of 8.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen concluded that higher teacher expectations were responsible for this difference in achievement.

Limitations of the Experiment

Firstly, deception/ Lack of Informed Consent is an issue – In order for the experiment to work, R and J had to deceive the teachers about the real nature of the experiment, and the pupils had no idea what was going on.

Secondly, there are ethical problems – while the spurters seem to have benefited from this study, the other 80% of pupils did not, in fact it is possible that they were harmed because of the teachers giving disproportionate amounts of attention to the spurting group. Given that child rights and child welfare are more central to education today it is unlikely that such an experiment would be allowed to take place.

Thirdly, reliability is a problem while the research design was relatively simple and thus easy to repeat (in fact within five years of the original study this was repeated 242 times) the exact conditions are not possible to repeat – given differences between schools and the type and mixture of pupils who attend different schools.

Finally, it’s not possible to rule out the role of extraneous variables. Rosenthal and Jacobson claim that higher teacher expectation led to the higher achievement of the ‘spurters’ but they did not conduct any observations of this taking place. It may have been other factors.

Related Posts 

Seven Examples of Field Experiments in Sociology

An Introduction to Experiments in Sociology

Laboratory Experiments in Sociology

Are Chinese Teaching Methods the Best?  – A Field Experiment in ‘tough teaching methods’ in the UK conducted in 2015.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

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

Contents include:

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

If you’re just here for the research methods content (and you like this sort of thing) and alternative option could be  to purchase my extensive no-nonsense revision notes – over 50 pages of accessible, user friendly, exam-focused notes for only £0.99* – from iTunes, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

Research Methods Coverv3

Purchase on iTunes for only £0.99*

 

*Price will fluctuate with the dollar exchange rate