Tag Archives: Sociologists

The study of sociology is beneficial for both the individual and society. However, before embarking upon a research, it is evident that sociologists have to decide what they are going to study. But, this choice can be affected by several factors which you will discover below.

1.Values

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The researcher’s values and beliefs will definitely play some role in the choice of the research topic. Sociologists are unlikely to devote considerable time and energy to issues that they think are unimportant or trivial. For example, John Hagan’s values led him to consider financial crime as a significant problem in contemporary societies while Paul Heelas believed that the New Age movement and alternative spirituality were worthy of attention.

2.Developments in Sociology and in Society

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What a researcher believes is important may be influenced by developments within the discipline of sociology or developments in the wider society. Remember that sociology is a profession as well as a discipline and many sociologists wish to advance their careers by criticizing or developing the work of fellow sociologists or by trying to resolve some key sociological issues. This might explain why so many sociologists have followed Durkheim in studying suicide while many other areas of social life have been comparatively neglected and ignored.

Similarly, risk has become an important topic of debate because of the influence of Ulrich Beck’s theories. If you take a look at the sociology of religion, you will notice how apparent examples of religious revival such as the revival of Islam and the New Christian Right have been studied partly in order to evaluate the concept of secularization.

When there are many changes in society, sociologists are likely to study them. Did you know that sociology was born around the 19th century, largely out of concern about the changes brought by the industrial revolution?

Moreover, in recent years, sociologists have studied apparent social changes in terms of theories and concepts such as postmodernism and high modernity and have turned their attention to environmental issues, with increasing concern about global warming.

Specific government policies can also stimulate research. For example, the concern with markets and competition in the contemporary sociology of education and the increasing concern with human rights in the light of the “war on terrorism” globally and anti-terrorist legislation in the UK.

3.Funding

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A very important factor affecting the choice of research topic is the availability or otherwise of grants to finance the research. The people and the organizations who hold the purse strings can act as gatekeepers – people who decide whether researchers are able to carry out research or not. Research funds may come from charitable foundations, from industries or from the government.

Small-scale research may require little funding but major research projects can be very expensive and the sort of research that gets done can be very strongly influenced by those who hold the purse strings.

For instance, Tim May claimed that “there are periodic attacks on the legitimacy of research that runs counter to government expectation.” This means that governments may be actively hostile to research that attacks their policies or advocates an agenda different from their own.

Moreover, industrial providers of research grants tend to want some practical benefits from the money they spend, so research into organizations and work is most likely to receive funding from this source.

4.Practicalities

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Other practical difficulties apart from money can affect the topics chosen by sociologists for their research. The availability of existing data on a topic or the practicality of collecting data will both have an influence. For example, it is evident that Durkheim chose to study suicide partly because statistics were available from many European countries.

Some important groups in the population such as senior politicians and directors of top companies, rarely form the basis of detailed studies. This is partly due to their unwillingness to reveal their activities to sociological scrutiny.

Which factor do you think has the most significant impact on the choice of research? Please share your comments!

 

 

There have been many concepts and methodologies in the world of social science and today, we will discover one of them: critical social science!

The Nature of Critical Social Science

Critical social science embraces all those approaches in sociology that aim to be critical of society in order to facilitate social change. Criticism of some sort is present in most social sciences, but according to some of its advocates, critical social science goes beyond simply criticizing. According to Lee Harvey, critical social science’s key characteristic is that “critique is an integral part of the process.”

In fact, a critical research process involves more than appending critique to an accumulation of ‘fact” or “theory” gathered via some mechanical process, rather it denies the objective status of knowledge.

This approach does not believe that you can simply discover the truth by using the appropriate quantitative or qualitative methods. Instead, it assumes that “knowledge is a process” in which you move towards understanding the social world. Knowledge is never completed and never finished because the social world is constantly evolving.

Furthermore, knowledge can never be separated from values. As members of the social world, researchers’ values and those of society are bound to influence them. However, their aim should be to try to get beyond society’s dominant values to try to see what is going on beneath the surface.

Critical social scientists tend to believe that the way society appears to its members can be misleading. Things that are taken for granted need to be seen in a different light so that the true values underlying them can be revealed. Once this has been done, it may be possible to use the new knowledge to transform the society.

Primary Features of Critical Social Science 

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  • Abstract Concepts and Ideology:

 Critical social research uses abstract concepts such as housework but goes beyond simply carrying out empirical studies based on such concepts. Instead of just measuring who does housework tasks, critical research tries to examine how such concepts relate to wider social relationships. Housework is seen as a work relationship rather than as simply a set of tasks to be performed. In this way critical research tries to get beneath the surface of social reality. This involves trying to overcome the dominant ideology or ideologies.

  • Totality, Structure and History:

Each abstract concept and particular belief cannot be examined in isolation. According to Harvey, it is necessary to relate each bit of a society to a totality. For instance, he says: “Totality refers to the view that social phenomena are interrelated and form a total whole.” 

Critical social scientists see societies as possessing structures. Structures constrain or limit what people can do but also make social actions possible. For example, per the traditional Marxist view, the capitalist societies’ structures make it difficult for members of the working class to set up their own businesses to compete with big elite companies. On the other hand, these same structures make it possible for capitalists to make substantial profits.

Structures, though, are not static and can change. Studies of society, therefore, need to be related to particular historical contexts. One needs to examine how particular societies have changed over time in order to understand them at any specific point in time. Thus, studies of the working class need to take into account how the economy and the labor market have changed since the advent of capitalism.

  • Praxis:

 Critical social research is not just a theoretical activity but it is also a form of praxis. For example, Harvey defines praxis as “practical reflective activity. Praxis does not include “instinctive” or “mindless” activity like sleeping, breathing, walking and so on, or undertaking repetitive work tasks. Praxis is what changes the world.” 

What do you think about critical social science? Please share your comments!

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!

The main purpose of sociologists is to study human behaviours and to detect the meanings and motives behind these behaviours. However, to carry out their study of social lives, sociologists must choose their research methods.

Let’s become a sociologist for a day and learn more about the research methodology!

Quantitative Research Tradition:

Researchers who choose the quantitative research tradition are called positivists. This research method is a scientific approach similar to a laboratory experiment and involves the natural principles of science. Researchers also employ the ‘hypothetico deductive model’, where they start by creating a hypothesis and after considerable research and testing are done, they end their research by either accepting or rejecting the hypothesis. They also like to take into consideration correlation factors. They emphasize a lot on the link between 2 social phenomena.

According to this methodology, research must be:

  • Reliable: research that can be replicated later to obtain the same results and open to verification by others.
  • Objective: research that is purely factual and does not involve bias, personal emotions and opinions.
  • Cumulative: research that is based on others’ previous works and hypotheses.
  • Systematic: research done in the same order, following specific steps.

Quantitative Data

It refers to data which is in a numerical and statistical form where the information does not include any personal emotions or opinions. Quantitative data, which mostly consists of facts and statistics, can be computerized and represented on charts and graphs.

Methods Chosen by Positivists:

  • Questionnaire
  • Structure Interviews

#1. Questionnaire

A questionnaire refers simply to a technique used to collect information based on a document containing a list of preset and standardized questions relating to a specific research topic. The questionnaire includes two categories of questions, open-ended and closed questions.

Closed questions are multiple-choice questions that highly motivate respondents as they are easier and quicker to answer. These types of questions are easy to analyze, quantify and computerize, however, they do not allow people to express their views and develop their answers.

On the other hand, open-ended questions are more like structured questions and are considered highly valid as respondants are free to express themselves. As these questions are in descriptive form, the researcher can unlock the subjects’ subjective state of mind and better understand their point of view. However, unlike the closed questions, it is difficult to quantify and computerize open-ended questions.

Generally, there are two ways to administer the questionnaire:

  • Self-administered Questionnaire
  • Mail or Postal Questionnaire

Mail or Postal Questionnaire

This is when the researcher sends the questionnaire to people through the post or mail. Some benefits of this method are:

  • It is less time-consuming as there is no need for travelling and is the easiest and quickest way.
  • It is cheap as there are no travelling costs.
  • People can answer the questionnaire at their desired pace.
  • People can verify the accuracy of the information given.
  • There is no interviewer bias, which means that the researcher’s presence does not affect the responses of the individuals.

Its downsides are:

  • It usually consists of a low response rate as people do not send back the questionnaire at all or send it partly filled.
  • There is always a risk that a third party may answer the document instead of the targeted person and as a result, this would affect the validity and reliability of the research.
  • As the researcher is not physically present, difficulties and misunderstandings about the questions cannot be cleared.

Self-Administered Questionnaire

This method refers to when the researcher personally delivers the questionnaire to people and the advantages of this method are:

  • Compared to the mail/postal questionnaire, here as the researcher is physically present, ambiguities encountered by respondents can be cleared on the spot.
  • Unlike the mail/postal method, there is no risk of a third part answering the document as it is a face-to-face interaction between the researcher and the selected individual.
  • It is more appropriate for less educated people, as the researcher is there to help and assist people.

The drawbacks of the self-administered method:

  • The presence of the researcher highly affects the answers of people. They may feel embarrassed and consequently give information that will only please the researchers.
  • Time-consuming and costly as travelling is involved.

#2. Structured Interviews

Structured interviews are based on a pre-coded document. It is a face-to-face interaction and oral conversation between the interviewer and interviewee. The questions asked are already planned and prepared beforehand. Overall, this method of data collection is noted to have a high response rate.

#3. Cross-Sectional Surveys

It is a type of observational method that analyzes data from a population at a specific point in time. This study is also known as cross-sectional analysis or transverse study. They are descriptive in nature and are mainly based on observations at one certain time. This scientific method aims to analyze changes over a period of time.

Do these methods seem genuine and objective to you? Please share your comments!

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