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Research Methods



Sociology is a social science that uses various research methods to collect and analyze data in order to study society and social behavior. Sociologists apply the scientific method to investigate particular questions and draw conclusions based on evidence. There are two main approaches to sociological research: quantitative research and qualitative research. Both approaches use careful observation and interpretation of data. While quantitative research focuses on numerical data, qualitative research attempts to go below the surface of data and gain a rich, deep understanding of a question or topic. Both quantitative and qualitative researchers select a particular method of research based on the type of question they want to investigate. Common research methods include survey research, interviews, participant observation, content analysis, and comparative-historical analysis. Regardless of their method of research, sociologists must adhere to ethical research standards. Many studies must be approved by an institutional review board (IRB), which considers whether proposed research meets ethical guidelines.

At A Glance

  • Sociologists use theory as a framework and follow the scientific method to research particular questions about society and social behavior.
  • Research steps include identifying a topic or question, reviewing existing research, forming a hypothesis or argument, selecting a research method, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and reporting results.
  • Qualitative research methods include survey research, interviews, participant observation, content analysis, and comparative-historical analysis.
  • Quantitative research emphasizes objective measurements and mathematical, or numerical, analysis of data.
  • Sociologists must consider the potential for researcher bias and may need to work to establish rapport with respondents before collecting data.
  • Survey research can be qualitative or quantitative and allows respondents to remain anonymous.
  • Intensive interviews, structured interviews, and unstructured interviews allow researchers to gain a deep understanding of the perspectives and experiences of participants.
  • Participant observation can provide detailed information or help a researcher study how a group changes over time.
  • Content analysis is an approach used to analyze society, social behavior, and social issues through the analysis of texts and images.
  • Comparative-historical analysis is used to consider previously collected data and draw new conclusions.
  • Statistical analysis aims to understand the mathematical likelihood that a behavior or event will occur.
  • Statistical analysis provides measures including central tendency, mean, median, and mode.
  • Researchers consider whether data show correlation or causation, but sociologists generally look for meaningful correlation between variables.
  • Ethical considerations for conducting research include the well-being of study subjects, studying people without their knowledge or consent, the use of deception, and protections for certain groups.