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Methods of Social Research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3127 words Published: 8th May 2017

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Methods of Research

The correct choice of research methods to use in answering researcher set questions investigating a topic is one of the most crucial and vital elements to the successful conduct of a research exercise, (McNeill, 2005). While much attention can be paid to theory within the methodology employed by the researcher it is also critical to consider the actual research tools which back up the theoretical decisions made and provide the raw data against which the hypotheses of the research can betested. For much research the research tools will be a decisive factor in thesuccess or failure of the project. In many instances the choice of research tool is not assessed correctly with the result being data is generated which is of little or no use to the researcher, (Ruane, 2005). This occurs both due to the research method not suiting the particular needs of the researcher and the improper administering of the research method itself.

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For many, choice of research tool is influenced however not by the objective needs of the research but by the ability and capabilities of the researcher in terms of time, cost or other related factors such as familiarity with the processes and techniques involved within specific sets of research tools. In this essay, we examine three research methods, show how they can be constructed in a holistic manner toachieve triangulation in relation to a research question and illustrate ethical concerns and the manner in which they can be resolved in the successful deployment of these research methods, (Somekh and Lewin, 2005).

We discuss these methods as a process and thus relate our discussion to the manner in which theycan be integrated and successfully deployed. In this sense then we examine howfocus groups can provide insights into theoretical observations, how theseobservations can be explored within semi-structured interviews with a selectedsample and how these observations from interviews can be developed intogeneralised into hypotheses tested against larger samples through the use of questionnaires.However it should be noted that a critical element in deciding on whichmethodologies should be used in a research project and the relative strengthsand weaknesses of using those methodologies will depend to a large extent onthe specific circumstances involved in conducting the research, (Bryman, 2004).

By this it ismeant that weaknesses for example within the conduct of questionnaire may infact be a positive element for certain projects and negative for othersdepending on the contextual basis for the research. We explore this and otherfeatures of research methods subsequently.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are atype of qualitative based research method based loosely on the generalprinciples which apply to interviews. However while interviews are generallyone-to-one situations involving a interviewer and interviewee relationshipfocus groups employ a one to many dichotomy, (Holloway and Jefferson, 2000). Indeedfocus groups resemble semi or unstructured interviews more particularly thanstructured interviews as one of the primary objectives of the researcher withinfocus group interviews is as a facilitator or moderator of group discussionbased on sets of general themes identified as being related to the research objectivesfor which the focus groups are being used to generate data, (Bloor et al, 2001).In particular focus groups are a very useful method to consider in theexploratory stages of research to help form ideas related to theoreticalobservations upon which later research can be based.

While notoriginally a tool familiar to the social sciences focus group methodologieshave been long deployed and successful elements within business andspecifically marketing research. From these origins however their utility for socialscientific research has come to be recognised within many sections for specificinstances for which they are useful, (Fern, 2001).

Focus groups havea number of advantages and disadvantages when applied towards collecting datain answering sets of research questions. Let us discuss the advantages of usingthis methodology to begin with. Perhaps a fundamental strength of focus groups istheir interactive nature when designed and implemented properly. In this mannerthe researcher can set general themes and topics and also ask specificquestions of the group related to the research topic by facilitatingintra-group discussion arising out of the topics mentioned by the moderator.

Subsequentlyrecording and monitoring the discussions and interactions which occur withinthe group as the issues raised by the researcher are thrashed out can provide immenselyvaluable qualitative data and also critically have the possibility of offeringtheoretical insights or considerations missed by the researcher. In terms of aspecifically action research or ethnographic research outlook focus groups areeven more element as the interactive nature of focus groups allows the groupand its participants to actively engage with the research and even when plannedfor adequately by the researcher allow them to shape the outcomes and processesof the research itself, .(Czarniawska, 2004)

Some of the keydisadvantages we can associate with the use of focus groups are internal groupdynamics, participant and interviewer bias and transcription related problemsin codifying and making the data generated amenable to analysis. However the primarydrawback to this method is related to the interactive nature discussed above inthat the researcher has much less control over the type and nature of datagenerated during the course of the research. Again as mentioned planning andgood moderating skills are essential in the use of this method, (Litosseliti, 2003).

Internal groupdynamics can play a vital role in determining the success or failure of using focusgroups as a means of answering research questions. The specific disadvantagesbeing spoke of here include a common feature of socials groups wherebyindividual members of that group through personality and group dynamics come tolead and dominate discussions, (Vaughn, Shay, & Sinagub, 1996).An interviewer needs to be aware of such situations and develop tactics andstrategies which are inclusive in terms of encouraging all of the individualswithin a group to participate as equally as possible in the discussion as it isbeing held.

With larger groupsand to some extent even smaller groups as well due to possibilities of manypeople answering at the same time, especially in more animated discussions thenecessity of effective recording allowing for accurate transcription isessential. Bias can occur both in terms of the moderator and participants inthat moderator may lead the discussion too much in their desire to gatherrelevant data or otherwise colour the responses of participants who in turn maydesire to satisfy what they perceive to be the wishes of the moderator duringthe course of the discussion. Such considerations are not isolated to focusgroups and should be a common concern for any research exercise, (Morgan, 1997).

Ethically similarsafeguards that are used in other types of research methods need to be employedwithin focus groups with some specific concerns. As with other types ofresearch informed consent needs to be adequately collected from theparticipants and in particular with focus groups if the topic is sensitive orcovers material of a private nature it must be remember that other people willbe present and thus the moderator must take further care in considering theethical implications of this feature, (Gregory, 2003).

Semi-structured interviews

If a researcherhas used a focus group in order to identity common themes and concerns associatedwith his or her choice of questions a useful follow on from focus groups can bethe use of more in depth and detailed semi structured interviews. Theinterviewees could perhaps be drawn from a representative sample from which thefocus group was composed. Semi structured interviews are a popular form of qualitativeresearch much relied upon within social scientific as well as otherdisciplinary investigations. The general purpose of such interviews is toexplore in details specific topics relevant to the interviewee’s knowledge andalso relevant to the research questions and objectives forming the focus of theresearch project, (Silveman, 2004).

The normalstructure for such an interview is a one to one situation with an interviewereither having a list of some predetermined questions which are then used to branchfurther questions outwards during the conduct of the interview or alternativelythe interviewer is equipped with a set of general topics from which questionsare generated during the course of the interview. While not as interactive asfocus groups good semi-structured interviews are however in some way reliant onparticipant determination for the tenor and tone of the conduct of theinterview. This can be a principal strength of using this method in that it canbe a highly fruitful manner of exploring topics with which participants arefamiliar

The advantages ofsemi structured interviews can be surmised under a number of headings. Thefirst of these is the opportunity it gives to both interviewer and intervieweeto explore in depth and detail the substantive issues for research within agiven project mentioned above. Not only though do semi-structured interviewsafford the opportunity to discuss themes in detail but the semi-structurednature also gives the interviewer freedom to dynamically adapt and respond tothe flow of the discussion as it occurs. In this sense the interviewer canexplore themes not suggested by the structure of the interview which wasoriginally planned; this is an important difference from structured interviewswhich lack this interviewer flexibility and freedom. A semi-structuredinterview can thus be said to allow for frank discussion, is a flexible and adaptivemeans as the interviewer and interviewee can respond and explore topics as theyoccur during the interview and as such can be a useful source of data for anyresearch project.

Disadvantages withsemi-structured interviews again like those common to focus groups are thosewhich need to be taken account of with the use of any research method. Some ofthe main disadvantages we can associate with the use of semi structuredinterviews include participant bias, interviewer bias and the reliability ofany data generated during the course of the interview. Like focus groups theinterviewer needs to be aware of their responses and comments to theinterviewee so as not to colour or bias the responses given. Similarly aninterviewer needs to display a manner which does not indicate to theinterviewee preference supposed or otherwise for a particular set of responses.Reliability is a concern with qualitative research in general and aninterviewer needs to be cognisant of the type and form of data generated duringthe conduct of the interview. Ethically again similar principles which appliedto focus groups apply to semi-structured interviews in that the participants insuch interviews give full informed consent to the interview taking place andthat confidentiality is ensured on the part of the interviewer in terms of anydata generated from the participant.


Perhaps the mostfamiliar of research methods both to researchers and the general publicquestionnaires as part of a survey strategy have long held a dominant role inthe conduct of research projects, (Frazer & Meredith, 2000). Questionnaires come in a variety of forms from postal, totelephone administered, to interviewer administered and so on but they are all characterisedon a reliance on a predetermined set of questions with predefined answers whichmake the data amenable to later statistical analysis either by hand or throughthe use of the many statistical computer programs which now exist. Questionnairesexcel at the testing of hypothesis concretely formed and outlined as well atgathering opinion based data from large samples, (McQueen, 2002).

Questionnaires area form of quantitative research and thus they involve many statistical elementsin terms of carrying out research using them. Some of the fundamental concernswith using questionnaires include the need for sampling, ensuring effectiveresponses and a high response rate. In turn these three elements are related tothe principal advantages and disadvantages of using this method, (Oppenhiem,1992). Or in other words the success or failure and the degree to these for aparticular questionnaire is determined to a large extent by the successfulsampling of a target group and having a well-designed questionnaire with clearinstructions for participants in order to ensure correct responses and a highnumber of responses from the sample.

The primary advantageof using a questionnaire lies in the amount of data which can be collectingallowing for varying degrees and sophistication in statistical analyses whichcan be performed on the data, (Gillham, 2000). The primary disadvantage ofusing questionnaires is the inverse of this strength in statistical termsrelated to the rigid and inflexible way in which data must be collected in thatthe researcher is unable to benefit from any interactivity in the research andeven when the questionnaire is interviewer administered there is a rigidity tothe questionnaire format which must be adhered to, (Houtkoop-Steenstra, 2000). Questionnaires in terms of the triangulation discussed above couldusefully be deployed in order to test hypothesis generated from theexplorations and conclusions reached during the use of focus groups.


As can be gatheredfrom our discussion then all of the research methods we have discussed are possessedof both positive and negative aspects in the case of their deployment in orderto answer research questions set by the researcher. It is argued that perhapsthe best means in which to consider the use of any of these research methods isto see them as part of a cyclical process related to the triangulation ofcertain research objectives, (yen, 1990).

It can be arguedthat by using a combinational method then in the approach of constructing aresearch methodology has the benefit of playing various research methodsagainst each other, by this it is meant that certain methods will be strongothers weak and that a combinational approach will allow for the strongestpossible methodology to emerge and thus have the best chance of generatinguseful data for the research questions at hand, (Gorard and Taylor, 2004).

However asmentioned in some of the limitations we discussed previously with regards tothe methods each of these particular methods require certain skills of the researcherfor them to be truly effective methods. Thus projects which would seek to useall of these methods as well as possible others would need to draw upon skilledresearchers in terms of their ability to conduct quantitative and qualitativeresearch in equal measure. Similarly using a combinational method increases therange of ethical considerations for the researcher with the possibility ofthere being a complex network of ethical issues that need to be resolvedcontinuously across the range of research methods used in the project (deMarrais & Lapan 2004).

Similarly for acombinational method to be effective as well as the use of any of these methodssolely also a strong methodology in terms of a plan for the research and itsconduct will need to be in place in order to generate truly relevant data forthe research questions which the researcher wishes to investigate, (Andrews,2003). In conclusion the organisation of research methods in terms of their deploymentis the most critical determinant of the success of the researcher in gathering datawhich will be of use in their subsequent and later analysis based on theresearch questions they have tasked themselves with answering. Organisation it canthus be argued is one of the principal determinants of whether the selection ofany research methods will be successful in collecting relevant and valuabledata for that project, (Ragin, 1994).


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