Sociological research is the process in which social scientists are able to test, understand and determine how society affects the individual and how the individual is also affecting society. The main thrust of sociological research is to offer answers to questions that focus on social groups, social behavior, social cohesion and anything that concerns social networks. Sociological research is much as a science as it is an art of studying human behavior in groups. Therefore it subscribes to the scientific method and follows the requirements of objectivity in data gathering, the formulation of research questions, the use of valid and reliable instruments and the scientific treatment of data (Kendall, 2008). There are a number of research methods in sociology, it could be qualitative or quantitative in nature, it could be a survey or a meta-analysis, it could exploratory or longitudinal, it could ethnographic or laboratory experiments.
With the many research methods to choose from, the methods for data gathering in this researches fall into four types; observation, questionnaires, interviews and historical analysis.Observation is probably the oldest form of data gathering. It simply means to observe the behavior, actions and responses of the subject to the variable that the researcher wants to measure. For example, in experiments, the researcher places the subject in a room with cameras in it and watches from the other room. The response of the subject can then be observed and recorded. The advantage of observation is that it allows the researcher to observe real-time reactions of the subject lessening the impact of coaching or other extraneous variables.
Another form of observation that sociological research is famous for is called participant observation which was used in the study of groups, tribes and other cultures. Participant observation refers to the method of gathering data in which the researcher becomes a part of the group he/she is studying; it allows him/her access to the behavior, ideas, and cultural nuances of the group which would have been shielded from an outsider.Participant observation gathers data by daily journals of the researcher as well as his/her own experiences during his/her interactions with the group.
Observations are costly; it requires the use of special equipments that unobtrusively will allow the researcher to observe the subject in order to diminish the Hawthorne effect which refers to the fact that subjects often behave unnaturally when they know they are being observed (Kendall, 2008). Participant observations also is time consuming, it would generally take months and even years before the researcher is accepted in the group or community and this would also mean living with the group, taking up their ways and traditions which may always influence the objectivity of the researcher.The second most popular choice for data gathering is the use of questionnaires. Questionnaires are often used in survey research where the researcher wants to get the opinion, ideas and perceptions of as many number of people as possible in the shortest time (Macionis, 2007). Questionnaires are designed using the research questions of the researcher and it often require participants to rate rank or respond to questions. Questionnaires when constructed very well can adequately measure the variables that the researcher wants.
Questionnaires can be given face to face, by mail or even on the internet. The disadvantage of using a questionnaire is that the mortality rate is high, most people do not have the time to complete a survey, it also means a lengthy process of designing, pretesting and validating of the questionnaire, a sufficient sample must also be identified before the questionnaires are distributed.Another popular data gathering method in sociological research is the interview, the interview is simply asking participants to respond to an open ended question, to elaborate on their answers or even to just tell the researcher what is on their mind. Interviews can be done face to face or by phone. The interview is said to be yield a richer and detailed response from the participant than if they were asked to complete a questionnaire (Macionis, 2007). The interview session can be recorded or the researcher can take notes during the interview. The difficulty with interviews is that it is time consuming which means that only a small number of participants can be interviewed in a given time. Also, it is difficult to find participants who are willing to be interviewed and there is the scheduling of the session.
Moreover, interviews require informed consent to be recorded or taped and if the interviewee refuses then some information may get lost since the researcher can only remember so much. The interviewee may also go of course and talk about things unrelated to the topic or question and the interviewer has to be able to veer the conversation back to the topic.Lastly, historical analysis of documents is also a preferred sociological data gathering method. Sociologists who work with population studies, health studies and demography usually use existing documents as their data (Macionis, 2007). For example, if a sociologist wants to study the divorce rate versus urban and rural areas in the country, then he/she can use the census data or the court data of the geographical areas he/she wants to compare.
The advantage of secondary data gathering is that it is cost efficient, one does not need to do an actual research, and the data had already been categorized and grouped allowing more time for analysis and statistical treatments. However, relying on existing documents limits the options of the researcher on what he/she can study, it also means wading into huge amount of data which to the untrained may seem daunting a task. Moreover, it does not mean that existing data are foolproof; surveys may not have been adequately answered leaving gaps in the information found in the data and the like.There will always be advantages and disadvantages in any data gathering method and the important thing is to recognize that research is a complex and learning process. There are ways in which to safeguard the integrity of the research process and any student of social science should be knowledgeable of it.