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research methodsThe investigative techniques employed within an academic discipline. In sociology, the range of methods is very wide, including many research methods also employed in other disciplines. For example, sociologists have used the critical techniques of the humanities in order to ‘interrogate’ TEXTS, paintings, buildings, etc., ethnographic techniques borrowed from ANTHROPOLOGY and applied to modern societies (see also ETHNOGRAPHY), and historical methods to understand the genesis of social forms.
Some of the most powerful techniques employed by sociologists are those the discipline shares with central and local government agencies, social survey methods based on SAMPLING, but the popular image of sociology as exclusively based on such methods is plainly erroneous. Among the array of further quantitative and qualitative research methods widely used in sociology are: PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION and other forms of’direct observation’, in-depth INTERVIEWS, ATTITUDE SCALING, CONTENT ANALYSIS,‘documentary analysis’, SECONDARY DATA ANALYSIS (including reanalysis of OFFICIAL STATISTICS).
In a particular study, the methods chosen will depend upon a variety of considerations, including the following:
- the nature of the problem addressed (e.g. while a study of the incidence of ill-health among the elderly might be effective using questionnaires or medical records, study of deviant behaviour is likely to require participant observation);
- the theoretical stance and the preferred methods of the researcher or research team (e.g. symbolic interactionists are likely to prefer direct observation, less likely to operate with standardized variables);
- the time and money available (e.g. postal questionnaires are cheaper than face-to-face interviews; secondary data analysis cheaper than conducting new surveys);
- the type of research and evidence likely to carry conviction with the sponsors of the research and the audience for the research (e.g. the sponsors of research have often been regarded as preferring research which uses quantitative rather than qualitative data).
Of these, (b) is often most important, also influencing the kind of research problem which is chosen. Thus (a) and (b) are often closely interrelated. However, (c) and (d) operate as strong constraints on the choice of research methods.
Debates on the merits of quantitative and qualitative approaches can be fierce. Some researchers committed to quantitative survey methods refuse to acknowledge the strengths and validity of other methods, while others, whose preference is for direct observation, refuse to countenance quantitative techniques. However, a simple polarization of the two sets of techniques is unjustified. Denzin (1970) has suggested that, whenever possible, social research should seek to ‘triangulate’ different research methods (see TRIANGULATION OF APPROACHES). See also STATISTICS AND STATISTICAL ANALYSIS, METHODOLOGY, MATHEMATICAL SOCIOLOGY.