The discipline of sociology dates back to the end of the 18th century, and for many, it seems a difficult term to accurately define. It covers a wide range of topics such as poverty and gender to race and relationships, and its focus is on understanding the modernised, and industrialised world, which has developed throughout this time. Sociology enables us to take a step back and look at things which are familiar to us in a new way. Methodology and theories give us the ability to see things from a new perspective.
The term ‘methodology’ defines the theory and analysis of how research should proceed. Any good research should have a basis in science, and the factor that distinguishes sociological arguments from common sense is systematic knowledge, which is developed through rigorous research processes. In doing research, people are trying to produce knowledge that is accurate; a description of some aspect of the world that is as close as possible to how it actually is. They also try to make sure that this knowledge is objective and value-free, meaning that the information must be gathered in a way that limits the chances of the researcher influencing or distorting the information.
‘The ultimate goals of research are to formulate questions and to find answers to these questions. The immediate goals of research – exploration, description, prediction, explanation and action – provide us with a strategy for figuring out which questions to ask and which to seek’ (Dane, 1990: 56). In terms of research, there are two predominant methods, and these tend to be quantitative and qualitative. Whilst there are other methods used such as official statistics, research is rarely ever carried out that does not have a firm grounding in at least one of these methods. It should be remembered also that under the broad headings of qualitative and quantitative methods, there are many subdivisions and overlaps between the two groups.
‘However, it is important to emphasise that the more sophisticated our understanding of sociology, the more we come to recognise the overlap between different research methods. ‘ (Marsh, 2000) The main differences between these two types of research are in the way that the research is carried out, the scale that the research is carried out on, and the type of information required and often these factors affect what method is used.
Quantitative research involves collecting data through a variety of means, so that it can be later presented and analysed. The data can be gathered through methods such as postal questionnaires, surveys, and structured interviews; all in order to test a particular hypothesis and analyse facts about society. Advantages of using some of these methods mentioned are that they are quick and easy to administer, and the results can be quickly worked out. From this, they can be easily collated, meaning that trends can be spotted and analysed, and links can often be worked out between groups in society. However, questionnaires and surveys tend to have a poor response rate (usually between 10-15%) and out of those who do respond, the group may not have enough diversity to be representative of the population.
This type of research is very closely linked with the Positivist approach of methodology. In Positivism, the methodology used to research the subject is modelled on natural science, with the topic being approached in the same manner as a scientist would approach an object to be studied. Many sociologists favour this method, as the research gathered is thought to be reliable and replicable.
‘It (science) is not perfect. It is only a tool. But it is the best tool that we have.’ (Sagan, 1980 cited in Dane, 1990). This methodology was also used by the classic sociologist, Emile Durkheim and it is very much underpinned in his research, whereby his conclusions are gathered after looking at facts, figures, statistics, etc, and then by analysing and drawing correlations within the data. This approach is not favoured by all, though, and some argue that studying human beings in the same manner as scientific objects is an unrealistic approach for finding out information
In contrast to this, qualitative research is carried out in a very different manner. Qualitative studies try to interpret meanings that people give to particular actions, by engaging with those involved in the actions and trying to understand their position. Examples of qualitative methods that may be used are participant observation and case studies. Participant observation is often thought to be the most effective of these, and this can be either overt or covert. This provides a useful means of obtaining a picture of social reality and can provide a clear first hand picture of groups in society. It is a very time consuming and resource extensive method, though, and the researcher involved would have to be highly skilled.
Qualitative research focuses on experiences and meanings and because of the importance that is placed on interpreting behaviour, it is linked with Interpretativism. This type of approach is associated with Max Weber, and just as Durkheims methodology is underpinned in his research, the same can be said for Weber. Weber’s general approach was ‘Verstehen’, and this means the empathetic understanding of the subject. Linked with the Interpretativist approach, is the use of the ‘ideal type’, and Weber spoke of this method in his book ‘The Methodology of Social Science’ (cited in Marsh, 2000). The ideal type method is designed to increase objectivity. The idea of this method is for the researcher to construct a model of the area of study, picking out what they consider to be the most salient features. Then, once the research has been carried out the ideal type model can be brought back out and be used as a comparative method to analyse preconceptions on the subject against the truth.
Another key difference between quantitative and qualitative methods is the scale of the chosen subject. The techniques used in qualitative methods usually involve studying large numbers, whereas with qualitative research the focus is on smaller scale research. And with this, there is less emphasis on making generalizations about society, with more time being spent understanding the actions and motivations of selected groups.
Ultimately, whilst both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used in the study of sociology to produce information on various aspects of society, the forms that this information may take can be very different. Not all methods are suitable to every study, and therefore by selecting the mode, which is most appropriate to the area of study, a more valid and objective conclusion can be drawn. It cannot be said from a mutual position whether one method is better than the other, as despite their differences, the research found by one method can often compliment that found by another.