June 24, 2013 at 9:53 AM

5 Main Research Methods for Sociologists


Social research is a major aspect of work for sociologists. The four main methods of research include survey, interview, experiment, observation, and secondary analysis. Depending on the research at hand, the choice of research methods have their pros and cons. Additionally, most research projects incorporate multiple methods.


One of the most common methods used for social research is direct analysis. Surveys and interviews go hand in hand. Using surveys gets a broader scope of results in terms of sample size. With technology you can submit a survey to thousands of people via the Internet using social media or email while saving time and money compared to mailing out paper surveys. However, with surveys you struggle with having questions that are most applicable, as well as with getting responses to surveys.


Interviews are a micro version of surveys. You can conduct interviews by telephone, over the Internet or in person. However, the time it takes to conduct interviews and to find willing respondents applicable to your sample makes this a less effective measure for most research studies. Yet if you are doing a small-scale study of a limited population, such as the graduate students in anthropology studying at Yale in 2004, interviews are the better option.


A social experiment is the more scientific of all of the research methods. It involves having a sociologist creating an experiment using scientific aspects with the exception that the main subjects are humans. If a social experiment is conducted successfully it can be one of the most reliable research methods for a social study.


There are two methods of observation: participant and nonparticipant. With participant observation, the sociologist becomes a part of the social group being studied in order to get a true understanding of the participants. On the other end of the spectrum, nonparticipant observation involves a sociologist taking a step back and merely watching the participants in action.

There are complications with both methods. For instance, the Hawthorne Effect proves that under conditions of being watched for sociological analysis, humans tend to change their routines. On the other hand, if a sociologist goes undercover to watch people in a social experiment, they have to follow protective measures, such as making sure to do so in a public place.

Secondary Analysis

Most studies involve secondary analysis as a way to determine what research has already been conducted in the area of the research. Literature, sociological studies and newspaper articles are some of the methods used for secondary analysis. Additionally, a sociologist can listen or watch to recordings from subjects, as well as to social experiments previously conducted. Survey data taken from previous research studies is also often used for supporting one’s upcoming research project.

Doing secondary analysis can save sociologists time and money, as they can see what has already been studied successfully and otherwise before investing their own efforts in studies on the same subjects.

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