Research Methods in Sociology

An important part of studying sociology at any level is understanding how sociological research works. How do sociologists go about finding information about society? How can we study society?

Mockup Schule

Explore our app and discover over 50 million learning materials for free.

Research Methods in Sociology

Want to get better grades?

Nope, I’m not ready yet

Get free, full access to:

  • Flashcards
  • Notes
  • Explanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions

Lerne mit deinen Freunden und bleibe auf dem richtigen Kurs mit deinen persönlichen Lernstatistiken

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

Nie wieder prokastinieren mit unseren Lernerinnerungen.

Jetzt kostenlos anmelden

An important part of studying sociology at any level is understanding how sociological research works. How do sociologists go about finding information about society? How can we study society?

To try and answer these questions, we'll go over the topic of research methods in sociology. You'll have an introduction to all of the subtopics, which will set you up well for the detailed articles dedicated to each topic.

Research Methods in Sociology

We'll go over the following topics in an introductory manner.

  • The research process

  • Theoretical factors affecting research (including collecting and analysing sociological data and sampling in sociological research)

  • Ethics in sociological research

  • Evaluating sociological research

Let's start with the research process.

The research process in sociology

The research process is an important starting point for any sociologist that wants to find out something about society. They have to consider what they will study and how they will study it.

So, what is the research process? It may help to think of the process in different 'stages', almost like building blocks that build upon each other. There are several stages, which we will look at now.

Research Methods in Sociology, icon of magnifying glass on people, StudySmarterIn research, it's not only important to consider the 'what', but also the 'how'.

Stages of the research process

To increase the chances of successful research, sociologists broadly go through the following stages during the research process.

Existing literature review

With so much information already present, sociologists consider how they can use existing research to inform their own research choices. By doing an existing literature review, they can also be aware of what hasn't been researched yet.

Hypothesis formulation

This stage is effectively where the sociologist decides what they will carry out their research on. They may outline aims of their research so that they are clear on what the research should focus on. They may also present hypotheses.

A hypothesis is a statement that is presented as a prediction or a suggestion about something. Through research, the hypothesis is tested and either proven or refuted.

The following statement: "Students have better concentration when they work at home" is an example of a hypothesis that can be tested through research.

Different types of research methods in sociology

Having formed a hypothesis, sociologists will consider how to test it. This involves the consideration of different types of research methods. Depending on the nature of their research question, they may have to choose between:

  • Primary and secondary research
  • Quantitative and qualitative research

We will go through each of these research methods in more detail in their respective articles.

To do or not to do: pilot studies

You may have heard television series do 'pilot' episodes to gauge the series' popularity. Similarly, sociologists may carry out pilot studies to trial their research plan before beginning their main study. In doing so, they can iron out any issues beforehand.

Sampling, collecting and analysing the data

Considering how to sample participants, data collection and analysis are key parts of the research process. Sociologists must avoid any bias during these stages so that they do not undermine the validity of the research.

Of course, bias should be avoided at all stages; but it is particularly important here.

Research evaluation

Once the research is complete, it can be evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses. Did it meet the research aims? Is the hypothesis proven or refuted? What did the study do well, and where is it lacking? This helps not only the sociologists who did the research but also other researchers so that they can build upon it.

Using sociological research in real life

The real-life applications of sociological research are more widespread than we may realise. Sociological research is very commonly used to inform governments in creating social policies.

Sociologists identify social issues or problems and carry out research, which can be used to create social polices and actions to address such issues. Social policies informed by sociological research can be found in education, crime, social welfare, housing, etc.

Practical considerations

As well as questions about the research itself, sociologists will need to consider the practicalities of their research. Practical considerations include concerns about time, cost and access.

  • Time

How long is the research predicted to take? Is it likely to go beyond the predicted time? Is it a short study or a longitudinal study? How long will it take to get results?

  • Cost

Who is funding the research, and does the funding cover all research costs? If the research has not been funded yet, is it likely to be?

  • Access

What resources will the researchers need? Can they access data easily? For example, is the data publicly available? Will they have access to participants?

It may be possible for a good research proposal to be rejected on the basis of practicalities, for instance, if it costs too much or if it will take too long to produce results.

Now that you've got an idea of the sociological research process let's move on to theoretical factors affecting research.

Theoretical factors affecting research: different types of research methods in sociology

Theoretical factors that shape research include the positivism vs interpretivism debate, issues of sampling, and collecting and analysing sociological data. We'll start with the discussion regarding positivism and interpretivism.

Positivism vs interpretivism

There are many debates in sociology, a key one being that between positivist and interpretivist theorists. This considers a few questions about theory and research, including:

  • How should we study society, i.e. objectively or subjectively?
  • How should we collect data about society and humans?
  • Is society too complex, or can generalisations be made?

With that, let's briefly consider both sides of the debate.

Research Methods in Sociology, icon of two people writing on a big piece of paper, StudySmarterMake sure you understand the different between positivist and interpretivist research.


Positivist sociologists believe that sociology is a science and that society can be studied using scientific methods in the same way the natural world can be studied. They believe that there are objective laws of society, which they aim to uncover using scientific research methods.

The focus of positivist researchers is on behaviour that can be observed and measured; they do not consider subjective internal feelings or processes.

Positivist sociologists, therefore, lean towards quantitative research methods that produce objective data, such as experiments and questionnaires.


On the other hand, interpretivist sociologists believe that society and humans cannot be studied in the same way as the natural world. Humans are complex and have meanings behind their actions; therefore, sociologists must study these meanings to understand people and society.

Interpretivist sociologists lean towards qualitative research methods that produce detailed accounts, such as unstructured interviews and case studies.

Mixed methods approach

Naturally, with such fundamentally different perspectives, these theoretical factors will greatly impact the way sociologists carry out research.

However, it is possible to take a mixed-methods approach, whereby researchers can use 'the best of both worlds' to better research the topic at hand.

Sampling in sociological research

Sampling in sociological studies is an important consideration as it can profoundly impact the validity and generalisability of the research.

Samples should aim to be representative. This means that they can be applied to the wider population. Different sampling methods include probability and non-probability sampling.

Probability sampling

This sampling method means that everyone in the population has an equal chance of being selected as a participant. There are different types of probability sampling:

  • Simple random
  • Systematic random
  • Stratified random

Non-probability sampling

This method is used where the research focuses not on the wider population but on a certain social group. There are different types of non-probability sampling:

  • Snowball
  • Quota
  • Purposive

This is a lot of new terminology, so we will go through each type of sampling in its respective article.

Collecting and analysing sociological data

When researchers reach the gathering stage, they collect data using primary and/or secondary research methods.

Primary research

Primary data is collected first-hand by the researcher. It may help to think of it as 'original' data. Examples of research methods that collect primary data include:

  • surveys and questionnaires
  • interviews
  • longitudinal studies
  • observation studies

Secondary research

Secondary data already exists because it has been collected by someone else. An example of a research method that collects secondary data is the use of official statistics.

There are also many other forms of secondary data (such as newspapers and personal documents) that you may come across later in your studies.

Quantitative and qualitative research methods in sociology

Quantitative and qualitative data refers to the type of data collected. Quantitative data is mainly numerical, while qualitative data is heavily word-based.

Quantitative data can be useful for when researchers want to test for some kind of relationship, e.g. a trend, pattern or correlation between two or more variables. Examples of research methods generating quantitative data include questionnaires and laboratory experiments.

On the other hand, qualitative data can be useful for when researchers want a lot of depth, detail and insight into a particular issue. This may be because they want to find out how or why someone or something works. Case studies and unstructured interviews are good examples of research methods generating qualitative data.

Ethics and research methods in sociology

When studying societal issues and humans, researchers will likely face ethical issues. Research has to be conducted in a certain way without infringing on the participants' wellbeing, interests and autonomy.

Ethical issues in sociological research methods address the following considerations:

  • Are the participants' identities protected during the research process, including publication?
  • Can participants anonymously answer surveys and questionnaires?
  • Do the participants know they are being recorded or observed?
  • Have the participants given informed consent?

Research Methods in Sociology, icon of man standing next to scales, StudySmarterEthical guidelines exist to protect the participants of research.

If ethical guidelines are not followed or breached, this can cause issues and can become a key evaluation point for the research (see below).

Evaluating research methods in sociology

When published, other researchers peer-review sociological research, evaluating it using several considerations.

Key research evaluation points

The following are key points of evaluation for sociological research:


How far does the study achieve what it set out to achieve?


Can other sociologists replicate the research project in question? If so, are they likely to get the same results?


Is the sample representative enough? Is it biased, e.g. using the researchers' acquaintances as the sample?


How far does the study apply to the wider population? Can we make generalisations about the study?


What are the participants' interests? Have all ethical guidelines been followed?

Sociological Research Methods - Key takeaways

  • The research process includes sociologists' considerations of what they will study and how they will study it. There are several stages of the research process.
  • Theoretical factors that affect research include the positivism vs interpretivism debate, sampling, and collecting and analysing data.
  • Research can be positivist, interpretivist or both, using a mixed-methods approach.
  • Ethical guidelines must be followed when conducting sociological research. This is to protect participants.
  • Several considerations are taken into account to evaluate research, including validity, reliability, representativeness, generalisability, and ethics.



Frequently Asked Questions about Research Methods in Sociology

Research methods in sociology are ways in which a sociological hypothesis or research aim can be tested. Research methods are used to collect data. An example of a research method is a questionnaire.

It is difficult to judge the best research method in sociology, as several aspects must be considered. This includes assessing the research aims, the type of data is to be collected, and how it will be analysed.

An example of a qualitative research method in sociology is an unstructured interview.

Quantitative research methods in sociology are research methods which gather mainly numerical data.

Research methods are important in sociology as sociologists cannot collect or analyse data and study society without them.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

An important part of studying sociology at any level is understanding how sociological _____ works. 

How many stages are there of the research process?

What is the first stage of the research process?


Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

Entdecke Lernmaterial in der StudySmarter-App

Google Popup

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

  • Flashcards & Quizzes
  • AI Study Assistant
  • Study Planner
  • Mock-Exams
  • Smart Note-Taking
Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App