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Example Answer for Question 2 Paper 2: AS Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)

AS, A-Level

Last updated 24 May 2017

Question 2: Evaluate [16 marks] - Theoretical Factors

There are a wide range of factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate research method for a particular study. Theoretical issues arguably outweigh other practical and ethical factors.

Sociological theory broadly consists of two theoretical approaches – positivism and interpretivism. Because they have different views about how society works they adopt different sociological research methods. Positivists adopt a macro, top-down view of society. Individual behaviour is determined by social forces beyond our control. Even an act as seemingly individual as suicide, according to Durkheim’s study, is influenced by social factors such as integration and regulation. By studying official suicide rates that covered large numbers of people, he was able to make generalisations that were useful and relevant to the whole of society. To do this requires quantitative methods which generate large sets of numerical data which can be presented in graphs. Such methods include experiments, questionnaires and structured interviews. A further benefit of these scientific methods is that they allow the sociologist to remain detached and objective, reducing the likelihood of the researcher biasing the results. Positivists can test for bias, by replicating their studies. If another researcher can yield similar results in an equivalent study, both can be regarded as reliable.

On the other hand, interpretivists argue that objectivity is unhelpful and unlikely. In selecting a preferred topic, who they will study and what questions to ask, positivists will have influenced their results before the study has even begun. Surveys are unlikely to be completed honestly, and offer little scope for respondents to reveal unexpected truths about themselves. For this reason interpretivists prefer qualitative methods. Unstructured interviews and participant observation allow more genuine two-way interaction to take place. Through the development of trust and rapport, a deeper, more valid and truthful account of the respondent’s viewpoint is gained. Dobash and Dobash’s use of informal interviews with sufferers of domestic abuse allowed respondents the security and freedom to reveal significant insights into the cultural meanings and motives behind the abuse. This suits the theoretical approach of interpretivists, where an understanding from the point of view of the individuals studied (known as ‘verstehen’) is valued above representativeness, i.e. the ability to generalise to the wider population.

There are many practical factors to be considered, such as time, cost, access, opportunity and danger. Perhaps the most important is cost since this affects a number of other things. With enough money you can have a large scale survey research team, use many interviewers and other people to collect the data. With little money you might have to work alone, in which case using participant observation might be preferred in order to get the most out of a small sample.

The requirements of the funding body is also important. Government bodies may take ownership of the findings and not allow them to be published. Funding bodies may dictate the method used, which could lead to a moral dilemma for the researcher of whether or not to compromise their theoretical preference in order to proceed with the research project.

Ethical issues refer to moral issues of right and wrong, and the extent to which a research project may cause harm in any way. This harm could be financial, social, emotional or physical. Were a researcher to follow the ethical guidelines set out by the BSA, they may find this to compromise their theoretical and practical preferences. Additional care should be taken when researching vulnerable groups. Informed consent must be gained beforehand, yet this is impossible in covert research where deception is used to gain the trust of a deviant group that would be otherwise uncooperative.

James Patrick went undercover, in a Glasgow gang. He could not have done this research using methods like questionnaires or structured interviews, as the boys in the gang would not have answered questions on their behaviour in a truthful and valid way. He deceived the gang, and became involved in criminal and violent behaviour, putting both himself and the gang at risk of harm. In Patrick’s view, verstehen and validity were more important factors than ethics. On the other hand, he did take steps to uphold the confidentiality and privacy of the group. Ethical concerns are not confined to qualitative methods. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s ‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ field experiment deceived an entire elementary school, and claimed to have influenced the academic progress of its pupils with fictitious IQ test scores.

Based on the evidence presented, sociologists would argue that theoretical issues are key when determining a choice of research method as it is essential to select a method that will allow the researcher to adequately answer the original research question. However as part of their decision making, a researcher must recognise that there are also practical limitations beyond their control that may influence their choice of method and that these must also be factored in to ensure the research can be completed successfully.

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect our attempt at producing an example answer on the day of the exam. Naturally, there are many different possible answers to this questions and students should not worry if their answer is different to ours.  These answers are not approved or endorsed by AQA.

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