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Exploring Research Methods in Sociology

Sociology is a discipline that seeks to understand and explain human behavior, social interactions, and social institutions. In order to achieve this, sociologists use a variety of research methods to collect and analyze data. In this blog, I explore some of the most common research methods in sociology, including:

Surveys as a Sociology Research Method

Surveys are one of the most commonly used research methods in sociology. A survey is a data collection tool that involves asking a sample of individuals a set of questions about their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, or experiences. Surveys can be administered in person, over the phone, or online, and can be designed to collect quantitative or qualitative data. Although, sociologists typically use surveys to collect quantitative data for statistical analyses.

Most of the time, surveys help researchers collect what we call observation data, which is data collected without any forced changes or manipulations to the participants’ circumstances. That means, we are simply asking them to answer questions on a survey, usually about their opinions, without altering the research environment. Other times, however, sociologists might combine experimental methods (more on those below) with survey methods to isolate certain conditions that may be causing specific outcomes. This type of survey is called a survey experiment.

One example of a survey experiment from my own work on implicit bias and pain includes a survey in which I fabricated patient intake forms for healthcare workers to evaluate. The intake forms reported identical pain symptoms but the patients’ gender, race, and socioeconomic statuses (SES) varied across the forms to measure the causal impact of gender, race, and SES on pain evaluations. Other sociologists have used similar methods to measure hiring discrimination based on resumes.

Interviews as a Sociology Research Method

Interviews are another commonly used research method in sociology. This method involves a researcher asking a participant a set of questions in order to gain insight into their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, or experiences. Interviews can be conducted in person, over the phone, or online, and are designed to collect qualitative data. Researchers will often audio record the interviews to later transcribe the conversation of thematic coding of the data.

Typically, interviews are used to collect in-depth information on a specific group’s lived experience. For example, a sociologist might interview adults with genital herpes to better understand how stigma dictates the disclosure process for this group. Alternatively, sociologists might interview new parents about their postpartum experiences to better understand how they make sense of their new roles and responsibilities as parents. In general, interviews are well established method for gaining an in-depth understanding of social processes and practices and are widely used in the discipline.

Participant Observation as a Sociology Research Method

Participant observation is a research method in which a researcher observes a group or community in their natural setting. The researcher typically participates in the activities of the group or community in order to gain a deeper understanding of their behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. Like interviews, this method is typically used to collect qualitative data. However, unlike interviews, this data takes the shape of detailed field notes.

This sociology research method is commonly used in community-based participatory research, where researchers work with community members to shape the research process. In doing so, researchers often become involved in community activities and will collect field notes about those activities for qualitative analysis. One example of this method in action includes the famous W.E.B. Du Bois study, The Philadelphia Negro. In this project, Du Bois lived in the neighborhood he was studying, showing the inspiring lengths some researchers go to for their sociological work.

Case Studies as a Sociology Research Method

Case studies are an in-depth analysis of a single person, group, or event. Sociologists often use this method to understand rare or unusual events or to gain a deeper understanding of a particular phenomenon. For example, sociologists from a wide array of areas of expertise have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a case study to better understand how our social world transforms in such a crisis.

Sociologists studying work have used the pandemic to better understand work-family balance, especially among mothers who suddenly had the burden of childcare and education thrown into their lap when schools closed. Medical sociologists have also taken the case of the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand the anti-vaccination movement and attitudes toward mandatory vaccinations. While case studies offer the opportunity to better understand a single and specific phenomenon, they lack in generalizability and are therefore less ideal for the majority of social science research topics.

Content Analysis as a Sociology Research Method

Content analysis is a research method that involves analyzing written or visual material in order to identify patterns or themes. Sociologists use this method to analyze a wide range of materials, including newspapers, social media posts, and television programs. Typically, there is some sort of counting related to the presence of certain images, words, phrases, or more, resulting in limited quantitative data. However, the majority of data is analyzed qualitatively to provide in-depth explanation of the materials reviewed.

An example of this method is a researcher who analyzes news programs reporting police violence to document the language used in such reporting. Further, a sociologist might analyze women’s health magazines, dissecting the body types in photographs and images for themes related to the visual portrayal of women’s health. In either case, the researcher is using preexisting data to dissect a certain social phenomenon.

Experiments as a Sociology Research Method

As alluded to above when discussing survey experiments, experiments are a research method in which a researcher manipulates one or more variables in order to observe the effect on another variable. In the example above, I manipulated patient’s gender, race, and SES to measure their effect on pain evaluations. Experiments are often used to test hypotheses and establish cause-and-effect relationships. While surveys are one way too use experimental methods to analyze cause-and-effect relationships, researchers also move beyond surveys to better mimic and capture real life scenarios.

For example, a sociologists might send two applicants with identical resumes but differing races to a job interview to measure racial discrimination in the labor market. Researchers can also take advantage of naturally staged experiments to test casual effects. This instance can occur when there is a naturally occurring manipulation in our social world. One example is using the sudden legalization of cannabis in a state to measure the effect of that legalization on criminal behavior. As long as researchers have data from before the legalization occurred to compare to the data after legalization, they can set up a natural experiment to measure the direct effect of that legalization on criminal behavior.

Concluding notes on Research Methods in Sociology

Sociologists use a variety of research methods to collect and analyze data. Unlike other disciplines where certain methods dominate, as is the case with ethnographic methods in anthropology, sociologists have an incredibly versatile set of methods at their disposal. That versatility lends itself well to the current trend of mixed-methods research, where researchers use both quantitive and qualitative methods to fully explore the issue at hand.

Each research method in sociology has its own strengths and weaknesses, and the choice of method will depend on the research question, the data needed, and the resources available. But, by carefully selecting and implementing research methods, sociologists can gain a better understanding of human behavior and social phenomena.

Stephanie Wilson

Dr. Stephanie Wilson is Applied Worldwide’s co-founder and Director of Research Services. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University after first receiving her M.A. degree in Applied Sociology from the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO). She conducts research on health inequalities in the US and globally, writing about issues such as provider-patient interactions, pain assessment biases, social stigma, and intersectionality in healthcare. She has been teaching sociology at the college level for nearly a decade and loves empowering students with sociological knowledge and skills. She is currently an adjunct instructor at her alma mater, UNCO, where she is teaching classical and contemporary social theory courses online. Dr. Wilson is also a dance educator, choreographer, and performer and believes that art and travel are some of the best ways to learn about society.