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Methods of Sociological Research


Sociological Research Methods:

Sociologists utilize wide arrays of techniques in order to analyse a vast breadth of social phenomena: from census survey data derived from millions of individuals, to the in-depth analysis of a single agent’s social experiences; from monitoring what is happening on contemporary streets.

Sociologist employs scientific methods of social research. Sociology shares five main aspects with “science.”

  • Sociology is an EMPIRICAL discipline
  • Sociology seeks to minimize BIAS and ERROR.
  • Sociology is “a public venture” that makes its results and methods publicly known.
  • Sociology is concerned with generalization.
  • Sociology relates social facts together under general theoretical guidelines.

Limitations of sociology as a science:

  • The complexity of human behavior
  • The effects of researcher presence on human behavior
  • The Nature of social patterns
  • Sociologists always remain a part of the world they study

Basic methods of sociological research:


“Standardized questionnaires or interviews, or both, to gather data on large populations”. Most Sociological research today is done using survey data.

  • Strengths: large numbers, quick, many questions, anonymity/confidentiality, standard questions make for easy analysis.
  • Weaknesses: Reduces complex attitudes and behaviors to simple numeric codes, question phrasing and interviewer bias.

Field study:

“Direct, systematic observation of social behavior in its natural setting”

  • Strengths: allows “researcher to get close to subjects and observe subtleties in attitude and behavior that might not be discoverable otherwise” Study people in their natural settings. Examine social interaction first hand (regular events or rare events).
  • Weaknesses: small number, researchers’ interpretations, hard to generalize or replicate, researchers presence can be disruptive, can’t control for other possible variables


“Systematic, controlled examination of cause and effect. The researcher manipulates some aspect of a situation and observes the effects on the subjects’ behavior”

  • Strengths: control, can manipulate a single variable to ensure validity in cause and effect statements.
  • Weaknesses: Lab environment is artificial, often using psychology students. Loose control in field experiments.  Possible harm to subjects.

Cross-cultural study:

“Comprehensive study of beliefs, customs, and/or behavior among two or more groups of people with different languages and ways of life…learn which pattern of human social life are cultural universals-common to all or most people regardless of where and how they live”.

  • Strengths: can look for cultural universals, can help reduce ethnocentrism.
  • Weaknesses: Problem of definitions (i.e. cannot assume people define behavior in same terms in different cultures).

Historical study:

“A review of sources from earlier times that seeks to determine when and why cultural attitudes and social behavior developed and how they have changed over time”

  • Strengths: like cross-cultural studies, historical studies help us put our own time in perspective. Historical universals in addition to cultural universals.  Allow examination of long processes over time.
  • Weaknesses: rely on data gathered/produced at another time

Other Research Methods:

  • E.g., content analysis (New Yorker study, content analysis and historical study).


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