Webb, R., Westergaard, H., Trobe, K., Steel, L., (2008) AS Level Sociology, Brentwood: Napier Press
p. 162 Sociologists use a range of different research methods and sources of data to collect information and test their theories. In this Topic, we shall identify the main methods and sources used in Sociology. We shall also look at the different types of data that these methods produce.
We shall also examine the factors that influence sociologists’ choice of what topic they research, and at some of the main practical, theoretical and ethical (moral) factors that affect their choice of which methods to employ.
Types of data
Sociologists use a wide variety of different methods and sources to obtain data (information or evidence) about society. To make sense of this variety, we can classify them into:
• Primary and secondary sources of data.
• Quantitative and qualitative data.
Primary and secondary sources of data
Primary data is information collected by sociologists themselves for their own purposes. These purposes may be to obtain a first – hand ‘picture’ of a group or society, or to test a hypothesis (an untested theory).
Methods for gathering primary data include:
• Social surveys: these involve asking people questions in a written questionnaire or an interview.
• Participant observation: the sociologist joins in with the activities of the group he or she is studying.
• Experiments: sociologists rarely use laboratory experiments, but they sometimes use field experiments and the comparative method.
A big advantage of using primary data is that sociologists may be able to gather precisely the information they need to test their hypotheses. However, doing so can often be costly and time consuming.
Secondary data is information that has been collected by someone else for their own purposes, but which the sociologist can then use.
Sources of secondary data include:
• Official statistics produced by government on a wide range of issues, such as crime, divorce, health and unemployment, as well as other statistics produced by charities, businesses, churches and other organisations.
• Documents such as letters, diaries, photographs, official (government) reports, novels, newspapers and television broadcasts.
Using secondary data can be a quick and cheap way of doing research, since someone else has already produced the information. However, those who produce it may not be interested in the same questions as sociologists, and so secondary sources may not provide exactly the information that sociologists need.
Quantitative and qualitative data
Quantitative data refers to information in a numerical form. Examples of quantitative data include official statistics on how many girls passed five or more GCSEs or on the percentage of marriages ending in divorce.
Similarly, information collected by opinion polls and market research surveys often comes in the form of quantitative data – for example, on the proportion of the electorate intending to vote for a particular party or how many people take holidays abroad.
Qualitative data, by contrast gives a ‘feel’ for what something is like – for example, what it feels like to get good GCSE results, or for one’s marriage to end in divorce. Evidence gathered by using participant observation aims to give us a sense of what it feels like to be in that person’s ‘shoes. These methods can provide rich descriptions of these people’s feelings and experiences.
Factors influencing choice of method
Given the wide range of methods available, how do we select the right one for our research? Different methods and sources of data have different strengths and limitations and we need to be able to evaluate these when selecting which to use.
We can look at these strengths and limitations in...