Research Methodology

Structuralism and Interpretivism

Structuralism – An approach focusing on the large-scale social structures in which people play defined roles. In structuralism, social roles and actions of people in fulfilling these roles are what is important, not the individuals (macro approach). These theories are used to find social structures that may be hidden from individuals.

E.g.: Emile Durkheim’s work on suicide’s link to society’s organization. He noted that the suicide rate (proportion of the population who committed suicide) yearly didn’t vary in a country but there were differences in suicide rates between countries. He tried to show that social forces (or social causes of action) drove individual actions (like suicide).

E.g. of Social Force: Link between individual and family/religion. Stronger ties = lower suicide rates which is why suicide rates show something about the nature of the society and not the individuals.

Durkheim worked within the positivist framework and looked for causation (strict link between two variables – cause and effect) and correlation (link between variables, but causation can’t be proved).

Positivism – Approach that concentrates on producing quantitative data (usually as statistics).

  • Believes researches should be unbiased for accurate accounts of what actually happened (debate from critics that this is probably impossible as the research is biased from the beginning – they choose to research what they think is important – and positivists argue that even scientists can’t attain objectivity but sociologists should aim to be objective).
  • Favour experiments, social surveys and questionnaires to attain quantitative data.

Structuralists believe that individuals have little freedom or thought and society (and social forces) controls all individuals like puppets.

Interpretivism – An approach that starts at the level of the individual (focusing on small scale phenomena) and usually favouring qualitative methods. Interpretivists believe that individuals are in control as they make and change the societies they live in through their actions – we don’t HAVE to accept the norms and values of the society we are born in and values of societies change continuously as people’s ideas change) – and study individual views on society, social actions, and their identities (how they view themselves).

Humans are active, conscious beings and make choices. Society provides everyone with labels but individuals can choose what labels they consider part of their identity and reject the others. Socially available labels include:

  • Sex and gender identities
  • Ethnic identity
  • Age
  • Social class
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Roles within a family i.e. parent or child, etc
  • Membership of a religious or political organization

Individuals have a choice about how important they consider different aspects of their identity.

E.g.: In case of national identity, some people may be very patriotic, whereas some may not be causing interpretivists to believe that identities are not imposed by society but come from interactions of thoughts and actions amongst individuals.

Interpretivists believe that social reality is a part of social actions and cannot exist separately and focus on WHY people behave as they do. Interpretivists use participant observation and unstructured interviews – as they are more helpful in uncovering the “why” behind social actions.

 Advantages Disadvantages
Positivism/ StructuralismEconomical collection of a large amount of data; Clear theoretical focus for the research from the outset; Greater opportunity for the researcher to retain control of the research process; Easily comparable dataInflexible – direction often cannot be changed once data collection has started; Weak at understanding social processes; Often does not discover the meanings people attach to social phenomena
InterpretivismFacilitates understanding of how and why; Enables the researcher to be alive to changes which occur; Good at understanding social processes; Allows for complexity and contextual factorsData collection can be time consuming; Data analysis is challenging and can be complex; Researcher has to live with the uncertainty that clear patterns may not emerge; Generally perceived as less credible by ‘non-researchers’.

Consensus, Conflict and Perspectives in Sociology

Consensus – Basic agreement on a shared set of values

Conflict Disagreement between groups with different interests

Interpretivists don’t focus on the overall nature of society so the debate of conflict and consensus doesn’t apply to them – but they are criticized about not taking situations such as wealth, power and status (which may affect the situations they study) into account.

Functionalism – Based on a consensus viewpoint, functionalists believe that each part of society has functions that keep the society healthy and stable (like body parts which help the human body – called a biological/organic analogy).

Functionalists study different parts of the society and see how they keep the society stable and harmonious.

E.g. of functionalist viewpoint: Schools give young people the skills they need to survive and work, helping the economy.

Main Sociologist associated – Talcott Parsons

Marxism – Based on a conflict viewpoint that there is a permanent and continuous confliction of interest amongst social classes. They believe the bourgeoisie (owners of wealth and property) have power and wealth, and they exploit and oppress the proletariat (working class/ “wage slaves”). Marxists believe that the proletariats have no choice but to work if they want to survive but are never paid the full value of their work as it is taken by the bourgeoisie as profits.

Marxists study different parts of the society and see how they allow the bourgeoisie to keep their money and power.

NOTE: Modern Marxists are called neo-Marxists.

E.g. of Marxist viewpoint: Schools ensure that some people fail and they think it’s their own fault so that they accept a low position in society.

Main Sociologist associated – Karl Marx

Feminism – Based on a conflict viewpoint that there is a division amongst two sexes. They believe that men control society and have wealth and/or power in all aspects of society – families, work, education, etc. – called patriarchy and research on gender differences. They may be seen as anti-men, but some argue that equality will bring benefits for men as well.

Types of Feminists:

  • Liberal Feminists:
    • Believe that major advances have been made in society
    • Equality can be achieved through further changes, such as new laws
    • View does not emphasize conflict
  • Radical Feminists:
    • Believe that despite advances, societies are fundamentally patriarchal and men still have more power
    • Radical (drastic and fundamental) changes are still needed
    • View emphasizes conflict
  • Marxist Feminists:
    • Believe class and gender, both, work together to produce fundamental divisions in society
    • View emphasizes conflict

E.g. of feminist viewpoint – Girls tend to do better in school than boys, but boys – when they become men – will be in higher paid jobs.

Main Sociologist associated – Anne Oakley

Steps of a Research

  1. Research Aims and Selection of Topic – Identification of a problem that will be studied.
  • Reviewing Existing Evidence – Conducting a literature review (finding out what is already known about the chosen topic) as drawing on the ideas of other sociologists helps to clarify the issues and in making decisions on how to proceed.
  • Hypothesis Setting – Theory or explanation at the start of a research that the research is designed to test.
  • Choosing a Method – Researcher needs to evaluate the type of data he/she wants to collect and which type will give evidence which can prove/disprove the hypothesis.
  • Pilot Study – Small scale test of a piece of the research project to test for problems and ways to improve research methodology. (Doing so saves money and time in the future during larger-scale researches).
  • Sampling Taking selected members of the survey population (all those to whom the findings of the study will apply). Usually taken so that the research is representative (researcher can claim findings apply to all members of the population). To be generalizable, the sample has to be a cross-section of the population.
  • Research is carried out and Data is collected to be analysed
  • Hypothesis is proven true or false and findings are usually published.

NOTE: Sometimes sampling isn’t required. E.g.: Many countries have a census (social survey carried out by the government) to get information about EVERY single person in the country. Censuses collect information about the whole population, not a sample and therefore, have generalizable findings in regards to that country.

Sampling Frames and Types of Sampling

Sampling Frame – A list of members of the (survey) population from which the sample is chosen.

E.g. of sampling frames:

  • Electoral rolls: List of everyone who is registered to vote along with their address. Problem: wouldn’t contain anyone below the age of 18 (however is ideal for researches concerning only adults).
  • Telephone directories: Give addresses as well as telephone numbers and are usually easily available. Problem: list only one member of the household, do not provide information about other members at the same address, do not list people without telephones or those who have chosen not to be included.
  • School registers: Lists of children in school with information about their gender, age, etc. Problem: available only to genuine researchers, require permission from those in authority (such as headteacher).

Types of Sampling

  1. Random Sampling – Everyone in the sampling frame has an equal chance of being chosen. (E.g.: Can be done by drawing names from a hat). Random samples are not always representative.
  2. Stratified Sampling – Sampling frame is divided into categories (e.g.: boys and girls) and then, a random sample is taken from the categories. (AKA Stratified random sample)
  3. Systematic Sampling – Regular pattern in choosing the sample. Not random as other names in the frame have no chance of being chosen.
  4. Cluster Sampling – For survey populations spread over large areas, certain areas are chosen as sampling frames from which random samples are taken.
  5. Opportunity Sampling – Taking people who are available at the particular moment as the sample. (E.g.: Researcher stopping people on the street and asking them questions. Not random as people not present do not have a chance to get chosen and researcher has a hand in who to choose.
  6. Quota Sampling – Finding a certain, pre-decided number of people who fit certain characteristics required by the researcher.
  7. Snowball Sampling – Finding one respondent and getting them to put you in touch with one or more others.

NOTE: Last three sampling methods do not have a sampling frame.

Ethical Issues in Implementing a Research Strategy

  1. The participants should not be harmed – includes, but not limited to, physical and mental harm. Participants should not feel distressed, angry or upset. May happen if they’re asked about something that disturbs them. Can be protected by confidentiality
  2. The participants’ informed consent must be obtained respondent must agree to take part after fully understanding what is involved (purpose of the research, when and where the findings may be available and what they may be used for). Participants reserve the right to withdraw and the researcher shouldn’t try to persuade them in doing otherwise.
  3. Researcher should not invade the participants’ privacy – Participants reserve the right to refuse to answer particular questions as they may invade their privacy. E.g.: questions regarding their earnings or religious beliefs.
  4. The participants should not be deceived – Researcher may present their research as something different from what it is by lying or not fully disclosing the true nature of the research in order to get the participant to answer more naturally. If deception is used, the participant needs to be debriefed at the end of the research (told about the true nature of the study).
  5. Participant’s name, address, etc should be kept anonymous and confidential (it shouldn’t be possible to trace a particular individuals’ answers from the published findings.

Research Methodologies in Sociological Investigations

Self-Completion/ Postal Questionnaires

Key Features:

  • An example of quantitative data.
  • It is a primary source of data.
  • Involves a pre-set of questions that the respondent answers and returns to researcher.
  • Questions will most likely be ‘closed’ questions.
  • Answers will be limited to such responses as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sometimes’, ‘unsure’, or may take the form of factual information,
  • e.g. how many rooms do you have in your house?


  • Can cover a wide sample. E.g.: by selecting from postal code areas.
  • Relatively cheap to administer – cost of stamps, questionnaire publication, etc.
  • Low cost as it can cover a large number of people for small amount of money.
  • Only needs minimum involvement of researcher and hence, cannot influence answers given. Time only needed in drawing up questionnaire, sending it and analysing results.
  • Responses are usually easy to quantify because of questionnaire construction. This is especially the case with pre-set questions.
  • Good for obtaining factual information.
  • Respondents may like the anonymity of a postal questionnaire and therefore may be more honest in giving answers to questions.
  • Respondents can complete the questionnaire when convenient.
  • High in reliability.


  • Can get a poor response rate because people forget to send it back or lack motivation or incentive to do so.
  • Postal questionnaires are usually limited in terms of length of questionnaire and type of questions that are asked. If too lengthy or too complex then respondents will not take time to complete it.
  • No way of exploring issues.
  • Respondents are unable to clarify any points they are unsure about.
  • Relies on respondent’s ability to read and write.
  • Relies on respondent’s ability to understand the questions.
  • Low validity.

Examples of use:

  • Attitude surveys. E.g.: Research into TV violence.
  • Lifestyle surveys. E.g.: Research to find out people’s consumption habits.

Structured Interviews

Key Features:

  • Quantitative data.
  • It is a primary source of data.
  • Carried out face-to-face by a researcher.
  • Researcher asks a set of pre-set questions.
  • Questions will tend to be ‘closed’ so as to demand a limited response.


  • Ensures a good response rate, as questions have to be answered there and then.
  • If questions are pre-set then the results are easy to quantify.
  • Good for gaining factual information.
  • Respondents would not have to be able to read or write to take part in any study.
  • Respondent can ask for clarification if they have not understood something.
  • Researcher may be able to build a rapport with the participant, gaining trust and hence getting more valid answers.


  • Can be costly as it involves face-to-face contact.
  • Need the researcher to be there to carry out the interview.
  • Can be time-consuming for researcher and respondent.
  • If pre-set questions are used these cannot be explored (only clarified if something is not understood).
  • People may not answer honestly. This may because they are too embarrassed, or they give an answer that they think the researcher wants to hear – social desirability.
  • Researcher may influence the answers given through their own social characteristics or through interaction with the participant.
  • High in reliability.


  • Socio-economic status and political views.
  • Ethnicity and attitudes to ‘stop and search’ policing.


Key Features:

  • A method for obtaining quantitative data.
  • It is a primary source of data.
  • Used to gain statistical information that can be used to represent wider populations
  • Involves a pre-set of questions that respondents answer.
  • Questions will most likely be ‘closed’ questions and will be standardised – every respondent is asked the same questions.
  • Most answers will be limited to such responses as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sometimes’, ‘unsure’, or may take the form of factual information, but some scope for open answers.


  • Efficient and practical way of collecting information from a large number of respondents.
  • Very large samples and coverage made possible.
  • Statistical calculations can be made to measure reliability, validity, and statistical significance. Amenable to the collection of a wide range of information
  • Relatively easy to administer format allows researcher to focus on directly relevant information.


  • Reliant on respondents being honest, motivated, able to respond and remembering accurately. Hawthorne effects.
  • Not appropriate for studying complex social behaviour where an academic understanding may be required. Results may be superficial and anecdotal.
  • Answers may lack depth and may not adequately reflect qualitative aspects.
  • Although sample is often randomly gathered, respondents are normally selected, which reduces reliability and validity.


  • Often used to study modes of behaviour, values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Usage in real life: UK carries out a census every 10 years to gather statistical information about everyone living there.

Visual Resources:

Key features:

  • Often takes the form of content analyses.
  • A method for obtaining quantitative data in the form of statistics.
  • Often involves systematic and in-depth examination of a film, documentary or newspapers.
  • Involves categorising an aspect or incidence of a particular behaviour or use of language and recording frequency of occurrence.


  • Allows in-depth analysis of materials not normally subject to such detailed analysis.
  • Cheap and easy to conduct.
  • Makes use of readily available household equipment.
  • Reliable in nature.
  • Does not involve people as respondents so avoids arising ethical issues.


  • May be time-consuming and pedantic to conduct.
  • Information may only be applicable to the resources under investigation.
  • Information may be difficult to qualify.
  • Difficult to allocate different materials to different categories.
  • Quantitative data produced – doesn’t show correlation or causation, why a media text is the way it is, or how it affects the audience.


  • Studies of how stereotypes are reinforced by characters in a TV drama such as the BBC 1 programme River City.
  • Studies of TV news coverage of current events.

Usage in real life: UK’s department of development researched into the way developing countries were reported on British television by recording all main news programmes on the five world-news channels for three months. The findings showed the developing world was underreported and the coverage was negative – focused on wars, disasters and death. Visits to these countries by famous Americans or Europeans and wildlife stories were also reported but nearly half of all 137 developing countries were never reported. There were also differences in coverage between channels.

Official Statistics:

Key Features:

  • Quantitative Data
  • Secondary source as the researcher is using existing data.
  • Statistics used would be those gathered by government, police, health authorities, etc.
  • Often used to analyse trends in social behaviour.
  • Statistics must be treated with care, as all statistics require interpretation.


  • Good for quantitative studies. E.g.: How many crimes are reported each year.
  • Can save researcher a lot of time as information has already been gathered.
  • Low cost.
  • May be a good indicator of a general trend of a particular social behaviour.
  • Some statistics gathered from a wide representation of the population.


  • May be biased because of the way information was gathered. The researcher has no control over this.
  • People may lie in official statistics. For example, it is estimated that 1 million people did not complete Census forms in 1991 because of Poll Tax issues.
  • It may be difficult to use statistics for comparison between different time periods. This is because indicators and criteria may change between time periods. For example, statistics on socio-economic status.


  • Trends in violent crimes.
  • Socio-economic status and health care.

Qualitative Interviews – Unstructured, Semi-structured, Focus group and group interviews

Key Features:

  • Qualitative Data
  • Primary Source
  • Researcher has a number of broad topics/general areas to cover with interviewee
  • Questions would be ‘open’ questions.
  • Respondent is allowed to elaborate on any of the areas covered.


  • Allows the researcher to explore issues in an in-depth way.
  • The researcher is not restricted to pre-set questions.
  • The researcher can clarify points and explore particular points.
  • Good for ascertaining meaning, feelings, motives, etc.
  • Detailed and valid data on point of view of respondents, who can say what they really think.


  • Can lose track of the purpose of the interview.
  • The interviewee may digress into irrelevant information.
  • Can be difficult to quantify results, as much of the data may be descriptive.
  • Can be time-consuming for the researcher and respondent.
  • High cost because of high researcher involvement.
  • May be difficult to compare answers given by different individuals.
  • Not reliable as they are difficult to replicate.
  • Respondents may be affected by interviewer bias or interviewer effect.


  • Studies that explore causes of marital breakdown.
  • In-depth studies of poverty and how it affects

Usage in real life: Caroline Gatrell carried out 20 in-depth unstructured interviews with women and 18 with their male partners called Hard Labour in 2004. Her findings showed that the women faced more problems than men and the laws on equality weren’t very effective. There was a lot of discrimination causing women to have to find complex ways to balance work and motherhood. The women were willing to talk openly increasing the validity of the finding but the small sample was not generalizable

Non-participant Observation

Key Features:

  • Qualitative Method
  • Primary Source
  • The researcher observes the social behaviour of others
  • Records what he/she observes either at the time or as soon as possible after the event.
  • The researcher has to take what she/he sees at face value and interpret what is observed.


  • Good for describing ‘natural’ behaviour – if the individual/group being observed is unaware of the researcher’s presence.
  • Good for gaining an in-depth picture of social behaviour.


  • Needs a high input from the observer in terms of time.
  • Costs are high, as researcher needs to be there all the time.
  • Difficult to quantify behaviour.
  • No way of checking details or exploring issues further.
  • There may be bias on the part of the researcher in what he/she sees.
  • Ethical considerations related to individuals/groups being observed without their knowledge.


  • Social behaviour in public places, e.g.: Racial prejudice on public transport or sharing behaviour of children in playground at school.

Longitudinal Studies

Key Features:

  • Carried out periodically over long periods of time
  • Researcher usually uses same group of respondents – panel studies – and the panel members are interviewed on a regular basis


  • Shows how people’s lives change over time
  • Possible to see what factors may have brought about a change in people’s lives over time
  • As respondents are committed, high chance data collected is valid


  • Commitment of time, money and effort required from researcher for a long time
  • Inevitable drop out (sample attrition) as people die/move away/ do not want to participate.
  • May change the participants – Hawthorne effect – as they may start thinking about the aspects of their life they are questioned about more and may act differently as a result.


  • British Social Attitudes survey
  • British Crime survey

Usage in real life: The National Child Development Study followed the life of 17,000 children in the UK all born in one week in March 1958. There were eight follow up surveys when the children were 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46 and 50 years old and the data collected was used to analyse the importance of class and education in a person’s life. NCDS data showed sons of professional fathers were more likely to get professional jobs than those of working-class parents. Also, working-class children who achieved A-level qualifications were more likely to move up the social scale than those who left with a few IGCSE.

Participant Observation

Key Features:

  • Qualitative Data
  • Primary Source
  • Researcher becomes a participant in the group/situation he/she wishes to observe.
  • Researcher’s presence will probably be unknown to those being observed or may only be known to one or two key individuals.
  • There are three stages to participant observation – ‘getting in’, ‘staying in’, and ‘getting out’.


  • Gives an in-depth picture of social behaviour.
  • Can give a realistic picture of social behaviour.
  • Is good for exploring issues of feelings, meanings, interactions and processes.
  • High in validity


  • High involvement of researcher in terms of time – Researcher has to be in the situation.
  • Costs are high because of high involvement of the researcher.
  • Can be biased.
  • ‘Hawthorne effect’ – the presence of the researcher may change or influence the situation or the behaviour of those he/she is studying.
  • Can be dangerous – For example, participant observation into gang behaviour.
  • Can be biased because the researcher becomes part of what he/she is studying.
  • Difficult to quantify results – Data tends to be descriptive.
  • Difficult to record – If the researcher is part of a group, writing down details may be impossible.
  • May be difficult to generalize findings – Findings may only apply to a particular situation or group.
  • Reliability is low
  • For covert observation, research needs to have characteristics allowing them to “fit in” the group.
  • May lose objectivity if they come to identify strongly with the group
  • Has to spend a lot of their time and energy maintaining their cover rather than gathering information initially – applicable only for covert observation


  • Behaviour of drug users.
  • Classroom behaviour.

Usage in real life: Sudhir Venkatesh researched lives of people living in a poor area of Chicago and by chance, with support of  J.T., the leader of Black Kings gang was shown how the gang and social life in the area worked which was very different from what was expected by the media and other accounts by outsiders. He found that the gang played an important role in life of the area, providing support to those in need and punishing people whose actions harmed others in the community.

Personal Documents:

Key Features:

  • Qualitative data.
  • Secondary source.
  • Uses existing data such as diaries, letters, personal accounts.
  • May be found in personal collections, published form, government archives, libraries or museums.
  • Provides evidence for in-depth accounts, case studies, or to give a historical perspective to a particular study.


  • Can give insight to a particular situation or period in time.
  • Good for looking at society from a particular individual’s point of view.
  • May be the only source of information about a particular society, event, etc.
  • May support other evidence. For example, statistics on disease in the early part of the century may be supported by personal documents from physicians of the time.


  • May be biased. For example, the author may be aware that someone would read his/her account.
  • If the person is no longer alive, then there is no way of checking his/her account.
  • Personal accounts only say what the person wanted others to know – they do not tell us what is missed out.
  • If some documents are in private collections it may be difficult to get permission to use in research. This may also be the case with government documents that may be subject to laws regarding confidentiality and time lapses before disclosure.
  • They may be subject to data protection legislation.
  • The authenticity of some documents may be questioned if authenticity cannot be proved. For example, the case of the ‘Hitler diaries’ that proved to be a hoax.


  • Studies showing the changing role of women throughout the centuries.
  • Studies that examine changing social structures, e.g. feudalism /capitalism.

Case Studies:

Key Features:

  • A method for obtaining qualitative data
  • Often involves systematic and in-depth examination of a single event or case over time.
  • Involves detailed study, data collection, analysis of information and reporting of results.
  • Often carried out to glean specific information and understanding rather than to test hypotheses.


  • Allows in-depth analysis and understanding of particular cases.
  • May generate ideas and hypotheses for future research.
  • May complement the use of other methods such as interviews and observation.


  • Very time-consuming and demanding of researcher.
  • Information may only be applicable to the case under investigation.
  • Information may be difficult to collate.
  • Information may be difficult to quantify.


  • Studies tend to be of individuals, events.



  • Allows researcher to support quantitative data with qualitative providing a research with reliability and validity
  • Can be used to cross-reference researcher’s interpretations to other data collected to check for accuracy.
  • Can provide a balance between methods.


  • Using several methods is time consuming and expensive
  • Researcher needs to be skilled in various research methods
  • Positivist and interpretivist researches are based on very different ideas, so it may be difficult to combine them

Types of Data

Quantitative Data

  • Tends to deal with numerical data
  • Low involvement of researcher, e.g. in terms of time and face-to-face contact
  • High number of people being researched
  • Examples include: postal questionnaires, structured interviews, surveys, official statistics

Qualitative data

  • Tends to deal with descriptive data
  • High participation by researcher in terms of time, face-to- face contact
  • Low number of people being researched
  • Examples include: in-depth interviews, non-participant observation, participant observation, case studies, personal documents, visual resources

Sources of Data

Primary sources – This is when new data is gathered by the researcher

This would include:

  • participant observation,
  • non-participant observation,
  • case studies,
  • structured and unstructured interviews,
  • postal questionnaires
  • surveys

Secondary sources – This is when the researcher uses existing sources of information

This would include:

  • official statistics
  • non-personal documents,
  • visual resources