Sociologists have a number of different types of research they can use to acquire data. The various forms of research include longitudinal studies, interviews based on open questions, structured interviews, unstructured interviews, structured questionnaires, unstructured questionnaires and participant observation.
Longitudinal studies involve the gathering of data on a particular group of people or person over a period of time. Information is gathered at the outset of the study and subsequent developments are traced in an attempt to isolate those social factors that affect person's life chances or to monitor change in their behaviour. A recent example would be that of the 7 up study.
Longitudinal studies were first used in the USA in the 1940's to measure changes in public attitudes.
The advantages of longitudinal studies are that they are unstructured, you can identify changes over time and they shows trends over a period of time.
The disadvantages of longitudinal studies are they can be very time consuming; they can be expensive; people may drop out of the study; they could have an affect over the participant's life and a person's recollection can be swayed.
Open questions allow a participant to answer them in any way they see possible without being 'persuaded' to move in any particular direction.
The problems associated with successful research using open questions include the politics of wording; the researchers define phenomena; operationalisation of concepts - is this possible? The problems associated with the 'halo' effect; the researcher does not gain true empathy with the phenomena being studied and qualitative answers are approximated into quantitative responses for codification.
Participant observation is a method of research in which the observer joins the group being studied and participates in their activities. Examples of this method include James Patrick's study 'A Glasgow Gang Observed' and Laud Humphreys"Tearoom Trade'.
The advantages of participant observation are that a researcher doesn't pre-judge the issue by deciding in advance what is / is not important when studying social behaviour; they can react to events / ideas, follow leads, pursue avenues of research that had not occurred to them before their involvement with a group. In this respect, a researcher can test hypotheses and may be able to redefine possible personal pre-conceptions about someone's behaviour in the light of their experience in the group. Participant observation generates a rich source of highly-detailed, high-quality, information about people's behaviour. In short, this type of research produces a depth of detailed information about all aspects of a group's behaviour.
The researcher can understand the social pressures / influences on group norms that may create particular forms of behaviour. This gives a researcher an insight into individual and group behaviour and it may allow researcher to formulate hypotheses that explain such behaviour.
However, some believe that the disadvantages of participant observation outweigh the advantages. The researcher's level of participation / involvement in a group might take his/her eye off the ball and invalidate any conclusions made as a result of the research. A researcher may simply become too involved. A researcher has to learn the culture of a group if he / she is to participate fully in their behaviour and this may not always be easy or possible. If a researcher is too young, too old or of the wrong gender for the group he/she wants to research this will cause problems of participation. If a researcher is involved in covert participant observation, their ability to blend seamlessly into a group is absolutely crucial to the success of the research project.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex.