There are a number of ways in which a sociologist can conduct research. There are 3 main considerations when choosing a research method: practical, ethical and theoretical.

When researching, some methods are more suitable than others.

      Time – some methods need more time. For example, covert participant observation takes a long time as trust needs to be established between the researcher and the group he/she is studying. Also, researchers may have certain deadlines to find their research, so it would not be possible to do a longitudinal study in the space of a week.

      Money – researchers may have a low budget meaning this affects the length and method of the research. Larger scale social surveys are expensive, for example, the 1991 census cost £135 million, the 2001 census cost £210 million and the 2011 census cost £482 million.

      Gender – for example, it may be more difficult for a female researcher to be involved in a participant observation of monks in a monastery.

      Age – for example it would be more difficult to have a 50 years old researcher to be involved in a participant observation of hostile, disruptive youths.

      Suitability – for example, if you were studying a teenage gang of hostile youths who had committed some form of crime it would be pointless to give them a questionnaire. It would be important to gain their trust and so covert participant observation would be more appropriate. 

      Access – if researchers do not have access to certain groups to carry out interviews or observations, then they have to turn to secondary sources.

      Ethnicity – it would be pointless to put a middle class white researcher in with a group of black youths as a rapport and trust could not be built.

      Previous studies – it would be important to see if their study has been done previously, otherwise their research would be pointless as the results would be the same. However, researchers may redo the study in order to test its reliability.

For example, Emile Durkheim (1897) used this comparative method when studying suicide. He looked at the rates of suicide in different European societies. He found that the suicide rate was consistent over time, but varied between societies and varied for different groups within society.

Ethical Considerations:

      Informed consent – all participants must have openly agreed to take part in the research.

      Deception – researchers must avoid deception, they should be honest and open about the study and its implications.

      Confidentiality – the details and actions of the participant must remain private and confidential.

      Protection from harm – participants should not be physically or psychologically harmed by the research process.

      Ethical concerns are a key factor which needs to be considered by the sociologist prior to their research. For example, when studying sensitive issues, such as domestic violence, researchers often chose to use informal interviews which put the person answering at greater ease. Rather than using covert participant observation, which put the researcher at risk. Covert participant observation should only be used when there is no other way of getting data.

Theoretical Concerns:


      Interpretivists use valid methods that give qualitative data.

      This is the idea that you can only really understand human behaviour by putting yourself in other people’s shoes. They believe that it is important to understand the meanings behind people’s actions and their actions to others.

      Max Weber commonly referred to this as Verstehen, which translates as Empathy.

      Interpretivist sociologists say that Participant Observation is the best choice of method to discover the real reasons behind someone’s actions.


      Positivists use reliable methods that give quantitative data.

      Positive sociology bases itself on science and the analysis of social facts. These are things that can be easily measured. Positivists measure human behaviour using quantitative data which turns everything into numbers.

      It is focused on the actual behaviour and actions of one and not the reasons or meanings behind ones actions.

      Positivist sociologists preferred choices of methods are laboratory experiments, official statistics and structured questionnaires or interviews which are objective and reliable.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex