Assess the factors that influence a sociologists choice of research method.
Q) Assess the factors that influence a sociologist’s choice of research method. (25)
There are many different factors that influence sociologist’s choice of research. Sociologists have to firstly decide what particular area or topic they want to study, in order for them to carry out their research. When sociologists choose a topic, there are two types of sources available to the sociologists, they are primary and secondary. Primary is the data collected by the researchers themselves, usually in the form of questionnaires or interviews. Secondary is the data that is already available e.g. official statistics, diaries, historical documents etc. The researcher then has to decide what type of method they will use for their research.
The main research methods flow from two main theoretical approaches to the study of society. These two approaches are known as positivism and interpretivism. Interpretivists believe that, because peoples’ behavior is influenced by the interpretations and meanings they give to social situations, the researcher’s task is to gain an understanding of these interpretations and meanings and how people see and understand the world around them. Sociology should, therefore, use research methods which provide an understanding from the point of view of individuals and groups. The Interpretivists question the research methods used by positivists as, according to them, methods such as surveys and interviews impose a sociologist’s own view of what is important rather than what may be important to the individuals being researched.
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Positivists, on the other hand, believe that reality is stable and can be observed and described from an objective viewpoint, i.e. without interfering with the phenomena being studied. They contend that phenomena should be isolated and that observations should be repeatable. This often involves manipulation of reality with variations in only a single independent variable so as to identify regularities in, and to form relationships between, some of the constituent elements of the social world. Predictions can be made on the basis of the previously observed and explained realities and their inter-relationships.
However, it is not just theoretical issues that influence a sociologist’s choice of research method. It also depends on a range of non-theoretical factors. The first of these are the time and funding available to the researcher. For example large-scale and qualitative research methods are mostly expensive. The availability of existing data on a topic may limit or decide the method of research for the sociologist. Furthermore, the values and beliefs of a researcher may inevitably influence whether he or she thinks issues are important or trustworthy for study or not. Also, some researchers might find interviewing easy, while others might be good at handling a lot of statistics gained from questionnaires or sometimes a sociologist might simply find it easy to fit into a group to observe them whilst others would not.
And, of course, some topics are best matched with some methods. For example, voting would involve the use of large numbers of people, therefore quantitative methods would be used. Quantitative methods involve reliability and are more practical as they take less time, require less commitment from the researcher and are cheaper. Quantitative methods aren’t so easy to quantify. Topics such as deviant behavior would involve qualitative research, because it is a detailed topic, which allows a deeper, and a valid relationship. Qualitative methods involve validity because the research gives depth, but cannot involve large numbers, therefore it can be unreliable.
The researcher, also, needs to decide upon the people to be studied – the sample. It is usually chosen in order to be representative of the particular population to be studied e.g. women over 50. Sampling can save time and money, because the larger population cannot be studied. There are different methods of producing a sample. Random sampling is the simplest. Everyone in the population has an equal chance of being in that sample, and it gets rid of bias sampling. Random sampling involves selecting individuals randomly e.g. selecting every 10th person on a list. Stratified random sampling divides the population into strata. These strata are based on significant variables e.g. social class, gender, and ethnicity. Samples are then randomly drawn from each stratum, and then combined to form the final sample. In Quota sampling, the researcher sets the quota outlining the number of people required, who meet certain criteria. Your sample also plays a deciding factor in the research method you use as you can’t really do a questionnaire on a criminal gang.
A sociologist also has ethical considerations when deciding upon the research method. This refers to the rights and wrongs of various research methods. In participant observation, people may not act normally if they know they are being observed. Therefore is it ethically right to lie to people so that they are unaware that they are being studied? Or when conducting an interview, should the sociologist continue even if the participant is showing signs of hurt or distress? In a questionnaire, is it right to restrict an answer to yes/no if the participant would like to give a more detailed answer? And if in the course of research a sociologist uncovers illegal activity should s/he report this?
Sociologists, in reality, often use more than one method in their study (e.g. use a questionnaire & interviews). They do this for a number of reasons. They might want to get a fuller picture of the situation or might want to produce both statistical and in depth data (both quantitative & qualitative data) or may simply wish to cross check the findings from one method by using another. In fact, if a sociologist had limitless time, money and skill he or she would probably always use a variety of methods so as to minimize the theoretical, practical and ethical problem associated with a single research method.
A-1 (Group 4)