Research Methods and Researching Social Inequalities
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Section A: Research methods and researching social inequalities
In this section, learners are introduced to a range of methods and sources of data as well as the factors influencing the design of sociological research and the relationship between theory and methods. Learners are encouraged to consider the practical, ethical and theoretical issues arising in sociological research and to apply knowledge of research methods to the particular context of social inequalities.
|Key questions||Content||Learners should:|
|1. What is the relationship between theory and methods?||Positivism:
||understand how social research is guided by theory.|
|Key research concepts:
use these concepts in an evaluative way when considering the research process and methodological theories.
|2. What are the main stages of the research process?||Key concepts in the research process:
||consider how sociological research contributes to social policy|
understand the practical, ethical and theoretical factors influencing choice of sampling process.
|Access and gatekeeping||understand how samples are accessed and the issues with access.|
|Ethics||understand ethical considerations such as those used by
the British Sociological Association and why ethical principles should be followed.
|3. Which methods are used in sociological research?||Research methods:
Quantitative and qualitative data
|consider the uses of research methods in the context of social inequalities.|
Approaches to teaching the content
The research methods component seeks to develop an evaluative understanding of the methods used by sociologists to research social inequalities. Students should be able to compare the methodological approaches preferred by both positivists and interpretivists using the key concepts of validity, reliability, representativeness and generalisability.
Within the teaching of the topic, students will benefit from having an extremely developed understanding of the four key concepts as these will be the basis of their evaluative comparisons between methods. Students should be able to give illustrative examples of research methods that may be higher in validity or reliability, and state why. As well as this, they should be able to explain why certain research methods and sampling methods may produce more representative and generalisable samples than others. Considerable focus should also be given to the research process and how certain elements can improve validity, reliability, representativeness or generalisability.
Common misconceptions or difficulties students may have
Students often find it difficult to understand the difference between validity and reliability, and therefore can struggle to see which methods and elements of the research methods process may increase either of these. Due to the confusion between these concepts, students can sometimes struggle to understand the different theoretical approaches to social research.
The mixed methods of triangulation and methodological pluralism can also cause some confusion for students. In particular they can often misunderstand the difference between the two.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set students up for topics later in the course
The first step when teaching research methods is to focus on the difference between quantitative and qualitative data. This naturally leads to an assessment of the differences between positivism and interpretivism. Focus should be given to the concepts of validity and reliability when assessing the differences between the two theoretical approaches as students often confuse or misinterpret these concepts, which can hinder their understanding of all research methods. Once a basic understanding of the theoretical perspectives has been established, focus should be given to the research methods process. Particular attention should be given to ethical issues related to research and the importance of operationalisation. It is also important to focus on the process of sampling and access to a target population, as well as the range of different methods used by sociologists to gain representative and generalisable samples.
Once all students understand the process of research, focus can be given to each individual research method. It works well to start by evaluating primary quantitative methods, such as questionnaires and structured interviews, focusing on the key concepts of reliability, validity, representativeness and generalisability. Make sure the students are given examples of social research that use these quantitative methods and ask them to apply the strengths and weaknesses they have learnt in relation to the key concepts. The same assessment of qualitative primary methods should then be taken, again giving specific examples and assessing their strengths and weaknesses using reliability, validity, representativeness and generalisability. Finally, secondary and mixed methods can be assessed with comparisons made as to why sociologists would choose these methods over others. It is important throughout the teaching of research methods that students are given specific examples of studies which covers each of the methods.
In order to define the two theoretical perspectives, give students an example study from each perspective that assesses the same or a similar topic and ask students to pick out the differences between the two different perspectives. For example, use a summary of Durkheim’s comparative method of official statistics and suicide and compare this to Jack Douglas’ interpretivist perspective of suicide.
After defining both sociological perspectives using examples, it is important to assess the students’ understanding with a number of application tasks. One way to do this is to give students a number of concepts that they first have to work out whether they are either positivist or interpretivist. They then have to create a summary of each perspective using as many of the concepts as possible (see Student resource 1).
Alternatively, students could colour code a number of statements to show that they are either positivist or interpretivist (see Student resource 2).
In order for students to understand the significance of operationalising concepts for the validity and reliability of research, it is a good idea to give students a number of difficult concepts to operationalise. For example, encourage students to ask members of the class ‘are you healthy?’ and record their answers of either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Then get students to ask a number of indicator questions that may be better to show how healthy someone is. Once the answers are recorded, each student should have responses that do not necessarily match up. For example, students may believe they are healthy but answer no to a number of the indicator questions. This should highlight the importance of operationalising concepts.
Other concepts that could be used include religiousness, job satisfaction or social class. The latter may have been discussed previously when introducing the idea of social class identity in Component 1, Socialisation, Culture and Identity, Section A. Focus should be given to concepts related to Section B of this unit, such as social class, gender, ethnicity and age inequality. For example, ask students to make a list of indicator questions for concepts, such as ‘poverty’ or ‘sexism’.
Give students a number of possible difficult topics to complete a sociological study into. The aim is for the students to assess all the possible ethical issues that might arise if carrying out the research for real. Students could be directed to the British Sociological Association website for assistance in making their decisions, or a printed summary of the association’s guidelines could be given out. (see BSA guidelines link)
Each scenario could actually relate to a real piece of sociological research where the students could assess the significance of completing sociological research which breaks ethical guidelines. This task could also be completed as a small group activity where each group is given a different scenario and must feedback their suggestions to the rest of the class.
A tried and tested way of getting students to understand the different sampling methods is to use sweets as participants. ‘Smarties’ or similar multi-coloured sweets work the best, as each colour can represent a different social characteristic. As individuals or in groups, give each student their own packet of sweets. On a handout list a number of sampling methods along with their definitions (these could be revealed one at a time) and ask students to record how they would use the method to get a sample of sweets from their packet (see Student resource 3).
Once the students have a sample of sweets using each method: they should assess how representative the sample is and hence whether or not that method is useful to social research. Also, encourage students to think about when each method should be used by focusing on concepts, such as target population, sampling frame, access, gatekeeper, random and non-random.
This activity can also work as a group or whole class task, using larger packets of sweets. Students could eat the sweets as a reward.
Split students into four groups and give each group a different type of interview to conduct, from structured, semi-structured, unstructured and focus groups, with other members of the class or during free time with friends. Each group should be researching the same topic so that the results can be compared. Focus on giving students a type of inequality to research in school/college, such as sexism or racism. These topics will allow for quantitative and qualitative research to be collected from fellow students.
Once the students have collected their results, they should be able to spot which interviews produce quantitative data and which produce qualitative data. In their groups, they should be encouraged to construct a list of strengths and weaknesses of their method by comparing their interview to others in the class. The strengths and weaknesses can then be shared on posters, leaflets or slides.
Give students examples of four different types of observations, the first aim is for the students to work out what type of observation the example is and then to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each and compare them. The examples could either be written summaries of classic observation studies conducted by sociologists, such as Patrick’s Glasgow Gangs, Humphrey’s Tearoom Trade or Barker’s The Making of a Moonie. Alternatively, examples from television programmes could be given to support each type of observation. Some examples include:
- The Secret Policeman, BBC Panorama documentary (BBC)
- Big Brother, series 1 (Channel 4)
- Donal MacIntyre’s undercover investigations (BBC)
- Educating Essex/Yorkshire/the East End (Channel 4)
- Bruce Parry’s Tribe (BBC)
- Ross Kemp on Gangs (Sky).
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