Research Methods in Sociology: Types and Examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated July 13, 2022 | Published June 15, 2021

Updated July 13, 2022

Published June 15, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Sociologists are scientists who study human social behaviors. They contribute important knowledge about how people interact at varying social levels, from small groups like family units to major institutions like the government or even entire cultures. However, it’s important for sociologists to understand the different research methods used in the social sciences so they can be sure their research produces accurate and meaningful conclusions. 

In this article, we discuss why research is important in the social sciences and outline several types of research methods in sociology.

Why is research important in sociology?

Research is important in sociology because it allows these professionals to ask important questions about social structures and contribute new knowledge to their field of study. Sociology research may inform public policies that have a direct impact on the people living within a society, so it is important for social researchers to use effective research methods that produce scientifically conclusive evidence.

Related: 7 Interview Methods in Research: Steps and Tips for Interviewing

The scientific method in sociology

Sociology researchers apply the scientific method to conduct their studies. The scientific method is a process by which researchers ask questions, identify problems and seek answers to solve those issues. The steps of the scientific method are:

  1. Select a topic.

  2. Define the problem.

  3. Research existing sources.

  4. Formulate a hypothesis.

  5. Choose a research method and design a study.

  6. Collect data.

  7. Analyze the results.

  8. Report the findings.

By using the scientific method along with effective research strategies, sociologists can learn about human social structures and share their knowledge with others.

Related: 6 Types of Research Studies (Advantages and Disadvantages)

Types of data in sociology research

In sociology, researchers often categorize their data into the following four categories:

  • Primary data: Primary data refers to information collected directly by the researcher themselves. This type of data often comes from surveys, interviews and observational studies.

  • Secondary data: Secondary data is information gleaned from previous researchers in sociology. This might include data from books, government data or scholarly journals.

  • Qualitative data: Qualitative data refers to information that is challenging to quantify in numerical terms. Researchers often derive numerical data from visual and auditory observation.

  • Quantitative data: Quantitative data is information in numerical form. Researchers often collect this type of data through statistical methods, especially surveys.

Related: What Is Social Research? Types and Methods

Types of research methods in sociology

Sociologists may use different research methods depending on their topic of study. Here are some common research techniques social scientists may use:

Surveys

A survey is a structured questionnaire used to gather data from a select group of people. Researchers pre-write surveys with a limited number of questions that may be close-ended or open-ended depending on the information the researcher wants to collect. Some surveys are self-completed, meaning that the survey participant records their answer and submits it to the researcher. Other times, a researcher may administer the survey directly, such as in an interview. Surveys can be an effective method of collecting self-reported data from a large population of participants.

A census is an example of a survey used by social science researchers. The census requires participants to self-report their demographic information, which the government uses to determine government representation and how to distribute federal funds to local communities.

Related: Types of Qualitative Research: Definition and Examples

Participant observation

Participant observation is a type of field research. It's a research method in which the sociologist actively participates in the research group and records their observations. Some researchers perform overt participant observation, in which the population for the study is aware of the researcher and the study. Others may use covert participant observation, in which the population does not know the researcher is there to study them. This research method is effective for gathering evidence through direct observation of how people interact in a particular setting.

For example, a researcher interested in learning about the study habits of college students might visit a campus coffee shop or library to observe their behavior. They might note the number of students who study in these locations, the time of day most students prefer to study, whether the students prefer to study in groups or alone and how long their study sessions tend to last. To participate more directly, the researcher may ask to join a weekly study group and assess how the students interact in each meeting during the semester.

Related: Anthropology vs. Sociology: Definitions and Differences

Secondary analysis

A secondary analysis examines data collected by other researchers. Researchers may use this method if they have limited resources to conduct another kind of study, or when compiling a cross-study called a meta-analysis that examines an extensive collection of previous research. This kind of study may allow researchers to connect the findings of multiple scientists in a single study to either support a new hypothesis, develop a new perspective on previous work or reveal a different direction for additional research.

An example of a secondary analysis may be a researcher conducting a meta-analysis that analyzes every study on the academic achievement of Puerto Rican American third-grade students in New York City within the last 10 years. The researcher may compare the findings across these studies to determine how the academic achievement for this population has improved or declined within the specified time period. Based on their findings, the researcher may consider what social factors contributed to the changes in academic performance and propose additional research into those factors.

Related: How To Become a Social Scientist (Plus Duties and Salary)

Experimental

An experimental study typically takes place in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory. Since researchers minimize the influence of outside forces within the environment, this research method may help them identify causal relationships between the experimental groups.

An example of a research experiment in sociology may be a scientist studying how individuals subconsciously change their speech patterns when talking to someone they perceive as an authority figure. The sociologist might recruit participants and give them a task to complete in a lab environment. They may record the interaction and study how the vocal patterns of the participants change the accommodate the participant who seems to have the most authority on completing the task. Since the researcher conducted the study in the lab and created the conditions for the task, they minimize the risk of environmental disruptions.

Related: Experiment vs. Observational Study: 5 Differences

Structured interviews

A structured interview is similar to a survey. The researcher prepares a list of questions ahead of the interview and verbally asks the participant questions. The researcher typically standardizes this type of interview to ask the same questions across multiple participants so they can gather quantitative data on a topic. For example, a researcher may interview multiple college freshmen to collect data about their satisfaction with dining hall options.

Related: Guide for Sociology Majors: Coursework, Benefits and Top Careers

Unstructured interviews

An unstructured interview is a less formal style of interview. This style of interview may be respondent-led, meaning that the participant drives much of the conversation with minimal prompting from the researcher. This research method may be effective for collecting qualitative information. A researcher may use this method as part of a case study about a particular individual who might recall their personal experience with a significant event.

For example, a researcher studying the cultural significance of a traditional dish may interview three generations of women who have prepared the dish. Since the dish belongs to the women and their family tradition, the unstructured interview style allows them to tell their story as it feels natural to them. The researcher preserves the narrative of the participants by minimizing their own influence over the direction of the conversation.

Related: How To Debrief a Research Team After an Interview (With Template)

Semi-structured interviews

A semi-structured interview includes both structured and unstructured portions. The interviewer may prepare some questions before the interview but expects to ask follow-up questions based on the respondent's answers. This style of interviewing may allow the researcher to collect quantitative and qualitative data. Researchers may also use semi-structured interviews when the participant's narrative or perspective is important to the research.

For example, if the researcher is studying how individuals use their gardens for creative expression, they may prepare a list of questions they plan to ask each individual, but they may also vary their questions based on the responses of each participant. Allowing more open-ended conversation may add depth to the researcher's understanding of how each participant perceives their garden, while using some structured questions may contribute to consistency across each interview.

Related: What Is a Research Interview? (And How To Conduct One)

Case studies

A case study is a research method that examines a single case or example of something. In sociology, a case study may apply to the behaviors of a select group of individuals, or to a specific cultural group. Case studies are used to gain in-depth knowledge of one particular group, so researchers might not be able to generalize their findings to other groups, even if they share similar characteristics.

An example of a case study may be a study looking at how a summer camp program for the children of deaf adults affected the camper's self-identity within the deaf community. Since the study focuses on the campers in one particular summer program, the findings may not apply to campers in another program, but it may provide insight into how the program activities shaped the identities of the participants.

Related: How To Write a Case Study Step by Step (With Examples)

Longitudinal studies

Longitudinal studies examine a sample of people across a long period of time. The researcher may collect additional data from the study participants at consistent intervals throughout the study. This research method can help researchers understand how variables change over time.

For example, a researcher may be interested in studying the social integration of children with cerebral palsy during their school years. They may include 100 participants in the study, and they may ask each participant to complete a questionnaire at the end of every school year to collect information about how well each participant got along with their peers. This study might begin when the participants start kindergarten and continue until they graduate from high school.

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