How do sociologists decide what to research?
There are several steps: 1. The first step is to choose a topic to research. The choice will be influenced by: The interests and values of the researcher- obviously, any researcher will want to study topics that they find interesting but the question of “values” raises some questions. If a researcher thinks a topic is important enough to research, they may have strong feelings about it and there may be a risk that these feelings will affect how they see the situation and do their research. Current debates in the academic world- sociologists, like anyone else, will be drawn to study topics that are creating interest and controversy. The choice will also be influenced by practical issues. The time and resources needed- first-time researchers often underestimate how long it takes to collect data, analyse it, and write the report.
A lone researcher, will only be able to do a small-scale study (maybe a case study). Large-scale studies need a team of professional researchers and can take years to complete- these kind of studies are known as longitudinal. What is a case study? A case study is a detailed and in-depth study of one particular group or situation to find out as much information as possible. Student research is often case study based. An example of a case study is a student who is studying peer pressure but only investigates their own school.
Case studies are also used a lot by professional sociologists and a famous example of this is James Patrick’s case study of gangs, a Glasgow Gang Observed (1973). In terms of understanding why certain things happen, or how people think, this is a great method to use as you have the depth of information needed to do this. It does have some disadvantages, though, the main one being that because a case study only looks at one situation or group you cannot really generalise from it.
Access to the subject matter- some areas of social life are more available to researchers than others. For example, the private life of a family is much harder to study that the public life of the school classroom. Rich and powerful people can deny access to a researcher more easily than poor and powerless people can. Whether funding is available– large-scale research projects expensive salaries, equipment, living expenses, travel, computer resources, secretarial help and thousands of other items have to be paid for. Individuals and organisations can bid for but there is stiff competition for this money. Many researchers have very limited resources. What is a longitudinal study?
These are studies that go on for a long time. A good example of such a study that you may have heard about or seen on television is the Child of our Time study. This 20year project is following 25 children from across the UK who were born in 2000 and looking at how their social circumstances affect their lives. Longitudinal studies are good in that they allow researchers to build up a picture of social life that recognises change and does not go out of date. However, they are quite difficult to manage as people circumstances are constantly changing. Therefore, researchers have to cope with people dropping out of the study, moving away and even dying
2. Reading around the subject – The next step in any research project is to read what others have already published on the subject. This saves repeating the same work, and may provide some initial data. It will also give the researcher some ideas about how to approach their own project. 3. Formulating a hypothesis or research question – It is all very well to be interested in a topic but the research must be focused. If the researcher already has a hunch about something, or wants to test an idea, they should formulate a hypothesis. This is simply a statement that can be tested. It is a prediction of what the research will find. For example: “students who study sociology watch the TV news more often than students who do not study sociology” is an hypothesis. It can be tested by collecting evidence about the TV news watching habits of the two categories of student. This will confirm or reject the hypothesis, or suggest what further research is needed.
Researchers doing descriptive research do not usually start with an hypothesis. They will have a general question that has prompted the research but they don’t make any predictions. However, they may develop an hypothesis as they learn more about what they studying. 4. Prepare the research design -First, there is the choice of whether to base the research on primary data (i.e. data collected by the researcher), or secondary data (i.e. data that is already available). In either case, the data will have to be analysed and interpreted by the researcher. Primary data The most common methods of collecting primary data are: By survey, usually involving questionnaires (perhaps sent by post) and/or interviews; this generates mainly quantitative data. By observation, which may be participant (where the researcher joins in the life of the group being studied) or non-participant (where the researcher remains detached from the group); this generates mainly qualitative data
Secondary data Many kinds of data are already available to sociologists: Official statistics collected by government agencies (quantitative) Reports in newspapers, TV and radio (mostly qualitative) Historical documents (quantitative and qualitative) Personal letters and diaries (qualitative)
For your exam you must have a good understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each of the methods and be able to say which method is the most appropriate one to use in a particular circumstance- this is dealt with below be clear on the difference between quantitative and qualitative data. (Qualitative data deals with people’s attitudes and opinions whereas quantitative data often comes in the form of statistics and can be used in a more scientific way)
When conducting their research many sociologists may choose to use more than one type of research methods. This is sometimes called, ”triangulation” or ”multiple methods” and illustrates how sociologists may try to find different sorts of evidence to make their research stronger. Once the sociologists has decided what they are going to study and how they are going to do it they are ready to begin their research.
Part B- Collecting and Using Information and Evidence
Before beginning their research the researcher must identify the population, i.e. the group under study. The population may, for example, be students, the unemployed, pensioners or househusbands, depending on the aims of the study. In practice, it may be too expensive or time-consuming for the sociologist to question all the members of the population. If this is the case, a sample or subgroup of the population will be selected for questioning. In selecting the sample, a sampling frame, which is a complete list of all members of the population, is required. Examples of sampling frames are the electoral roll, a college register or a doctor’s list. Many researchers are interested in making generalisations about the group under study. Generalisations are general statements and conclusions that apply not only to the sample but to the population as a whole. If the researcher is to generalise, then it is essential that the sample is representative or typical of the population
How do sociologists collect a sample?
There a number of sampling techniques used by sociologists in order to obtain a sample. The sampling techniques fall into two categories – 1. Random sampling: simple; this is the most straightforward way of selecting a random sample. It is the same as drawing names out of a hat! This, however, is only practical for small populations. For larger populations researchers use computers to select their random sample. The potential problem with simple random sampling, however, is that, by chance, the random sample may not be representative of the population stratified; imagine that a sociologist is interested in researching the attitudes of members of a group involved in environmental issues. She does not have sufficient time or money to interview for population, so she will have to interview a sample of members.
She has a list of members, and has advanced knowledge of their age and gender, and wants the sample to reflect the age and gender characteristics of the population. In order to achieve this she will divide the population into sub-populations, in this case according to age and gender. A sample is then drawn randomly from each subpopulation in proportion to numbers in the population as a whole. It’s a bit like sorting the names into a number of hats and then drawing them out randomly. cluster; if the survey population is spread out across the country, it would prove relatively expensive and time-consuming to interview a randomly selected sample. Instead of going all over the country to get information from the sample, the researcher could use cluster sampling. This involves selecting certain areas at random, for example London and Manchester, and then selected a sample of people from these areas. The sample will therefore be located in clusters around a geographical area so it is easier to collect the data.
2. Non-random sampling: systematic sampling; systematic sampling involves taking every nth name from the sampling frame, e.g. systematically taking every 10th name from the electoral register. Imagine that the population consists of 1000 people and a sample size of 100 is required. Using systematic sampling, the researcher would select a number at random between 1 and 10. If this turned out to be 5, then the 5th, 15th, 25th, name — and so on up to the 995th name — will be selected from the sampling frame. This would give the required sample size. snowball sampling; a sociologist may be interested in studying a population for which is no sampling frame, for example people who fraudulently claim DSS benefits while working in paid employment. Without a sampling frame the researcher would not be able to select a random or systematic sample.
Using the snowball sampling technique, the researcher would begin by making contact with one member of the population, gradually gaining his or her confidence until that person is willing to divulge the names of others who might co-operate. In such a way, the researcher would obtain a sample, although it is unlikely to be a representative one. quota sampling; this is a technique favoured by market research companies which employ and train paid workers to interview people on the street.
Each interviewer is told to interview an exact number (or quota) off people from categories all groups such as females, pensioners or teenagers, in proportion to their numbers in the population as a whole. This method is not random and it depends on the interviewer’s ability to spot the right type of person to fill their quota. One problem with quota sampling is that the interviewer may, in practice, make a mistake. Another problem is that the interviewer may, at the end of a long hard day, fiddle the quota. Quota sampling will only work well when the researcher knows a lot about the population under study. Once a researcher has collected a sample of people who are willing to take part in their research, they usually conduct a “pilot study”.
What is a pilot study? A pilot study is a small-scale trial run before the main research; it is a feasibility study. The pilot study allows the researcher to check whether the chosen method of gathering data is appropriate. The researcher will be particularly keen to check the wording of questions that might be asked in order to ensure that they are clear and straightforward. A pilot study helps to overcome potential problems that may otherwise occur in the main study. The pilot study may save time, money and effort in the long run. A good example of where a pilot study has worked in the past is the work of Schofield. In 1965 Schofield and his team conducted research with the Central Council for Health Education on the sexual attitudes and behaviour of young people aged 15 to 19. After a series of pilot interviews, the research team met with a group of young people who were encouraged to criticise the questions they had been asked. This helped the research team to frame their questions in a way which would be meaningful to the young people.
What methods might a sociologists use to conduct their research The answer to this question all depends on what type of data in the sociologist would like to collect. Some sociologists may want to collect statistics which they can then use to draw conclusions about people’s lives- for example they may want to know how many people live in poverty in the UK. They therefore want to collect quantitative data. They would therefore choose a method which is ”fit for purpose” for achieving this (for example, a questionnaire asking people about how much they are what they own might be appropriate in this case). Once they have collected this data it might be useful for a number of purposes, for example to identify which groups of people are more likely to live in poverty (the old?).
The government might then use this information to improve the situation of these groups. However, other sociologist might want to find people’s attitudes and beliefs. They are therefore collecting qualitative data. For example, a sociologist may be interested in the attitudes of the population to drugs. The information collected may then be used by the government when deciding whether or not to change the laws on drug use. Another sociologist may need to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. They will therefore need to use more than one method which allows them to do this. For example, a sociologist might want to find out why some children perform better at school than other children.
This might be because of a number of factors. It may be because the child comes from a deprived or poor background, the sociologist will therefore need to use methods which identified children in this group (a questionnaire, as we mentioned above, might be the method which is fit for purpose in this situation). However, not all children from poor backgrounds go onto under-achieve at school. The sociologist might think that this is something to do with the attitude of the child’s parents, they might therefore choose to visit the parents of children from deprived backgrounds in order to find out what the parents think of education.
In a study such as this is the sociologist would therefore need to use “mixed methods.” Being able to choose the correct or fit for purpose method in any given situation is therefore extremely important. On your exam you must be able to say which method is likely to work best in a situation which you will be provided with. However, all methods have disadvantages as well as advantages and so you will also need to be able to say what the potential drawbacks of using this method might be. Make sure that you are able to give at least two advantages and to disadvantages to each of the methods below-
Definition A questionnaire is a list of written questions which are completed by a number of respondents. They are normally handed out or posted for self completion but occasionally they are read out to respondents instead. When this occurs they are known as interview questionnaires. There are two main types of questions that can be used in a questionnaire and most questionnaires will include examples of both. Firstly, there are closed questions which are often fixed choice and tick box. The respondent might be presented with a list of possible questions and they have to tick the one which they most agree with. For example, ” what do you think about the amount of violence on television?-far too much; a little too much; about right; not enough.” alternatively, a closed question may be “two-way”, meaning that there are just two answers to choose from. A common option for two-way questions is “yes/no”.
An example of a closed question that could be asked like this is “Will you vote in the general election?- yes/no”. If you want to gather more in-depth answers from your respondents, then open questions will work better. These give no preset answer options and instead allow the respondents to put down exactly what they like in their own words. An example of an open question would be, “Why do you think young people join gangs?” Questionnaires are typically used to find out information from a large number of respondents. They can investigate peoples opinions, attitudes and behaviour and so can be used to analyse trends in society. They are used by a wide range of different researchers- from the government, to market research teams, to students- and are a very popular means of research.
What are the advantages of questionnaires? Questionnaires provide a relatively cheap, quick and efficient way of obtaining large amounts of information from large numbers of people. This is particularly so with the postal questionnaire, which has no geographical restrictions and can be mailed anywhere. Schofield (1965) conducted research into the sexual attitudes and behaviour of young people aged 15 to 19. He states that a 1% sample of this age group would consist of 35,000 young people. It would have been far too expensive to interview such a large sample in person, but a postal questionnaire was more feasible. Another advantage of questionnaires is that they provide quantitative data; that is, data which is in statistical form, e.g. 50% of respondents support the present government; 50% of respondents belong to a trade union.
This is particularly true for close questions. With statistical data, it is possible to measure the strength of a connection between different factors, for example between support for the present government, occupation, and trade union membership. Comparisons between respondents can be made and any differences can be highlighted- it might be found, for example, that members of trade unions are more likely to vote Labour that non-unionised people. As the questions it asks are standardised, a questionnaire can be replicated easily to check for reliability.
This means that second sociologist can repeat the questionnaire to check that the results are consistent. If the results are consistent that they can be seen as reliable or accurate. With postal questionnaires the research is not present with the respondent, so people may be more likely to answer personal or embarrassing questions, for example about their sexual activity. Evaluation of questionnairesWhen using questionnaires the best advice is to keep things simple. As a researcher is not typically present when the research takes place, you’ve got to be sure that everyone taking part can understand the questions being asked of them. So questions need to be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not be too personal in the questions you ask.
Try to keep your own ideas and opinions out of the questions. You do not want to influence the way that your respondents answer. Keep the questionnaires as short as possible, but make sure that you ask enough questions to find out what you need to know. Include a brief introduction to explain the purpose of the questionnaire and always end by thanking your respondents. Think carefully about who you give your questionnaires to, as you will be drawing all of your conclusions from these respondents. What are the disadvantages of questionnaires? Postal questionnaires have particular problems of their own.
The response rate is usually low; those who choose to reply may not be representative or typical of the population under study. If this is the case, it will be impossible to generalise accurately or draw general conclusions from the sample of respondents to the population as a whole. Postal questionnaires generally consist of at least some close questions. With close questions, it is difficult for respondents to develop and elaborate their answers in much depth. This means that the results may not be valid, in that they do not give a true picture of the respondents point of view. If the interviewer is not present, questions may be misunderstood or misinterpreted by the respondent.
Schofield (1965) quotes research jury which written questionnaires were given to girls. One of the questions asked, “Are you a virgin?” One girl wrote, “Not yet.” We can never really be sure that the right person actually completed the poster questionnaires. The completed questionnaire may be the result of a group effort or it may be treated as a joke. Postal questionnaires are also inappropriate in certain populations, for example in a study focusing on homeless or illiterate people. Sometimes questionnaires can be used in structured interviews. These are interviews that are delivered face-to-face. As such, they have problems which arise from the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee.
Definition There are two main types of interview: structured and unstructured, with semistructured falling somewhere in-between. Structured interviews are basically a list of questions that the researcher reads out the respondent in a particular order. They typically contain closed questions and so produce largely quantitative data. What are the advantages of structured interviews? The main advantage is that the response rate for interviews is far higher than for questionnaires, as this is a personal experience and we all know that it is much harder to say “no” to someone than it is to throw a piece of paper in the bin. Also, you can get a lot more depth and details from respondents, allowing you to find out what they really think. All the answers will be in their own words, so there will be no problems with them being obliged to simply select an option that is closest to what they think.
If the respondent does not understand the question properly then the interviewer is able to rephrase and explain it to make sure that the respondent is able to answer. This means that the answers gained are much more valid as the respondent will know what the interviewer means by asking a certain question. Finally, many people believe that respondents are more likely to open up and tell the truth if they have developed a bond with the researcher- again this means that the results are likely to be far more valid and give a true picture of any situation. What are social surveys? A survey is where information is gathered from a group of people in the research population by asking them questions.
Probably the best example of this is an opinion poll. Results of these can be found everywhere, and you will probably have seen them recently during the general election. While surveys help us to see what people think of a subject or issue, it is important that they are given to a cross-section of the population if the results are to be accurate. So factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, social class and religion all need to be accounted for. The problem, however, is that surveys only tell us what somebody thinks at one moment in time. Opinions change from day to day and surveys cannot really show this.
What are the disadvantages of structured interviews? Interview bias: in an interview, interviewees may give answers which they think are socially acceptable or which show them in a positive light. In this way, they might not reveal their true thoughts or behaviour so the results may be invalid. In an interview, the age, gender, ethnicity or appearance of the interviewer may influence the respondent. The respondent may also lie or try to shock the researcher. Postal questionnaires and structured interviews are both based on a pre-set list of standardised questions. The wording, order and focus of the questions are predetermined by the researcher. This assumes that the researcher knows, in advance, what all of the relevant questions are. Critics argue that these techniques impose the researchers prior assumptions about the situation being researched.
In this sense, questionnaires and structured interviews close off rather than open up new and interesting issues and areas. They can be seen as invalid because they do not provide a true picture of what is being studied Unstructured interviews, however, are very different. Instead of having a set of pre-planned questions, the interviewer will just have some ideas and topic areas to cover. This should make the interview less formal and more like a conversation. It is also likely to take place in a relaxed environment where the researcher tries to put the respondent at ease.
This means that the results collected should be valid- in other words they give a true picture of what the respondent really thinks about what they are being asked. What are the advantages of unstructured interviews? Informal interviews have a higher response rate than postal questionnaires. Interviewees have the opportunity to talk at length use the right words and ideas. They can develop their answers, giving a more in-depth account. Informal interviews may also allow the interviewer to compare what he or she observes with what the interviewees says, and thus check the validity of replies. In an informal interview questions can also be rephrased and any misunderstandings clarified. The method allows more complex issues to be examined.
What are the disadvantages of unstructured interviews? Successful informal interviewing needs a skilled and trained interviewer in order, for example, to keep the conversation going and to encourage people to open up. Unstructured interviews may also be affected by interview bias. The interviewee may give a socially desirable response to please the interviewer or may not be totally frank with the interviewer. There is also potential for interviewer bias, where the interviewer may lead or influence the interviewee. If this happens, the results will be invalid. Informal interviews are relatively time-consuming and expensive and therefore fewer can be undertaken, making for smaller samples. We’ve no standardised schedule of questions to follow, it is difficult to replicate the interview in order to check for reliability Evaluation of interviews – The key to being a successful interviewer is being prepared and organised.
You should make sure you have made appointments with all of your respondents before the interview date. Never just turn up, presuming it will be okay to do the research. You will also need to do the followingBook a quiet interview room and organise how you are going to collect your findings. If this involves any recording, make sure you have got permission to do so. Think carefully about how you dress and how you speak and present yourself doing interviews.
Explain at the start what you are doing and why. Consider including some “warm-up” questions so your respondents can settle down and feel more comfortable with you before the proper interview begins. Try to maintain as much by contact as possible and look interested in what is being said. Following up on anything interesting that your respondents tell you, as long as it is relevant to your research, of course! As you can probably imagine, interviews have been used extensively by researchers to investigate attitudes and behaviour and to try to understand what motivates people to act and think as they do. Sue Sharpe (1994), for instance, used in-depth interviews to draw conclusions about what it meant to be a girl in contemporary society. Frosh looked at how masculine identities were constructive for boys aged 11-14 use both individual and group interviews. You will also see and read interviews regularly in the media, for example, with politicians, actors, the police or the latest Big Brother evictee.
What are the advantages of observations? Probably the biggest advantage of observation is that you get to see what is going on with your own eyes. You do not have to rely on anyone else’s memory or opinion, so the data you gather should be more accurate. The big advantage of observing as a non-participant is that you will always be a step apart from your research subjects. This means that you are less likely to be influenced because of particular feelings you may have about members of the group, and that you remain objective Researchers would argue that there are many benefits to using participant observation. The main benefit is that because you are acting as part of the group under study, you are going to really understand things as they do and see things from their point of view. The main advantage of covert observation is that you can be confident that what you are seeing is real and natural behaviour. If the group does not know it is being observed then you can reasonably presume that it is not changing its behaviour. Overt observation also has its good points. It’s a big advantage over covert research is that there is no deception involved-everything is out in the open, so no one feels compromised.