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Example Answer for Question 6 Paper 1: AS Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)

AS, A-Level

Last updated 17 May 2017

Question 6. [10 marks]

Written questionnaires require respondents to write their own answers to pre-coded questions. Positivists would prefer this method as it can produce large amounts of quantitative data in an objective manner.

A practical strength of using a written questionnaire is that they are quick and cheap to create. Once completed and returned, data can be managed more efficiently than any other form of primary research, allowing for a sample size far greater than qualitative methods. A ‘large number of pupils, parents and teachers’ can be reached (Item B lines 7-8), which gives the researcher the chance to compare the views of stakeholders on both sides of the inside-outside school factors debate surrounding social class and educational underachievement.

Although a large sample does not always guarantee representivity, this method is particularly suitable to the issue as schools routinely keep comprehensive lists of pupils, staff and parents and can even pinpoint which families receive means-tested support such as Free School Meals and Pupil Premium. This could be analysed alongside attainment data to test for a correlation. These lists can also provide accurate sampling frames from which a representative sample can be drawn, either by using a systematic or stratified technique. Schools even have ready-made opportunity samples in the form of classes and departments. Whether schools are willing to grant access to this highly personal information is another matter. They may object, given the controversial and potentially stigmatising nature of the topic. Researchers may also find that Free School Meals is an inaccurate measure of affluence given that many eligible parents choose not to apply. The ideal students to study would be recent school leavers, since their level of academic achievement has been confirmed, but access to this group is far less practical.

Response rates are particularly low for written questionnaires, as referred to in the final sentence of the item. This again calls into question the level of representivity. Parents are particularly hard to contact. Handing letters to pupils to take home may eliminate some of the pitfalls of postal questionnaires, but many of these may still get lost on the way home. Using the school logo on the questionnaire could give it an heir of authority which motivates parents to respond, but their responses may lack honesty if they are concerned about how their answers might impact their child’s education.

Pupils are for more likely to respond, especially if the questionnaire is conducted during class time and handed straight back. The disadvantage of this is that they are more open to peer pressure and discussing their responses, or misunderstanding questions because of their weaker grasp of abstract social class concepts like ‘deferred gratification’ and ‘material deprivation’. This is unlikely to be the case for teachers. However, they may seek to ascertain the researcher’s aims and adjust their answers accordingly in order to uphold their meritocratic professional values rather than reveal their true beliefs about why working class students underachieve.

There are few ethical issues associated with using questionnaires. No deceit is involved and pupils can freely choose whether to answer each question. Since researchers and participants have minimal contact with each other, pupils can ‘remain anonymous’ (Item B lines 7-8).  If this were not the case, and pupils’ responses were inadvertently shared amongst the class, those that opened up about socially undesirable issues may suffer psychological harm. Such issues might include the extent of their parents’ poverty, or a lack of interest in their schooling, or about feeling looked down upon by middle class teachers. The resulting anxiety could impact their school attendance and engagement in lessons.

The true strength of questionnaires lies in their theoretical objectivity. There is little possibility of interviewer bias influencing results and the ‘teacher in disguise’ factor is far less of a weakness than with other qualitative methods. On the other hand interpretivists would point out that since no rapport is established, responses will be less valid. Rutter (1979) was able to collecting large quantities of questionnaire data from 12 schools, but offered little depth of explanation. Since younger children find it hard to read and understand questions and have a short attention span, the presence of a helpful researcher could illiminate any misunderstandings.

Interpretivists would argue that this method does not enable us to truly understand the impact class has on a pupil’s educational achievement. They would prefer to use methods like an unstructured interview to gain verstehen about the meanings and motives behind an individual’s school experiences, how they measure their own social class and the extent to which teachers subconsciously label working class students. By triangulating quantitative and qualitative methods, this methodological pluralism might improve both reliable and validity.

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(s) is different to ours.

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