Introduction to Research Methods

What you’ll learn to do: identify and differentiate between types of research methods, discussing the benefits and limitations of each

A man with a census enumerator badge is standing on another man's porch holding an open folder with papers in it. A second man, wearing glasses, is in the foreground looking at the census worker standing on his porch.

Figure 1. Surveys gather different types of information from people. The U.S. Census is an excellent example of a large-scale survey intended to gather sociological data. (Photo courtesy of US Census Bureau/flickr)

As Laud Humphreys’ study illustrated, conducting research can be quite complex, especially when it comes to informed consent. Humphreys’ research design included surveys (when he went do-to-door) and field research (when he served as a “watch queen”). His role in the tea room as participant observer allowed him to observe (listen to) behavior that was naturally occurring with or without his presence. When we discuss experiments, we will see that the “setting” is often manipulated in some way by the research team in order to examine an independent variable. Secondary data is another research methodology that involves reviewing materials that already exist, such as previous studies (i.e., a literature review could lead to use of other peoples’ data and/or existing records such as arrests on sodomy charges).

Sociologists examine the social world, see a problem or interesting pattern, and set out to study it. They use research methods to design a study. Planning the research design is a key step in any sociological study. Sociologists generally choose from widely used methods of social investigation: primary source data collection such as survey, participant observation, ethnography, case study, unobtrusive observations, experiment, and secondary data analysis, or use of existing sources. Every research method comes with plusses and minuses, and the topic of study strongly influences which method or methods are put to use. When you are conducting research think about the best way to gather or obtain knowledge about your topic, think of yourself as an architect. An architect needs a blueprint to build a house, as a sociologist your blueprint is your research design including your data collection method.

When entering a particular social environment, a researcher must be careful. There are times to remain anonymous and times to be overt. There are times to conduct interviews and times to simply observe. Some participants need to be thoroughly informed; others should not know they are being observed. A researcher wouldn’t stroll into a crime-ridden neighborhood at midnight, calling out, “Any gang members around?”

Making sociologists’ presence invisible is not always realistic for other reasons. That option is not available to a researcher studying prison behaviors, early education, or the Ku Klux Klan. Researchers can’t just stroll into prisons, kindergarten classrooms, or Klan meetings and unobtrusively observe behaviors or attract attention. In situations like these, other methods are needed. Researchers choose methods that best suit their study topics, protect research participants or subjects, and that fit with their overall approaches to research. In this section, you’ll examine how researchers use each of these research methods. 

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