Reading: Summary of Research Methods

Sociological research is a fairly complex process. As you can see, a lot goes into even a simple research design. There are many steps and much to consider when collecting data on human behavior, as well as in interpreting and analyzing data in order to form conclusive results. Sociologists use scientific methods for good reason. The scientific method provides a system of organization that helps researchers plan and conduct the study while ensuring that data and results are reliable, valid, and objective.

The many methods available to researchers—including experiments, surveys, field studies, and secondary data analysis—all come with advantages and disadvantages. The strength of a study can depend on the choice and implementation of the appropriate method of gathering research. Depending on the topic, a study might use a single method or a combination of methods. It is important to plan a research design before undertaking a study. The information gathered may in itself be surprising, and the study design should provide a solid framework in which to analyze predicted and unpredicted data.

Main Sociological Research Methods. Sociological research methods have advantages and disadvantages.
Method Implementation Advantages Challenges
Survey
  • Questionnaires
  • Interviews
  • Yields many responses
  • Can survey a large sample
  • Quantitative data are easy to chart
  • Can be time consuming
  • Can be difficult to encourage participant response
  • Captures what people think and believe but not necessarily how they behave in real life
Field Work
  • Observation
  • Participant observation
  • Ethnography
  • Case study
  • Yields detailed, accurate real-life information
  • Time consuming
  • Data captures how people behave but not what they think and believe
  • Qualitative data is difficult to organize
Experiment
  • Deliberate manipulation of social customs and mores
  • Tests cause and effect relationships
  • Hawthorne Effect
  • Ethical concerns about people’s well-being
Secondary Data Analysis
  • Analysis of government data (census, health, crime statistics)
  • Research of historic documents
  • Makes good use of previous sociological information
  • Data could be focused on a purpose other than yours
  • Data can be hard to find

Making Connections: When is Sharing Not Such a Good Idea?

A woman injecting in her arm while two other men stand nearby.

Figure 2.6. Crack cocaine users in downtown Vancouver. [“Crack Cocaine Smokers in Vancouver Alleyway.jpg” is licensed under CC BY 4.0]

 

Choosing a research methodology depends on a number of factors, including the purpose of the research and the audience for whom the research is intended. If we consider the type of research that might go into producing a government policy document on the effectiveness of safe injection sites for reducing the public health risks of intravenous drug use, we would expect public administrators to want “hard” (i.e., quantitative) evidence of high reliability to help them make a policy decision. The most reliable data would come from an experimental or quasi-experimental research model in which a control group can be compared with an experimental group using quantitative measures.This approach has been used by researchers studying InSite in Vancouver (Marshall et al. 2011; Wood et al. 2006). InSite is a supervised safe-injection site where heroin addicts and other intravenous drug users can go to inject drugs in a safe, clean environment. Clean needles are provided and health care professionals are on hand to intervene in the case of overdose or other medical emergency. It is a controversial program both because heroin use is against the law (the facility operates through a federal ministerial exemption) and because the heroin users are not obliged to quit using or seek therapy. To assess the effectiveness of the program, researchers compared the risky usage of drugs in populations before and after the opening of the facility and geographically near and distant to the facility. The results from the studies have shown that InSite has reduced both deaths from overdose and risky behaviours, such as the sharing of needles, without increasing the levels of crime associated with drug use and addiction.

On the other hand, if the research question is more exploratory (for example, trying to discern the reasons why individuals in the crack smoking subculture engage in the risky activity of sharing pipes), the more nuanced approach of fieldwork is more appropriate. The research would need to focus on the subcultural context, rituals, and meaning of sharing pipes, and why these phenomena override known health concerns. Graduate student Andrew Ivsins at the University of Victoria studied the practice of sharing pipes among 13 habitual users of crack cocaine in Victoria, B.C. (Ivsins 2010). He met crack smokers in their typical setting downtown and used an unstructured interview method to try to draw out the informal norms that lead to sharing pipes. One factor he discovered was the bond that formed between friends or intimate partners when they shared a pipe. He also discovered that there was an elaborate subcultural etiquette of pipe use that revolved around the benefit of getting the crack resin smokers left behind. Both of these motives tended to outweigh the recognized health risks of sharing pipes (such as hepatitis) in the decision making of the users. This type of research was valuable in illuminating the unknown subcultural norms of crack use that could still come into play in a harm reduction strategy such as distributing safe crack kits to addicts.