Primary Research

Primary research is critical to the advancement of sociology (and all other academic disciplines) because it is how we find new information and knowledge about the world around us. 

Primary Research Primary Research

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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we're going to introduce the topic of primary research.
    • We'll be taking a look at the definition of primary research, as well as some prominent examples of primary research in sociology.
    • Further, we'll introduce some popular primary research methods (to be explored in more depth in their own explanations on the StudySmarter web app).
    • Finally, we'll evaluate primary research for its various advantages and disadvantages.

    Primary Research Definition

    Primary data is that which has been personally collected by a researcher or group of researchers. Following this, primary research can be defined as research which involves generating data that has not previously been collected or analysed.

    A key defining feature of both primary research and secondary research is how they are contrasted with one another.

    The difference between primary and secondary research

    Primary research isn't exactly common practice in our day-to-day lives. For example, when we do a quick Google search for the most popular Italian restaurant in town, it might feel like relatively extensive research – but it isn't primary research. We are taking information that has been gathered and shared by others (such as ratings and reviews) and using it to inform ourselves.

    The primary research equivalent of this would be to go to all the Italian restaurants in the neighbourhood and count the number of customers having a meal there at any given time and day. Alternatively, you could send a questionnaire to (or interview) people around your neighbourhood about their favourite Italian restaurant in a particular vicinity. This data would help you discern which Italian restaurant is most popular using data which you have collected yourself.

    Primary Research Methods

    Many primary research methods are used to generate data in sociology. Let's take a brief look at some of the most popular ones.

    Surveys and questionnaires

    Primary Research, image of person completing questionnaire, sociology, StudySmarterSurveys and questionnaires are a standardised, quantitative way of conducting primary research.

    Surveys and questionnaires are frequently used both within and outside sociological research. They involve collecting data from a large sample by asking the same questions in a standardised way.

    Ways of conducting survey research

    Survey research can be carried out in two key ways:

    1. Self-report questionnaires

      • These are either hand-delivered or sent to respondents via post or email. This requires the respondent to answer the questions or fill out the survey themselves.

    2. Formal/structured interviews

      • These are conducted either face-to-face or on the phone, during which the interviewer asks a list of standardised questions that the respondent answers on the spot.

    Types of questions

    1. Closed questions (or fixed-choice questions)

      • Respondents have to choose from a range of given answers, usually by ticking one or more boxes per question. These can be formatted as yes/no questions, or as multiple-choice questions.

    2. Open-ended questions

      • These are questions on any given topic, that are asked if the researcher is searching for in-depth explanations or justifications for the answers given.


    Several types of interviews are used in sociological research – some for quantitative research and others for qualitative research.


    As we have seen above, structured interviews involve asking standardised questions either in person or over the phone.

    These flow like regular conversations. The interviewer might start by asking questions to steer the conversation in a particular direction, but then the respondent is free to offer whatever information they choose.

    The interviewer might have a loose guide of questions or prompts to reference, but they don't need to stick to a particular order or even cover all the topics in the guide.

    Group interviews

    Group interviews tend to follow a qualitative methodology and are often conducted in tandem with other research methods (like observations or individual interviews). It is important to note the difference between group interviews and focus groups.

    • Group interviews tend to cover a wide range of topics in a group setting.

    • Focus groups cover one particular topic in a group setting.


    Primary Research, CCTV surveillance cameras, sociology, StudySmarterObservation can be overt or covert, and researchers can be participants or non-participants.

    Observation is a powerful and popular primary research method that is frequently used in the social sciences (particularly in sociology and psychology). There are two main types of observation.

    Participant observation

    Here, the researcher joins a group or community as a member who participates in all of their activities and practices. Participant observation can be:

    • Overt, whereby the group being studied is aware of the researcher's presence.

    • Covert, whereby the researcher does not disclose who they are and acts as a genuine member of the group.

    Non-participant observation

    Here, the researcher will either watch the chosen group from nearby, or they may implement methods of surveillance (like cameras) whose footage they can watch back at a later time. It's common practice to use an observation schedule in non-participant research, in which the researcher marks off a particular behaviour every time they notice it.

    Evaluating Primary Research

    Now, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of primary research methods.

    Advantages of Primary Research

    A key advantage of primary research (rather than secondary research) is that the researcher has complete control over the type and scope of data that they collect. This means it can be more up-to-date (the researcher doesn't have to depend on data collected at a previous time), and therefore more directly relevant to the research aims and questions.

    Surveys and questionnaires

    • Surveys and questionnaires are usually cheap and time-efficient ways of conducting primary research. The absence of the researcher means that the respondent can answer personal questions more comfortably.

    • The standardised nature of questions and prompts makes the study replicable and the findings reliable.


    • Structured interviews are standardised and therefore reliable. The research can measure the strength of the connection between multiple variables, which can then be presented in numerical form.

    • The researcher can ensure all questions are answered and clarify any misunderstandings with the interviewee.

    • In-depth interviews are flexible in that respondents can introduce topics and ideas that the researcher had not thought to explore.

    • Group interviews save time and money by interviewing multiple respondents and by being able to cover a wide range of topics at once.


    • Covert participation makes it so that those being observed are likely to behave genuinely (and not be influenced by the presence of a researcher). This helps uncover information about underground or illegal activities. By participating, the researcher can gain a better understanding of the group.

    • Non-participant observers are in less danger of being implicated in dangerous or illegal activities. They may also be more objective, as they are removed from the situation that they are observing.

    Disadvantages of Primary Research

    On the other hand, the main disadvantage of primary research is that it will ultimately be more expensive and time-consuming than analysing data that has already been generated.

    Surveys and questionnaires

    • The absence of the researcher means some questions or terms cannot be clarified if they are ambiguous or unclear.

    • Respondents may leave out some sections or questions on the survey, or opt out of completing it at all. This is demonstrated by a usually low response rate for postal questionnaires.

    • The use of close-ended questions means respondents can't explain their answers. For example, a respondent might not see their ideal answer on the list of potential responses, so they may just choose the one that is closest to that answer.


    • The presence of the researcher might influence the respondent to answer questions dishonestly to make themselves appear more favourable.

    • The social identity (age, gender, ethnicity) of the interviewer or respondent could influence how the other interprets questions or responses. Interviewer bias is likely, no matter how well-trained the researcher is in interviewing.

    • In-depth interviews are more time-consuming, and therefore more costly. They are also less reliable and unlikely to be representative.

    • In group interviews, respondents may be influenced by each other's presence or responses, and some interviewees may be more responsive than others.


    • It is difficult for researchers who are conducting covert participant research to take notes of their observations without giving away their identities. It might also be difficult for researchers to enter communities, particularly those which engage in illegal practices, which can also be dangerous for the researchers themselves.

    • Overt participant research is subject to the observer effect, which is when those being studied act differently because of the presence of the researcher or an outsider.

    • Non-participant observation may also be subject to the observer effect if the group being studied is aware of the researcher's presence.

    What Are Some Primary Research Examples

    Looking at a few examples of primary research studies can help us further our understanding of the procedures, advantages, and disadvantages of these methods. Let's explore some now!

    The UK National Census

    Perhaps the most well-known survey in most societies is the census. A census is an official count of a given population which takes place in most countries around the world. In the UK, the national census is conducted every 10 years.

    Primary Research, screenshot of section from 2021 UK National Census, sociology, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Example of questions from the UK National Census (2021).

    For the UK National Census of 2021, government officials collected results from both paper and online questionnaires. An important aspect of collating and analysing results is to identify obvious errors, such as:

    • mandatory questions that haven't been answered, or

    • a questionnaire that may have been sent in twice from the same household (perhaps one via post, and one online).

    On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City

    On the Run is a very famous sociological study conducted by Alice Goffman. Goffman spent six years in West Philadelphia, USA, studying the lives of the members of a poor, Black community. It is important to note that Goffman's research was a covert, participant observational study – she had one of the members of the community introduce her as his sister.

    While this research was groundbreaking when first released, it received a lot of criticism from other sociologists who believed that Goffman's portrayal of Black lives was embellished and out-of-touch (as she herself is a White woman).

    Primary Research - Key Takeaways

    • Primary research involves generating data which has not previously been collected or analysed.
    • Survey research can be conducted through social surveys, questionnaires or structured interviews. They are standardised, reliable and cost-effective. However, they also can omit important details and depend on the respondent's interpretation of the questions.
    • Interviews can be structured, semi-structured and unstructured. They can also be conducted individually or in groups. They are less likely to be reliable and representative, but allow for the exploration of new and unexpected topics.
    • Observation studies can be participant, non-participant, covert or overt. They allow the researcher to be immersed in the situation being studied, but can pose danger if the community's activities are illegal.
    • The UK National Census is a key example of a social survey, while Alice Goffman's On the Run is a famous example of an observational study.


    1. Goffman, A. (2014). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. University of Chicago Press.
    2. Fig. 1 - sample questions from the UK National Census (2021). Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Primary Research

    What is primary research?

    Primary research involves collecting and analysing data which has not been collected before. 

    What are the types of primary research?

    There are many types of research methods. These can be qualitative (such as unstructured interviews and observations) or quantitative (such as questionnaires or structured interviews). 

    Why is primary research important?

    Primary research is important because it allows the researcher to tailor their methods to meet the exact needs of their research aims and questions. Furthermore, primary research allows us to generate new data that builds on information that has been collected and shared previously. 

    What are the disadvantages of primary research?

    There are different disadvantages to different primary research methods. However, the overall limitation of primary research (as compared to secondary research) is that it is costly and time-consuming. This is because data collection methods have to be piloted and approved, time must be given to participants to give their responses, and researchers must be trained to administrate research properly (such as interviews). 

    What are some primary research examples?

    A famous example of primary research is the UK National Census. This is conducted every 10 years and collects demographic data from households all over England and Wales. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Questionnaires only involve closed, multiple-choice questions. True or false?

    In some observational studies, researchers use a tool to mark off certain behaviours as they see them. What is this tool called?

    The observer effect is only a point of concern in participant research. True or false?


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    Team Primary Research Teachers

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