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Primary Data

Updated on March 14, 2017


Positivist sociologists use quantitative methods of data collection which use a standardised measuring instrument e.g. a structured questionnaire or interview with a scaling system. This allows for the research to be repeated by them or other sociologists so consistent results can be obtained which gives more reliable data.


Interpretivist sociologists tend to use unstructured interviews and observations to gain a detailed and in depth picture of the people being studied. This data tends to be more valid, as it gives a true picture of the social reality of those people being studied, and seems to measure variables in a more accurate way. Interpretivists tend to use qualitative research methods to collect data

Choosing a primary research method

The choice of the research topic influences the research method that will be used to study it.


In science data is deemed reliable if the research can be repeated and the same/similar results can be gained. If the study is repeated, then errors can be checked in terms of measurement/observations of facts. Reliable data can lead to generalisations being made to the wider population


Valid data provides a true picture of what is being studied and measured. A piece of research that is valid means that the research is really measuring what it set out to study in the aim. Data can be reliable but not necessarily valid e.g. church attendance.


* Quantitative methods might be more practical than using qualitative methods.

* Quantitative methods are less time consuming overall (e.g. a questionnaire is quick and easy) compared to qualitative methods such as an in depth interview.

* Quantitative methods enable the sociologist to study a large sample of people that might be more representative of the population and can give a good overall picture of society (easily generalised).

* Qualitative methods such as in depth interviews usually use a small sample of people due to practical limitations of time, money, resources etc. They are better at providing an in depth insight into a small number of people.

Quantitative methods are favoured by Positivist Sociologists

* Examples include experiments, questionnaires and surveys. They are more theoretical and their practical implications are easy to manage.

* Quantitative data methods have been deemed as more reliable than qualitative data methods because they use standardised data that can be presented in statistical form. The study can be easily repeated and the results can be checked.

* Quantitative methods often lack validity due to the statistics not really giving a true picture of reality. The results can lack depth and may not describe motives and meanings of behaviour.

* Positivist favour quantitative methods that often collect data in the form of statistics, facts and figures

Qualitative methods are favoured by Interpretivist sociologists

* The methods tend to focus on quality of data and motives and meanings. For example observations or in depth interviews might be good examples.

* Qualitative data has been deemed as less reliable than quantitative data, because qualitative data often uses procedures for collecting data which can be unsystematic and not well quantified (measured). Replication of the same data/results might not be possible.

* Interpretive sociologists argue that qualitative data is more valid than quantitative data because it provides more motives and meanings about what the data is trying to measure.

Laboratory Experiments

Experiments conducted in a laboratory tend to use scientific equipment to measure the variables and concepts. The sociologist needs to have a hypothesis that can be tested. The variables need to be identified (what you are measuring) as well as other variables (external variables) that could effect the results of the study. The results are quantified by numbers which means that the variables can be measured and can allow for reliable results to be gained that can be replicated/repeated by another sociologist so that both sets of results can be compared.

Evaluation of laboratory experiments

1) (+) The variables can be controlled, and experiments tend to have high control compared to other research methods e.g. observation

2) (+) Positivists would advocate the use of experiments as they are used in science such as chemistry and physics and are deemed as reliable.

3) (-) Are experiments suitable for studying human behaviour? The setting is usually artificial and the results gained might not give a true representation of how people act normally (less validity). People might change their behaviour during the experiment which could affect results.

Field Experiments

These experiments are conducted in a natural social setting/situation e.g. a classroom. Behaviour can be studied directly with some form of control, but not as much as laboratory experiments.

Evaluation of field experiments

1) (-) The results gained can be inaccurate as there is less control in a field experiment than a laboratory experiment.

2) (-) The Hawthorne effect means that people being studied might be aware that they are taking part in an experiment and this could affect their behaviour and give inaccurate results.

3) (-) Experimenter bias means that the characteristics of the sociologist can affect the behaviour of the people taking part in the study. For example, age, gender, ethnicity and the social class of the sociologist could have an unintended effect on the people in the field study and this could affect the results gained.

Case studies

These examine one particular case or instance. A life history of an individual is a good example whereby sociologists study a person in depth.

Evaluation of case studies

1) (+) Case studies can be used to prove or disprove a general statement or hypothesis that a sociologist has.

2) (+) Case studies can give new information and insights into a topic

3) (+) Case studies can generate ideas in the early stages of research which can be used later when using a larger sample. Case studies can become a pilot study.

4) (-) Case studies can be limited, unrepresentative of the general population and the results cannot be generalised.


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