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Study Notes

Research Design: Choice of Research Method


Last updated 15 Jun 2020

The three main factors that influence what research method a sociologist will use are Practicality, Ethics and Theory. You can remember these as PET.

Practical issues

Practical issues relate to time, money, skills and logistics. Sometimes, the best method for researching a particular topic, theoretically, has to be rejected because it would cost a great deal of money, it would be very difficult to carry out, or it would take a very long time to get results. For instance, researchers considering social change would often consider a longitudinal study; however, the funding body supporting the research may be reluctant to finance such a study as they would prefer to see a timely return on their investment.

Longitudinal research refers to research that is done over a long period of time. For example, interviewing participants at regular intervals throughout their childhood in order to see development. An advantage of using longitudinal research is that researchers can genuinely see and record social change over significant time periods. One of the main disadvantages of this method is the practical issue of cost, meaning funding agencies who pay for research may be unwilling to commit to an expensive project whose results will be unknown for many years. A popular (rather than academic) example of a longitudinal study is the television programme 7 Up. There is also the logistical difficulty of finding participants who are prepared to keep being revisited over time. Not only will the research take a long time to yield results, there is the added risk that the research will fail to yield results at all if participants choose to drop out of the study.

Some sociologists have particular skills or characteristics that might lead them towards a particular research method, and the reverse is also true: some sociologists lack a particular skill. For instance, effective interviewing takes particular skills, which might lead some researchers to reject interviews as a method. Similarly, a researcher might want to conduct a covert participant observation – a method where the researcher goes undercover in order to observe a group. However, it may simply be impractical for someone to do this because of certain characteristics (e.g. they might be too old, the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity).

Concerns about time and cost might lead sociologists to use secondary data rather than primary data. That is, they would use data that has already been collected by previous research rather than generate their own.

Ethical issues

Ethical issues arise with a number of research methods. These include whether the subjects of the research have given informed consent for their data to be included in the research, whether any deception has had to be used and whether there is any risk of harm. As we shall see, covert observations are a good example of a method that raises these issues because of the need for the researcher to remain undercover. However, there are potential ethical issues with all research methods. Researchers need to take these into account not only when choosing their method but also in their research design.


A sociologist’s theoretical perspective is also likely to have a significant impact on their choice of research method. For example, positivist sociologists will choose methods that produce quantitative data, as they consider such methods to be more scientific. These include questionnaires and official statistics. Interpretivists will choose methods that produce qualitative data, such as interviews or observations.

Most contemporary sociologists do not place themselves firmly and uncritically into a positivist or interpretivist camp. While some research methods are believed to produce more reliable data and others to produce more valid data, many sociologists wish to reach conclusions on basis of data that is both reliable and valid. As such they prefer methodological pluralism – using a range of research methods in combination – so that they can triangulate the truth from a combination of both reliable and valid research.

One way researchers can employ methodological pluralism is through case studies. A case study is where sociologists investigate, in great detail, a particular individual or group as opposed to trying to gather a representative sample from the target population. Normally a case study will feature methodological pluralism (using a range of research methods to achieve triangulation) and they are often longitudinal studies (the researcher regularly revisiting the case over a long period of time).

Advantages of case studies include the ability to gather qualitative and quantitative data and the relative lack of expense compared with attempting the same research with a large sample.

Disadvantages would be the inability to ensure the reliability of the data and the extent to which the findings could be generalised (see the coming sections on research methods for explanations of concepts like reliability, validity, triangulation, representativeness).

An example of a Case Study is Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour which involved an in-depth study of a group of male students from a school in Wolverhampton. Willis used interviews, participant observations and focus groups. However, all of these methods produced qualitative data, so the study was still driven by a preference for interpretivist approaches and thus closely linked to theoretical perspectives.

Research Methods: Choice of Topic and Methods (Sociology Theory & Methods)

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