Sociologists – Sociological Research Methods (Part 2)

In the previous article, we discussed the Quantitative research method used by positivists. Today we shall look at the other side of the coin.

Qualitative Research Tradition:

Interpretivists or anti-positivists refer to sociologists who choose the qualitative research tradition. This research method is more commonly known as a field experiment. This method’s main objective is to unlock the subjective state of mind of people and detect meanings and motives behind people’s behaviors. It is about going into people’s natural environment to study their natural behaviors in their social environments. Researchers also employ the ‘inductive model’, where they start with the research and testing and then end up by formulating a hypothesis based on the data collected.

According to this methodology, research has to be:

  • Valid: Research and information that is firsthand genuine, accurate, and reflect true picture of social occurrences.
  • Empathy: Research where the researcher puts himself in the shoes of the individuals being studied and tries to understand their behaviors from their point of view.

Qualitative Data

Qualitative data can be defined as data that is in a descriptive and non-numerical form. Unlike quantitative data based only on facts and figures, qualitative data refers to data in words that involve personal emotions and opinions.

Methods Chosen by Interpretivists:

  • Participant Observation
  • Unstructured Interviews
  • Focus Groups

#1. Participant Observation

Participant observation is a process where researchers go into natural and social settings to observe and study individuals’ behaviors. Sociologists collect data by joining a group, living among the subjects and observing them.

There are two types of Participant Observation:

– Covert Participant Observation

– Overt Participant Observation

Covert Participant Observation

This process refers to when the researcher hides his or her real identity as researcher and studies people in a group. This means that people are not aware that they are being studied. One famous example where this method was used was in Laud Humphreys’ study, ‘The Tearoom Trade’ which involved studying homosexual encounters in public places.

This research method has some benefits:

  • There is no Hawthorne Effect, which means that as people do not know that they are being studied, they will behave generally without changing their behaviors and attitudes. This is beneficial to the researcher who can collect accurate information.
  • As the sociologist’s identity is concealed, he or she can collect additional and unexpected information. For instance, Ditton, a researcher, collected additional information about the theft of bread among workers during working hours.

What about its drawbacks?

  • In covert participant observation, the researcher might need to participate in illegal and immoral activities as he is considered a member of the group and not a researcher. For instance, if you study and form part of a group that steals cars, you will have no other choice than to participate in their illegal activities during your research.
  • Once you become a member of a group or institution, it might become difficult to leave. For instance, during his research as a person with a mental health condition, Erving Goffman, an American Sociologist, could not leave the mental asylum. Poor him!
  • As the researcher has not revealed his or her real identity, that person cannot take notes openly and instead, one must rely on his or her memory. And there is often there is the risk of memory distortion. A funny fact is how Ditton had to go to the toilet and write information on toilet paper to remember every detail.

Overt Participant Observation

This is the process when the researcher observes and studies a group by revealing his true identity and asking the group’s permission. Here, people are aware that they are being studied.

Some benefits of this method:

  • Compared to covert participant observation, this method is ethically correct as the researcher asks the gatekeeper’s consent before studying the group.
  • The researcher will not ‘go native’. This implies that the sociologist will not forget his research’s purpose and will act professionally towards the group.
  • Here, the group members will not force the researcher to participate in their illegal and immoral activities.

The downsides of overt participant observation:

  • There is the Hawthorne Effect! What type of person will show his or her illegal activities in front of a researcher? Out of fear, people will tend to change their behavior, which will affect the research’s validity.
  • Even though asking permission might seem the correct way to carry out the research, however, many closed groups or sects will never give a researcher the right to study them.

#2. Unstructured Interviews

Similar to structured interviews, this refers to a face-to-face conversation between the researcher and the subjects. However, there are some differences which are: questions are not prearranged and the interviewer can modify or add questions to the interview.

#3. Focus Groups

A group interview consisting of two or more people where the sociologist asks questions is called a focus group. It involves planned discussions and questions created to prompt group communication. In a focus group, the researcher might play a less active role than the other group members.

Among the two research traditions, which one do you think is the most effective one? Please share your comments!