How do sociologists know which research method to use? Are some approaches best for a particular problem? Research methods are strategies or techniques for systematically conducting research. We will look at four of these methods: surveys, analysis of existing statistical data, field studies, and experiments.
Survey. A survey is a poll in which the researcher gathers facts or attempts to determine the relationships between facts. Surveys are the most widely used research method in the social sciences because they make it possible to study things that are not directly' observable — such as people's attitudes and beliefs — and to describe a population too large to observe directly. Researchers frequently select a representative sample (a small group of respondents) from a larger population (the total group of people) to answer questions about their attitudes, opinions, or behavior. Respondents are persons who provide data for analysis through interviews or questionnaires. The Gallup and Harris polls are among the
most widely known large-scale surveys; however, government agencies such as the Bureau of the Census conduct a variety of surveys as well.
Survey data are collected by using questionnaires and interviews. A questionnaire is a printed research instrument containing a series of items to which subjects respond, items are often in the form of statements with which the respondent is asked to "agree" or "disagree." Questionnaires may be administered by interviewers in face-to-face encounters or by telephone, but the most commonly used technique is the self-administered questionnaire, which is either mailed to the respondent's home or administered to groups of respondents gathered at the same place at the same time.
Survey data may also be collected by interviews. An interview is a data collection encounter in which an interviewer asks the respondent questions and records the answers. Survey research often uses structured interviews, in which the interviewer asks questions from a standardized questionnaire to produce uniform or replicable data that can be elicited time after time by different interviews.
Survey research is useful in describing the characteristics of a large population without having to interview each person in that population. It also enables the researcher to do multivariate analysis — research involving more than two independent variables. However, a weakness of survey research is the use of standardized questions, which tends to force respondents into categories where they may or may not belong. Moreover, survey research relies on self-reported information, and some people may be less than truthful.
Secondary Analysis of Existing Data. In secondary analysis, researchers use existing material and'analyze data that was originally collected by others. Existing data sources include public records, official reports of organizations or government agencies, and raw data collected by other researchers.
Secondary analysis also includes content analysis — the systematic examination of cultural artifacts or various forms of communication to extract thematic data and draw conclusions about social life. Among the materials
studied are written records (such as books, diaries, poems, and graffiti), narratives and visual texts (such as movies, television shows, advertisements, and greeting cards), and material culture (such as music, art, and even garbage). In content analysis, researchers look for regular patterns.
One strength of secondary analysis is that data are readily available and inexpensive. Another is that, because the researcher often does not collect the data personally, the chances of bias may be reduced. In addition, the use of existing sources makes it possible to analyze longitudinal data (things that take place over a period of time or at several different points in time) to provide a historical context within which to locate original research. However, secondary analysis has inherent problems. For one thing, the researcher does not always know if the data are incomplete, unauthentic, or inaccurate.