More of our revision materials for methodology. Sorry it’s appearing in rather random order. I will see if we can get a whole handout posted up somewhere.
Today - the basics and sampling.
Research Methods – The Basics
Research methods are a very interesting topic area and they underpin everything sociologists do. The best sociology (OK, just my opinion) is empirical (fancy word meaning based on research) as well as theoretical, though there are sociologists who, reasonably enough (just my view) concentrate heavily on theory.
This is what we call the stuff that sociologists gather – the information, the research findings.
Quantitative vs. Qualitative
There are two main types of sociological research. Quantitative sociology is all about quantifying and measuring, and therefore, not surprisingly it focuses on quantitative methods like questionnaires and surveys and data which can be turned into charts and tables. In other words, statistics!
Qualitative sociology uses methods which focus on examining how people think and feel about all sorts of things; it therefore uses methods like observation or interviews to examine how actors (the sociologists’ word for people!) think and feel and the reasons they give for their actions. E.g. think of all those studies you will undoubtedly have looked at in education – Paul Willis – Learning to Labour, Ball’s Beachside Comprehensive, Hargreaves – Social Relations in a Secondary School, or labelling theory in crime and deviance.
Primary and Secondary Data
There are two important categories of data which sociologists collect. Primary data are findings which a sociologist has collected himself, from scratch. If a sociologist does a questionnaire or some interviewing, the data they get, no matter how useful it may or may not be, is primary data – no one else has it, except that sociologist.
Secondary data is ‘second-hand’ – just like secondary sources in history, if you did that for GCSE. So if a sociologist conducts further analysis on data collected by someone else (maybe for a different purpose) that is secondary data.
If a sociologist takes a broadly positivist approach (see below) they may well gather data by identifying a population they want to study and then taking a sample from that population. A sample is a small number of individuals drawn from a larger population and is supposed to be representative of the bigger population. There are a few terms to take careful note of here though:
A population = in statistical terms the population is the larger group from which a sample is drawn. So if a sociologist is studying secondary school students in the UK, the population would be all pupils in UK secondary schools and a smaller, more manageable sample would be drawn from that group of people.
Sampling frame = a list which will contain the names (sometimes addresses, contact details, other data) of a population. A sampling frame is usually a document of some sort – a school register, the electoral roll, a list of patients at a doctor’s surgery.
In the example given above – UK secondary schools – there probably isn’t one single document which could be used as a sampling frame. However, a sociologist could take a sample of students from the registers of all schools. In reality, this example would be impractical – the numbers would be far too big, but you can get the basic idea of what a sampling frame is and what it needs to do.
There are many different types of samples and sampling: random, stratified random, opportunity sample, quota sample, snowballing, to name a few. I won’t say anymore about these though - easy enough to check up for yourself.