This refers to questions about what we think society is like and whether we can obtain an accurate, truthful picture of it.
Our views on these issues will affect the kinds of methods we favour using.
Postivism vs. Interpretivism
A valid method is one that produces a true or genuine picture of what something is really like. It allows the researcher to get closer to the truth.
Many sociologists argue that qualitative methods such as participant observation give us a more valid or truthful account of what it is like to be a member of a group than quantitative methods such as questionnaires. This is because participant observation can give us a deeper insight through first hand experience.
Reliability is the extent to which methods can be repeated to produce the same results.
For example, in physics or chemistry, different researchers can repeat the same experiment and obtain the same results every time. In sociology, quantitative methods such as written questionnaires tend to produce more reliable results than qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews.
Representativeness refers to whether or not the people we study are a typical cross-section of the group we are interested in.
Imagine for example that we want to know about the effects of divorce on children. It would take a great deal of time and money to study every child of divorced parents, and we might only be able to afford to study a sample of, say, 100 such children.
However, if we ensure our sample is representative or typical of the wider population, we can use our findings to make generalisations about all children of divorced parents, without actually having to study them all.
Large-scale quantitative surveys that use sophisticated sampling techniques to select their sample are more likely to produce representative data.
Sociologists’ choice of method is also influenced by their methodological perspective – their view of what society is like and how we should study it. There are two methodological perspectives; positivism and interpretivism.
Positivists prefer quantitative data, seek to discover patterns of behaviour and see sociology as a science.
They assume that society has an objective factual reality – it exists ‘out there’, just like the physical world of nature.
They view society with a top-down, or structural approach, with society exerting an influence over its members, systematically shaping their behaviour patterns.
By analysing quantitative data, positivists seek to discover the objective scientific laws of cause and effect that determine behaviour. Positivists thus prefer questionnaires, structured interviews, experiments and official statistics. These produce data that is both reliable and representative.
Interpretivists prefer qualitative data, seek to understand social actors’ meanings and reject the view that sociology can model itself on the natural sciences.
They reject the idea of an objective social reality - we construct reality through the meanings we create in our interactions with others.
Instead, they believe that our actions are based on the meanings we give to situations; they are not the product of external forces, thus viewing society with a bottom-up approach.
Interpretivist research uses qualitative data to uncover and describe the social actor’s ‘universe of meaning’.
Interpretivists thus prefer participant observation, unstructured interviews and personal documents. These produce data that is valid.
There are several factors that will influence a sociologist's choice of topic.
The sociologist's perspective - a New Right researcher may study the effects of welfare benefits on the growth of lone-parent families, since the idea of welfare dependency is central to their standpoint. By contrast, a feminist researcher is more likely to choose to study domestic violence, as opposition to gender oppression lies at the heart of the feminist perspective.
Society's values - Sociologists themselves are part of the society they study and thus are influenced by its values. As these values change, so does the focus of research. The rise of feminism in the 1960s led to a focus on gender inequality and today’s environmentalist concerns have generated interest in ‘green crimes’ such as toxic waste dumping.
Practical factors - the inaccessibility of certain situations to the researcher, may also restrict what topic they are able to study
Funding bodies - Most research requires funding from an external body. These bodies include government agencies, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), charities and businesses. As the funding body is paying for the research, it will determine the topic to be investigated.