Research Methods in Sociology (With Definition and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 29, 2022

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Sociology is a research-based discipline where results rely on carefully gathered data and rigorous documentation. Sociologists study society and social behaviour using a variety of methods. Knowing the methods sociologists use can help you understand how these professionals arrive at their findings of human behaviour and society in general. In this article, we define and discuss common research methods in sociology.

Read more: What Does a Sociologist Do?

Research methods in sociology

Here are some of the commonly used research methods in sociology:

Surveys

A survey is a research method sociologists use to gather data from respondents by asking a series of questions about their opinions or human behaviour. Typically, surveys gather different types of information, such as how consumers feel about a product or how voters think about a particular candidate. While surveys may not be effective in understanding how people behave in social situations, they do provide insight into people's thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about a particular social phenomenon. Surveys can also track behaviours such as sleeping or driving habits and factual data like labour force participation, earnings, and educational levels.

Social researchers design surveys to reach a specific group of people, such as college students, product consumers, or service users. As it's almost impossible to survey every individual in a target group, most researchers choose to survey a small subset of the population called a sample. They then use this sample to represent the total population. The representative nature of a sample can have a huge influence on the success of a survey. Two primary methods of data collection in surveys are interviews and questionnaires.

  • Interview: An interview is a one-on-one dialogue between a researcher and a respondent. In an interview-based survey, the researcher asks the respondents a series of questions. Respondents have the freedom to answer as they wish without reference to predetermined choices.

  • Questionnaire: A questionnaire is a survey tool that contains questions relevant to a research problem. The respondents select the answer that best represents their opinion from a list of predetermined choices. A respondent completes a questionnaire by themselves, either online or on a physical document.

Related: What Are Interview Questionnaires? Definition and Tips for Answering Them

Participant observation

Participant observation entails a researcher joining a group of people and participating in daily life as a member of that group. During this time, they generate detailed notes about what they observe. Some researchers conduct overt participant observation in which the study's participants are aware of the researcher's presence. Others may use covert participant observation where the participants are unaware of the study. This method can produce effective results when the researcher blends seamlessly into the target population as participants are less likely to adapt their behaviour.

Participant observation is useful for gathering evidence by observing how people interact in a specific setting and allows sociologists to experience a particular social aspect. Through this method, researchers get first-hand information about a trend, behaviour, culture, or institution. For instance, a sociologist can use participant observation to study whether drivers at a busy intersection are likely to break traffic rules. Or a researcher can use participant observation to study how college students spend their free time between lessons.

Secondary analysis

While sociologists frequently conduct original research, they also contribute to the discipline by analyzing secondary data from historians, anthropologists, economists, and earlier sociologists. A secondary analysis looks at data other researchers have gathered. Sociologists can also use documents such as periodicals, newspapers, magazines, government publications, and other accessible public records from any period. Sociologists frequently reinterpret findings in new and different ways from that of the original author.

Researchers sometimes use this method if they lack sufficient resources to conduct another type of research. Researchers can also use secondary analysis to link the observations of several researchers in a single study to support a new hypothesis, devise a new perspective on an earlier study, or unveil a new direction for future research. Using publicly available data can save time while adding depth to a study. For instance, sociologists can obtain government data on fertility and mortality rates to predict future population growth in a province, territory, or an entire country.

Related: 40 Jobs for People With a Sociology Degree

Experiments

Sociologists can test social theories by conducting an experiment, which involves looking at relationships to test a hypothesis. In sociological experiments, a researcher selects individuals with similar characteristics, such as age, income, or education level and divides them into two groups, the experimental group, and the control group. The researcher then exposes the experimental group to a particular intervention but leaves the control group untouched. At the end of the intervention, the researcher tests for any differences between the groups.

Experiments can be either lab-based or field-based. Lab experiments take place in a controlled environment where a researcher manipulates some aspects to observe any reactions. Field experiments take place in a participant's natural setting, where the researcher doesn't interfere or intervene in the phenomenon under observation. Lab and field experiments can test if-then propositions. For example, a sociologist can use experiments to compare the effectiveness of different teaching methods by observing the test results of learners in both experimental and control groups.

Case studies

A case study involves studying a single phenomenon to understand the subject in depth. Using the case study research method, a researcher obtains relevant information from different sources, such as retrieving archival documents, conducting interviews, and engaging in overt and covert observation. The case study approach is effective when studying a single unique case and is a valuable tool for studying the behaviour of either a specific social group or individuals. For example, case studies are important in sociological studies of child development and socialization. For instance, researchers may study how children develop when separated from the human population.

While findings from a case study may not necessarily apply to the larger population, the results provide an in-depth understanding of a particular topic. For example, you could use the case study approach to study the effect of migration laws on refugee populations. The findings of such a study can enable researchers and policymakers to understand the plight of refugees better and use this knowledge to inform future laws and policies.

Related: Types of Variables in Statistics and Research (With FAQs)

Longitudinal studies

Longitudinal research methods in sociology involve collecting information from the same respondents over a certain period. As the researcher gathers additional information from the research participants, they can detail how the study variables shift over the study period. In longitudinal studies, it's beneficial if intervals between data collection are consistent to enable proper comparison and tracking.

For instance, a sociologist studying how effective an offender rehabilitation program is may collect data from a sample of former offenders every three years for a nine-year period. This data may reveal insights about offenders who have reverted to crime, what caused the relapse, and what factors contributed to some former offenders refraining from crime after release from corrective institutions. In addition, data from longitudinal studies may inform researchers and policymakers about what constitutes an effective rehabilitation program.

Correlational research

Correlational research involves establishing a relationship between variables. A sociologist can undertake correlational research to determine the nature and degree of a relationship between factors such as attitude, beliefs, behaviours, and social characteristics. To discover correlations, a sociologist can conduct surveys, interviews, case studies, and use observational research methods. Correlations can either be positive, negative, or non-existent. In a positive correlation, values move in the same direction, whereas with a negative correlation, the variables move in opposite directions.

A sociologist can use the correlation research method to determine the relationship between children's academic performance and parents' income levels. By studying a representative sample of children and determining their parents' economic status, a sociologist can establish whether the two variables correlate. It's important to note correlation doesn't mean there is a cause-effect relationship between the study variables.

Read more: Example of Positive Correlation (And How to Calculate It)

Ethnography

Ethnography is the systematic study of people from a social perspective and explores cultural values. Ethnographies involve the observation of an entire community objectively. An ethnographic study's core focus is on how subjects perceive their social status and their understanding of themselves in relation to their community. For instance, an ethnographic study may look at a rural community, a village, a monastery, or an amusement park. These places have a border, and within those boundaries, people live, work, study, and vacation. Because people are there for a specific reason, they act in certain ways and adhere to certain cultural norms.

For instance, a sociologist can use this method to study how women in a particular community live and work. By spending time in the community, a researcher can establish where women work, their primary responsibilities, how much they earn, how they spend their income, and many other aspects of women's lives. An ethnographer dedicates a set amount of time to study different aspects of a chosen location, detailing as much information as possible.

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