“Therefore when one undertakes to explain a social phenomenon the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfils must be investigated separately. We use the word ‘function’ in preference to ‘end’ or ‘goal’ precisely because social phenomena generally do not exist for the usefulness of the results they produce. We must determine whether there is a correspondence between the fact being considered and the general needs of the social organism, and in what this correspondence consists, without seeking to know whether it was intentional or not. All such questions of intention are, moreover, too subjective to be dealt with scientifically.” (Hervé Varenne, 2012)
Here are a few points of basic knowledge regarding sociological methods appropriate for introductory level courses, followed by a slideshow [important vocab terms are in blue].
- The 2 main distinctions, or types of methods are:
- Quantitative: think “quantities”; essentially these are statistical methods using numbers
- Qualitative: think “qualities”; most often these are verbal methods analyzing words
- The most important decision when choosing a method is making sure it appropriately addresses your research question. For example, if you were trying to discover geographic trends in cancer rates it would be a bad idea just to go and ask people “So, do you know anybody with cancer?” It would be more effective to analyze numerical data and use quantitative methods.
- Topics best analyzed using quantitative methods might include:
- cancer rates
- population trends
- Topics best employing qualitative methods might include:
- cultural behavior, values and norms
- Your research will be stronger if you use multiple methods (meaning: more than one method). In academia, we call this triangulation which is kind of odd because it doesn’t necessarily relate to triangles nor do you have to have three methods.
- My favorite, and perhaps the easiest, qualitative methods include:
- ethnography (commonly known as “participant observation“)
- One difficult part about using qualitative methods is making sure that you have substantively addressed your research question. In this regard, the most important thing you can do is develop very thorough and unbiased survey/interview questions. For example, “What do you think about…” may or may not be the foundation of a good question. Don’t get too long with your questions (it confuses the respondent) and don’t persuade the respondent to answer a certain way. Even your race and their race will be influential, as would any classification difference (i.e. if you are dressed like the police and your are interviewing criminals, they probably won’t be straight with you).
- Your actual list of survey/interview questions should go in the back of your article or proposal as an appendix.
This is not an exhaustive list of what you need to know, but it gets you started to think about the importance of (i) choosing a method and (ii) developing your method.