DD201 Research Methods
DD201 Research Methods: For Day School & TMA
by Ieman & Mike
Research 'Methods' as a title can sound very dry and uninspiring, but research is one of those areas which can actually prove to be rather exciting and animated. Responses to research findings may not be well thought out (as responses to a link below show), as well as challenging.
Before we go on to think in more depth about research methods let's pause for a moment to think how "Research" in society can effect you. Frequently on the news or in a magazine we see, hear or read about the "latest research" which tells us something. Usually the stories are prefaced "The latest research..." or "Researchers from .... have found that...". It could be that people who eat only bananas lose weight fastest. As news itself is constructed to find a target audience it could be news in a fashion magazine or at the end of a broadcast to provide light relief after more miserable tales about car bombs in Iraq or elsewhere.
Research findings announced like this can influence us at the micro-level perhaps persuading us to buy or ignore bananas or some other product. Usually some other piece of research will be announced in a similar fashion on the news, frequently seeming to contradict the first finding. Confused? Well you will be better off thinking about research methods. You might want to find out if the 'Bananas Research' was sponsored by the 'Banana Marketing Board' (My invention I think). If it was you might be inclined to be sceptical of the findings. Most of us prefer independent research findings from authoritative bodies who in this case know their bananas and are unlikely to slip up :-).
Things to do for discussion and the dayschool
- How authoritative do you think it is?
- How typical is it of the way we receive information?
- How might it have been presented more authoritatively?
- What are your responses to the comments box the Herald has established ? (please create some responses in the comments box below this posting. Comments will be moderated so academic English please)
- Did you spot somebody like this cartoon character in the Herald comments?
Here is a link to the actual report perhaps they should have used web power to underpin their newspaper report. It might have given it more authority. Scottish Gender Equality Scheme March 2008
Research findings can also have massive effects at the level of policy and practice in large organisations and institutions such as local or national governments or health authorities. It can also influence international institutions such as the World Health Organisation for example.
Research is therefore incredibly important and correspondingly how that research is conducted is extremely important. There is then the issue of how the results of the research are interpreted.
Different disciplines and subject areas use different research methods not all research methods are useful to research all things in the world. Sociology as a social science generates particular kinds of knowledge about society and social structures.
Methodology & Methods
No form of social research can be value free or 'unbiased' although that research may be unwittingly biased. For many years male sociologists didn't think to explore issues such as equal pay at work for example. This was largely because they were from a gendered culture that didn't think that women at work were that important an issue to be investigating. This was because many though that women just worked for 'pin money', therefore it was of no great social significance. It took feminist inspired researchers to find out about the issues of low pay and unequal conditions for women. Even now there isn't full equality in terms of overall life opportunities but thanks to this sociological research equal pay acts have been in place for many years as has a sex discrimination act. This means that most women at work are much better off than working women before the middle of the 1970s.
In order to generate the sociological knowledge that lead to these changes in the law required specifically feminist oriented research. This research defamiliarised society and seeking to examine all the ways in which gender assumptions impacted on society used a different METHODOLOGY. The term methodology refers to:
...the underlying assumptions and analytical structures that inform the choice and use of methods, together with the process of critical reflection on these. (Uses of Sociology xi)
The methodology which one uses is guided by ideology. Nobody is outside of ideology and ideology isn't just something ojne picks up out of a book it is deeper and more pervasive and can often translate into the way in which we see the "normal" everyday world. If women are "naturally" meant to be at home looking after children then a sociologist of work (probably a male sociologist in the 1940s-1960s) may well have not thought that there was any other way of doing the research. This constituted a failure in thinking about how society was constructed in all its social relationships.
How research is conducted is also very important and can significantly influence the basis of sociological knowledge. The 'How' of research is all abouts sociological methods.
Sociology has traditionally been thought of as being divided into two main areas for methods with many different methods being used under each category. Firstly there is the realm of qualitative methods and secondly there is the realm of quantitative methods. For a long time quantitative methods were considered as more "scientific" because the figures and statistics generated were closely linked to the physical sciences like chemistry or physics. This gave the the figures more credibility as being "rational" and unbiased. However, as has already been shown, if a particular method is used coming from a particular ideological base the researcher is not going to extend their knowledge of society outside of a pre-defined circuit of knowledge.
Qualitative methods have become far more popular in social research nowadays and some of the methods are shared with many other subject areas for example anthropology, cultural studies, media studies,social and cultural history and social psychology. Qualitative methods also develop, and new ways of researching people are being constantly thought through and refined.
Qualitative methods imply quality which can mean care and attention to detail if you are buying a piece of 'quality' clothing or other 'quality' product. Quality implies a depth and quality implies good value. In terms of research it should mean that the research is conducted ethically, and that the person or people researched are properly represented (this can be a problem with participant observation research). It should mean that a person or persons are having their viewpoints and experiences accurately recorded.
Of course qualitative research can be carried out badly and quantitative research can be carried out well; this is why it is important to carry out everything methodically and carefully paying attention to the nuts and bolts of research. For example Peter Redman conducted research with Sixth Form college students and their relationship to romance he made a point of dressing differently from the adult educationalists in the college. He did this to try and ensure that he would not be identified with college and therefore as some sort of authority figure.
Quantitative research, as it's name implies, relates to quantity in other words number crunching and statistics. That research is quantitative doesn't imply that it is bad quality - often it is very good. Quantitative research is very good at showing up tendencies over large numbers of people as a whole. Very often the larger the number of people involved the better an idea of society in relation to those specific questions is. The key thing about quantitative research is whether the right questions are being asked. In the example about women and equal pay given above sociologists of work and industry were not asking the right questions therefore they were generating no data about pay and conditions in ways that related to gender. How does quantitative research help the trade unions in this story about equal pay for example?
Is Qualitative better then Quantitative?
This isn't a very good question it's like comparing chalk and cheese. Different methods generate different types of information. Once that information is gleaned then it may well be possible to generate more and better knowledge by using another method. Governments want to have information about large numbers of their populations so that they can quickly adjust policies. This means that they are going to be most influenced by large scale studies becuase they are interested in voters. It is undoubtedly useful in a national census to get accurate data across the whole of the population about things like how many people use outdoor toilets. That would show a government what it needed to do in terms of housing policy. If a government wants to put a green bulding agenda in place it might want to know how many people have invested in solar panels and how many had high quality loft insulation. They might then wish to make improvements grants available in certain regions. But these kind of questions wouldn't show what people's experience of having solar panels was.
If the question in the national census was based on some qualitative research then it would be a good question. If a survey of those who had invested in solar panels said that it was a good experience and that the house was warm and well lit and that fuel bills had been significantly reduced and that solar panels were paying for themselves then the government could usefully identify the whereabouts and numbers of houses with this facility. It might cross reference this to incomes and owner-occupancy. It could then come up with a policy such as giving housing associations extra money to install solar panels in newbuild houses. This might stimulate the private market to do the same.
It can be seen that cross referencing research findings from different methods could be very useful and could lead to social changes. Let us look at what happened with the issues of equal pay and gender in a rather schematic way.
With the rise of feminism in the late 1960s many feminists at university discovered that women were not necessarily receiving equal pay for equal work. They may have discovered this doing holiday jobs for example. Once they progressed to become researchers they were able to use qualitative research to see if the anecdotes and life experiences of these gendered conditions was more widespread and how it was constructed. They could then publish these research outcomes perhaps in trade union or left wing newspapers. Women who were trade union representatives could take these findings to their unions. Once there was quite a lot of small scale qualitative evidence amassed then there was a good reason for a Trade Union research department to carry out research into the conditions for its workers. This was done by a number of unions and it was soon discovered that unequal pay for doing the same work was a common practice across the country. At this point it could then become an issue for government to start to put into place equal pay legislation.
In this case the research methods were tiered and combined and the social reality was gradually made abundantly clear so that government had little option but to act. The important thing to note here is that the research methods complemented one another. In order to achieve change both were needed. In the previous book four which has now been replaced by the smaller book you now have, Anne Oakley, a feminist researcher who started out in the 1970s when equal pay legislation was introduced was very careful to make this point. Oakley was concerned that many feminist researchers had decided that quantitative methods of research were necessarily 'positivist' and as such part of a patriarchal system. Qualitative research on the other hand could be seen to be inherently feminist as it sought to understand women's experiences of the real world that they lived in and would provide them with a 'voice'.
Oakley used the equal pay legislation argument to illustrate her concerns with this more idealist form of feminism:
Feminism's interest in an emancipatory social science suggests a need for a range of methods within which 'quantitative' methods would have an accepted and respected place.... the underlying gendering of structural inequalities that occurs in most societies could not be discerned using qualitative methods on their own. (Oakley: The Uses of Sociology First Edition p 296)
The Need to be Critical and Analytical about Research Findings
If, as has been suggested, it is the case that research cannot be value free what does this mean? Well it doesn't necessarily matter if research has values. Research after all must have some aims and objectives however research into a phenomenon such as poverty could come up with radically different results depending upon the outlook of the researcher. What this means is that as active citizens we must all become more crtiical and competent at being able to critique research projects. We need to be able to ask a whole range of questions when we are presented with research. Below is a list of questions which you need to ask when you are being presented with the results of a research project.
Research Methods – some possible questions to ask
· What are the Weaknesses and Strengths?
· What are the key claims? – Do they relate to counting data or locating meanings?
· How does the chosen research method support our understanding of the claims?
· What are the underlying epistemological claims around what counts as knowledge?
· Are different or opposing research methods being used? – If so what might be the impact of this?
· Who is the researcher?
· Who is being researched?
· Might there be any areas of bias?
· For example might there be any gender, class, ethnicity assumptions?
· Are there any gaps in what is being researched in relation to the claims?
· Are the research findings representative of the general population or the specific population under enquiry?
· Are the particular events/information being researched likely to produce relevant findings in relation to the claims?
· Are there other events/areas of research that might produce relevant findings?
· Are there any ethical concerns that the researcher(s) takes into account?
· Are there any ethical concerns that the researcher(s) should have taken into account?
Remember the checklists in The Uses of Sociology which outline the strengths and weaknesses for
- Qualitative (p67)
- Quantitative methods (pp96-7) .
As this link shows research can have some important financial outcomes and go a long way towards changing societal attitudes. The link again to the Scottish Government website on their programme against violence against women shows how far the outcomes of feminist research have come since the very early 1970s when Erin Pizzey first set up Women's Aid. Before then the issue of domestic violence wasn't formally recognised. Police would stay away from a 'domestic' ith has taken a lot of qualitative and quanitative research to get to the point of government awarding organisations money to combat unacceptable social behaviour. The responses in the comments box show why the money is necessary.