Sample summary

If you are looking for affordable, custom-written, high-quality, and non-plagiarized papers, your student life just became easier with us. We are the ideal place for all your writing needs.

Order a Similar Paper Order a Different Paper

attached instruction

Social Research Methods

9780199588053_A01.indd i 10/20/11 4:25 PM

This page intentionally left blank


Alan Bryman

Fourth edition


9780199588053_A01.indd iii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford.
It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship,
and education by publishing worldwide in
Oxford New York
Auckland Cape Town Dar es Salaam Hong Kong Karachi
Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Nairobi
New Delhi Shanghai Taipei Toronto
With offices in
Argentina Austria Brazil Chile Czech Republic France Greece
Guatemala Hungary Italy Japan Poland Portugal Singapore
South Korea Switzerland Thailand Turkey Ukraine Vietnam

Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press
in the UK and in certain other countries

Published in the United States
by Oxford University Press Inc., New York

© Alan Bryman 2012

The moral rights of the author have been asserted
Database right Oxford University Press (maker)

First edition 2001
Second edition 2004
Third edition 2008

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press,
or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate
reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction
outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department,
Oxford University Press, at the address above

You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover
and you must impose the same condition on any acquirer

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Data available

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011938966

Typeset by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong
Printed and bound in China
by C&C Offset Printing Co. Ltd

ISBN 978–0–19–958805–3

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

9780199588053_A01.indd iv 10/20/11 4:25 PM

For Sophie and Daniel

9780199588053_A01.indd v 10/20/11 4:25 PM

This page intentionally left blank

edition were developed in conjunction with her. I also
wish to thank Alan Radley, Darrin Hodgetts, and Andrea
Cullen for their permission to include two photographs
from their study of images of homelessness and to
Sarah Pink for her permission to use an image from her
research on women and bullfi ghting. I also wish to thank
the Nottingham Evening Post for their kind permission to
reproduce two newspaper articles in Chapter 13. The
photograph in Plate 19.5 is Copyright DaimlerChrysler
Corporation and is used with permission. I wish to thank
the students who completed the questionnaires that were
used for preparing the ‘Student experience’ features of
this new edition. I also wish to thank the reviewers who
prepared helpful comments on the previous editions for
Oxford University Press. Finally, I would like to thank Sue
for all the hard work she has put into proof-reading this
and earlier editions of the book. I rely very much on her
attention to detail.

As usual, Sue, Sarah, and Darren have supported me
in many ways and put up with my anxieties and with my
sudden disappearances to my study. When Sarah became
a university student herself, she gave me many insights
into a consumer’s perspective on a book like this, for
which I am grateful. Everyone except me is, of course,
absolved of any responsibility for any of the book’s sub-
stantive defi ciencies.


Many people have helped me with this book, many
of them unwittingly. Generations of research methods
students at Loughborough University and the University
of Leicester have plied me with ideas through their ques-
tioning of what I have said to them. I wish to thank
several people at or connected with OUP: Tim Barton for
suggesting to me in the fi rst place that I might like to
think about writing a book like this; Angela Griffi n for
her editorial help during the passage of the fi rst edition
of this book; Patrick Brindle and Katie Allan for their help
and suggestions during the preparation of this revised
edition; Angela Adams for her constant support and
encouragement with the revised and third edition; Kirsty
Reade for copious support and suggestions in the course
of preparing the fourth edition; Hilary Walford for her
attention to detail when copy-editing the typescript;
Philippa Hendry for steering the production of the book;
and Sarah Brett and Lucy Hyde for help with earlier
editions. I also wish to thank Alan Beardsworth for his
helpful and always constructive comments on drafts of
the fi rst edition of the book and Michael Billig for valu-
able comments on part of the fi rst edition. I would like to
say a big thank you to Emma Bell who worked with me on
the fi rst, revised, and third editions of the business school
adaptation of this book, Business Research Methods. Many
of the changes that have been incorporated in the present

9780199588053_A01.indd vii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

This page intentionally left blank

Brief contents

Detailed contents xi

About the author xxiv

Introducing the students xxv

Guide to the book xxxi

Guided tour of textbook features xxxvi

Guided tour of the ORC: lecturer resources xxxviii

Guided tour of the ORC: student resources xxxix

Abbreviations xl

Part One 1

1 The nature and process of social research 3

2 Social research strategies 18

3 Research designs 44

4 Planning a research project and formulating research questions 79

5 Getting started: reviewing the literature 97

6 Ethics and politics in social research 129

Part Two 157

7 The nature of quantitative research 159

8 Sampling 183

9 Structured interviewing 208

10 Self-completion questionnaires 231

11 Asking questions 245

12 Structured observation 269

13 Content analysis 288

14 Secondary analysis and offi cial statistics 310

15 Quantitative data analysis 329

16 Using IBM SPSS for Windows 353

Part Three 377

17 The nature of qualitative research 379

18 Sampling in qualitative research 415

19 Ethnography and participant observation 430

20 Interviewing in qualitative research 468

21 Focus groups 500

22 Language in qualitative research 521

23 Documents as sources of data 542

24 Qualitative data analysis 564

25 Computer-assisted qualitative data analysis: using NVivo 590

9780199588053_A01.indd ix 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Brief contentsx

Part Four 611

26 Breaking down the quantitative/qualitative divide 613

27 Mixed methods research: combining quantitative and qualitative research 627

28 E-research: Internet research methods 653

29 Writing up social research 683

Glossary 709

References 718

Name index 744

Index 750

9780199588053_A01.indd x 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents

About the author xxiv

Introducing the students xxv

Guide to the book xxxi

Guided tour of textbook features xxxvi

Guided tour of the ORC: lecturer resources xxxviii

Guided tour of the ORC: student resources xxxix

Abbreviations xl

Part One 1

Chapter 1 The nature and process of social research 3

Introduction 4
What is meant by ‘social research’? 4
Why do social research? 5
The context of social research methods 5
Elements of the process of social research 8
Literature review 8
Concepts and theories 8
Research questions 9
Sampling cases 11
Data collection 12
Data analysis 13
Writing up 14
The messiness of social research 15
Key points 16
Questions for review 16

Chapter 2 Social research strategies 18

Introduction 19
Theory and research 20
What type of theory? 21
Deductive and inductive theory 24
Epistemological considerations 27
A natural science epistemology: positivism 27
Interpretivism 28
Ontological considerations 32
Objectivism 32
Constructionism 33
Relationship to social research 34
Research strategy: quantitative and qualitative research 35

9780199588053_A01.indd xi 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxii

Infl uences on the conduct of social research 39
Values 39
Practical considerations 41
Key points 42
Questions for review 42

Chapter 3 Research designs 44

Introduction 45
Criteria in social research 46
Reliability 46
Replication 47
Validity 47
Relationship with research strategy 48
Research designs 50
Experimental design 50
Cross-sectional design 59
Longitudinal design(s) 63
Case study design 66
Comparative design 72
Bringing research strategy and research design together 76
Key points 77
Questions for review 77

Chapter 4 Planning a research project and formulating

research questions 79

Introduction 80
Getting to know what is expected of you by your
institution 80
Thinking about your research area 81
Using your supervisor 81
Managing time and resources 82
Formulating suitable research questions 85
Criteria for evaluating research questions 90
Writing your research proposal 92
Preparing for your research 92
Doing your research and analysing your results 93
Checklist 94
Key points 95
Questions for review 95

Chapter 5 Getting started: reviewing the literature 97

Reviewing the existing literature 98
Getting the most from your reading 98
Systematic review 102
Narrative review 110
Searching the existing literature 113
Electronic databases 113
Keywords and defi ning search parameters 118
Referencing your work 120
The role of the bibliography 123
Avoiding plagiarism 124

9780199588053_A01.indd xii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents xiii

Checklist 127
Key points 127
Questions for review 128

Chapter 6 Ethics and politics in social research 129

Introduction 130
Ethical principles 135
Harm to participants 135
Lack of informed consent 138
Invasion of privacy 142
Deception 143
Ethics and the issue of quality 143
The diffi culties of ethical decision-making 148
New media and diffi cult decisions 149
Politics in social research 149
Checklist 153
Key points 154
Questions for review 154

Part Two 157

Chapter 7 The nature of quantitative research 159

Introduction 160
The main steps in quantitative research 160
Concepts and their measurement 163
What is a concept? 163
Why measure? 164
Indicators 164
Using multiple-indicator measures 166
Dimensions of concepts 167
Reliability and validity 168
Reliability 168
Validity 170
Refl ections on reliability and validity 173
The main preoccupations of quantitative researchers 175
Measurement 175
Causality 175
Generalization 176
Replication 177
The critique of quantitative research 178
Criticisms of quantitative research 178
Is it always like this? 179
Reverse operationism 180
Reliability and validity testing 180
Sampling 181
Key points 181
Questions for review 182

Chapter 8 Sampling 183

Introduction to survey research 184
Introduction to sampling 186

9780199588053_A01.indd xiii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxiv

Sampling error 188
Types of probability sample 190
Simple random sample 190
Systematic sample 191
Stratifi ed random sampling 192
Multi-stage cluster sampling 193
The qualities of a probability sample 195
Sample size 197
Absolute and relative sample size 197
Time and cost 198
Non-response 199
Heterogeneity of the population 200
Kind of analysis 201
Types of non-probability sampling 201
Convenience sampling 201
Snowball sampling 202
Quota sampling 203
Limits to generalization 205
Error in survey research 205
Key points 206
Questions for review 206

Chapter 9 Structured interviewing 208

Introduction 209
The structured interview 209
Reducing error due to interviewer variability 210
Accuracy and ease of data processing 211
Other types of interview 212
Interview contexts 213
More than one interviewee 213
More than one interviewer 214
In person or by telephone? 214
Computer-assisted interviewing 216
Conducting interviews 217
Know the schedule 217
Introducing the research 217
Rapport 218
Asking questions 219
Recording answers 219
Clear instructions 219
Question order 220
Probing 223
Prompting 224
Leaving the interview 225
Training and supervision 225
Problems with structured interviewing 227
Characteristics of interviewers 227
Response sets 227
The problem of meaning 228
The feminist critique 228
Key points 229
Questions for review 230

9780199588053_A01.indd xiv 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents xv

Chapter 10 Self-completion questionnaires 231

Introduction 232
Self-completion questionnaire or postal questionnaire? 232
Evaluating the self-completion questionnaire in relation to the
structured interview 233
Advantages of the self-completion questionnaire over the

structured interview 233
Disadvantages of the self-completion questionnaire in

comparison with the structured interview 234
Steps to improve response rates to postal questionnaires 236
Designing the self-completion questionnaire 237
Do not cramp the presentation 237
Clear presentation 237
Vertical or horizontal closed answers? 237
Clear instructions about how to respond 239
Keep question and answers together 239
Diaries as a form of self-completion questionnaire 239
Advantages and disadvantages of the diary as a method of

data collection 243
Key points 243
Questions for review 243

Chapter 11 Asking questions 245

Introduction 246
Open or closed questions? 246
Open questions 246
Closed questions 249
Types of questions 253
Rules for designing questions 254
General rules of thumb 254
Specifi c rules when designing questions 255
Vignette questions 261
Piloting and pre-testing questions 263
Using existing questions 264
Checklist 265
Key points 266
Questions for review 267

Chapter 12 Structured observation 269

Introduction 270
Problems with survey research on social behaviour 270
So why not observe behaviour? 272
The observation schedule 275
Strategies for observing behaviour 276
Sampling 277
Sampling people 277
Sampling in terms of time 278
Further sampling considerations 278
Issues of reliability and validity 279
Reliability 279
Validity 280
Field stimulations as a form of structured observation 282

9780199588053_A01.indd xv 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxvi

Criticisms of structured observation 283
On the other hand . . . 284
Checklist 285
Key points 285
Questions for review 286

Chapter 13 Content analysis 288

Introduction 289
What are the research questions? 291
Selecting a sample 293
Sampling media 293
Sampling dates 293
What is to be counted? 295
Signifi cant actors 295
Words 295
Subjects and themes 297
Dispositions 298
Coding 298
Coding schedule 298
Coding manual 299
Potential pitfalls in devising coding schemes 303
Advantages of content analysis 304
Disadvantages of content analysis 306
Checklist 307
Key points 308
Questions for review 308

Chapter 14 Secondary analysis and offi cial statistics 310

Introduction 311
Other researchers’ data 312
Advantages of secondary analysis 312
Limitations of secondary analysis 315
Accessing the Data Archive 316
Offi cial statistics 320
Reliability and validity 322
Condemning and resurrecting offi cial statistics 324
Offi cial statistics as a form of unobtrusive method 325
Key points 327
Questions for review 327

Chapter 15 Quantitative data analysis 329

Introduction 330
A small research project 331
Missing data 333
Types of variable 335
Univariate analysis 337
Frequency tables 337
Diagrams 337
Measures of central tendency 338
Measures of dispersion 339
Bivariate analysis 339
Relationships not causality 341

9780199588053_A01.indd xvi 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents xvii

Contingency tables 341
Pearson’s r 341
Spearman’s rho 344
Phi and Cramér’s V 344
Comparing means and eta 344
Multivariate analysis 345
Could the relationship be spurious? 345
Could there be an intervening variable? 345
Could a third variable moderate the relationship? 346
Statistical signifi cance 347
The chi-square test 348
Correlation and statistical signifi cance 349
Comparing means and statistical signifi cance 350
Checklist 350
Key points 351
Questions for review 351

Chapter 16 Using IBM SPSS for Windows 353

Introduction 354
Getting started in SPSS 355
Beginning SPSS 355
Entering data in the Data Viewer 356
Defi ning variables: variable names, missing values, variable

labels, and value labels 357
Recoding variables 359
Computing a new variable 359
Data analysis with SPSS 361
Generating a frequency table 361
Generating a bar chart 363
Generating a pie chart 363
Generating a histogram 363
Generating the arithmetic mean, median, standard deviation,

the range, and boxplots 363
Generating a contingency table, chi-square, and Cramér’s V 366
Generating Pearson’s r and Spearman’s rho 368
Generating scatter diagrams 368
Comparing means and eta 372
Generating a contingency table with three variables 372
Further operations in SPSS 373
Saving your data 373
Retrieving your data 374
Printing output 374
Key points 374
Questions for review 374

Part Three 377

Chapter 17 The nature of qualitative research 379

Introduction 380
The main steps in qualitative research 384
Theory and research 387

9780199588053_A01.indd xvii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxviii

Concepts in qualitative research 388
Reliability and validity in qualitative research 389
Adapting reliability and validity for qualitative research 389
Alternative criteria for evaluating qualitative research 390
Recent discussions about quality criteria for qualitative

research 393
Between quantitative and qualitative research criteria 394
Overview of the issue of criteria 397
The main preoccupations of qualitative researchers 399
Seeing through the eyes of the people being studied 399
Description and the emphasis on context 401
Emphasis on process 402
Flexibility and limited structure 403
Concepts and theory grounded in data 404
The critique of qualitative research 405
Qualitative research is too subjective 405
Diffi cult to replicate 405
Problems of generalization 406
Lack of transparency 406
Is it always like this? 407
Some contrasts between quantitative and qualitative research 407
Some similarities between quantitative and qualitative research 409
Feminism and qualitative research 410
Key points 412
Questions for review 413

Chapter 18 Sampling in qualitative research 415

Introduction 416
Levels of sampling 417
Purposive sampling 418
Theoretical sampling 418
Generic purposive sampling 422
Snowball sampling 424
Sample size 425
Not just people 427
Using more than one sampling approach 427
Key points 428
Questions for review 429

Chapter 19 Ethnography and participant observation 430

Introduction 431
Access 433
Overt versus covert ethnography 433
Access to closed settings 435
Access to open/public settings 436
Ongoing access 439
Key informants 439
Roles for ethnographers 440
Active or passive? 446
Field notes 447
Types of fi eld notes 450

9780199588053_A01.indd xviii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents xix

Bringing ethnographic research to an end 452
Can there be a feminist ethnography? 453
The rise of visual ethnography 455
Writing ethnography 462
The changing nature of ethnography 464
Key points 466
Questions for review 466

Chapter 20 Interviewing in qualitative research 468

Introduction 469
Differences between the structured interview and the
qualitative interview 470
Asking questions in the qualitative interview 471
Preparing an interview guide 472
Kinds of questions 476
Recording and transcription 482
Telephone interviewing 488
Life history and oral history interviewing 488
Feminist research and interviewing in qualitative research 491
Qualitative interviewing versus participant observation 493
Advantages of participant observation in comparison to

qualitative interviewing 493
Advantages of qualitative interviewing in comparison to

participant observation 494
Overview 496
Checklist 497
Key points 498
Questions for review 498

Chapter 21 Focus groups 500

Introduction 501
Uses of focus groups 503
Conducting focus groups 504
Recording and transcription 504
How many groups? 505
Size of groups 507
Level of moderator involvement 508
Selecting participants 509
Asking questions 511
Beginning and fi nishing 513
Group interaction in focus group sessions 513
Limitations of focus groups 516
Checklist 519
Key points 519
Questions for review 520

Chapter 22 Language in qualitative research 521

Introduction 522
Conversation analysis 522
Assumptions of conversation analysis 523
Transcription and attention to detail 525

9780199588053_A01.indd xix 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxx

Some basic tools of conversation analysis 525
Overview 527
Discourse analysis 528
Uncovering interpretative repertoires 531
Producing facts 533
Critical discourse analysis 536
Overview 538
Key points 540
Questions for review 540

Chapter 23 Documents as sources of data 542

Introduction 543
Personal documents 544
Diaries, letters, and autobiographies 544
Visual objects 546
Offi cial documents deriving from the state 549
Offi cial documents deriving from private sources 550
Mass-media outputs 552
Virtual documents 554
The reality of documents 554
Interpreting documents 556
Qualitative content analysis 557
Semiotics 559
Hermeneutics 560
Checklist 561
Key points 562
Questions for review 562

Chapter 24 Qualitative data analysis 564

Introduction 565
General strategies of qualitative data analysis 566
Analytic induction 566
Grounded theory 567
Basic operations in qualitative data analysis 575
Steps and considerations in coding 576
Turning data into fragments 577
Problems with coding 578
Thematic analysis 578
Narrative analysis 582
Secondary analysis of qualitative data 586
Key points 587
Questions for review 588

Chapter 25 Computer-assisted qualitative data analysis:

using NVivo 590

Introduction 591
Is CAQDAS like quantitative data analysis software? 591
No industry leader 592
Lack of universal agreement about the utility of CAQDAS 592
Learning NVivo 593
Coding 595

9780199588053_A01.indd xx 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contents xxi

Searching text 603
Memos 607
Saving an NVivo project 607
Opening an existing NVivo project 607
Final thoughts 608
Key points 608
Questions for review 609

Part Four 611

Chapter 26 Breaking down the quantitative/qualitative divide 613

Introduction 614
The natural science model and qualitative research 615
Quantitative research and interpretivism 617
Quantitative research and constructionism 618
Research methods and epistemological and ontological
considerations 618
Problems with the quantitative/qualitative contrast 619
Behaviour versus meaning 620
Theory and concepts tested in research versus theory and

concepts emergent from data 621
Numbers versus words 621
Artifi cial versus natural 621
The mutual analysis of quantitative and qualitative research 622
A qualitative research approach to quantitative research 622
A quantitative research approach to qualitative research 623
Quantifi cation in qualitative research 624
Thematic analysis 624
Quasi-quantifi cation in qualitative research 624
Combating anecdotalism through limited quantifi cation 624
Key points 625
Questions for review 625

Chapter 27 Mixed methods research: combining quantitative and

qualitative research 627

Introduction 628
The argument against mixed methods research 629
The embedded methods argument 629
The paradigm argument 629
Two versions of the debate about quantitative and qualitative
research 631
Approaches to mixed methods research 631
A content analysis of articles based on mixed methods

research 633
Approaches to combining quantitative and qualitative

research in mixed methods research 635
Refl ections on mixed methods research 649
Checklist 650
Key points 651
Questions for review 651

9780199588053_A01.indd xxi 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Detailed contentsxxii

Chapter 28 E-research: Internet research methods 653

Introduction 654
The Internet as object of analysis 654
Using the Internet to collect data from individuals 658
Online ethnography 659
Qualitative research using online focus groups 663
Qualitative research using online personal interviews 668
Online social surveys 670
Email surveys 670
Web surveys 671
Mixing modes of survey administration 672
Sampling issues 673
Overview 679
Ethical considerations in Internet research 679
The state of e-research 681
Key points 681
Questions for review 681

Chapter 29 Writing up social research 683

Introduction 684
Writing up your research 685
Start early 685
Be persuasive 685
Get feedback 686
Avoid sexist, racist, and disablist language 686
Structure your writing 686
Writing up quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods research 692
Writing up quantitative research 692
Writing up qualitative research 695
Writing up mixed methods research 699
Academic writing 704
Checklist 706
Key points 707
Questions for review 707

Glossary 709

References 718

Name index 744

Index 750

9780199588053_A01.indd xxii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

This page intentionally left blank

About the author

Alan Bryman was appointed Professor of Organizational
and Social Research in the School of Management at the
University of Leicester in August 2005. He was head of the
School during 2008 and 2009. Prior to his move to Leicester,
he was Professor of Social Research at Loughborough Univer-
sity, where he had worked for thirty-one years.

His main research interests are in leadership, especially
in higher education, research methods (particularly mixed
methods research), and the ‘Disneyization’ and ‘McDonaldiza-
tion’ of modern society. In 2003–4 he completed a project
on mixed methods research, as part of the Economic and
Social Research Council’s Research Methods Programme.

This research has been used to inform Chapter 27. He also has an interest in the fi eld of
leadership and in leadership in higher education in particular.

He has published widely in the fi eld of Social Research, including: Quantitative Data
Analysis with IBM SPSS 17, 18 and 19: A Guide for Social Scientists (Routledge, 2011) with
Duncan Cramer; Business Research Methods (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition 2011)
with Emma Bell; The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods (Sage, 2004)
with Michael Lewis-Beck and Tim Futing Liao; The Disneyization of Society (Sage, 2004);
Handbook of Data Analysis (Sage, 2004) with Melissa Hardy; The SAGE Handbook of
Organizational Research Methods (Sage, 2009) with David Buchanan; and The SAGE
Handbook of Leadership (Sage, 2011) with David Collinson, Keith Grint, Brad Jackson, and
Mary Uhl-Bien.

He has contributed articles to a range of academic journals including Journal of Manage-
ment Studies; Human Relations; International Journal of Social Research Methodology;
Leadership Quarterly; Leadership; Studies in Higher Education; and American Behavioral
Scientist. He is also on the editorial board of Leadership; Qualitative Research in Organizations
and Management: An International Journal; and the Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxiv 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the students

For many readers of this book one of the main reasons for using it will be to enable you
to undertake a research project of your own, perhaps for the fi rst time. With this in mind,
I have included boxed features entitled ‘Student experience’, which are based on the
experiences of undergraduate and postgraduate social science students who have done
a research project, usually as part of their fi nal year dissertation. The aim of these boxes is
to provide insight and advice based on the experiences of real students in their own words,
or in other words, to ‘tell it like it is’, as Nichols and Beynon (1977) have put it. This feature
is based on a set of questionnaires completed by undergraduate and postgraduate students
from a variety of different UK university social science departments. The main point of this
feature is to provide you with insights into the experiences of student researchers. Profi les
of each of the students are given below, and the original questionnaires can be downloaded
in the form of podcasts from the Online Resource Centre at:

I will now introduce the students who have provided input that has informed the writing
of the ‘Student experience’ feature of this book. I am extremely grateful to them for being
willing to share their experiences of doing a research project and hope that sharing what
they have learned from this process with the readers of this book will enable others to bene-
fi t from their experience. A number of these students assisted on the previous edition of
this book and their biographies below refl ect their research interests at that time.

Rebecca Barnes
Rebecca Barnes was in the fi nal stages of writing up her Ph.D. in the School of Sociology
and Social Policy, University of Nottingham. Rebecca’s thesis examined the issue of vio-
lence and abuse in women’s same-sex intimate relationships. Her research is one of only a
few studies on this topic in the UK. Rebecca adopted a qualitative methodology, conduct-
ing semi-structured, in-depth interviews with forty women who self-defi ned as having
been abused in a previous same-sex relationship. She carried out her interviews across
England and parts of Wales, using online avenues and various forms of advertising to
recruit her sample. Rebecca’s research experiences have fuelled her interest in methodo-
logical issues, and, in particular, the ethical issues that are raised by ‘sensitive’ research.
She has since been appointed Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Derby, where much
of her teaching relates to research methods.

Jez Clark
Jez Clark graduated in 2007 with First Class Honours from the University of East Anglia,
Norwich. Jez studied Politics with Media with a fi nal year internship at an advertising
agency at which he wrote on the evolution of political advertising. During his second year
Jez undertook a ‘Methods of Social Research’ project exploring student perceptions of aca-
demic provision and support during university. His report focused on the academic issues
and problems that individuals may face, and examined whether the UEA advisory system
was providing adequate support. The information was collected by questionnaire, using

9780199588053_A01.indd xxv 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the studentsxxvi

a combination of systematic probability and stratifi ed random sampling. The data taken
from these were collated and analysed (if answers could be coded) using the SPSS data
programme; un-coded, ‘open’ responses were independently assessed.

Hannah Creane
Hannah Creane completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology with Law at Durham
University. She fi nished her studies in 2007. The aim of Hannah’s research project was to
explore the generational changes within childhood. Hannah had always been interested in
the development of the person from child to adult, and in particular the social construction
of childhood. This interest was furthered after carrying out a pilot project in 2005 explor-
ing the importance of sibling relationships in the development of the child. Hannah’s
project was based on the question of what makes a child a child as opposed to an adult, and
to what extent this has changed across the generations. Her research was based on nine
semi-structured interviews; she chose this research method in order to avoid limiting the
response of the people she was interviewing. She created three distinct age brackets: 0–29,
30–59, and 60+, and then interviewed three people from each age bracket in order to
ensure an equal representation for each generation.

Mark Girvan
Mark is a 2011 graduate of the University of Strathclyde, where he studied BA Politics. In
his third year he was part of a team that carried out quantitative research with regard to
voting behaviour prior to the 2010 UK general elections. Using an experimental research
design, the group compiled two separate questionnaires that differed in terms of question
structure and wording. Respondents were asked how they would vote in a referendum on
Scottish independence. The aim was to determine the effect upon the respondents’ vote by
varying the number of options available to them. The effect of emotive language upon voter
response was also examined by varying question wording between the questionnaires.

Cornelius Grebe
Cornelius did a Ph.D. in Social Policy and Administration at the University of Nottingham.
His thesis used qualitative research to analyse German reconciliation of paid employment
and care work policy. Cornelius combined a contextual social constructionist paradigm of
enquiry with a feminist point of view analysing parental leave, childcare, anti-discrimination,
and working-time policies. He was interested in how policy ‘solutions’ shape our under-
standing of the social ‘problem’ of the incompatibility of paid employment and care work.
Cornelius employed documentary analysis concentrating on enacted and proposed

Amy Knight
Amy Knight graduated from the University of Portsmouth in 2010 with an Upper
Second Class in Politics and Sociology. In her third year Amy completed primary research
concerning the recycling patterns of males and females. The main objective of Amy’s
research project was to identify gender differences regarding individuals’ recycling habits
and understand the reasons why differences occur. Amy designed and completed inter-
views and questionnaires, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. The data
was inputted and predominantly analysed using SPSS. ‘Open-ended’ questions from the
interview were assessed independently.

Sarah Hanson
In 2006 Sarah completed a three-year BA Honours degree in English and Sociology at the
University of Derby. In her fi nal year Sarah focused her dissertation on the sociological

9780199588053_A01.indd xxvi 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the students xxvii

impact of women’s magazines, through a combination of contextual and coded analysis. By
using a system of content analysis that was fair and unbiased, Sarah was able to discover
other meanings behind the structure of the magazines’ front covers. Well-documented
theories of feminism and the construction of gender and stereotypes allowed Sarah to
decode the results, and she was thus able to break down the magazine covers to disclose
their true meaning.

Sophie Mason
Sophie Mason studied at the University of East Anglia undertaking a three-year course for
a BA in Society, Culture and Media. In 2005–6 she carried out a research project, which
formed an integral part of her course. Her project was based on the views and experiences
of students at the University of East Anglia. The project involved both qualitative and quan-
titative research on an individual and group scale, which required excellent organizational
skills. Sophie felt it was important to consider the views of students from all demographics
in order to gain a reliable understanding of individuals’ university experiences. The project
spanned three months from initial proposal to completion.

William J. Mason
William J. Mason began his undergraduate studies in sociology at the University of
Sheffi eld in 2005. During his fi nal year he secured funding to continue onto postgraduate
study via the 1+3 ESRC quota studentship award. He then completed a Master’s degree in
Sociological Research Methods and graduated with a 2:1. He is currently in the second
year of his Ph.D. William’s doctoral research focuses on young people’s risk behaviours and
resilience thereof. These topics are considered with reference to concepts of ethnicity,
interaction, and identity. Here an ethnographic approach is employed in order to generate
data that refl ect the mundane experiences of youth workers and young people within two
areas of an industrial city in the north of England. This is a voice that has been largely
neglected within previous research concerning the areas in question. Information of this
nature will highlight the role/impact of community-led organizations in terms of providing
a protective environment for young people, alongside considering the conceptualization
of, and motivations underlying, risk taking, thus contributing to sociological understand-
ings of risk, ethnicity, identity, and health.

Gareth Matthews
Gareth completed a BA in Sociology at the University of Nottingham in 2002, and then
went on to complete an MA in Research Methods. Over this time he developed an interest
in industrial sociology and, more specifi cally, Marxist approaches to labour process ana-
lysis, both of which stemmed from his personal experience in a variety of work settings. At
present he is writing a thesis on the employment of migrant workers in the UK’s hospitality
industry, drawing on data from in-depth interviews held with employers and managers
of hotels, bars, and restaurants in the Brighton and Hove area. The research seeks to chal-
lenge many of the connections that have recently been forged between the theoretical, ana-
lytical, and methodological approach to the study of the labour process, with a particular
emphasis on the potential role of economic-geographical perspectives in reasserting the
notion of ‘place’ into a revitalized empirical agenda.

Alice Palmer
Alice graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Sheffi eld in 2009. Alice
studied Sociology and continued to complete a Masters in International Childhood Studies
with Distinction. Alice’s research topics include the changing role of stay-at-home mothers,
young people’s understanding of their rights under the United Nations Convention on the

9780199588053_A01.indd xxvii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the studentsxxviii

Rights of the Child, and children’s embodied experiences. Alice has worked as a researcher
for the Policy Evaluation Group and is currently studying for a Ph.D. funded by the Uni-
versity of Sheffi eld. Alice’s research methods refl ect her feminist political stance and belief
in creating reciprocal relationships between researcher and subject. Research methods
used in studies so far include in-depth unstructured and semi-structured interviews, and
focus groups.

Isabella Robbins
Isabella embarked on her fi rst degree following the birth of her third child, and a twenty-
fi ve-year career as a professional nurse. She studied Sociology in order to help her make
sense of her world. Having obtained a BA Hons in Sociology at the University of Nottingham,
she took up an ESRC 1+3 studentship at the University of Nottingham. Her research inter-
est concerns contemporary motherhood and the particular issue of how mothers account
for their vaccination decisions. Her interest in this stems from her own experience of
motherhood and the inherent contradictions and challenges of mothering. In order to
explore this issue, she undertook a qualitative research study. She has just submitted her
Ph.D. thesis.

Erin Sanders
Erin recently completed her M.Sc. in gender and politics at Birkbeck College, University of
London. She became interested in how women were affected by development politics, and
began investigating how sex workers were impacted by policies implemented in various
developing countries. Her thesis research project focused on Thai NGOs that were working
with female sex workers, investigating to what extent the organizations were representing
women’s interests. Her study was qualitative and incorporated feminist methodologies;
semi-structured interviews were carried out with NGO representatives and sex workers in
Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Erin is now working on her Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham,
exploring female tourism in Thailand.

Jack Sayers
Jack Sayers is a student at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where he is studying
Philosophy and Politics BA. In his second year of the programme he studied the unit Methods
of Social Research, in which he created his report. The group focused on student satisfac-
tion with university accommodation—interviewing those staying in halls of residences to
attain their results. Jack’s report focused on the services provided by the university, both
within the halls of residences and within the university itself. He compared the satisfac-
tion levels of male and female participants to fi nd out whether there was any deviation in
their views.

Alexandra Scherer
Alexandra is in the second year of her Ph.D. at the University of Surrey, currently collecting
data through interviews with children in a London primary school. Alexandra’s research is
concerned with minority children reading picture books. Prior to starting her ESRC-funded
1+3 studentship, Alexandra was a primary school teacher. She became fascinated by the
deeper readings children made of picture books. Alexandra’s fi rst degree was in English
Literature at Manchester University, where she also took a Masters in Children’s Literature
and Illustration.

Jonathan Smetherham
Jonathan was awarded the John Westergaard Prize from the University of Sheffi eld in 2009
for his fi nal year dissertation in Sociological Studies (BA). The research was a seven-week

9780199588053_A01.indd xxviii 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the students xxix

ethnographic study in rural Guatemala, investigating the implications of Western develop-
ment agendas for local populations and focusing on the role of non-governmental organ-
izations. After graduation, Jonathan worked for the Offi ce for National Statistics, where his
fi rst post involved coordinating government input into key longitudinal studies, providing
support to the Virtual Microdata Laboratory, and facilitating the transition of the Secure
Data Service. During this time he also completed an M.Sc. (part-time) in Social Research
Methods with the Open University.

Emma Taylor
Emma Taylor is a student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, where she is studying
for a BA Honours degree in Politics. In her third year Emma participated in a ‘Research Methods
for Political Scientists’ class, which involved research methods and group project work
based around a contemporary social issue of the group’s choice. Being aware of the recent
changes to licensing laws in Scotland, the group decided to develop a means of assessing
both student and public attitudes towards these changes. The report focused on investigat-
ing whether the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 [2009] would have a profound effect on
individuals’ drinking behaviour, attitudes, and support for licensing laws in general. In
order to assess these assumptions, Emma and her group developed a structured survey,
which was distributed through face-to-face interviews and involved accidental sampling,
after which the data were analysed using PASW. Moreover, in her Honours year Emma was
required to submit a dissertation. As her interests involve British political behaviour and
the salience of contemporary social and political issues, Emma decided to produce a quan-
titative thesis. The aim of her study was to identify whether issue salience had affected
electoral turnout in both the 2005 and 2010 British general elections. More specifi cally,
Emma focused on the perceived importance of the Iraq war for 2005, and the fi nancial
crisis for 2010, using data from the British Election Study.

Lily Taylor
Lily Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in 2007 from the University of East Anglia,
achieving a 2:1 in Society, Culture and Media. During her time studying Lily primarily
directed her units towards those focused on social research. Lily’s quantitative research
project explored areas surrounding academic life at the UEA and focused in depth on student
debt. The research methodology consisted of a questionnaire with a mixture of open- and
closed-ended questions, conducted in university accommodation and around campus,
using a random sampling technique. Exploring factors such as gender differences, living
arrangements, degree courses, and part-time jobs enabled Lily to distinguish groups of
people who were more likely to come out of university in debt than others, and the degree
to which they were worried about this.

Joe Thomson
Joe Thomson studied at the University of East Anglia fo r a BA degree in Politics with
Media. In his second year, Joe was encouraged to embark on a unit that would revolve
around social research and individual project work based on the surrounding university
environment. Like Jack Sayers, Joe’s project held the objective of trying to gauge and
understand the perspectives of UEA students with regards to accommodation and campus
facilities. His report focused upon a comparison of experiences between international and
UK/EU students, which highlighted issues such as security, inter-fl at relationships, and
services provided by the accommodation offi ce. In order to carry out his research, Joe used
a questionnaire design, as well as a combination of sampling methods: stratifi ed random
sampling and systematic probability sampling. Data gathered from interviews that could
be coded was taken, analysed, and inputted, using the SPSS data program.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxix 10/20/11 4:25 PM

Introducing the studentsxxx

Samantha Vandermark
Samantha graduated in 2010 with a First Class Honours in Sociology, Culture and Media
from the University of Surrey. Her dissertation was an exploratory project focused on the
government’s attempt to use advertising in order to raise awareness and prompt action on
the prevention of childhood obesity. Samantha used focus groups of mothers belonging to
various social groups in order to gauge an understanding of how social class, childhood
experiences, and deep-rooted values infl uenced parental techniques with regards to food.
Semiotic and discourse analyses of the advertising texts added an extra dimension to the
research, enabling comparisons between government messaging and parental beliefs.

Introducing the Supervisors

Nine supervisors also provided helpful feedback to inform the Supervisor experience
feature of the book. They kindly agreed to share their experiences of supervising students
doing research projects, and I hope this will add an interesting new perspective for readers
of the book. While they provided their feedback anonymously, I would like to acknowledge
their affi liations, which were Aberystwyth University, Bangor University, Brunel University,
University of Copenhagen, University of Leicester, University of Manchester, University of
Portsmouth, University of Roehampton, and University of Sheffi eld.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxx 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guide to the book

About the book

Focus of the book

This book has been written with two groups of readers
in mind. First, undergraduates in subjects such as socio-
logy, social policy, human geography, and education who
at some point in their degree take a course, and often
more than one course, in the area of research methods.
The book covers a wide range of research methods,
approaches to research, and ways of carrying out data
analysis, so it is likely to meet the needs of the vast
majority of students in this position.

The second group, which in most cases overlaps with
the fi rst, comprises undergraduates and postgraduates
who do a research project as part of the requirement for
their degree programmes. This can take many forms, but
one of the most common is that a small-scale research
project is carried out and a dissertation based on the
investigation is presented. In addition, students are often
expected to carry out mini-projects in relation to certain
modules. Chapter 4 has been written specifi cally for stu-
dents doing research projects. This chapter thus builds on
earlier discussion of research questions in Chapter 1, re-
inforcing a topic that is central to the whole process of
doing research. The accent in the chapters in Parts Two
and Three is on the practice of social research and as
such these chapters will be extremely useful in helping
students make informed decisions about doing their
research. In addition, when each research method is
examined, its uses and limitations are explored in order
to help students to make these decisions. In Part Four,
Chapter 29 provides advice on writing up research.

In addition to providing students with practical advice
on doing research, the book also explores the nature of
social research. This means that it attends to issues relat-
ing to fundamental concerns about what doing social
research entails. For example:

• Is a natural science model of the research process
applicable to the study of society?

• If not, why not?

• Why do some people feel it is inappropriate to employ
such a model?

• If we do use a natural science model, does that mean
that we are making certain assumptions about the
nature of social reality?

• Equally, do those writers and researchers who reject
such a model have an alternative set of assumptions
about the nature of social reality?

• What kind or kinds of research fi ndings are regarded
as legitimate and acceptable?

• To what extent do values have an impact on the
research process?

• Should we worry about the feelings of people outside
the research community concerning what we do to
people during our investigations?

These and many other issues impinge on research in
a variety of ways and will be confronted at different
stages throughout the book. While knowing how to do
research—how best to design a questionnaire, how to
observe, how to analyse documents, and so on—is crucial
to an education in research methods, so too is a broad
appreciation of the wider issues that impinge on the
practice of social research. Thus, so far as I am concerned,
the role of an education in research methods is not just
to provide the skills that will allow you to do your own
research, but also to provide you with the tools for a critical
appreciation of how research is done and with what
assumptions. One of the most important abilities that an
understanding of research methods and methodology
provides is an awareness of the need not to take evidence
that you come across (in books, journals, and so on) for

Why use this book?

There are likely to be two main circumstances in which
this book is in your hands at the moment. One is that you
have to study one or more modules in research methods
for a degree in one of the social sciences or there are
methodological components to one of your substantive
modules (for example, a module in organizational beha-
viour). The other is that you have to conduct an investi-
gation in a social scientifi c fi eld, perhaps for a dissertation

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxi 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guide to the bookxxxii

or project report, and you need some guidelines about
how to approach your study. It may be that you are
wondering why you need to study research methods as a
fi eld and why people like the author of this book do social
research at all.

Why is it important to study


To some students, there does not seem a great deal of
point to studying research methods. They might take the
view that, if they have to conduct an investigation, why
not adopt a ‘need to know’ approach? In other words,
why not just look into how to do your research when
you are on the verge of carrying out your investigation?
Quite aside from the fact that this is an extremely risky
strategy, it neglects the opportunities that a training
in research methods offers. In particular, you need to
bear in mind the following:

• A training in research methods sensitizes you to the
choices that are available to social researchers. In other
words, it makes you aware of the range of research
methods that can be employed to collect data and the
variety of approaches to the analysis of data. Such an
awareness will help you to make the most appropriate
choices for your project, since you need to be aware
of when it is appropriate or inappropriate to employ
particular techniques of data collection and analysis.

• A training in research methods provides you with an
awareness of the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when employing
a particular approach to collecting or analysing data.
Thus, once you have made your choice of research
method (for example, a questionnaire), you need to
be aware of the practices you should follow in order to
implement that method properly. You also need to be
aware of the many pitfalls to be avoided.

• A training in research methods provides you with
insights into the overall research process. It provides a
general vantage point for understanding how research
is done. As such, it illuminates the various stages of
research, so that you can plan your research and think
about such issues as how your research methods will
connect with your research questions.

• A training in research methods provides you with
an awareness of what constitutes good and poor re-
search. It therefore provides a platform for developing
a critical awareness of the limits and limitations of
research that you read. This can be helpful in provid-
ing a critical reading of research that you encounter

for substantive modules in fi elds such as the sociology
of work or the sociology of consumption.

• The skills that a training in research methods imparts
are transferable ones. Knowing about how to sample,
how to design a questionnaire, how to conduct semi-
structured interviewing or focus groups and so on are
skills that are relevant to research in other spheres
(such as fi rms, public sector organizations, and so on).

• Studying research methods by using this book exposes
you to a multitude of examples from real-life research.
I have always learned a lot by reading research and
fi nding out how others have carried out research and
what lessons they seem to have learned. In view of
this, the book is full of examples. I have tried to illus-
trate most of the major points with an example and
often more than one. Most of my examples derive
from published research, and it is clearly the case that
you will fi nd it diffi cult to generate research of an
equivalent level because of your limited resources,
time, and experience. On the other hand, you can get
close, and it is important to learn about the bench-
marks that good practice in published work provide.
In your own research, it may be that, to use a well-
known term devised by Herbert Simon (1960), you
will need to satisfi ce. (Simon devised this term to forge
a contrast with the model of rational decision-making
that was pervasive in economics. He argued that,
when working in organizations, people satisfi ce when
they make decisions rather than fi nd the most appro-
priate means to achieve given ends. Satisfi cing means
that the search for an appropriate course of action
is governed by the principle of looking for what is
satisfactory, rather than for what is optimal.) The im-
portant issue is to know in what ways you are needing
to satisfi ce and what the implications are of doing so.

Thus, I feel that a training in research methods has much
to offer and that readers of this book will recognize the
opportunities and advantages that it provides.

Erin Sanders, one of the students who have contrib-
uted to this book, herself expresses the usefulness of a
knowledge of research methods for a student embarking
on a research project:

I think students often read a good deal around their
subject and have a working knowledge of the literature
about their topic—but rarely read about methods and
methodologies. Knowing about research methods is
incredibly helpful when conducting research, and too
often it is left out of the research process.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxii 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guide to the book xxxiii

Structure of the book

Social research has many different traditions, one of the
most fundamental of which is the distinction between
quantitative and qualitative research. This distinction
lies behind the structure of the book and the way in
which issues and methods are approached.

The book is divided into four parts.

Part One comprises six scene-setting chapters. It deals
with basic ideas about the nature of social research.

• Chapter 1 is concerned to outline some of the main
stages that arise in the course of doing most kinds of
social research. It also aims to explore some of the ways
in which social research is located in a wider context
in which a variety of factors infl uence why social re-
search is done in particular ways. Most of the topics
and areas covered in this chapter are addressed in
much greater detail in later chapters. The goal of the
chapter is to provide insights into some of the ground-
work associated with thinking about social research
methods and their practice.

• Chapter 2 examines such issues as the nature of the
relationship between theory and research and the
degree to which a natural science approach is an
appropriate framework for the study of society. It is
here that the distinction between quantitative and
qualitative research is fi rst encountered. They are
presented as different research strategies with differ-
ent ways of conceptualizing how people and society
should be studied. It is also shown that there is more
to the distinction between them than whether an
investigation includes the collection of quantitative

• In Chapter 3, the idea of a research design is intro-
duced. This chapter allows an introduction to the
basic frameworks within which social research is
carried out, such as social survey research, case study
research, and experimental research. These three
chapters provide the basic building blocks for the rest
of the book.

• Chapter 4 takes you through the mains steps that are
involved in planning and designing a research project
and offers advice on how to manage this process.
It also includes a discussion of research questions—
what they are, why they are important, and how they
come to be formulated.

• Chapter 5 is designed to help you to get started on
your research project by introducing the main steps in
conducting a critical review of the literature.

• Chapter 6 considers the ways in which ethical issues
impinge on researchers and the kinds of principles
that are involved.

Part Two contains ten chapters concerned with quantita-
tive research.

• Chapter 7 explores the nature of quantitative research
and as such provides a context for the later chapters.
The next four chapters are largely concerned with
aspects of social survey research.

• Chapter 8 deals with sampling issues—how to select
a sample and the considerations that are involved in
assessing what can be inferred from different kinds of
sample. It also contains at the beginning an introduc-
tion to survey research that acts as a backdrop to the
discussion of sampling and to the subject matter of the
following three chapters.

• Chapter 9 is concerned with the kind of interviewing
that takes place in survey research—that is, structured

• Chapter 10 covers the design of questionnaires. This
involves a discussion of how to devise self-completion
questionnaires, such as postal questionnaires.

• Chapter 11 examines the issue of how to ask questions
for questionnaires and structured interviews.

• Chapter 12 covers structured observation, which is a
method that has been developed for the systematic
observation of behaviour.

• Chapter 13 presents content analysis, a method that
provides a rigorous framework for the analysis of a
wide range of documents.

• Chapter 14 deals with the analysis of data collected by
other researchers and by offi cial bodies. The emphasis
then switches to the ways in which we can analyse
quantitative data.

• Chapter 15 presents a range of basic tools for the
analysis of quantitative data. The approach taken is
non-technical. The emphasis is upon how to choose a
method of analysis and how to interpret the fi ndings.
No formulae are presented.

• Chapter 16 shows you how to use computer software
—in the form of SPSS, the most widely used software
for analysing quantitative data—in order to imple-
ment the techniques you learned in Chapter 15.

Part Three contains nine chapters on aspects of qualita-
tive research.

• Chapter 17 has the same role in relation to Part Three
as Chapter 7 has in relation to Part Two. It provides

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxiii 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guide to the bookxxxiv

an overview of the nature of qualitative research and
as such provides the context for the other chapters in
this part.

• Chapter 18 examines the main sampling strategies
employed in qualitative research. Just like quantita-
tive researchers, qualitative researchers typically have
to sample research participants, documents, or what-
ever the unit of analysis is. As will be seen, the sam-
pling principles involved are clearly different from
those usually employed by quantitative researchers.

• Chapter 19 is concerned with ethnography and par-
ticipant observation, which is the source of some of
the most well-known studies in social research. The
two terms are often used interchangeably and refer to
the immersion of the researcher in a social setting.

• Chapter 20 deals with the kinds of interview that quali-
tative researchers conduct, which is typically semi-
structured interviewing or unstructured interviewing.

• Chapter 21 explores the focus group method, whereby
groups of individuals are interviewed on a specifi c topic.

• Chapter 22 examines two ways in which qualitative
researchers analyse language: conversation analysis
and discourse analysis.

• Chapter 23 deals with the examination of documents
in qualitative research. The emphasis then shifts to
the analysis of qualitative data.

• Chapter 24 explores some approaches to the analysis
of qualitative data.

• Chapter 25 shows you how to use computer soft-
ware—a relatively new development in qualitative
research—to assist with your analysis.

It is striking that certain issues recur across Parts Two
and Three: interviewing, observation, documents, and
data analysis. However, as you will see, quantitative and
qualitative research constitute contrasting approaches to
such activities.

Part Four contains chapters that go beyond the quantita-
tive/qualitative research contrast.

• Chapter 26 deals with some of the ways in which
the distinction between quantitative and qualitative
research is less fi xed than is sometimes supposed.

• Chapter 27 presents some ways in which quantitative
and qualitative research can be combined to produce
what is referred to as mixed methods research.

• Chapter 28 is concerned with the use of the Internet
as a context or platform for conducting research.

• Chapter 29 has been included to help with writing
up research, an often neglected area of the research

The fourth edition

This fourth edition contains both major and minor dif-
ferences from the third edition. The major revisions

• A new chapter (Chapter 1) that sets the scene for the
rest of the book by outlining some basic issues imping-
ing on a consideration of social research methods and
the factors that impinge on it. It is meant to provide
some building blocks for the rest of the book and to
ease the reader into the area.

• A new chapter on sampling in qualitative research
(Chapter 18). In previous editions of the book, this topic
was spread across several chapters. In this edition, the
consideration of sampling issues faced by qualitative
researchers has been consolidated.

• Some new Student experience boxes have been added
to illuminate students’ own encounters with the social
research process.

• To supplement the Student experience boxes, there
are now Supervisor experience boxes that provide
some insight into the refl ections of those who act as
supervisors of dissertations and projects. All of the
supervisors were highly experienced practitioners so
their thoughts are highly instructive.

Minor revisions include:

• New sections on such topics as life history interviewing
and the changing nature of ethnography.

• Many sections have been substantially expanded and
updated to include important developments such as
the Economic and Social Research Council’s Frame-
work for Research Ethics.

• All sections have been updated where appropriate.
Chapter 28, which is concerned with the use of the
Internet in social research, has undergone a particu-
larly large number of revisions, as this is an area of
research methodology where many developments
have taken place.

• New examples have been introduced and some from
the previous editions have been replaced.

How to use the book

The book can be used in a number of different ways.
However, I would encourage all readers at least to look at

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxiv 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guide to the book xxxv

the chapter guide at the beginning of each chapter so
that they can be sure that they do not in fact need the
material covered there and also to gain a sense of the
range of issues the book does in fact address.

• Wider philosophical and methodological issues. If
you do not need to gain an appreciation of the wider
philosophical context of enquiry in social research,
Chapter 2 can largely be ignored. If an emphasis on such
issues is something you are interested in, Chapter 2
along with Chapter 26 should be a particular focus of

• Survey research. Chapters 8 through 11 deal with
the kinds of topics that need to be addressed in survey
research. In addition, Chapter 15 examines ways of
analysing the kinds of data that are generated by sur-
vey researchers. Also, sections in Chapter 28 explore
issues to do with the conduct of surveys via email or
the World Wide Web.

• Practical issues concerned with doing quantita-
tive research. This is the province of the whole of
Part Two. In addition, you would be advised to read
Chapter 3, which maps out the main research designs
employed, such as experimental and cross-sectional
designs, which are frequently used by quantitative

• Practical issues concerned with doing qualitative
research. This is the province of the whole of Part
Three. In addition, you would be advised to read
Chapter 3, which maps out the main research designs
employed, such as the case study, which is frequently
employed in qualitative research.

• Analysing data. Chapters 15 and 24 explore the ana-
lysis of quantitative and qualitative research data re-
spectively, while Chapters 16 and 25 introduce readers
to the use of computer software in this connection. It
may be that your module on research methods does
not get into issues to do with analysis, in which case
these chapters would be omitted.

• Formulating research questions. As I have already
said in this Guide, I see the asking of research ques-
tions as fundamental to the research process. Advice
on what research questions are, how they are formu-
lated, where they come from, and so on is provided in
Chapters 1 and 4.

• Doing your own research project. I hope that the
whole of this book will be relevant to students doing
their own research projects or mini-projects, but

Chapter 4 is the one where specifi c advice relating to
this issue is located. In addition, I would alert you to
the practical tips that have been devised and the
checklists of points to remember.

• Writing. This issue is very much connected with the
previous point. It is easy to forget that your research
has to be written up. This is as much a part of the
research process as the collection of data. Chapter 29
discusses a variety of issues to do with writing up

• Wider responsibilities of researchers. It is import-
ant to bear in mind that as researchers we bear re-
sponsibilities to the people and organizations that are
the recipients of our research activities. Ethical issues
are raised at a number of points in this book and
Chapter 6 is devoted to a discussion of them. The fact
that an entire chapter has been given over to a discus-
sion of ethics is a measure of their importance in terms
of the need to ensure that all researchers should be
ethically sensitive.

• The quantitative/qualitative research contrast.
The distinction between quantitative and qualitative
research is used in two ways: as a means of organizing
the research methods and methods of analysis avail-
able to you; and as a way of introducing some wider
philosophical issues about social research. Chapter 2
outlines the chief areas of difference between quan-
titative and qualitative research. These are followed
up in Chapter 17. I also draw attention to some of
the limitations of adhering to an excessively strict
demarcation between the two research strategies in
Chapter 26, while Chapter 27 explores ways of inte-
grating them. If you do not fi nd it a helpful distinction,
these chapters can be avoided or skimmed.

• The Internet. The Internet plays an increasingly
important role in the research process. At various
junctures I provide important websites where key
information can be gleaned. I also discuss in Chapter 5
the use of the Internet as a route for fi nding references
for your literature review, itself another important
phase of the research process. You will fi nd that many
of the references that you fi nd when you do an online
search will then themselves be accessible to you in
electronic form. Finally, Chapter 28 discusses the use
of the Internet as a source of material that can be ana-
lysed and as a platform for doing research in the form
of such research methods as web surveys, electronic
focus groups, and email surveys.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxv 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guided tour of textbook features

Chapter guide

The goal of this chapter is to provide guidance for students on how to get started on their research
project. Once you have identifi ed your research questions (see Chapter 4), the next step in any research
project is to search the existing literature and write a literature review. The principal task at this early
stage involves reviewing the main ideas and research relating to your chosen area of interest. This
provides the basis for the writing of a literature review, which forms an important part of the dissertation.
This chapter will advise students on how to go about searching the literature and engaging critically with
the ideas of other writers. It will also help you to understand some of the expectations of the literature

Key concept 5.1
What is a systematic review?

Systematic review has been defi ned as ‘a replicable, scientifi c and transparent process . . . that aims to minimize

bias through exhaustive literature searches of published and unpublished studies and by providing an audit trail

of the reviewer’s decisions, procedures and conclusions’ (Tranfi eld et al. 2003: 209). Such a review is often

contrasted with the traditional narrative review, which is the focus of the next section. The proponents of

systematic review are more likely to generate unbiased and comprehensive accounts of the literature, especially

in fi elds in which the aim is to understand whether a particular intervention has particular benefi ts, than those

using the traditional review, which is often depicted by them as haphazard. A systematic review that includes

only quantitative studies is a meta-analysis (see Key concept 5.2). In recent times, the development of

systematic review procedures for qualitative studies has attracted a great deal of attention, especially in the social

sciences. Meta-ethnography (see Key concept 5.3) is one such approach to the synthesis of qualitative fi ndings,

but currently there are several different methods, none of which is in widespread use (Mays et al. 2005).

Thinking deeply 5.2
What do examiners look for in

a literature review?

Holbrook et al. (2007) conducted an analysis of examiners’ reports on Ph.D. theses. They analysed 1,310 reports

relating to 501 theses in Australia (a Ph.D. thesis is examined by at least two examiners). These reports are

naturally occurring documents, in that examiners have to provide these reports as part of the process of

examining a Ph.D. candidate. In the course of writing a report, examiners frequently if not invariably comment on

the literature review. While these fi ndings are obviously specifi c to a Ph.D., the features that examiners look for

are also applicable in general terms to other kinds of writing, such as an undergraduate or a postgraduate


The reports were analysed using computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software, which will be covered in

Chapter 25. The analysis of these reports suggests that comments concerning the literature review were of three

basic kinds:

Tips and skills
Using systematic review in a student

research project

The systematic review approach does contain some elements that cannot easily be applied in a student research

project because of limitations of time and resources. For example, you are unlikely to be able to assemble a panel

of experts in methodology and theory to meet you regularly and discuss the boundaries of the review. However,

there are some aspects of the approach that can be applied to students’ research. For example, meeting your

supervisor regularly during the planning stage of your literature review to defi ne the boundaries of the subject

and to come up with likely search terms is extremely useful. Your supervisor’s knowledge of the subject can be

invaluable at this stage. Also, a systematic review approach to the literature requires a transparent way of

searching for and examining the literature as well as keeping records of what you have done. These practices

are feasible for a student research project.

Research in focus 5.1
Healthy eating among young people

Shepherd et al. (2006) have published an account of the procedures they used to examine the barriers to healthy

eating among young people aged 11–16 years and the factors that facilitate healthy eating. In Table 5.1 I have

outlined the chief steps in doing a systematic review, as outlined in the main text, and the corresponding

procedures and practices in the review by Shepherd et al. These authors used methods for systematic review that

have been developed by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre (EPPI) at the

Institute of Education, University of London. The EPPI has a very comprehensive website that details its approach

and its main methods and provides full reports of many of the systematic reviews its members have conducted

( (accessed 2 August 2010)).

Chapter guide

Each chapter begins with a chapter guide that alerts readers to

what they can expect to have learned by the end of each chapter.

This provides a route map of what is to follow.

Research in focus boxes

It is often said that the three most important features to look for

when buying a house are location, location, location. A parallel for

the teaching of research methods is examples, examples, examples!

Research in focus boxes are designed to provide a sense of place

for the theories and concepts being discussed in the chapter text,

by providing real examples of published research.

Key concept boxes

This feature explains key terms, for instance by asking ‘What is . . . ?’, or

by listing a series of important points about a particular issue or topic.

These boxes will help you build up a terminology about research

methods, which you can then apply in your own work and to provide

further explanation of ideas that may be diffi cult to understand. Key

concepts are indicated in purple type for quick reference and are

defi ned in the Glossary.

Thinking deeply boxes

Social research methods can sometimes be complex: Thinking deeply

boxes contain further discussion of a topic or issue as a way of

encouraging you to think about it in greater depth or helping to

explain current debates or important discussions that have gone on

between researchers. This feature is intended to take you beyond the

introductory level and to raise your awareness of some of the

complexities involved in using social research methods.

Tips and skills boxes

These boxes provide guidance and advice on key aspects of the

research process and are intended to help you to avoid making certain

mistakes that I have found students commonly make, based on my

experiences of talking to and supervising them. Tips and skills boxes

also give information that is intended to help you to acquire the skills

that are needed to become a competent social researcher.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxvi 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guided tour of textbook features xxxvii

Student experience boxes

Student experience boxes draw on interviews with real research

students from a variety of universities around the UK, and provide

valuable windows into the research practices and problems of students

who have gone before you. These boxes will help you to anticipate and

resolve research problems as you move through your dissertation or


Supervisor experience boxes

Supervisor experience boxes draw on interviews with dissertation

and thesis supervisors from a variety of universities around the UK,

and, like the Student experience boxes, provide valuable insights into

the research practices and problems of students who have gone before

you. These boxes will help you to anticipate and resolve research

problems as you move through your dissertation or project.


Most chapters include checklists of issues that should be borne in mind

when engaging in certain activities (such as doing a literature review,

devising a structured interview schedule, or conducting a focus group).

They are meant to alert you to key points you will have encountered in

the text so that you can be reminded of what to look out for or

consider when doing your own research.

Key points

At the end of each chapter there is a set of signifi cant points that are

particularly crucial for you to take note of. They are meant to alert you

to issues that are especially important and to jog your memory about

the areas that have been covered.

Questions for review

At the end of each chapter there is also a series of questions to help

you to test your understanding of key concepts and ideas.


At the end of the book is a glossary of defi nitions of central terms.

Many repeat defi nitions in the Key concept boxes, but they also

provide a convenient way of knowing what is meant by key terms.

Glossary terms are also highlighted in purple text in the chapters.

Supervisor experience
How to annoy your dissertation supervisor and

cause yourself problems: fi ve easy steps
Supervisors were asked about some of the chief frustrations associated with supervising dissertation students.

There were some recurring themes in their responses. Here are some easy ways to annoy your supervisor and

create problems for yourself:

1. Don’t turn up to pre-arranged supervision meetings. Quite aside from the rudeness of doing this, a failure to

turn up begins to ring alarm bells about whether the student is veering off course.

2. Leave the bulk of the work until the last minute. Supervisors know full well that research must be paced

because it requires a great deal of forethought and because things can go wrong. The longer students leave

their dissertation work, the more diffi cult it becomes to do thorough research and to rectify problems.

3. Ignore what your supervisor advises you to do. Supervisors are extremely experienced researchers, so that

ignoring their advice is irritating and certainly not in a student’s interest.

4 Hand in shoddy drafts as late as possible It is not your supervisor’s role to write the dissertation for you so


Planning a research project

� Do you know what the requirements for your dissertation are, as set out by your university or


� Have you made contact with your supervisor?

� Have you allowed enough time for planning, doing, and writing up your research project?

� Do you have a clear timetable for your research project with clearly identifi able milestones for the

achievement of specifi c tasks?

� Have you got suffi cient fi nancial and practical resources (for example, money to enable travel to

research site, recording device) to enable you to carry out your research project?

� Have you formulated some research questions and discussed these with your supervisor?

Key points

● Follow the dissertation guidelines provided by your institution.

● Thinking about your research subject can be time consuming, so allow plenty of time for this aspect
of the dissertation process.

● Use your supervisor to the fullest extent allowed and follow the advice offered by him or her.

● Plan your time carefully and be realistic about what you can achieve in the time available.

● Formulate some research questions to express what it is about your area of interest that you want to

● Writing a research proposal is a good way of getting started on your research project and encouraging

Questions for review

Managing time and resources

● Why is it important to devise a timetable for your research project?

Formulating suitable research questions

● Why are research questions necessary?

● What are the main sources of research questions?

● What are the main steps involved in developing research questions?

● What criteria can be used to evaluate research questions?

Category In grounded theory, a category occupies a space

between a researcher’s initial theoretical refl ections on and

understanding of his or her data and a concept, which is

viewed as a higher level of abstraction. Thus, a category has

an intermediate position in terms of abstraction between

coding and a theory.

Student experience
Strategies for fi nding references

The students who supplied information concerning their strategies for doing their literature reviews used a

variety of approaches. As well as searching the journals, Erin Saunders got help from her supervisor and others.

I was recommended a number of relevant texts by my supervisor—and from there I located other sources by

using the bibliographies of these texts. As well, I did an extensive journal search for articles that were related

to my topic. I also contacted a number of academics in the fi eld to ask for specifi c suggestions. Then I read as

much of the literature as I could, identifying key themes and ideas.

Hannah Creane’s approach was to focus on key names in the sociological literature on childhood.

Initially I read a few core textbooks that cover the general aspects of sociology, and picked out from them the

main names of sociologists who have written about childhood and, in particular, childhood as a social

construction. From there I read the books of some of the key names within the fi eld of childhood study, and

just simply kept looking up the names of sociologists whom they had referenced. I kept going like this until

I felt I had enough literature to back up my fi ndings and theories that I made in the light of my own research.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxvii 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guided tour of the ORC:
lecturer resources

PowerPoint slides

A suite of customizable PowerPoint slides has been included for use in lecture

presentations. Arranged by chapter theme and tied specifi cally to the lecturer’s

guide, the slides may also be used as handouts in class.

Lecturer’s guide

A comprehensive lecturer’s guide has been included to assist both new and

experienced instructors in their teaching. The guide includes reading guides,

lecture outlines, further coverage of diffi cult concepts, and teaching activities,

and is accompanied by instructions on how the guide may be most effectively

implemented in the teaching programme.

Case studies

Each chapter is accompanied by a case study, complete with 3–5 discussion

questions. These can be used in seminars or as assignments, to stimulate group

work, and for independent critical thinking.

Figures and tables from the text

All fi gures and tables from the text are provided in high resolution format for

downloading into presentation software or for use in assignments and exam


Test bank

This customizable resource contains 10 questions per chapter with answers and

feedback, allowing you to create your own personalized testing sessions. These can

be used to monitor students’ understanding and progress during the term, or in

formal assessment at the end of the course.

This textbook is accompanied by a full suite of online resources,

which are freely available to adopting lecturers. Our comprehensive

supplements will save you time in preparing lectures, planning seminars,

and creating assessments for your students. To register for a password,

simply follow the steps on the Social Research Methods homepage.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxviii 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Guided tour of the ORC:
student resources

Multiple choice questions

The best way to reinforce your understanding of research methods is through

frequent and cumulative revision. To aid you in this, a bank of self-marking multiple

choice questions has been provided for each chapter of the text, and includes

instant feedback on your answers to help strengthen your knowledge of key

research concepts.

Annotated web links

A series of annotated web links to the best social research websites, organized by

chapter, enables you to extend your understanding by reading the latest

perspectives on social research issues.

Flashcard glossary

Online fl ashcards have been designed to help you understand and memorize the

key terms used in the book. The fl ashcards can also be downloaded to your iPod

or other portable devices for revision on the move.

Student researcher’s toolkit

This toolkit is divided into two main parts:

1. An interactive research project guide, which takes you step-by-step through

each of the key research phases, ensuring that you do not overlook any research

step, and providing guidance and advice on every aspect of social research from

dealing with your supervisor to ways of organizing and writing your dissertation

for maximum effect.

2. Dos and don’ts of social research: a quick practical checklist drawn from

experience of common pitfalls.

Student experience podcasts

Learn from the real research experiences of students who have completed their own

research projects! Download podcasts explaining in detail about the research projects

of undergraduate and postgraduate (MA and Ph.D.) students from a range of degree

courses throughout the UK. Learn about the research processes they went through

and the problems they resolved as they moved through each research phase. The

questionnaires they answered are also available on the ORC as Word documents.

Guide to using Excel in data analysis

Using Excel to an advanced level can be one of the trickiest aspects of a research

project. This interactive guide takes you step-by-step from the very fi rst stages of

using Excel to more advanced topics such as descriptive statistics, contingency

tables, charting and regression, and statistical signifi cance.

9780199588053_A01.indd xxxix 10/20/11 4:26 PM


ASA American Sociological Association
BCS British Crime Survey
BFI British Film Institute
BHPS British Household Panel Survey
BPS British Psychological Society
BSA British Social Attitudes [survey]
BSA British Sociological Association
BSE Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy
CA conversation analysis
CAPI computer-assisted personal interviewing
CAQDAS computer-assisted/aided qualitative data analysis software
CATI computer-assisted telephone interviewing
CCSE Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion
CCTV closed-circuit television
CDA critical discourse analysis
CF cystic fi brosis
CJD Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease
CV curriculum vitae
DA discourse analysis
ECA ethnographic content analysis
EFS Expenditure and Food Survey
ENT ear, nose, throat
EPPI Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre
ESDS Economic and Social Data Service
ESRC Economic and Social Research Council
FES Family Expenditure Survey
FIAC Flanders Interaction Analysis Categories
FMD foot and mouth disease
FRE Framework for Research Ethics
GHS General Household Survey
GLF General Lifestyle Survey
HALS Health and Lifestyle Survey
HETUS Harmonized European Time Use Studies
HISS hospital information support system
HRT hormone replacement therapy
IBSS International Bibliography of the Social Sciences
ICI Imperial Chemical Industries
HIS Integrated Household Survey
IRB Institutional Review Board
ISSP International Social Survey Programme
ISP Internet service provider
IT information technology

9780199588053_A01.indd xl 10/20/11 4:26 PM

Abbreviations xli

LFS Labour Force Survey
MUD multi-user domain
NCDS National Child Development Study
NFS National Food Survey
NGO non-governmental organizations
NHS National Health Service
NSPCC National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
NS-SEC National Statistics Socio-Economic Classifi cation
NUD*IST Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorizing
ONS Offi ce for National Statistics
ONS Omnibus Survey
ORACLE Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation
QLL qualitative longitudinal research
RAE Research Assessment Exercise
RCT randomized controlled trial
RDD random digit dialing
REC Research Ethics Committee
REF Research Ethics Framework
RGF Research Governance Framework for Health and Social Care
SCELI Social Change and Economic Life Initiative
SCPR Social and Community Planning Research
SE standard error [of the mean]
SPSS Statistical Package for the Social Sciences
SRA Social Research Association
SSCI Social Sciences Citation Index
TB tuberculosis
TDM Tailored Design Method
UKDA UK Data Archive
WERS Workplace Employment Relations Survey
WI Women’s Institute
WoK Web of Knowledge

9780199588053_A01.indd xli 10/20/11 4:26 PM

This page intentionally left blank

Part One

Part One of this book aims to provide the groundwork for the more specialized

chapters in Parts Two, Three, and Four. In Chapter 1, some of the basic ideas in

thinking about social research methods are outlined. Chapters 2 and 3 are concerned

with two ideas that will recur again and again during the course of this book—the

idea of research strategy and the idea of research design. Chapter 2 outlines a

variety of considerations that impinge on the practice of social research and relates

these to the issue of research strategy. Two research strategies are identifi ed:

quantitative and qualitative research. Chapter 3 identifi es the different kinds of

research design that are employed in social research. Chapters 4 and 5 are

concerned with providing advice to students on some of the issues that they need to

consider if they have to prepare a dissertation based upon a relatively small-scale

research project. Chapter 4 deals with planning and formulating research

questions, including the principles and considerations that need to be taken into

account in designing a small-scale research project, while Chapter 5 is about how to

get started in reviewing the literature. Chapter 6 deals with ethics in social research.

9780199588053_C01.indd 1 10/20/11 9:58 AM

This page intentionally left blank

The nature and
process of social

Chapter outline

Introduction 4

What is meant by ‘social research’? 4

Why do social research? 5

The context of social research methods 5

Elements of the process of social research 8

Literature review 8

Concepts and theories 8

Research questions 9

Sampling cases 11

Data collection 12

Data analysis 13

Writing up 14

The messiness of social research 15

Key points 16

Questions for review 16


9780199588053_C01.indd 3 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research4

This book is concerned with the ways that social re-
searchers go about their craft. I take this to mean that
it is concerned with the approaches that are employed
by social researchers to go about the research process in
all its phases—formulating research objectives, choosing
research methods, securing research participants, col-
lecting, analysing, and interpreting data, and dissemi-
nating fi ndings to others. An understanding of social
research methods is important for several reasons, but
two stand out. First, it is hoped that it will help readers to
avoid the many pitfalls that are all too common when
relatively inexperienced people try to do social research,
such as failing to match research questions to research
methods, asking ambiguous questions in questionnaires,

and engaging in practices that are ethically dubious.
If you are expected to conduct a research project, an
education in research methods is important, not just
for ensuring that the correct procedures are followed
but also for gaining an appreciation of the choices that
are available to you. Second, an understanding of social
research methods is also important from the point of
view of being a consumer of published research. When
people take degrees in the social sciences, they will read
a lot of published research in the substantive areas they
study. A good grounding in the research process and a
knowledge of the potential pitfalls can provide a critical
edge when reading the research of others that can be

Chapter guide

This chapter aims to introduce readers to some fundamental considerations in conducting social
research. It begins by outlining what we mean by social research and the reasons why we conduct it.
However, the bulk of the chapter then moves on to consider three areas:

• The context of social research methods. This entails considering issues such as the role of theory in
relation to social research, the role of values and in particular of ethical considerations in the research
process, the signifi cance of assumptions about the nature of the social world and about how
knowledge about it should be produced, and the ways in which political considerations may
materialize in social research.

• The elements of the research process. The whole book is dedicated to the elements of social research,
but here the essential stages are given a preliminary treatment. The elements identifi ed are:
a literature review; formulating concepts and theories; devising research questions; sampling; data
collection; data analysis; and writing up fi ndings.

• The messiness of social research. This section acknowledges that social research often does not
conform to a neat, linear process and that researchers may fi nd themselves facing unexpected
contingencies and diffi culties. At the same time, it is suggested that a familiarity with the nature
of the research process and its principles is crucial to navigating through the unexpected.

All of the issues presented in these three sections will be treated in much greater detail in later chapters,
but they are introduced at this stage to provide readers with an early encounter with them.

What is meant by ‘social research’?

The term ‘social research’ as used in this book denotes
academic research on topics relating to questions relevant

to the social scientifi c fi elds, such as sociology, human
geography, social policy, politics, and criminology. Thus,

9780199588053_C01.indd 4 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 5

research topics and issues and how to interpret and draw
implications from research fi ndings. In other words,
what dis tinguishes social research of the kind discussed
in this book is that it is deeply rooted in the ideas and
intellectual traditions of the social sciences. This book
is about the methods that are used to create that kind
of research.

Why do social research?

The rationale for doing social research has been outlined
in the previous section to a certain extent. Academics
conduct such research because, in the course of reading
the literature on a topic or when refl ecting on what is
going on in modern social life, questions occur to them.
They may notice a gap in the literature or an inconsis-
tency between a number of studies or an unresolved issue
in the literature. These provide common circumstances
that act as springboards for social research in academic
circles. Another is when there is a development in society
that provides an interesting point of departure for the
investigation of a research question. For example, noting

social research involves research that draws on the
social sciences for conceptual and theoretical inspiration.
Such research may be motivated by developments and
changes in society, such as the rise in worries about
security or binge-drinking, but it employs social scien-
tifi c ideas to illuminate those changes. It draws upon
the social sciences for ideas about how to formulate

the widespread use of text messaging on mobile tele-
phones, a researcher might become interested in study-
ing how far it has affected the nature and quality of
interaction in social life. In exploring this kind of issue,
the researcher is likely to draw upon the literature on
technology and on social interaction to provide insights
into how to approach the issue. As I say in Chapter 2,
there is no single reason why people do social research
of the kind emphasized in this book, but, at its core, it
is done because there is an aspect of our understand-
ing of what goes on in society that is to some extent

The context of social research methods

Social research and its associated methods do not take
place in a vacuum. In this book, a number of factors that
form the context of social research will be mentioned.
The following factors form part of the context within
which social research and its methods operate:

• The theories that social scientists employ to help to
understand the social world have an infl uence on what
is researched and how the fi ndings of research are inter-
preted. In other words, the topics that are investigated
are profoundly infl uenced by the available theoretical
positions. Thus, if a researcher was interested in the
impact of mobile phone text messaging on sociability,
it is quite likely that he or she would want to take into
account prevailing theories about how technology is
used and its impacts. In this way, social research is
informed and infl uenced by theory. It also contributes
to theory because the fi ndings of a study will feed into
the stock of knowledge to which the theory relates.

• As the previous point implies, the existing knowledge
about the area in which the researcher is interested
forms an important part of the background within
which social research takes place. In practice, this
means that someone planning to conduct research
must be familiar with the literature on the topic or
area of interest. You have to be acquainted with what
is already known about the research area in which
you are interested so that you can build on it and
not risk covering the same ground as others. Review-
ing the literature is the main focus of Chapter 5 and
is also an ingredient of other chapters, such as
Chapter 29.

• The researcher’s views about the nature of the rela-
tionship between theory and research also have impli-
cations for research. For some practitioners, theory
is something that is addressed at the beginning of a
research project. The researcher might be viewed as

9780199588053_C01.indd 5 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research6

engaging in some theoretical refl ections out of which
a hypothesis is formulated and then subsequently
tested. An alternative position is to view theory as an
outcome of the research process—that is, as some-
thing that is arrived at after the research has been
carried out. This difference has implications for re-
search, because the fi rst approach implies that a set of
theoretical ideas drive the collection and analysis of
data whereas the second suggests a more open-ended
strategy in which theoretical ideas emerge out of the
data. Of course, as is so often the case in discussions of
this kind, the choice is rarely as stark as this account of
the relationship between theory and research implies,
but it does imply that there are some contrasting
views about the role of theory in relation to research.
This issue will be a major focus of Chapter 2.

• The assumptions and views about how research
should be conducted infl uence the research process.
It is often assumed that a ‘scientifi c’ approach will
and should be followed, in which a hypothesis is for-
mulated and then tested using precise measurement
techniques. Such research defi nitely exists, but the
view that this is how research should be done is by
no means universally shared. Considerations of this
kind are referred to as epistemological ones. They
raise questions about, and invite us to refl ect upon,
the issue of how the social world should be studied
and whether a scientifi c approach is the right stance
to adopt. Some researchers favour an approach that
eschews a scientifi c model, arguing that people and
their social institutions are very different from the
subject matter of the scientist and that an approach
is needed that is more sensitive to the special qualities
of people and their social institutions. This issue will
be a major focus in Chapter 2.

• The assumptions about the nature of social phenom-
ena infl uence the research process too. It is sometimes
suggested that the social world should be viewed as
something that is external to social actors and over
which they have no control. It is simply there, acting
upon and infl uencing their behaviour, beliefs, and
values. We might view the culture of an organization
as a set of values and behavioural expectations that
exert a powerful infl uence over those who work in the
organization and into which new recruits have to be
socialized. But we could also view it as an entity that
is in a constant process of reformulation and reassess-
ment, as members of the organization continually
modify it through their practices and through small

innovations in how things are done. Considerations
of this kind are referred to as ontological ones. They
invite us to consider the nature of social phenomena—
are they relatively inert and beyond our infl uence or
are they very much a product of social interaction? As
for epistemological issues discussed in the previous
point, the stance that the researcher takes on them
has implications for the way in which social research
is conducted. This issue will be a major focus of
Chapter 2.

• The values of the research community have signifi cant
implications for researchers. This can take a number
of forms. Ethical issues have been a point of discussion,
and indeed often of considerable dissension, over the
years, but in recent times they have soared in promin-
ence. It is now almost impossible to do certain kinds
of research without risking the opprobrium of the
research community and possible censure from the
organizations in which researchers are employed.
Nowadays, there is an elaborate framework of bodies
that scrutinize research proposals for their ethical
integrity, so that transgression of ethical principles
becomes ever less likely. Certain kinds of research
require special provision with regard to ethics, such
as research involving children or vulnerable adults.
Thus, ethical values and the institutional arrange-
ments that have arisen in response to the clamour for
ethical caution have implications for what and who
can be researched and for how research can be con-
ducted to the point where certain research methods
and practices are no longer employed. Another way
in which the values of the research community can
impinge on the researcher is that in certain fi elds,
such as in social policy, there is a strong view that
those being researched should be involved in the re-
search process. For example, when social researchers
conduct research on service users, it is often suggested
that the users of those services should be involved in
the formulation of research questions and instruments,
such as questionnaires. While such views are not uni-
versally held (Becker et al. 2010), they form a con-
sideration that researchers in certain fi elds may feel
compelled to refl ect upon when contemplating certain
kinds of investigation. Ethical issues are addressed
further in Chapter 6 and touched on in several other

• Related to the previous issue is the question of what
research is for. Thus far, I have tended to stress the
academic nature and role of social research—namely,

9780199588053_C01.indd 6 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 7

that it is to add to the stock of knowledge about the
social world. However, many social scientists feel that
research should have a practical purpose and that it
should make a difference to the world around us.
Such an emphasis means that, for some practitioners,
the social sciences should focus on topics and issues
that will have implications for practice. For researchers
in social science disciplines like social policy, an em-
phasis on investigations having demonstrable implica-
tions for practice is more widely held than in it might
be in other disciplines. Also, there are research ap-
proaches that are more or less exclusively designed to
explore issues that will have implications for people’s
everyday lives, such as evaluation research and action

research, which will be touched upon in Chapters 3
and 17 respectively. However, even in fi elds like social
policy, a commitment to an emphasis on practice is
not universally held. In a survey of UK social policy
researchers in 2005, Becker, Bryman, and Sempik
(2006) found that 53 per cent of all those questioned
felt that it was equally important for research to have
potential value for policy and practice and to lead
to the accumulation of knowledge, a further 34 per
cent felt it was more important for research to have
potential value for policy and practice, and 13 per cent
felt it was more important for social policy research to
lead to the accumulation of knowledge.

• Social research operates within a wider political con-
text. This feature has many aspects and some of these
are mentioned in Chapter 6. For example, much social
research is funded by government bodies, and these
tend to refl ect the orientation of the government of
the day. This will mean that certain research issues
are somewhat more likely to receive fi nancial support
than others. Further, for research supported by the
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the
major funding body for UK social science research,
prospective applicants are supposed to demonstrate
how potential users of the research will be involved
or engaged if the research receives fi nancial support.
The notion of a ‘user’ is capable of being interpreted in
a number of different ways, but it is likely to be more
straightforward for an applicant to demonstrate the
involvement of users when research has a more
applied focus. In other words, the stipulation that
users must be involved could be taken to give a slight
advantage to research with a focus on practice.

• The training and personal values of the researcher
cannot be ignored. They form a component of the
context of social research methods in that they may
infl uence the research area, the research questions,
and the methods employed to investigate these. Our
experiences and our interests frequently have some
infl uence on the issues we research. As academic
social researchers, the issues that interest us have to
connect to the wider disciplines of the social sciences.
An example referred to in Chapter 2 is O’Reilly’s
(2000) study of British expatriates living on Spain’s
Costa Del Sol. The issue was of interest to her because
she and her partner were planning to live there them-
selves. This clearly constitutes a personal interest, but
it is not exclusively so, because she used the topic as
a lens for raising issues about transnational migra-
tion, an issue that has been of great interest to social
scientists in recent years. I also mention in Chapter 2
my own interest in the ways in which social science
research is reported in the mass media. This grew out
of a wounding experience reported in Haslam and
Bryman (1994), which led me to develop an interest
in the issue more generally, to read a great deal of
the literature on the reporting of both science and
social science in the media, and to develop it into a
research project. Also, social researchers, as a result of
their training and sometimes from personal prefer-
ences that build up, frequently develop attachments
to, or at least preferences for, certain research
methods and approaches. One of the reasons why
I try to cover a wide range of research methods in
this book is because I am convinced that it is import-
ant for practising and prospective researchers to
be familiar with a diversity of methods and how to
implement them. The development of methodological
preferences carries the risk of researchers becoming
blinkered and restricted in what they know, but it
is undoubtedly the case that such preferences often
do emerge and have implications for the conduct of

It is impossible to arrive at an exhaustive list of factors
that are relevant to this section, but it is hoped that the
discussion above will provide a fl avour of the ways in
which the conduct of social research and the choice of
research methods are not hermetically sealed off from
wider infl uences.

9780199588053_C01.indd 7 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research8

In this section and the rest of this chapter, I will introduce
what I think are the main elements of most research
projects. It is common for writers of textbooks on social
research methods to compile fl ow charts of the research
process, and I am not immune to this temptation, as you
will see from, for example, Figures 2.1, 8.1, and 17.1! At
this point, I am not going to try to sequence the vari-
ous stages or elements of the research process, as the
sequencing varies somewhat according to different re-
search strategies and approaches. All I want to do at this
juncture is to introduce some of the main elements—in
other words, elements that are common to all or most
varieties of social research. Some of them have already
been touched on in the previous section and all of them
will be addressed further and in more detail in later

Literature review

The existing literature represents an important element
in all research. When we have alighted upon a topic or
issue that interests us, we must read further to determine
a number of things. We need to know:

• what is already known about the topic;

• what concepts and theories have been applied to the

• what research methods have been applied to the topic;

• what controversies about the topic and how it is
studied exist;

• what clashes of evidence (if any) exist;

• who the key contributors to research on the topic are.

Many topics have a rich tradition of research, so it is un-
likely that many people, such as students doing an under-
graduate or postgraduate Master’s dissertation, will be
able to conduct an exhaustive review of the literature in
such areas. What is crucial is that you establish and read
the key books and articles and some of the main fi gures
who have written in the fi eld. As I suggest in Chapter 5,
it is crucial that you know what is known, so that you
cannot be accused of not doing your homework and
therefore of naively going over old ground. Also, being
able to link your own research questions, fi ndings, and
discussion to the existing literature is an important and

useful way of demonstrating the credibility and contribu-
tion of your research. However, as will become clear from
reading Chapter 5, a literature review is not simply a
summary of the literature that has been read. The writ-
ten literature review is expected to be critical. This does
not necessarily mean that you are expected to be highly
critical of the authors you read, but it does mean that you
are supposed to assess the signifi cance of their work and
how each item fi ts into the narrative about the literature
that you construct when writing a literature review.

Concepts and theories

Concepts are the way that we make sense of the social
world. They are essentially labels that we give to aspects
of the social world that seem to have common features
that strike us as signifi cant. As outlined in Chapter 7, the
social sciences have a strong tradition of concepts, many
of which have become part of the language of everyday
life. Concepts such as bureaucracy, power, social control,
status, charisma, labour process, cultural capital (see
Research in focus 1.1 for an example using this concept),
McDonaldization, alienation, and so on are very much
part of the theoretical edifi ce that generations of social
scientists have constructed. Concepts are a key ingredi-
ent of theories. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine
a theory that did not have at least one concept embedded
in it.

Concepts serve several purposes in the conduct of
social research. They are important to how we organize
and signal to intended audiences our research interests.
They help us to think about and be more disciplined
about what it is we want to fi nd out about and at the
same time help with the organization of our research
fi ndings. In the section on ‘The context of social research
methods’ it was noted briefl y that the relationship be-
tween theory and research is often depicted as involving
a choice between theories driving the research process in
all its phases and theories as a product of the research
process. This is invariably depicted as the contrast be-
tween respectively deductive and inductive approaches
to the relationship between theory and research and
is something that will be expanded upon in Chapter 2.
Unsurprisingly, this contrast has implications for concepts.
Concepts may be viewed as something we start out

Elements of the process of

social research

9780199588053_C01.indd 8 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 9

with and that represent key areas around which data are
collected in an investigation. In other words, we might
collect data in order to shed light on a concept or more
likely several concepts and how they are connected. This
is the approach taken in the investigation reported in
Research in focus 1.1. The alternative view is that con-
cepts are outcomes of research. According to this second
view, concepts help us to refl ect upon and organize the
data that we collect. Of course, these are not mutually
exclusive positions. In research, we often start out with
some key concepts that help us to orient to our subject
matter but, as a result of collecting data and interpreting
them, we possibly revise those concepts, or new ones
emerge through our refl ections.

One of the reasons why familiarity with the existing
literature in a research area (the issue covered in the
previous section) is so important is that it alerts us to

some of the main concepts that past researchers have
employed and how useful or limited those concepts have
been in helping to unravel the main issues. Research in
focus 1.1 provides an example of this tendency in that
the concept of cultural capital is employed for its possible
insights into the process of students being accepted or
rejected when applying for entry to Oxford University.
Even when we are reading the literature solely as con-
sumers of research—for example, when writing an
essay—knowing what the key concepts are, who is
responsible for them, and what controversies there are
(if any) surrounding them can be crucial.

Research questions

Research questions have been mentioned in passing on
a couple of occasions, and they are implicit in some of

Key concept 1.1
What are research questions?

A research question is a question that provides an explicit statement of what it is the researcher wants to know

about. A research purpose can be presented as a statement (for example, ‘I want to fi nd out whether (or

why) . . .’), but a question forces the researcher to be more explicit about what is to be investigated. A research

question must have a question mark at the end of it or else it is not a question. It must be interrogatory. Research

in focus 1.1 provides an example of a study with several research questions. A hypothesis is in a sense a form of

research question, but it is not stated as a question and provides an anticipation of what will be found out.

Denscombe (2010) has provided a helpful list of types of research question. This list fi rst appeared in an earlier

edition, which has been embellished by White (2009). The following types of research question are proposed by


1. Predicting an outcome (does y happen under circumstances a and b?).

2. Explaining causes and consequences of a phenomenon (is y affected by x or is y a consequence of x?).

3. Evaluating a phenomenon (does y exhibit the benefi ts that it is claimed to have?).

4. Describing a phenomenon (what is y like or what forms does y assume?).

5. Developing good practice (how can we improve y?).

6. Empowerment (how can we enhance the lives of those we research?).

White (2009) is uneasy about Denscombe’s last category, arguing that an emphasis on political motives of this

kind can impede the conduct of high-quality research. To some extent, this difference of opinion can be

attributed to differences in viewpoint about the purposes of research highlighted in the section on ‘The context

of social research methods’. Rather than the sixth type of research question above, White proposes an


7. Comparison (do a and b differ in respect of x?).

There are many ways that research questions can be categorized, and it is also diffi cult to arrive at an exhaustive

list, but these seven types provide a rough indication of the possibilities as well as drawing attention to a

controversy about the wider goals of research.

9780199588053_C01.indd 9 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research10

the discussion thus far. Research questions are extremely
important in the research process, because they force
you to consider that most basic of issues—what is it about
your area of interest that you want to know? Most people
beginning research start with a general idea of what it
is they are interested in. Research questions force you
to consider the issue of what it is you want to fi nd out
about much more precisely and rigorously. Developing
research questions is a matter of narrowing down and
focusing more precisely on what it is that you want to
know about.

Research questions are, therefore, important. Having
no research questions or poorly formulated research
questions will lead to poor research. If you do not specify
clear research questions, there is a great risk that your
research will be unfocused and that you will be unsure
about what your research is about and what you are
collecting data for. It does not matter how well you
design a questionnaire or how skilled an interviewer you
are; you must be clear about your research questions.
Equally, it does not matter whether your research is for
a project with a research grant of £300,000, a doctoral

Research in focus 1.1
Research questions in a study of cultural capital

The focus of the article by Zimdars, Sullivan, and Heath (2009) is the recruitment of students to Oxford

University. Recruitment to UK universities and to the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge has been the

focus of political controversy in recent years, because the failure to recruit suffi cient numbers of state-school

students is seen as elitist and as restricting social mobility. Admissions offi cers in Oxford and Cambridge

universities in particular are often portrayed as displaying class prejudices that constrain the life chances of young

people from less privileged backgrounds. The researchers’ aim was ‘to assess whether cultural capital is linked to

success in gaining admission for those who apply’ (Zimdars et al. 2009: 653). They then go on to outline their

research questions:

Specifi cally, we address the following questions:

1. How do Oxford applicants vary in their cultural participation and cultural knowledge, according to parents’

education, social class, gender and ethnicity?

2. Does cultural capital predict acceptance to Oxford?

3. If so, does its effect remain once we control for examination performance?

4. Is cultural capital more important for admission to the arts and humanities faculties than to the sciences?

5. To what extent does cultural capital mediate the effect of social class, parents’ education, private schooling,

ethnicity and gender? (Zimdars et al. 2009: 653)

At one level, this research seeks to address issues of relevance to social and educational policy. As noted in the

section on ‘The context of social research methods’, social research sometimes explores issues that are mainly

to do with policy and practice. But the researchers are also keen to draw on theory and one key concept in

particular—Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital—to help understand the processes underlying the low level of

acceptance of state-school applicants at Oxford. Cultural capital refers to an individual’s ability to distinguish

him- or herself through cultural experiences and competencies. It is argued that such cultural expertise allows

the middle class to reproduce itself both culturally and socially and serves to reduce the social and economic

opportunities of working-class children.

Zimdars et al. draw primarily on a questionnaire survey of Oxford applicants who applied for entry in 2002.

Of particular interest is that the researchers found cultural knowledge to be a more important factor in success

at gaining entry than mere cultural participation through visiting museums, galleries, etc. As the authors put it:

‘What matters is a relationship of familiarity with culture, rather than just participation in culture’ (Zimdars et al.

2009: 661). As such, these fi ndings are only partially supportive of Bourdieu’s ideas at least so far as they relate to

the issue of gaining admission to Oxford.

9780199588053_C01.indd 10 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 11

thesis, or a small mini-project. Research questions are
crucial because they will:

• guide your literature search;

• guide your decisions about the kind of research design
to employ;

• guide your decisions about what data to collect and
from whom;

• guide your analysis of your data;

• guide your writing-up of your data;

• stop you from going off in unnecessary directions;

• provide your readers with a clearer sense of what
your research is about.

It has been suggested above that research questions will
help to guide your literature search for your literature
review. However, it is also possible, if not likely, that
reading the literature may prompt you to revise your
research questions and may even suggest some new ones.
Therefore, at an early stage of a research study, research
questions and the literature relating to them are likely to
be rather intertwined. A plausible sequence at the begin-
ning of a research project is that initial contact with the
literature relating to an area of interest suggests one or
two research questions and that further reading guided
by the initial research questions gives rise to a revision of
them or possibly some new ones. In Chapter 4, there will
be more discussion of research questions and how they
can be developed.

Student experience
Generating and changing research questions

Hannah Creane elaborated on her answers regarding her research questions in an email. She writes:

the three initial research questions I had formulated when I began the study were: what makes a child a child?;

what makes an adult an adult?; and to what extent can the child be seen as a ‘mini’ adult? However, while

writing this up I realized that those questions were no longer really the guiding questions for my research.

The study has evolved and become more of an empirical refl ection of the generational changes within

childhood rather than looking specifi cally at what childhood actually is. It seems to me that the two

appropriate questions in relation to the study as a whole now are: What makes a child a child as opposed

to an adult?; and to what extent has this changed across the generations?

To read more about Hannah’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this
book at:

Sampling cases

Social research is not always carried out on people. For
example, we may want to examine mass-media content
and employ a technique like content analysis, which is
covered in Chapter 13. In such a situation, we are collect-
ing our data from newspapers or television programmes
rather than from people. Because of this, it is common for
writers on social research methods to use the term ‘case’
to cover the wide variety of objects on whom or from
whom data will be collected. Much if not most of the
time, ‘cases’ will be people. In social research we are
rarely in a position in which we can interview, observe,
or send questionnaires to all possible individuals who are
appropriate to our research and equally we are unlikely
to be able to read and analyse the content of all articles in

all newspapers relating to an area of media content that
interests us. Time and cost issues will always constrain
the number of cases we can include in our research, so
we almost always have to sample.

As we will see in later chapters, there are a number of
different principles behind sampling. Many people asso-
ciate sampling with surveys and the quest for represen-

tative samples. This approach to sampling invariably
lies behind sampling for opinion polls of the kind that we
often encounter in newspapers. Such sampling is usually
based on principles to do with searching for a sample
that can represent (and therefore act as a microcosm of)
a wider population. If newspapers could not make
claims about the representativeness of the samples used
for the opinion polls they commission, the fi ndings they
report about the prospects for political parties would

9780199588053_C01.indd 11 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research12

be less signifi cant. In Chapter 8, the principles that lie
behind the quest for the representative sample will be
explained. These principles do not apply solely to ques-
tionnaire survey research of the kind described in
Research in focus 1.1 but may also apply to other kinds of
investigation—for example, when sampling newspaper
articles for a content analysis of media content. By
no means all forms of social science research prioritize
representative samples. In several of the chapters in Part
Three we will encounter sampling principles that are
based not on the idea of representativeness but on the
notion that samples should be selected on the basis of
their appropriateness to the purposes of the investiga-
tion. Also, in case study research, there may be just one
or two units of analysis. With such research, the goal is to
understand the selected case or cases in depth. Sampling
issues are relevant to such research as well. Quite aside
from the fact that the case or cases have to be selected
according to criteria relevant to the research, those indi-
viduals who are members of the case study context have
to be sampled according to criteria too. However, the
chief point to register at this juncture is that sampling
is an inevitable feature of most if not all kinds of social
research and therefore constitutes an important stage of
any investigation.

Data collection

To many people, data collection represents the key point
of any research project, and it is probably not surprising
therefore that this book probably gives more words and
pages to this stage in the research process than any other.
Some of the methods of data collection covered in this
book, such as interviewing and questionnaires, are prob-
ably more familiar to many readers than some of the
others. Some methods entail a rather structured approach
to data collection—that is, the researcher establishes in
advance the broad contours of what he or she needs
to fi nd out about and designs research instruments to
implement what needs to be known. The questionnaire
is an example of such an instrument; the researcher
establishes what he or she needs to know to answer the
research questions that drive the project and designs
questions in the questionnaire that will allow data to be
collected to answer those research questions. Similarly,
something like a structured interview—the kind of
interview used in survey investigations—includes a host
of questions designed for exactly the same purpose. It is
unfortunate that we use the same word—question—for
both research questions and the kinds of questions that
are posed in questionnaires and interviews. They are

very different: a research question is a question designed
to indicate what the purpose of an investigation is; a
questionnaire question is one of many questions that are
posed in a questionnaire that will help to shed light on
and answer one or more research questions.

It is also possible to discern in this book methods
of data collection that are less structured or, to put it
another way, that are more unstructured. In Part Three
in particular, research methods will be encountered that
emphasize a more open-ended view of the research pro-
cess, so that there is less restriction on the kinds of things
that can be found out about. Research methods such
as participant observation and semi-structured inter-

viewing are used so that the researcher can keep more of
an open mind about the contours of what he or she needs
to know about, so that concepts and theories can emerge
out of the data. This is the inductive approach to theoriz-
ing and conceptualization that was referred to above.
Such research is usually still geared to answering re-
search questions, but these are often expressed in a less
explicit form than the research questions encountered
in more structured research of the kind encountered in
Research in focus 1.1. This can be seen by comparing the
specifi city of these research questions with those of a
study of retired senior managers by Jones, Leontowitsch,
and Higgs (2010):

Our aim was to explore the experiences of retirement,
changes in lifestyle and social roles and the meanings
associated with retirement amongst early retirees from
higher management. Research questions included: to
what extent do our respondents construct a new
balance of activities? Do respondents construct new
discourses of everyday life? Does the move by
respondents into leisure retirement create new
tensions in other parts of their lives? (Jones et al.
2010: 105)

These research questions derived in part from, and were
illuminated by, the concept of the ‘quasi-subject’ in
modern societies, whereby people ‘become authors of
their own biographies—authors who have to continually
construct identities and biographical narratives in order
to give meaning to lives that are lived out in the face of
uncertainty’ (Jones et al. 2010: 104). In order to explore
the research questions, semi-structured interviews with
twenty relevant retirees were undertaken. The inter-
views were designed ‘to encourage a conversation and to
allow participants to give their own account of retire-
ment’ (Jones et al. 2010: 108). This is a noticeably less

9780199588053_C01.indd 12 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 13

structured approach to the collection of data, which re-
fl ects the open-ended nature of the research questions.

The collection of data, then, can entail different sorts
of approach in terms of how structured or open-ended
the implementation of the methods are. An issue that
arises in all research is that of quality. How do you do
good research and how do you know it when you read it?
The assessment of research quality is an issue that relates
to all phases of the research process, but the quality of
the data-collection procedures is bound to be a key con-
cern. As we will see in several chapters, the assessment of
quality has become a prominent issue among social re-
search practitioners and also for policy-makers with an
interest in academic research. It has become a much
more signifi cant topic since the fi rst edition of this book
was published in 2001. There are several reasons for the
greater prominence of research quality assessment, some
of which will be mentioned in later chapters. However,
the key point to register for the time being is that, with
the increased importance of research quality assessment,
debates have arisen about issues such as whether there
can be quality criteria that apply to all forms of research.
As we will see, especially in Chapter 17, there has been a
clear position among some methodologists that a ‘horses
for courses’ approach is required whereby the applica-
tion of quality criteria needs to take into account the kind
of investigation to which they are being applied.

Data analysis

Data analysis is a stage that incorporates several ele-
ments. At the most obvious level, it might be taken to
mean the application of statistical techniques to the data
that have been collected. However, quite aside from the
fact that by no means all data are amenable to quantita-
tive data analysis and that, even when some data might
be appropriate to such analysis, alternative approaches
are sometimes taken, there are other things going on
when data are being analysed. For a start, the raw data
have to be managed. This means that the researcher has
to check the data to establish whether there are any obvi-
ous fl aws. For example, if we take the kind of research
like that conducted by Jones et al. (2010) on senior
management early retirees, the interviews are usually
audio-recorded and then subsequently transcribed. The
researcher needs to be alert to possible hearing mistakes
that might affect the meaning of people’s replies. The
preparation of the data for transcription enables the
researcher to introduce the transcripts into a computer
software program of the kind discussed in Chapter 25. In
the case of the research by Jones et al., once the transcripts

had been incorporated within the software, the authors
say they conducted a thematic analysis. This means
that they examined the data to extract core themes that
could be distinguished both between and within tran-
scripts. One of the main elements of the identifi cation
of themes was through coding each transcript. With the
analysis of qualitative data of these kinds, coding is a
process whereby the data are broken down into their
component parts and those parts are then given labels.
The analyst then searches for recurrences of these
sequences of coded text within and across cases and also
for links between different codes. Thus, there is a lot
going on in this process: the data are being managed, in
that the transcripts are being made more manageable
than they would be if the researcher just kept listening
and relistening to the recordings; the researcher is mak-
ing sense of the data through coding the transcripts; and
the data are being interpreted—that is, the researcher is
seeking to link the process of making sense of the data
with the research questions that provided the starting
point, as well as with the literature relating to retirement
and also with the theoretical ideas the authors use to
illuminate the issue.

The data analysis stage is fundamentally about data
reduction—that is, it is concerned with reducing the
large corpus of information that the researcher has
gathered so that he or she can make sense of it. Unless
the researcher reduces the amount of data collected—for
example, in the case of quantitative data by producing
tables or averages and in the case of qualitative data by
grouping textual material into categories like themes—it
is more or less impossible to interpret the material.

A further issue to bear in mind with data analysis is
that it can refer to the analysis of either primary or sec-
ondary data. With primary data analysis, the researcher
or researchers who were responsible for collecting the
data conduct the analysis, as was the case with both the
Zimdars et al. (2009) and Jones et al. (2010) studies re-
ferred to in this chapter. Secondary data analysis occurs
when someone else analyses such data. Nowadays, re-
searchers who work in universities are encouraged to
deposit their data in archives, which then allow others to
analyse the data they collected. Given the time and cost
of most social research, this is a sensible thing to do, as it
increases the likely payoff of an investigation, and it may
be that a researcher conducting secondary analysis can
explore the research questions in which he or she is inter-
ested without having to go through the time-consuming
and lengthy process of having to collect primary data.
Secondary analysis is discussed in Chapters 14 and 24.
However, the distinction between primary and secondary

9780199588053_C01.indd 13 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research14

analysis is not a perfect one. In Key concept 14.1, I pres-
ent an example of a secondary analysis of data in which
I was involved. For me, it was a primary analysis of the
data, as I had not been involved in the data collection,
whereas for my co-authors, all of whom had been involved
in the data collection, it was a secondary analysis.

Writing up

It could be argued that the fi nest piece of research would
be useless if it was not disseminated to others. We do
research so that it can be written up, thereby allow-
ing others to read what we have done and concluded.

Table 1.1
Stages in the research process in relation to two studies

Stage Description of stage Example (Zimdars et al. 2009)* Example (Jones et al. 2010)


A critical examination of
existing research relating to the
phenomena of interest and of
relevant theoretical ideas.

Literature concerning social stratifi cation as it
relates to educational access and concerning
the notion of cultural capital.

Literature concerning
retirement and the notion of
the ‘quasi-subject’ in second

and theories

The ideas that drive the
research process and that shed
light on the interpretation of
the resulting fi ndings. These
fi ndings contribute to the ideas.

Academic attainment; cultural capital; social

Early retirement;
quasi-subject; discourse;


A question that provides an
explicit statement of what it is
the researcher wants to know

‘1. How do Oxford applicants vary in their
cultural participation and cultural
knowledge, according to parents’ education,
social class, gender and ethnicity?

2. Does cultural capital predict acceptance to

3. If so, does its effect remain once we control
for examination performance?

4. Is cultural capital more important for
admission to the arts and humanities
faculties than to the sciences?

5. To what extent does cultural capital
mediate the effect of social class, parents’
education, private schooling, ethnicity and
gender?’ (Zimdars et al. 2009: 653)

‘to what extent do our
respondents construct a
new balance of activities?
Do respondents construct
new discourses of everyday
life? Does the move by
respondents into leisure
retirement create new
tensions in other parts of
their lives?’ (Jones et al.
2010: 105)


The selection of cases (in this
case people) who are relevant
to the research questions.

‘A representative sample of 1,700 applicants
with British qualifi cations who applied to
Oxford during the 2002 admissions cycle’
(Zimdars et al. 2009: 653).

Sample of twenty early
retirees obtained initially
through databases of
organizations working with
retired people.


Gathering data from the sample
so that the research questions
can be answered.

Questionnaire survey. Data obtained on degree
attainment of each applicant. Also, interviews
with admissions tutors and observation of
admissions meetings.

Semi-structured interviews.


The management, analysis, and
interpretation of the data.

Statistical analysis of the questionnaire data.
Thematic analysis of interview transcripts.

Thematic analysis of
interview transcripts.

Writing up Dissemination of the research
and its fi ndings.

The research was written up as a doctoral
thesis and as articles, including Zimdars et al.
(2009). Main sections in Zimdars et al. (2009):

• Introduction

• Operationalization

• Research questions

• Data and methods

• Discussion

• Appendix

Research written up as an
article in Jones et al. (2010).
Main sections:

• Introduction

• Background

• Methods

• Findings

• Discussion

• Conclusion

* Zimdars (2007) consulted for further information.

9780199588053_C01.indd 14 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 15

It might also be argued that writing up should not be
part of the subject matter for a book on social research
methods. However, since dissemination is so important
to the researcher, it is right for it to be included, and the
fi nal chapter of this book (Chapter 29) is devoted to this

There are slightly different ways in which social re-
search tends to get written up, and these vary somewhat
according to the different styles of doing research. For
example, more structured kinds of research like that
presented in Research in focus 1.1 are sometimes written
up differently from more open-ended research of the sort
represented by the Jones et al. (2010) article. However,
there are some core ingredients that most dissertations,
theses, and research articles will include. These are:

• Introduction. Here the research area and its signifi –
cance are outlined. The research questions are also
likely to be introduced here.

• Literature review. What is already known about the
research area is sketched out and examined critically.

• Research methods. Here the research methods employed
(sampling, methods of data collection, methods of
data analysis) are presented and justifi ed.

• Results. The fi ndings are presented.

• Discussion. The fi ndings are discussed in relation to
their implications for the literature and for the research
questions previously introduced.

• Conclusion. The signifi cance of the research is rein-
forced for the reader.

These elements are discussed in much greater detail
in Chapter 29. They are not an exhaustive list, because
writing conventions differ in various ways, but these are
recurring elements of the fi nal written outputs. Table 1.1
summarizes the seven elements of the research process
examined in this section.

The messiness of social research

There is one fi nal point I want to register before you read
further. It is to alert you to the fact that social research is
often a lot less smooth than the accounts of the research
process you read in books like this. The purpose of this
book is to provide an overview of the research process
that also provides advice on how it should be done. In
fact, research is full of false starts, blind alleys, mistakes,
and enforced changes to research plans. However, in a
book like this it is impossible to cover all such contin-
gencies, in large part because many of them are one-off
events and almost impossible to anticipate. We know that
research can get messy from the confessional accounts of
the research process that have been written over the
years (e.g. the contributors to P. Hammond 1964; Bell
and Newby 1977; Bryman 1988b; Townsend and Burgess
2009a; Streiner and Sidani 2010). If social research is
messy, why do we invariably not get a sense of that when
we read reports of research in books and academic jour-
nal articles? Of course, research often does go relatively
smoothly and, in spite of minor hiccoughs, proceeds
roughly according to plan. However, it is also the case
that what we read in reports of research are often
relatively sanitized accounts of how the research was
produced, without a sense of the sometimes diffi cult
problems the researcher(s) had to overcome. This is not
to say that when social researchers write accounts of

their studies they deceive us, but rather that the accounts
of the fi ndings and how they were arrived at tend to
follow an implicit template that emphasizes some aspects
of the research process but not others. They tend to em-
phasize how the specifi c fi ndings presented in the report
were arrived at and to use standard methodological ter-
minology of the kind presented in this book to express
the underlying process. Research reports typically display
the various elements discussed in the previous section—
the relevant literature is reviewed, the key concepts and
theories are discussed, the research questions are pre-
sented, the sampling procedures and methods of data
collection are explained and justifi ed, the fi ndings are
presented and discussed, and some conclusions are
drawn. The vicissitudes of research tend not to feature
within this template. This tendency is not unique to social
research: in Chapter 22 a study of how scientists present
and discuss their work will be presented, and this shows
that here too certain core aspects of the production of
‘fi ndings’ tend to be omitted from the written account
(Gilbert and Mulkay 1984).

It is also the case that, regardless of the various ways
in which research can be knocked off its path, this book
can deal only with generalities. It cannot cover every
eventuality, so that it is quite possible that when conduct-
ing an investigation you will fi nd that these generalities

9780199588053_C01.indd 15 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research16

do not fi t perfectly with the circumstances in which you
fi nd yourself. It is important to be aware of that possibil-
ity and not to interpret any slight departures you have to
make from the advice provided in this book as a problem
with your skills and understanding. It could even be
argued that, in the light of the different ways in which
social researchers can be stymied in their research plans,
a book on research methods, outlining how research is
and should be conducted, is of little value. Needless to
say, I would not subscribe to such a view. Many years ago,
I was involved in several studies of construction projects.
One of the recurring themes in the fi ndings was the dif-
ferent ways that construction projects could be knocked
off their course: unpredictable weather, sudden shortages
of key supplies, illness, accidents, previously reliable sub-
contractors letting the project manager down, clients
changing their minds or being unavailable at key points,
sudden changes in health and safety regulation, poor
quality supplies, poor quality work, early excavation

revealing unanticipated problems—any of these could
produce signifi cant interruptions to even the best-planned
construction project. But never was it suggested that the
principles of construction and of construction manage-
ment should be abandoned. Without such principles,
project managers would be at an even greater loss to
know how to proceed. Much the same is true of research
projects. There are plenty of things that can go wrong.
As Townsend and Burgess (2009b) write in the introduc-
tion to their collection of ‘research stories you won’t read
in textbooks’, two of the recurring themes from the
accounts they collected are the need for fl exibility and
the need for perseverance. However, at the same time it
is crucial to have an appreciation of the methodolo-
gical principles and the many debates and controversies
that surround them, and these are outlined in the next
twenty-eight chapters. These principles provide a road
map for the journey ahead.

Key points

● Social research and social research methods are embedded in wider contextual factors. They are not
practised in a vacuum.

● Social research practice comprises elements that are common to all or at least most forms of social
research. These include: conducting a literature review; concepts and theories; research questions;
sampling of cases; data collection; data analysis; and a writing-up of the research fi nding.

● Attention to these steps is what distinguishes academic social research from other kinds of social

● Although we can attempt to formulate general principles for conducting social research, we have to
recognize that things do not always go entirely to plan.

Questions for review

What is meant by ‘social research’?

● What is distinctive about academic social research?

Why do social research?

● If you were about to embark on a research project now or in the near future, what would be the focus
of it and why?

The context of social research methods

● What are the main factors that impinge on social research and the implementation of social research
methods identifi ed in the chapter? Can you think of any that have not been touched on?

9780199588053_C01.indd 16 10/20/11 9:58 AM

The nature and process of social research 17

Elements of the process of social research

● Why is a literature review important when conducting research?

● What role do concepts and theories play in the process of doing social research?

● Why are researchers encouraged to specify their research questions? What kinds of research
questions are there?

● Why do researchers need to sample? Why is it important for them to outline the principles that
underpin their sampling choices?

● Outline one or two factors that might affect a researcher’s choice of data-collection instrument.

● What are the main differences between the kinds of data analysed by Zimdars et al. (2009) and
Jones et al. (2010)?

● How might you structure the report of the fi ndings of a project that you conducted?

The messiness of social research

● If research does not always go according to plan, why should we bother with methodological
principles at all?

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to en rich your understanding of social
research strategies. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and gain further
guidance and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C01.indd 17 10/20/11 9:58 AM

Social research

Chapter outline

Introduction 19

Theory and research 20

What type of theory? 21

Deductive and inductive theory 24

Epistemological considerations 27

A natural science epistemology: positivism 27

Interpretivism 28

Ontological considerations 32

Objectivism 32

Constructionism 33

Relationship to social research 34

Research strategy: quantitative and qualitative research 35

Infl uences on the conduct of social research 39

Values 39

Practical considerations 41

Key points 42

Questions for review 42


9780199588053_C02.indd 18 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 19


This book is about social research. It attempts to equip
people who have some knowledge of the social sciences
with an appreciation of how social research should be
conducted and what it entails. The latter project involves
situating social research in the context of sociology,
which in turn means attending to the question of its role
in the overall enterprise of the discipline. It would be
much easier to ‘cut to the chase’ and explore the nature of
methods of social research and provide advice on how
best to choose between and implement them. After all,
many people might expect a book with the title of the
present one to be concerned mainly with the ways in
which the different methods in the social researcher’s
arsenal can be employed.

But the practice of social research does not exist in a
bubble, hermetically sealed off from the social sciences
and the various intellectual allegiances that their practi-
tioners hold. Two points are of particular relevance here.

First, methods of social research are closely tied to dif-
ferent visions of how social reality should be studied.
Methods are not simply neutral tools: they are linked

with the ways in which social scientists envision the con-
nection between different viewpoints about the nature of
social reality and how it should be examined. However, it
is possible to overstate this point. While methods are not
neutral, they are not entirely suffused with intellectual
inclinations either. Secondly, there is the question of
how research methods and practice connect with the
wider social scientifi c enterprise. Research data are
invariably collected in relation to something. The ‘some-
thing’ may be a burning social problem or, more usually,
a theory.

This is not to suggest that research is entirely dictated
by theoretical concerns. One sometimes fi nds simple
‘fact-fi nding’ exercises published. Fenton et al. (1998)
conducted a quantitative content analysis of social re-
search reported in the British mass media. They exam-
ined national and regional newspapers, television and
radio, and also magazines. They admit that one of
the main reasons for conducting the research was to
establish the amount and types of research that are
represented. Sometimes, such exercises are motivated by

Chapter guide

The chief aim of this chapter is to show that a variety of considerations enter into the process of doing
social research. The distinction that is commonly drawn among writers on and practitioners of social
research between quantitative research and qualitative research is explored in relation to these
considerations. This chapter explores:

• the nature of the relationship between theory and research, in particular whether theory guides
research (known as a deductive approach) or whether theory is an outcome of research (known as
an inductive approach);

• epistemological issues—that is, ones to do with what is regarded as appropriate knowledge about the
social world; one of the most crucial aspects is the question of whether or not a natural science model
of the research process is suitable for the study of the social world;

• ontological issues—that is, ones to do with whether the social world is regarded as something external
to social actors or as something that people are in the process of fashioning;

• the ways in which these issues relate to the widely used distinction in the social sciences between two
types of research strategy: quantitative and qualitative research; there is also a preliminary discussion,
which will be followed up in Chapter 27, that suggests that, while quantitative and qualitative research
represent different approaches to social research, we should be wary of driving a wedge between

• the ways in which values and practical issues also impinge on the social research process.

9780199588053_C02.indd 19 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies20

a concern about a pressing social problem. McKeganey
and Barnard (1996) conducted qualitative research
involving observation and interviews with prostitutes and
their clients in Glasgow. One factor that seems to have
prompted this research was the concern about the role
of prostitutes in spreading HIV infection (McKeganey
and Barnard 1996: 3). Another scenario occurs when
research is done on a topic when a specifi c opportunity
arises. The interest of Westergaard et al. (1989) in the
effects of redundancy seems to have been profoundly
motivated by the opportunity that arose when a Sheffi eld
steel company, which was close to their institutional base
at the University of Sheffi eld, made a large number of
people redundant. The fi rm’s management approached
the authors a year after the redundancies to conduct
research on what had happened to the individuals
who had been made redundant. The authors conducted
social survey research using a structured interview
approach on most of those made redundant. Of course, the
authors were infl uenced by theories about and previous
research on unemployment, but the specifi c impetus for

the research on the effects of redundancy was not
planned. Yet another stimulus for research can arise out
of personal experiences. Lofl and and Lofl and (1995)
note that many research publications emerge out of the
researcher’s personal biography, such as Zukin’s (1982)
interest in loft living arising out of her living in a loft in
New York City. Another example is O’Reilly’s (2000) in-
vestigation of British expatriates living on the Costa del
Sol in Spain, which stemmed from her and her partner’s
dream of moving to the area themselves, which in fact
they eventually did. Certainly, my own interest in Disney
theme parks can be traced back to a visit to Disney World
in Florida in 1991 (Bryman 1995, 1999), while my inter-
est in the representation of social science research in the
mass media (Fenton et al. 1998) can almost certainly be
attributed to a diffi cult encounter with the press reported
in Haslam and Bryman (1994).

By and large, however, research data achieve signifi –
cance in sociology when viewed in relation to theoretical
concerns. This raises the issue of the nature of the rela-
tionship between theory and research.

Student experience
Personal experience as a basis for

research interests

For her research, Isabella Robbins was interested in the ways in which mothers frame decisions regarding

vaccinations for their children. This topic had a particular signifi cance for her. She writes:

As the mother of three children I have encountered some tough decisions regarding responsibility towards

my children. Reading sociology, as a mature student, gave me the tools to help understand my world and to

contextualize some of the dilemmas I had faced. In particular, I had experienced a diffi cult decision regarding

the vaccination status of my children.

To read more about Isabella’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this
book at:

Theory and research

Characterizing the nature of the link between theory and
research is by no means a straightforward matter. There
are several issues at stake here, but two stand out in par-
ticular. First, there is the question of what form of theory
one is talking about. Secondly, there is the matter of
whether data are collected to test or to build theories.

Theory is important to the social researcher because it
provides a backcloth and rationale for the research that is
being conducted. It also provides a framework within
which social phenomena can be understood and the
research fi ndings can be interpreted.

9780199588053_C02.indd 20 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 21

What type of theory?

The term ‘theory’ is used in a variety of different ways,
but its most common meaning is as an explanation of
observed regularities—for example, why sufferers of
schizophrenia are more likely to come from working-
class than middle-class backgrounds, or why work alien-
ation varies by technology. But such theories tend not
to be the stuff of courses in sociological theory, which
typically focus much more on theories with a higher
level of abstraction. Examples of such theories include
structural-functionalism, symbolic interactionism, crit-
ical theory, poststructuralism, structuration theory, and
so on. What we see here is a distinction between theories
of the former type, which are often called theories of the
middle range (Merton 1967), and grand theories, which
operate at a more abstract and general level. According
to Merton, grand theories offer few indications to re-
searchers as to how they might guide or infl uence the
collection of empirical evidence. So, if someone wanted
to test a theory or to draw an inference from it that could
be tested, the level of abstractness is likely to be so great

that the researcher would fi nd it diffi cult to make the
necessary links with the real world. There is a paradox
here, of course. Even highly abstract ideas, such as
Parsons’s notions of ‘pattern variables’ and ‘functional
requisites’, must have some connection with an external
reality, in that they are likely to have been generated out
of Parsons’s reading of research or his refl ections upon
that reality or others’ writings on it. However, the level of
abstractness of the theorizing is so great as to make it dif-
fi cult for them to be deployed in research. For research
purposes, then, Merton argues that grand theories are of
limited use in connection with social research, although,
as the example in Research in focus 2.1 suggests, an
abstract concept like social capital (Bourdieu 1984) can
have some pay-off in research terms. Instead, middle-
range theories are ‘intermediate to general theories of
social systems which are too remote from particular
classes of social behavior, organization and change to
account for what is observed and to those detailed orderly
descriptions of particulars that are not generalized at all’
(Merton 1967: 39).

Research in focus 2.1
Grand theory and social research
Butler and Robson (2001) used Bourdieu’s concept of social capital as a means of understanding gentrifi cation of

areas of London. While the term ‘social capital’ has acquired an everyday usage, Butler and Robson follow Bourdieu’s

theoretical use of it, which draws attention to the social connectedness and the interpersonal resources that

those with social capital can draw on to pursue their goals. While the term has attracted the interest of social

policy researchers and others concerned with social exclusion, its use in relation to the middle class has been less

prominent, according to Butler and Robson. Bourdieu’s treatment implies that those with social capital cultivate

signifi cant social connections and then draw upon those connections as resources for their goals. Butler and

Robson conducted semi-structured interviews with ‘gentrifi ers’ in each of three inner London areas. Responding to

a tendency to view gentrifi cation in rather unitary terms, the authors selected the three areas to examine what

they refer to as the ‘variability’ of the process. To that end, the areas were selected to refl ect variation in two

factors: the length of time over which gentrifi cation had been occurring and the middle-class groupings to which

each of the areas appealed. The selection of areas in terms of these criteria was aided by census data. Of the

three areas, Telegraph Hill was the strongest in terms of social capital. According to the authors, this is revealed

in ‘its higher levels of voluntary co-operation and sense of geographically focused unity’ (Butler and Robson 2001:

2159). It is the recourse to these networks of sociality that accounts for the successful gentrifi cation of Telegraph

Hill. Battersea, one of the other two areas, entails a contrasting impetus for gentrifi cation in Bourdieu’s terms.

Here, economic capital was more signifi cant for gentrifi cation than the social capital that was important in

Telegraph Hill. The role of economic capital in Battersea can be seen in the ‘competitive access to an increasingly

desirable and expensive stock of housing and an exclusive circuit of schooling centred on private provision’

(Butler and Robson 2001: 2159). In the former, it is sociality that provides the motor for gentrifi cation, whereas

in Battersea gentrifi cation is driven by market forces and is only partially infl uenced by patterns of social

connectedness. This study is an interesting example of the way in which a relatively high-level theoretical

notion—social capital and its kindred concept of economic capital—associated with a social theorist can be

employed to illuminate research questions concerning the dynamics of modern urban living.

9780199588053_C02.indd 21 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies22

By and large, then, it is not grand theory that typically
guides social research. Middle-range theories are much
more likely to be the focus of empirical enquiry. In fact,
Merton formulated the idea as a means of bridging what
he saw as a growing gulf between theory (in the sense of
grand theory) and empirical fi ndings. This is not to say
that there were no middle-range theories before he
wrote: there defi nitely were, but what Merton did was
to seek to clarify what is meant by ‘theory’ when social
scientists write about the relationship between theory
and research.

Middle-range theories, unlike grand ones, operate in a
limited domain, whether it is juvenile delinquency, racial
prejudice, educational attainment, or the labour process

Even the grand/middle-range distinction does not en-
tirely clarify the issues involved in asking the deceptively
simple question of ‘what is theory?’ This is because the
term ‘theory’ is frequently used in a manner that means
little more than the background literature in an area of
social enquiry. To a certain extent, this point can be taken
to apply to fact-fi nding exercises such as those referred to
above. The analysis of the representation of social
research in the media by Fenton et al. (1998) was under-
taken against a background of similar analyses in the
USA and of studies of the representation of natural sci-
ence research in the media in several different countries.
In many cases, the relevant background literature relat-
ing to a topic fuels the focus of an article or book and
thereby acts as the equivalent of a theory, as with the
research referred to in Research in focus 2.3. The litera-
ture in a certain domain acts as the spur to an enquiry.
The literature acts as an impetus in a number of ways: the
researcher may seek to resolve an inconsistency between
different fi ndings or between different interpretations of
fi ndings; the researcher may have spotted a neglected

(see Research in focus 2.2). They vary somewhat in their
range of application. For example, labelling theory repre-
sents a middle-range theory in the sociology of deviance.
Its exponents sought to understand deviance in terms of
the causes and effects of the societal reaction to devi-
ation. It was held to be applicable to a variety of different
forms of deviance, including crime and mental illness. By
contrast, Cloward and Ohlin’s (1960) differential associ-
ation theory was formulated specifi cally in connection
with juvenile delinquency, and in subsequent years this
tended to be its focus. Middle-range theories, then, fall
somewhere between grand theories and empirical fi nd-
ings. They represent attempts to understand and explain
a limited aspect of social life.

aspect of a topic; certain ideas may not previously have
been tested a great deal; the researcher may feel that
existing approaches being used for research on a topic
are defi cient, and so provides an alternative approach;
and so on.

Social scientists are sometimes prone to being somewhat
dismissive of research that has no obvious con nections
with theory—in either the grand or the middle-range
senses of the term. Such research is often dismissed as
naive empiricism (see Key concept 2.1). It would be harsh,
not to say inaccurate, to brand as naive empiricism the
numerous studies in which the publications-as-theory
strategy is employed, simply because their authors have
not been preoccupied with theory. Such research is con-
ditioned by and directed towards research questions that
arise out of an interrogation of the literature. The data
collection and analysis are subsequently geared to the
illumination or resolution of the research issue or problem
that has been identifi ed at the outset. The literature acts
as a proxy for theory. In many instances, theory is latent
or implicit in the literature.

Research in focus 2.2
Labour process theory: a middle-range theory
In the sociology of work, labour process theory can be regarded as a middle-range theory. The publication of

Labor and Monopoly Capital (Braverman 1974) inaugurated a stream of thinking and research around the idea

of the labour process and in particular on the degree to which there has been an inexorable trend towards

increasing control over the manual worker and the deskilling of manual labour. A conference volume of much of

this work was published as Labour Process Theory (Knights and Willmott 1990). P. Thompson (1989) describes the

theory as having four elements: the principle that the labour process entails the extraction of surplus value; the

need for capitalist enterprises constantly to transform production processes; the quest for control over labour;

and the essential confl ict between capital and labour. Labour process theory has been the focus of considerable

empirical research (e.g. Knights et al. 1985).

9780199588053_C02.indd 22 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 23

Indeed, research that appears to have the character-
istics of the fact-fi nding exercise should not be prematurely
dismissed as naive empiricism either. McKeganey and
Barnard’s (1996) research on prostitutes and their clients
is a case in point. On the face of it, even if one strips away
the concern with HIV infection, the research could be
construed as naive empiricism and perhaps of a rather
prurient kind. However, this again would be a harsh
and probably inaccurate judgement. For example, the
authors relate their research fi ndings to the literature

reporting other investigations of prostitutes in a number
of different countries. They also illuminate their fi ndings
by drawing on ideas that are very much part of the soci-
ologist’s conceptual tool kit. One example is Goffman’s
(1963) notion of ‘stigma’ and the way in which the stig-
matized individual seeks to manage a spoiled identity;
another is Hochschild’s (1983) concept of ‘emotional
labour’, a term she coined to denote the way in which air-
line fl ight attendants need to express positive emotions
as part of the requirements for their jobs. In doing so,

Research in focus 2.3
Background literature as theory:

emotional labour and hairstylists

One component of R. S. Cohen’s (2010) mixed methods study of hairstylists’ relationships with their clients

was a postal questionnaire survey of all salons and barbers’ shops in a northern city in England. Of the

328 enterprises contacted, 40 per cent replied to the questionnaire. The goal of the research was to examine

how far the giving of emotional favours was affected by the nature of the relationship with the client in terms of

whether the worker was an owner or a paid employee. Her survey data show that owners are more likely to

stay late for clients and to try to fi nd a space for them between clients who have been booked in. Hochschild’s

(1983) book, in which she fi rst coined the term ‘emotional labour’, and the many studies that have taken up

this concept form the starting point of Cohen’s research. The signifi cance of this work is evident from Cohen’s

two opening sentences:

Since Hochschild (1983) fi rst suggested that interactive service workers carry out emotional labour in the

course of their work, this proposition has become widely accepted. However the relationship of emotional

labour, and client–worker social interactions more generally, to the structural relations of employment has

received surprisingly little attention . . . (R. S. Cohen 2010: 197)

Thus, the literature on emotional labour forms the background to the study and the main impetus for the

interpretation of the fi ndings, some of which are gleaned from qualitative data deriving from semi-structured

interviews with some owners and employees. For the latter, interactions with clients are much more likely to take

the form of what Hochschild (1983) called ‘surface acting’, a superfi cial form of emotional labour and emotional

engagement with the client.

Key concept 2.1
What is empiricism?

The term ‘empiricism’ is used in a number of different ways, but two stand out. First, it is used to denote a

general approach to the study of reality that suggests that only knowledge gained through experience and the

senses is acceptable. In other words, this position means that ideas must be subjected to the rigours of testing

before they can be considered knowledge. The second meaning of the term is related to this and refers to a belief

that the accumulation of ‘facts’ is a legitimate goal in its own right. It is this second meaning that is sometimes

referred to as ‘naive empiricism’.

9780199588053_C02.indd 23 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies24

they contrive a demeanour of friendliness when deal-
ing with passengers, some of whom may be extremely
diffi cult (see also Research in focus 2.3).

It is not possible to tell from McKeganey and Barnard’s
(1996) report whether the concepts of stigma and emo-
tional labour infl uenced their data collection. However,
raising this question invites consideration of another
question: in so far as any piece of research is linked to
theory, what was the role of that theory? Up to this point,
I have tended to write as though theory is something
that guides and infl uences the collection and analysis
of data. In other words, research is done in order to
answer questions posed by theoretical considerations.
But an alternative position is to view theory as something
that occurs after the collection and analysis of some or
all of the data associated with a project. We begin to
see here the signifi cance of a second factor in consider-
ing the relationship between theory and research—
whether we are referring to deductive or inductive

Deductive and inductive theory

Deductive theory represents the commonest view of the
nature of the relationship between theory and social
research. The researcher, on the basis of what is known
about in a particular domain and of theoretical consider-
ations in relation to that domain, deduces a hypothesis
(or hypotheses) that must then be subjected to empirical
scrutiny. Embedded within the hypothesis will be con-
cepts that will need to be translated into researchable
entities. The social scientist must both skillfully deduce a
hypothesis and then translate it into operational terms.
This means that the social scientist needs to specify how
data can be collected in relation to the concepts that
make up the hypothesis.

This view of the role of theory in relation to research is
very much the kind of role that Merton had in mind in
connection with middle-range theory, which, he argued,
‘is principally used in sociology to guide empirical
inquiry’ (Merton 1967: 39). Theory and the hypothesis
deduced from it come fi rst and drive the process of gath-
ering data (see Research in focus 2.4 for an example of a
deductive approach to the relationship between theory
and data). The sequence can be depicted as one in which
the steps outlined in Figure 2.1 take place.

The last step involves a movement that is in the oppo-
site direction from deduction—it involves induction, as
the researcher infers the implications of his or her fi nd-
ings for the theory that prompted the whole exercise.
The fi ndings are fed back into the stock of theory and the

research fi ndings associated with a certain domain of
enquiry. This can be seen in the case of the fi nal refl ec-
tions of Butler and Robson’s (2001—see Research in
focus 2.1) study of gentrifi cation in three areas of London
when they write:

Figure 2.1Figure 2.1
The process of deduction

1. Theory

3. Data collection

4. Findings

5. Hypotheses confirmed or rejected

6. Revision of theory

2. Hypothesis

Each of the three groups has played on its strengths,
where it has them. Gentrifi cation, given this, cannot in
any sense be considered to be a unitary phenomenon,
but needs to be examined in each case according to its
own logic and outcomes. The concept of social capital,
when used as an integrated part of an extended
conceptual framework for the apprehension of all forms
of middle-class capital relations, can thus play an
important part in discriminating between differing
types of social phenomena. (Butler and Robson
2001: 2160)

9780199588053_C02.indd 24 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 25

In these fi nal refl ections they show how their fi ndings
and the interpretations of those fi ndings can be fed back
into both the stock of knowledge concerning gentrifi ca-
tion in cities and, in the third of the three sentences, the
concept of social capital and its uses.

However, while this element of inductiveness un-
doubtedly exists in the approach outlined, it is typically
deemed to be predominantly deductive in orientation.
Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that, when this
deductive approach, which is usually associated with
quantitative research, is put into operation, it often does
not follow the sequence outlined in its pure form. As pre-
viously noted, ‘theory’ may be little more than the litera-
ture on a certain topic in the form of the accumulated
knowledge gleaned from books and articles. Also, even
when theory or theories can be discerned, explicit hypo-
theses are not always deduced from them in the way that
Kelley and De Graaf (1997) did in Research in focus 2.4.
A further point to bear in mind is that the deductive

process appears very linear—one step follows the other
in a clear, logical sequence. However, there are many
instances where this is not the case: a researcher’s view
of the theory or literature may have changed as a result
of the analysis of the collected data; new theoretical
ideas or fi ndings may be published by others before the
researcher has generated his or her fi ndings; or, the relev-
ance of a set of data for a theory may become apparent
after the data have been collected.

This may all seem rather surprising and confusing.
There is a certain logic to the idea of developing theories
and then testing them. In everyday contexts, we com-
monly think of theories as things that are quite illumin-
ating but that need to be tested before they can be
considered valid or useful. In point of fact, however,
while the process of deduction outlined in Figure 2.1
does undoubtedly occur, it is better considered as a
general orientation to the link between theory and
research. As a general orientation, its broad contours may

Research in focus 2.4
A deductive study

Kelley and De Graaf (1997) show that a number of studies have examined the factors that have an impact upon

individuals’ religious beliefs, such as parents, schools, and friends, but they also argue that there are good

grounds for thinking that the nation into which one is born will be an important cross-cultural factor. These

refl ections constitute what they refer to as the ‘theory’ that guided their research and from which the following

hypothesis was derived: ‘People born into religious nations will, in proportion to the orthodoxy of their

fellow-citizens, acquire more orthodox beliefs than otherwise similar people born into secular nations’ (Kelley

and De Graaf 1997: 641). There are two central concepts in this hypothesis that would need to be measured:

national religiosity (whether it is religious or secular) and individual religious orthodoxy. The authors

hypothesized further that the religious orientation of the individual’s family (whether devout or secular)

would affect the nature of the relationship between national religiosity and religious orthodoxy.

To test the hypotheses, a secondary analysis of data deriving from survey research based on large samples from

fi fteen nations was conducted. UK readers will be interested to know that the British and Northern Irish (and

Irish Republic) data were derived from the British Social Attitudes survey for 1991 (Jowell et al. 1992). Religious

orthodoxy was measured by four survey questions concerned with religious belief. The questions asked about

(1) whether the person believed in God, (2) his or her past beliefs about God, (3) how close the individual felt to

God, and (4) whether he or she felt that God cares about everyone. To measure national religiosity, the fi fteen

nations were classifi ed into one of fi ve categories ascending from secular to religious. The classifi cation was

undertaken according to ‘an unweighted average of parental church attendance . . . and religious belief in the

nation as a whole’ (Kelley and De Graaf 1997: 647). Family religious orientation was measured on a scale of fi ve

levels of parental church attendance. The hypotheses were broadly confi rmed and the authors conclude that the

‘religious environment of a nation has a major impact on the beliefs of its citizens’ (Kelley and De Graaf 1997:

654). Some of the implications of the fi ndings for theories about international differences in religiosity are then


This study demonstrates the process whereby hypotheses are deduced from existing theory and these then

guide the process of data collection so that they can be tested.

9780199588053_C02.indd 25 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies26

frequently be discernible in social research, but it is also
the case that we often fi nd departures from it. However, in
some research no attempt is made to follow the sequence
outlined in Figure 2.1. Some researchers prefer an ap-
proach to the relationship between theory and research
that is primarily inductive. With an inductive stance,
theory is the outcome of research. In other words, the
process of induction involves drawing generalizable
inferences out of observations. Figure 2.2 attempts to cap-
ture the essence of the difference between inductivism
and deductivism.

However, just as deduction entails an element of
induction, the inductive process is likely to entail a modi-
cum of deduction. Once the phase of theoretical refl ection
on a set of data has been carried out, the researcher may
want to collect further data in order to establish the con-
ditions in which a theory will and will not hold. Such a
general strategy is often called iterative: it involves a
weaving back and forth between data and theory. It is
particularly evident in grounded theory, which will be
examined in Chapter 24, but in the meantime the basic
point is to note that induction represents an alternative
strategy for linking theory and research, although it
contains a deductive element too.

Figure 2.2Figure 2.2
Deductive and inductive approaches to

the relationship between theory and


Inductive approach

Deductive approach





Research in focus 2.5
An inductive study

Charmaz (1991, 1997) has been concerned to examine a number of aspects of the experiences of people with

chronic illness. One phase of her research entailed the examination specifi cally of men with such a condition.

In one of her reports (Charmaz 1997), she discusses the results of her research into twenty men suffering from

chronic illness. The bulk of her data derives from semi-structured interviews. In order to bring out the

distinctiveness of men’s responses, she compared the fi ndings relating to men with a parallel study of women

with chronic illness. She argues that a key component of men’s responses is that of a strategy of preserving self.

Although the experience of chronic illness invariably necessitates a change of lifestyle that itself occasions a

change in personal identity, the men sought to preserve their sense of self by drawing on ‘essential qualities,

attributes, and identities of [the] past self’ (Charmaz 1997: 49). By contrast, women were less reliant in their

strategies of preserving self on the recapturing of past identities. She relates her theoretical refl ections of her data

to her male respondents’ notions of masculine identity. Her emphasis on the idea of preserving self allows her to

assess the factors that lie behind whether a man with chronic illness will ‘reconstruct a positive identity or sink

into depression’ (Charmaz 1997: 57). If they were unable to have access to actions that would allow their sense

of past self to be extended into the future (for example, through work), the probability of their sinking into

depression was enhanced.

In this study, the inductive nature of the relationship between theory and research can be seen in the way that

Charmaz’s theoretical ideas (such as the notion of ‘preserving self’) derive from her data rather than being

formed before she had collected her data.

9780199588053_C02.indd 26 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 27

However, as with ‘theory’ in connection with the
deductive approach to the relationship between theory
and research, we have to be cautious about the use of the
term in the context of the inductive strategy too. While
some researchers undoubtedly develop theories, equally
it is necessary to be aware that very often what one
ends up with can be little more than empirical gen-
eralizations of the kind Merton (1967) wrote about.
Research in focus 2.5 is an example of research that can
be classifi ed as inductive in the sense that it develops a
theory out of interview data deriving from men suffering
from chronic illness concerning what determines suc-
cessful coping mechanisms for males affl icted with such
a condition. In fact, the analytic strategy adopted by the
author (Charmaz 1997) was grounded theory, and it
is certainly the case that many of the most prominent
examples of inductive research derive from this tradition
(see the other chapters in Strauss and Corbin 1997b,
from which Charmaz’s example was taken).

Charmaz’s (1997) research is an interesting illustra-
tion of an inductive approach. Two points are particu-
larly worth noting about it. First, as previously noted,
it uses a grounded theory approach to the analysis of
data and to the generation of theory. This approach,
which was fi rst outlined by Glaser and Strauss (1967), is
often regarded as especially strong in terms of generating
theories out of data. This contrasts with the nature of

many supposedly inductive studies, which generate inter-
esting and illuminating fi ndings but whose theoretical
signifi cance is not entirely clear. They provide insightful
empirical generalizations, but little theory. Secondly, in
much the same way that the deductive strategy is associ-
ated with a quantitative research approach, an inductive
strategy of linking data and theory is typically associated
with a qualitative research approach. It is not a coinci-
dence that Charmaz’s (1997) research referred to in
Research in focus 2.5 is based on in-depth, semi-structured
interviews that produced qualitative data in the form of
respondents’ detailed answers to her questions. However,
as will be shown below, this characterization of the in-
ductive strategy as associated with qualitative research is
not entirely straightforward: not only does much qualita-
tive research not generate theory, but also theory is often
used at the very least as a background to qualitative

It is useful to think of the relationship between theory
and research in terms of deductive and inductive strat-
egies. However, as the previous discussion has implied,
the issues are not as clear-cut as they are sometimes
presented. To a large extent, deductive and inductive
strategies are possibly better thought of as tendencies
rather than as a hard-and-fast distinction. But these are
not the only issues that impinge on the conduct of social

Epistemological considerations

An epistemological issue concerns the question of what is
(or should be) regarded as acceptable knowledge in a
discipline. A particularly central issue in this context is
the question of whether the social world can and should
be studied according to the same principles, procedures,
and ethos as the natural sciences. The position that
affi rms the importance of imitating the natural sciences
is invariably associated with an epistemological position
known as positivism (see Key concept 2.2).

A natural science epistemology:


The doctrine of positivism is extremely diffi cult to pin
down and therefore to outline in a precise manner, be-
cause it is used in a number of different ways by authors.
For some writers, it is a descriptive category—one that

describes a philosophical position that can be discerned
in research—though there are still disagreements about
what it comprises; for others, it is a pejorative term used
to describe crude and often superfi cial data collection.

It is possible to see in the fi ve principles in Key con-
cept 2.2 a link with some of the points that have already
been raised about the relationship between theory and
research. For example, positivism entails elements of
both a deductive approach (principle 2) and an inductive
strategy (principle 3). Also, a fairly sharp distinction is
drawn between theory and research. The role of research
is to test theories and to provide material for the develop-
ment of laws. But either of these connections between
theory and research carries with it the implication that it
is possible to collect observations in a manner that is not
infl uenced by pre-existing theories. Moreover, theoret-
ical terms that are not directly amenable to observation

9780199588053_C02.indd 27 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies28

Key concept 2.2
What is positivism?

Positivism is an epistemological position that advocates the application of the methods of the natural sciences to

the study of social reality and beyond. But the term stretches beyond this principle, though the constituent

elements vary between authors. However, positivism is also taken to entail the following principles:

1. Only phenomena and hence knowledge confi rmed by the senses can genuinely be warranted as knowledge

(the principle of phenomenalism).

2. The purpose of theory is to generate hypotheses that can be tested and that will thereby allow explanations

of laws to be assessed (the principle of deductivism).

3. Knowledge is arrived at through the gathering of facts that provide the basis for laws (the principle of


4. Science must (and presumably can) be conducted in a way that is value free (that is, objective).

5. There is a clear distinction between scientifi c statements and normative statements and a belief that the

former are the true domain of the scientist. This last principle is implied by the fi rst because the truth or

otherwise of normative statements cannot be confi rmed by the senses.

are not considered genuinely scientifi c; they must be sus-
ceptible to the rigours of observation. All this carries
with it the implication of greater epistemological status
being given to observation than to theory.

It should be noted that it is a mistake to treat positivism
as synonymous with science and the scientifi c. In fact,
philosophers of science and of the social sciences differ
quite sharply over how best to characterize scientifi c
practice, and since the early 1960s there has been a drift
away from viewing it in positivist terms. Thus, when
writers complain about the limitations of positivism, it is
not entirely clear whether they mean the philosophical
term or a scientifi c approach more generally. Realism (in
particular, critical realism), for example, is another philo-
sophical position that purports to provide an account of
the nature of scientifi c practice (see Key concept 2.3).

The crux of the epistemological considerations that
form the central thrust of this section is the rejection by
some writers and traditions of the application of the
canons of the natural sciences to the study of social reality.
A diffi culty here is that it is not easy to disentangle the
natural science model from positivism as the butt of their
criticisms. In other words, it is not always clear whether
they are inveighing against the application of a general
natural scientifi c approach or of positivism in particular.
There is a long-standing debate about the appropriate-
ness of the natural science model for the study of society,
but, since the account that is offered of that model tends
to have largely positivist overtones, it would seem that
it is positivism that is the focus of attention rather than

other accounts of scientifi c practice (such as critical
realism—see Key concept 2.3).


Interpretivism is a term given to a contrasting epistem-
ology to positivism (see Key concept 2.4). The term
subsumes the views of writers who have been critical of
the application of the scientifi c model to the study of the
social world and who have been infl uenced by different
intellectual traditions, which are outlined below. They
share a view that the subject matter of the social sciences
—people and their institutions—is fundamentally differ-
ent from that of the natural sciences. The study of the
social world therefore requires a different logic of re-
search procedure, one that refl ects the distinctiveness of
humans as against the natural order. Von Wright (1971)
has depicted the epistemological clash as being between
positivism and hermeneutics (a term that is drawn from
theology and that, when imported into the social sci-
ences, is concerned with the theory and method of the
interpretation of human action). This clash refl ects a divi-
sion between an emphasis on the explanation of human
behaviour that is the chief ingredient of the positivist
approach to the social sciences and the understanding
of human behaviour. The latter is concerned with the
empathic understanding of human action rather than with
the forces that are deemed to act on it. This contrast
refl ects long-standing debates that precede the emergence
of the modern social sciences but fi nd their expression in

9780199588053_C02.indd 28 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 29

such notions as the advocacy by Max Weber (1864–1920)
of an approach referred to in his native German as
Verstehen (which means understanding). Weber (1947:
88) described sociology as a ‘science which attempts the

interpretive understanding of social action in order to
arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects’.
Weber’s defi nition seems to embrace both explanation
and understanding here, but the crucial point is that the

Key concept 2.3
What is realism?

Realism shares two features with positivism: a belief that the natural and the social sciences can and should apply

the same kinds of approach to the collection of data and to explanation, and a commitment to the view that

there is an external reality to which scientists direct their attention (in other words, there is a reality that is

separate from our descriptions of it). There are two major forms of realism:

• Empirical realism simply asserts that, through the use of appropriate methods, reality can be understood.

This version of realism is sometimes referred to as naive realism to refl ect the fact that it is often assumed by

realists that there is a perfect (or at least very close) correspondence between reality and the term used to

describe it. As such, it ‘fails to recognise that there are enduring structures and generative mechanisms

underlying and producing observable phenomena and events’ and is therefore ‘superfi cial’ (Bhaskar 1989: 2).

This is perhaps the most common meaning of the term. When writers employ the term ‘realism’ in a general

way, it is invariably this meaning to which they are referring.

• Critical realism is a specifi c form of realism whose manifesto is to recognize the reality of the natural order and

the events and discourses of the social world and holds that ‘we will only be able to understand—and

so change—the social world if we identify the structures at work that generate those events and discourses.

. . . These structures are not spontaneously apparent in the observable pattern of events; they can only be

identifi ed through the practical and theoretical work of the social sciences’ (Bhaskar 1989: 2).

Critical realism implies two things. First, it implies that, whereas positivists take the view that the scientist’s

conceptualization of reality actually directly refl ects that reality, realists argue that the scientist’s

conceptualization is simply a way of knowing that reality. As Bhaskar (1975: 250) has put it: ‘Science, then,

is the systematic attempt to express in thought the structures and ways of acting of things that exist and act

independently of thought.’ Critical realists acknowledge and accept that the categories they employ to

understand reality are likely to be provisional. Thus, unlike naive realists, critical realists recognize that there is

a distinction between the objects that are the focus of their enquiries and the terms they use to describe,

account for, and understand them. Secondly, by implication, critical realists unlike positivists are perfectly content

to admit into their explanations theoretical terms that are not directly amenable to observation. As a result,

hypothetical entities that account for regularities in the natural or social orders (the ‘generative mechanisms’ to

which Bhaskar refers) are perfectly admissible for realists, but not for positivists. Generative mechanisms entail

the entities and processes that are constitutive of the phenomenon of interest. For critical realists, it is acceptable

that generative mechanisms are not directly observable, since they can be admitted into theoretical accounts on

the grounds that their effects are observable. Also crucial to a critical realist understanding is the identifi cation of

the context that interacts with the generative mechanism to produce an observed regularity in the social world.

An appreciation of context is crucial to critical realist explanations because it serves to shed light on the

conditions that promote or impede the operation of the causal mechanism. What makes critical realism critical is

that the identifi cation of generative mechanisms offers the prospect of introducing changes that can transform

the status quo. A further point to note about critical realism is that the form of reasoning involved in the

identifi cation of generative causal mechanisms is neither inductive nor deductive. It is referred to by Blaikie

(2004) as retroductive reasoning, which entails making an inference about the causal mechanism that lies

behind and is responsible for regularities that are observed in the social world. Research in focus 26.1 provides

an example of research using a critical realist approach. This example can be read profi tably at this stage even

though it is in a much later chapter.

9780199588053_C02.indd 29 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies30

task of ‘causal explanation’ is undertaken with reference
to the ‘interpretive understanding of social action’ rather
than to external forces that have no meaning for those
involved in that social action.

One of the main intellectual traditions that has been
responsible for the anti-positivist position has been

phenomenology, a philosophy that is concerned with
the question of how individuals make sense of the world
around them and how in particular the philosopher
should bracket out preconceptions in his or her grasp of
that world. The initial application of phenomenological
ideas to the social sciences is attributed to the work of
Alfred Schutz (1899–1959), whose work did not come to
the notice of most English-speaking social scientists until
the translation from German of his major writings in the
1960s, some twenty or more years after they had been
written. His work was profoundly infl uenced by Weber’s
concept of Verstehen, as well as by phenomenological
philosophers, like Husserl. Schutz’s position is well cap-
tured in the following passage, which has been quoted on
numerous occasions:

Two points are particularly noteworthy in this quotation.
First, it asserts that there is a fundamental difference
between the subject matter of the natural sciences and
the social sciences and that an epistemology is required
that will refl ect and capitalize upon that difference. The
fundamental difference resides in the fact that social
reality has a meaning for human beings and therefore
human action is meaningful—that is, it has a meaning for
them and they act on the basis of the meanings that they
attribute to their acts and to the acts of others. This leads
to the second point—namely, that it is the job of the
social scientist to gain access to people’s ‘common-sense
thinking’ and hence to interpret their actions and their
social world from their point of view. It is this particular
feature that social scientists claiming allegiance to phe-
nomenology have typically emphasized. In the words of
the authors of a research methods text whose approach is
described as phenomenological: ‘The phenomenologist
views human behavior . . . as a product of how people
interpret the world. . . . In order to grasp the meanings of
a person’s behavior, the phenomenologist attempts to see
things from that person’s point of view’ (Bogdan and Taylor
1975: 13–14; emphasis in original).

In this exposition of Verstehen and phenomenology, it
has been necessary to skate over some complex issues. In
particular, Weber’s examination of Verstehen is far more
complex than the above commentary suggests, because
the empathetic understanding that seems to be implied
above was not the way in which he applied it (Bauman
1978), while the question of what is and is not a genu-
inely phenomenological approach to the social sciences
is a matter of some dispute (Heap and Roth 1973). How-
ever, the similarity in the writings of the hermeneutic–
phenomenological tradition and of the Verstehen approach,
with their emphasis upon social action as being meaning-
ful to actors and therefore needing to be interpreted from
their point of view, coupled with the rejection of positiv-
ism, contributed to a stream of thought often referred to
as interpretivism (e.g. J. A. Hughes 1990).

Key concept 2.4
What is interpretivism?

Interpretivism is a term that usually denotes an alternative to the positivist orthodoxy that has held sway for

decades. It is predicated upon the view that a strategy is required that respects the differences between people

and the objects of the natural sciences and therefore requires the social scientist to grasp the subjective meaning

of social action. Its intellectual heritage includes: Weber’s notion of Verstehen; the hermeneutic–

phenomenological tradition; and symbolic interactionism.

The world of nature as explored by the natural scientist
does not ‘mean’ anything to molecules, atoms and
electrons. But the observational fi eld of the social
scientist—social reality—has a specifi c meaning and
relevance structure for the beings living, acting, and
thinking within it. By a series of common-sense
constructs they have pre-selected and pre-interpreted
this world which they experience as the reality of their
daily lives. It is these thought objects of theirs which
determine their behaviour by motivating it. The thought
objects constructed by the social scientist, in order to
grasp this social reality, have to be founded upon the
thought objects constructed by the common-sense
thinking of men [and women!], living their daily life
within the social world. (Schutz 1962: 59)

9780199588053_C02.indd 30 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 31

Verstehen and the hermeneutic–phenomenological
tradition do not exhaust the intellectual infl uences on
interpretivism. The theoretical tradition in sociology
known as symbolic interactionism has also been regarded
by many writers as a further infl uence. Again, the case
is not clear-cut. The implications for empirical research
of the ideas of the founders of symbolic interactionism,
in particular George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), whose
discussion of the way in which our notion of self emerges
through an appreciation of how others see us, have been
hotly debated. There was a school of research, known
as the Iowa school, that drew heavily on Mead’s con-
cepts and ideas, but proceeded in a direction that most
people would prefer to depict as largely positivist in tone
(Meltzer et al. 1975). Moreover, some writers have
argued that Mead’s approach is far more consistent
with a natural science approach than has typically been
recognized (McPhail and Rexroat 1979). However, the
general tendency has been to view symbolic inter-
actionism as occupying similar intellectual space to
the hermeneutic–phenomenological tradition and so as
broadly interpretative in approach. This tendency is
largely the product of the writings of Herbert Blumer, a
student of Mead’s who acted as his mentor’s spokesman
and interpreter, and his followers (Hammersley 1989;
R. Collins 1994). Not only did Blumer coin the term
symbolic interaction; he also provided a gloss on Mead’s
writings that has decidedly interpretative overtones.
Symbolic interactionists argue that interaction takes
place in such a way that the individual is continually
interpreting the symbolic meaning of his or her environ-
ment (which includes the actions of others) and acts on
the basis of this imputed meaning. In research terms,
according to Blumer (1962: 188), ‘the position of symbolic
interaction requires the student to catch the process of
interpretation through which [actors] construct their
actions’, a statement that brings out clearly his views of
the research implications of symbolic interactionism and
of Mead’s thought.

It should be appreciated that the parallelism
between symbolic interactionism and the hermeneutic–
phenomenological tradition should not be exaggerated.
The two are united in their antipathy for positivism
and have in common an interpretative stance. However,
symbolic interactionism is, at least in the hands of
Blumer and the many writers and researchers who have
followed in his wake, a type of social theory that has dis-
tinctive epistemological implications; the hermeneutic–
phenomenological tradition, by contrast, is best thought
of as a general epistemological approach in its own right.
Blumer may have been infl uenced by the hermeneutic–

phenomenological tradition, but there is no concrete
evidence of this. There are other intellectual currents
that have affi nities with the interpretative stance, such
as the working-through of the ramifi cations of the works
of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Winch 1958),
but the hermeneutic–phenomenological, Verstehen, and
symbolic interactionist traditions can be considered
major infl uences.

Taking an interpretative stance can mean that the
researcher may come up with surprising fi ndings, or at
least fi ndings that appear surprising if a largely external
stance is taken—that is, a position from outside the par-
ticular social context being studied. Research in focus 2.6
provides an interesting example of this possibility.

Of course, as the example in Research in focus 2.6
suggests, when the social scientist adopts an interpreta-
tive stance, he or she is not simply laying bare how
members of a social group interpret the world around
them. The social scientist will almost certainly be aiming
to place the interpretations that have been elicited into a
social scientifi c frame. There is a double interpretation
going on: the researcher is providing an interpretation
of others’ interpretations. Indeed, there is a third level of
interpretation going on, because the researcher’s inter-
pretations have to be further interpreted in terms of the
concepts, theories, and literature of a discipline. Thus,
taking the example in Research in focus 2.6, Foster’s
(1995) suggestion that Riverside is not perceived as a
high crime area by residents is her interpretation of her
subjects’ interpretations. She then had the additional
job of placing her interesting fi ndings into a social scien-
tifi c frame, which she accomplished by relating them to
existing concepts and discussions in criminology of such
things as informal social control, neighbourhood watch
schemes, and the role of housing as a possible cause of
criminal activity.

The aim of this section has been to outline how epi-
stemological considerations—especially those relating
to the question of whether a natural science approach,
and in particular a positivist one, can supply legitimate
knowledge of the social world—are related to research
practice. There is a link with the earlier section in that a
deductive approach to the relationship between theory
and research is typically associated with a positivist posi-
tion. Key concept 2.2 does try to suggest that inductivism
is also a feature of positivism (third principle), but, in the
working-through of its implementation in the practice of
social research, it is the deductive element (second prin-
ciple) that tends to be emphasized. Similarly, the third
level of interpretation that a researcher engaged in inter-
pretative research must bring into operation is very much

9780199588053_C02.indd 31 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies32

part of the kind of inductive strategy described in the
previous section. However, while such interconnections
between epistemological issues and research practice
exist, it is important not to overstate them, since they
represent tendencies rather than defi nitive points of

correspondence. Thus, particular epistemological prin-
ciples and research practices do not necessarily go hand
in hand in a neat unambiguous manner. This point will
be made again on several occasions and will be a special
focus of Chapter 26.

Research in focus 2.6
Interpretivism in practice

Foster (1995) conducted ethnographic research using participant observation and semi-structured interviews

in a housing estate in East London, referred to as Riverside. The estate had a high level of crime, as indicated by

offi cial statistics on crime. However, she found that residents did not perceive the estate to be a high crime

area. This perception could be attributed to a number of factors, but a particularly important reason was the

existence of ‘informal social control’. People expected a certain level of crime, but felt fairly secure because

informal social control allowed levels of crime to be contained. Informal social control comprised a number of

different aspects. One aspect was that neighbours often looked out for each other. In the words of one of Foster’s

interviewees: ‘If I hear a bang or shouting I go out. If there’s aggravation I come in and ring the police. I don’t

stand for it.’ Another aspect of informal social control was that people often felt secure because they knew each

other. Another respondent said: ‘I don’t feel nervous . . . because people do generally know each other. We keep

an eye on each other’s properties . . . I feel quite safe because you know your neighbours and you know they’re

there . . . they look out for you’ (Foster 1995: 575).

Ontological considerations

Questions of social ontology are concerned with the
nature of social entities. The central point of orientation
here is the question of whether social entities can and
should be considered objective entities that have a reality
external to social actors, or whether they can and should
be considered social constructions built up from the per-
ceptions and actions of social actors. These positions are
frequently referred to respectively as objectivism and
constructionism. Their differences can be illustrated by
reference to two of the most common and central terms
in social science—organization and culture.


Objectivism is an ontological position that implies that
social phenomena confront us as external facts that are
beyond our reach or infl uence (see Key concept 2.5).

We can discuss organization or an organization as a
tangible object. It has rules and regulations. It adopts
standardized procedures for getting things done. People
are appointed to different jobs within a division of

labour. There is a hierarchy. It has a mission statement.
And so on. The degree to which these features exist from
organization to organization is variable, but in thinking
in these terms we are tending to the view that an organ-
ization has a reality that is external to the individuals who
inhabit it. Moreover, the organization represents a social
order in that it exerts pressure on individuals to conform
to the requirements of the organization. People learn
and apply the rules and regulations. They follow the
standardized procedures. They do the jobs to which they
are appointed. People tell them what to do and they tell
others what to do. They learn and apply the values in the
mission statement. If they do not do these things, they
may be reprimanded or even fi red. The organization is
therefore a constraining force that acts on and inhibits
its members.

The same can be said of culture. Cultures and subcul-
tures can be viewed as repositories of widely shared
values and customs into which people are socialized so
that they can function as good citizens or as full partici-
pants. Cultures and subcultures constrain us because we

9780199588053_C02.indd 32 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 33

internalize their beliefs and values. In the case of both
organization and culture, the social entity in question
comes across as something external to the actor and as
having an almost tangible reality of its own. It has the
characteristics of an object and hence of having an objec-
tive reality. To a very large extent, these are the ‘classic’
ways of conceptualizing organization and culture.


However, we can consider an alternative ontological
position—constructionism (Key concept 2.6). This posi-
tion challenges the suggestion that categories such as
organization and culture are pre-given and therefore
confront social actors as external realities that they have
no role in fashioning.

Let us take organization fi rst. Strauss et al. (1973),
drawing on insights from symbolic interactionism, car-

ried out research in a psychiatric hospital and proposed
that it was best conceptualized as a ‘negotiated order’.
Instead of taking the view that order in organizations is a
pre-existing characteristic, they argue that it is worked
at. Rules were far less extensive and less rigorously im-
posed than might be supposed from the classic account
of organization. Indeed, Strauss et al. (1973: 308) prefer
to refer to them as ‘much less like commands, and much
more like general understandings’. Precisely because
relatively little of the spheres of action of doctors, nurses,
and other personnel was prescribed, the social order of
the hospital was an outcome of agreed-upon patterns of
action that were themselves the products of negotiations
between the different parties involved. The social order
is in a constant state of change because the hospital is ‘a
place where numerous agreements are continually being
terminated or forgotten, but also as continually being
established, renewed, reviewed, revoked, revised. . . . In

Key concept 2.5
What is objectivism?

Objectivism is an ontological position that asserts that social phenomena and their meanings have an existence

that is independent of social actors. It implies that social phenomena and the categories that we use in everyday

discourse have an existence that is independent or separate from actors.

Key concept 2.6
What is constructionism?

Constructionism is an ontological position (often also referred to as constructivism) that asserts that social

phenomena and their meanings are continually being accomplished by social actors. It implies that social

phenomena and categories are not only produced through social interaction but that they are in a constant state

of revision. In recent years, the term has also come to include the notion that researchers’ own accounts of the

social world are constructions. In other words, the researcher always presents a specifi c version of social reality,

rather than one that can be regarded as defi nitive. Knowledge is viewed as indeterminate, a position redolent of

postmodernism (see Key concept 17.1, which further examines this viewpoint). This sense of constructionism is

usually allied to the ontological version of the term. In other words, these are linked meanings. Both meanings

are antithetical to objectivism (see Key concept 2.5), but the second meaning is also antithetical to realism (see

Key concept 2.3). The fi rst meaning might be thought of usefully as constructionism in relation to the social

world; the second as constructionism in relation to the nature of knowledge of the social world (and indeed the

natural world).

Increasingly, the notion of constructionism in relation to the nature of knowledge of the social world is being

incorporated into notions of constructionism, but in this book I will be using the term in relation to the fi rst

meaning, whereby constructionism is presented as an ontological position in relating to social objects and

categories—that is, one that views them as socially constructed.

9780199588053_C02.indd 33 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies34

any pragmatic sense, this is the hospital at the moment:
this is its social order’ (Strauss et al. 1973: 316–17). The
authors argue that a preoccupation with the formal prop-
erties of organizations (rules, organizational charts, regu-
lations, roles) tends to neglect the degree to which order
in organizations has to be accomplished in everyday
interaction, though this is not to say that the formal
properties have no element of constraint on individual

Much the same kind of point can be made about the
idea of culture. Instead of seeing culture as an external
reality that acts on and constrains people, it can be
taken to be an emergent reality in a continuous state of
construction and reconstruction. Becker (1982: 521),
for example, has suggested that ‘people create culture
continuously. . . . No set of cultural understandings . . .
provides a perfectly applicable solution to any problem
people have to solve in the course of their day, and they
therefore must remake those solutions, adapt their under-
standings to the new situation in the light of what is
different about it.’ Like Strauss et al., Becker recognizes
that the constructionist position cannot be pushed to the
extreme: it is necessary to appreciate that culture has a
reality that ‘persists and antedates the participation of
particular people’ and shapes their perspectives, but it is
not an inert objective reality that possesses only a sense
of constraint: it acts as a point of reference but is always
in the process of being formed.

Neither the work of Strauss et al. nor that of Becker
pushes the constructionist argument to the extreme.
Each admits to the pre-existence of their objects of inter-
est (organization and culture respectively). However, in
each case we see an intellectual predilection for stressing
the active role of individuals in the social construction of
social reality. Not all writers adopting a constructionist
position are similarly prepared to acknowledge the exis-
tence or at least importance of an objective reality. Walsh
(1972: 19), for example, has written that ‘we cannot take
for granted, as the natural scientist does, the availability
of a preconstituted world of phenomena for investiga-
tion’ and must instead ‘examine the processes by which
the social world is constructed’. Constructionism essen-
tially invites the researcher to consider the ways in which
social reality is an ongoing accomplishment of social
actors rather than something external to them and that
totally constrains them.

Constructionism also suggests that the categories that
people employ in helping them to understand the natural
and social world are in fact social products. The categories
do not have built-in essences; instead, their meaning is
constructed in and through interaction. Thus, a category

like ‘masculinity’ might be treated as a social construc-
tion. This notion implies that, rather than being treated
as a distinct inert entity, masculinity is construed as
something whose meaning is built up during interaction.
That meaning is likely to be a highly ephemeral one, in
that it will vary by both time and place. This kind of
stance frequently displays a concern with the language
that is employed to present categories in particular ways.
It suggests that the social world and its categories are not
external to us, but are built up and constituted in and
through interaction. This tendency can be seen particu-
larly in discourse analysis, which is examined in Chap-
ter 22. As Potter (1996: 98) observes: ‘The world . . . is
constituted in one way or another as people talk it,
write it and argue it.’ This sense of constructionism is
highly antithetical to realism (see Key concept 2.3).
Constructionism frequently results in an interest in the
representation of social phenomena. Research in focus
2.7 provides an illustration of this idea in relation to
the representation of the breast cancer epidemic in
the USA.

Constructionism is also frequently used as a term that
refl ects the indeterminacy of our knowledge of the social
world (see Key concept 2.6 and the idea of construction-
ism in relation to the nature of knowledge of the social
world). However, in this book, I will be using the term in
connection with the notion that social phenomena and
categories are social constructions.

Relationship to social research

Questions of social ontology cannot be divorced from
issues concerning the conduct of social research. Onto-
logical assumptions and commitments will feed into the
ways in which research questions are formulated and
research is carried out. If a research question is for-
mulated in such a way as to suggest that organizations
and cultures are objective social entities that act on indi-
viduals, the researcher is likely to emphasize the formal
properties of organizations or the beliefs and values of
members of the culture. Alternatively, if the researcher
formulates a research question so that the tenuousness
of organization and culture as objective categories is
stressed, it is likely that an emphasis will be placed on
the active involvement of people in reality construction.
In either case, it might be supposed that different
approaches to the design of research and the collection
of data will be required. Later in the book, Research in
focus 20.8 provides an illustration of a study with a
strong commitment to a constructionist ontology and its
implications for the research process.

9780199588053_C02.indd 34 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 35

Research in focus 2.7
Constructionism in action

Lantz and Booth (1998) have shown that breast cancer can be treated as a social construction. They note that

US data show a rise in the incidence of the disease since the early 1980s, which has led to the depiction of the

trend as an epidemic. The authors examined a variety of popular magazines using qualitative content analysis

(see Key concept 13.1 for a brief description of this m ethod). They note that many of the articles draw attention

to the lifestyles of modern women, such as delaying fi rst births, diet and alcohol consumption, and having

careers. The authors argue that the articles

ascribe blame to individual behaviors by listing a wide array of individual risk factors (many of which are not

behaviors of ‘traditional’ women), and then offering prudent prescriptions for prevention. Women are

portrayed as victims of an insidious disease, but also as victims of their own behaviors, many of which are

related to the control of their own fertility. . . . These articles suggest that nontraditional women experience

pathological repercussions within their bodies and, in turn, may be responsible for our current epidemic of

breast cancer. (Lantz and Booth 1998: 915–16)

This article suggests that, as a social category, the breast cancer epidemic is being represented in popular

magazines in a particular way—one that blames the victims and the lifestyles of modern women in particular.

This is in spite of the fact that fewer than 20 per cent of cases of breast cancer are in women under the age of 50.

Lantz and Booth’s study is fairly representative of a constructionist ontology in suggesting that the epidemic is

not simply being construed as a social fact but is being ascribed a particular meaning (one that blames the

victims of the disease). In this way, the representation of the disease in popular magazines forms an important

element in its social construction.

Research strategy: quantitative and

qualitative research

Many writers on methodological issues fi nd it helpful
to distinguish between quantitative research and quali-

tative research. The status of the distinction is ambigu-
ous, because it is almost simultaneously regarded by
some writers as a fundamental contrast and by others as
no longer useful or even simply as ‘false’ (Layder 1993:
110). However, there is little evidence to suggest that
the use of the distinction is abating and even consider-
able evidence of its continued, even growing, cur-
rency. The quantitative/qualitative distinction will be
employed a great deal in this book, because it repres-
ents a useful means of classifying different methods
of social research and because it is a helpful umbrella
for a range of issues concerned with the practice of
social research.

On the face of it, there would seem to be little to the
quantitative/qualitative distinction other than the fact
that quantitative researchers employ measurement and
qualitative researchers do not. It is certainly the case

that there is a predisposition among researchers along
these lines, but many writers have suggested that the
differences are deeper than the superfi cial issue of the
presence or absence of quantifi cation. For many writers,
quantitative and qualitative research differ with respect
to their epistemological foundations and in other re-
spects too. Indeed, if we take the areas that have been
the focus of the previous three sections—the connection
between theory and research, epistemological consider-
ations, and ontological considerations—quantitative and
qualitative research can be taken to form two distinctive
clusters of research strategy. By a research strategy,
I simply mean a general orientation to the conduct of
social research. Table 2.1 outlines the differences between
quantitative and qualitative research in terms of the
three areas.

Thus, quantitative research can be construed as a
research strategy that emphasizes quantifi cation in the
collection and analysis of data and that

9780199588053_C02.indd 35 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies36

• entails a deductive approach to the relationship
between theory and research, in which the accent is
placed on the testing of theories;

• has incorporated the practices and norms of the natural
scientifi c model and of positivism in particular; and

• embodies a view of social reality as an external, objec-
tive reality.

By contrast, qualitative research can be construed as a
research strategy that usually emphasizes words rather
than quantifi cation in the collection and analysis of data
and that

• predominantly emphasizes an inductive approach
to the relationship between theory and research, in
which the emphasis is placed on the generation of

• has rejected the practices and norms of the natural sci-
entifi c model and of positivism in particular in prefer-
ence for an emphasis on the ways in which individuals
interpret their social world; and

• embodies a view of social reality as a constantly shift-
ing emergent property of individuals’ creation.

There is, in fact, considerably more to the quantitative/
qualitative distinction than this contrast. In Chapters 7
and 17 the nature of quantitative and then qualitative
research respectively will be outlined in much greater
detail, while in Chapters 26 and 27 the contrasting
features will be further explored. In particular, a number
of distinguishing features fl ow from the commitment of
the quantitative research strategy to a positivist epistem-
ology and from the rejection of that epistemology by
practitioners of the qualitative research strategy. In other
words, the three contrasts in Table 2.1 are basic, though
fundamental, ones.

However, the interconnections between the differ-
ent features of quantitative and qualitative research are

not as straightforward as Table 2.1 and the previous
paragraph imply. While it is useful to contrast the two
research strategies, it is necessary to be careful about
hammering a wedge between them. It may seem per-
verse to introduce a basic set of distinctions and then
suggest that they are problematic. A recurring theme of
this book is that discussing the nature of social research
is just as complex as conducting research in the real
world. You may discover general tendencies, but they
are precisely that—tendencies. In reality, the picture
becomes more complicated the more you delve.

For example, it is common to describe qualitative
research as concerned with the generation rather than
the testing of theories. However, there are examples of
studies in which qualitative research has been employed
to test rather than to generate theories. For example,
Adler and Adler (1985) were concerned to explore the
issue of whether participation in athletics in higher edu-
cation in the USA is associated with higher or lower levels
of academic achievement, an issue on which the existing
literature was inconsistent. This is an illustration of the
use of the existing literature on a topic being employed as
a kind of proxy for theory. The fi rst author was a partici-
pant observer for four years of a basketball programme
in a university, and both authors carried out ‘intensive,
taped interviews’ with players. The authors’ fi ndings do
lead them to conclude that athletic participation is likely
to result in lower academic achievement. This occurs
because the programme participants gradually drift
from idealistic goals about their academic careers, and
a variety of factors lead them to become increasingly
detached from academic work. For example, one student
is quoted as saying: ‘If I was a student like most other
students I could do well, but when you play the calibre
of ball we do, you just can’t be an above-average student.
What I strive for now is just to be an average student. . . .
You just can’t fi nd the time to do all the reading’ (Adler
and Adler 1985: 247). This study shows how, although

Table 2.1
Fundamental differences between quantitative and qualitative research strategies

Quantitative Qualitative

Principal orientation to the role
of theory in relation to research

Deductive; testing of theory Inductive; generation of theory

Epistemological orientation Natural science model, in particular positivism Interpretivism

Ontological orientation Objectivism Constructionism

9780199588053_C02.indd 36 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 37

qualitative research is typically associated with generat-
ing theories, it can also be employed for testing them.

Moreover, it is striking that, although the Adler and
Adler study is broadly interpretivist in epistemological
orientation, with its emphasis on how college athletes
view their social situation, the fi ndings have objectivist,
rather than constructionist, overtones. For example, when
the authors describe the students’ academic performance
as ‘determined less by demographic characteristics and
high school experiences than by the structure of their
college experiences’ (Adler and Adler 1985: 249), they
are positing a social world that is ‘out there’ and that has
a formal, objective quality. It is an example of qualitative
research in the sense that there is no quantifi cation or
very little of it, but it does not have all the other features
outlined in Table 2.1. Similarly, the previously mentioned
study by Westergaard et al. (1989) of the effects of
redundancy was a quantitative study in the sense of
being concerned to measure a wide variety of concepts,
but exhibited little evidence of a concern to test theor-
ies of unemployment or of a stressful life event like
redundancy. Instead, its conclusions revolve around seek-

ing to understand how those made redundant responded
to the experience in terms of such things as their job-
search methods, their inclination to fi nd jobs, and their
political attitudes. As such, it has interpretivist overtones
in spite of being an exercise in quantitative research.

The point that is being made in this section is that
quantitative and qualitative research represent different
research strategies and that each carries with it striking
differences in terms of the role of theory, epistemological
issues, and ontological concerns. However, the distinc-
tion is not a hard-and-fast one: studies that have the
broad characteristics of one research strategy may have
a characteristic of the other. I will say more about the
common features in quantitative and qualitative research
in Chap ter 26. Not only this, but many writers argue
that the two can be combined within an overall research
project, and Chapter 27 examines precisely this possibil-
ity. In Chapter 27, I will examine what is increasingly
referred to as mixed methods research. This term is
widely used nowadays to refer to research that combines
methods associated with both quantitative and qualita-
tive research.

Research in focus 2.8
Mixed methods research—an example
In 2001, Britain was profoundly affected by the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), which had a big impact on

people’s movements. Poortinga et al. (2004) were interested in how far the public trusted the information the

government was supplying and how it perceived the risks associated with the disease. Such issues were of

interest in part because the researchers felt that the ways in which the public responds to a crisis was an

important topic, but also because the issues connect with the infl uence in recent years of the notion of the

‘risk society’ (Beck 1992), which has attracted a good deal of sociological attention. At the height of the disease

during 2–5 April 2001, the researchers conducted a survey by administering a self-completion questionnaire

(see Chapter 10) to samples in two contrasting areas: Bude in Cornwall and Norwich in Norfolk. These two areas

were chosen because they were very differently affected by FMD. The questionnaire covered the following areas:

level of agreement with statements about the outbreak of the disease (for example, ‘My main concerns about

FMD are to do with the possible impacts on human health’); perceptions of who was to blame; level of

agreement with statements about the government’s handling of FMD; degrees of trust in various sources of

information about the disease; and personal information, such as any connection with the farming or tourist

industries. In addition, a qualitative research method—focus groups (see Chapter 21)—was employed. In May

and June 2001, these groups were convened and members of the groups were asked about the same kinds of

issues covered in the questionnaire. Focus group participants were chosen from among those who had indicated

in their questionnaire replies that they were willing to be involved in a focus group discussion. Three focus group

discussions took place. While the questionnaire data were able to demonstrate the variation in such things as

trust in various information sources, the focus groups revealed ‘valuable additional information, especially on the

reasons, rationalizations and arguments behind people’s understanding of the FMD issue’ (Poortinga et al. 2004:

86). As a result, the researchers were able to arrive at a more complete account of the FMD crisis than could

have been obtained by either a quantitative or a qualitative research approach alone. This and other possible

advantages of mixed methods research will be explored further in Chapter 27.

9780199588053_C02.indd 37 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies38

In Research in focus 2.8 and 2.9, I present examples of
mixed methods studies. I am presenting them here partly
to provide some early insights into the possibility of
doing mixed methods research, but also to show how
a wedge need not and should not be driven between

quantitative and qualitative research. By contrasting the
two approaches, it is easy to see them as incompatible.
As the examples in Research in focus 2.8 and 2.9 show,
they can be fruitfully combined within a single project.
This point will be amplifi ed throughout Chapter 27.

Research in focus 2.9
Mixed methods research—an example

This second example of mixed methods research is probably one of the biggest studies in the UK using the

approach—the Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion (CCSE) project. Like the research referred to in Research

in Focus 2.1, the CCSE project was profoundly infl uenced by Bourdieu and in particular by his infl uential

research on cultural capital and its role in the reproduction of social divisions (Bourdieu 1984). While the

CCSE project was inspired by Bourdieu’s research, at the same time the researchers had some reservations

about the methodological approach taken, the theoretical approach, and its relevance beyond the period in

which the research was conducted and its milieu (France). The research was designed around three research


• ‘What is the nature of cultural capital in Britain? What kinds of social exclusion are generated by the

differential distribution of cultural capital across class positions?’

• ‘What are the relationships between economic capital, social capital and cultural capital, in particular how is

cultural capital related to other forms of capital?’

• ‘What role does cultural capital play in relation to existing patterns of social exclusion? How can a

closer knowledge of this assist in developing cultural policies designed to offset the effects of social



emphasis removed (accessed 13 August 2010))

Each of these three research questions was broken down into several subquestions. In order to address these

research questions, the authors employed three main research methods:

1. Twenty-fi ve focus groups, with each group being made up of a distinctive group of members, for example,

Pakistani middle class, supervisors, self-employed.

2. A structured interview survey of a large representative sample of 1,781 respondents within the UK.

3. Semi-structured interviews with 44 individuals from 30 households. The interviewees were sampled from the

survey on the basis of socio-demographic and cultural capital characteristics. The interviewers also took notes

about the households. In addition, 11 interviews were conducted with ‘elite’ individuals, because it was felt

that these were not suffi ciently present in the sample.

Thus, the CCSE project comprised two qualitative research methods (focus groups and semi-structured

interviewing) and one quantitative method (a structured interview survey). The mixed methods aspect of this

research fulfi lled several roles for the researchers. For example, although the focus groups yielded fi ndings that

could be linked to the survey ones, they were also used to inform the design of the survey questions. There will

be further reference to the utility of the mixed methods approach in Chapter 27, while the components of the

CCSE project will be referred to in the interim chapters.

Sources: Silva and Wright (2008); Bennett et al. (2009); Silva et al. (2009);

capital-and-social-exclusion/project-summary.php (accessed 13 August 2010).

9780199588053_C02.indd 38 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 39

We are beginning to get a picture now that social re-
search is infl uenced by a variety of factors. Figure 2.3
summarizes the infl uences that have been examined so
far, but has added two more—the impact of values and of
practical considerations.


Values refl ect either the personal beliefs or the feelings
of a researcher. On the face of it, we would expect that
social scientists should be value free and objective in
their research. After all, one might want to argue that
research that simply refl ected the personal biases of its
practitioners could not be considered valid and scien-
tifi c because it was bound up with the subjectivities
of its practitioners. Such a view is held with less and
less frequency among social scientists nowadays. Émile
Durkheim (1858–1917) wrote that one of the corollaries
of his injunction to treat social facts as things was that all
‘preconceptions must be eradicated’ (Durkheim 1938:
31). Since values are a form of preconception, his exhor-
tation was at least implicitly to do with suppressing them
when conducting research. His position is unlikely to be
regarded as credible nowadays, because there is a grow-
ing recognition that it is not feasible to keep the values
that a researcher holds totally in check. These can
intrude at any or all of a number of points in the process
of social research:

• choice of research area;

• formulation of research question;

• choice of method;

• formulation of research design and data-collection

• implementation of data collection;

• analysis of data;

• interpretation of data;

• conclusions.

There are, therefore, numerous points at which bias and
the intrusion of values can occur. Values can materialize
at any point during the course of research. The researcher
may develop an affection or sympathy, which was not
necessarily present at the outset of an investigation, for
the people being studied. It is quite common, for example,
for researchers working within a qualitative research
strategy, and in particular when they use participant
observation or very intensive interviewing, to develop
a close affi nity with the people whom they study to the
extent that they fi nd it diffi cult to disentangle their stance
as social scientists from their subjects’ perspective. This
possibility may be exacerbated by the tendency that
Becker (1967) identifi ed for sociologists in particular to
be very sympathetic to underdog groups. Equally, social
scientists may be repelled by the people they study. The
social anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1973) reports the
results of his research into an African tribe known as the
Ik. Turnbull was appalled by what he witnessed: a love-
less (and for him unlovable) tribe that left its young and
very old to die. While Turnbull was able to point to the
conditions that had led to this state of affairs, he was very
honest in his disgust for what he witnessed, particularly
during the period of his initial sojourn among the tribe.
However, that very disgust is a product of Western values
about the family, and it is likely, as he acknowledged,
that these will have infl uenced his perception of what
he witnessed.

Another position in relation to the whole question of
values and bias is to recognize and acknowledge that
research cannot be value free but to ensure that there is
no untrammelled incursion of values in the research pro-
cess and to be self-refl ective and so exhibit refl exivity

(see Key concept 17.5) about the part played by such
factors. As Turnbull (1973: 13) put it at the beginning of
his book on the Ik: ‘the reader is entitled to know some-
thing of the aims, expectations, hopes and attitudes that
the writer brought to the fi eld with him, for these will
surely infl uence not only how he sees things but even

Infl uences on the conduct of

social research

gu e .3Figure 2.3
Infl uences on social research

Theory Practical considerations

Social research


Values Ontology

9780199588053_C02.indd 39 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies40

what he sees.’ Researchers are increasingly prepared to
forewarn readers of their biases and assumptions and
how these may have infl uenced the subsequent fi ndings.
There has been a growth since the mid-1970s of collec-
tions of inside reports of what doing a piece of research
was really like, as against the generalities presented in
social research methods textbooks (like this one!). These
collections frequently function as ‘confessions’, an ele-
ment of which is often the writer’s preparedness to be
open about his or her personal biases.

The signifi cance of feminism in relation to values goes
further than this, however. In particular, several feminist
social researchers around the early 1980s proposed that
the principles and practices associated with quantitative
research were incompatible with feminist research on
women. For writers like Oakley (1981), quantitative
research was bound up with male values of control that
can be seen in the general orientation of the research
strategy—control of the research subject/respondent
and control of the research context and situation.
Moreover, the research process was seen as one-way
traffi c, in which researchers extract information from
the people being studied and give little, or more usually
nothing, in return. For many feminists, such a strategy
bordered on exploitation and was incompatible with
feminism’s values of sisterhood and non-hierarchical
relationships between women. The antipathy towards
quantitative research resulted in a preference for qualita-

Still another approach is to argue for consciously
value-laden research. This is a position taken by some
feminist writers who have argued that only research on
women that is intended for women will be consistent
with the wider political needs of women. Mies (1993:
68) has argued that in feminist research the ‘postulate of
value free research, of neutrality and indifference towards
the research objects, has to be replaced by conscious par-
tiality, which is achieved through partial identifi cation
with the research objects’ (emphases in original).

tive research among feminists. Not only was qualitative
research seen as more consistent with the values of fem-
inism; it was seen as more adaptable to those values.
Thus, feminist qualitative research came to be associated
with an approach in which the investigator eschewed
a value-neutral approach and engaged with the people
being studied as people and not simply as respondents to
research instruments. The stance of feminism in relation
to both quantitative and qualitative approaches demon-
strates the ways in which values have implications for the
process of social investigation. In more recent years,
there has been a softening of the attitudes of feminists
towards quantitative research. Several writers have
acknowledged a viable and acceptable role for quanti-
tative research, particularly when it is employed in
conjunction with qualitative research (Jayaratne and
Stewart 1991; Oakley 1998). This issue will be picked up
in Chapters 17, 26, and 27.

Student experience
The infl uence of feminism on research questions
Sarah Hanson is very clear about the infl uence of feminism on her research and on her research questions in particular.

My research project focused on the representation of women through the front covers of fi ve women’s

magazines, combining the application of feminist theory with the decoding practices of content analysis.

Throughout the project I wanted to understand the nature of women’s magazines, the infl uences they have on

women’s sense of self and identity and the role the magazines play. I asked: do women’s magazines support or

destroy women’s identity and do they encourage self-respect or self-scrutiny? I wanted to combine theory with

fact, focusing on the meanings behind the presentation of images and text.

Similarly, for her research on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and sex workers in Thailand, Erin Sanders

wrote that she ‘employed a feminist methodology—and as such attempted to engage with my research

participants, particularly the sex workers, as a “friend” rather than as a “researcher” ’. She also writes:

I chose to use a feminist methodology because I wanted to eliminate the power imbalance in the research

relationship. As there are a number of power issues with a ‘White’, ‘Western’ woman interviewing ‘Non-White’,

‘Non-Western’ sex workers, I had hoped a feminist methodology . . . would help redress some of the power issues.

To read more about Sarah and Erin’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies
this book at:

9780199588053_C02.indd 40 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 41

There are, then, different positions that can be taken
up in relation to values and value freedom. Far fewer
writers overtly subscribe to the position that the prin-
ciple of objectivity can be put into practice than in the
past. Quantitative researchers sometimes seem to be
writing in a way that suggests an aura of objectivity
(Mies 1993), but we simply do not know how far they
subscribe to such a position. There is a greater awareness
today of the limits to objectivity, so that some of the
highly confi dent, not to say naive, pronouncements on
the subject, like Durkheim’s, have fallen into disfavour.
A further way in which values are relevant to the con-
duct of social research is through adherence to ethical
principles or standards. This issue will be followed up
in Chapter 6.

Practical considerations

Nor should we neglect the importance and signifi cance
of practical issues in decisions about how social research
should be carried out. There are a number of different
dimensions to this issue. For one thing, choices of re-
search strategy, design, or method have to be dovetailed
with the specifi c research question being investigated. If
we are interested in teasing out the relative importance
of a number of different causes of a social phenomenon,
it is quite likely that a quantitative strategy will fi t our
needs, because, as will be shown in Chapter 7, the assess-
ment of cause is one of its keynotes. Alternatively, if we
are interested in the world views of members of a certain
social group, a qualitative research strategy that is sensi-
tive to how participants interpret their social world may
be the direction to choose. If a researcher is interested in
a topic on which no or virtually no research has been
done in the past, the quantitative strategy may be diffi –
cult to employ, because there is little prior literature

from which to draw leads. A more exploratory stance
may be preferable, and, in this connection, qualitative
research may serve the researcher’s needs better, since it
is typically associated with the generation rather than
the testing of theory (see Table 2.1) and with a rela-
tively unstructured approach to the research process (see
Chapter 17). Another dimension may have to do with the
nature of the topic and of the people being investigated.
For example, if the researcher needs to engage with indi-
viduals or groups involved in illicit activities, such as
gang violence (Patrick 1973), drug dealing (P. A. Adler
1985), or the murky underworld of organs-trading
(Scheper-Hughes 2004), it is unlikely that a social survey
would gain the confi dence of the subjects involved or
achieve the necessary rapport. In fact, the idea of con-
ducting survey research in such contexts or on such
respondents looks rather ridiculous. It is not surprising,
therefore, that researchers in these areas have tended to
use a qualitative strategy where there is an opportunity
to gain the confi dence of the subjects of the investiga-
tion or even in some cases not reveal their identity as
researchers, albeit with ethical dilemmas of the kind dis-
cussed in Chapter 6. By contrast, it does not seem likely
that the hypothesis in the research described in Research
in focus 2.4 could have been tested with a qualitative
method like participant observation.

While practical considerations may seem rather mun-
dane and uninteresting compared with the lofty realm
inhabited by the philosophical debates surrounding such
discussions about epistemology and ontology, they are
important ones. All social research is a coming-together
of the ideal and the feasible. Because of this, there will be
many circumstances in which the nature of the topic or of
the subjects of an investigation and the constraints on
a researcher loom large in decisions about how best to

Student experience
A practical consideration in the choice of

research method
One of the factors that infl uenced Rebecca Barnes’s choice of the semi-structured interview for her study of

violence in women’s same-sex intimate relationships was that she felt that the topic is a highly sensitive area and

that she therefore needed to be able to observe her interviewees’ emotional responses.

I felt that, given the sensitivity of the research topic, semi-structured, in-depth interviews would be most

appropriate. This gave me the opportunity to elicit women’s accounts of abuse in a setting where I was able to

observe their emotional responses to the interview and endeavour to minimize any distress or other negative

feelings that might result from participating in the research.

To read more about Rebecca’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this
book at:

9780199588053_C02.indd 41 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies42

Key points

● Quantitative and qualitative research constitute different approaches to social investigation and carry
with them important epistemological and ontological considerations.

● Theory can be depicted as something that precedes research (as in quantitative research) or as
something that emerges out of it (as in qualitative research).

● Epistemological considerations loom large in considerations of research strategy. To a large extent,
these revolve around the desirability of employing a natural science model (and in particular
positivism) versus interpretivism.

● Ontological considerations, concerning objectivism versus constructionism, also constitute important
dimensions of the quantitative/qualitative contrast.

● Values may impinge on the research process at different times.

● Practical considerations in decisions about research methods are also important factors.

● Feminist researchers have tended to prefer a qualitative approach, though there is some evidence of
a change of viewpoint in this regard.

Questions for review

Theory and research

● If you had to conduct some social research now, what would the topic be and what factors would
have infl uenced your choice? How important was addressing theory in your consideration?

● Outline, using examples of your own, the difference between grand and middle-range theory.

● What are the differences between inductive and deductive theory and why is the distinction important?

Epistemological considerations

● What is meant by each of the following terms: positivism; realism; and interpretivism? Why is it
important to understand each of them?

● What are the implications of epistemological considerations for research practice?

Ontological considerations

● What are the main differences between epistemological and ontological considerations?

● What is meant by objectivism and constructionism?

● Which theoretical ideas have been particularly instrumental in the growth of interest in qualitative

Research strategy: quantitative and qualitative research

● Outline the main differences between quantitative and qualitative research in terms of: the
relationship between theory and data; epistemological considerations; and ontological

● To what extent is quantitative research solely concerned with testing theories and qualitative
research with generating theories?

Infl uences on the conduct of social research

● What are some of the main infl uences on social research?

9780199588053_C02.indd 42 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Social research strategies 43

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of social
research strategies. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and gain further
guidance and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C02.indd 43 10/20/11 9:59 AM

Research designs

Chapter outline

Introduction 45

Criteria in social research 46

Reliability 46

Replication 47

Validity 47

Relationship with research strategy 48

Research designs 50

Experimental design 50

Cross-sectional design 59

Longitudinal design(s) 63

Case study design 66

Comparative design 72

Bringing research strategy and research design together 76

Key points 77

Questions for review 77


9780199588053_C03.indd 44 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs 45


In the previous chapter, the idea of research strategy was
introduced as a broad orientation to social research. The
specifi c context for its introduction was the distinction
between quantitative and qualitative research as differ-
ent research strategies. However, the decision to adopt
one or the other strategy will not get you far along the
road of doing a piece of research. Two other key decisions
will have to be made (along with a host of tactical deci-
sions about the way in which the research will be carried
out and the data analysed). These decisions concern
choices about research design and research method. On
the face of it, these two terms would seem to mean the
same thing, but it is crucial to draw a distinction between
them (see Key concepts 3.1 and 3.2).

Research methods can be and are associated with dif-
ferent kinds of research design. The latter represents a

structure that guides the execution of a research method
and the analysis of the subsequent data. The two terms
are often confused. For example, one of the research
designs to be covered in this chapter—the case study—is
very often referred to as a method. As we will see, a case
study entails the detailed exploration of a specifi c case,
which could be a community, organization, or person.
But, once a case has been selected, a research method
or research methods are needed to collect data. Simply
selecting an organization and deciding to study it inten-
sively are not going to provide data. Do you observe? Do
you conduct interviews? Do you examine documents?
Do you administer questionnaires? You may in fact use
any or all of these research methods, but the crucial point
is that choosing a case study approach will not in its own
right provide you with data.

Chapter guide

In focusing on the different kinds of research design, we are paying attention to the different frameworks
for the collection and analysis of data. A research design relates to the criteria that are employed when
evaluating social research. It is, therefore, a framework for the generation of evidence that is suited both
to a certain set of criteria and to the research question in which the investigator is interested. This
chapter is structured as follows.

• Reliability, replication, and validity are presented as criteria for assessing the quality of social research.
The latter entails an assessment in terms of several criteria covered in the chapter: measurement
validity; internal validity; external validity; and ecological validity.

• The suggestion that such criteria are mainly relevant to quantitative research is examined, along
with the proposition that an alternative set of criteria should be employed in relation to qualitative
research. This alternative set of criteria, which is concerned with the issue of trustworthiness,
is outlined briefl y.

• Five prominent research designs are then outlined:

– experimental and related designs (such as the quasi-experiment);

– cross-sectional design, the most common form of which is survey research;

– longitudinal design and its various forms, such as the panel study and the cohort study;

– case study design;

– comparative design.

• Each research design is considered in terms of the criteria for evaluating research fi ndings.

9780199588053_C03.indd 45 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs46

Three of the most prominent criteria for the evaluation of
social research are reliability, replication, and validity.
Each of these terms will be treated in much greater detail
in later chapters, but in the meantime a fairly basic treat-
ment of them can be helpful.


Reliability is concerned with the question of whether the
results of a study are repeatable. The term is commonly
used in relation to the question of whether the measures
that are devised for concepts in the social sciences (such
as poverty, racial prejudice, deskilling, religious orthodoxy)

are consistent. In Chapter 7 we will be looking at the
idea of reliability in greater detail, in particular the dif-
ferent ways in which it can be conceptualized. Reliability
is particularly at issue in connection with quantitative
research. The quantitative researcher is likely to be con-
cerned with the question of whether a measure is stable
or not. After all, if we found that IQ tests, which were
designed as measures of intelligence, were found to
fl uctuate, so that people’s IQ scores were often wildly
different when administered on two or more occasions,
we would be concerned about it as a measure. We would
consider it an unreliable measure—we could not have
faith in its consistency.

Key concept 3.1
What is a research design?

A research design provides a framework for the collection and analysis of data. A choice of research design

refl ects decisions about the priority being given to a range of dimensions of the research process. These include

the importance attached to:

• expressing causal connections between variables;

• generalizing to larger groups of individuals than those actually forming part of the investigation;

• understanding behaviour and the meaning of that behaviour in its specifi c social context;

• having a temporal (that is, over time) appreciation of social phenomena and their interconnections.

Key concept 3.2
What is a research method?

A research method is simply a technique for collecting data. It can involve a specifi c instrument, such as a

self-completion questionnaire or a structured interview schedule, or participant observation whereby the

researcher listens to and watches others.

Criteria in social research

In this chapter, fi ve different research designs will
be examined: experimental design and its variants,
including quasi-experiments; cross-sectional or survey
design; longitudinal design; case study design; and

comparative design. However, before embarking on the
nature of and differences between these designs, it is use-
ful to consider some recurring issues in social research
that cut across some or all of these designs.

9780199588053_C03.indd 46 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs 47


The idea of reliability is very close to another criterion of
research—replication and more especially replicability.
It sometimes happens that researchers choose to repli-
cate the fi ndings of others. There may be a host of differ-
ent reasons for doing so, such as a feeling that the original
results do not match other evidence that is relevant to the
domain in question. In order for replication to take place,
a study must be capable of replication—it must be repli-
cable. This is a very obvious point: if a researcher does
not spell out his or her procedures in great detail, replica-
tion is impossible. Similarly, in order for us to assess the
reliability of a measure of a concept, the procedures that
constitute that measure must be replicable by someone
else. Ironically, replication in social research is not com-
mon. In fact, it is probably truer to say that it is quite rare.
When Burawoy (1979) found that by accident he was
conducting case study research in a US factory that had
been studied three decades earlier by another researcher
(Donald Roy), he thought about treating his own investi-
gation as a replication. However, the low status of repli-
cation in academic life persuaded him to resist this
option. He writes: ‘I knew that to replicate Roy’s study
would not earn me a dissertation let alone a job. . . . [In]
academia the real reward comes not from replication but
from originality!’ (Burawoy 2003: 650). Nonetheless, an
investigation’s capacity to be replicated—replicability—
is highly valued by many social researchers working
within a quantitative research tradition. See Research in
focus 7.7 for an example of a replication study.


A further and in many ways the most important criterion
of research is validity. Validity is concerned with the
integrity of the conclusions that are generated from a
piece of research. As we shall do for reliability, we will be
examining the idea of validity in greater detail in later
chapters, but in the meantime it is important to be aware of
the main types of validity that are typically distinguished:

• Measurement validity. Measurement validity applies
primarily to quantitative research and to the search for
measures of social scientifi c concepts. Measurement
validity is also often referred to as construct validity.
Essentially, it is to do with the question of whether a
measure that is devised of a concept really does refl ect
the concept that it is supposed to be denoting. Does
the IQ test really measure variations in intelligence? If
we take the study reported in Research in focus 2.4,

there are three concepts that needed to be measured
in order to test the hypotheses: national religiosity,
religious orthodoxy, and family religious orientation.
The question then is: do the measures really represent
the concepts they are supposed to be tapping? If they
do not, the study’s fi ndings will be questionable. It
should be appreciated that measurement validity is
related to reliability: if a measure of a concept is
unstable in that it fl uctuates and hence is unreliable,
it simply cannot be providing a valid measure of the
concept in question. In other words, the assessment
of measurement validity presupposes that a measure
is reliable. If a measure is unreliable because it does
not give a stable reading of the underlying concept, it
cannot be valid, because a valid measure refl ects the
concept it is supposed to be measuring.

• Internal validity. Internal validity relates mainly to
the issue of causality, which will be dealt with in
greater detail in Chapter 7. Internal validity is con-
cerned with the question of whether a conclusion that
incorporates a causal relationship between two or
more variables holds water. If we suggest that x causes
y, can we be sure that it is x that is responsible for vari-
ation in y and not something else that is producing an
apparent causal relationship? In the study examined
in Research in focus 2.4, the authors were quoted as
concluding that ‘the religious environment of a nation
has a major impact on the beliefs of its citizens’ (Kelley
and De Graaf 1997: 654). Internal validity raises the
question: can we be sure that national religiosity really
does cause variation in religious orientation and that
this apparent causal relationship is genuine and not
produced by something else? In discussing issues of
causality, it is common to refer to the factor that has a
causal impact as the independent variable and the
effect as the dependent variable (see Key concept 3.3).
In the case of Kelley and De Graaf ’s research, the ‘reli-
gious environment of a nation’ was an independ ent
variable and ‘religious belief ’ was the dependent vari-
able. Thus, internal validity raises the question: how
confi dent can we be that the independent variable
really is at least in part responsible for the variation
that has been identifi ed in the depend ent variable?

• External validity. External validity is concerned with
the question of whether the results of a study can be
generalized beyond the specifi c research context. In the
research by Poortinga et al. (2004) on foot and mouth
disease that was referred to in Research in focus 2.8,
data were collected from 229 respondents in Bude
and 244 respondents in Norwich. Can their fi ndings

9780199588053_C03.indd 47 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs48

about the attitudes to the handling of the outbreak
be generalized beyond these respondents? In other
words, if the research was not externally valid, it
would apply to the 473 respondents alone. If it was
externally valid, we would expect it to apply more
generally to the populations of these two towns at the
time of the outbreak of the disease. It is in this context
that the issue of how people are selected to participate
in research becomes crucial. This is one of the main
reasons why quantitative researchers are so keen to
generate representative samples (see Chapter 8).

• Ecological validity. Ecological validity is concerned
with the question of whether social scientifi c fi nd-
ings are applicable to people’s everyday, natural social
settings. As Cicourel (1982: 15) has put it: ‘Do our
instruments capture the daily life conditions, opinions,
values, attitudes, and knowledge base of those we
study as expressed in their natural habitat?’ This cri-
terion is concerned with the question of whether social
research sometimes produces fi ndings that may be
technically valid but have little to do with what hap-
pens in people’s everyday lives. If research fi ndings
are ecologically invalid, they are in a sense artefacts
of the social scientist’s arsenal of data collection and
analytic tools. The more the social scientist intervenes
in natural settings or creates unnatural ones, such as
a laboratory or even a special room to carry out
interviews, the more likely it is that fi ndings will be
ecologically invalid. The fi ndings deriving from a study
using questionnaires may have measurement validity
and a reasonable level of internal validity, and they
may be externally valid, in the sense that they can be
generalized to other samples confronted by the same
questionnaire, but the unnaturalness of the fact of

having to answer a questionnaire may mean that the
fi ndings have limited ecological validity.

Relationship with research strategy

One feature that is striking about most of the discussion
so far is that it seems to be geared mainly to quantitative
rather than to qualitative research. Both reliability and
measurement validity are essentially concerned with the
adequacy of measures, which are most obviously a con-
cern in quantitative research. Internal validity is con-
cerned with the soundness of fi ndings that specify a
causal connection, an issue that is most commonly of
concern to quantitative researchers. External validity
may be relevant to qualitative research, but the whole
question of representativeness of research subjects with
which the issue is concerned has a more obvious applica-
tion to the realm of quantitative research, with its pre-
occupation with sampling procedures that maximize the
opportunity for generating a representative sample. The
issue of ecological validity relates to the naturalness of
the research approach and seems to have considerable
relevance to both qualitative and quantitative research.

Some writers have sought to apply the concepts of reli-
ability and validity to the practice of qualitative research
(e.g. LeCompte and Goetz 1982; Kirk and Miller 1986;
Peräkylä 1997), but others argue that the grounding of
these ideas in quantitative research renders them inap-
plicable to or inappropriate for qualitative research.
Writers like Kirk and Miller (1986) have applied concepts
of validity and reliability to qualitative research but have
changed the sense in which the terms are used very
slightly. Some qualitative researchers sometimes pro-
pose that the studies they produce should be judged or

Key concept 3.3
What is a variable?
A variable is simply an attribute on which cases vary. ‘Cases’ can obviously be people, but they can also

include things such as households, cities, organizations, schools, and nations. If an attribute does not vary, it is

a constant. If all manufacturing organizations had the same ratio of male to female managers, this attribute of

such organizations would be a constant and not a variable. Constants are rarely of interest to social researchers.

It is common to distinguish between different types of variable. The most basic distinction is between

independent variables and dependent variables. The former are deemed to have a causal infl uence on the latter.

In addition, it is important to distinguish between variables—whether independent or dependent—in terms

of their measurement properties. This is an important issue in the context of quantitative data analysis. In

Chapter 15, a distinction is drawn between the following types of variable: interval/ratio variables; ordinal

variables; nominal variables; and dichotomous variables. See page 335 for an explanation of these main

types and Table 15.1 for brief descriptions of them.

9780199588053_C03.indd 48 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs 49

evaluated according to different criteria from those used
in relation to quantitative research. Lincoln and Guba
(1985) propose that alternative terms and ways of
assessing qualitative research are required. For example,
they propose trustworthiness as a criterion of how good
a qualitative study is. Each aspect of trustworthiness has
a parallel with the quantitative research criteria.

• Credibility, which parallels internal validity—that is,
how believable are the fi ndings?

• Transferability, which parallels external validity—that
is, do the fi ndings apply to other contexts?

• Dependability, which parallels reliability—that is, are
the fi ndings likely to apply at other times?

• Confi rmability, which parallels objectivity—that is,
has the investigator allowed his or her values to
intrude to a high degree?

These criteria will be returned to in Chapter 17.
Hammersley (1992a) occupies a kind of middle posi-

tion here, in that, while he proposes validity as an import-
ant criterion (in the sense that an empirical account must
be plausible and credible and should take into account
the amount and kind of evidence used in relation to
an account), he also proposes relevance as a criterion.
Relevance is taken to be assessed from the vantage point
of the importance of a topic within its substantive fi eld or
the contribution it makes to the literature on that fi eld.
The issues in these different views have to do with the

Key concept 3.4
What is naturalism?

Naturalism is an interesting example of a mercifully rare instance of a term that not only has different meanings,

but also has meanings that can actually be contradictory! It is possible to identify three different meanings.

• Naturalism means viewing all objects of study—whether natural or social ones—as belonging to the same

realm and a consequent commitment to the principles of natural scientifi c method. This meaning, which has

clear affi nities with positivism, implies that all entities belong to the same order of things, so that there

is no essential difference between the objects of the natural sciences and those of the social sciences

(M. Williams 2000). For many naturalists, this principle implies that there should be no difference between

the natural and the social sciences in the ways in which they study phenomena. This version of naturalism

essentially proposes that there is a unity between the objects of the natural and the social sciences and that,

because of this, there is no reason for social scientists not to employ the approaches of the natural scientist.

• Naturalism means being true to the nature of the phenomenon being investigated. According to Matza,

naturalism is ‘the philosophical view that strives to remain true to the nature of the phenomenon under study’

(1969: 5) and ‘claims fi delity to the natural world’ (1969: 8). This meaning of the term represents a fusion of

elements of an interpretivist epistemology and a constructionist ontology, which were examined in Chapter 2.

Naturalism is taken to recognize that people attribute meaning to behaviour and are authors of their social

world rather than passive objects.

• Naturalism is a style of research that seeks to minimize the intrusion of artifi cial methods of data collection.

This meaning implies that the social world should be as undisturbed as possible when it is being studied

(Hammersley and Atkinson 1995: 6).

The second and third meanings overlap considerably, in that it could easily be imagined that, in order to conduct

a naturalistic enquiry in the second sense, a research approach that adopted naturalistic principles in the third

sense would be required. Both the second and third meanings are incompatible with, and indeed opposed to,

the fi rst meaning. Naturalism in the fi rst sense is invariably viewed by writers drawing on an interpretivist

epistemology as not ‘true’ to the social world, precisely because: it posits that there are no differences between

humans and the objects of the natural sciences; it therefore ignores the capacity of humans to interpret the social

world and to be active agents; and, in its preference for the application of natural science methods, it employs

artifi cial methods of data collection. When writers are described as anti-naturalists, it is invariably the fi rst of the

three meanings that they are deemed to be railing against.

9780199588053_C03.indd 49 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs50

different objectives that many qualitative researchers
argue are distinctive about their craft. The distinctive
features of qualitative research will be examined in later

However, it should also be borne in mind that one of
the criteria previously cited—ecological validity—may
have been formulated largely in the context of quantita-
tive research, but is in fact a feature in relation to which
qualitative research fares rather well. Qualitative research
often involves a naturalistic stance (see Key concept 3.4).
This means that the researcher seeks to collect data
in naturally occurring situations and environments, as
opposed to fabricated, artifi cial ones. This characteristic
probably applies particularly well to ethnographic research,

in which participant observation is a prominent element
of data collection, but it is sometimes suggested that it
applies also to the sort of interview approach typically
used by qualitative researchers, which is less directive
than the kind used in quantitative research (see e.g.
Research in focus 2.4). We might expect that much quali-
tative research is stronger than quantitative investiga-
tions in terms of ecological validity.

By and large, these issues in social research have been
presented because some of them will emerge in the
context of the discussion of research designs in the next
section, but in a number of ways they also represent
background considerations for some of the issues to be
examined. They will be returned to later in the book.

Research designs

In this discussion of research designs, fi ve different types
will be examined: experimental design; cross-sectional
or survey design; longitudinal design; case study design;
and comparative design. Variations on these designs will
be examined in their relevant subsections.

Experimental design

True experiments are quite unusual in sociology, but
are employed in related areas of enquiry, such as social
psychology and organization studies, while researchers
in social policy sometimes use them in order to assess the
impact of new reforms or policies. Why, then, bother to
introduce experimental designs at all in the context of a
book about social research? The chief reason, quite aside
from the fact that they are sometimes employed, is that a
true experiment is often used as a yardstick against which
non-experimental research is assessed. Experimental
research is frequently held up as a touchstone because it
engenders considerable confi dence in the robustness and
trustworthiness of causal fi ndings. In other words, true
experiments tend to be very strong in terms of internal


If experiments are so strong in this respect, why then do
social researchers not make far greater use of them? The
reason is simple: in order to conduct a true experiment, it
is necessary to manipulate the independent variable in
order to determine whether it does in fact have an infl u-
ence on the dependent variable. Experimental subjects

are likely to be allocated to one of two or more experi-

mental groups, each of which represents different types
or levels of the independent variable. It is then possible
to establish how far differences between the groups are
responsible for variations in the level of the dependent
variable. Manipulation, then, entails intervening in a
situation to determine the impact of the manipulation
on subjects. However, the vast majority of independent
variables with which social researchers are concerned
cannot be manipulated. If we are interested in the effects
of gender on work experiences, we cannot manipulate
gender so that some people are made male and others
female. If we are interested in the effects of variations in
social class on social and political attitudes or on health,
we cannot allocate people to different social class group-
ings. As with the huge majority of such variables, the
levels of social engineering that would be required are
beyond serious contemplation.

Before moving on to a more complete discussion of
experimental design, it is important to introduce a basic
distinction between the laboratory experiment and the
fi eld experiment. As its name implies, the laboratory
experiment takes place in a laboratory or in a contrived
setting, whereas fi eld experiments occur in real-life
settings, such as in classrooms and organizations, or as a
result of the implementation of reforms or new policies.
It is experiments of the latter type that are most likely to
touch on areas of interest to social researchers. In order
to illustrate the nature of manipulation and the idea of a
fi eld experiment, Research in focus 3.1 describes a well-
known piece of experimental research.

9780199588053_C03.indd 50 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs 51

Classical experimental design

The research in Research in focus 3.1 includes most of
the essential features of what is known as the classical
experimental design, which is also often referred to as
the randomized experiment or randomized controlled

trial (RCT). Two groups are established, and it is this that
forms the experimental manipulation and therefore the
independent variable—in this case, teacher expectations.
The spurters form what is known as the experimental
group or treatment group and the other students form
a control group. The experimental group receives the
experimental treatment—teacher expectancies—but the
control group does not receive an experimental treat-
ment. The dependent variable—student performance
—is measured before and after the experimental
manipulation, so that a before-and-after analysis can be
conducted (see Figure 3.1). Moreover, the spurters and
the non-spurters were assigned randomly to their respec-
tive groups. Because of this use of random assignment

to the experimental and control groups, the researchers
were able to feel confi dent that the only difference be-
tween the two groups was the fact that teachers expected
the spurters to fare better at school than the others. They
would have been confi dent that, if they did establish a

difference in performance between the two groups, it
was due to the experimental manipulation alone.

In order to capture the essence of this design, the
following simple notation will be employed:

Obs An observation made in relation to the dependent
variable; there may well be two or more observa-
tions, such as IQ test scores and reading grades
before (the pre-test) and after (the post-test) the
experimental manipulation.

Exp The experimental treatment (the independent vari-
able), such as the creation of teacher expectancies.
No Exp refers to the absence of an experimental
treatment and represents the experience of the
control group.

T The timing of the observations made in relation to
the dependent variable, such as the timing of the
administration of an IQ test.

Classical experimental design and validity

What is the purpose of the control group? Surely it is
what happens to the spurters (the experimental group)
that really concerns us? In order for a study to be a true
experiment, it must control (in other words, eliminate)

Research in focus 3.1
A fi eld experiment

As part of a programme of research into the impact of self-fulfi lling prophecies (for example, where someone’s

beliefs or expectations about someone else infl uence how the latter behaves), Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968)

conducted research into the question of whether teachers’ expectations of their students’ abilities in fact

infl uence the school performance of the latter. The research was conducted in a lower-class locality in the

USA with a high level of children from minority group backgrounds. In the spring of 1964, all the students

completed a test that was portrayed as a means of identifying ‘spurters’—that is, students who were likely to

excel academically. At the beginning of the following academic year, all the teachers were notifi ed of the names

of the students who had been identifi ed as spurters. In fact, 20 per cent of the schoolchildren had been identifi ed

as spurters. However, the students had actually been administered a conventional IQ test and the so-called

spurters had been selected randomly. The test was readministered eight months after the original one. The

authors were then able to compare the differences between the spurters and the other students in terms of

changes in various measures of academic performance, such as IQ scores, reading ability, and intellectual

curiosity. Since there was no evidence for there being any difference in ability between the spurters and the rest,

any indications that the spurters did in fact differ from their peers could be attributed to the fact that the

teachers had been led to expect the former would perform better. The fi ndings show that such differences did

in fact exist, but that the differences between the spurters and their peers tended to be concentrated in the

fi rst two or three years of schooling. In other words, the evidence for a teacher expectancy effect was patchy.

Nonetheless, this is an infl uential experiment that is widely believed to provide fi rm evidence of a teacher

expectancy effect. For a useful brief review of some of the subsequent studies and refl ections on Rosenthal and

Jacobson’s study, see Hammersley (2011: 106–9).

9780199588053_C03.indd 51 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs52

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1
Classical experimental design (with illustration of the effect of teacher expectancies on IQ)












expx ectancies

No Exp
No teacher
expx ectancies







8 months

Research in focus 3.2
Threats to internal validity (and their application

to the Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968 study)

The following is a list of possible threats to the internal validity of an investigation and how each is mitigated in

the Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) study by virtue of its being a true experiment.

• History. This refers to events other than the manipulation of teacher expectancies that may occur in the

environment and that could have caused the spurters’ scores to rise. The actions of the school head to raise

standards in the school may be one such type of event. If there were no control group, we could not be sure

whether it was the teachers’ expectancies or the head’s actions that were producing the increase in spurters’

grades. If there is a control group, we are able to say that history would have an effect on the control-group

subjects too, and therefore differences between the experimental and control groups could be attributed to

the effect of teacher expectancies alone.

• Testing. This threat refers to the possibility that subjects may become more experienced at taking a test or

may become sensitized to the aims of the experiment as a result of the pre-test. The presence of a control

group, which presumably would also experience the same effect, allows us to discount this possibility if there

is a difference in levels of the dependent variable between the experimental and control groups.

the possible effects of rival explanations of a causal fi nd-
ing, such as that teacher expectancies have an impact
on student performance. We might then be in a position
to take the view that such a study is internally valid.
The presence of a control group and the random assign-
ment of subjects to the experimental and control groups
enable us to eliminate such rival explanations. To see this,
consider some of the rival explanations that might occur
if there was no control group. There would then have
been a number of potential threats to internal validity

(see Research in focus 3.2). These threats are taken from
Campbell (1957) and Cook and Campbell (1979), but not
all the threats to internal validity they refer to are included.

In the case of each of these threats to internal validity,
each of which raises the prospect of a rival interpreta-
tion of a causal fi nding, the presence of a control group
coupled with random assignment allows us to eliminate
these threats. As a result, our confi dence in the causal
fi nding, that teacher expectancies infl uence student per-
formance, is greatly enhanced.

9780199588053_C03.indd 52 10/20/11 10:00 AM

Research designs 53

However, simply because research is deemed to be
internally valid does not mean that it is beyond reproach
or that at least questions cannot be raised about it. When
a quantitative research strategy has been employed, fur-
ther criteria can be applied to evaluate a study. First,
there is the question of measurement validity. In the case
of the Rosenthal and Jacobson study, there are poten-
tially two aspects to this. One is the question of whether
academic performance has been adequately measured.
Measures like reading scores seem to possess face validity,
in the sense that they appear to exhibit a correspondence
with what they are measuring. However, given the con-
troversy surrounding IQ tests and what they measure
(Kamin 1974), we might feel somewhat uneasy about
how far gains in IQ test scores can be regarded as indica-
tive of academic performance. Similarly, to take another
of the authors’ measures—intellectual curiosity—how
confi dent can we be that this too is a valid measure of
academic performance? Does it really measure what it
is supposed to measure? The second question relating
to measurement validity is whether the experimental
manipulation really worked. In other words, did the ran-
dom identifi cation of some schoolchildren as spurters
adequately create the conditions for the self-fulfi lling

prophecy to be examined? The procedure very much
relies on the teachers being taken in by the procedure,
but it is possible that they were not all equally duped.
If so, this would contaminate the manipulation.

Secondly, is the research externally valid? This issue is
considered in Research in focus 3.3.

Thirdly, are the fi ndings ecologically valid? The fact
that the research is a fi eld experiment rather than a labor-
atory experiment seems to enhance this aspect of the
Rosenthal and Jacobson research. Also, the fact that the
students and the teachers seem to have had little if any
appreciation of the fact that they were in fact participat-
ing in an experiment may also have enhanced ecological
validity, though this aspect of the research raises enor-
mous ethical concerns, since deception seems to have
been a signifi cant and probably necessary feature of the
investigation. The question of ethical issues is in many
ways another dimension of the validity of a study and
will be the focus of Chapter 6. The fact that Rosenthal
and Jacobson made intensive use of various instruments
to measure academic performance might be considered a
source of concerns about ecological validity, though this
is an area in which most if not all quantitative research is
likely to be implicated.

• Instrumentation. This threat refers to the possibility that changes in the way a test is administered could

account for an increase (or decrease) in scores between the pre-test and post-test—for example, if slight

changes to the test had been introduced. Again, if there is a control group, we can assume that testing would

have affected the control group as well.

• Mortality. This relates to the problem of attrition in many studies that span a long period of time, in that

subjects may leave. School students may leave the area or move to a different school. Since this problem is

likely to affl ict the control group too, it is possible to establish its signifi cance as a threat relative to the impact

and importance of teacher expectancies.

• Maturation. Quite simply, people change, and the ways in which they change may have implications for the

dependent variable. The students identifi ed as spurters may have improved anyway, regardless of the effect of

teacher expectancies. Maturation should affect the control group subjects as well. If we did not have a control

group, it could be argued that any change in the students’ school performance was attributable to the

possibility that they would have improved anyway. The control group allows us to discount this possibility.

• Selection. If there are differences between the two groups, which would arise if they had been selected by

a non-random process, variations between the experimental and control groups could be attributed to

pre-existing differences in their membership. However, since a random process of assignment to the

experimental and control groups was employed, this possibility can be discounted.

• Ambiguity about the direction of causal infl uence. The very notion of an independent variable and dependent

variable presupposes a direction of causality. However, there may be occasions when the temporal sequence

in a study is unclear, so that it is not possible to establish which variable affects the other. Since the creation of

teacher expectancies preceded the improvements in academic achievement in the earlier years of school, in

the Rosenthal and Jacobson study the direction of causal infl uence is clear.

9780199588053_C03.indd 53 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs54

A fourth issue that we might want to raise relates to the
question of replicability. The authors lay out very clearly
the procedures and measures that they employed. If any-
one were to carry out a replication, he or she would be
able to obtain further information from them should
they need it. Consequently, the research is replicable,

although there has not been an exact replication. Clairborn
(1969) conducted one of the earliest replications and fol-
lowed a procedure that was very similar to Rosenthal and
Jacobson’s. The study was carried out in three middle-
class, suburban schools, and the timing of the creation
of teacher expectancies was different from that in the

Research in focus 3.3
Threats to external validity (and their application

to the Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968 study)

Campbell (1957) and Cook and Campbell (1979) identify fi ve major threats to the external validity and hence

generalizability of an investigation.

• Interaction of selection and treatment. This threat raises the question: to what social and psychological

groups can a fi nding be generalized? Can it be generalized to a wide variety of individuals who might be

differentiated by ethnicity, social class, region, gender, and type of personality? In the case of the Rosenthal

and Jacobson study, the students were largely from lower social class groups and a large proportion were from

ethnic minorities. This might be considered a limitation to the generalizability of the fi ndings.

• Interaction of setting and treatment. This threat relates to the issue of how confi dent we can be that the

results of a study can be applied to other settings. In particular, how confi dent can we be that Rosenthal

and Jacobson’s fi ndings are generalizable to other schools? There is also the wider issue of how confi dent

we can be that the operation of self-fulfi lling prophecies can be discerned in non-educational settings. In fact,

Rosenthal and others have been able to demonstrate the role and signifi cance of the self-fulfi lling prophecy

in a wide variety of different contexts (Rosnow and Rosenthal 1997), though this still does not answer the

question of whether the specifi c fi ndings that were produced can be generalized. One set of grounds for

being uneasy about Rosenthal and Jacobson’s fi ndings is that they were allowed an inordinate amount of

freedom for conducting their investigation. The high level of cooperation from the school authorities was very

unusual and may be indicative of the school being somewhat atypical, though whether there is any such thing

as a ‘typical school’ is highly questionable.

• Interaction of history and treatment. This threat raises the question of whether the fi ndings can be generalized

to the past and to the future. The Rosenthal and Jacobson research was conducted forty years ago. How

confi dent can we be that the fi ndings would apply today? Also, their investigation was conducted at a

particular juncture in the school academic year. Would the same results have obtained if the research had

been conducted at different points in the year?

• Interaction effects of pre-testing. As a result of being pre-tested, subjects in an experiment may become

sensitized to the experimental treatment. Consequently, the fi ndings may not be generalizable to groups

that have not been pre-tested, and, of course, in the real world people are rarely pre-tested in this way.

The fi ndings may therefore be partly determined by the experimental treatment as such and partly by how

pre-test sensitization has infl uenced the way in which subjects respond to the treatment. This may have

occurred in the Rosenthal and Jacobson research, since all students were pre-tested at the end of the previous

academic year.

• Reactive effects of experimental arrangements. People are frequently, if not invariably, aware of the fact that

they are participating in an experiment. Their awareness may infl uence how they respond to the experimental

treatment and therefore affect the generalizability of the fi ndings. Since Rosenthal and Jacobson’s subjects do

not appear to have been aware of the fact that they were participating in an experiment, this problem is

unlikely to have been signifi cant. The issue of reactivity and its potentially damaging effects is a recurring

theme in relation to many methods of social research.

9780199588053_C03.indd 54 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 55

original Rosenthal and Jacobson study. Clairborn failed
to replicate Rosenthal and Jacobson’s fi ndings. This fail-
ure to replicate casts doubt on the external validity of the
original research and suggests that the fi rst three threats
referred to in Research in focus 3.3 may have played an
important part in the differences between the two sets
of results.

The classical experimental design is the foundation of
the randomized controlled trial, which has increasingly
become the gold standard research design in health-
related fi elds. With an RCT, the aim is to test ‘alternative
ways of handling a situation’ (Oakley 2000: 18). This
may entail comparing the impact of an intervention with
what would have happened if there had been no inter-
vention or comparing the impacts of different kinds of
intervention (such as different forms of treatment of
an illness). It is randomization of experimental partici-
pants that is crucial, as it means that the members of the
different groups in the experiment are to all intents and
purposes alike. The RCT is particularly popular in fi elds
like medicine where research questions often take the
form ‘what is the impact of X?’

The laboratory experiment

Many experiments in fi elds like social psychology are
laboratory experiments rather than fi eld experiments.
One of the main advantages of the former over the latter
is that the researcher has far greater infl uence over
the experimental arrangements. For example, it is easier
to assign subjects randomly to different experimental
conditions in the laboratory than to do the same in an

ongoing, real-life organization. The researcher therefore
has a higher level of control, and this is likely to enhance
the internal validity of the study. It is also likely that
laboratory experiments will be more straightforward to
replicate, because they are less bound up with a certain
milieu that is diffi cult to reproduce.

However, laboratory experiments like the one de-
scribed in Research in focus 3.4 suffer from a number
of limitations. First, the external validity is likely to be
diffi cult to establish. There is the interaction of setting
and treatment, since the setting of the laboratory is likely
to be unrelated to real-world experiences and contexts.
Also, there is likely to be an interaction of selection and
treatment. In the case of Howell and Frost’s (1989) study
described in Research in focus 3.4, there are a number of
diffi culties: the subjects were students, who are unlikely
to be representative of the general population, so that
their responses to the experimental treatment may be
distinctive; they were volunteers, and it is known that
volunteers differ from non-volunteers (Rosnow and
Rosenthal 1997: ch. 5); and they were given incentives
to participate, which may further demarcate them from
others, since not everyone is equally amenable to the
blandishments of inducements. There will have been no
problem of interaction effects of pre-testing, because, like
many experiments, there was no pre-testing. However, it
is quite feasible that reactive effects may have been set in
motion by the experimental arrangements. Secondly, the
ecological validity of the study may be poor, because
we do not know how well the fi ndings are applicable to
the real world and everyday life. However, while the

Research in focus 3.4
A laboratory experiment

Howell and Frost (1989) were interested in the possibility that charismatic leadership, a term associated with

Max Weber’s (1947) types of legitimate authority, is a more effective approach to leadership in organizations

than other types of leadership. They conducted a laboratory experiment that compared the effectiveness of

charismatic leadership as against two other approaches—consideration and structuring. A number of hypotheses

were generated, including: ‘Individuals working under a charismatic leader will have higher task performance

than will individuals working under a considerate leader’ (Howell and Frost 1989: 245).

One hundred and forty-four students volunteered for the experiment. Their course grades were enhanced by

3 per cent for agreeing to participate. They were randomly assigned to work under one of the three types of

leadership. The work was a simulated business task. All three leadership approaches were performed by two

female actresses. In broad conformity with the hypotheses, subjects working under charismatic leaders scored

generally higher in terms of measures of task performance than those working under the other leaders,

particularly the considerate leader.

9780199588053_C03.indd 55 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs56

study may lack what is often called mundane realism,
it may nonetheless enjoy experimental realism (Aronson
and Carlsmith 1968). The latter means that the subjects
are very involved in the experiment and take it very


A number of writers have drawn attention to the possi-
bilities offered by quasi-experiments—that is, studies
that have certain characteristics of experimental designs
but that do not fulfi l all the internal validity requirements.
A large number of different types of quasi-experiments
have been identifi ed (Cook and Campbell 1979), and it is
not proposed to cover them here. A particularly interest-
ing form of quasi-experiment occurs in the case of ‘nat-
ural experiments’. These are ‘experiments’ in the sense of
entailing manipulation of a social setting, but as part of a
naturally occurring attempt to alter social arrangements.
In such circumstances, it is invariably not possible to
assign subjects randomly to experimental and control
groups. An example is provided in Research in focus 3.5.
The absence of random assignment in the research casts
a certain amount of doubt on the study’s internal validity,
since the groups may not have been equivalent. However,
the results of such studies are still compelling, because
they are not artifi cial interventions in social life and
because their ecological validity is therefore very strong.

Most writers on quasi-experimentation discount natural
experiments in which there is no control group or
basis for comparison (Cook and Campbell 1979), but
occasionally one comes across a single group natural
experiment that is particularly striking (see Research in
focus 3.6). Experimental designs and more especially
quasi-experimental designs have been particularly prom-
inent in evaluation research studies (see Key concept 3.5
and Research in focus 3.7).

Possibly because of the various diffi culties with quasi-
experiments that have been noted in this section, Grant
and Wall (2008) have noted that they are used relatively
infrequently in organizational research. However, they
also note that there may be ways of addressing some of
the concerns regarding internal validity that beset quasi-
experiments. For example, they suggest that it may be
possible to strengthen causal inferences when it is not
possible to assign experimental and control group par-
ticipants randomly and the researcher has limited or no
control over the experimental manipulation. This might
be done by seeking out further information that will help
to discount some of the rival interpretations of a causal
link that arise from the lack of a true experimental
design. However, it is unlikely that such a view will fi nd
favour among writers who adopt a purist view about
the need for experimental designs in order to generate
robust causal inferences.

Research in focus 3.5
A quasi-experiment

Since the mid-1980s, a group of researchers has been collecting medical and psychiatric data on a cohort of

over 10,000 British civil servants. The fi rst wave of data collection took place between late 1985 and early 1988

and comprised clinical measurement (for example, blood pressure, ECG, cholesterol) and a self-completion

questionnaire that generated data on health, stress, and minor psychiatric symptoms. Further measurements of

the same group took place in 1989/90 and 1992/3. The decision in the mid-1980s by the then UK government to

transfer many of the executive functions of government to executive agencies operating on a more commercial

basis than previously afforded the opportunity to examine the health effects of a major organizational change.

Ferrie et al. (1998) report the results of their Phase 1 and Phase 3 data. They distinguished between three groups:

those experiencing a change; those anticipating they would be affected by the change; and a ‘control group’ of

those unaffected by the change. The authors found signifi cant adverse health effects among those experiencing

and anticipating change compared to the control group, although the extent of the effects of the major

organizational change (or its anticipation) varied markedly between men and women. This study uses a

quasi-experimental design, in which a control group is compared to two treatment groups. It bears the hallmarks

of a classical experimental design, but there is no random assignment. Subjects were not randomly assigned to

the three groups. Whether they were affected (or anticipated being affected by the changes) depended on

decisions deriving from government and civil service policy.

9780199588053_C03.indd 56 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 57

Research in focus 3.6
A natural experiment

The effects of television violence on children is one of the most contested areas of social research and one that

frequently causes the media to become especially shrill. St Helena in the South Atlantic provided a fascinating

laboratory for the examination of the various claims when television was introduced to the island for the fi rst

time in the mid-1990s. The television viewing habits of a large sample of schoolchildren and their behaviour are

being monitored and will continue to be monitored for many years to come. The project leader, Tony Charlton,

was quoted in The Times as saying: ‘The argument that watching violent television turns youngsters to violence is

not borne out . . . The children have been watching the same amounts of violence, and in many cases the same

programmes, as British children. But they have not gone out and copied what they have seen on TV’ (Midgley

1998: 5). A report of the fi ndings in The Times in April 1998 found that ‘the shared experience of watching

television made them less likely to tease each other and to fi ght, and more likely to enjoy books’ (Frean 1998: 7).

The fi ndings derive from 900 minutes of video footage of children at play during school breaks, diaries kept by

around 300 of the children, and ratings by teachers. The reports of the research in academic journals confi rm that

there was no evidence to suggest that the introduction of television had led to an increase in anti-social

behaviour (e.g. Charlton et al. 1998, 1999).

Key concept 3.5
What is evaluation research?

Evaluation research, as its name implies, is concerned with the evaluation of such occurrences as social and

organizational programmes or interventions. The essential question that is typically asked by such studies is:

has the intervention (for example, a new policy initiative or an organizational change) achieved its anticipated

goals? A typical design may have one group that is exposed to the treatment (that is, the new initiative), and

a control group that is not. Since it is often neither feasible nor ethical to assign research participants randomly

to the two groups, such studies are usually quasi-experimental. The use of the principles of experimental design

is fairly entrenched in evaluation research, but other approaches have emerged in recent years. Approaches

to evaluation based on qualitative research have emerged. While there are differences of opinion about how

qualitative evaluation should be carried out, the different views typically coalesce around a recognition of the

importance of an in-depth understanding of the context in which an intervention occurs and the diverse

viewpoints of the stakeholders (Greene 1994, 2000).

Pawson and Tilley (1997) advocate an approach that draws on the principles of critical realism (see Key

concept 2.3) and that sees the outcome of an intervention as the result of generative mechanisms and the

contexts of those mechanisms. A focus of the former element entails examining the causal factors that inhibit or

promote change when an intervention occurs. Pawson and Tilley’s approach is supportive of the use of both

quantitative and qualitative research methods. Tilley (2000) outlines an early example of the approach in the

context of an evaluation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) in car parks. He observes that there are several

mechanisms by which CCTV might deter car crime, such as deterrence of offenders, greater usage of car parks,

which in itself produces surveillance, more effective use of security staff, and greater sensitivity among drivers to

car security. Examples of contexts are: patterns of usage (such as if the car park is one that fi lls up and empties

during rush-hour periods or one that is in more constant use); blind spots in car parks; and the availability of

other sources of car crime for potential offenders. In other words, whether the mechanisms have certain

effects is affected by the contexts within which CCTV is installed. The kind of evaluation research advocated by

Pawson and Tilley maps these different combinations of mechanism and context in relation to different


9780199588053_C03.indd 57 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs58

Signifi cance of experimental design

As was stated at the outset, the chief reason for intro-
ducing the experiment as a research design is because
it is frequently considered to be a yardstick against
which quantitative research is judged. This occurs largely
because of the fact that a true experiment will allow
doubts about internal validity to be allayed and refl ects
the considerable emphasis placed on the determination
of causality in quantitative research. As we will see in
the next section, cross-sectional designs of the kind
associated with survey research are frequently regarded
as limited, because of the problems of unambiguously
imputing causality when using such designs.

Logic of comparison

However, before exploring such issues, it is important
to draw attention to an important general lesson that an
examination of experiments teaches us. A central feature
of any experiment is the fact that it entails a comparison: at
the very least it entails a comparison of results obtained
by an experimental group with those engendered by a

control group. In the case of the Howell and Frost (1989)
experiment in Research in focus 3.4, there is no control
group: the research entails a comparison of the effects
of three different forms of leadership. The advantage of
carrying out any kind of comparison like this is that we
understand the phenomenon that we are interested in
better when we compare it with something else that is
similar to it. The case for arguing that charismatic leader-
ship is an effective, performance-enhancing form of
leadership is much more persuasive when we view it in
relation to other forms of leadership. Thus, while the
specifi c considerations concerning experimental design
are typically associated with quantitative research, the
potential of comparison in social research represents
a more general lesson that transcends matters of both
research strategy and research design. In other words,
while the experimental design is typically associated
with a quantitative research strategy, the specifi c logic of
comparison provides lessons of broad applicability and
relevance. This issue is given more specifi c attention
below in relation to the comparative design.

Research in focus 3.7
A quasi-experimental evaluation

Koeber (2005) reports the fi ndings of a quasi-experiment in which he evaluated the use of multimedia

presentations (PowerPoint) and a course website (Blackboard) for teaching introductory sociology at a US

university. One group of students acted as the experimental group, in that it was taught using these two forms of

presenting learning materials simultaneously; the other group acted as a control group and did not experience

the multimedia and website methods. There was no random assignment, but in several respects the two groups

were comparable. Therefore, this is not a true experiment, but it has the features of a typical quasi-experiment, in

that the researcher tried to make the two treatments as comparable as possible. It is an evaluation study, because

the researcher is seeking to evaluate the utility of the two teaching methods. The fi ndings are interesting, in that

it was found that there was no signifi cant evidence of a difference in the performance of students (measured

by their fi nal grades for the course) between those who experienced the newer methods and those who

experienced the more traditional ones. However, those students who were taught with the newer methods

tended to perceive the course in more favourable terms, in that they were more likely to perceive various aspects

of the course (for example, course design, rapport with students, and the value of the course) in a positive way.

Also, the experimental groups were less likely to perceive the course demands as diffi cult and to view the course

workload as high.

Key concept 3.6
What is a cross-sectional research design?

A cross-sectional design entails the collection of data on more than one case (usually quite a lot more than one)

and at a single point in time in order to collect a body of quantitative or quantifi able data in connection with two

or more variables (usually many more than two), which are then examined to detect patterns of association.

9780199588053_C03.indd 58 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 59

Cross-sectional design

The cross-sectional design is often called a survey design,
but the idea of the survey is so closely connected in
most people’s minds with questionnaires and structured
interviewing that the more generic-sounding term cross-
sectional design is preferable. While the research methods
associated with surveys are certainly frequently employed
within the context of cross-sectional research, so too
are many other research methods, including structured

observation, content analysis, offi cial statistics, and diar-
ies. All these research methods will be covered in later
chapters, but in the meantime the basic structure of the
cross-sectional design will be outlined.

The cross-sectional design is defi ned in Key concept
3.6. A number of elements of this defi nition have been

• More than one case. Researchers employing a cross-
sectional design are interested in variation. That
variation can be in respect of people, families, organ-
izations, nation states, or whatever. Variation can be
established only when more than one case is being
examined. Usually, researchers employing this design
will select a lot more than two cases for a variety of
reasons: they are more likely to encounter variation
in all the variables in which they are interested; they
can make fi ner distinctions between cases; and the
requirements of sampling procedure are likely to
necessitate larger numbers (see Chapter 8).

• At a single point in time. In cross-sectional design re-
search, data on the variables of interest are collected
more or less simultaneously. When an individual com-
pletes a questionnaire, which may contain fi fty or
more variables, the answers are supplied at essentially
the same time. This contrasts with an experimental
design. Thus, in the classical experimental design,
someone in the experimental group is pre-tested, then
exposed to the experimental treatment, and then
post-tested. Days, weeks, months, or even years may
separate the different phases. In the case of the
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) study, eight months
separated the pre- and post-testing of the school-
children in the study.

• Quantitative or quantifi able data. In order to establish
variation between cases (and then to examine associ-
ations between variables—see the next point), it is
necessary to have a systematic and standardized
method for gauging variation. One of the most import-
ant advantages of quantifi cation is that it provides
the researcher with a consistent benchmark. The

advantages of quantifi cation and of measurement will
be addressed in greater detail in Chapter 7.

• Patterns of association. With a cross-sectional design
it is possible to examine relationships only between
variables. There is no time ordering to the variables,
because the data on them are collected more or less
simultaneously, and the researcher does not (invari-
ably because he or she cannot) manipulate any of
the variables. This creates the problem referred to in
Research in focus 3.2 as ‘ambiguity about the direc-
tion of causal infl uence’. If the researcher discovers a
relationship between two variables, he or she cannot
be certain whether this denotes a causal relationship,
because the features of an experimental design are
not present. All that can be said is the variables
are related. This is not to say that it is not possible to
draw causal inferences from research based on a
cross-sectional design. As will be shown in Chapter 15,
there are a number of ways in which the researcher is
able to draw certain inferences about causality, but
these inferences rarely have the credibility of causal
fi ndings deriving from an experimental design. As a
result, cross-sectional research invariably lacks the
internal validity that is found in most experimental
research (see the examples in Research in focus 3.8
and Thinking deeply 3.1).

In this book, the term ‘survey’ will be reserved for
research that employs a cross-sectional research design
and in which data are collected by questionnaire or by
structured interview (see Key concept 3.7). This will
allow me to retain the conventional understanding of
what a survey is while recognizing that the cross-sectional
research design has a wider relevance—that is, one that
is not necessarily associated with the collection of data
by questionnaire or by structured interview.

Reliability, replicability, and validity

How does cross-sectional research measure up in terms
of the previously outlined criteria for evaluating quanti-
tative research: reliability, replicability, and validity?

• The issues of reliability and measurement validity are
primarily matters relating to the quality of the meas-
ures that are employed to tap the concepts in which
the researcher is interested, rather than matters to do
with a research design. In order to address questions
of the quality of measures, some of the issues outlined
in Chapter 7 would have to be considered.

• Replicability is likely to be present in most cross-
sectional research to the degree that the researcher

9780199588053_C03.indd 59 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs60

spells out procedures for: selecting respondents; de-
signing measures of concepts; administering research
instruments (such as structured interview or self-
completion questionnaire); and analysing data. Most
quantitative research based on cross-sectional research
designs specifi es such procedures to a large degree.

• Internal validity is typically weak. As has just been
suggested above, it is diffi cult to establish causal direc-
tion from the resulting data. Cross-sectional research
designs produce associations rather than fi ndings from
which causal inferences can be unambiguously made.
However, procedures for making causal inferences

Research in focus 3.8
Cross-sectional design and internal validity:

an example based on the Health and

Lifestyles Survey

Blaxter (1990) reports some of the fi ndings of a large-scale cross-sectional study in which data were collected by

three methods: a structured interview; physiological data on each respondent carried out by a nurse; and a

self-completion questionnaire. Data were collected from a random sample of around 9,000 individuals. At one

point Blaxter shows that there is a relationship between whether a person smokes and his or her diet. But how

are we to interpret this relationship? Blaxter is quite properly cautious and does not infer any kind of causal

relationship between the two. On the basis of the data, we cannot conclude whether smoking causes diet or

whether diet causes smoking or whether the association between the two is actually an artefact of a third

variable, such as a commitment or indifference to a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. There is, therefore, an ambiguity about

the direction of causal infl uence.

Thinking deeply 3.1
Direction of causality: is sex good for you?

An article in the Guardian’s Health section reviewed evidence about whether sex is good for you. At one point,

the author refers to a study of men that seems to suggest that sex does bring health benefi ts, but she also has to

acknowledge the problem of the direction of cause and effect.

A study of 1,000 men in Caerphilly found that those who had two or more orgasms a week halved their

mortality risk compared with those who had orgasms less than once a month. But while the authors concluded

that sex seems to have a protective effect on men’s health, it is always possible that the association is the other

way around—people who are ill are less likely to have sex in the fi rst place. (Houghton 1998: 14)

Key concept 3.7
What is survey research?

Survey research comprises a cross-sectional design in relation to which data are collected predominantly by

questionnaire or by structured interview on more than one case (usually quite a lot more than one) and at

a single point in time in order to collect a body of quantitative or quantifi able data in connection with two or

more variables (usually many more than two), which are then examined to detect patterns of association.

9780199588053_C03.indd 60 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 61

from cross-sectional data will be referred to in Chap-
ter 15, though most researchers feel that the result-
ing causal fi ndings rarely have the internal validity of
those deriving from experimental designs.

• External validity is strong when, as in the case of
research like Blaxter’s (1990) study of Health and
Lifestyles (see Research in focus 3.8), the sample from
which data are collected has been randomly selected.
When non-random methods of sampling are employed,
external validity becomes questionable. Sampling
issues will be specifi cally addressed in Chapter 8.

• Since much cross-sectional research makes a great deal
of use of research instruments, such as self-completion
questionnaires and structured observation schedules,
ecological validity may be jeopardized because the
very instruments disrupt the ‘natural habitat’, as
Cicourel (1982) puts it (see quotation on page 48).

Non-manipulable variables

As was noted at the beginning of the section on experi-
mental design, in much if not most social research it is
not possible to manipulate the variables in which we are
interested. This is why most quantitative social research
employs a cross-sectional research design rather than an
experimental one. If we wanted internally valid fi ndings
in connection with the smoking–diet relationship investi-
gated by Blaxter (1990) (see Research in focus 3.8), we
would need to manipulate one of the variables. For
example, if we believed that smoking infl uences diet
(perhaps because smoking is an expensive habit, which
may affect people’s ability to afford certain kinds of
food), we might envisage an experiment in which we
took the following steps:

• select a random sample of members of the public who
do not smoke;

• establish their current dietary habits;

• randomly assign them to one of three experimental
treatments: heavy smokers, moderate smokers, and
non-smokers (who act as a control group); and

• after a certain amount of time establish their dietary

Such a research design is almost laughable, because
practical and ethical considerations are bound to render
it unworkable. We would have to turn some people into
smokers, and, in view of the evidence of the harmful
effects of smoking, this would be profoundly unethical.
Also, in view of the evidence about the effects of smok-
ing, it is extremely unlikely that we would fi nd people
who would be prepared to allow themselves to be turned
into smokers. We might offer incentives for them to
become smokers, but that might invalidate any fi ndings
about the effects on diet if we believe that economic
considerations play an important role in relation to the
effects of smoking on diet. This research is essentially

Moreover, some of the variables in which social scien-
tists are interested, and which are often viewed as poten-
tially signifi cant independent variables, simply cannot be
manipulated, other than by extreme measures. To more
or less all intents and purposes, our ethnicity, age, gen-
der, and social backgrounds are ‘givens’ that are not
really amenable to the kind of manipulation that is neces-
sary for a true experimental design. A man might be
able to present himself through dress and make-up as a
woman to investigate the impact of gender on job oppor-
tunities, as Dustin Hoffman’s character did in the fi lm
Tootsie, but it is unlikely that we would fi nd a suffi cient
number of men to participate in a meaningful experi-
ment to allow such an issue to be investigated (although
Thinking deeply 3.2 provides an interesting case of the
manipulation of a seemingly non-manipulable variable).
Moreover, it could be reasonably argued that, even if
we could bring this research design to fruition, the
researcher would be examining the effects of only the
external signs of gender and would be neglecting its
more subjective and experiential aspects. Similarly, while
the case of a white man presenting himself as a black
man in Thinking deeply 3.2 is interesting, it is doubtful

Thinking deeply 3.2
Manipulating a non-manipulable variable: ethnicity

In the 1950s John Howard Griffi n (1961) blackened his face and visible parts of his body and travelled around

the American South as a person of colour. He behaved appropriately by keeping his eyes averted to show

due deference to whites. He was treated as a black man in a number of ways, such as by having to use water

fountains designated for ‘coloreds’. Griffi n’s aim was to experience what it was like being a black person in

a period and region of racial segregation.

9780199588053_C03.indd 61 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs62

whether a brief sojourn as a person of colour could
adequately capture the experience of being black in the
American South. Such an experience is formed by many
years of personal experience and the knowledge that it
will be an ongoing experience. Thus, although the case
described in Thinking deeply 3.2 provides an interesting
case of manipulating an apparently non-manipulable
variable—ethnicity—it is doubtful whether it could
meaningfully be applied to an experimental context, not
least because it is doubtful whether suffi cient numbers
of people could be found to endure the discomforts and

On the other hand, the very fact that we can regard
certain variables as givens provides us with a clue as to
how we can make causal inferences in cross-sectional re-
search. Many of the variables in which we are interested
can be assumed to be temporally prior to other variables.
For example, we can assume that, if we fi nd a relation-
ship between ethnic status and alcohol consumption,
that the former is more likely to be the independent
variable because it is temporally prior to alcohol con-
sumption. In other words, while we cannot manipulate
ethnic status, we can draw causal inferences from cross-
sectional data.

Structure of the cross-sectional design

The cross-sectional research design is not easy to depict
in terms of the notation previously introduced, but Fig-
ure 3.2 captures its main features, except that in this case
Obs simply represents an observation made in relation to
a variable.

Figure 3.2 implies that a cross-sectional design com-
prises the collection of data on a series of variables (Obs1
Obs2 Obs3 Obs4 Obs5 . . . Obsn) at a single point in time,

T1. The effect is to create what Marsh (1982) referred to
as a ‘rectangle’ of data that comprises variables Obs1 to
Obsn and cases Case1 to Casen, as in Figure 3.3. For each
case (which may be a person, household, city, nation,
etc.) data are available for each of the variables, Obs1 to
Obsn, all of which will have been collected at T1. Each cell
in the matrix will have data in it.

Cross-sectional design and research strategy

This discussion of the cross-sectional design has placed
it fi rmly in the context of quantitative research. Also,
the evaluation of the design has drawn on criteria asso-
ciated with the quantitative research strategy. It should
also be noted, however, that qualitative research often
entails a form of cross-sectional design. A fairly typical
form of such research is when the researcher employs
unstructured interviewing or semi-structured interview-
ing with a number of people. Research in focus 3.9 pro-
vides an illustration of such a study.

While emphatically within the qualitative research tra-
dition, the study described in Research in focus 3.9 bears
many research design similarities with cross-sectional
studies within a quantitative research tradition, like
Blaxter (1990). Moreover, it is a very popular mode of
qualitative research. The research was not preoccupied
with such criteria of quantitative research as internal and
external validity, replicability, measurement validity, and
so on. In fact, it could be argued that the conversational
interview style made the study more ecologically valid
than research using more formal instruments of data

gu e 3.Figure 3.2
A cross-sectional design







. . .

Figure 3.3Figure 3.3
The data rectangle in cross-sectional research






. . .


Obs1 Obs2 Obs3 Obs4 . . . Obsn

9780199588053_C03.indd 62 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 63

collection. It is also striking that the study was con-
cerned with the factors that infl uence food selection, like
vegetarianism. The very notion of an ‘infl uence’ carries a
strong connotation of causality, suggesting that qualita-
tive researchers are interested in the investigation of
causes and effects, albeit not in the context of the lan-
guage of variables that so pervades quantitative research.
Also, the emphasis was much more on elucidating the
experience of something like vegetarianism than is often

the case with quantitative research. However, the chief
point in providing the illustration is that it bears many
similarities to the cross-sectional design in quantitative
research. It entailed the interviewing of quite a large
number of people and at a single point in time. Just as
with many quantitative studies using a cross-sectional
design, the examination of early infl uences on people’s
past and current behaviour is based on their retrospec-
tive accounts of factors that infl uenced them in the past.

Research in focus 3.9
Qualitative research within

a cross-sectional design

Beardsworth and Keil (1992) carried out a study of the dietary beliefs and practices of vegetarians. They write

that their intention was to contribute ‘to the analysis of the cultural and sociological factors which infl uence

patterns of food selection and avoidance. The specifi c focus is on contemporary vegetarianism, a complex of

interrelated beliefs, attitudes and practices . . .’ (1992: 253). The authors carried out ‘relatively unstructured

interviews’, which were ‘guided by an inventory of issues’ with seventy-six vegetarians and vegans in the

East Midlands (1992: 261). Respondents were identifi ed through a snowball sampling approach. The interviews

were taped and transcribed, yielding a large corpus of qualitative data.

Longitudinal design(s)

The longitudinal design represents a distinct form of
research design. Because of the time and cost involved, it
is a relatively little-used design in social research, so it is
not proposed to allocate a great deal of space to it. In the
form in which it is typically found in social science sub-
jects such as sociology, social policy, and human geogra-
phy, it is usually an extension of survey research based on
a self-completion questionnaire or structured interview
research within a cross-sectional design. Consequently,
in terms of reliability, replication, and validity, the longi-
tudinal design is little different from cross-sectional re-
search. However, a longitudinal design can allow some
insight into the time order of variables and therefore may
be more able to allow causal inferences to be made.

With a longitudinal design a sample is surveyed and is
surveyed again on at least one further occasion. It is com-
mon to distinguish two types of longitudinal design: the
panel study and the cohort study. With the former type,
a sample, often a randomly selected national one, is the
focus of data collection on at least two (and often more)
occasions. Data may be collected from different types of
case within a panel study framework: people, households,

organizations, schools, and so on. An illustration of this
kind of study is the British Household Panel Survey
(BHPS) (see Research in focus 3.10).

In a cohort study, either an entire cohort of people or a
random sample of them is selected as the focus of data
collection. The cohort is made up of people who share a
certain characteristic, such as all being born in the same
week or all having a certain experience, such as being
unemployed or getting married on a certain day or in
the same week. The National Child Development Study
(NCDS) is an example of a cohort study (see Research
in focus 3.11). A new cohort study—the Economic and
Social Research Council (ESRC) Millennium Cohort
Study—began at the turn of the present millennium.

Panel and cohort studies share similar features. They
have a similar design structure: Figure 3.4 portrays this
structure and implies that data are collected in at least
two waves on the same variables on the same people.
Both panel and cohort studies are concerned with illumin-
ating social change and with improving the understand-
ing of causal infl uences over time. The latter means that
longitudinal designs are somewhat better able to deal
with the problem of ‘ambiguity about the direction of
causal infl uence’ that plagues cross-sectional designs.

9780199588053_C03.indd 63 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs64

Research in focus 3.10
The British Household Panel Survey

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) began in 1991, when a national representative sample of 10,264

individuals in 5,538 households were interviewed for the fi rst time in connection with six main areas of interest:

• household organization;

• labour market behaviour;

• income and wealth;

• housing;

• health; and

• socio-economic values.

Panel members are interviewed annually. As a result of the continuous interviewing, it is possible to highlight

areas of social change. For example, Laurie and Gershuny (2000) show that there have been changes in the ways

in which couples manage their money. Over a relatively short fi ve-year period (1991–5), there was a small decline

in the proportion of men having a fi nal say in fi nancial decisions and a corresponding small increase in those

reporting equal say, although interestingly these trends refer to aggregated replies of partners—around a quarter

of partners give different answers about who has the fi nal say!

For further information, see: (accessed 17 January 2011).

The BHPS is being gradually replaced by the Understanding Society Survey, which is based on a panel in the

region of 40,000 households. See: (accessed 17 January 2011).

Research in focus 3.11
The National Child Development Study

The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is based on all 17,000 children born in Great Britain in the week

of 3–9 March 1958. The study was initially motivated by a concern over levels of perinatal mortality, but the data

collected refl ect a much wider range of issues than this focus implies. Data were collected on the children and

their families at age 7. In fact, the study was not originally planned as a longitudinal study. The children and their

families have been followed up at ages 11, 16, 23, 33, 41–2, 46, and 50–1. Data are collected in relation to a

number of areas, including: physical and mental health; family; parenting; occupation and income; and housing

and environment.

For further information, see Fox and Fogelman (1990); Hodges (1998); and (accessed 17 January 2011).

A new cohort study—the Millennium Cohort Study—began in 2000–1 based on a sample of all children born in

England and Wales over a twelve-month period from 1 September 2000 and all children born in Scotland and

Northern Ireland from 1 December 2000.

For further information, see: (accessed 17 January 2011).

9780199588053_C03.indd 64 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 65

Because certain potentially independent variables can be
identifi ed at T1, the researcher is in a better position to
infer that purported effects that are identifi ed at T2 or
later have occurred after the independent variables. This
does not deal with the entire problem about the ambigu-
ity of causal infl uence, but it at least addresses the prob-
lem of knowing which variable came fi rst. In all other
respects, the points made above about cross-sectional
designs are the same as those for longitudinal designs.

Panel and cohort designs differ in important respects
too. A panel study, like the BHPS, that takes place over
many years can distinguish between age effects (the
impact of the ageing process on individuals) and cohort
effects (effects due to being born at a similar time), because
its members will have been born at different times. A co-
hort study, however, can distinguish only ageing effects,
since all members of the sample will have been born at
more or less the same time. Also, a panel study, especially
one that operates at the household level, needs rules to
inform how to handle new entrants to households (for
example, as a result of marriage or elderly relatives
moving in) and exits from households (for example, as
a result of marriage break-up or children leaving home).

Panel and cohort studies share similar problems. First,
there is the problem of sample attrition through death,
moving, and so on, and through subjects choosing to
withdraw at later stages of the research. Menard (1991)
cites the case of a study of adolescent drug use in the USA
in which 55 per cent of subjects were lost over an eight-
year period. However, attrition rates are by no means
always as high as this. In 1981 the National Child
Development Study managed to secure data from 12,537
members of the original 17,414 cohort, which is quite an
achievement bearing in mind that twenty-three years

would have elapsed since the birth of the children. In
1991 data were elicited from 11,407. The problem with
attrition is largely that those who leave the study may
differ in some important respects from those who
remain, so that the latter do not form a representative
group. There is some evidence from panel studies that
the problem of attrition declines with time (Berthoud
2000a); in other words, those who do not drop out after
the fi rst wave or two of data collection tend to stay on the
panel. Secondly, there are few guidelines as to when is
the best juncture to conduct further waves of data collec-
tion. Thirdly, it is often suggested that many longitudinal
studies are poorly thought out and that they result in the
collection of large amounts of data with little apparent
planning. Fourthly, there is evidence that a panel condi-
tioning effect can occur whereby continued participation
in a longitudinal study affects how respondents behave.
Menard (1991) refers to a study of family caregiving in
which 52 per cent of respondents indicated that they
responded differently to providing care for relatives as a
result of their participation in the research.

Surveys, like the General Household Survey, the
British Social Attitudes survey, and the British Crime
Survey (see Table 14.1), that are carried out on a regular
basis on samples of the population are not truly longitu-
dinal designs because they do not involve the same people
being interviewed on each occasion. They are perhaps
better thought of as involving a repeated cross-sectional
design or trend design in which samples are selected on
each of several occasions. They are able to chart change
but they cannot address the issue of the direction of cause
and effect because the samples are always different.

It is easy to associate longitudinal designs more or
less exclusively with quantitative research. However,
qualitative research sometimes incorporates elements of
a longitudinal design. This is especially noticeable in
ethnographic research, when the ethnographer is in a
location for a lengthy period of time or when interviews
are carried out on more than one occasion to address
change. See Research in focus 3.12 for an example of
the latter.

Most longitudinal studies will be planned from the
outset in such a way that sample members can be fol-
lowed up at a later date. However, it can happen that the
idea of conducting a longitudinal study occurs to the
researchers only after some time has elapsed. Provided
there are good records, it may be possible to follow up
sample members for a second wave of data collection
or even for further waves. Research in focus 3.13 pro-
vides an extremely unusual but fascinating example of a
longitudinal design from the USA with both planned and

gu e 3.Figure 3.4
The longitudinal design







. . .







. . .

. . .

9780199588053_C03.indd 65 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs66

unplanned elements. This is also an interesting illustration
of a mixed methods study, in that it combines quantita-
tive and qualitative research.

Case study design

The basic case study entails the detailed and intensive
analysis of a single case. As Stake (1995) observes, case
study research is concerned with the complexity and
particular nature of the case in question. Some of the
best-known studies in sociology are based on this kind of
design. They include research on:

• a single community, such as Whyte’s (1955) study
of Cornerville in Boston, Gans’s (1962) study of the

East End of Boston, M. Stacey’s (1960) research on
Banbury, and O’Reilly’s (2000) research on a commun-
ity of Britons living on the Costa del Sol in Spain.
Increasingly, social researchers are becoming inter-
ested in the study of online communities (see Chap-
ter 28 and Research in focus 28.4 in particular);

• a single school, such as studies by Ball (1981) and
by Burgess (1983) on Beachside Comprehensive and
Bishop McGregor respectively;

• a single family, like O. Lewis’s (1961) study of the
Sánchez family or Brannen and Nilsen’s (2006)
investigation of a family of low-skilled British men,
which contained four generations in order to uncover
changes in ‘fathering’ over time;

Research in focus 3.12
Qualitative longitudinal research:

the Timescapes project

Qualitative longitudinal research (often abbreviated to QLL) that involves repeat qualitative interviews with

research participants has become more common since the turn of the century. This is particularly apparent with

the ‘Timescapes’ project, which is a major project that began life in February 2007. The aim is to interview and

re-interview people on several occasions to capture social changes and shifts in people’s life course and thoughts

and feelings. It comprises seven relatively independent projects. Through these projects the researchers aim to

track the lives of around 400 people. One of the projects is entitled ‘Maculinities, identities and risk: transition in

the lives of men as fathers’ and aims to get a sense of how masculine identities change in the wake of fi rst-time

fatherhood. This particular study builds on research that originally began in Norfolk in 1999, well before the

Timescapes project began. Thirty fathers were interviewed in 2000–1 both before and after the birth of their

fi rst child. Each man was interviewed three times (two interviews were scheduled after the child’s birth).

This group of men was then followed up in 2008. A further set of interviews was conducted with eighteen

men from south Wales in 2008–9 with the same pattern of one interview before and two interviews after birth.

In the course of the interviews use was made of photographs of families and men with their children to stimulate

refl ection on fatherhood. The use of photographs in interviews is explored in Chapters 19 and 20. The materials

will eventually be made available for secondary analysis (see the section on ‘Secondary analysis of qualitative data’

in Chapter 24).


Guardian, 20 Oct. 2009:

Project website:

For information on the masculinities project, see:

For some methodological refl ections on the Timescapes project, see:

All the above websites were accessed 18 May 2011.

9780199588053_C03.indd 66 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 67

• a single organization, such as studies of a factory
by writers such as Burawoy (1979), and Cavendish
(1982), or of pilferage in a single location like a bakery
(Ditton 1977), of a single police service (Holdaway
1982, 1983; see Research in focus 3.14), or of a single
call centre (Callaghan and Thompson 2002; Nyberg

• a person, like the famous study of Stanley, the ‘jack-
roller’ (Shaw 1930); such studies are often character-
ized as using the life history or biographical approach
(see the section on ‘Life history and oral history inter-
viewing’ in Chapter 20); and

• a single event, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (Allison
1971), the events surrounding the media reporting
of a specifi c issue area (Deacon, Fenton, and Bryman
1999), the Balinese cockfi ght (Geertz 1973b), and the
study of a disaster incident (Vaughan 1996, 2004).

What is a case?

The most common use of the term ‘case’ associates the
case study with a location, such as a community or organ-
ization. The emphasis tends to be upon an intensive
examination of the setting. There is a tendency to associ-
ate case studies with qualitative research, but such an

Research in focus 3.13
A planned and unplanned longitudinal design

In the 1940s Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of the Harvard Law School conducted a study concerned with

how criminal careers begin and are maintained. The study entailed a comparison of 500 delinquents and

500 non-delinquents in Massachusetts. The two samples were matched in terms of several characteristics, such

as age, ethnicity, and the socio-economic status of the neighbourhoods from which they were drawn. The sample

was aged around 14 at the time and was followed up at ages 25 and 33. The data were collected by various

means: interviews with the 1,000 participants, their families, and various key fi gures in their lives (for example,

social workers and school teachers); observations of the home; and records of various agencies that had any

connection with the participants and their families. Obviously, data concerning criminal activity were collected

for each individual by examining records relating to court appearances and parole. While all these sources of

data produced quantitative information, qualitative data were also collected through answers to open questions

in the interviews. Around the mid-1990s Laub and Sampson (2003, 2004) began to follow up the 500 men who

had been in the delinquent sample. By this time, they would have been aged 70. Records of death and criminal

activity were searched for all 500 men, so that patterns of ongoing criminal activity could be gleaned. Further,

they managed to fi nd and then interview fi fty-two of the original delinquent sample. These cases were selected

on the basis of their patterns of offending over the years, as indicated by the criminal records. The interviews

were life history interviews to uncover key turning points in their lives and to fi nd out about their experiences.

This is an extremely unusual example of a longitudinal study that contains planned elements (the original wave

of data collection, followed by the ones eleven and eighteen years later) and an unplanned element conducted

by Laub and Sampson many years later.

Research in focus 3.14
A case study

Holdaway (1982, 1983) was a police offi cer who was also conducting doctoral research on his own police service,

which was located in a city. His main research method was ethnography, whereby he was a participant observer

who observed interaction, listened to conversations, examined documents, and wrote up his impressions and

experiences in fi eld notes. Holdaway’s superiors did not know that he was conducting research on his own force,

so that he was a covert researcher. This is a controversial method on ethical grounds (see Chapters 6 and 19).

Holdaway’s research provides insights into the nature of police work and the occupational culture with which

offi cers surround themselves.

9780199588053_C03.indd 67 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs68

identifi cation is not appropriate. It is certainly true
that exponents of the case study design often favour
qualitative methods, such as participant observation and
unstructured interviewing, because these methods are
viewed as particularly helpful in the generation of an
intensive, detailed examination of a case. However, case
studies are frequently sites for the employment of both
quantitative and qualitative research, an approach that
will receive attention in Chapter 27. Indeed, in some in-
stances, when an investigation is based exclusively upon
quantitative research, it can be diffi cult to determine
whether it is better described as a case study or as a cross-
sectional research design. The same point can often be
made about case studies based upon qualitative research.

As an illustration of the diffi culties of writing about
case studies, consider the study described in Thinking
deeply 3.3. Ostensibly, it is similar to Beardsworth and
Keil’s (1992) study of vegetarians, in that it is a piece

Similarly, Powell and Butterfi eld (1997) present a
quantitative analysis of promotion decisions in a US gov-
ernment department. They were concerned to investigate
how far race had an impact on promotions within the
department. The researchers found that race did not
have a direct effect on promotion, but it did have an indir-
ect effect. This occurred because race had an impact on
two variables—whether the applicant was employed in
the hiring department and the number of years of work

of qualitative research within a cross-sectional design
framework (see Research in focus 3.9). However, it has
been described as providing ‘case-study evidence’ by
Davies et al. (1994: 157), presumably on the grounds
that the fi eldwork was undertaken in a single location.
I would prefer to reserve the term ‘case study’ for those
instances where the ‘case’ is the focus of interest in its
own right. The study in Thinking deeply 3.3 is no more a
case study of Kidderminster than Beardsworth and Keil’s
(1992) research is based on a case study of the East
Midlands. McKee and Bell’s (1985) research is concerned
with the experience of unemployment among the forty-
fi ve couples whom they interviewed. It is not concerned
with Kidderminster as such. The town provides a kind of
backdrop to the fi ndings rather than a focus of interest in
its own right. The crucial point is that Kidderminster is
not the unit of analysis; rather it is the sample that is the
unit of analysis.

experience—which in turn affected promotion. The im-
pact of race on these two variables was such that people
of colour were disadvantaged with respect to promotion.
Once again, we see here a study that has the hallmarks of
both a cross-sectional design and a case study, but this
time the research strategy was a quantitative one. As
with the McKee and Bell (1985) research, it seems better
to describe it as employing a cross-sectional design rather
than a case study, because the case itself is not the

Thinking deeply 3.3
What is the unit of analysis?

McKee and Bell (1985: 387) examined forty-fi ve couples in a single location (Kidderminster in the West Midlands)

in order to examine ‘the impact of male unemployment on family and marital relations’. They describe their

research instrument as an ‘unstructured, conversational interview style’. In most cases, husbands and wives were

interviewed jointly. The interviews were very non-directive, allowing the couples considerable freedom to answer

in their own terms and time. Their research focused on the range of problems faced by unemployed families, the

processes by which they cope, and the variations in their experiences. Thus the focus was very much on the

experience of unemployment from the perspective of the couples. The authors show, for example, that the

impact of husbands’ unemployment on their wives is often far greater than is usually appreciated, since research

frequently takes the unemployed person as the main hub of the enquiry. Couples often reported changes to the

domestic division of labour, which in turn raised questions for them about images of masculinity and identity.

Is this study a case study of unemployment in Kidderminster or is it better thought of as a cross-sectional design

study of unemployed men and their wives? As I suggest in the text, it is not terribly helpful to think of it as a case

study, because Kidderminster is not the unit of analysis. It is about the responses to unemployment among

a sample of individuals; the fact that the interviewees were located in Kidderminster is not signifi cant to the

research fi ndings. However, it is not always easy to distinguish whether an investigation is of one kind rather than

another. As these refl ections imply, it is important to be clear in your own mind what your unit of analysis is.

9780199588053_C03.indd 68 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 69

apparent object of interest: it is little more than a location
that forms a backdrop to the fi ndings.

Similarly, I would tend to argue that the study of
redundant steelworkers by Westergaard et al. (1989)
is a case study of the effects of redundancy in which a
quantitative research strategy was employed with clear
indications of a cross-sectional design. With a case study,
the case is an object of interest in its own right, and the
researcher aims to provide an in-depth elucidation of it.
Unless a distinction of this or some other kind is drawn,
it becomes impossible to distinguish the case study as
a special research design, because almost any kind of
research can be construed as a case study: research based

With experimental and cross-sectional designs, the
typical orientation to the relationship between theory
and research is a deductive one. The research design and
the collection of data are guided by specifi c research
questions that derive from theoretical concerns. However,
when a qualitative research strategy is employed within
a cross-sectional design, as in Beardsworth and Keil’s
(1992) research, the approach tends to be inductive. In
other words, whether a cross-sectional design is induc-
tive or deductive tends to be affected by whether a quan-
titative or a qualitative research strategy is employed.
The same point can be made of case study research. When
the predominant research strategy is qualitative, a case
study tends to take an inductive approach to the relation-
ship between theory and research; if a predomin antly
quantitative strategy is taken, it tends to be deductive.

Reliability, replicability, and validity

The question of how well the case study fares in the
context of the research design criteria cited early on

on a national, random sample of the population of Great
Britain would have to be considered a case study of Great
Britain! However, it also needs to be appreciated that,
when specifi c research illustrations are examined, they
can exhibit features of more than one research design.
What distinguishes a case study is that the researcher is
usually concerned to elucidate the unique features of the
case. This is known as an idiographic approach. Research
designs like the cross-sectional design are known as
nomothetic, in that they are concerned with generating
statements that apply regardless of time and place.
However, an investigation may have elements of both
(see Research in focus 3.15).

in this chapter—measurement validity, internal validity,
external validity, ecological validity, reliability, and repli-
cability—depends in large part on how far the researcher
feels that these are appropriate for the evaluation of case
study research. Some writers on case study research, like
Yin (2009), consider that they are appropriate criteria
and suggest ways in which case study research can be
developed to enhance its ability to meet the criteria; for
others, like Stake (1995), they are barely mentioned, if at
all. Writers on case study research whose point of orien-
tation lies primarily with a qualitative research strategy
tend to play down or ignore the salience of these factors,
whereas those writers who have been strongly infl uenced
by the quantitative research strategy tend to depict them
as more signifi cant.

However, one question on which a great deal of discus-
sion has centred concerns the external validity or general-
izability of case study research. How can a single case
possibly be representative so that it might yield fi ndings
that can be applied more generally to other cases? For

Research in focus 3.15
A cross-sectional design with case study elements

Sometimes, an investigation may have both cross-sectional and case study elements. For example, Leonard

(2004) was interested in the utility of the notion of social capital for research into neighbourhood formation.

As such, she was interested in similar issues to the study in Research in focus 2.2. She conducted her study in

a Catholic housing estate in West Belfast, where she carried out semi-structured interviews with 246 individuals

living in 150 households. Her fi ndings relate to the relevance of the concept of social capital, so that the research

design looks like a cross-sectional one. However, on certain occasions she draws attention to the uniqueness of

Belfast with its history in recent times of confl ict and the search for political solutions to the problems there.

At one point she writes: ‘In West Belfast, as the peace process develops, political leaders are charged with

connecting informal community networks to more formal institutional networks’ (Leonard 2004: 939). As this

comment implies, it is more or less impossible in a study like this to generate fi ndings concerning community

formation without reference to the special characteristics of Belfast and its troubled history.

9780199588053_C03.indd 69 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs70

example, how could the fi ndings from Holdaway’s (1982,
1983) research, referred to in Research in focus 3.14, be
generalizable to all police services in Great Britain? The
answer, of course, is that they cannot. It is important to
appreciate that case study researchers do not delude
themselves that it is possible to identify typical cases that
can be used to represent a certain class of objects,
whether it is factories, mass-media reporting, police
services, or communities. In other words, they do not
think that a case study is a sample of one.

Types of case

Following on from the issue of external validity, it is
useful to consider a distinction between different types
of case that is sometimes made by writers. Yin (2009)
distinguishes fi ve types.

• The critical case. Here the researcher has a well-
developed theory, and a case is chosen on the grounds
that it will allow a better understanding of the cir-
cumstances in which the hypothesis will and will
not hold. The study by Festinger et al. (1956) of
a religious cult whose members believed that the end
of the world was about to happen is an example. The
fact that the event did not happen by the appointed
day allowed the researchers to test the authors’ pro-
positions about how people respond to thwarted

• The extreme or unique case. The unique or extreme
case is, as Yin observes, a common focus in clinical
studies. Margaret Mead’s (1928) well-known study of
growing up in Samoa seems to have been motivated
by her belief that the country represented a unique
case. She argued that, unlike most other societies,
Samoan youth do not suffer a period of anxiety and
stress in adolescence. The factors associated with this
relatively trouble-free period in their lives were of
interest to her, since they might contain lessons for
Western youth. Fielding (1982) conducted research
on the extreme right-wing organization the National
Front. While the National Front was not unique on the
British political scene, it was extremely prominent at
the time of his research and was beginning to become
an electoral force. As such, it held an intrinsic interest
that made it essentially unique.

• The representative or typical case. I prefer to call this an
exemplifying case, because notions of representative-
ness and typicality can sometimes lead to confusion.
With this kind of case, ‘the objective is to capture
the circumstances and conditions of an everyday or

commonplace situation’ (Yin 2009: 48). Thus a case
may be chosen because it exemplifi es a broader cat-
egory of which it is a member. The notion of exemplifi –
cation implies that cases are often chosen not because
they are extreme or unusual in some way but because
either they epitomize a broader category of cases
or they will provide a suitable context for certain
research questions to be answered. An illustration of
the fi rst kind of situation is Lynd and Lynd’s (1929,
1937) classic community study of Muncie, Indiana, in
the USA, which they dubbed ‘Middletown’ precisely
because it seemed to typify American life at the time.
The second rationale for selecting exemplifying cases
is that they allow the researcher to examine key social
processes. For example, a researcher may seek access
to an organization because it is known to have imple-
mented a new technology and he or she wants to
know what the impact of that new technology has
been. The researcher may have been infl uenced by
various theories about the relationship between tech-
nology and work and by the considerable research
literature on the topic, and as a result seeks to exam-
ine the implications of some of these theoretical and
empirical deliberations in a particular research site.
The case merely provides an apt context for the
working-through of these research questions. To take
a concrete example, Russell and Tyler’s (2002) study
of one store in the ‘Girl Heaven’ UK chain of retail
stores for 3–13-year-old girls does not appear to have
been motivated by the store being critical, unique, or
by it providing a context that had never before been
studied, but was to do with the capacity of the re-
search site to illuminate the links between gender and
consumption and the commodifi cation of childhood
in modern society.

• The revelatory case. The basis for the revelatory
case exists ‘when an investigator has an opportunity
to observe and analyse a phenomenon previously
inaccessible to scientifi c investigation’ (Yin 2009:
48). As examples, Yin cites Whyte’s (1955) study of
Cornerville, and Liebow’s (1967) research on unem-
ployed blacks.

• The longitudinal case. Yin suggests that a case may be
chosen because it affords the opportunity to be inves-
tigated at two or more junctures. However, many case
studies comprise a longitudinal element, so that it is
more likely that a case will be chosen both because it
is appropriate to the research questions on one of the
other four grounds and also because it can be studied
over time.

9780199588053_C03.indd 70 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 71

Any case study can involve a combination of these
elements, which can best be viewed as rationales for
choosing particular cases. For example, Margaret Mead’s
(1928) classic study of growing up in Samoa has been
depicted above as an extreme case, but it also has ele-
ments of a critical case because she felt that it had
the potential to demonstrate that young people’s re-
sponses to entering their teenage years are not deter-
mined by nature alone. Instead, she used growing up in
Samoa as a critical case to demonstrate that culture
has an important role in the development of humans,
thus enabling her to cast doubt on notions of biological

It may be that it is only at a very late stage that the
singularity and signifi cance of the case becomes appar-
ent (Radley and Chamberlain 2001). Flyvbjerg (2003)
provides an example of this. He shows how he undertook
a study of urban politics and planning in Aalborg in
Denmark, thinking it was a critical case. After conducting
his fi eldwork for a while, he found that it was in fact an
extreme case. He writes as follows:

that the evidence they present is limited because it has
restricted external validity by arguing that it is not the
purpose of this research design to generalize to other
cases or to populations beyond the case. This position is
very different from that taken by practitioners of survey
research. Survey researchers are invariably concerned to
be able to generalize their fi ndings to larger populations
and frequently use random sampling to enhance the
representativeness of the samples on which they conduct
their investigations and therefore the external validity of
their fi ndings. Case study researchers argue strenuously
that this is not the purpose of their craft.

Case study as intensive analysis

Instead, case study researchers tend to argue that they
aim to generate an intensive examination of a single case,
in relation to which they then engage in a theoretical
analysis. The central issue of concern is the quality of the
theoretical reasoning in which the case study researcher
engages. How well do the data support the theoretical
arguments that are generated? Is the theoretical analysis
incisive? For example, does it demonstrate connections
between different conceptual ideas that are developed
out of the data? The crucial question is not whether the
fi ndings can be generalized to a wider universe but how
well the researcher generates theory out of the fi ndings.
This view of generalization is called ‘analytic generaliza-
tion’ by Yin (2009) and ‘theoretical generalization’ by
J. C. Mitchell (1983). Such a view places case study re-
search fi rmly in the inductive tradition of the relation-
ship between theory and research. However, a case study
design is not necessarily associated with an inductive
approach, as can be seen in the research by Adler and
Adler (1985), which was referred to in Chapter 2. Thus,
case studies can be associated with both theory genera-
tion and theory testing. Further, as M. Williams (2000)
has argued, case study researchers are often in a position
to generalize by drawing on fi ndings from comparable
cases investigated by others. This issue will be returned
to in Chapter 18.

Longitudinal research and the case study

Case study research frequently includes a longitudinal
element. The researcher is often a participant of an organ-
ization or member of a community for many months or
years. Alternatively, he or she may conduct interviews
with individuals over a lengthy period. Moreover, the re-
searcher may be able to inject an additional longitudinal
element by analysing archival information and by retro-
spective interviewing. Research in focus 3.16 provides an
illustration of such research.

Initially, I conceived of Aalborg as a ‘most likely’ critical
case in the following manner: if rationality and urban
planning were weak in the face of power in Aalborg,
then, most likely, they would be weak anywhere, at
least in Denmark, because in Aalborg the rational
paradigm of planning stood stronger than anywhere
else. Eventually, I realized that this logic was fl awed,
because my research [on] local relations of power
showed that one of the most infl uential ‘faces of power’
in Aalborg, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce,
was substantially stronger than their equivalents
elsewhere. Therefore, instead of a critical case,
unwittingly I ended up with an extreme case in the
sense that both rationality and power were unusually
strong in Aalborg, and my case study became a study
of what happens when strong rationality meets strong
power in the area of urban politics and planning. But
this selection of Aalborg as an extreme case happened
to me, I did not deliberately choose it. (Flyvbjerg
2003: 426)

Thus, we may not always appreciate the nature and sig-
nifi cance of a ‘case’ until we have subjected it to detailed

One of the standard criticisms of the case study is
that fi ndings deriving from it cannot be generalized.
Exponents of case study research counter suggestions

9780199588053_C03.indd 71 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs72

Another way in which a longitudinal element occurs is
when a case that has been studied is returned to at a later
stage. A particularly interesting instance of this is the
Middletown study that was mentioned previously. The
town was originally studied by Lynd and Lynd in 1924–5
(Lynd and Lynd 1929) and was restudied to discern
trends and changes in 1935 (Lynd and Lynd 1937). In 1977
the community was restudied yet again (Bahr et al. 1983),
using the same research instruments but with minor
changes. Burgess (1987) was similarly concerned with
continuity and change at the comprehensive school he had
studied in the early 1970s (Burgess 1983) when he re-
turned to study it ten years later. However, as he observes,
it is diffi cult for the researcher to establish how far change
is the result of real differences over the two time periods
or of other factors, such as different people at the school,
different educational issues between the two time peri-
ods, and the possible infl uence of the initial study itself.

Comparative design

It is worth distinguishing one further kind of design:
comparative design. Put simply, this design entails study-
ing two contrasting cases using more or less identical
methods. It embodies the logic of comparison, in that it
implies that we can understand social phenomena better
when they are compared in relation to two or more
meaningfully contrasting cases or situations. The com-
parative design may be realized in the context of either
quantitative or qualitative research. Within the former,
the data-collection strategy will take the form outlined in
Figure 3.5. This fi gure implies that there are at least two
cases (which may be organizations, nations, communities,
police forces, etc.) and that data are collected from each,
usually within a cross-sectional design format.

One of the more obvious forms of such research is in
cross-cultural or cross-national research. In a useful defi –
nition, Hantrais (1996) has suggested that such research

Research in focus 3.16
A case study of ICI

Pettigrew (1985) conducted research into the use of organizational development expertise at Imperial Chemical

Industries (ICI). The fi eldwork was conducted between 1975 and 1983. He carried out ‘long semistructured

interviews’ in 1975–7 and again in 1980–3. During the period of the fi eldwork he also had fairly regular contact

with members of the organization. He writes: ‘The continuous real-time data collection was enriched by

retrospective interviewing and archival analysis . . .’ (Pettigrew 1985: 40).

Figure 3.5Figure 3.5
A comparative design

Case 1







. . .

Case n






. . .

when individuals or teams set out to examine particular
issues or phenomena in two or more countries with the
express intention of comparing their manifestations in
different socio-cultural settings (institutions, customs,
traditions, value systems, life styles, language, thought
patterns), using the same research instruments either
to carry out secondary analysis of national data or to
conduct new empirical work. The aim may be to seek
explanations for similarities and differences or to gain a
greater awareness and a deeper understanding of social
reality in different national contexts.

9780199588053_C03.indd 72 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 73

The research by Kelley and De Graaf (1997), referred
to in Research in focus 2.4, is an illustration of cross-
cultural research that entails a secondary analysis of
survey evidence collected in fi fteen nations. A further
example is Gallie’s (1978) survey research on the impact
of advanced automation on comparable samples of indus-
trial workers in both England and France. Gallie was
able to show that national traditions of industrial rela-
tions were more important than technology in explaining
worker attitudes and management–worker relations, a
fi nding that was important in terms of the technological
determinism thesis that was still current at the time.

Cross-cultural research is not without problems such
as: managing and gaining the funding for such research
(see Thinking deeply 3.4); ensuring, when existing data,
such as offi cial statistics or survey evidence, are submitted
to a secondary analysis, that the data are comparable in
terms of categories and data-collection methods; ensur-
ing, when new data are being collected, that the need
to translate data-collection instruments (for example,
interview schedules) does not undermine genuine com-
parability; and ensuring that samples of respondents or
organizations are equivalent. This last problem raises the
further diffi culty that, even when translation is carried

Thinking deeply 3.4
Forms of cross-cultural research

As its name implies, cross-cultural research entails the collection and/or analysis of data from two or more

nations. Possible models for the conduct of cross-cultural research are as follows.

1. A researcher, perhaps in conjunction with a research team, collects data in a number of countries. Gallie’s

(1978) research on the impact of advanced automation on industrial workers is an illustration of this model,

in that he took comparable samples of industrial workers from two oil refi neries in both England and France.

2. A central organization coordinates a portion of the work of national organizations. The article by Kelley and

De Graaf (1997) that is cited in this chapter provides an example of this model.

3. A secondary analysis is carried out of data that are comparable, but where the coordination of their collection

is limited or non-existent. This kind of cross-cultural analysis might occur if researchers seek to ask survey

questions in their own country that have been asked in another country. The ensuing data may then be

analysed cross-culturally. A further form of this model is through the secondary analysis of offi cially collected

data, such as unemployment statistics. Wall’s (1989) analysis of the living arrangements of the elderly in

eighteen European countries is an example of such research. The research uncovered considerable diversity in

terms of such factors as whether the elderly lived alone and whether they were in institutional care. However,

this approach is beset with problems associated with the defi ciencies of many forms of offi cial statistics (see

Chapter 14) and problems of cross-national variations in offi cial defi nitions and collection procedures.

4. Teams of researchers in participating nations are recruited by a person or body that coordinates the

programme, or alternatively researchers in different countries with common interests make contact and

coordinate their investigations. Each researcher or group of researchers has the responsibility of conducting

the investigation in his/her/their own country. The work is coordinated in order to ensure comparability

of research questions, of survey questions, and of procedures for administering the research instruments

(e.g. Crompton and Birkelund 2000). This model differs from (2) above in that it usually entails a specifi c focus

on certain research questions. An example can be found in Research in focus 27.7.

5. Although not genuinely cross-cultural research in the sense of a coordinated project across nations, another

form can occur when a researcher compares what is known in one country with new research in another

country. For example, Richard Wright, a US criminologist who has carried out a considerable amount of

research into street robberies in his own country, was interested in how far fi ndings relating to this crime

would be similar in the UK. In particular, US research highlighted the role of street culture in the motivation to

engage in such robbery. He was involved in a project that entailed semi-structured interviews with imprisoned

street robbers in south-west England (Wright et al. 2006). In fact, the researchers found that street culture

played an important role in the UK context in a similar way to that in the USA.

9780199588053_C03.indd 73 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs74

out competently, there is still the potential problem of an
insensitivity to specifi c national and cultural contexts.
On the other hand, cross-cultural research helps to re-
duce the risk of failing to appreciate that social science
fi ndings are often, if not invariably, culturally specifi c.
For example, Crompton and Birkelund (2000) conducted
research using semi-structured interviewing with com-
parable samples of male and female bank managers in
Norway and Britain. They found that, in spite of more
family-friendly policies in Norway, bank managers in
both countries struggle to manage career and domestic
life. It might have been assumed that countries with
greater attachment to such policies would ease these
pressures, but comparative, cross-cultural research of
this kind shows how easy it is to make such an erroneous

Comparative research should not be treated as solely
concerned with comparisons between nations. The logic
of comparison can be applied to a variety of situations.
The Social Change and Economic Life Initiative, referred
to in Research in focus 7.1, entailed identical studies
(mainly involving survey research) in six contrasting
labour markets, which were chosen to refl ect different
patterns of economic change in the early to mid-1980s
and in the then recent past. By choosing meaningful
contrasts, the signifi cance of the different patterns for a
variety of experiences of both employers and employees
could be portrayed. Such designs are not without prob-
lems: the differences that are observed between the
contrasting cases may not be due exclusively to the dis-
tinguishing features of the cases. Thus, some caution is
necessary when explaining contrasts between cases in
terms of differences between them.

In terms of issues of reliability, validity, replicability,
and generalizability, the comparative study is no different
from the cross-sectional design. The comparative design
is essentially two or more cross-sectional studies carried
out at more or less the same point in time.

The comparative design can also be applied in relation
to a qualitative research strategy. When this occurs, it
takes the form of a multiple-case study (see Research in
focus 3.17). In recent years, a number of writers have
argued for a greater use of case study research that
entails the investigation of more than one case. Indeed,
in certain social science fi elds, like organization studies,
this has become a common research design in its own
right. Essentially, a multiple-case (or multi-case) study
occurs whenever the number of cases examined exceeds
one. The main argument in favour of the multiple-case
study is that it improves theory building. By comparing
two or more cases, the researcher is in a better position
to establish the circumstances in which a theory will or

will not hold (Eisenhardt 1989; Yin 2009). Moreover, the
comparison may itself suggest concepts that are relevant
to an emerging theory.

Related to this point is the fact that there is a growing
awareness that the case study and the multiple-case
study in particular may play a crucial role in relation to
the understanding of causality. However, this awareness
refl ects a different notion of causality from that outlined
earlier in this chapter. In the discussion of independent
and dependent variables above, the underlying percep-
tion of cause and effect is indicative of what is often re-
ferred to as a ‘successionist’ understanding of causation.
As the term ‘successionist’ implies, the idea of causality
entails an effect following on from (that is, succeeding)
an independent variable that precedes it. Critical realism
(see Key concept 2.3) operates with a different under-
standing of causation, which is to seek out generative
mechanisms that are responsible for observed regularit-
ies in the social world and how they operate in particu-
lar contexts. Case studies are perceived by writers of a
critical realist persuasion to have an important role for
research within this tradition, because the intensive
nature of most case studies enhances the researcher’s
sensitivity to the factors that lie behind the operation
of observed patterns within a specifi c context (Ackroyd
2009). The multiple-case study offers an even greater
opportunity, because the researcher will be in a position
to examine the operation of generative causal mechan-
isms in contrasting or similar contexts. Thus, Delbridge’s
(2004) ethnographic study of two ‘high-performance’
companies in south Wales was able to identify in both
fi rms patterns of resistance and independence that
persisted in spite of management efforts to intensify
work and to minimize slack in the production process.
However, the extent to which informal organization and
subversion were found to operate differed considerably
between the two fi rms, and important to this variation
was the quality of the relationships between the workers
themselves. This represents the causal mechanism pro-
ducing the variation in resistance between the two fac-
tories. The crucial contextual factor was the operation of
a blame culture in one of the fi rms (a Japanese-owned
company), whereby any mistake had to be attributed to
an individual, which had implications for the quality
of relationships among the operatives because of the
disputes and disagreements that ensued. Consequently,
through the use of a multiple-case study, Delbridge was
able to show how variation in informal organization and
resistance (an observed regularity) could be understood
through its generative causal mechanism (the quality of
worker relationships) and through the signifi cance of
context (the presence or otherwise of a blame culture).

9780199588053_C03.indd 74 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 75

However, not all writers are convinced about the
merits of multiple-case study research. Dyer and Wilkins
(1991), for example, argue that a multiple-case study
approach tends to mean that the researcher pays less
attention to the specifi c context and more to the ways
in which the cases can be contrasted. Moreover, the need
to forge comparisons tends to mean that the researcher
needs to develop an explicit focus at the outset, whereas
critics of the multiple-case study argue that it may be
advantageous to adopt a more open-ended approach
in many instances. These concerns about retaining con-
textual insight and a rather more unstructured research

Research in focus 3.17 describes one approach to se-
lecting cases for a multiple-case study. In this illustration,
cases were selected on the basis that they represented
extreme types—namely, successful and unsuccessful
fi rms, and their operation in certain commercial sectors.
Research in focus 3.18 provides another example. In this
second example, cases were selected on the basis of
quantitative indicators of economic deprivation. For ex-
ample, both the economically deprived areas in Edinburgh

approach are very much associated with the goals of the
qualitative research strategy (see Chapter 17).

The key to the comparative design is its ability to allow
the distinguishing characteristics of two or more cases
to act as a springboard for theoretical refl ections about
contrasting fi ndings. It is something of a hybrid, in that
in quantitative research it is frequently an extension of
a cross-sectional design and in qualitative research it is
frequently an extension of a case study design. It even
exhibits certain features that are similar to experiments
and quasi-experiments, which also rely on the capacity to
forge a comparison.

and Glasgow were in the top 5 per cent of deprived areas
in Scotland. With case selection approaches such as
these, the fi ndings that are common to the cases can be
just as interesting and important as th ose that differenti-
ate them. It is also worth pointing out that, although
Research in focus 3.17 and 3.18 both used a comparative
design using a multiple-case study approach, the former
employed a predominantly qualitative research strategy,
whereas the latter used a predominantly quantitative one.

Research in focus 3.17
A multiple-case study of British companies
In their study of the factors that contribute to competitive success among large British companies, Pettigrew and

Whipp (1991) adopted a multiple-case study approach. They examined eight companies, which were made up

of a successful and an unsuccessful company in each of three commercial sectors (automobile manufacturing;

merchant banking; and book publishing). An additional company drawn from life insurance was also included in

the sample. By strategically choosing companies in this way, they could establish the common and differentiating

factors that lay behind the successful management of change.

Research in focus 3.18
A multiple-case study of Scottish neighbourhoods
Atkinson and Kintrea (2001) were interested in the implications of what are known as area effects. Area effects,

as their name implies, are to do with the implications of living or working in an area for life chances and attitudes.

The issue with which these authors were concerned was to do with the implications of area effects for the

experience of poverty among those who are economically deprived. More specifi cally, is the experience of

poverty worse if one lives in a poor area than if one lives in an economically mixed area? Are those who are

economically disadvantaged more likely to experience social exclusion in one type of area rather than another

(that is, economically deprived or mixed)? The researchers selected an economically disadvantaged area and

an economically and socially mixed area in Glasgow for comparison. They selected a similar pair of areas in

Edinburgh, thus allowing a further element of comparison because of the greater buoyancy of this city compared

to Glasgow. Thus, four areas were selected altogether and samples in each were questioned using a survey

instrument. The quantitative comparisons of the data led the researchers to conclude that, by and large, it is

‘worse to be poor in a poor area than one which is socially mixed’ (Atkinson and Kintrea 2001: 2295).

9780199588053_C03.indd 75 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs76

Bringing research strategy and

research design together

Table 3.1
Research strategy and research design

Research design Research strategy

Quantitative Qualitative

Experimental Typical form. Most researchers using an
experimental design employ quantitative
comparisons between experimental and control
groups with regard to the dependent variable.

Examples. Research in focus 3.2, 3.4.

No typical form. However, Bryman (1988a: 151–2)
notes a study in which qualitative data on
schoolchildren were collected within a quasi-
experimental research design.

Cross-sectional Typical form. Survey research or structured
observation on a sample at a single point in time.
Content analysis on a sample of documents.

Typical form. Qualitative interviews or focus groups
at a single point in time. Qualitative content analysis
of a set of documents relating to a single period.

Examples. Research in focus 2.9, 3.8, 8.1, 8.4, 12.4,
13.2, 14.1.

Examples. Research in focus 2.3, 2.9, 3.9, 20.4
(see also Table 1.1); Thinking deeply 3.3.

Longitudinal Typical form. Survey research on a sample on more
than one occasion, as in panel and cohort studies.
Content analysis of documents relating to different
time periods.

Typical form. Ethnographic research over a long
period, qualitative interviewing on more than one
occasion, or qualitative content analysis of
documents relating to different time periods.

Examples. Research in focus 3.10, 3.11, 3.13. Such research warrants being dubbed longitudinal
when there is a concern to map change.

Examples. Research in focus 3.12, 17.4.

Case study Typical form. Survey research on a single case with
a view to revealing important features about its

Typical form. The intensive study by ethnography or
qualitative interviewing of a single case, which may
be an organization, life, family, or community.

Examples. The choice by Goldthorpe et al. (1968)
of Luton as a site for testing the thesis of
embourgeoisement; the study by Westergaard et al.
(1989) of the effects of redundancy at a Sheffi eld
steel plant (Research in focus 7.2).

Examples. Research in focus 2.6, 3.14, 19.1, 20.4.

Comparative Typical form. Survey research in which there is a
direct comparison between two or more cases,
as in cross-cultural research.

Typical form. Ethnographic or qualitative interview
research on two or more cases.

Examples. Research in focus 3.17, 3.18, 17.3.

Examples. Research in focus 2.4; Gallie (1978).

Finally, we can bring together the two research strategies
covered in Chapter 2 with the research designs outlined
in this chapter. Table 3.1 shows the typical form associated
with each combination of research strategy and research
design and a number of examples that either have been
encountered so far or will be covered in later chapters.
Table 3.1 refers also to research methods that will be
encountered in later chapters but that have not been
referred to so far. The Glossary will give you a quick
reference to terms used that are not yet familiar to you.

Strictly speaking, Table 3.1 should comprise a third col-
umn for mixed methods research, as an approach that
combines both quantitative and qualitative research. This
has not been done, because the resulting table would
be too complicated, since mixed methods research can
entail the combined use of different research designs (for
example, a cross-sectional design and a multiple-case
study) as well as methods. However, the quantitative and
qualitative components of some of the mixed methods
studies referred to in this book are included in the table.

9780199588053_C03.indd 76 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs 77

The distinctions are not always perfect. In particular,
in some qualitative research it is not obvious whether a
study is an example of a longitudinal design or a case
study design. Life history studies, research that concen-
trates on a specifi c issue over time (e.g. Deacon, Fenton,
and Bryman 1999), and ethnography in which the re-
searcher charts change in a single case are examples of
studies that cross the two types. Such studies are perhaps
better conceptualized as longitudinal case studies rather

than as belonging to one category of research design or
another. A further point to note is that there is no typical
form in the qualitative research strategy/experimental
research design cell. Qualitative research in the context
of true experiments is very unusual. However, as noted
in the table, Bryman (1988a) refers to a qualitative
study by Hall and Guthrie (1981), which employed a
quasi-experimental design.

Key points

● There is an important distinction between a research method and a research design.

● It is necessary to become thoroughly familiar with the meaning of the technical terms used as criteria
for evaluating research: reliability; validity; replicability; and the types of validity (measurement,
internal, external, ecological).

● It is also necessary to be familiar with the differences between the fi ve major research designs
covered: experimental; cross-sectional; longitudinal; case study; and comparative. In this context, it is
important to realize that the term ‘experiment’, which is often used somewhat loosely in everyday
speech, has a specifi c technical meaning.

● There are various potential threats to internal validity in non-experimental research.

● Although the case study is often thought to be a single type of research design, it in fact has several
forms. It is also important to be aware of the key issues concerned with the nature of case study
evidence in relation to issues like external validity (generalizability).

Questions for review

● In terms of the defi nitions used in this book, what are the chief differences between each of the
following: a research method; a research strategy; and a research design?

Criteria in social research

● What are the differences between reliability and validity and why are these important criteria for the
evaluation of social research?

● Outline the meaning of each of the following: measurement validity; internal validity; external
validity; and ecological validity.

● Why have some qualitative researchers sought to devise alternative criteria from reliability and
validity when assessing the quality of investigations?

● Why have some qualitative researchers not sought to devise alternative criteria from reliability and
validity when assessing the quality of investigations?

Research designs

● What are the main research designs that have been outlined in this chapter?

● A researcher reasons that people who read broadsheet newspapers are likely to be more
knowledgeable about personal fi nance than readers of tabloid newspapers. He interviews 100 people

9780199588053_C03.indd 77 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Research designs78

about the newspapers they read and their level of fi nancial knowledge. Sixty-fi ve people read tabloids
and thirty-fi ve read broadsheets. He fi nds that the broadsheet readers are on average considerably
more knowledgeable about personal fi nance than tabloid readers. He concludes that reading
broadsheets enhances levels of knowledge of personal fi nance. Assess his reasoning.

Experimental design

● How far do you agree with the view that the main importance of the experimental design for the
social researcher is that it represents a model of how to infer causal connections between variables?

● Following on from the previous question, if experimental design is so useful and important, why is it
not used more?

● What is a quasi-experiment?

Cross-sectional design

● In what ways does the survey exemplify the cross-sectional research design?

● Assess the degree to which the survey researcher can achieve internally valid fi ndings.

● To what extent is the survey design exclusive to quantitative research?

Longitudinal design(s)

● Why might a longitudinal research design be superior to a cross-sectional one?

● What are the main differences between panel and cohort designs in longitudinal research?

Case study design

● What is a case study?

● Is case study research exclusive to qualitative research?

● What are some of the principles by which cases might be selected?

Comparative design

● What are the chief strengths of a comparative research design?

● Why might comparative research yield important insights?

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of research
designs. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and gain further guidance
and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C03.indd 78 10/20/11 10:01 AM

Planning a research
project and
formulating research

Chapter outline

Introduction 80

Getting to know what is expected of you by your institution 80

Thinking about your research area 81

Using your supervisor 81

Managing time and resources 82

Formulating suitable research questions 85

Criteria for evaluating research questions 90

Writing your research proposal 92

Preparing for your research 92

Doing your research and analysing your results 93

Checklist 94

Key points 95

Questions for review 95


9780199588053_C04.indd 79 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions80


This chapter has been written to provide some advice for
readers who might be carrying out a research project of
your own. The chapters that follow in Parts Two, Three,
and Four of this book will then provide more detailed
information about the choices available to you and how
to implement them. But beyond this, how might you go
about conducting a small project of your own? I have in
mind here the kind of situation that is increasingly com-
mon among degree programmes in the social sciences—

the requirement to write a dissertation often of around
8,000 to 15,000 words. In particular, I have in mind the
needs of undergraduate students, but it may be that stu-
dents on postgraduate degree programmes will also fi nd
some of the observations I make helpful. Also, the advice
is really concerned with students conducting projects
with a component of empirical research in which they
collect new data or perhaps conduct a secondary analysis
of existing data.

Chapter guide

The goal of this chapter is to provide advice to students on some of the issues that they need to
consider if they have to prepare a dissertation based upon a relatively small-scale project. Increasingly,
social science students are required to produce such a dissertation as part of the requirements for
their degrees. In addition to providing help with the conduct of research, which will be the aim of the
chapters that come later in this book, more specifi c advice on tactics in carrying out and writing up social
research for a dissertation can be useful. It is against this background that this chapter has been written.
The chapter explores a wide variety of issues, such as:

• advice on timing;

• advice on generating research questions;

• advice on conducting a project;

• advice on writing a research proposal.

Getting to know what is expected of

you by your institution

Your institution or department will have specifi c require-
ments concerning a wide variety of different features
that your dissertation should comprise and a range of
other matters relating to it. These include such things as:
the form of binding; how it is to be presented; whether an
abstract is required; how big the page margins should be;
the format for referencing; number of words; perhaps
the structure of the dissertation; how much advice you
can get from your supervisor; whether or not a proposal

is required; plagiarism; deadlines; how much (if any)
fi nancial assistance you can expect; and so on.

The advice here is simple: follow the requirements,
instructions, and information you are given. If anything
in this book confl icts with your institution’s guidelines
and requirements, ignore this book! I very much hope
this is not something that will occur very much, but
if it does, keep to the guidelines your institution gives

9780199588053_C04.indd 80 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 81

The chances are that you will be asked to start thinking
about what you want to do research on well before you
are due to start work on your dissertation. It is worth
giving yourself a good deal of time. As you are doing your

various modules, begin to think about whether there are
any topics that might interest you and that might provide
you with a researchable area.

Thinking about your research area

Using your supervisor

Most institutions that require a dissertation or similar
component allocate students to supervisors. Institutions
vary quite a lot in what can be expected of supervisors; in
other words, they vary in terms of what kinds of and how
much assistance supervisors will give to students allo-
cated to them. Equally, students vary a great deal in how
frequently they see their supervisors and in their use of
them. My advice here is simple: use your supervisor to
the fullest extent that you are allowed and follow the
pointers you are given by him or her. Your supervisor will
almost certainly be someone who is well versed in the
research process and who will be able to provide you
with help and feedback at all stages of your research,
subject to your institution’s strictures in this regard. If
your supervisor is critical of your research questions,
your interview schedule, drafts of your dissertation, or
whatever, try to respond positively. Follow the sugges-
tions that he or she provides, since the criticisms will

invariably be accompanied by reasons for the criticisms
and suggestions for revision. It is not a personal attack.
Supervisors regularly have to go through the same pro-
cess themselves when they submit an article to a peer-
refereed journal or apply for a research grant or give a
conference paper. So respond to criticisms and sugges-
tions positively and be glad that you are being given the
opportunity to address defi ciencies in your work before it
is formally examined.

A further point is that students who get stuck at the
start of their dissertations or who get behind with their
work sometimes respond to the situation by avoiding
their supervisors. They then get caught up in a vicious
circle that results in their work being neglected and
perhaps rushed at the end. Try to avoid this situation by
confronting the fact that you are experiencing diffi culties
in getting going or are getting behind and seek out your
supervisor for advice.

Student experience
Using supervisors

Several students wrote about the role that their supervisors played in their research projects. Isabella Robbins

mentions that her supervisor played an important role in relation to her analysis of her qualitative data.

The emerging themes were strong and in that sense the analysis was not problematic, but I guess the problems

came in mapping the analysis onto the theory. My way of dealing with this was to talk about the analysis at

supervisions and to incorporate the ideas that came of these discussions.

Cornelius Grebe provided the following advice about relationships with supervisors:

I have learned to be very clear about my expectations of my supervisors: what kind of professional and

personal relationship I thrive in and what form of support exactly I need from them.

To read more about Isabella’s and Cornelius’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that
accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C04.indd 81 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions82

All research is constrained by time and resources. There
is no point in working on research questions and plans
that cannot be seen through because of time pressure or
because of the costs involved. Two points are relevant here.

1. Work out a timetable—preferably in conjunction with
your supervisor—detailing the different stages of
your research (including the review of the literature
and writing up). The timetable should specify the dif-
ferent stages and the calendar points at which you

should start and fi nish them. Some stages are likely
to be ongoing—for example, searching the literature
for new references (see below)—but that should not
prove an obstacle to developing a timetable. Securing
access to an organization is sometimes required for
student projects, but students typically underestimate
the time it can take to do this. For his research on com-
mercial cleaning, Ryan (2009) spent nearly two years
trying to secure access to a suitable fi rm.

Supervisor experience
How to annoy your dissertation supervisor and

cause yourself problems: fi ve easy steps
Supervisors were asked about some of the chief frustrations associated with supervising dissertation students.

There were some recurring themes in their responses. Here are some easy ways to annoy your supervisor and

create problems for yourself:

1. Don’t turn up to pre-arranged supervision meetings. Quite aside from the rudeness of doing this, a failure to

turn up begins to ring alarm bells about whether the student is veering off course.

2. Leave the bulk of the work until the last minute. Supervisors know full well that research must be paced

because it requires a great deal of forethought and because things can go wrong. The longer students leave

their dissertation work, the more diffi cult it becomes to do thorough research and to rectify problems.

3. Ignore what your supervisor advises you to do. Supervisors are extremely experienced researchers, so that

ignoring their advice is irritating and certainly not in a student’s interest.

4. Hand in shoddy drafts as late as possible. It is not your supervisor’s role to write the dissertation for you, so

you should hand in work that allows him or her to offer advice and suggestions, not a rewrite of your work.

Also, supervisors have several dissertation students as well as other often urgent commitments, so they need

to be given a reasonable amount of time to consider your work.

5. Forget what you were taught in your research methods module or your research training module. Instruction

that you will have received on how to do research was meant to help you with your future research needs;

it was not a hurdle for you to jump over and then move on.

Managing time and resources

Student experience
Managing time
One of the most diffi cult aspects of doing a research project for many students is managing their time.

Sarah Hanson was explicit on this point:

Never underestimate how long it will take you to complete a large project like a dissertation. Choose a topic

you have passion about. The more you enjoy your research the more interesting it will be to read. Be

organized: post-it notes, folders, wall planners, anything that keeps you on track from day to day will help you

not to be distracted from the purpose of your study.

9780199588053_C04.indd 82 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 83

2. Find out what, if any, resources can be put at your
disposal for carrying out your research. For example,
will you receive help from your institution with such
things as travel costs, photocopying, secretarial assis-
tance, postage, stationery, and so on? Will the institu-
tion be able to loan you hardware such as recording
equipment and transcription machines if you need to
record and transcribe your interviews? Has it got the
software you need, such as SPSS or a qualitative data
analysis package like NVivo? This kind of information
will help you to establish how far your research design
and methods are fi nancially feasible and practical. The

imaginary ‘gym study’ used in Chapter 15 is an example
of an investigation that would be feasible within the
kind of time frame usually allocated to undergraduate
and postgraduate dissertations. However, it would
require such facilities as: typing up the questionnaire,
which nowadays students can usually do for them-
selves with the help of word-processing programs;
photocopying covering letters and questionnaires;
postage for sending the questionnaires out and for
any follow-up letters to non-respondents; return post-
age for the questionnaires; and the availability of a
quantitative data analysis package like SPSS.

Both Hannah Creane and Lily Taylor felt that, unless your time is managed well, the analysis phase tends to be

squeezed—often with undesirable consequences. Indeed, it is my experience too from supervising students’

dissertations that they allow far too little time for data analysis and writing up. Here is what Hannah and Lily

respectively wrote in response to a question asking what one single bit of advice they would give to others.

Get your research done as soon as possible. The process of analysis is pretty much an ongoing one and can

take a very long time, so the sooner you have all your data compiled the better. It also means that you have

more time to make more extensive analysis rather than just noticing the surface emergent trends.

Make sure you give yourself enough time to carry out the project, don’t underestimate the amount of time

data analysis can take!

Amy Knight felt she managed her time quite well when preparing an undergraduate dissertation on gender and


Effective time management is needed when completing a large research project such as a dissertation. I spent

a lot of my summer between my second and third year collecting relevant literature and putting together draft

chapters. I would also recommend setting personal targets—for example, aiming to complete the literature

review chapter within a month of starting your third year. Setting targets worked well for me as it spread my

workload; it also meant that I could get effective feedback from my dissertation supervisor with plenty of time

to make adjustments.

Similarly, Rebeccca Barnes wrote that, if she was doing her research again:

I would also allocate more time for data analysis and writing, as largely because of the long period of time

which it took to recruit participants, these phases of my research were subject to considerable time pressures.

To read more about Sarah’s, Hannah’s, Lily’s, Amy’s, and Rebecca’s research experiences, go to the Online
Resource Centre that accompanies this book at:

Supervisor experience
Allow time to gain access and for ethical scrutiny

One area where students often fail to build in suffi cient time when conducting research projects is to do with the

tendency to underestimate how much time it can take to gain access to organizations and other settings and to

get clearance for their research through an ethics committee. Access issues are mainly covered in Chapter 19 and

ethical issues in Chapter 6. Some institutions adopt a relatively light-touch approach over ethics, provided no

obvious ethical issues are suggested by a student’s proposal. Others submit all proposals to more detailed

scrutiny. Supervisor A wrote:

9780199588053_C04.indd 83 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions84

Criminological subject matter does not lend itself easily to empirical study by dissertation: one often wishes to

study illegal and upsetting subjects that raise a range of ethical concerns (informed consent; researcher

safety; data confi dentiality; disclosure), that, combined with access diffi culties, mean resolution timescales are

often well beyond the time available to students.

It is also clear that many supervisors act as initial ethical advisers and steer students away from ethically

questionable topics or approaches. Supervisor C wrote that he intervened in students’ choice of topic and/or

research methods ‘when there is a clear possibility of ethical problems or the proposed timetable is unrealistic or

if the methods are incongruent with the research aims’.

Supervisor F wrote: ‘Topics are chosen by students—where these raise ethical or practical issues students are

encouraged to refl ect on their choices and the issues raised.’ Supervisor I took a similar view: ‘I help to steer

them away from topics where there might be problems accessing data, ensuring safety in undertaking data

collection (especially qualitative fi eldwork) or dealing with ethical issues.’ The very fact that your initial ideas

about your research may have to be reconsidered because of ethical concerns is likely to slow down your

research slightly, so it is worth giving ethical and access issues consideration very early on.

Student experience
Devising a timetable for writing up

Lily Taylor found it helpful to have a timetable of deadlines for the different sections of the report she had to


I produced a fi rst draft of my report and made sure that I got it done in plenty of time before the deadline.

I was then able to go over my work and make the necessary changes. I made sure that I had a checklist with

mini deadlines for each section. This made sure that I kept on top of my work and progressed at a steady rate.

Isabella Robbins writes that she ‘devised a writing up timetable with a plan of the thesis’. Cornelius Grebe

adopted a similar approach to his writing up. He writes: ‘I agreed submission dates for individual draft chapters

with my supervisors.’

To read more about Lily’s, Isabella’s, and Cornelius’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre
that accompanies this book at:

Student and supervisor experience
Leave enough time for analysis and writing

I have long held the view that a recurring error in students’ preparations for their dissertations is that many do

not allow suffi cient time for the analysis and writing-up stages. This tendency results in both of these stages being

rushed, when they actually require a great deal of time for refl ection and redrafting. Several of the supervisors

reported similar experiences with their students.

Supervisor C wrote that one of the most common problems encountered by dissertation students was not

allowing ‘suffi cient time for re-drafting’ and for Supervisor G it was ‘leaving the writing until the last minute’.

Several of them also commented that they encourage their students to consider issues about analysis before the

collection of the data. Supervisor D writes that a common refrain is: ‘I’ve collected all this data and I don’t know

what to do with it!’ This supervisor went on to write that he or she encourages students

9780199588053_C04.indd 84 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 85

There is a clear message in the material covered in this
section: allow suffi cient time for the various stages of
the research process. Gaining access, analysing data, and
writing up fi ndings have been particularly highlighted
as areas where students often miscalculate the amount
of time required. Another time-related issue is that it
can sometimes take a lot longer than you might think
to secure clearance from research ethics committees to
conduct your investigation. The issue of ethics is given
more detailed consideration in Chapter 6. However, one
fi nal point needs to be registered: even with a really
well-planned project, unexpected problems can throw
out your timetable. For example, McDonald, Townsend,
and Waterhouse (2009) report that for their research

they successfully negotiated access to the Australian
organizations that were involved in a number of research
projects in which they were engaged. However, changes
to personnel meant that those who had agreed to give
them access (often called ‘gatekeepers’ in the research
methods literature) left or moved on, so that the re-
searchers had to forge new relationships and effectively
had to renegotiate the terms of their investigations,
which slowed the progress of their research down con-
siderably. Such disruptions to one’s research are impos-
sible to predict. It is important not only to realize that
they can occur but also to introduce a little fl exibility
into your research timetable so that you can reduce
their impact.

to think about their analysis during or shortly after the construction of their research questions. By the time

they are thinking about research design they should have a rough idea about what their analysis will look like

(i.e. they must do as it will link their research design to their research questions).

Several of the students made similar observations about their own experiences. For example, Alice Palmer notes

of her own experience with writing:

As long as you have something written, you are on your way to improving it. I aimed to write a couple of

hundred words a day, no matter how inspired I was feeling. I wrote more if I felt it was going well, but at least

I could steadily move towards a target, which is less stressful than having no idea where you will be in a

week’s time.

Mark Girvan writes of a group project in which he was involved:

DO NOT leave things late! Our research project suffered through a lack of urgency, meaning that we did not

have as much time as we would have liked to write up our report. Too much was left to the last minute,

which meant that what we produced was not of the high quality of which we believe we were capable.

Formulating suitable research questions

Many students want to conduct research into areas that
are of personal interest to them. This is not a bad thing at
all and, as I noted in Chapter 2, many social researchers
start from this point as well (see also Lofl and and Lofl and
1995: 11–14). However, you must move on to develop
research questions. This recommendation applies to
qualitative research as well as quantitative research. As
is explained in Chapter 17, qualitative research tends to
be more open-ended than quantitative research, and in
Chapter 19 I refer to some notable studies that appear
not to have been driven by specifi c research questions.
However, very open-ended research is risky and can lead

to the collection of too much data and, when it comes to
writing up, to confusion about your focus. So, unless
your supervisor advises you to the contrary, I would defi n-
itely formulate some research questions, even if they
turn out to be somewhat less specifi c than the kinds we
often fi nd in quantitative research. In other words, what
is it about your area of interest that you want to know?

As noted in Chapter 1, research questions have many
uses and you should resist the temptation of not formu-
lating them or delaying their formulation. But do re-
member that your research questions must have a clear
social scientifi c (for example, sociological) angle.

9780199588053_C04.indd 85 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions86

Marx (1997) has suggested a wide range of possible
sources of research questions (see Thinking deeply 4.1).
As this list makes clear, research questions can derive
from a wide variety of contexts. Figure 4.1 brings out the
main steps in developing research questions. Research
questions in quantitative research are sometimes more
specifi c than in qualitative research. Indeed, some quali-
tative researchers advocate a very open approach with
no research questions. This is a very risky approach,

because it can result in collecting lots of data without
a clear sense of what to observe or what to ask your
interviewees. There is a growing tendency for qualitative
researchers to advocate a somewhat more focused
approach to their craft (e.g. Hammersley and Atkinson
1995: 24–9).

As Figure 4.1 implies, we usually start out with a gen-
eral research area that interests us. It may derive from
any of several sources:

Thinking deeply 4.1
Marx’s sources of research questions

Marx (1997) suggests the following as possible sources of research questions.

• Intellectual puzzles and contradictions.

• The existing literature.

• Replication.

• Structures and functions. For example, if you point to a structure such as a type of organization, you can ask

questions about the reasons why there are different types and the implications of the differences.

• Opposition. Marx identifi es the sensation of feeling that a certain theoretical perspective or notable piece of

work is misguided and of exploring the reasons for your opposition.

• A social problem. But remember that this is just the source of a research question; you still have to identify

social scientifi c (for example, sociological) issues in relation to a social problem.

• ‘Gaps between offi cial versions of reality and the facts on the ground’ (Marx 1997: 113). An example here is

something like Delbridge’s (1998) fascinating ethnographic account of company rhetoric about Japanized

work practices and how they operate in practice.

• The counter-intuitive. For example, when common sense seems to fl y in the face of social scientifi c truths.

• ‘Empirical examples that trigger amazement’ (Marx 1997: 114). Marx gives, as examples, deviant cases and

atypical events.

• New methods and theories. How might they be applied in new settings?

• ‘New social and technical developments and social trends’ (Marx 1997: 114).

• Personal experience.

• Sponsors and teachers. But do not expect your teachers to provide you with detailed research questions.

Student experience
Theory as an infl uence on research questions

Rebecca Barnes’s interest in feminist theories relating to patriarchy infl uenced her selection of woman-to-woman

partner abuse as a focus for her enquiries.

I became interested in the topic of woman-to-woman partner abuse as an undergraduate. My fi rst encounter

with this subject area took the form of a theoretical engagement with feminist explanations for domestic

violence—primarily emphasizing patriarchy—and the ways in which emerging knowledge about violence and

abuse in female same-sex relationships challenges this understanding. It was as a result of this fi rst encounter

that I became aware of the scarcity of research in this area, particularly in the UK, where this subject was

9780199588053_C04.indd 86 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 87

virtually uncharted territory. I was at this point interested in pursuing postgraduate study, and thus decided to

conduct my own UK-based study of woman-to-woman partner abuse for my Ph.D.

Theoretical ideas stimulated Gareth Matthews’s interest in migrant labour. In his case, it was labour process

theory that was the focus of his theoretical enquiry.

Primarily, my interest stems from a more general interest in Marxist labour process theory, which I believe to

be highly relevant to an understanding of the content of modern work-forms as well as the claims that are

made by academics about these. Since Braverman published Labour and Monopoly Capital in 1974, the labour

process debate has taken many twists and turns, and the ‘core’ elements of the theory are now somewhat

different from those expounded by Braverman. I do not seek simply to reiterate the importance of Braverman’s

formulation, but instead have attempted to explore the space between this and more modern theoretical

propositions—in the light of real and perceived changes in the world of work and workers. . . . Essentially, my

approach stems from the belief that the employment relation cannot simply be ‘read off’ from analyses of the

content of jobs, and that it must instead be examined through an analysis of forces that operate at various

levels (i.e. the workplace, the labour market, the state, etc.), and from the interaction between these forces

and employers’ necessarily contradictory aims and pressures.

To read more about Rebecca’s and Gareth’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that
accompanies this book at:

gu e .Figure 4.1
Steps in selecting research questions

Research area

Concerns about risk

Select aspect of research area

Variations in concerns about risk

Research questions

What areas of risk are of greatest concern among people? Does concern about risk varg y by age,
gender, social class, and education? Do parents tend to worry about risk more than non-parents?

What is the main source of people’s knowledge about issues relating to risk g (newspapers,
television, family)? Do concerns about risk have an impact on how people conduct their

daily lives and if so in what ways? Do worries about risk result in fatalism?

Select research questions

What areas of risk are of greatest concern among people? Does concern about risk varg y by age,
gender, social class, and education? Do parents tend to worry about risk more than non-parents?

9780199588053_C04.indd 87 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions88

• Personal interest/experience. As I pointed out in
Chapters 1 and 2, my interest in theme parks can be
traced back to a visit to Disney World in Orlando in
1991 and my interest in the representation of social
science research in the mass media to a diffi cult en-
counter with the press referred to in Chapters 1 and 2.

• Theory. Someone might be interested in testing or ex-
ploring aspects of labour process theory or in the theory
of the risk society or the implications of Actor Network
Theory for the use of technologies in everyday life.

• The research literature. Studies relating to a research
area like modern consumerism might stimulate an
interest in the nature of the shopping experience in
contemporary society. Writing about the fi eld of organ-
ization studies, Sandberg and Alvesson (2011) note
that spotting gaps in the literature is the chief way of
identifying research questions. The chief strategies for
doing this are: spotting overlooked or under-researched
areas and identifying areas of research that have not
been previously examined using a particular theory or

• Puzzles. An interesting example of this can be found
in a research article by Hodson (2004) in which he
employs data from the Workplace Ethnography Project
(see Research in focus 13.4). In this article he notes
that writings on modern work imply two rather incon-
sistent views concerning the extent to which work-
places today are a source of social fulfi lment. Some
writers construe modern workplaces as intrinsically
attractive environments to which people are drawn;
others writers view people’s commitment to social life
at the workplace as stemming from job and career

insecurities. Hodson set up these two different points
of view explicitly as essentially rival hypotheses.
Similarly, Wright et al. (2006) collected semi-structured
interview data on street robbers in the UK to shed
light on two different views of the motivation for
engaging in this crime. One view, which draws on
rational choice theory, depicts street robbery as motiv-
ated by a trade-off between the desire for fi nancial
gain against the necessity to reduce the likelihood of
detection. The other view of street robbery portrays it
as a cultural activity from which perpetrators derived
an emotional thrill and which helped to sustain a par-
ticular lifestyle.

• New developments in society. Examples might include
the rise of the Internet and the diffusion of new
models of organization—for example, call centres.

• Social problem. An example might be the impact of
asylum-seekers being viewed as a social problem by
some sectors of society. This seems to have been one of
the main factors behind the work of Lynn and Lea
(2003), who examined the discourses surrounding
the notion of the asylum-seeker in the UK (see Research
in focus 22.7).

These sources of interest are not mutually exclusive.
For example, the investigation reported in Research in
focus 2.1 was motivated by at least two of the above
sources: an interest in exploring the concept of social
capital (theory) and understanding the process of gentri-
fi cation (a new development in society).

As these types of source suggest, in research we often
start out with a general research area that interests us.
This research area has to be narrowed down so that we

Student experience
New developments in society as a spur to

research questions

Lily Taylor was interested in the role of debt on the student experience. What, in other words, is the impact of

top-up fees on students’ experiences of higher education?

Increasingly today more students are put off university because of the amount of debt most students will leave

with. Particularly with the topical debate at the time over the tuition fee system and top-up fees, I believed it

was an interesting area to look at. Students are supposed to be concerned and worried about essay deadlines

and attending lectures and seminars, yet fi nance today seems to be the main anxiety for most university


To read more about Lily’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C04.indd 88 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 89

can develop a tighter focus, out of which research ques-
tions can be developed. We can depict the process of
generating research questions as a series of steps that are
suggested in Figure 4.1. The series of stages is meant to
indicate that, when developing research questions, the
researcher is involved in a process of progressive focus-
ing down so that he or she moves from a general research
area down to specifi c research questions. In making this
movement, we have to recognize that:

• We cannot answer all the research questions that
occur to us. This is not just to do with issues of time
and the cost of doing research. It is very much to do
with the fact that we must keep a clear focus, so that
our research questions must relate to each other and
form a coherent set of issues.

• We therefore have to select from the possible research
questions that we arrive at.

Student experience
The nature of research questions

Some of the students worked with quite explicit and narrowly formulated research questions. For example,

Rebecca Barnes writes:

My research questions were: What forms and dynamics of abuse do women experience in same-sex

relationships? What opportunities and challenges do women experience with respect to seeking support for

woman-to-woman partner abuse? What impacts does being abused by a female partner have upon women’s

identities and biographies? How are women’s accounts of woman-to-woman partner abuse similar to and

different from heterosexual women’s accounts of partner abuse?

Isabella Robbins was similarly explicit about her research questions:

1. How do mothers frame their decisions regarding childhood vaccination? In particular, do they present this as

a matter of moral obligation (to their child/to the community)?

2. Do mothers consider they have a choice regarding childhood vaccination? If so, in what sense do they see this

as a choice and what, if any, constraints do they identify as they seek to exercise that choice?

3. How do women place themselves and their decisions about childhood vaccination, in terms of the discourse

of risk, responsibility, autonomy, and expertise?

4. What role do women accord to partners, mothers, siblings, and professionals in their decision-making about

childhood vaccination?

Others opted for research questions that were somewhat more general and wider in focus. Erin Sanders writes of

her research questions for her study:

What are the policy goals of women’s NGOs in Thailand? How do these goals relate to the needs of women in

the sex industry?

In a similar vein, Gareth Matthews writes:

My research questions were quite general. (i) What is the role of migrant workers in the UK’s hospitality

sector? (ii) What can this tell us about the relevance and usefulness of Marxist labour process theory?

Gareth went on to write:

These questions stem from my theoretical concerns, and a desire for the thesis to be guided by the fi ndings

and theoretical developments in relation to these fi ndings during the course of the research. I did not want to

begin with a specifi c hypothesis, and then to proceed by attempting to ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ this, but sought

instead to start with a general theoretical belief about work, and then to remain open-minded so as to allow

the direction of research to be guided by the qualitative fi ndings as they unfolded.

To read more about Rebecca’s, Isabella’s, Erin’s, and Gareth’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource
Centre that accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C04.indd 89 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions90

• In making our selection, we should be guided by the
principle that the research questions we choose should
be related to one another. If they are not, our research
will probably lack focus and we may not make as clear
a contribution to understanding as would be the case
if research questions were connected. Thus, in the
example in Figure 4.1, the research questions relating
to risk are closely connected.

In the section on ‘Criteria for evaluating research ques-
tions’ below some suggestions are presented about the
kinds of considerations that should be taken into account
when developing your own research questions.

Criteria for evaluating research


Research questions for a dissertation or project exhibit
the following characteristics.

• They should be clear, in the sense of being

• They should be researchable—that is, they should
allow you to do research in relation to them. This
means that they should not be formulated in terms
that are so abstract that they cannot be converted into
researchable terms.

• They should have some connection(s) with established
theory and research. This means that there should be a
literature on which you can draw to help illuminate
how your research questions should be approached.
Even if you fi nd a topic that has been scarcely
addressed by social scientists, it is unlikely that there
will be no relevant literature (for example, on related
or parallel topics).

• Your research questions should be linked to each
other. Unrelated research questions are unlikely to be
acceptable, since you should be developing an argu-
ment in your dissertation. You could not very readily
construct a single argument in relation to unrelated
research questions.

• They should at the very least hold out the prospect of
being able to make an original contribution—however
small—to the topic.

• The research questions should be neither too broad
(so that you would need a massive grant to study
them) nor too narrow (so that you cannot make a
reasonably signifi cant contribution to your area of

If you are stuck about how to formulate research ques-
tions (or indeed other phases of your research), it is
always a good idea to look at journal articles or research
monographs to see how other researchers have formu-
lated them. Also, look at past dissertations for ideas as
well. Marx (1997) has suggested a wide range of sources
of research questions (see Thinking deeply 4.1). What
should also become clear is that it is crucial for research
questions to be justifi ed. They should not be free fl oating.
You need to show how your research questions came
about and why they are important. Marx’s list of sources
of research questions in Thinking Deeply 4.1 is helpful,
but you have to demonstrate the link between your
research questions and those sources. As noted in the
third point in the list of bullet points that precedes this
paragraph, it is recommended that research questions
‘should have some connection(s) with established theory
and research’, but in addition to the questions having a
connection, that connection has to be demonstrated. As
an example we can examine the study from Research in
focus 1.1 (see also Table 1.1). The researchers begin by
noting the results of research showing that the British
power elite is dominated by Oxford and Cambridge
undergraduates, which leads Zimdars et al. (2009) to
propose that admissions tutors at these universities act
as gatekeepers to entry into the elite. They also note
the potential signifi cance for understanding this process
of social reproduction of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural
reproduction, which ‘seeks to explain the link between
social class of origin and social class of destination in
terms of the impact of cultural capital on educational
attainment’ (Zimdars et al. 2009: 650). In a section with
the heading ‘Research Questions’, the authors go on to
write that they ‘aim to assess whether cultural capital
is linked to success in gaining admission to Oxford
University for those who apply’ (Zimdars et al. 2009:
653). Following a set of refl ections on the issue, they
outline their fi ve research questions, which can be found
in Research in focus 1.1. Thus, the authors justify and
demonstrate the signifi cance of their research questions
through identifying a social problem and the literature
relating to it and then proposing the use of an established
theoretical perspective (Bourdieu’s theory of cultural
capital and its role in social and cultural reproduction) as
a plausible account of the process of social and cultural
reproduction. Thus, the authors take the reader through
the rationale and justifi cation for their research ques-
tions by forging several links with a social problem, the
research literature relating to it, and a theoretical

9780199588053_C04.indd 90 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 91

Supervisor experience
The problem of research questions

Several of the supervisors were contacted for their views on the experiences of students doing small projects,

dissertations, and theses. They were asked whether they felt it is important for students to formulate research

questions; all nine felt it is crucial. Some of them identifi ed problems with the identifi cation and formulation of

research questions as a diffi cult area for many students. When asked the three most common problems

encountered by dissertation students, Supervisor A replied ‘vague research questions’, while Supervisor D

presented the issue as a drama:

Me ‘What are your research questions?’

Student ‘I want to do something on [topic x]?’

Me ‘But what do you want to fi nd out?’

Student ‘[silence]’

Supervisors also came up with some helpful advice to students. Supervisor A said: ‘Draft your research questions

and tentative methods: make it [the research] realistic and doable in three months.’ Supervisor I said: ‘Keep your

research questions focused and don’t be over ambitious in terms of the scope of your study’. Supervisor H says

he encourages students ‘to return to the research questions and their proposal to see if it is still appropriate. Ask

them to think about what they are actually trying to fi nd out.’

Supervisor D also wrote about the problem that he often encounters of students choosing research methods

before formulating research questions. Similarly, Supervisor I wrote: ‘Although we teach them that they should

choose methods and methodologies on the basis of the nature of the research question, I feel some students

choose the method and then decide on the research question.’ In other words, students decide what method

they intend to use and then think about possible research questions. To some extent, this is not surprising,

because, although teachers of research methods and writers of textbooks like the present one observe that the

choice of method should be shaped by the research question(s) being asked, researchers do not always follow

this practice (Bryman 2006b).

Supervisor experience
Research questions provide guidance

Research questions can provide students with important guidance when they may have diffi culty ‘seeing the

wood for the trees’. Students sometimes feel overwhelmed by the data they have collected. Returning to the

original research questions can be instructive, as Supervisor I helpfully advises:

Students can sometimes be overwhelmed by the amount of data they have collected and experience diffi culty

organizing the fi nal dissertation. Everything seems to be relevant to them. I encourage them to answer the

research questions they set themselves at the beginning of the exercise and nothing but the research

questions. I tell them to write the key research questions (usually no more than three) on a postcard or post-it

and place it at eye level just above the computer screen.

Supervisor D advises students to consider analysis issues early and in relation to the research questions they are


I try to encourage them to think about their analysis during or shortly after the construction of their research

questions. By the time they are thinking about research design, they should have a rough idea about what

their analysis will look like (i.e. they must do, as it will link their research design to their research questions).

9780199588053_C04.indd 91 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions92

In preparation for your dissertation, you may be required
to write a short proposal or plan outlining what your
research project will be about and how you intend to
go about it. This is a useful way of preparing for your
research and it will encourage you to think about many
of the issues that are covered in the next section. In addi-
tion to outlining your proposed research design and
methods, the topic area in which your study is going to
be located, and the research questions that you intend to
address, the proposal will ask you to demonstrate some
knowledge of the literature in your chosen fi eld—for
example, by identifying several key authors or important
research studies. This information may be used as the
basis for allocating a supervisor who is knowledgeable
in your area of research interest or who has experience
with your proposed research approach. The proposal is
also a useful basis for discussion of your research project
with your supervisor, and, if it includes a timetable for
the project, this can provide a basis for planning regular
meetings with your supervisor to review your progress.
Developing a timetable can be very important in making
you think about aspects of the overall research process
such as the different stages of your research and their
timing and in giving you a series of ongoing goals to aim
for. Even if you are not required to produce a research
proposal, it is worthwhile constructing a timetable for
your research and asking your supervisor to look at it, so
that you can assess how (un)realistic your goals are and
whether you are allowing enough time for each of the
components of the research process.

When writing a research proposal, there are a number
of issues that you will probably need to cover.

• What is your research topic or, alternatively, what are
your research objectives?

• Why is your research topic (or why are those research
objectives) important?

• What is your research question or what are your
research questions?

• What does the literature have to say about your
research topic/objectives and research question(s)?

• How are you going to go about collecting data relev-
ant to your research question(s)? In other words,
what research methods are you intending to use?

• Why are the research methods/sources you have
selected the appropriate ones for your research

• What resources will you need to conduct your re-
search (for example, postage, travel costs, software)
and how will those resources be funded?

• What is your timetable for the different stages of the

• What problems do you anticipate in doing the re-
search (for example, access to organizations)?

• What are the possible ethical problems associated
with your research?

• How will you analyse your data?

Writing a proposal is therefore useful in getting you
started on your research project and encouraging you to
set realistic objectives for your research project. In some
higher education institutions, the research proposal may
form part (albeit a small one) of the overall assessment of
the dissertation or report that is produced out of the pro-
ject. While the research proposal is a working document
and the ideas that you set out in it can be refi ned and
developed as your research progresses, it is important to
bear in mind that, if you keep changing your mind about
your area of research interest and research design, you
will be using up valuable time needed to complete the
dissertation within the deadline.

Writing your research proposal

Preparing for your research

Do not begin your data collection until you have identi-
fi ed your research questions reasonably clearly. Develop
your data-collection instruments with these research
questions at the forefront of your thinking. If you do not

do this, there is the risk that your results will not allow
you to illuminate the research questions. If at all possible,
conduct a small pilot study to determine how well your
research instruments work.

9780199588053_C04.indd 92 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 93

You will also need to think about access and sampling
issues. If your research requires you to gain access to or
the cooperation of one or more closed settings like an
organization, you need to confi rm at the earliest oppor-
tunity that you have the necessary permission to conduct
your work. You also need to consider how you will go
about gaining access to people. These issues lead you
into sampling considerations, such as the following.

• Who do you need to study in order to investigate your
research questions?

• How easily can you gain access to a sampling frame?

• What kind of sampling strategy will you employ
(for example, probability sampling, quota sampling,
theoretical sampling, convenience sampling)?

• Can you justify your choice of sampling method?

Also, while preparing for your data collection, you
should consider whether there are any possible ethical
problems associated with your research methods or your
approach to contacting people (see Chapter 6).

Doing your research and analysing

your results

Since doing your research and analysing your results are
what the bulk of this book will be about, it is not neces-
sary at this stage to go into detail, but here are some
useful hints about practicalities.

• Keep good records of what you do. A research diary
can be helpful here, but there are several other things
to bear in mind. For example, if you are doing a survey
by postal questionnaire, keep good records of who
has replied, so that you know who should be sent
reminders. If participant observation is a component
of your research, remember to keep good fi eld notes
and not to rely on your memory.

• Make sure that you are th oroughly familiar with any
hardware you are using in collecting your data, such
as tape recorders for interviewing, and make sure it is
in good working order (for example, batteries that are
not fl at or close to being fl at).

• Do not wait until all your data have been collected to
begin coding. This recommendation applies to both
quantitative and qualitative research. If you are

conducting a questionnaire survey, begin coding your
data and entering them into SPSS or whatever package
you are using after you have put together a reasonably
sized batch of completed questionnaires. In the case
of qualitative data, such as interview transcripts, the
same point applies, and, indeed, it is a specifi c recom-
mendation of the proponents of grounded theory that
data collection and analysis should be intertwined.

• Remember that the transcription of recorded inter-
views takes a long time. Allow at least six hours’ tran-
scription for every one hour of recorded interview
talk, at least in the early stages of transcription.

• Become familiar with any data analysis packages as
soon as possible. This familiarity will help you to
establish whether you defi nitely need them and will
ensure that you do not need to learn everything about
them at the very time you need to use them for your

• Do not at any time take risks with your personal safety
(see Tips and skills ‘Safety in research’).

Tips and skills
Safety in research

In the middle of December 2002, a 19-year-old female student who had just started a degree course in sociology

and community studies at Manchester Metropolitan University went missing. It was believed that, in order to

complete a coursework assignment, she had gone to conduct a life history interview with a person aged over 50.

Since she was interested in the homeless, it was thought that she had gone to interview a homeless person.

Because of concerns about her safety, her tutor had advised her to take a friend and to conduct the interview in

a public place. In fact, she had not gone to conduct the interview and to everyone’s relief turned up in Dublin.

There is an important lesson in this incident. You must bear in mind that social research may on occasions place

9780199588053_C04.indd 93 10/20/11 10:03 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions94


Planning a research project

� Do you know what the requirements for your dissertation are, as set out by your university or


� Have you made contact with your supervisor?

� Have you allowed enough time for planning, doing, and writing up your research project?

� Do you have a clear timetable for your research project with clearly identifi able milestones for the

achievement of specifi c tasks?

� Have you got suffi cient fi nancial and practical resources (for example, money to enable travel to

research site, recording device) to enable you to carry out your research project?

� Have you formulated some research questions and discussed these with your supervisor?

you in potentially dangerous situations. You should avoid taking personal risks at all costs and you should resist

any attempts to place yourself in situations where personal harm is a real possibility. Just as you should ensure

that no harm comes to research participants (as prescribed in the discussion of ethical principles in Chapter 6),

individuals involved in directing others’ research should not place students and researchers in situations in which

they might come to harm. Equally, lone researchers should avoid such situations. Sometimes, as with the

interviews with the homeless, there is some possibility of being in a hazardous situation, in which case, if the

researcher feels confi dent about going ahead with the interview, he or she needs to take precautions before

going ahead with the interview. The advice given by the student’s tutor—to take someone with her and to

conduct the interview in a public place—was very sensible for a potentially dangerous interview. If you have

a mobile telephone, keep it with you and keep it switched on. Personal attack alarms may also be useful. You

should also make sure that, if your interviews or your periods of observation are part of a programme of work,

you establish a routine whereby you keep in regular contact with others. However, there are situations in which

there is no obvious reason to think that a situation may be dangerous, but where the researcher is faced with a

sudden outburst of abuse or threatening behaviour. This can arise when people react relatively unpredictably to

an interview question or to being observed. If there are signs that such behaviour is imminent (for example,

through body language), begin a withdrawal from the research situation. Further guidelines on these issues can

be found in Craig et al. (2000).

Lee (2004) draws an important distinction between two kinds of danger in fi eldwork: ambient and situational.

The former refers to situations that are avoidable and in which danger is an ingredient of the context. Fieldwork

in confl ict situations of the kind encountered by the researcher who took on the role of a bouncer (Hobbs et al.

2003) would be an example of this kind of danger. Situational danger occurs ‘when the researcher’s presence or

activities evoke aggression, hostility or violence from those within the setting’ (Lee 2004: 1285). While problems

surrounding safety may be easier to anticipate in the case of ambient danger, they are less easy to foresee in

connection with situational danger. However, that is not to say that ambient danger is entirely predictable. It was

only some time after she had begun her research in a hospital laboratory that Lankshear (2000) realized that

there was a possibility of her being exposed to dangerous pathogens.

Sources: P. Barkham and R. Jenkins, ‘Fears for Fresher who Vanished on Mission to talk to the Homeless’, The Times, 13 Dec.

2002; S. McIntyre, ‘How did Vicky Vanish?’, Daily Mail, 13 Dec. 2002; R. Jenkins, ‘Wasteland Search for Missing Student’,

The Times, 14 Dec. 2002.

9780199588053_C04.indd 94 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions 95

� Are the research questions you have identifi ed capable of being answered through your research


� Do you have the access that you require in order to carry out your research?

� Are you familiar with the data analysis software that you will be using to analyse your data?

� Have you allowed others to comment on your work so far and responded to their feedback?

� Have you checked out whether there are likely to be any ethical issues that might be raised in

connection with your research?

� Have you allowed enough time for getting clearance through an ethics committee, if that is required

for your research?

Key points

● Follow the dissertation guidelines provided by your institution.

● Thinking about your research subject can be time consuming, so allow plenty of time for this aspect
of the dissertation process.

● Use your supervisor to the fullest extent allowed and follow the advice offered by him or her.

● Plan your time carefully and be realistic about what you can achieve in the time available.

● Formulate some research questions to express what it is about your area of interest that you want to

● Writing a research proposal is a good way of getting started on your research project and encouraging
you to set realistic objectives.

● Consider access and sampling issues at an early stage and consider testing your research methods by
conducting a pilot study.

● Keep good records of what you do in your research as you go along and don’t wait until all your data
have been collected before you start coding.

Questions for review

Managing time and resources

● Why is it important to devise a timetable for your research project?

Formulating suitable research questions

● Why are research questions necessary?

● What are the main sources of research questions?

● What are the main steps involved in developing research questions?

● What criteria can be used to evaluate research questions?

Writing your research proposal

● What is the purpose of the research proposal and how can it be useful?

9780199588053_C04.indd 95 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Planning a research project and formulating research questions96

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of
planning a research project and formulating research questions. Consult web links, test yourself
using multiple choice questions, and gain further guidance and inspiration from the Student
Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C04.indd 96 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started:
reviewing the

Chapter outline

Reviewing the existing literature 98

Getting the most from your reading 98

Systematic review 102

Narrative review 110

Searching the existing literature 113

Electronic databases 113

Keywords and defi ning search parameters 118

Referencing your work 120

The role of the bibliography 123

Avoiding plagiarism 124

Checklist 127

Key points 127

Questions for review 128


9780199588053_C05.indd 97 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature98

Chapter guide

The goal of this chapter is to provide guidance for students on how to get started on their research
project. Once you have identifi ed your research questions (see Chapter 4), the next step in any research
project is to search the existing literature and write a literature review. The principal task at this early
stage involves reviewing the main ideas and research relating to your chosen area of interest. This
provides the basis for the writing of a literature review, which forms an important part of the dissertation.
This chapter will advise students on how to go about searching the literature and engaging critically with
the ideas of other writers. It will also help you to understand some of the expectations of the literature
review and give you some ideas about how to assess the quality of existing research.

Reviewing the existing literature

Why do you need to review the existing literature? The
most obvious reason is that you want to know what is
already known about your area of interest so that you do
not simply ‘reinvent the wheel’. Your literature review is
where you demonstrate that you are able to engage in
scholarly review based on your reading and understand-
ing of the work of others in the same fi eld. Beyond this,
using the existing literature on a topic is a means of
developing an argument about the signifi cance of your
research and where it leads. The simile of a story is also
sometimes used in this context (see Thinking deeply 5.1).
Whatever different understandings of the literature re-
view process you adopt, it is important to be clear about
the goal that the process is directed towards achieving.
A competent review of the literature is at least in part a
means of affi rming your credibility as someone who is
knowledgeable in your chosen area. This is not simply a
matter of reproducing the theories and opinions of other
scholars, but also being able to interpret what they have
written, possibly by using their ideas to support a particu-
lar viewpoint or argument. The purpose of exploring
the existing literature should be to identify the following

• What is already known about this area?

• What concepts and theories are relevant to this area?

• What research methods and research strategies have
been employed in studying this area?

• Are there any signifi cant controversies?

• Are there any inconsistencies in fi ndings relating to
this area?

• Are there any unanswered research questions in this

This last issue points to the possibility that you will be
able to revise and refi ne your research questions in the
process of reviewing the literature.

Getting the most from your reading

Since a great deal of time during the early stages of your
research project will be taken up with reading the exist-
ing literature in order to write your review, it is important
to make sure that the process of reading is also preparing
you for this. Getting the most out of your reading involves
developing your skills in being able to read actively and
critically. When you are reading the existing literature
try to do the following.

• Take good notes, including the details of the material
you read. It is infuriating to fi nd that you forgot to
record the volume number of an article you read and
that needs to be included in your Bibliography. This
may necessitate a trip to the library on occasions when
you are already hard pressed for time.

• Develop critical reading skills. In reviewing the litera-
ture you should do more than simply summarize what
you have read. You should, whenever appropriate, be
critical in your approach. It is worth developing these
skills and recording relevant critical points in the
course of taking notes. Developing a critical approach
is not necessarily one of simply criticizing the work of
others. It entails moving beyond mere description and

9780199588053_C05.indd 98 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 99

asking questions about the signifi cance of the work. It
entails attending to such issues as: How does the item
relate to others you have read? Are there any apparent
strengths and defi ciencies—perhaps in terms of meth-
odology or in terms of the credibility of the conclu-
sions drawn? What theoretical ideas have infl uenced
the item? What are the implications of the author’s
ideas and/or fi ndings? What was the author’s objec-
tive in conducting the research? What are the main
conclusions and are they warranted on the basis of
the data provided in the item? What are the author’s

• Your search for literature should be guided by your
research questions, but as well you should use your
review of the literature as a means of showing why
your research questions are important. For example, if
one of your arguments in arriving at your research
questions is that, although a lot of research has been
done on X (a general topic or area, such as the

secularization process, female entrepreneurship, or
employee absenteeism), little or no research has been
done on X1 (an aspect of X), the literature review
is the point where you can justify this assertion.
Alternatively, it might be that there are two competing
positions with regard to X1 and you are going to inves-
tigate which one provides a better understanding. In
the literature review, you should outline the nature
of the differences between the competing positions.
The literature review, then, allows you to locate your
own research within a tradition of research in an area.
Indeed, reading the literature is itself often an import-
ant source of research questions.

• Bear in mind that you will want to return to much
of the literature that you examine in the discussion of
your fi ndings and conclusion.

• Do not try to get everything you read into a literature
review. Trying to force everything you have read into

Tips and skills
Ways of conceptualizing a literature review
Bruce’s (1994) study of research students’ early experiences of the dissertation literature review identifi ed six

qualitatively different ways in which the review process was experienced or understood by postgraduates.

The six conceptions included:

1. List. The literature review is understood as a list comprising pertinent items representing the literature of the


2. Search. The review is a process of identifying relevant information and the focus is on fi nding or looking, which

may involve going through sources (for example, article, database) to identify information.

3. Survey. Students also see the literature review as an investigation of past and present writing or research on

a subject; this investigation may be active (critical/analytical) or passive (descriptive).

4. Vehicle. The review is also seen as having an impact on the researcher, because it is seen as a vehicle for

learning that leads to an increase in his or her knowledge and understanding. Within this conception the

review acts as a sounding board through which the student can check ideas or test personal perceptions.

5. Facilitator. The literature review can be understood as directly related to the research that is about to be or

is being undertaken, the process helping the researcher to identify a topic, support a methodology, provide

a context, or change research direction. The review thus helps to shape the course of the student’s research.

6. Report. The review is understood as a written discussion of the literature, drawing on previously conducted

investigations. The focus is on ‘framing a written discourse about the literature which may be established as

a component part of a thesis or other research report’ (Bruce 1994: 223).

These six conceptions refl ect the varying relationship between the student and the literature, the earlier ones

being more indirect—the student works with items that represent the primary literature, such as bibliographic

citations—and the latter conceptions being more direct—the student works with source material, rather than, for

example, a representative abstract. The conceptions can also be seen as cumulative, since a student who adopts

the facilitator conception may also continue to hold the conception of the literature review as a survey. Bruce

therefore recommends that students be encouraged to adopt the higher-level conceptions (3–6), because

through these the other ways of experiencing the literature review (1–3) become more meaningful.

9780199588053_C05.indd 99 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature100

your review (because of all the hard work involved in
uncovering and reading the material) is not going to
help you. The literature review must assist you in
developing an argument, and bringing in material of
dubious relevance may undermine your ability to get
your argument across.

• Bear in mind that reading the literature is not some-
thing that you should stop doing once you begin
designing your research. You should continue your
search for and reading of relevant literature more
or less throughout your research. This means that, if
you have written a literature review before beginning
your data collection, you will need to regard it as
provisional. Indeed, you may want to make quite sub-
stantial revisions of your review towards the end of
writing up your work.

• Do not just summarize all the literature you have read.
Quite aside from the fact that it is boring to read such
a summary, it does not tell the reader what you have
made of the literature and how it fi ts into your overall

research project. Try to use the literature to tell a story
about it. Some useful thoughts about how to develop
the literature in this way can be found in Thinking
deeply 5.1. The different ways of construing the litera-
ture that are presented in this box are derived from a
review of qualitative studies of organizations, but the
approaches identifi ed have a much broader applic-
ability, including quantitative research.

• The study by Holbrook et al. (2007) referred to in
Thinking deeply 5.2 contains some useful implica-
tions from a study of Ph.D. examiners’ reports for con-
ducting a literature review. One of the most central
implications of it is to emphasize the importance of
having a comprehensive coverage of the literature.
While comprehensive coverage might be an expecta-
tion for Ph.D. candidates, this may be more diffi cult to
achieve for undergraduate and postgraduate disserta-
tions. At the very least, it implies that making sure
that key references are included in the review is

Thinking deeply 5.1
Presenting literature in articles based on

qualitative research on organizations

Further useful advice on relating your own work to the literature can be gleaned from an examination of the

ways in which articles based on qualitative research on organizations are composed. In their examination of

such articles, Golden-Biddle and Locke (1993, 1997) argue that good articles in this area develop a story—that is,

a clear and compelling framework around which the writing is structured. This idea is very much in tune with

Wolcott’s (1990a: 18) recommendation to ‘determine the basic story you are going to tell’. Golden-Biddle and

Locke’s research suggests that the way the author’s position in relation to the literature is presented is an

important component of storytelling. They distinguish two processes in the ways that the literature is conveyed.

1. Constructing intertextual coherence. This refers to the way in which existing knowledge is represented and

organized; the author shows how contributions to the literature relate to each other and the research

reported. The techniques used are:

• Synthesized coherence puts together work that is generally considered unrelated; theory and research

previously regarded as unconnected are pieced together. There are two prominent forms:

i. very incompatible references (bits and pieces) are organized and brought together;

ii. connections are forged between established theories or research programmes.

• Progressive coherence portrays the building up of an area of knowledge around which there is considerable


• Non-coherence recognizes that there have been many contributions to a certain research programme, but

that there is considerable disagreement among practitioners.

Each of these strategies is designed to leave room for a contribution to be made.

2. Problematizing the situation. The literature is then subverted by locating a problem. The following techniques

were identifi ed:

9780199588053_C05.indd 100 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 101

• Incomplete. The existing literature is not fully complete; there is a gap (see also Sandberg and Alxesson 2011).

• Inadequate. The existing literature on the phenomenon of interest has overlooked ways of looking at it that

can greatly improve our understanding of it; alternative perspectives or frameworks can then be


• Incommensurate. This argues for an alternative perspective that is superior to the literature as it stands. It

differs from ‘inadequate problematization’ because it portrays the existing literature as ‘wrong, misguided,

or incorrect’ (Golden-Biddle and Locke 1997: 43).

The key point about Golden-Biddle and Locke’s account of the way the literature is construed in this fi eld is

that it is used by writers to achieve a number of things.

• They demonstrate their competence by referring to prominent writings in the fi eld (Gilbert 1977).

• They develop their version of the literature in such a way as to show and to lead up to the contribution

they will be making in the article.

• The gap or problem in the literature that is identifi ed corresponds to the research questions.

The idea of writing up one’s research as storytelling acts as a useful reminder that reviewing the literature, which

is part of the story, should link seamlessly with the rest of the article and not be considered as a separate


Thinking deeply 5.2
What do examiners look for in

a literature review?

Holbrook et al. (2007) conducted an analysis of examiners’ reports on Ph.D. theses. They analysed 1,310 reports

relating to 501 theses in Australia (a Ph.D. thesis is examined by at least two examiners). These reports are

naturally occurring documents, in that examiners have to provide these reports as part of the process of

examining a Ph.D. candidate. In the course of writing a report, examiners frequently if not invariably comment on

the literature review. While these fi ndings are obviously specifi c to a Ph.D., the features that examiners look for

are also applicable in general terms to other kinds of writing, such as an undergraduate or a postgraduate


The reports were analysed using computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software, which will be covered in

Chapter 25. The analysis of these reports suggests that comments concerning the literature review were of three

basic kinds:

1. Comments about coverage of the literature. This was by far the most common type of comment and signals

whether the candidate has covered and made sense of a broad swathe of the literature.

2. Identifi cation of errors. This type of comment relates to such things as references being omitted from the

bibliography, misreporting of references, and inconsistent presentation of referencing and quotations.

3. Comments about ‘use and application’ of the literature. Although this was the least common of the types of

comment made by examiners, it attracts the bulk of the attention of Holbrook et al. It is made up of a number

of subcategories of comment:

• the literature is used (or not used) to develop and sustain an argument;

• clear familiarity with the literature;

• the development of a critical assessment of the literature (the ability to ‘weigh up the literature and subject

it to critical appraisal, ideally to lead to a new or interesting perspective’ (Holbrook et al. 2007: 348));

• connecting the literature to fi ndings;

• demonstrating an appreciation of the disciplinary context of the literature.

9780199588053_C05.indd 101 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature102

Most literature reviews take the form of narrative re-

views (see below for more on this notion). This means
that they seek to arrive at an overview of a fi eld of study
through a reasonably comprehensive assessment and
critical reading of the literature. Such literature reviews
might occur as preludes to the presentation of some
empirical fi ndings or they might be works in their own
right (for example, a dissertation or article based entirely
on a review of the literature in an area). While such
reviews continue to be the norm for most purposes when
reviewing the existing literature in an area, there has
been growing interest in a different approach to review-
ing the literature known as systematic review, which is
the focus of the next section.

Systematic review

In recent years, considerable thought has been lavished
on the notion of systematic review (see Key concept
5.1). This is an approach to reviewing the literature that
adopts explicit procedures. It has emerged as a focus of
interest for two main reasons. One is that it is sometimes

suggested (see, e.g., Tranfi eld et al. 2003) that many
reviews of the literature tend to ‘lack thoroughness’ and
refl ect the biases of the researcher. Proponents of system-
atic review suggest that adopting explicit procedures
makes such biases less likely to surface. Second, in fi elds
like medicine, there has been a growing movement
towards evidence-based solutions to illnesses and treat-
ments. Systematic reviews of the literature are often seen
as an accompaniment to evidence-based approaches, as
their goal is to provide advice for clinicians and practitio-
ners based on all available evidence. Such reviews are
deemed to be valuable for decision-makers, particularly
in areas where there is confl icting evidence concerning
treatments (as often occurs in the case of medicine).

The systematic review approach is beginning to diffuse
into other areas, like social policy, so that policy-makers
and others can draw on reviews that summarize the bal-
ance of the evidence in certain areas of practice. Tranfi eld
and colleagues contrast systematic review with what
they describe as ‘traditional narrative reviews’ (the sub-
ject of the following section). An example of systematic
review is given in Research in focus 5.1. However,

One of the main themes running through these latter remarks is that the student does not just summarize the

literature in a routine way, simply because he or she knows that a literature review has to be undertaken. Instead,

examiners look for evidence that the candidate uses the literature—to develop an argument, to connect with

his or her fi ndings, or to develop a distinctive stance on the subject. However, undoubtedly, the thing that

disconcerts examiners most is evidence of poor coverage of the literature, as it signals a lack of engagement

with and full appreciation of the subject.

Key concept 5.1
What is a systematic review?

Systematic review has been defi ned as ‘a replicable, scientifi c and transparent process . . . that aims to minimize

bias through exhaustive literature searches of published and unpublished studies and by providing an audit trail

of the reviewer’s decisions, procedures and conclusions’ (Tranfi eld et al. 2003: 209). Such a review is often

contrasted with the traditional narrative review, which is the focus of the next section. The proponents of

systematic review are more likely to generate unbiased and comprehensive accounts of the literature, especially

in fi elds in which the aim is to understand whether a particular intervention has particular benefi ts, than those

using the traditional review, which is often depicted by them as haphazard. A systematic review that includes

only quantitative studies is a meta-analysis (see Key concept 5.2). In recent times, the development of

systematic review procedures for qualitative studies has attracted a great deal of attention, especially in the social

sciences. Meta-ethnography (see Key concept 5.3) is one such approach to the synthesis of qualitative fi ndings,

but currently there are several different methods, none of which is in widespread use (Mays et al. 2005).

9780199588053_C05.indd 102 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 103

advocates of systematic review acknowledge that, unlike
medical science, where systematic reviews are common-
place and often highly regarded, social scientifi c fi elds
are often characterized by low consensus concerning key
research questions, because of the different theoretical
approaches. Moreover, medical science is often con-
cerned with research questions to do with answers to the
question ‘What works?’ Such questions are fairly well
suited to systematic review in fi elds like social policy, but
are less often encountered in other social science fi elds
like sociology.

Nonetheless, systematic review has attracted a great
deal of attention in recent years, so it is worth exploring
some of its main steps. Accounts of the systematic review
process vary slightly, but they tend to comprise the fol-
lowing steps in roughly the following order.

1. Defi ne the purpose and scope of the review. The review
needs an explicit statement of the purpose of the
review (often in the form of a research question) so
that decisions about key issues such as what kinds of
research need to be searched for and what kinds of
samples the research should relate to can be made in
a consistent way. It is often argued that, for a system-
atic review, the researcher and his or her team should
assemble a panel to advise them on the precise for-
mulation of the research issue(s) to be examined and
also to assist with suggestions for keywords for Step 2

2. Seek out studies relevant to the scope and purpose of the
review. The reviewer should seek out studies relevant
to the research question(s). The search will be based
on keywords and terms relevant to the purpose de-
fi ned in Step 1. The search strategy must be described
in terms that allow it to be replicated. The reviewer
has to consider which kinds of publication outlets
should be incorporated. It is tempting to search for
research published only in articles in peer-reviewed
journals, because they are relatively easy to fi nd using
databases like the Social Sciences Citation Index
(SSCI, about which more will be said below) using
keywords. However, to rely solely on peer-reviewed
journal articles would imply omitting other sources
of evidence, most notably, studies reported in books,
in articles in non-peer-reviewed journals, and in what
is often referred to as ‘grey literature’ (for example,
conference papers and reports by various bodies).

3. Appraise the studies from Step 2. The reviewer might
want to restrict the review to studies published only in
a particular time period or to studies that derive from
one region or nation rather than another. Another

criterion might be the kind of research design or
research method used. In some fi elds, like medicine,
there is an unequivocal hierarchy of research ap-
proaches that are relevant to the ‘What works?’ ques-
tion. This means that only articles that entail a true
experimental design—often called randomized con-
trolled trials or RCTs—will be included, as only re-
search based on such designs generates unambiguous
fi ndings about cause and effect. However, in most of
the social sciences there is far less consensus about
what is the appropriate approach to research. Based
on the strict application of the inclusion criteria for-
mulated, the appraisal process will lead to the pro-
duction of a list of all the published outputs on which
the review will be based. Initially, searches at Step 2
will produce a vast number of possible candidates for
inclusion in the review based on the keywords and
hand searching through various possible publication
outlets. These studies will be gradually whittled down
as the research items are examined for their degree of
fi t with the research question(s) and with the qual-
ity criteria employed by the researchers. This stage
necessitates a specifi cation of quality criteria. This is
likely to entail criteria such as whether an appropri-
ate research design and research methods were used
and whether the chosen research design and research
methods were implemented according to the standards
of good research practice for those research design
and research methods. At the same time, the appro-
priateness of the study for the research question(s)
will be assessed.

4. Analyse each study and synthesize the results. A formal
protocol should be used to record features like: date
when the research was conducted; location; sample
size; data-collection methods; and the main fi ndings.
A synthesis of the results then has to be produced.
If the fi ndings of a group of studies are quantitative
in character, a meta-analysis will probably be con-
ducted. This phase will involve producing summary
statistics from the quantitative data supplied with
each study. In the case of other kinds of systematic
review, such as those based on qualitative research or
where there is a combination of both quantitative and
qualitative studies, the results will often be presented
in a report in the form of summary tables and a narra-
tive that brings together the key fi ndings. Denyer and
Tranfi eld (2009) propose that the review document
should be structured much like a research report in
which the purpose of the review, its methods, its fi nd-
ings, the discussion of the fi ndings, and a conclusion
are clearly specifi ed.

9780199588053_C05.indd 103 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature104

Research in focus 5.1
Healthy eating among young people

Shepherd et al. (2006) have published an account of the procedures they used to examine the barriers to healthy

eating among young people aged 11–16 years and the factors that facilitate healthy eating. In Table 5.1 I have

outlined the chief steps in doing a systematic review, as outlined in the main text, and the corresponding

procedures and practices in the review by Shepherd et al. These authors used methods for systematic review that

have been developed by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Coordinating Centre (EPPI) at the

Institute of Education, University of London. The EPPI has a very comprehensive website that details its approach

and its main methods and provides full reports of many of the systematic reviews its members have conducted

( (accessed 2 August 2010)).

One of the features that is especially noteworthy concerning the summary in Table 5.1 is that intervention

studies (for example, training parents in nutrition and evaluating the outcomes of such an intervention) and

non-intervention studies (for example, a cohort or an interview study) were separated out for the purposes of

presenting a summary account of the fi ndings and appraising the quality of the studies, although a fi nal matrix

was formed that synthesized the key elements across both types of study. Assessing the quality of studies is

an important component of a systematic review, so that only reliable evidence forms the basis for such things

as policy changes. Different quality criteria were employed for the two types of study. In the case of the

non-intervention studies, the following seven criteria were used:

(i) an explicit theoretical framework and/or literature review;

(ii) clear statement of aims and objectives of the research;

(iii) clear account of the context within which the research was conducted;

(iv) clear account of the nature of the sample and how it was formed;

(v) clear description of methods of data collection and analysis;

(vi) ‘analysis of the data by more than one researcher’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 242); and

(vii) whether suffi cient information was provided to allow the reader to see how the conclusions were derived

from the data.

The application of the corresponding criteria for the intervention studies resulted in just 7 of the studies being

viewed as methodologically sound. None of the 8 non-intervention studies were methodologically sound in

terms of all seven of the above appraisal criteria, although 4 met six of the seven criteria and a further 2 met fi ve

of the seven criteria. Of the 8 non-intervention studies, 5 used a self-completion questionnaire to generate data,

2 used focus groups, and 1 used interviews. Thus, the category ‘non-intervention study’ includes research

methods associated with both quantitative and qualitative research. It is quite common for systematic reviews to

end up being based on quite small numbers of studies, because the explicit criteria for inclusion coupled with

the quality criteria represent standards that very few investigations can meet. When presenting their synthesis of

their review fi ndings, the authors separated the fi ndings of the 7 methodologically sound intervention studies

from those pertaining to the 15 other intervention studies. Regarding the fi ndings of the non-intervention studies,

the authors report that several barriers to and facilitators of healthy eating were identifi ed. For example, they

write: ‘Facilitating factors included information about nutritional content of foods/better labeling, parents and

family members being supportive; healthy eating to improve or maintain one’s personal appearance, will-power

and better availability/lower pricing of healthy snacks’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 255). The authors linked such

fi ndings with intervention studies arguing that ‘juxtaposing barriers and facilitators alongside effectiveness

studies allowed us to examine the extent to which the needs of young people had been adequately addressed by

evaluated interventions’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 255).

9780199588053_C05.indd 104 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 105

Tranfi eld et al. (2003) suggest that the systematic
review process provides a more reliable foundation on
which to design research, because it is based on a more
comprehensive understanding of what we know about a
subject. It is therefore likely to be relevant to researchers
as a way of summarizing fi ndings, so that it is not
just practitioners who benefi t from systematic reviews.
Proponents of systematic review also recommend the
approach for its transparency; in other words, the
grounds on which studies were selected and how they
were analysed are clearly articulated and are potentially
replicable. It has sometimes been suggested that not
all areas of literature lend themselves to a systematic
review approach, because they are not always concerned

with research questions to do with exploring whether
a certain independent variable has certain kinds of
effects. Meta-analysis of quantitative studies requires
this kind of research question, but qualitative studies and
indeed some sorts of quantitative investigation are not
necessarily in this format. This impression may have
been created because many early systematic reviews
were of the ‘what works?’ or ‘does X work?’ kind, where
the literature relating to various kinds of intervention
would be appraised and reviewed. In more recent years,
a wider range of research questions have come within
the purview of systematic review, as it has begun to
include both qualitative studies and quantitative non-
intervention studies.

Table 5.1
Steps in systematic review in connection with a systematic review of barriers to,

and facilitators of, healthy eating among young people (Shepherd et al. 2006)

Steps in systematic review Corresponding practices in Shepherd et al. (2006)

1. Defi ne the purpose and
scope of the review

A. Review question: ‘What is known about the barriers to, and facilitators of, healthy eating
among young people?’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 243).

2. Seek out studies relevant
to the scope and purpose of
the review

B. The authors employed a combination of terms to do with healthy eating (e.g. nutrition) and
terms to do with health promotion or with the causes of health or ill-health (e.g. at-risk-
populations) and with terms indicative of young people (e.g. teenager). In addition to being
about ‘the barriers to, and facilitators of, healthy eating among young people’, the review had
to be: either an outcome evaluation (usually to evaluate the outcome of an intervention) or
a non-intervention study (e.g. an interview study) in the UK, in English. Further, guidelines
were formulated separately for these two types of study. In the case of non-intervention studies,
it had to: be about attitudes, views, experiences, etc. of healthy eating; provide insights into
respondents’ own defi nitions of healthy eating and factors affecting it; and ‘privilege young
people’s views’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 241). Several online bibliographical databases were
searched (including SSCI and PsycINFO). Lists of references and other sources were also searched.
An initial 7,048 references were gradually trimmed to 135 reports (relating to 116 studies). Of the
116 studies, 75 were intervention studies, 32 were non-intervention studies, and 9 were prior
systematic reviews. Application of the full set of inclusion criteria resulted in just 22 outcome
evaluations and 8 non-intervention studies meeting the criteria for what the authors refer to as
‘in-depth systematic review’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 242).

3. Appraise the studies from
Step 2

C. ‘Data for each study were entered independently by two researchers into a specialized
computer database’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 241). In doing so, the reviewers sought to summarize
the fi ndings from each study and appraise its methodological quality. Separate quality criteria
were employed for intervention and non-intervention studies. The application of eight criteria for
the intervention studies resulted in just 7 being regarded as ‘methodologically sound’ and the
results of just these 7 studies are the focus of the authors’ summary.

4. Analyse each study and
synthesize the results

D. Separate syntheses were conducted for the two types of study and a third synthesis for the
intervention and non-intervention studies jointly. The authors write of this third synthesis: ‘a
matrix was constructed which laid out the barriers and facilitators identifi ed by young people [in
the non-intervention studies] alongside descriptions of the interventions included in the in-depth
systematic review of outcome evaluations. The matrix was stratifi ed by four analytical themes to
characterize the levels at which the barriers and facilitators appeared to be operating: the school,
family and friends, the self and practical and material resources’ (Shepherd et al. 2006: 241). In
forming the matrix, one column summarized barriers and facilitators identifi ed in the non-
intervention studies and there were further separate columns for the 7 ‘soundly evaluated
interventions’ and the 15 ‘other evaluated interventions’.

9780199588053_C05.indd 105 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature106

Key concept 5.2
What is meta-analysis?

Meta-analysis involves summarizing the results of a large number of quantitative studies and conducting various

analytical tests to show whether or not a particular variable has an effect. This provides a means whereby the

results of large numbers of quantitative studies of a particular topic can be summarized and compared. The aim

of this approach is to establish whether or not a particular variable has a certain effect by comparing the results

of different studies. Meta-analysis thus involves pooling the results from various studies in order to estimate

an overall effect by correcting the various sampling and non-sampling errors that may arise in relation to

a particular study. In a sen se, a meta-analysis lies between two kinds of activity covered in this book: doing

a literature review of existing studies in an area in which you are interested (the focus of this chapter), and

conducting a secondary analysis of other researchers’ data (see the section on ‘Other researchers’ data’ in

Chapter 14). However, the technique relies on all the relevant information being available for each of the studies

examined. Since not all the same information relating to methods of study and sample size is included in

published papers, meta-analysis is not always feasible. Meta-analysis is vulnerable to what is known as the ‘fi le

drawer problem’. This occurs when a researcher conducts a study, fi nds that the independent variable does not

have the intended effect, but has diffi culty publishing his or her fi ndings. As a result, it is often suggested that the

fi ndings are simply fi led away in a drawer. If the fi le drawer problem has occurred in a fi eld of research, the

fi ndings of a meta-analysis will be biased in favour of the independent variable being found to have a certain

effect, as some of the fi ndings that contradict that effect will not be in the public domain.

Research in focus 5.2
A meta-analysis of the impact of leadership


A meta-analysis conducted by Avolio et al. (2009) sought to examine the research question: ‘do leadership

interventions have the intended impact and if so to what degree?’ This is a signifi cant question, given the

attention that is often lavished on the concept of leadership and the amounts of money spent on training

leaders to exhibit certain kinds of behaviour. Avolio et al. wanted to include in their review all experimental and

quasi-experimental studies of leadership interventions. This meant that all cross-sectional design studies that

addressed leadership and leadership interventions did not qualify, as they do not involve an intervention in which

there is a manipulation of the independent variable. The authors’ search for a comprehensive set of studies

involved the following procedures:

1. Searching eighteen electronic databases using 124 keywords and phrases.

2. An examination of the bibliographies of all studies produced through the electronic database searchers and

an examination of the bibliographies of previous meta-analyses in the fi eld.

3. Emails to 670 leadership researchers asking them to review a proposed list of studies.

4. A manual search of leadership handbooks and other books.

This search process yielded over 500 studies, which were gradually trimmed down to 200 studies that met the

authors’ criteria. The main reason for exclusion was that the research was not an intervention study. Interestingly,

of the 200 studies, 16 per cent were unpublished, suggesting that meta-analyses and other kinds of review that

are based exclusively on published research may be missing a signifi cant number of studies, and this may be a

source of bias. The research by Howell and Frost (1989) that is referred to in Research in Focus 3.4 is one of the

200 included studies. The authors found a strong relationship between leadership interventions and various kinds

of outcomes (such as task performance, as in Research in focus 3.4). In other words, leadership interventions do

have a signifi cant impact on various kinds of dependent variable.

9780199588053_C05.indd 106 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 107

Key concept 5.3
What is meta-ethnography?

Meta-ethnography is a method that is used to achieve interpretative synthesis of qualitative research and other

secondary sources, thus providing a counterpart to meta-analysis in quantitative research (Noblit and Hare 1988).

It can be used to synthesize and analyse information about a phenomenon that has been extensively studied,

such as lay experiences of diabetes (see Research in focus 5.3). However, this is where the similarity ends,

because meta-ethnography ‘refers not to developing overarching generalizations but, rather, translations of

qualitative studies into one another’ (Noblit and Hare 1988: 25). Noblit and Hare base their approach on the

idea that all social science explanation is comparative, involving the researcher in a process of translating

existing studies into his or her own worldview, and through this he or she creates a reading of other people’s

readings about a subject. Meta-ethnography involves a series of seven phases that overlap and repeat as the

synthesis progresses.

1. Getting started. This involves the researcher in identifying an intellectual interest that the qualitative research

might inform by reading interpretative accounts.

2. Deciding what is relevant to the initial interest. Unlike positivists, interpretative researchers are not concerned

with developing an exhaustive list of studies that might be included in the review. Instead the primary intent

is to determine what accounts are likely to be credible and interesting to the intended audience for the synthesis.

3. Reading the studies. This involves the detailed, repeated reading of the studies, rather than moving to analysis

of their characteristics.

4. Determining how the studies are related. This stage entails ‘putting together’ the various studies by

determining the relationships between them and the metaphors used within them.

5. Translating the studies into one another. This phase is concerned with interpreting the meaning of studies in

relation to each other: are they directly comparable or ‘reciprocal’ translations (so that the concepts used by

each study are translated one-by-one into concepts used by the others); do they stand in opposition to each

other as ‘refutational’ translations; or do they, taken together, represent a line of argument that is neither

‘reciprocal’ nor ‘refutational’?

6. Synthesizing translations. The researcher compares the different translations and shows how they relate to

each other. This may involve grouping them into different types.

7. Expressing the synthesis. This involves translating the synthesis into a form that can be comprehended by the

audience for which it is intended.

Crucial to understanding this approach is that the synthesis is focused primarily on the interpretations and

explanations offered by studies that are included, rather than on the data that these studies are based on.

Meta-ethnography thus translates the interpretations of one study into the interpretations of another one.

Research in focus 5.3
A meta-ethnography of lay experiences

of diabetes

Campbell et al. (2003) report their approach to conducting a meta-ethnography of studies within the medical

sociology fi eld of lay experiences of diabetes and diabetes care. A search came up with ten articles based on

qualitative research that addressed this area. Three were excluded for quite different reasons: one turned out

not to be based on qualitative research; the evidence in another was appraised as being too weak to warrant

inclusion; and the fi ndings of the third paper turned out to be in one of the seven papers that would be included.

The seven papers could be grouped into three ‘clusters’: response to diabetes and treatment; how patients and

9780199588053_C05.indd 107 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature108

However, one of the limitations of systematic review
stems from situations where research questions are not
capable of being defi ned in terms of the effect of a par-
ticular variable, or when the subject boundaries are more
fl uid and open or subject to change. This is often the case
in many areas of social research. Another criticism of the
approach is that it can lead to a bureaucratization of the
process of reviewing the literature, because it is more
concerned with the technical aspects of how it is done
than with the analytical interpretations generated by it.
A third potential limitation of the approach relates to its
application to qualitative research studies and in particular
to the methodological judgements that inform decisions
about quality and so determine the inclusion or exclusion

of an article from a literature review. These stem from
differences between qualitative and quantitative re-
search in relation to the criteria used to assess their
methodological quality (see Chapters 7 and 17). The sys-
tematic approach assumes that an objective judgement
about the quality of an article can be made. Particularly
in relation to qualitative research, there is little consen-
sus on how the quality of studies should be carried out,
an issue that will be returned to in Chapter 17. Moreover,
some researchers would say that they measure the
quality of published research in terms of what they fi nd
interesting—this may or may not include empirical study,
but such a view is not compatible with the systematic
approach, which requires articles to be evaluated in terms

practitioners differ in perceptions of the disease; and the connections between beliefs about the causes of

diabetes and how they managed the disease. One of the themes to emerge among the four articles in the fi rst of

these three clusters was the link between control and ‘strategic cheating’. Campbell et al. note that one study

noted the signifi cance of people’s sense of control of the disease, which they accomplished through managing it

strategically. Such people are referred to as ‘copers’. Another study made a similar point between those who felt

they were in control of their diet and those described as ‘buffeted’ by it. Their stance on this issue affected their

perception of diabetes, with the former group having a less negative image of it. Some people were able to

manage their diet strategically in a fl exible way, which was sometimes perceived as ‘cheating without guilt’.

These refl ections were then linked to fi ndings across the two other studies in this group. The authors write:

Looking across these four studies it would seem that strategic cheating, departing from medical advice in

a thoughtful and intelligent way, in order to achieve a balance between the demands of diabetes and the way

the person wants to live their life, was associated with a feeling of confi dence, less guilt, acceptance of the

diabetes and improved glucose levels. (Campbell et al. 2003: 678)

In addition, six concepts were found from the seven studies to be signifi cant for the diabetes sufferers in terms of

helping them to achieve a balance between controlling the disease and also having some control over their

lives—for example, the need to adopt a less subservient approach to medical practitioners. Interestingly, the

authors were able to derive insights from their meta-ethnography that were not present in any of the articles.

Tips and skills
Using systematic review in a student

research project

The systematic review approach does contain some elements that cannot easily be applied in a student research

project because of limitations of time and resources. For example, you are unlikely to be able to assemble a panel

of experts in methodology and theory to meet you regularly and discuss the boundaries of the review. However,

there are some aspects of the approach that can be applied to students’ research. For example, meeting your

supervisor regularly during the planning stage of your literature review to defi ne the boundaries of the subject

and to come up with likely search terms is extremely useful. Your supervisor’s knowledge of the subject can be

invaluable at this stage. Also, a systematic review approach to the literature requires a transparent way of

searching for and examining the literature as well as keeping records of what you have done. These practices

are feasible for a student research project.

9780199588053_C05.indd 108 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 109

of methodological criteria. In addition, researchers in the
medical sciences have found that the process of identify-
ing relevant qualitative studies is more time consuming
and cannot be done on the basis of the abstract or sum-
mary in the way that quantitative research studies can
(M. L. Jones 2004). Finally, whether or not the system-
atic review approach makes sense to you depends some-
what on your epistemological position (see Chapter 2).
As Noblit and Hare (1988: 15) state: ‘Positivists have had
more interest in knowledge synthesis than interpretivists.

For them, knowledge accumulates. The problem has
been how best to accomplish that accumulation.’ For
these reasons, researchers who adopt an interpretative
approach to understanding the social sciences and use
qualitative methods may fi nd the systematic review
approach more problematic. Similar concerns have been
expressed by educational researchers about the suitabil-
ity of systematic review in an area of study that is quite
different from the medical fi eld where it was developed
(see Thinking deeply 5.3).

Thinking deeply 5.3
Debates about the role of systematic review in

education research

Debates about the role of systematic review in education research are of potential relevance to social policy

researchers because of the similarities shared between these two applied fi elds of study. Both education and

social policy research draw on a range of social science disciplines, involve the study of practitioners, and are

sometimes criticized for not focusing suffi ciently on the concerns of practitioners and policy-makers. Evans and

Benefi eld (2001) have argued that the medical model of systematic review can be adapted for application in

education research. This would enable researchers to ‘say something more precise and targeted’ about the

effectiveness of specifi c interventions, or in other words to provide evidence about ‘what works’ (Evans and

Benefi eld 2001: 538). Systematic reviews would thus help to make research evidence more usable.

However, Hammersley (2001) criticizes the assumption in systematic review about the superiority of the positivist

model of research, which is expressed through the methodological criteria applied in evaluating the validity of

studies (experiments being more highly valued), and through the explicit procedures used to produce reviews

that are intended to be ‘objective’. This ‘takes little or no account of the considerable amount of criticism that has

been made of that model since at least the middle of the twentieth century’ (Hammersley 2001: 545). Moreover,

Hammersley suggests that the dichotomy portrayed between rational rule-following systematic review and

irrational judgement narrative review is overstated, because even the simplest rule-following involves an element

of interpretation. He concludes:

What all this means, I suggest, is that producing a review of the literature is a distinctive task in its own right.

It is not a matter of ‘synthesising data’; or, at least, there is no reason why we should assume that reviewing

must take this form. Rather, it can involve judging the validity of the fi ndings and conclusions of particular

studies, and thinking about how these relate to one another, and how their interrelations can be used to

illuminate the fi eld under investigation. This will require the reviewer to draw on his or her tacit knowledge,

derived from experience, and to think about the substantive and methodological issues, not just to apply

replicable procedures. (Hammersley 2001: 549)

Pearson and Coomber (2009) provide some evidence that supports Hammersley’s contention that systematic

review necessarily entails an element of interpretation. They report the results of a participant observation study

of a systematic review process. The domain with which the reviewers were concerned was the development of

guidance in connection with substance misuse. Pearson and Coomber found that the reviewers prioritized

internal validity over external validity considerations in selecting studies for inclusion. Also, the reviewers elected

to play down the signifi cance of one kind of intervention—life skills training—because a report was made

available to them that provided a strong critique of it. However, Pearson and Coomber note that an examination

of the summaries of research on life skills training generated by the reviewers suggests there was a good case for

including it in the guidance on treatment. Thus, a report that had not been selected through the systematic

review process seems to have been instrumental in the lack of attention given to life skills training, implying

a degree of subjectivity to the review process.

9780199588053_C05.indd 109 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature110

Narrative review

Rather than reviewing the literature to fi nd out what
their research project can add to existing knowledge
about a subject, interpretative researchers (see Chapter 2
for an explanation of interpretivism) can have quite dif-
ferent reasons for reviewing the literature on a particular
subject, since their purpose is to enrich human discourse
(Geertz 1973a) by generating understanding rather than
by accumulating knowledge. The literature review is for

them a means of gaining an initial impression of the topic
area that they intend to understand through their re-
search. The process of reviewing the literature is thus a
more uncertain process of discovery, in that you might
not always know in advance where it will take you!
Narrative reviews therefore tend to be less focused and
more wide-ranging in scope than systematic reviews.
They are also invariably less explicit about the criteria for
exclusion or inclusion of studies. An example of a narra-
tive review is given in Research in focus 5.4.

MacLure (2005: 409) suggests that the prioritization of systematic review in education research is worrying

because ‘it is hostile to anything that cannot be seen, and therefore controlled, counted and quality assured’;

it thus degrades the status of reading, writing, thinking, and interpreting as activities that are crucial to the

development of analysis and argument. Although systematic review has so far not been as widely adopted in

social research, the concerns expressed by education researchers are of potential relevance, particularly to

qualitative researchers. However, one of the most interesting aspects of Hammersley’s (2001) critique is that he

implies that systematic review is inconsistent with its own principles in that there appears to be no or very little

evidence that systematic reviews lead to better evidence (and therefore presumably to better evidence-based


Research in focus 5.4
A narrative review of qualitative research

on leadership

Some years ago, I conducted a literature review of qualitative research that had been undertaken on leadership

(Bryman 2004b). Leadership research is a fi eld that has been dominated over the years by quantitative

investigations, so it struck me as potentially interesting to examine the growing number of qualitative studies that

were appearing. I decided to examine articles that had appeared in journals that publish only articles that have

been reviewed by peers. There were two main reasons for this: peer-reviewed articles can be searched relatively

easily through online databases like the SSCI, and peer review offers an element of quality control, since only

articles that have gone through the process of peer review are accepted for publication. Peer review weeds out

articles that are not of suffi cient quality for a journal either by rejecting them outright or by insisting that authors

implement substantial revisions in response to referees’ concerns. In addition, I included in my review articles

that I already knew and I hand searched The Leadership Quarterly, one of the main outlets for research articles.

I also examined the bibliographies of some articles for further candidates for inclusion. This general area was of

interest to me as I have long been interested in both qualitative research and the fi eld of leadership. I did not

have a specifi c focus to my review, although I was interested in general terms in the question of how similar

qualitative research was to the quantitative research that dominated the fi eld of leadership.

I presented my main fi ndings in a table that outlined: the year of publication; the sector in which the research

was conducted; the research design; the research methods used; the nature of the key fi ndings; and the kinds of

leadership style and leader behaviour that were emphasized in each study. In the subtitle of my article, I called

it a ‘critical but appreciative review’. It was critical in that it pointed to some overall defi ciencies in qualitative

research on leadership but it was also appreciative, because I pointed to some of the distinctive contributions

that qualitative research has made to the fi eld. The chief fl aw with my review is that, by focusing on published

research, my conclusions may have been infl uenced by the fi le drawer problem.

9780199588053_C05.indd 110 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 111

If your approach to the relationship between theory
and research is inductive rather than deductive (see
Chapter 2), setting out all the main theoretical and con-
ceptual terms that defi ne your area of study prior to data
collection is extremely problematic, because theory is
the outcome of the study, rather than the basis for it.
Hence, in the process of researching a topic, researchers
may discover issues that they did not previously antici-
pate as likely to be important to their area of study. As a
result, they become aware of the limitations of the topic
area that they originally intended to inform, and this can
lead them towards an unanticipated understanding of it
(Noblit and Hare 1988). Interpretative researchers are
thus more likely than deductive researchers to change
their view of the theory or literature as a result of the
analysis of collected data and so they require greater fl ex-
ibility to modify the boundaries of their subject of study
as they go along. This means that narrative review may
be more suitable for qualitative researchers whose research
strategy is based on an interpretative epistemology, and
for them systematic review should not be automatically
accepted as a better way of dealing with the literature.

Most reviews are of the narrative kind, regardless
of whether they are meant to be springboards for the
reviewer’s own investigation (for example, when the
literature is reviewed as a means of specifying what is
already known in connection with a research topic, so
that research questions can be identifi ed that the re-
viewer will then examine) or are ends in their own right
(as a means of summarizing what is known in an area).
When we examine some examples of writing up research
in Chapter 29, we will see that the literature relevant to
the researcher’s area of interest is always reviewed as a
means of establishing why the researcher conducted the
research and what its contribution is likely to be. Such
reviews are still mainly narrative reviews. Compared to
systematic reviews, narrative reviews can appear rather
haphazard (thus making them diffi cult to reproduce), of
questionable comprehensiveness, and lacking in discrim-
ination in terms of the kind of evidence used, though
such a view is by no means always held (see Thinking
deeply 5.3). It may be that this accounts for the growing
incorporation of procedures associated with systematic
reviews into narrative reviews (see Thinking deeply 5.4).

Thinking deeply 5.4
Incorporating systematic review practices into

narrative reviews

It is always risky to speculate, but I have a hunch that some narrative reviews will incorporate some of the

practices associated with systematic review. Even though some writers like those mentioned in Thinking deeply

5.3 object to systematic review for its tendency towards a mechanical approach to reviewing the literature,

it could be that some reviewers will be attracted to its emphasis on such features as transparency about

how searches were conducted and/or comprehensiveness in the literature search. This is especially likely to

be the case when reviewers work on their own, as systematic review requires more than one person to assist

in such steps as: the formulation of research questions, the selection of keywords, and the assessment of


I tried to incorporate some systematic review practices into a narrative literature review I carried out on

leadership effectiveness at departmental level in higher education (Bryman 2007c). The systematic review

practices were apparent in:

• use of an explicit research question to guide the review. The question was: ‘’What styles of or approaches to

leadership are associated with effective leadership in higher education?’ (Bryman 2007c: 693).

• the specifi cation of the literature search procedures so that they were reproducible, the combination of key

terms for searching for the literature in more than one online database (SSCI, Educational Resources

Information Center, Google Scholar, and others) and hand searching through the bibliographies of numerous

key articles. The terms used were: leader* or manage* or administrat* plus higher education* or university*

or academic plus effective* (the asterisks are ‘wild cards’ so that ‘leader*’ will pick up ‘leader’, ‘leaders’,

‘leading’, and ‘leadership’).

9780199588053_C05.indd 111 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature112

• the use of quality appraisal criteria to decide which articles should be within the review’s scope. The quality

appraisal criteria were: ‘the aims of the research were clearly stated; they made clear the ways in which data

were collected (sampling, research instruments used, how data were analysed), did so in a systematic way,

and indicated how the methods were related to the aims; provided suffi cient data to support interpretations;

and outlined the method of analysis’ (Bryman 2007c: 695). From many hundreds of ‘hits’, only twenty articles

both related to the research question and met the appraisal criteria.

• the display of the leadership styles associated with leadership effectiveness in a table with an indication of

which articles they had been identifi ed in.

This review did not conform to systematic review procedures in several ways, such as the fact that the literature

reviewed comprised almost exclusively peer-reviewed articles in academic journals, so that ‘grey literature’ was

not included, as it was in the meta-analysis reported in Research in focus 5.2. The vast majority of articles found

in the searches were not included in the review because they did not relate to the research question rather than

because they failed to meet the quality criteria. This was probably because most of the articles identifi ed through

the online bibliographic and hand searches were articles published in journals that peer-review articles prior to

publication, so that these studies had already gone through a quality appraisal process.

Tips and skills
Reasons for writing a literature review

The following is a list of reasons for writing a literature review.

• You need to know what is already known in connection with your research area, because you do not want to

be accused of reinventing the wheel.

• You can learn from other researchers’ mistakes and avoid making the same ones.

• You can learn about different theoretical and methodological approaches to your research area.

• It may help you to develop an analytic framework.

• It may lead you to consider the inclusion of variables in your research that you might not otherwise have

thought about.

• It may suggest further research questions for you.

• It will help with the interpretation of your fi ndings.

• It gives you some pegs on which to hang your fi ndings.

• It is expected!

Student experience
Importance of doing a literature review

Lily Taylor does not appear to need convincing about the necessity of doing a literature review. As she notes:

Looking at signifi cant work that related to mine was good in the sense that it enabled me to look at the use of

methodology and access key concepts and characteristics of the work.

For several of the students, the literature in their chosen area had an infl uence on their research questions.

For example, Alice Palmer writes about her dissertation research on the changing role of the modern housewife:

9780199588053_C05.indd 112 10/20/11 10:04 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 113

Usually, students will have in mind a few initial refer-
ences when they begin on a project. These will probably
come from recommended reading in course modules,
or from textbooks. The bibliographies provided at the
end of textbook chapters or articles will usually provide
you with a raft of further relevant references that can
also be followed up. A literature search relies on care-
ful reading of books, journals, and reports in the fi rst
instance. After identifying a few keywords that help to
defi ne the boundaries of your chosen area of research
(see below), electronic databases of published litera-
ture can be searched for previously published work in
the fi eld.

Electronic databases

Online bibliographical databases accessible on the
Internet are an invaluable source of journal references.
An increasing number of these will also provide access
to the full text of an article in electronic format—these
are usually referred to as e-journals. You will need to
fi nd out whether your institution can give you a user
name and password to gain access to these databases,
so look on your library’s homepage, or ask a member of
library staff.

Probably the single most useful source for the social
sciences is the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI),
which fully indexes over 1,700 major social science jour-
nals covering all social science disciplines dating back
to 1970. To gain access to this website, most UK users
will need an Athens username and password. It can be

accessed from the ISI Web of Knowledge (WoK) home
page at the following address: (accessed 3 August 2010).

The Citation indexes collectively are also known as Web
of Science.

The SSCI database provides references and abstracts,
and some libraries add full-text links for articles from
some of the most important social science journals pub-
lished worldwide. It is therefore very useful as an initial
source in your literature search, because, if you search
the database effectively, you can be relatively confi dent
that you have covered the majority of recent academic
journals that may have published articles on your topic
of interest. Here are some introductory guidelines for
searching SSCI.

• Select the ISI Web of Knowledge Service.

• Select the Web of Science tab

• Choose Social Science Citation Index by unticking the
other indexes below Citation Databases:

• You can then search by Topic and/or by Author by
entering the appropriate terms or names into the
appropriate boxes below Search for:

• Click on Search. Note that the default is to search
1970 to the current date; you can change this by using
the pull down menus below Timespan:

A feature of SSCI is its complete coverage of journal
contents, so, in addition to research and scholarly arti-
cles, it also contains book reviews and editorial material,
which invariably can be identifi ed through keyword

Lots of reading to identify gaps in previous research was the most important way of formulating research

questions. However, it is also important to follow ‘gut feelings’ about what needs investigating, even if it has

been done before, because things could have changed over time.

Amy Knight wrote in connection with her project on recycling and gender differences:

I completed extensive reading focusing on the topics of recycling and gender differences. In previous studies

gender differences regarding levels of environmental concern tended to be similar (that females demonstrated

higher levels of environmental concern than men). However, previous published research was inconclusive

regarding recycling habits and gender differences. I was interested to see whether levels of environmental

concern could also link to recycling habits hence the two research questions.

To read more about Lily’s, Alice’s, and Amy’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that
accompanies this book at:

Searching the existing literature

9780199588053_C05.indd 113 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature114

searches. You will need to experiment with the use
of keywords, because this is usually the way in which
databases like these are searched, though author searches
are also possible. Finally a feature that is often useful is
the ‘Times cited’ link. If you fi nd an article that is relevant
to your dissertation, then you can click to see which other
articles have cited it. This does two things. First it allows
you to see how an article has been used in more recent
research, and in particular whether it has been chal-
lenged. Second, it gives an impression of whether the
article and the ideas in it have been developed with new
data. For example, at the time of writing this chapter
(17 January 2011), my paper published in 1999 in the
journal Sociological Review on the Disneyization of soci-
ety has been cited in twenty-nine other papers about
related subjects, such as emotional labour and retailing.
However, it is important to realize that articles in other
journals may have cited the article. The reason that these
would not turn up in an SSCI search is that those respon-
sible for it operate a screening process, which means that
by no means all journals achieve entry into the database.
The screening process takes into account the reputation
and impact of the journal concerned.

You can also use the Cited Reference Search to search
for articles that cite an article that you know about

already. This can help you fi nd other related research
and also see what other authors thought of your original
article. This is particularly useful if your article is a few
years old.

Also very useful is Scopus, which is available at: (accessed 3 August

Scopus describes itself as ‘the largest abstract and
citation database of research literature and quality web
sources’. You will need an Athens or other username and
password to get into the database. The ‘General Search’
may meet your initial needs. This allows you to search in
terms of keywords and/or authors. You need to specify
the date range of articles you wish to search for (it goes
back to 1960) and to untick the subject areas not relevant
to your search. Scopus tends to include a wider range
of journals than SSCI. Like SSCI, it will bring up the
abstract, as well as the full reference when a particular
item is selected for further examination.

Also useful for searching for references is Google
Scholar—see Tips and skills ‘Using information on the
Web’ for details of how to use this search tool.

Nowadays, many academic publishers have begun
to offer full-text versions of articles in their journals

Student experience
Strategies for fi nding references

The students who supplied information concerning their strategies for doing their literature reviews used a

variety of approaches. As well as searching the journals, Erin Saunders got help from her supervisor and others.

I was recommended a number of relevant texts by my supervisor—and from there I located other sources by

using the bibliographies of these texts. As well, I did an extensive journal search for articles that were related

to my topic. I also contacted a number of academics in the fi eld to ask for specifi c suggestions. Then I read as

much of the literature as I could, identifying key themes and ideas.

Hannah Creane’s approach was to focus on key names in the sociological literature on childhood.

Initially I read a few core textbooks that cover the general aspects of sociology, and picked out from them the

main names of sociologists who have written about childhood and, in particular, childhood as a social

construction. From there I read the books of some of the key names within the fi eld of childhood study, and

just simply kept looking up the names of sociologists whom they had referenced. I kept going like this until

I felt I had enough literature to back up my fi ndings and theories that I made in the light of my own research.

Rebecca Barnes proceeded by identifying key texts and then using bibliographies.

Once I started to locate the core texts, this process gathered more momentum, since I was able to draw on

bibliographies in those sources to identify other relevant references.

To read more about Erin’s, Hannah’s, and Rebecca’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that
accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C05.indd 114 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 115

through their own websites; Cambridge University Press
(Cambridge Journals Online) and Sage (HighWire) are
the two most prominent examples. Again you will need
to check with your librarian to fi nd out which of these
resources you can use and how to access them. The
INGENTA website offers full-text versions from various
publishers, and you will be able to access full-text ver-
sions of articles in journals to which your library sub-
scribes. In addition to scholarly books and journals,
newspaper archives can provide a valuable supplemen-
tary resource through which to review the emergence of
new topics in areas of social concern. Most newspapers
require subscription to be able to search their online da-
tabases (for example, Financial Times, Daily and Sunday
Telegraph, The Times). However, most academic libraries
will have a subscription to some individual newspapers
or to a service such as Proquest or Lexis Nexis, which
allows you to search several newspapers at once; you
may need a password to access them. Newspapers and
periodicals can be a rich source of information about
certain topics that make good stories for journalists, such
as social problems, policy initiatives, or trade union dis-
putes. The level of analysis can also be high. For an
academic dissertation they should always be seen as
secondary to published literature in books and journals,
but it takes some time for academic articles to be pub-
lished, so for recent events newspapers may be the only
source of information.

A word of warning about using Google and other
search engines for research. Internet search engines are
very useful for researching all sorts of things. However,

they merely fi nd sites; they do not evaluate them. So
be prepared to look critically at what you have found.
Remember that anyone can put information on the Web,
so, when looking at websites, you need to evaluate
whether the information you have found is useful. The
following points are worth considering.

• Who is the author of the site and what is his or her
motive for publishing?

• Where is the site located? The URL can help you here.
Is it an academic site (.ac) or a government site (.gov),
a non-commercial organization (.org) or a commer-
cial one (.com or .co)?

• How recently was the site updated? Many sites will
give you a last updated date, but you can get clues as
to whether a page is being well maintained by whether
the links are up to date and by its general appearance.

Try to confi ne your literature search to reliable web-
sites, such as those mentioned in this chapter. For more
on this issue, see Tips and skills ‘Using information on
the Web’.

The catalogue of your own institution is an obvious
route to fi nding books, but so too are the catalogues
of other universities. COPAC contains the holdings of
twenty-seven of the largest university research libraries
plus the British Library. It can be found at: (accessed 17 January 2011).

A well-known website like amazon can also be ex-
tremely helpful for searching for books.

Tips and skills
Using email alerts

One way of expanding your literature search is through email alerts. These supply you with an email when an

issue of a journal that you are interested in is published. You can also be sent email alerts when articles with

certain keywords or written by particular authors are published. One of the main ways of setting up email alerts

is through Zetoc, through the British Library. You will need to sign in with a username and password. An Athens

username and password will usually achieve this. To fi nd Zetoc, go to: (accessed 3 August 2010).

Alternatively, you can use Scopus for sending alerts when articles on nominated topics or by nominated authors

are published. Go to: (accessed 3 August 2010).

There is also a Scopus app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad that can be downloaded from: (accessed 3 August 2010).

9780199588053_C05.indd 115 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature116

Tips and skills
Using information on the Web

The Internet provides an enormous and richly varied source of freely available information about social research

that can be quickly and easily accessed without the need for university agreements to gain access to them.

However, there is a diffi culty in relying on this, because the strength of the Internet in providing access to huge

amounts of information is also its weakness, in that it can be very diffi cult to differentiate what is useful and

reliable from that which is too simplistic, too commercially oriented, too highly opinionated, or just not

suffi ciently academic. The worst thing that can happen is that you end up quoting from sources from the Web

that are quite simply misleading and incorrect. Therefore, it is important to be selective in your use of information

on the Internet and to build up a list of favourite websites that you can check regularly for information.

However, such sources have to be evaluated critically. For example, while writing this chapter for the third edition

of this book, I encountered the following defi nition of qualitative research in Wikipedia, which is very popular

among students.

Qualitative research is one of the two major approaches to research methodology in social sciences.

Qualitative research involves an indepth understanding of human behaviour and the reasons that govern

human behaviour. Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research relies on reasons behind various aspects

of behaviour. Simply put, it investigates the why and how of decision-making, as compared to what, where, and

when of quantitative research. Hence, the need is for smaller but focused samples rather than large random

samples, which qualitative research categorizes into patterns as the primary basis for organizing and reporting

results. ( (accessed 12 February 2007))

This is a very misleading characterization of both quantitative and qualitative research. It implies that quantitative

researchers are not concerned with examining the ‘reasons behind various aspects of behaviour’. This is a quite

extraordinary notion. The whole point of the preoccupation with causality and the very notions of independent

and dependent variables that are part of the basic vocabulary of quantitative research (see Chapter 7) would

suggest the opposite: quantitative researchers are deeply concerned about exploring the reasons behind

behaviour. Also, qualitative researchers are concerned to explore ‘what, where, and when’, in that they frequently

engage in descriptions of what is happening at certain events or on particular occasions, where they take place,

and often draw inferences about their timing. Further, quantitative researchers ‘categorize . . . data into patterns’,

but the nature and character of those patterns assume a different form. This is a very poor defi nition and

characterization of qualitative research and demonstrates the risk of using Web sources in an unquestioning way.

Wikipedia contains some very good entries, but it has to be treated with caution, as do Web sources generally.

Interestingly, the above quotation can no longer be found at: (accessed 3 August 2010).

Searching tool

Google has a really useful product called ‘Google Scholar’, which can be accessed from the Google home page.

This product provides a simple way to search broadly for academic literature. Searches are focused on

peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, abstracts, and articles, from academic publishers, professional societies,

preprint repositories, universities, and other scholarly organizations. Google Scholar also enables you to see how

often an item has been cited by other people. This can be very useful in assessing the importance of an idea or

a particular scholarly writer. See:

Current affairs

For case study analyses and keeping up to date on current social issues, the BBC News website is reasonably well

balanced and quite analytical:

Statistics on social trends

The National Statistics offi ce makes a huge amount of data about social trends available on its website:

9780199588053_C05.indd 116 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 117

The statistics on Internet use at the beginning of Chapter 28 are gleaned by examining this website.

European statistics relating to specifi c countries, industries, and sectors can be found on Europa, the portal to the

European Union website:

Other useful websites that are relevant to research methods

Teaching Resources and Materials for Social Scientists:


Exploring online research methods:

Qualitative data analysis:

Research ethics: and

Access to various data that can be used for secondary analysis:

(All websites mentioned in this box were accessed 3 August 2010 unless stated otherwise.)

Student experience
Literature review as ongoing

The literature review is often viewed as a distinct phase in the research process, but in fact it is invariably an

ongoing component of a research project. While email alerts like Zetoc alerts (see Tips and skills ‘Using email

alerts’) may be a useful way of keeping on top of the literature, they also mean that the literature review may

not draw to a close at an early stage. Rebecca Barnes found that searching the literature was an ongoing


Although at the beginning of my Ph.D., I dedicated a more prolonged period of time to searching for and

reviewing literature, this process has been an ongoing part of the research process. I used electronic databases

such as Cambridge Sociological Abstracts to identify sources which could be useful, and I was also fortunate in

stumbling across a bibliography of sources for same-sex domestic violence on the Internet. . . . I also subscribe

to Zetoc alerts, which means that rather than having to spend time regularly updating the literature which

I have, I am informed of many new articles as soon as they are published.

Rebecca’s experience is not unusual. Isabella Robbins, who was doing a Ph.D. at the time, describes the literature

review as feeling like ‘a process that has been ongoing for about six years’, while Sarah Hanson suggests that it

can be diffi cult to bring the review to a close.

The only diffi culty I encountered was that I couldn’t stop reading; I had fi nished my literature review and had

started writing my dissertation, but I kept stumbling upon book after book, which then had to be encompassed

into the literature review. I ended up writing and rewriting my literature review.

In a similar vein Jonathan Smetherham wrote of the literature review for an undergraduate dissertation that he

began with some material with which he was familiar and then:

9780199588053_C05.indd 117 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature118

Keywords and defi ning search


For all these online databases, you will need to work out
some suitable keywords that can be entered into the
search engines and that will allow you to identify suit-
able references. Journal articles often include lists of
keywords. When you fi nd two or three articles that are
relevant to your research and that have lists of keywords,
it may be useful to use some of these keywords that are
relevant to your research for searching for other articles.
You will also need to think of synonyms or alternative

In most databases, typing in the title of your project,
or a sentence or long phrase, as your search term is not
advisable, as, unless someone has written something
with the same title, you are unlikely to fi nd very much.
You need to think in terms of keywords (see Tips and
skills ‘Keywords’).

Use the HELP provided in the databases themselves
to fi nd out how to use your keywords to best effect. The
advice on using ‘operators’ such as AND, OR, and NOT
can be especially helpful.

terms and try to match your language to that of the
source you are searching. For example, in the example in
Research in focus 5.4, I used ‘manage*’ and ‘adminis-
trat*’ as well as ‘leader*’ (see earlier in this chapter for
the use of asterisks as wild cards). This is not because I
think that management and administration are the same
as leadership but because I realized quite early on that
some authors use these terms either as synonyms for
leadership or in very similar ways. Be prepared to experi-
ment and to amend your keywords as your research pro-
gresses; you may fi nd as you search the literature that
there are other ways of describing your subject.

In some areas of research, there are very many refer-
ences. Try to identify the major ones and work outwards
from there. Move on to the next stage of your research at
the point that you identifi ed in your timetable, so that
you can dig yourself out of the library. This is not to say
that your search for the literature will cease, but that you
need to force yourself to move on. Seek out your supervi-
sor’s advice on whether you need to search the literature
much more. Figure 5.1 outlines one way of searching the
literature. The most important thing to remember, as the

I developed research questions and then used these as the basis for doing a more probing lit review. By this

stage, I had seen a few of the ‘big names’ cropping up repeatedly, so I began searching out their scholarly work

for greater insight. . . . However, after the actual research project had been conducted in the fi eld, I did

essentially rewrite the literature review, as the scope of my study changed so considerably during the

data-collection process. However, this was a much more focused and effi cient exercise—in part due to the

impending deadline, and in part because the review was no longer an exploratory exercise but something

which was sharp, crisp and focused.

To read more about Rebecca’s, Isabella’s, Sarah’s and Jonathan’s research experiences, go to the Online
Resource Centre that accompanies this book at:

Tips and skills

For all kinds of review—narrative or systematic—using keywords for searching online databases of articles is

crucial. However, it is not as easy as it seems. For example, though the authors of the article in Research in

focus 5.3 searched the literature thoroughly using keywords, they note that, after they had completed the

meta-ethnography on lay experiences of diabetes, they ‘were made aware of a meta-ethnography based on

43 qualitative reports concerned with the “lived experience of diabetes” ’ (Campbell et al. 2003: 683). Not only

were they unable to uncover this article, which had been published in 1998, through their search, but also the

authors of the other meta-ethnography had included only three of the seven articles Campbell et al. had used.

Searching for keywords requires some experimentation and should not be regarded as a one-off exercise.

9780199588053_C05.indd 118 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 119

gu e 5.Figure 5.1
One way of searching the literature

1. Read books or articles known to you or recommended by others related to your research questions

2a. Keep notes based on your reading of this literaturg e

b. Note keywords used in this literature

c. Make a note of other literature referred to that may be relevant and worth following upg

3. Generate keywords relevant to your research questions

4a. Search the library for literature relating tog your subject

b. Conduct an online search using an appropriate electronic databasg e

5a. Examine titles and abstracts for relevance

b. Retrieve selected items (back up to item 2a)

c. Check regularly for new publications










Note: At each stage, keep a record of what you have done and your reasons for certain decisions. This will be useful to you for remembering how you

proceeded and for writing up a description and justifi cation of your literature search strategy, which can form part of your methods section. When

making notes on literature that you read, make notes on content and method, as well as relevance, and keep thinking about how each item will

contribute to your critical review of the literature.

9780199588053_C05.indd 119 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature120

note at the end of the fi gure suggests, is to keep a good
record of the process so that you can keep track of what
you have done. Also, when you give your supervisor

drafts of your literature review, make sure you include
all the references and their details so that he or she can
assess the coverage and quality of your review adequately.

Referencing your work

Referencing the work of others is an important academic
convention because it emphasizes that you are aware of
the historical development of your subject, particularly
if you use the Harvard (or author–date) method, and
shows that you recognize that your own research builds
on the work of others. Referencing in your literature
review is thus a way of emphasizing your understanding
and knowledge of the subject. In other parts of your
dissertation referencing will serve somewhat different
purposes—for example, it will show your understanding
of methodological considerations or help to reinforce
your argument. A reference is also sometimes described
as a citation and the act of referencing as citing.

As I mentioned earlier on in this chapter, a key skill in
writing your literature review will therefore be to keep a
record of what you have read, including all the biblio-
graphic details about each article or book that will go into
your bibliography or references. For larger research pro-
jects it can be useful to use note cards or software pack-
ages that are designed specifi cally for this purpose such
as Procite or Endnote, but for a student research project
it will probably be suffi cient to keep an electronic record
of all the items that you have read in a Word document,
although you should bear in mind that you may not
include all of these in your fi nal bibliography. However,
the main thing to make sure of is that you keep your
bibliographic records up to date and do not leave this
until the very end of the writing-up process, when you
will probably be under signifi cant time pressure.

Your institution will probably have its own guidelines
as to which style of referencing you should use in your
dissertation and if it does you should defi nitely follow
them. However, the two main methods used are:

• Harvard or author–date. The essence of this system is
that, whenever you paraphrase the argument or ideas
of an author or authors in your writing, you add in
parentheses immediately afterwards the surname of
the author(s) and the year of publication. If you are
quoting the author(s), you put quotation marks around
the quotation and after the year of publication you

include the page number where the quotation is from.
All books, articles, and other sources that you have
cited in the text are then given in a list of references
at the end of the dissertation in alphabetical order by
author surname. This is by far the most common refer-
encing system in social research and the one that we
follow in this book. It is, therefore, the style that we
would encourage you to use if your university does not
require you to follow its own guidelines.

• Footnote or numeric. This approach involves the use of
superscript numbers in the text that refer to a note at
the foot of the page or the end of the text, where the
reference is given in full together with the page num-
ber if it is a direct quotation. If a source is cited more
than once, an abbreviated version of the reference is
given in any subsequent citation, which is why this is
often called the short-title system. As well as being
used to refer to sources, footnotes and endnotes are
often used to provide additional detail, including
comments from the writer about the source being
cited. This is a particular feature of historical writing.
One of the advantages of the footnote or numeric
method is that it can be less distracting to the reader
in terms of the fl ow of the text than the Harvard
method, where sometimes particularly long strings of
references can make a sentence or a paragraph diffi –
cult for the reader to follow. Furthermore, software
packages like Word make the insertion of notes rela-
tively simple, and many students fi nd that this is a
convenient way of referencing their work. However,
when students use this method, they often use it in-
correctly, as it is quite diffi cult to use it well, and they
are sometimes unsure whether or not also to include a
separate bibliography. The footnote approach to refer-
encing does not necessarily include a bibliography,
but this can be important in the assessment of stu-
dents’ work (see Thinking deeply 5.2). As not having
a bibliography is a potential disadvantage to this style
of referencing, your institution may recommend that
you do not use it.

9780199588053_C05.indd 120 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 121

Tips and skills
The Harvard and note approaches to referencing

The examples below show some fi ctitious examples of referencing in published work. Note that in published

articles there is usually a list of references at the end; books using the Harvard system usually have a list of

references, whereas a bibliography is used with the short-title system of notes. The punctuation of references—

such as where to place a comma, or whether to capitalize a title in full or just the fi rst word—varies considerably

from source to source. For example, with Harvard referencing, in some books and journals the surname of the

author is separated from the date in the text with a comma—for example (Name, 1999)—but in others, like this

book, there is no comma. However, the main thing is to be consistent. Select a format for punctuating your

references, such as the one adopted by a leading journal in your subject area, and then stick to it.

An example of a Harvard reference to a book

In the text:

As Name and Other (1999) argue, motivation is a broad concept that comprises a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic

factors . . .

. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:

Name, A., and Other, S. (1999). Title of Book in Italics. Place of Publication: Publisher.

An example of a Harvard reference with a direct quotation from a book

In the text:

However, the importance of intrinsic factors often tends to be overlooked since ‘studies of motivation have

tended predominantly to focus on the infl uence of extrinsic factors’ (Name and Other 1999: 123).

. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:

Name, A., and Other, S. (1999). Title of Book in Italics. Place of Publication: Publisher.

An example of a Harvard reference to a journal article

In the text:

Research by Name (2003) has drawn attention to the importance of intrinsic factors in determining employee


. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:
Refers to volume (issue) numbers

Name, A. (2003). ‘Title of Journal Article’, Journal Title, 28(4): 109–38.

Issue numbers are often not included, as in the case of the References in this book.

An example of a Harvard reference to a chapter in an edited book

In the text:

As Name (2001) suggests, individual motivation to work is affected by a range of intrinsic and extrinsic factors . . .

. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:

Name, A. (2001). ‘Title of Book Chapter’, in S. Other (ed.), Title of Book in Italics. Place of Publication: Publisher,

pp. 124–56. 0
Abbreviation for ‘Editor’

An example of a secondary reference using the Harvard method

In the text:

Individual motivation to work is affected by a range of intrinsic and extrinsic factors (Name 1993, cited in Other


. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:

Name, A. (1993). Title of Book in Italics. Place of Publication: Publisher, cited in S. Other (2004), Title of Textbook

in Italics. Place of Publication: Publisher.

An example of a Harvard reference to an Internet site

In the text:

Scopus describes itself as ‘the largest abstract and citation database of research literature and quality web

sources’ (Scopus 2007).

. . . and in the bibliography or list of references:

Scopus (2007). (accessed 5 August 2010).

9780199588053_C05.indd 121 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature122

Note: it is very important to give the date of access, as some websites change frequently (or even disappear!

See Tips and skills ‘Using information on the Web’ for an example).

An example of a note reference to a book

In the text:

On the other hand, research by Name3 has drawn attention to the infl uence of intrinsic factors on employee

motivation . . .

. . . and in the notes:
3 A. Name, Title of Book in Italics. Place of Publication, Publisher, 2000, pp. 170–7.

An example of a note reference to an Internet site

In the text:

Scopus describes itself as ‘the largest abstract and citation database of research literature and quality web


. . . and in the notes:
39 Scopus (2007). (accessed 5 August 2010).

Bear in mind that it is essential when preparing your own referencing in the text and the bibliography or list of

references that you follow the conventions and style that are recommended by your institution for preparing an

essay, dissertation, or thesis.

Tips and skills
Using bibliographic software

ProCite, EndNote, and Reference Manager are three of the leading Windows-based software tools used for

publishing and managing bibliographies. Your university may have a site licence for one of these packages. They

are used by academic researchers, information specialists, and students to create bibliographic records equivalent

to the manual form of index cards. This allows you to compile your own personal reference database. These

records can then be automatically formatted to suit different requirements—for example, to comply with the

referencing requirements of a particular scholarly journal. A further advantage to the software is that it can

enable you to export references directly from databases such as the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI). The

software also has search options that help you to locate a particular reference, although the extent of these

features varies from one package to another.

In the long run, this can save you time and effort and reduce the possibility of errors. However, for a student

research project it may not be worthwhile for you to take the time to learn how to use this software if it is only to

be used for the dissertation. On the other hand, if knowledge of the software may be useful to you in the longer

term, for example, if you are thinking of going on to pursue an academic career by doing a Ph.D., or if you are

intending to work in a fi eld where research skills are valued, then it may be worth learning how to use the

software. More details about these products can be found on the following websites:

However, if you do not have access to one of these packages, similar software is offered free to students and can

be downloaded from the Internet. One of these is BiblioExpress, a simplifi ed version of the package Biblioscape.

This package offers the main features associated with bibliographic referencing software and provides extensive

user support from its website, which includes a free downloadable user manual. BiblioExpress enables you to do

most of the main things needed for a student research project. For more details go to:

All web pages mentioned in this box were accessed 5 August 2010.

9780199588053_C05.indd 122 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 123

The role of the bibliography

What makes a good bibliography or list of references?
You might initially think that length is a good measure,
since a longer bibliography containing more references
might imply that the author has been comprehensive
in his or her search of the existing literature. This is un-
doubtedly true, but only up to a point, since it is also im-
portant for the bibliography to be selectively focused—it
should not include everything that has ever been written
about a subject but instead should refl ect the author’s
informed judgement of the importance and suitability of
sources. This incorporates some of the judgements about
quality that were discussed earlier on in this chapter. One
common proxy for quality is the reputation of the journal
in which an article is published. However, although this
is a useful indicator, it is not one that you should rely on
exclusively, since there might be articles in lesser-status
journals—for instance, those targeted at practitioners—
that have relevance to your subject. But it is important
to be aware of these judgements of quality and to seek
the advice of your supervisor in making them. Another
important feature of a good bibliography relates to
secondary referencing. This is when you refer to an article
or book that has been cited in another source such as a
textbook and you do not, or cannot, access the original
article or book from which it was taken. However, relying
heavily on secondary references can be problematic,

because you are dependent upon the interpretation of
the original text that is offered by the authors of the sec-
ondary text. This may be adequate for some parts of your
literature review, but it is a bit like the game Chinese
Whispers, in that there is always the potential for differ-
ent interpretations of the original text, and this increases
the further removed you are from the original source.
So it is a good idea to be cautious in the use of secondary
references and to go back to the original source if you
can, particularly if the reference is an important one for
your subject. Thinking deeply 5.5 gives an example of
how an author’s work can be referenced in ways that
involve reinterpretation and misquotation long after the
date of publication. A further feature of a good biblio-
graphy stems from the relationship between the list of
references at the end and the way in which they are used
in the main body of the text. It should go without saying
that it is not very helpful to include references in a list
of references that are not even mentioned in the text.
If references are integrated into the text in a way that
shows you have read them in detail and understood the
theoretical perspective from which they are written, this
is much more impressive than if a reference is inserted
into the text in a way that does not closely relate to what
is being said in the text. Finally, Barnett (1994) argues
that a good bibliography gives no indication of the qual-
ity of a piece of work, pointing out that some of the most
infl uential academic books ever written do not even

Thinking deeply 5.5
The problem of using secondary

literature sources

Be careful when using second-hand accounts of theories or fi ndings. It is well known that these are sometimes

misleadingly represented in publications—though hopefully not in this book! An interesting case is the Affl uent

Worker research that is described later in this book in Research in focus 24.8. This research entailed a survey in

the 1960s of predominantly affl uent workers in three fi rms in Luton. It is regarded as a classic of British sociology.

One of the authors of the books that were published from this research conducted a search for books and articles

that discussed the fi ndings of this research. Platt (1984) shows that several authors misinterpreted the fi ndings.

Examples of such misinterpretation follow.

• The study was based on just car workers. It was not—only one of the three companies was a car fi rm.

• The study was based on just semi-skilled or mass production workers. It was not—there were a variety of skill

levels and technological forms among the manual sample.

• The research ‘found’ instrumentalism—that is, an instrumental orientation to work. This is misleading—

instrumentalism was an inference about the data, not a fi nding as such.

The point of this discussion is the need to be vigilant about possibly recycling incorrect interpretations of

theoretical ideas or research fi ndings.

9780199588053_C05.indd 123 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature124

include one. Drawing on the ideas of Bourdieu (1984),
he suggests that the main purpose of the bibliography is
to enable you to understand the habitus that the author

is claiming to reside in, this being about understanding
the beliefs and dispositions of the author combined with
the constraints associated with his or her situation.

Avoiding plagiarism

An issue to bear in mind when writing up your literature
review is the need to avoid plagiarizing the work that you
are reading. Plagiarism is a notoriously slippery notion.
To plariarize is defi ned in The Concise Oxford Dictionary
as to ‘take and use another person’s (thoughts, writings,
inventions . . . ) as one’s own’. Similarly, the online
Encarta UK English Dictionary defi nes it as ‘the process
of copying another person’s idea or written work and
claiming it as original’. Plagiarism does not just relate to
the literature you read in the course of preparing an
essay or report. Taking material in a wholesale and unat-
tributed way from sources like essays written by others or
from websites is also a context within which plagiarism
can occur. Further, it is possible to self-plagiarize, as
when a person lifts material that he or she has previously
written and passes it off as original work. Plagiarism is
commonly regarded as a form of academic cheating
and as such differs little if at all in the minds of many
academics from other academic misdemeanours such as
fabricating research fi ndings.

There is a widespread view that plagiarism among
students is increasing in incidence, though whether this
is in fact the case is diffi cult to establish unambiguously.
Indeed, it is diffi cult to establish how widespread pla-
giarism is, and there are quite substantial variations in
estimates of its prevalence. It is widely viewed that the
Internet is one of the main—if not the main—motor
behind the perceived increase in the prevalence of pla-
giarism. The ease with which text can be copied from
websites, e-journal articles, e-books, online essays sold
commercially, and numerous other sources and then
pasted into essays is often viewed as one of the main
factors behind the alleged rise in plagiarism cases among
students in UK universities and elsewhere.

There are several diffi culties with plagiarism as an
issue in higher education. One is that universities vary
in their defi nitions of what plagiarism is (Stefani and
Carroll 2001). Further, they vary in their response to it
when it is uncovered. They also vary in both the type and
the severity of punishment. Further, within any univer-
sity, academic and other staff differ in their views of the
sinfulness of plagiarism and how it should be handled

(Flint et al. 2006). There is also evidence that students
are less convinced than academic staff that plagiarism is
wrong and that it should be punished. Research at an
Australian university implies that staff are more likely
than students to believe that plagiarism is common
among students (J. Wilkinson 2009). Major reasons for
plagiarism on which staff and students largely agreed
were: a failure to understand referencing rules; laziness
or bad time management; and the ready availability of
material on the Internet. Interestingly, students were less
likely than staff to agree with the statement ‘Students
receive adequate guidance from staff about what is an
[sic] isn’t acceptable in terms of referencing in assign-
ments’, implying that many students feel they do not
receive suffi cient advice. These fi ndings point, at the
very least, to the need to be fully acquainted with your
institution’s regulations on plagiarism and its advice on
proper referencing.

In view of all these uncertainties of both the defi nition
of and the response to plagiarism, students may wonder
whether they should take the issue of plagiarism ser-
iously. My answer is that they most defi nitely should take
it seriously. Academic work places a high value on the
originality of the work that is presented in any kind of
output. To pass someone else’s ideas and/or writings off
as your own is widely regarded as morally dubious at
best. Thus, while there are several grey areas with regard
to plagiarism, as outlined in the previous paragraph, it is
important not to overstate its signifi cance. There is wide-
spread condemnation of plagiarism in academic circles
and it is nearly always punished when found in the work
of students (and indeed that of others). You should
therefore avoid plagiarizing the work of others at all
costs. So concerned are universities about the growth
in the number of plagiarism cases that come before exam-
ination boards and the likely role of the Internet in
facilitating it that they are making more and more use of
plagiarism detection software, which trawls the Internet
for such things as strings of words (for example, Turnitin
UK; see (accessed
5 August 2010) for more information). Thus, as several
writers (e.g. McKeever 2006) have observed, the very

9780199588053_C05.indd 124 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 125

technological development that is widely perceived as
promoting the incidence of plagiarism—the Internet—
is increasingly the springboard for its detection. Even
well-known and ubiquitous search engines like Google
are sometimes employed to detect student plagiarism
through the search for unique strings of words.

The most important issue from the student’s point
of view is that he or she should avoid plagiarism at all
costs, as the penalties may be severe, regardless of the
student’s own views on the matter. First, do not ‘lift’ large
sections of text without making it clear that they are in
fact quotations. This makes it clear that the text in ques-
tion is not your own work but that you are making a point
by quoting someone. It is easy to get this wrong. In June
2006 it was reported that a plagiarism expert at the
London School of Economics had been accused of plagiar-
ism in a paper he published on plagiarism! A paragraph
was found that copied verbatim a published source by
someone else and that had not been acknowledged
properly as from another source. The accused person de-
fended himself by saying that this was due to a format-
ting error. It is common practice in academic publications
to indent a large section of material that is being quoted,

undermined. It is also important to realize that, for many
if not most institutions, simply copying large portions of
text and changing a few words will also be regarded as

Second, do not pass other people’s ideas off as your
own. This means that you should acknowledge the source
of any ideas that you present that are not your own. It
was this aspect of plagiarism that led to the author of The
Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, being accused of plagiarism.
His accusers did not suggest that he had taken large
chunks of text from their work and presented it as his
own. Instead, they accused him of lifting their ideas from
a non-fi ction book they had written (The Holy Blood and
the Holy Grail). However, Dan Brown did acknowledge
his use of their historical work on the grail myth, though
only in a general way in a list of acknowledgements, as
novelists mercifully do not continuously reference ideas
they use in their work. Brown’s accusers lost their case,
but there have been other high-profi le cases of plagiar-
ism that have been proved. For example, in 2003, the
UK Prime Minister’s Director of Communications and
Strategy issued a briefi ng to journalists on the conceal-
ment of weapons in Iraq. This was found to have been
copied from several sources and became known as the
‘dodgy dossier’. The fact that so much of it had been
taken from the work of others undermined its credibility
in the eyes of others.

One of the most important messages of this section
will hopefully be that you should guard against plagiar-
ism at all costs. But it should also be clear that you
should fi nd out what your university and possibly depart-
mental guidelines on the matter are. Quite aside from the
rights and wrongs of plagiarism, it is not likely to impress
your tutor if it is clear from reading the text that large
chunks of your essay or report have been lifted from
another source with just your own words interspersing
the plagiarized text. In fact, that is often in my experience
a giveaway—the contrast in styles is frequently very
apparent and prompts the tutor to explore the possibility
that some or much of the assignment you submit has
in fact been plagiarized. Nor is it likely to impress most
tutors if much of the text has been lifted but a few words
changed here and there, along with a sprinkled few
written by you. However, equally it has to be said that
frequent quoting with linking sentences by you is not
likely to impress either. When I have been presented with
essays of that kind, I have frequently said to the student
concerned that it is diffi cult to establish just what his or
her own thoughts on the issue are.

Try therefore to express your ideas in your own words
and acknowledge properly those ideas that are not your

The most important issue from the student’s point of
view is that they should avoid plagiarism at all costs, as
the penalties may be severe, regardless of the student’s
own views on the matter. First, do not ‘lift’ large sections
of text without making it clear that they are in fact
quotations. This makes it clear that the text in question
is not your own work but that you are making a point by
quoting someone. It is easy to get this wrong. In June
2006 it was reported that a plagiarism expert at the
London School of Economics had been accused of
plagiarism in a paper he published on plagiarism! A
paragraph was found that copied verbatim a published
source by someone else and that had not been
acknowledged properly as from another source. The
accused person defended himself by saying that this was
due to a formatting error. It is common practice in
academic publications to indent a large section of
material that is being quoted. (Bryman 2012: 125)

The lack of indentation meant that the paragraph in
question looked as though it was his own work. While it
may be that this is a case of ‘unintentional plagiarism’
(Park 2003), distinguishing the intentional from the
unintentional is by no means easy. Either way, the cred-
ibility and possibly the integrity of the author may be

9780199588053_C05.indd 125 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature126

own. Plagiarism is something you may get away with
once or twice, but it is so imprinted on the consciousness
of many of us working in universities nowadays that you
are unlikely to get away with it regularly. It is also ex-
tremely irritating to fi nd that your own work has been
plagiarized. I was asked to act as an external examiner of
a doctoral thesis and found that large sections of one of
my books had been taken and presented as the student’s
own work. I found this extremely annoying. A colleague to
whom I mentioned the incident remarked that the only
thing worse than plagiarism is incompetent plagiarism
—incompetent because the student had plagiarized the
work of someone he or she knew would be the external
examiner. However, on refl ection, the colleague was mis-
taken. Plagiarism is wrong—regardless of whether it is
competently implemented or not. It is precisely for this
reason that, in May 2007, Google banned advertisements
from companies that write customized essays for students

(accessed 5 August 2010)). Advice on plagiarism can
usually be found in handbooks provided by students’
institutions, as well as from (ac-
cessed 5 August 2010).

One fi nal point to note is that plagiarism is like a mov-
ing target. What it is, how it should be defi ned, how it can
be detected, how it should be penalized: all these issues
and others are in a state of fl ux as I write this chapter. It
is very much a shifting situation, precisely because of
the perception that it is increasing in frequency. The
penalties can be severe, and, as I have witnessed when
students have been presented with evidence of their
plagiarism, it can be profoundly embarrassing and dis-
tressing for them. The message is simple: do not do it and
make sure that you know exactly what it is and how it is
defi ned at your institution, so that you do not inadver-
tently commit the sin of plagiarism.

Thinking deeply 5.6
Plagiarism and copyright in the case of a novel

Teenage American novelist Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,

was accused of plagiarizing sections of passages from another novel by Kinsella called Can you Keep a Secret,

including entire sentences that were found to be virtually identical. Viswanathan claimed that the similarity was

unintentional and attributed it to her photographic memory. The book was subsequently withdrawn from sale

and the author’s $500,000 contract with the publisher Little Brown & Company cancelled, after it was found that

there were also passages by other writers, including work by Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty. The key

question, according to Lawson (2006), is whether the young novelist knew what she was doing and whether she

accepts it was plagiarism. He also contends that the case highlights some of the pressures that novelists are

placed under by publishers to make their mark in a market where they are competing against other forms of


Although this case highlights the contested nature of charges of plagiarism, including the importance of

ascertaining the author’s intent, which is very diffi cult to do, it also draws attention to the moral judgement

and signifi cant penalties that may be levelled at an author if plagiarism is shown to have occurred. Although

university students are not in a situation of risking multi-million-dollar deals in the same way as these novelists,

the impact of plagiarism if it is shown to be signifi cant can be highly detrimental in terms of their education and

career prospects.

Sources: S. Goldenberg, ‘Star Young Author Admits Unconscious Plagiarism’, Guardian, 26 Apr. 2006; M. Lawson, ‘Fingers in

the Word Till’, Guardian, 6 May 2006.

9780199588053_C05.indd 126 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature 127


Questions to ask yourself when conducting and writing
a literature review

� Have you refl ected on what your audience is expecting from the literature review?

� Is your list of references up to date in your current areas of interest? Are there new areas of interest

that you need to search on? Is it reasonably comprehensive?

� What literature searching have you done recently?

� What have you read recently? Have you found time to read?

� What have you learned from the literature? Has this changed in any way your understanding of the

subject in which you are working?

� Is your search for the literature and the review you are writing being guided by your research

questions? Has your reading of the literature made you think about revising your research questions?

� Is what you have read going to infl uence or has it infl uenced your research design in any way? Has it

given you ideas about what you need to consider and incorporate?

� Have you addressed any key controversies in the literature and any different ways of conceptualizing

your subject matter?

� Have you been writing notes on what you have read? Do you need to reconsider how what you have

read fi ts into your research?

� Have you adopted a critical approach to presenting your literature review?

� What story are you going to tell about the literature? In other words, have you worked out what is

going to be the message about the literature that you want to tell your readers?

� Has someone read a draft of your review to check on your writing style and the strength of your

arguments about the literature?

Source: adapted from Bruce (1994); Holbrook et al. (2007); Reuber (2010).

Key points

● Writing a literature review is a means of reviewing the main ideas and research relating to your
chosen area of interest.

● A competent literature review confi rms you as someone who is competent in the subject area.

● A great deal of the work of writing a literature review is based upon reading the work of other
researchers in your subject area; key skills can be acquired to help you get the most from your

● Systematic review is a method that is gaining in popularity in social research as a way of enhancing
the reliability of literature searching and review.

● Narrative review is a more traditional approach that has advantages of fl exibility, which can make it
more appropriate for inductive research and qualitative research designs.

9780199588053_C05.indd 127 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Getting started: reviewing the literature128

Questions for review

Reviewing the existing literature

● What are the main reasons for writing a literature review?

● How can you ensure that you get the most from your reading?

● What are the main advantages and disadvantages associated with systematic review?

● What type of research questions is systematic review most suited to addressing?

● What are the main reasons for conducting a narrative literature review?

● In what type of research is narrative review most appropriate?

Searching the existing literature

● What are the main ways of fi nding existing literature on your subject?

● What is a keyword and how is it useful in searching the literature?

Referencing your work

● Why is it important to reference your work?

● What are the main referencing styles used in academic work and which of these is preferred by your

● What is the role of the bibliography and what makes a good one?

Avoiding plagiarism

● What is plagiarism?

● Why is it taken so seriously by researchers?

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of
reviewing the literature. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and
gain further guidance and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C05.indd 128 10/20/11 10:05 AM

Ethics and politics in
social research

Chapter outline

Introduction 130

Ethical principles 135

Harm to participants 135

Lack of informed consent 138

Invasion of privacy 142

Deception 143

Ethics and the issue of quality 143

The diffi culties of ethical decision-making 148

New media and diffi cult decisions 149

Politics in social research 149

Checklist 153

Key points 154

Questions for review 154


9780199588053_C06.indd 129 10/20/11 10:06 AM

Ethics and politics in social research130

Chapter guide

Ethical issues arise at a variety of stages in social research. This chapter deals with the concerns about
ethics that might arise in the course of conducting research. The professional bodies concerned with the
social sciences have been keen to spell out the ethical issues that can arise, and some of their statements
will be reviewed in this chapter. Ethical issues cannot be ignored, as they relate directly to the integrity of
a piece of research and of the disciplines that are involved. While ethical issues constitute the main
emphasis of this chapter, related issues to do with the politics of research are also discussed. This chapter

• some famous, even infamous, cases in which transgressions of ethical principles have occurred, though
it is important not to take the view that ethical concerns arise only in relation to these extreme cases;

• different stances that can be and have been taken on ethics in social research;

• the signifi cance and operation of four areas in which ethical concerns particularly arise: whether harm
comes to participants; informed consent; invasion of privacy; and deception;

• some of the diffi culties associated with ethical decision-making;

• some of the main political dimensions of research, from gaining access to research situations to the
publication of fi ndings.


Discussions about the ethics of social research bring us
into a realm in which the role of values in the research
process becomes a topic of concern. They revolve around
such issues as:

• How should we treat the people on whom we conduct

• Are there activities in which we should or should not
engage in our relations with them?

Questions about ethics in social research also bring in
the role of professional associations, such as the British
Sociological Association (BSA) and the Social Research
Association (SRA), which have formulated codes of
ethics. The BSA’s and SRA’s codes will be referred to on
several occasions.

Statements of professional principles are frequently
accessible from the Internet. Some of the most useful
codes of ethics can be found at the following Internet

• British Sociological Association (BSA), Statement of

Ethical Practice:

• Social Research Association (SRA), Ethical Guidelines:

• British Psychological Society (BPS), Code of Conduct,

Ethical Principles, and Guidelines:
cfm?fi le_uuid=E6917759-9799-434A-F313-

• American Sociological Association (ASA), Code of Ethics: le/Code%20

• The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC),
Framework for Research Ethics (see Tips and skills ‘The
ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics’ below):

All these statements were accessed on 5 August 2010.
Writings about ethics in social research are frequently

frustrating for four reasons.

1. Writers often differ quite widely from each other
over ethical issues and questions. In other words, they
differ over what is and is not ethically acceptable.

9780199588053_C06.indd 130 10/20/11 10:06 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 131

2. The main elements in the debates do not seem to
move forward a great deal. The same kinds of points
that were made in the 1960s were being rehashed
in the late 1990s and at the start of the present cen-
tury. One thing that has changed is that ethical issues
are nowadays more central to discussions about re-
search than ever before. This may be due to a greater
sensitivity to ethical issues, but it is also to do with
a greater concern among representatives of univer-
sities, research funding bodies, and professional
associations to exhibit good ethical credentials.
One social scientist has turned sociological thinking
onto the current research environment by suggest-
ing that concerns about ethical issues today have the
characteristics of a ‘moral panic’ (Van den Hoonaard

3. Debates about ethics have often accompanied well-
known, not to say notorious, cases of alleged ethical
transgression. They include: the study of a religious
cult by a group of disguised researchers (Festinger
et al. 1956); the use of pseudo-patients in the study of
mental hospitals (Rosenhan 1973; Research in focus
12.5); Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) fi eld experi-
ment to study teacher expectations in the classroom
(Research in focus 3.1); and Holdaway’s (1982, 1983;
Research in focus 3.14) covert ethnography of a police
force. The problem with this emphasis on notoriety
is that it can be taken to imply that ethical concerns
reside only in such extreme cases, when in fact the
potential for ethical transgression is much more gen-
eral than this. See Research in focus 6.1 and 6.2 for
two cases that have acquired a celebrated status for

their notoriety. It is striking that the research referred
to in Research in focus 6.1 and 6.2 relates to inves-
tigations that occurred some decades ago. One of
the reasons that authors (like me!) keep returning to
these two cases is partly to do with the starkness of
their ethical transgressions, but it is also to do with
the fact that it would be diffi cult and most probably
impossible to fi nd such clear-cut cases of bad ethical
practices in more recent years. That is a product of the
greater ethical awareness among social researchers as
well as the greater signifi cance of ethical guidelines
and research ethics committees nowadays. That it is
not to say that research like Humphreys’s in Research
in focus 6.1 or Milgram’s in Research in focus 6.2 is
inconceivable today, but that it is a lot less likely to
occur. However, Research in focus 6.2 includes a par-
tial replication of the Milgram experiment.

4. Related to this last point is the fact that these extreme
and notorious cases of ethical violation tend to be
associated with particular research methods—notably
disguised observation and the use of deception in
experiments. Again, the problem with this association
of ethics with certain studies (and methods) is that it
implies that ethical concerns only or even primarily
reside in some methods but not others. As a result,
the impression can be gleaned that other methods,
such as questionnaires or overt observation, are im-
mune from ethical problems. That is not the case. For
example, conducting questionnaire or overt observa-
tion research with children will raise a lot of ethical
issues that may not be the case when the research is
on adults.

Research in focus 6.1
The infamous case of the sociologist as voyeur

An investigation that has almost achieved particular notoriety because of its ethics (or lack of them, some might

argue) is Humphreys’s (1970) infamous study of homosexual encounters in public toilets (‘tearoom trade’).

Humphreys’s research interest was in impersonal sex, and, in order to shed light on this area, he took on the

role of ‘watchqueen’—that is, someone who watches out for possible intruders while men meet and engage in

homosexual sex in public toilets. As a result of his involvement in these social scenes, Humphreys was able to

collect the details of active participants’ car licence numbers. He was then able to track down their names and

addresses and ended up with a sample of 100 active tearoom-trade participants. He then conducted an interview

survey of a sample of those who had been identifi ed and of a further sample that acted as a point of comparison.

The interview schedule was concerned with health issues and included some questions about marital sex. In

order to reduce the risk of being remembered, Humphreys waited a year before contacting his respondents and

also changed his hair style.

9780199588053_C06.indd 131 10/20/11 10:06 AM

Ethics and politics in social research132

Research in focus 6.2
The infamous case of the psychologist as Nazi

concentration camp commandant

Milgram (1963) was concerned with the circumstances associated with the use of brutality in the Nazi

concentration camps of the Second World War. In particular, he was interested in the processes whereby a

person can be induced to cause extreme harm to another by virtue of being ordered to do so. To investigate this

issue further, Milgram devised a laboratory experiment. Volunteers were recruited to act out the role of teachers

who punished learners (who were accomplices of the experimenter) by submitting them to electric shocks when

they gave incorrect answers to questions. The shocks were not, of course, real, but the teachers/volunteers were

not aware of this. The level of electric shock was gradually increased with successive incorrect answers, until the

teacher/volunteer refused to administer more shocks. Learners had been trained to respond to the rising level of

electric shock with simulated but appropriate howls of pain. In the room was a further accomplice of Milgram’s

who cajoled the teacher/volunteer to continue to administer shocks, suggesting that it was part of the study’s

requirements to continue and that they were not causing permanent harm, in spite of the increasingly shrill cries

of pain. Milgram’s study shows that people can be induced to cause very considerable pain to others, and as such

he saw it as shedding light on the circumstances leading to the horrors of the concentration camp.

The obedience study raises complex ethical issues, particularly in relation to the potential harm incurred by

participants as a result of the experiments. It is worth noting that it was conducted over thirty years ago and it is

extremely unlikely that it would be considered acceptable to a university human subjects committee or indeed

to most social researchers today. However, in 2006 Burger (2009) conducted what he refers to as a ‘partial

replication’ of the Milgram experiment. Burger hypothesized that there would be little or no difference between

Milgram’s fi ndings and his own some forty-fi ve years later. The replication is ‘partial’ for several reasons such as:

participants did not proceed beyond the lowest simulated voltage level that Milgram used (150 volts; 79 per cent

of Milgram’s teachers went beyond this point); participants were intensively screened for emotional and

psychological problems and excluded if there was evidence of such problems; people who had studied some

psychology were excluded (because the Milgram studies are so well known); and participants of all adult ages

were included rather than up to the age of 50, as in the original studies. Burger also reckons that his sample was

more ethnically diverse than Milgram’s would have been. The replication had to be partial, because, as Burger

puts it, ‘current standards for the ethical treatment of participants clearly place Milgram’s studies out of bounds’

(Burger 2009: 2). Burger found that the propensity for obedience was only slightly lower than forty-fi ve years

previously, though, as A. G. Miller (2009) observes, the adjustments Burger had to make probably render

comparisons with Milgram’s fi ndings questionable.

Researchers’ ethical qualms do not extend to television, however. In March 2010, newspapers reported a French

documentary based on a supposed game show called Game of Death and broadcast on prime-time television.

Eighty contestants signed contracts agreeing to infl ict electric shocks on other participants. Shocks were

administered when the other contestant failed to answer a question correctly. The shocks continued up to the

highest voltage, with the contestants being egged on by an audience and a presenter. Only sixteen contestants

stopped before administering the highest shock level, which would have been fatal. As in the Milgram

experiment, the participants receiving the shocks were actors who simulated howls of agony and the shocks

themselves were of course also fake. An account of this programme, which refers to Milgram, can be found at:

Also, the following is a CNN news item on the programme that includes some brief footage as well as a brief

commentary from Burger, who carried out the aforementioned partial replication:

Footage from the original Milgram experiments can be found on YouTube and make fascinating viewing (e.g.

All these websites were accessed on 5 August 2010.

9780199588053_C06.indd 132 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 133

In this chapter, I will introduce the main ethical issues
and debates about ethics. I am not going to try to resolve
them, because they are not readily capable of resolution.
This is why the ethical debate has scarcely moved on
since the 1960s. What is crucial is to be aware of the eth-
ical principles involved and of the nature of the concerns
about ethics in social research. It is only if researchers are
aware of the issues involved that they can make informed
decisions about the implications of certain choices. If
nothing else, you should be aware of the possible oppro-
brium that will be coming your way if you make certain
kinds of choice. My chief concern lies with the ethical

issues that arise in relations between researchers and
research participants in the course of an investigation.
This focus by no means exhausts the range of ethical
issues and dilemmas that arise, such as those that might
arise in relation to the funding of social research or how
fi ndings are used by non-researchers. However, the eth-
ical issues that arise in the course of doing research are
the ones that are most likely to impinge on students.
Writers on research ethics adopt different stances con-
cerning the ethical issues that arise in connection with
relationships between researchers and research partici-
pants. Key concept 6.1 outlines some of these stances.

Key concept 6.1
Stances on ethics

Authors on social research ethics can be characterized in terms of the stances they take on the issue. The

following stances can be distinguished.

• Universalism. A universalist stance takes the view that ethical precepts should never be broken. Infractions of

ethical principles are wrong in a moral sense and are damaging to social research. This kind of stance can be

seen in the writings of Erikson (1967), Dingwall (1980), and Bulmer (1982). Bulmer does, however, point to

some forms of what appears to be disguised observation that may be acceptable. One is retrospective covert

observation, which occurs when a researcher writes up his or her experiences in social settings in which he

or she participated but not as a researcher. An example would be Van Maanen (1991b), who wrote up his

experiences as a ride operator in Disneyland many years after he had been employed there in vacation jobs.

Even a universalist like Erikson (1967: 372) recognizes that it ‘would be absurd . . . to insist as a point of ethics

that sociologists should always introduce themselves as investigators everywhere they go and should inform

every person who fi gures in their thinking exactly what their research is all about’.

• Situation ethics. E. Goode (1996) has argued for deception to be considered on a case-by-case basis. In other

words, he argues for what Fletcher (1966: 31) has called a ‘situation ethics’, or more specifi cally ‘principled

relativism’, which can be contrasted with the universalist ethics of some writers. This argument has two ways

of being represented.

1. The end justifi es the means. Some writers argue that, unless there is some breaking of ethical rules, we

would never know about certain social phenomena. Fielding (1982) essentially argues for this position in

relation to his research on the National Front, an extreme right-wing organization that was becoming

politically infl uential in the 1970s. Without some kind of disguised observation, this important movement

and its appeal would not have been studied. Similarly, for their covert participant observation study of

websites supportive of individuals with eating disorders (known as ‘pro-ana’ websites—see Research in

focus 28.4), Brotsky and Giles (2007: 96) argue that deception was justifi ed, ‘given the charges laid against

the pro-ana community (that they are effectively sanctioning self-starvation), and the potential benefi t of

our fi ndings to the eating disorders clinical fi eld’. This kind of argument is usually linked to the second form

of a situationist argument in relation to social research ethics.

2. No choice. It is often suggested that we have no choice but to dissemble on occasions if we want to

investigate the issues in which we are interested. This view can be discerned in the writings of Holdaway

(1982) and Homan (Homan and Bulmer 1982). For example, Brotsky and Giles (2007: 96) write: ‘it was

felt highly unlikely that access would be granted to a researcher openly disclosing the purpose of her


9780199588053_C06.indd 133 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research134

• Ethical transgression is pervasive. It is often observed that virtually all research involves elements that are at

least ethically questionable. This occurs whenever participants are not given absolutely all the details on a

piece of research, or when there is variation in the amount of knowledge about research. Punch (1994: 91),

for example, observes that ‘some dissimulation is intrinsic to social life and, therefore, to fi eldwork’. He quotes

Gans (1962: 44) in support of this point: ‘If the researcher is completely honest with people about his

activities, they will try to hide actions and attitudes they consider undesirable, and so will be dishonest.

Consequently, the researcher must be dishonest to get honest data.’

• Anything goes (more or less). The writers associated with arguments relating to situation ethics and a

recognition of the pervasiveness of ethical transgressions are arguing not for an ‘anything-goes’ mentality, but

for a certain amount of fl exibility in ethical decision-making. However, Douglas (1976) has argued that the

kinds of deception in which social researchers engage are trivial compared to those perpetrated by powerful

institutions in modern society (such as the mass media, the police, and industry). His book is an inventory of

tactics for deceiving people so that their trust is gained and they reveal themselves to the researcher. Very few

researchers subscribe to this stance. Denzin (1968) comes close to an anything-goes stance when he suggests

that social researchers are entitled to study anyone in any setting provided the work has a ‘scientifi c’ purpose,

does not harm participants, and does not deliberately damage the discipline.

• Deontological versus consequentialist ethics. Another distinction that has attracted interest in recent years is

between deontological and consequentialist ethics. Deontological ethics considers certain acts as wrong

(or good) in and of themselves. Consequentialist ethics looks at the consequences of an act for guidance as to

whether it is right or wrong. In relation to the consideration of ethical issues in social research, deontological

arguments tend to prevail—in terms of the issues covered below, deceiving research participants or not

providing them with the opportunity for informed consent is regarded as ethically wrong. Consequentialist

arguments do sometimes surface, however. For example, you sometimes see the argument that an activity

like covert observation is wrong because it can harm the reputation of the profession of social research or of

an organization. As such, other social researchers would be adversely affected by the ethically dubious

decision to engage in covert observation.

Tips and skills
Ethics committees

In addition to needing to be familiar with the codes of practice produced by several professional associations

such as the British Sociological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Social Research

Association, you should be acquainted with the ethical guidelines of your university or college. Most higher

education organizations have ethics committees that issue guidelines about ethical practice. These guidelines

are often based on or infl uenced by the codes developed by professional associations. Universities’ and colleges’

guidelines will provide indications of what are considered ethically unacceptable practices. Sometimes you will

need to submit your proposed research to an ethics committee of your university or college. This is likely to occur

if there is some uncertainty about whether your proposed research is likely to be in breach of the guidelines or

if you want to go ahead with research that you know is ethically dubious but you wish to obtain permission to

do it anyway.

The ethical guidelines and the ethics committee are there to protect research participants, but they are also

involved in protecting institutions, so that researchers will be deterred from behaving in ethically unacceptable

ways that might rebound on institutions. Such behaviour could cause problems for institutions if ethically

inappropriate behaviour gave rise to legal action against them or to adverse publicity. However, ethics

committees and their guidelines are there to help and protect researchers too, so that they are less likely to

conduct research that could damage their reputations.

9780199588053_C06.indd 134 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 135

Discussions about ethical principles in social research,
and perhaps more specifi cally transgressions of them,
tend to revolve around certain issues that recur in differ-
ent guises, but they have been usefully broken down by
Diener and Crandall (1978) into four main areas:

1. whether there is harm to participants;

2. whether there is a lack of informed consent;

3. whether there is an invasion of privacy;

4. whether deception is involved.

I will look at each of these in turn, but it should be
appreciated that these four principles overlap some-
what. For example, it is diffi cult to imagine how the
principle of informed consent could be built into an in-
vestigation in which research participants were deceived.
However, there is no doubt that these four areas form a
useful classifi cation of ethical principles in and for social

Harm to participants

Research that is likely to harm participants is regarded by
most people as unacceptable. But what is harm? Harm
can entail a number of facets: physical harm; harm to
participants’ development; loss of self-esteem; stress;
and ‘inducing subjects to perform reprehensible acts’, as
Diener and Crandall (1978: 19) put it. In several studies
that we have encountered in this book, there has been
real or potential harm to participants.

• In the Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) study (Research
in focus 3.2), it is at least possible that the pupils who
had not been identifi ed as ‘spurters’ who would excel
in their studies were adversely affected in their intel-
lectual development by the greater attention received
by the spurters.

• In the Festinger et al. (1956) study of a religious cult,
it is quite likely that the fact that the researchers

One of the main approaches used by ethics committees is to ask researchers to indicate whether their research

entails certain procedures or activities (which are often derived from professional guidelines such as the BSA’s

Statement of Ethical Practice or the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)’s Framework for Research Ethics

(FRE) (see Tips and skills ‘The ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics’ below)), such as disguised observation, so

that effectively they self-declare whether they are likely to engage in ethically dubious practices. This process

usually entails completing a form to show that you have considered potential ethical issues that might arise from

your study. This form is likely to ask questions such as ‘Will there be any potential harm, discomfort, physical

or psychological risks for research participants?’ and the researcher needs to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If there is a

possibility that you may engage in such a practice, the proposed research is then ‘fl agged’ for full scrutiny by the

ethics committee. In such an instance, the researcher is required to provide a full account of the research and the

rationale for using the ethically dubious practice(s). This can slow down research a great deal and can of course

result in the committee refusing to allow it to proceed.

In recent years, research ethics committees (often called Institutional Review Boards in the USA) have become

quite controversial. Some writers see them as too infl uenced by a natural science model of the research process

and as therefore inimical to social research and to qualitative research in particular (Lincoln and Tierney 2004).

Further, they are sometimes seen as having gone too far in terms of their role of protecting institutions from

litigious disgruntled research participants (Van Den Hoonard 2001). Further, it has been suggested that they

divert attention from the need to be constantly vigilant for ethical problems that might arise in the course of

doing research (Guillemin and Gillam 2004). In other words, there is a concern that, once the researcher has

jumped over the bureaucratic hurdle of the ethics committee, he or she may feel that the ethical issues have

been covered. This is clearly not the case, as ethical issues can and invariably do arise at all stages of the

research process.

Ethical principles

9780199588053_C06.indd 135 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research136

joined the group at a crucial time—close to the pro-
jected end of the world—fuelled the delusions of
group members.

• Many of the participants in the Milgram (1963)
experiment on obedience to authority (Research in
focus 6.2) experienced high levels of stress and anxi-
ety as a consequence of being incited to administer
electric shocks. It could also be argued that Milgram’s
observers were ‘inducing subjects to perform repre-
hensible acts’.

• Many of the participants in Humphreys’s (1970) re-
search (see Research in focus 6.1) were married men
who are likely to have been fearful of detection as
practising homosexuals. It is not inconceivable that
his methods could have resulted in some of them
becoming identifi ed against their will.

The BSA Statement of Ethical Practice enjoins research-
ers to ‘anticipate, and to guard against, consequences
for research participants which can be predicted to be
harmful’ and ‘to consider carefully the possibility that the
research experience may be a disturbing one’. Similar
sentiments are expressed by the SRA’s Ethical Guidelines,
for example, when it is advocated that the ‘social re-
searcher should try to minimize disturbance both to sub-
jects themselves and to the subjects’ relationships with
their environment’.

The issue of harm to participants is further addressed
in ethical codes by advocating care over maintaining the
confi dentiality of records. This means that the identities
and records of individuals should be maintained as con-
fi dential. This injunction also means that care needs to be
taken when fi ndings are being published to ensure that
individuals are not identifi ed or identifi able. The case of
a study of an American town, Springdale (a pseudonym),
by Vidich and Bensman (1968) is instructive in this
regard. The research was based on Vidich’s participant
observation within the town for over two years. The pub-
lished book on the research was uncomplimentary about
the town and many of its leaders and was written in what
many people felt was a rather patronizing tone. To make
matters worse, it was possible to identify individuals
through the published account. The town’s inhabitants
responded with a Fourth of July Parade in which many of
the inhabitants wore badges with their pseudonyms, and
an effi gy of Vidich was set up so that it was peering into
manure. The townspeople also responded by announc-
ing their refusal to cooperate in any more social research.
The inhabitants were clearly upset by the publication
and to that extent were harmed by it. This example also

touches on the issue of privacy, which will be addressed

As this last case suggests, the issue of confi dentiality
raises particular diffi culties for many forms of qualita-
tive research. In quantitative research, it is relatively
easy to make records anonymous and to report fi nd-
ings in a way that does not allow individuals to be
identifi ed. However, this is often less easy with quali-
tative research, where particular care has to be taken
with regard to the possible identifi cation of persons
and places. The use of pseudonyms is a common re-
course, but may not eliminate entirely the possibility
of identifi cation. This issue raises particular problems
with regard to the secondary analysis of qualitative
data (see Chapter 24), since it is very diffi cult, though
by no means impossible, to present fi eld notes and
interview transcripts in a way that will prevent people
and places from being identifi ed. As Alderson (1998) has
suggested, the diffi culty is one of being able to ensure
that the same safeguards concerning confi dentiality
can be guaranteed when secondary analysts examine
such records as those provided by the original primary

A further area of ethical consideration relates to the
possibility of harm to the researcher, an issue that was
introduced in Tips and skills ‘Safety in research’ (see
Chapter 4). In other words, the person seeking clearance
for their research from an ethics committee may be
encouraged to consider the possibility of physical or
emotional harm through exposure to a fi eldwork setting.
Even if such a consideration is not stipulated in an ethics
form, it is something that you should consider very

The need for confi dentiality can present dilemmas
for researchers. Westmarland (2001) has discussed the
dilemmas she faced when observing violence by the
police towards people being held in custody. She argues
that, while a certain level of violence might be deemed
acceptable, in part to protect the offi cers themselves
and the public, there is an issue of at what point it is no
longer acceptable and the researcher needs to inform
on those involved. Moreover, such a reasonable level of
violence may be consistent with the police occupational
culture. The problem for the ethnographer is com-
pounded by the fact that blowing the whistle on violence
may result in a loss of the researcher’s credibility among
offi cers, premature termination of the investigation, or
inability to gain access in the future. In the process,
career issues are brought to the fore for the researcher,
which connects with the discussion of political issues

9780199588053_C06.indd 136 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 137

Tips and skills
Data protection

One aspect of confi dentiality and the management of it is that, in the UK, the Data Protection Act (1998) confers

obligations on people and organizations who hold personal data on others and it confers rights on those about

whom such information is held. The Information Commissioner’s website points out the following about the Act:

Firstly, it [the Data Protection Act] states that anyone who processes personal information must comply with

eight principles, which make sure that personal information is:

• Fairly and lawfully processed

• Processed for limited purposes

• Adequate, relevant and not excessive

• Accurate and up to date

• Not kept for longer than is necessary

• Processed in line with your rights

• Secure

• Not transferred to other countries without adequate protection

The second area covered by the Act provides individuals with important rights, including the

right to fi nd out what personal information is held on computer and most paper records.

( (accessed 5 August 2010))

These principles are important to bear in mind, as it is clear that it is easy to fall foul of them when conducting

social research. However, Section 33 of the Act effectively exempts personal information collected for research

purposes from some of these principles. According to this section, the researcher must ensure that ‘the data are

not processed to support measures or decisions with respect to particular individuals’ and that ‘the data are not

processed in such a way that substantial damage or substantial distress is, or is likely to be, caused to any data

subject’ ( (accessed 5 July 2011)). Also important is that

it is stipulated that research is exempt only if ‘the results of the research or any resulting statistics are not made

available in a form that identifi es data subjects or any of them’ (

section/33 (accessed 5 July 2011)). This stipulation again points to the importance of ensuring that

confi dentiality is ensured and that individuals are not identifi able.

Responsibilities of researchers with respect to confi dentiality are also laid down in the Research Governance

Framework for Health and Social Care (RGF) of 2006. The RGF is concerned to provide a framework for research

in the fi elds of health and social care that reduces risks and ensures the well-being of research participants. The

RGF is meant to cover all research that takes place in organizations like hospitals or social care agencies and as

such includes any social research that takes place in such locations. For example, it is stipulated in Section 3.6.1

that researchers are responsible for ‘protecting the integrity and confi dentiality of clinical and other records

and data generated by the research’ ( (accessed 5

August 2010)).

Holmes (2004) provides some important and useful suggestions about how to protect confi dentiality and

participants’ data. Her tips include:

• not storing participants’ names and addresses or letter correspondence on hard drives;

• using identifi er codes on data fi les and storing the list of participants and their identifi er codes separately in

a locked cabinet;

• ensuring that transcribers sign a letter saying they will conform to the Data Protection Act;

• ensuring transcripts do not include participants’ names;

• keeping copies of transcripts in a locked cabinet.

The central point of this Tips and skills feature is to reinforce the point that there is an environment that takes

confi dentiality and data protection issues very seriously and that it is important for students and researchers

generally to be attuned to their obligations and what is required of them.

9780199588053_C06.indd 137 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research138

towards the end of this chapter. Similarly, in a feminist
study of girls’ experiences of violence, Burman et al.
(2001: 455) encountered some distressing revelations
that prompted them to ask ‘exactly what, and how much,
should be disclosed, to whom, and how should this be
done’. Thus, the important injunction to protect con-
fi dentiality may create dilemmas for the researcher that
are by no means easy to resolve.

The issue of confi dentiality is clearly a very important
one in its own right. Israel and Hay (2004) treat it as
a separate principle of ethics in its own right. As they
observe, if researchers do not observe the confi dentiality
of what is said to them, ‘who would talk to them in the
future?’ (Israel and Hay 2004: 94). Thus, quite aside
from the intrinsic wrongness of not keeping confi dences,
there is the consequentialist argument that it could harm
generations of future researchers.

One of the problems with the harm-to-participants
principle is that it is not possible to identify in all circum-
stances whether harm is likely, though that fact should
not be taken to mean that there is no point in seeking to
protect them from harm. Kimmel (1988) notes in this
connection the example of the Cambridge–Summerville
Youth Study. In 1939 an experiment was conducted on
boys aged 5–13 who were either identifi ed as likely to
become delinquent or were average in this regard. The 506
boys were equally divided in terms of this characteristic.
They were randomly assigned either to an experimental
group in which they received preventative counselling
or to a no-treatment control group. In the mid-1970s the
records were re-examined and were quite shocking:
‘Treated subjects were more likely than controls to evi-
dence signs of alcoholism and serious mental illness,
died at a younger age, suffered from more stress-related
diseases, tended to be employed in lower-prestige occu-
pations, and were more likely to commit second crimes’
(Kimmel 1988: 19).

In other words, the treatment brought about a train
of negative consequences for the group. This is an
extreme example and relates to experimental research,
which is not a research design that is commonly em-
ployed in social research (see Chapter 3), but it does
illustrate the diffi culty of anticipating harm to respond-
ents. The ASA Code of Ethics suggests that, if there is
any prospect of harm to participants, informed consent,
the focus of the next section, is essential: ‘Informed
consent must be obtained when the risks of research are
greater than the risks of everyday life. Where modest risk
or harm is anticipated, informed consent must be

Lack of informed consent

The issue of informed consent is in many respects the
area within social research ethics that is most hotly
debated. The bulk of the discussion tends to focus on
what is variously called disguised or covert observation.
Such observation can involve covert participant observa-
tion (Key concept 19.2), or simple or contrived observa-
tion (Key concept 14.3), in which the researcher’s true
identity is unknown. The principle means that prospec-
tive research participants should be given as much
information as might be needed to make an informed
decision about whether or not they wish to participate in
a study. Covert observation transgresses that principle,
because participants are not given the opportunity to
refuse to cooperate. They are involved, whether they like
it or not.

Lack of informed consent is a feature of the research in
Research in focus 6.1 and 6.2. In Humphreys’s research
informed consent is absent, because the men for whom
he acted as a watchqueen were not given the opportunity
to refuse participation in his investigation. Similar points
can be made about several other studies encountered in
this book, such as Festinger et al. (1956), Patrick (1973),
Holdaway (1982, 1983), Winlow et al. (2001), Brotsky
and Giles (2007), and Pearson (2009). The principle of
informed consent also entails the implication that, even
when people know they are being asked to participate in
research, they should be fully informed about the re-
search process. As the SRA Ethical Guidelines suggests:

Inquiries involving human subjects should be based
as far as practicable on the freely given informed
consent of subjects. Even if participation is required
by law, it should still be as informed as possible. In
voluntary inquiries, subjects should not be under the
impression that they are required to participate. They
should be aware of their entitlement to refuse at any
stage for whatever reason and to withdraw data just
supplied. Information that would be likely to affect a
subject’s willingness to participate should not be
deliberately withheld, since this would remove from
subjects an important means of protecting their own

9780199588053_C06.indd 138 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 139

Similarly, the BSA Statement says: is especially vulnerable to accusations of unethical prac-
tice in this regard, studies using the method still appear
periodically (e.g. Brotsky and Giles 2007; Pearson 2009).
The defence is usually of the ‘end-justifi es-the-means’
kind, which is further discussed below. What is interest-
ing in this present context is that the BSA Statement
essentially leaves the door ajar for covert observation.
The phrase ‘as far as possible’ regarding informed con-
sent in the last quotation from the Statement does this,
but the BSA then goes even further in relation to covert


As far as possible participation in sociological research
should be based on the freely given informed consent
of those studied. This implies a responsibility on the
sociologist to explain as fully as possible, and in terms
meaningful to participants, what the research is about,
who is undertaking and fi nancing it, why it is being
undertaken, and how it is to be promoted.

Thus, while Milgram’s experimental subjects were
volunteers and therefore knew they were going to par-
ticipate in research, there is a lack of informed consent,
because they were not given full information about the
nature of the research and its possible implications for

However, as Homan (1991: 73) has observed, imple-
menting the principle of informed consent ‘is easier said
than done’. At least two major points stand out here.

• It is extremely diffi cult to present prospective partici-
pants with absolutely all the information that might
be required for them to make an informed decision
about their involvement. In fact, relatively minor
transgressions probably pervade most social research,
such as deliberately underestimating the amount of
time that an interview is likely to take so that people
are not put off being interviewed and not giving abso-
lutely all the details about one’s research for fear of
contaminating people’s answers to questions.

• In ethnographic research, the researcher is likely to
come into contact with a wide spectrum of people,
and ensuring that absolutely everyone has the oppor-
tunity for informed consent is not practicable, because
it would be extremely disruptive in everyday contexts.
For example, in the passage from Punch’s fi eld notes
in Research in focus 19.6, the meandering cyclist could
not be given the opportunity for informed consent.
Punch was not a disguised participant observer so far
as the police were concerned, but was disguised in
connection with many of those with whom the police
had encounters in the course of his fi eldwork. Also,
even when all research participants in a certain set-
ting are aware that the ethnographer is a researcher, it
is doubtful whether they are all similarly (let alone
identically) informed about the nature of the research.

In spite of the widespread condemnation of violations
of informed consent and the view that covert observation

There are serious ethical and legal issues in the
use of covert research but the use of covert methods
may be justifi ed in certain circumstances. For example,
diffi culties arise when research participants change their
behaviour because they know they are being studied.
Researchers may also face problems when access to
spheres of social life is closed to social scientists by
powerful or secretive interests. . . . However, covert
methods violate the principles of informed consent
and may invade the privacy of those being studied.
Participant or non-participant observation in non-public
spaces or experimental manipulation of research
participants without their knowledge should be resorted
to only where it is impossible to use other methods
to obtain essential data. . . . In such studies it is
important to safeguard the anonymity of research
participants. Ideally, where informed consent has not
been obtained prior to the research it should be
obtained post-hoc.

While this statement hardly condones the absence of
informed consent associated with covert research, it is
not unequivocally censorious either. It recognizes that
covert research ‘may avoid certain problems’ and refers,
without using the term, to the possibility of reactivity
associated with overt observational methods. It also
recognizes that covert methods can help to get over
the diffi culty of gaining access to certain kinds of setting.
The passage entails an acknowledgement that informed
consent is jeopardized, along with the privacy principle
(see below), but implies that covert research can be used
‘where it is impossible to use other methods to obtain
essential data’. The diffi culty here clearly is how a re-
searcher is to decide whether it is in fact impossible to
obtain data other than by covert work. Similarly, in the
ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics (see Tips and Skills

9780199588053_C06.indd 139 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research140

‘The ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics’ below), it is
proposed: ‘Deception (i.e. research without consent)
should only be used as a last resort when no other
approach is possible.’

I suspect that, by and large, covert observers typically
make their judgements in this connection on the basis
of the anticipated diffi culty of gaining access to a setting
or of encountering reactivity problems, rather than as a
response to diffi culties they have actually experienced.
For example, Holdaway (1982: 63) has written that, as a
police offi cer, his only alternatives to covert participant
observation were either equally unethical (but less desir-
able) or ‘unrealistic’. Similarly, Homan justifi ed his use
of covert participant observation of a religious sect on
the grounds that sociologists were viewed very nega-
tively by group members and therefore ‘it seemed prob-
able that the prevalence of such a perception would
prejudice the effectiveness of a fi eldworker declaring an
identity as sociologist’ (Homan and Bulmer 1982: 107).
Pearson (2009) writes that he employed covert par-
ticipant observation for a study of football hooliganism
because his early attempts to conduct the research by
interview proved unreliable: hardcore violent hooligans
played down their involvement, whereas non-violent
ones exaggerated theirs. The issue of the circumstances
in which violations of ethical principles, like informed
consent, are deemed acceptable will reappear in the dis-
cussion below. It also has to be recognized that covert
participant observation can cause diffi culties for re-
searchers because of their need to be consistent in the
persona they project. Pearson (2009) felt that he had to
engage in criminal acts in order to sustain his research
and his identity among the hooligans with whom he
consorted. He writes:

On one occasion, for example, when I believed it
necessary to prove my reliability to the subjects, I
individually confronted a small group of rival supporters
in a public house. The attempt was purely ‘for show’ as
I predicted the group would intervene and prevent any
serious physical confrontation. Nonetheless, the action
was both criminal (threatening behaviour) and in the
short term seriously distorted the fi eld. My justifi cation
for this action at the time was that it enhanced my
position in the fi eld and I was accepted for the
remainder of the season as one of the ‘hardcore’ despite
my continual ‘opting out’ of more serious offences.
(Pearson 2009: 248–9)

The principle of informed consent is also bound up
to some extent with the issue of harm to participants.
Erikson (1967) has suggested that, if the principle is not
followed and if participants are harmed as a result of the
research, the investigator is more culpable than if they
did not know. For example, he writes: ‘If we happen
to harm people who have agreed to act as subjects,
we can at least argue that they knew something of the
risks involved . . .’ (Erikson 1967: 369). While this might
seem like a recipe for seeking a salve for the sociologist’s
conscience, it does point to an important issue—namely,
that the social researcher is more likely to be vilifi ed
if participants are adversely affected when they were
not willing accomplices than when they were. However,
it is debatable whether that means that the researcher
is any less culpable for that harm. Erikson implies they
are less culpable, but this is a potential area for

Informed consent forms

Increasingly, researchers prefer to obtain the informed
consent of research participants by getting them to sign
informed consent forms. The advantage of such forms
is that they give respondents the opportunity to be fully
informed of the nature of the research and the implica-
tions of their participation at the outset. Further, the
researcher has a signed record of consent if any concerns
are subsequently raised by participants or others. The
chief possible problem is that the requirement to sign
the form may prompt rather than alleviate concerns on
the part of prospective participants, so that they end up
declining to be involved. Also, the direction of qualitative
studies can be somewhat less predictable than with
quantitative ones, so it is diffi cult to be specifi c within
forms about some issues. Tips and Skills ‘A sample inter-
view consent form’ and ‘A sample study information
sheet’ provide an indication of the kinds of features
that might be taken into account in seeking participants’
informed consent. There is very useful advice on consent
forms and other aspects of ethical practice in relation to
research at: (accessed 9 August 2010)
(accessed 9 August 2010)

9780199588053_C06.indd 140 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 141

Tips and skills
A sample interview consent form

• I, the undersigned, have read and understood the Study Information Sheet provided. . . .

• I have been given the opportunity to ask questions about the Study.

• I understand that taking part in the Study will include being interviewed and audio recorded.

• I have been given adequate time to consider my decision and I agree to take part in the Study.

• I understand that my personal details such as name and employer address will not be revealed to people

outside the project.

• I understand that my words may be quoted in publications, reports, web pages and other research outputs

but my name will not be used.

• I agree to assign the copyright I hold in any material related to this project to [name of researcher].

• I understand that I can withdraw from the Study at any time and I will not be asked any questions about why

I no longer want to take part.

Name of Participant: ___________________________ Date:

Researcher Signature: __________________________ Date:

[Based on examples from UK Data Archive (2009) and several UK universities]

Tips and skills
A sample study information sheet

Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this study. This Information Sheet explains what the study is

about and how we would like you to take part in it.

The purpose of the study is to [give a short explanation of the study].

In order to elicit your views, we would like you to be interviewed by one of the researchers involved in the

Study at the University of [University name]. If you agree to this, the interview will be audio recorded and will

last approximately one hour. You will also be asked to keep a workplace diary for four weeks. For you to take part

in this aspect of the Study the consent of your line manager will be required. Details of how to go about this will

be given when you attend for interview.

The information provided by you in the interview and workplace diary will be used for research purposes. It will

not be used in a manner which would allow identifi cation of your individual responses.

At the end of the Study, anonymised research data will be archived at the UK Data Archive in order to make it

available to other researchers in line with current data-sharing practices.

The study has been considered by an Institutional Ethics Committee at the University of [University name] and

has been given a favourable review.

All reasonable travel and subsistence expenses that you incur through taking part in the Study will be

reimbursed, but please keep all receipts.

Once again, we would like to thank you for agreeing to take part in this Study. If you have any questions about

the research at any stage, please do not hesitate to contact us.

[Researcher contact addresses, telephone, email addresses]

9780199588053_C06.indd 141 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research142

Invasion of privacy

This third area of ethical concern relates to the issue of
the degree to which invasions of privacy can be con-
doned. The right to privacy is a tenet that many of us hold
dear, and transgressions of that right in the name of
research are not regarded as acceptable. It is very much
linked to the notion of informed consent, because, to the
degree that informed consent is given on the basis of a
detailed understanding of what the research partici-
pant’s involvement is likely to entail, he or she in a sense
acknowledges that the right to privacy has been surren-
dered for that limited domain. The BSA Statement makes
a direct link in the passage quoted on page 139 when
it suggests: ‘covert methods violate the principles of
informed consent and may invade the privacy of those
being studied.’ Of course, the research participant does

not abrogate the right to privacy entirely by providing in-
formed consent. For example, when people agree to be
interviewed, they will frequently refuse to answer certain
questions on whatever grounds they feel are justifi ed.
Often, these refusals will be based on a feeling that cer-
tain questions delve into private realms, which respon-
dents do not wish to make public, regardless of the fact
that the interview is in private. Examples might be ques-
tions about income, religious beliefs, or sexual activities.

Covert methods are usually deemed to be violations of
the privacy principle on the grounds that participants are
not being given the opportunity to refuse invasions of
their privacy. Such methods also mean that they might
reveal confi dences or information that they would not
have revealed if they had known about the status of the
confi dant as researcher. The issue of privacy is invariably
linked to issues of anonymity and confi dentiality in the

Student experience
Informed consent forms
For Rebecca Barnes, ‘ethical issues were a paramount concern, especially given the extremely sensitive and

emotive nature of the topic’. She designed a participant information sheet and a consent form ‘in order to make

participants aware of their rights, and to advise them of the possible negative consequences of participating in

the research’. Erin Sanders writes that she did not develop a consent form:

because the women I interviewed didn’t read English and I can’t write in Thai, I didn’t have a signed consent

form. I was able to get verbal consent—but now I feel it might have been better to have a document translated

into Thai—so that they understood the research—but also understood their rights and the steps that would be

taken to safeguard their identities.

To read more about Rebecca’s and Erin’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that
accompanies this book at:

Student experience
Anonymity and confi dentiality
Rebecca Barnes writes that, in the participant information sheet she prepared, she stopped short of guaranteeing

anonymity and confi dentiality.

I assured participants that I would do my utmost to uphold confi dentiality and anonymity, but I was cautious

about guaranteeing confi dentiality and anonymity. Factors outside a researcher’s control such as theft of

confi dential documents make such guarantees misleading. Nonetheless, I did do everything that I could to

ensure confi dentiality and anonymity, such as using pseudonyms in transcripts and beyond; storing interview

tapes, transcripts, and participants’ contact details separately. Also, when I transcribed the interviews, I altered

specifi c details that could make a participant identifi able, such as the area in which they live, their occupation,

and other details such as pubs or nightclubs that participants referred to. I ensured that the details that I

changed did not change the meaning of participants’ words in any way.

To read more about Rebecca’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this
book at:

9780199588053_C06.indd 142 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 143

research process, an area that has already been touched
on in the context of the question of whether harm comes
to participants. The BSA Statement forges this kind of
connection: ‘The anonymity and privacy of those who
participate in the research process should be respected.
Personal information concerning research participants
should be kept confi dential. In some cases it may be
necessary to decide whether it is proper or appropriate
to record certain kinds of sensitive information.’

Raising issues about ensuring anonymity and con-
fi dentiality in relation to the recording of information
and the maintenance of records relates to all methods of
social research. In other words, while covert research may
pose certain kinds of problem regarding the invasion of
privacy, other methods of social research are implicated
in possible diffi culties in connection with anonymity
and confi dentiality. This was clearly the case with the
Springfi eld research (Vidich and Bensman 1968), which
was based on open participant observation. The issue
here was that the absence of safeguards concerning the
protection of the identity of some members of the com-
munity meant that certain matters about them came into
the public domain that should have remained private.


Deception occurs when researchers represent their work
as something other than what it is. The experiment by
Milgram referred to in Research in focus 6.2 involved
deception. Participants are led to believe they are admin-
istering real electric shocks. Deception in various degrees
is probably quite widespread in such research, because
researchers often want to limit participants’ understand-
ing of what the research is about so that they respond
more naturally to the experimental treatment.

However, deception is by no means the exclusive pre-
serve of social psychology experiments. E. Goode (1996),
for example, placed four fake and slightly different dat-
ing advertisements in periodicals. He received nearly
1,000 replies and was able to conduct a content analysis
of them. Several of the studies referred to in this book
entail deception: Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) deceived
teachers into believing that particular children in their
charge were likely to excel at school, when they had in

fact been randomly selected; Festinger et al. (1956) de-
ceived cult members that they were in fact real converts;
Rosenhan’s (1973) associates deceived admissions staff
at mental hospitals that they were mentally ill; Holdaway
(1982) deceived his superiors and peers that he was
functioning solely as a police offi cer; and Brotsky (Brotsky
and Giles 2007) posed as an anorexic and posted mes-
sages onto a ‘pro-ana’ website on that basis.

The ethical objection to deception seems to turn on
two points. First, it is not a nice thing to do. While the
SRA Guidelines recognizes that deception is widespread
in social interaction, it is hardly desirable. Second, there
is the question of professional self-interest. If social
researchers became known as snoopers who deceived
people as a matter of professional course, the image
of our work would be adversely affected and we might
experience diffi culty in gaining fi nancial support and the
cooperation of future prospective research participants.
As the SRA Guidelines puts it: ‘It remains the duty of
social researchers and their collaborators, however, not
to pursue methods of inquiry that are likely to infringe
human values and sensibilities. To do so, whatever the
methodological advantages, would be to endanger the
reputation of social research and the mutual trust be-
tween social researchers and society which is a prerequi-
site for much research.’ Similarly, Erikson (1967: 369)
has argued that disguised observation ‘is liable to damage
the reputation of sociology in the larger society and close
off promising areas of research for future investigators’.

One of the chief problems with the discussion of this
aspect of ethics is that deception is, as some writers ob-
serve, widespread in social research (see the stance ‘Ethical
transgression is pervasive’ in Key concept 6.1). It is rarely
feasible or desirable to provide participants with a totally
complete account of what your research is about. As Punch
(1979) found in the incident that is referred to in Research
in focus 19.6, he could hardly announce to the youth or the
meandering cyclist that he was not in fact a police offi cer
and then launch into a lengthy account of his research.
Bulmer (1982), whose stance is predominantly that of a
universalist in ethics terms (see Key concept 6.1), none-
theless recognizes that there are bound to be instances
such as this and deems them justifi able. However, it is very
diffi cult to know where the line should be drawn here.

Ethics and the issue of quality

Possibly one of the most interesting developments in con-
nection with ethical issues is that a criterion of the ethical

integrity of an investigation is its quality. For example,
the ESRC’s FRE states as the fi rst of six principles that

9780199588053_C06.indd 143 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research144

‘Research should be designed, reviewed and undertaken
to ensure integrity, quality and transparency’ (FRE, p. 3).
See Tips and skills ‘The ESRC’s Framework for Research
Ethics’ below for more on this set of guidelines. Similarly,
a list of criteria for assessing the quality of qualitative
research studies includes the criterion ‘Evidence of con-
sideration of ethical issues’ (Spencer et al. 2003). This
list of criteria was devised in connection with a report
produced for the UK government’s Cabinet Offi ce. Also,
the RGF referred to in Tips and skills ‘Data protection’
states that ‘research which is not of suffi cient quality
to contribute something useful to existing knowledge is
unethical’ (Department of Health 2005: para. 2.3.1).
Whether this link that is increasingly being forged
between ethical integrity and research quality is a dis-
tinctively UK orientation, as hinted at by Israel and Hay
(2004: 52), is an interesting question.

Anyone intending to conduct social research at a site
associated with the National Health Service (NHS) or
that involves NHS personnel or patients will face the addi-
tional hurdle of having to secure ethical clearance from
a Research Ethics Committee (REC). There is a national
framework of RECs in the UK, and it is a requirement
under the RGF to secure clearance. Before 1 April 2007
the system was run by the Central Offi ce of Research
Ethics Committees, but it is now under the National
Research Ethics Service, which is part of the National
Patient Safety Agency. The latter’s website contains a
great deal of information concerning the National
Research Ethics Service, which details the process of

applying for ethical clearance for research involving the
NHS and a variety of documents about its procedures
( (accessed 5 August 2010)).
Three points should be noted about the system by anyone
thinking of conducting social research that will require
clearance by an REC. First, it is a slow process, so plenty
of time needs to be allowed. Second, only around 15 per
cent of applications are given clearance without further
consideration. Most applications (around 64 per cent)
result in issues being raised to which the applicant has
to respond. Around 6 per cent are declined fi rst time
around. The rest are either considered by the REC not to
be part of their remit or are withdrawn (Dixon-Woods
et al. 2007). Third, RECs frequently raise issues about
the quality of the research (see Thinking deeply 6.1).

A further issue is that gaining clearance for one’s re-
search may have implications for the research process,
which in turn may have an impact on research quality.
Graffi gna et al. (2010) report their experiences in gain-
ing ethical clearance for a qualitative cross-national
study of young people’s attitudes to HIV/AIDS in Italy
and Canada. The two Italian researchers were located in
a department of psychology in their university and the
Canadian researcher in a nursing department. Data were
collected from university students using both face-to-
face and online focus groups in both countries (see
Chapter 21 for a discussion of face-to-face focus groups
and Chapter 28 for online ones). The research was con-
cerned with the perceived gap between health know-
ledge and safe practices. The Italian researchers were

Thinking deeply 6.1
Ethics and quality in a study of REC letters

Angell et al. (2008) conducted a content analysis (see Key concept 13.1 for a brief description of this technique)

of 141 letters written on behalf of RECs. These were letters written to applicants seeking ethical clearance to

proceed with research involving the NHS. The letters analysed were either of two types: either they signalled an

unfavourable decision (that is, the research could not go ahead because of concerns about ethical issues) or they

gave a provisional decision (that is, clarifi cation of certain issues was required or the applicant needed to indicate

that he or she would change certain procedures in line with the REC’s recommendations). Angell et al. found that

issues relating to the quality of the proposed research, which the authors refer to as ‘scientifi c issues’, were raised

in the context of 74 per cent of the letters analysed. The three most common concerns were: concerns about

the sample; issues relating to the choice of methods; and concerns about the research question. For example,

in the case of issues relating to the choice of methods, the most common complaint from RECs was that the

rationale for the choice of method was unclear. However, they frequently also made judgements about the

appropriateness of a method or how it was to be implemented. The point of this research is that it demonstrates

that, at least as far as RECs are concerned, the distinction between ethics and scientifi c quality is not a stable one

and that they frequently shade into each other. Thus, what is and is not an ethical issue is by no means a

clear-cut matter.

9780199588053_C06.indd 144 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 145

required to go through an ethical clearance process for
the social sciences, whereas the Canadian researcher,
because she was located in a nursing department, was
required to go through an ethical clearance process for
the health sciences. The former was relatively loosely
structured and relied considerably on the researchers’
conscience, although consent forms were required for
participants. For the Canadian researcher, having to go
through a health sciences track for ethical clearance, the
process was much more structured and prescriptive, with
a technique for recruiting research participants that was
allowed in Italy being proscribed for the Canadian study.
Graffi gna et al. call this technique ‘random walking’,
whereby the Italian researchers walked throughout the
campus garnering interest in participation. The process
of clearance also took longer in Canada, in part because
of concerns about the confi dentiality of the data col-
lected through online focus groups. The authors con-
ducted a discourse analysis (see Chapter 22) of the data
and found some differences between the Canadian and
Italian students. For example, the Italian students had
less awareness of the disease but were more prone to
irrational fears about it; the Canadian students had a
greater sense of being able to control the disease. The
authors argue that, while these differences may refl ect
cross-cultural differences, ‘some of this variation might
also have been due to the differences in recruitment,
sampling and consent procedures specifi ed by the IRB
panels in Canada and Italy’ (Graffi gna et al. 2010: 348).

The authors feel that the random walking recruitment
technique engendered a more heterogeneous sample
than the Canadian sample, which was recruited through
posters and leafl ets. IRB is an abbreviation of Institutional
Review Board and is a term used in North America to
refer to a research ethics committee. The Canadian IRB
rejected the technique, because people might feel co-
erced to participate. They also insisted on a much more
detailed consent form than the one required in Italy. The
authors argue that their recruitment technique resulted
in the Canadian participants having a greater investment
in and being more committed to the research, because
they had actively needed to respond to the literature about
the project. Thus, the different ethical requirements
experienced in Italy and Canada had implications for the
comparability of the research design and of its fi ndings.

The point of this brief section is only partly to draw at-
tention to the way in which ethical issues are becoming
entangled with matters of research quality, because there
is a signifi cant implication of this development. This im-
plication is that it is increasingly likely that committees
charged with the task of considering applications for
ethical clearance will be commenting on the quality of
researchers’ proposed procedures. If quality is deemed to
be a component of the ethical domain, it is at the very
least distinctly possible that applicants for ethical clear-
ance will fi nd themselves having to defend decisions to
do with their sampling, their interview guide, or their
questionnaire on technical grounds, in addition to the

Student and supervisor experience
Not doing research involving the NHS

The ethical approval process can be very offputting for students. This was certainly the case for Isabella Robbins,

who decided not to go through the NHS to conduct her investigation of childhood vaccinations because of the

problems of getting ethical clearance.

I avoided using state organizations—e.g. the NHS—because of the lengthy and problematic system of gaining

ethical approval. I was advised to approach self-help and informal groups. I sent a letter of introduction to

leaders and chairpersons of organizing committees running these groups, outlining the aims and objectives of

my project. I prepared a leafl et outlining my research and I asked group leaders to post leafl ets and posters in

the halls where these groups are held.

Similarly, Supervisor C, when asked for the three most important pieces of advice he gives students when

beginning a research project, wrote as one of the three: ‘Do not conduct research with NHS patients or staff

unless you have submitted an application for NHS ethical approval several months previously.’ This point very

much relates to the issue of building in suffi cient time for submitting your research proposal to ethical scrutiny,

as noted in Chapter 4.

To read more about Isabella’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this
book at:

9780199588053_C06.indd 145 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research146

areas, like those previously covered, that are part of the
traditional domain of ethical considerations (for example,
informed consent or harm to participants). At the very
least, as the case described by Graffi gna et al. (2010)
implies, the decisions made by ethics committees will
have implications for the direction of research. It is not
surprising, therefore, that, although social researchers
are generally supportive of good ethical practice in re-

search, there is a sense of growing frustration among
many of them about the amount of time it can take to
proceed with their research because of the lengthy pro-
cess of clearance, especially when it involves the NHS, and
growing evidence of ethics committee decisions affect-
ing the design and quality of investigations (see, e.g.,
Hammersley (2009) and A. G. Miller (2009) from a UK
and North American perspective respectively).

Tips and skills
The ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics

In the UK context, the publication by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in 2005 of a document

(the Research Ethics Framework (REF)) outlining its position on ethical issues and providing guidance on ethical

matters was very signifi cant. It was revised in 2010 and renamed the Framework for Research Ethics (FRF). The

ESRC is the major agency in the UK for funding social scientifi c research. It provides funding both for research

projects, usually carried out by academics applying for support for signifi cant investigations, and for postgraduate

research in the form of studentships. The FRE outlines the Council’s requirements in terms of ethical practice(s)

for the research it supports. There is a broader perspective, too, in that the ESRC intends through the FRE to

infl uence the ethical practices of social science research generally; in other words, it intends the infl uence of the

FRE to extend beyond research it supports. The FRE lays down six principles of ethical research on page 3.

1. As noted above, ethical research is of a high quality. Thus, if a study is poorly designed, quite aside from the

fact that it almost certainly would not receive fi nancial support from the ESRC, it is unethical.

2. ‘Research staff and subjects must be informed fully about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of

the research, what their participation entails and what risks, if any, are involved.’

3. Confi dentiality of information must be maintained and anonymity of participants respected.

4. The involvement of research participants must be entirely voluntary.

5. ‘Harm to participants must be avoided in all instances.’

6. ‘The independence of research must be made clear, and any confl icts of interest or partiality must be explicit.’

This draws attention to the possible role of affi liation bias to which some writers on ethics in research draw

attention (Bell and Bryman 2007).

It is striking that the inclusion of the issue of quality in principle 1, of research staff in principle 2 (thus including

researcher safety within the purview of research ethics), and of possible confl icts of interest in principle 6 extends

the reach of ethical issues when compared to those explored by Diener and Crandall (1978), which were

reviewed above.

Also of considerable signifi cance are the ESRC’s proposals for the ways in which ethical issues should be given

due consideration. The following are the main points concerning the Council’s expectations regarding the

process of handling ethical issues.

• ESRC does not expect ethical approval to have been obtained before submitting a proposal for funding.

However, applicants need to specify what ethical approval is needed and how it will be achieved.

• When a proposal is peer-reviewed, reviewers and assessors are asked to comment on the self-assessment.

This may lead to rejection if reviewers or assessors feel the self-assessment is wholly inadequate.

• If the application is successful, the ESRC will not release funds until there is a written confi rmation from the

institution where the research is to be conducted that the ethical approval outlined in the self-assessment has

been completed.

9780199588053_C06.indd 146 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 147

• In some cases, only an ‘expedited review’ will be required. This will be when the risk of harm to participants

or others is small. It will normally involve a member (or possibly more) of a research ethics committee

conducting the review.

• When full ethical review is deemed to be needed, a research ethics committee will conduct such a review.

The ESRC has laid down guidelines concerning who should be members of such committees.

• Institutions must ensure that there are mechanisms in place to monitor ongoing research projects so that any

changes to the ethical issues involved in an investigation can be addressed. This provision is meant to ensure

that ethical approval is an ongoing activity.

It is interesting to note the ESRC’s views on what kinds of research would not be viewed as appropriate for

expedited review—that is, projects that involve more than what is referred to as ‘minimal risk’ of harm to

participants or others connected to the research. Examples it provides are:

• research involving vulnerable groups.

• research involving people who lack capacity;

• research involving sensitive topics;

• ‘research involving deceased persons, body parts or other human elements’;

• ‘research using administrative data or secure data’, especially when the data need to be linked and/or where

participants may be identifi ed;

• research involving groups that necessitate permission from a gatekeeper (for example, children, elderly);

• research involving deception or lack of full informed consent;

• research involving access to records or personal/confi dential information;

• ‘research which would or might induce psychological stress, anxiety or humiliation, or cause more than

minimal pain’ (FRE, p. 9, emphasis removed);

• research involving intrusive interventions or research methods;

• research involving threats to the safety of researchers;

• research involving members of the public engaged in a research role;

• research involving investigations outside the UK where issues to do with local customs and practices may


• research involving online data collection, especially when visual images and/or sensitive topics are


• other research methods in which visual and vocal elements fi gure strongly, due to possible problems of

identifying people;

• ‘research which may involve data sharing of confi dential information beyond the initial consent given’ (FRE, p. 9,

emphasis in original).

One of the most striking features about this list is that it is much longer than the one provided in the REF, fi ve

years earlier. There are many other observations that could be made about the FRE, but these are particularly

salient ones. I have spent some time on it, because it is likely to infl uence many universities’ and colleges’

practices with regard to ethical review. As such, it is likely to implicate many students conducting research

projects of various kinds and levels. The FRE can be found at: (accessed 5 July 2011)

9780199588053_C06.indd 147 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research148

The diffi culty of drawing the line between ethical and
unethical practices can be revealed in several ways. The
issue of some members of social settings being aware
of the researcher’s status and the nature of his or her
investigation has been mentioned on several occasions.
Manuals about interviewing are full of advice about how
to entice interviewees to open up about themselves.
Interviewers frequently err on the low side when asked
how long an interview will take. Women may use their
identity as women to infl uence female interviewees in
in-depth interviews to probe into their lives and reveal
inner thoughts and feelings, albeit with a commitment to
feminist research (Oakley 1981; Finch 1984). Qualitative
research is frequently very open-ended, and, as a result,
research questions are either loose or not specifi ed, so
that it is doubtful whether ethnographers in particular
are able to inform others accurately about the nature of
their research. Perhaps, too, some interviewees fi nd the
questions we ask unsettling or fi nd the cut and thrust of a
focus group discussion stressful, especially if they inad-
vertently reveal more than they might have intended.

There are, in other words, many ways in which there
is the potential for deception and, relatedly, lack of
informed consent in social research. These instances are,
of course, a very far cry from the deceptions perpetrated
in the research summarized in Research in focus 6.1 and

6.2, but they point to the diffi culty of arriving at ethically
informed decisions. Ethical codes give advice on patently
inappropriate practices, though sometimes leaving some
room for manœuvre, as we have seen, but less guidance
on marginal areas of ethical decision-making. Indeed,
guidelines may even be used by research participants
against the researcher when they seek to limit the bound-
aries of a fi eldworker’s investigation (Punch 1994).

It also has to be recognized that there is sometimes a
clash between the ethically desirable and the practical.
For example, it was previously noted that some research-
ers like to secure the informed consent of research par-
ticipants by asking them to sign a consent form. However,
it has been shown that the requirement to sign such a
form reduces prospective participants’ willingness to be
involved in survey research. For example, one study from
the USA showed that 13 per cent of respondents were
willing to participate in a study but not if they were
required to sign a consent form (Singer 2003). The prob-
lem then is that, if signed consent is insisted upon, it
seems likely that the resulting sample will be biased
(see Chapter 8 for a discussion of sampling bias). This
has led Groves et al. (2004) to recommend that, for sur-
vey research, it is the interviewer who should sign the
form, indicating that the respondent has given his or her
verbal informed consent.

Student experience
Ethical approval takes time
In Chapter 4, the point was made on several occasions about the need to manage your time when preparing a

dissertation. Many of the stages take longer than you might imagine. In the case of Emma Taylor’s group project

looking into the impact of drinking laws in Scotland on behaviour and attitudes towards drinking, the length of

time required to gain ethical clearance for the administration of the students’ questionnaire was considerable:

our group had faced many ethical barriers in terms of what we could ask people and where we could ask it.

Initially, we had had a completely different research question to what we used in the end—this was due to

it being rejected by ethics, meaning we had to completely change our research project, which cost us time

and effort.

Similarly, Alice Palmer wrote somewhat poignantly that one thing she would have done differently was that she

‘would have taken more care with the ethics paperwork earlier on as that was the only really stressful part and

my failure to use the offi cial university ethics forms came back to haunt me later’.

To read more about Emma’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book

The diffi culties of ethical decision-making

9780199588053_C06.indd 148 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 149

New media and diffi cult decisions

The Internet has also thrown up new dimensions of eth-
ical decision-making for social researchers. For example,
it is very tempting to use newsgroups, chatrooms, list-
servs, email discussion groups, and so on as interesting
fodder for examining interaction or a focus of interest.
In Internet circles, such ‘lurking’ is extremely frowned
upon. However, quite aside from such condemnation, it
is ethically debatable how far it is acceptable to treat such
ongoing interactions as ‘documents’ that are ripe for
analysis. When participants have not given their assent to
having their postings used in this way, it could be argued
that the principle of informed consent has been violated.
However, it could also be claimed that, in some cases,
such postings are in the public domain, much like letters
to newspapers, so that seeking consent is unnecessary.

Whether electronic communications are public or
private is currently a matter of some debate. Pace and
Livingston (2005: 39) argue that such electronic commu-
nications should be used for research only if:

• the information is publically archived and readily

• no password is required to access the information;

• the material is not sensitive in nature;

• no stated site policy prohibits the use of the material.

These authors suggest that, if these conditions do not
pertain, informed consent needs to be obtained and
should be obtained without disrupting ongoing online
activity. They also argue that identities and confi dential-
ity must be protected. These guidelines are not without
problems. For example, who decides whether material is
‘sensitive in nature’? What is or is not sensitive is likely

to be highly debatable, so treating it as a principle is
not in the least straightforward. Issues like this bring out
the diffi culties associated with ethical decision-making.
Internet research methods will be explored further in
Chapter 28.

Research methods using visual media like photographs
have become increasingly popular as embellishments of
traditional techniques. An example is the rise of visual
ethnography, which is discussed in Chapter 19. The
growth of interest in visual research methods has almost
certainly been stimulated by the popularity of digital
cameras and the greater availability of camcorders.
However, visual methods can also result in some diffi cult
decisions too. It is clearly desirable to obtain the in-
formed consent of those who appear in photographs, but
it may not be possible to do this for absolutely everyone
who appears. Some people may be in the background
and may have moved off before they can be asked to pro-
vide their informed consent. Further, the signifi cance of
a photograph may become apparent only when the visual
and non-visual data are being analysed, and by then it
may not be possible to establish informed consent with
those affected. In my book on Disneyization (Bryman
2004a), I would very much have liked to use a photo-
graph I took while in the Asia region of Disney’s Animal
Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. I had taken a photograph
of one of the ‘cast members’ who was dressed in themati-
cally appropriate attire because he had been holding an
insect that had intrigued both of us. It occurred to me
later that it would have been an excellent illustration of
the use of the body in theming, but I felt it was inappro-
priate to use it because of the lack of informed consent.
One solution is to ‘pixelate’ people’s faces so that they
cannot be identifi ed, a strategy that is discussed in
Chapter 19.

Politics in social research

However, ethics are by no means the only context within
which issues to do with wider principles are relevant to
and intrude into social research. In a sense, ethical issues
are part of a wider consideration of the role that values
play in the research process. But the ways in which
values are relevant is not just to do with the ethical
dimensions of research. In Chapter 2, in the section on
‘Infl uences on the conduct of social research’, it was
noted that values intrude in all phases of the research

process—from the choice of a research area to the formu-
lation of conclusions. This means that the social re-
searcher is never conducting an investigation in a moral
vacuum—who he or she is will infl uence a whole variety
of presuppositions that in turn have implications for the
conduct of social research. This view is widely accepted
among social researchers, and claims that social research
can be conducted in a wholly objective, value-neutral
way are now heard far less frequently. While quantitative

9780199588053_C06.indd 149 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research150

research is sometimes depicted as committed to objectiv-
ity (e.g. Lincoln and Guba 1985), it is not at all clear that
nowadays this principle is as widely endorsed among
quantitative researchers as a desirable and feasible fea-
ture as qualitative researchers would have us believe.

For some writers on social research, a ‘conscious
partiality’, as Mies (1993: 68) calls it, is celebrated.
Particularly among feminist researchers, to do research
on women in an objective, value-neutral way would be
undesirable (as well as being diffi cult to achieve),
because it would be incompatible with the values of
feminism. Instead, many feminist researchers advocate a
stance that extols the virtues of a commitment to women
and exposing the conditions of their disadvantage in a
male-dominated society. Much of such research has been
concerned to change the situation of women, as well as
to heighten our understanding of the disadvantages from
which they suffer.

Considerations of this kind begin to draw attention to
the way in which politics (in the non-party-political sense
of the working-through of power and contests over its ex-
ercise) plays an important role in social research. Politics
becomes important in different contexts and ways.

• Social researchers are sometimes put in the position
where they take sides. This is precisely what many
feminist researchers do when they focus on women’s
disadvantages in the family, the workplace, and else-
where, and on the possibilities for improving their
position. However, some writers have argued that this
process of taking sides is pervasive in much sociology
(see Thinking deeply 6.2).

• Related to this point is the issue of funding research.
Much social research is funded by organizations such
as fi rms and government departments. Such organ-
izations frequently have a vested interest in the out-
comes of the research. The very fact that some
research is funded, while other research is not, sug-
gests that political issues may be involved, in that we
might anticipate that such organizations will seek to
invest in studies that will be useful to them and that
will be supportive of their operations and world views.
Frequently, they are proactive, in that they may con-
tact researchers to carry out an investigation or they
will launch a call for researchers to tender bids for an
investigation in a certain area. When social researchers
participate in such exercises, they are participating in
a political arena because they are having to tailor their
research concerns and even research questions to a
body that defi nes or at least infl uences those research
concerns and research questions. Bodies like govern-

ment departments (such as the Home Offi ce) are
going to be infl uenced by notions of relevance to their
work and by their understanding of ministers’ con-
cerns. As a result, as G. Hughes (2000) observes in
relation to research in the fi eld of crime, an investiga-
tion of gun crimes among Britain’s ‘underclass’ is
more likely to be looked upon favourably for funding
than one concerned with state-related misdemean-
ours. R. Morgan (2000) points out that research
funded by the Home Offi ce typically: is empirical;
adopts quantitative research; is concerned with the
costs and benefi ts of a policy or innovation; is short-
termist (in the sense that the cost–benefi t analysis is
usually concerned with immediate impacts rather
than longer-term ones); and is uncritical (in the sense
that government policy is not probed but is concerned
with the effectiveness of ways of implementing
policy). In addition, many agencies restrict what
researchers are able to write about their fi ndings by
insisting on seeing drafts of all proposed publications.
Even bodies like the UK’s major funder of social re-
search, the ESRC, increasingly mould their research
programmes to what are perceived to be areas of con-
cern in society and seek to involve non-academics as
evaluators and audiences for research. Such features
are related to the fact that the ESRC is itself involved
in a political process of seeking to secure a continuous
stream of funding from government, and being able to
demonstrate relevance is one way of indicating stand-
ing in this regard. This predisposition on the part of
the ESRC was enhanced in 2009 when it committed
itself to what is often referred to as an ‘impact agenda’.
Applications for research funding after 17 February
2009 have been required to ‘provide information
about the potential impacts of research, pathways to
achieving those impacts, and the adoption of interdis-
ciplinary and innovative approaches’ (
aspx (accessed 6 August 2010)). This requires appli-
cants to specify not just the anticipated academic im-
pacts of the proposed research, but also non-academic
ones. Specifying non-academic impacts requires a
consideration of who might benefi t from the research
and how they might benefi t. The impact agenda was
met with disquiet among many researchers who felt
that it meant that applicants needed to have a good
idea of what they would fi nd at the application stage
(see, for example, the article ‘Petition Decries “Impact”
Agenda in Research’ at www.timeshighereducation.
=26 (accessed 6 August 2010)). However, the main

9780199588053_C06.indd 150 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 151

point to register is that the impact agenda represents
in many researchers’ eyes a ratcheting-up of a per-
ceived preference for research that can be shown to be
relevant so that future fl ows of government support
will not be jeopardized.

• Gaining access is also a political process. Access is
usually mediated by gatekeepers, who are concerned
about the researcher’s motives: what the organization
can gain from the investigation, what it will lose by
participating in the research in terms of staff time and
other costs, and potential risks to its image. Often,
gatekeepers will seek to infl uence how the investiga-
tion takes place, what kinds of questions can be asked,
who can and who cannot be the focus of study, the
amount of time to be spent with each research partici-
pant, the interpretation of fi ndings, and the form of
any report to the organization itself. Reiner (2000b)
suggests that the police, for example, are usually con-
cerned about how they are going to be represented in
publications in case they are portrayed unfavourably
to agencies to which they are accountable. Firms are
also invariably concerned about issues of how they are
going to be represented. Consequently, gaining access
is almost always a matter of negotiation, and as such
inevitably turns into a political process. The results of
this negotiation are often referred to as ‘the research

• Once in the organization, researchers often fi nd that
getting on in organizations entails a constant process
of negotiation and renegotiation of what is and is
not permissible. In other words, there may be several
layers of gatekeepers in any research project, so that
issues of access become an ongoing feature of research.
For example, for their research on cargo vessels,
Sampson and Thomas (2003: 171) sought initial
access through ship-owning or managing companies,
but found that ‘the key gatekeeper is invariably the
captain’. Captains varied in the degree of willingness
to accommodate the researchers’ investigative and
other needs, and their chief offi cers, who represented
a further layer of access, were frequently delegated
responsibility for dealing with the fi eldworkers. These
offi cers also varied a great deal, with the researchers
quoting one case in which the chief offi cer wanted
to call a meeting about how the interviews should
be conducted and another giving a much freer rein.
Moreover, researchers are often treated with suspi-
cion and reticence because of uncertainty about their
motives, such as whether they are really working for
management. It is unwise to assume that, simply

because gatekeepers have given the researcher access,
they will have a smooth passage in their subsequent
dealings with the people they study. Some research
participants, perhaps because they are suspicious or
because they doubt the utility of social research, will
obstruct the research process. Researchers may also
fi nd themselves becoming embroiled in the internal
politics of organizations as factional disputes rear
their heads, and sometimes they may become pawns
in such clashes if groups attempt to enlist them in get-
ting over a particular viewpoint.

• When research is conducted in teams, politics may
loom large, since the different career and other objec-
tives of team members and their different (and some-
times divergent) perceptions of their contributions
may form a quite separate political arena. However,
this is unlikely to be a set of circumstances that will
affect most undergraduate or postgraduate students,
although the growing use of team-based assignments
at both levels suggests that it could become more
relevant to many students. On the other hand, super-
visors of postgraduate research and undergraduate
dissertations may themselves be evaluated in terms of
the number of postgraduate students seen through to
completion or in terms of the quality of undergradu-
ate dissertations for which they were responsible.
Therefore, wider political processes of this kind may
be relevant to many of this book’s readers.

• There may be pressure to restrict the publication of
fi ndings. Hughes (2000) cites the case of a study of
plea-bargaining in the British criminal justice system
as a case in point. The researchers had uncovered what
were deemed at the time to be disconcerting levels
of informal bargaining, which were taken to imply
that the formal judicial process was being weakened.
The English legal establishment sought to thwart the
dissemination of the fi ndings and was persuaded to
allow publication to go ahead only when a panel of
academics confi rmed the validity of the fi ndings.

• The use made of fi ndings by others can be the focus of
further political machinations. In the 1960s a study
that showed the persistence of streaming and social-
class differentials in a comprehensive school (at a
time when comprehensive schooling was a political
issue, having just been introduced by the then Labour
government) was used by right-wing writers on edu-
cation at the time as a critique of the case fo r compre-
hensive schooling.

• One further aspect that warrants mention in this
section relates to what Savage (2010) refers to as the

9780199588053_C06.indd 151 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research152

politics of method. He argues the social sciences and
Sociology in particular emerged as credible disciplines
in the UK because their practitioners asserted exper-
tise in the use of certain research methods that they
used in a neutral and broadly ‘scientifi c’ manner. Thus,
early researchers’ use of sampling techniques, ques-
tionnaires, and interviewing were part of a gradual
claim to be taken seriously as an academic discipline,
allowing them to carve out a niche that differentiated
them in terms of expertise from Economics. It is
not that the early UK sociologists were claiming that
they were the only professionals to use these research
methods; after all, market researchers were well-
known practitioners. Rather, they claimed an expertise
in the use of these research methods for uncovering
and exploring ‘the social’ either as a domain that had
not previously been addressed by other academics or

if it had been addressed it had been done in a loose
and largely unsystematic manner. This was a political
battle for what Savage refers to as ‘jurisdiction’, out of
which Sociology largely emerged as a winner. How-
ever, Savage also argues (see also Savage and Burrows
2007) that this jurisdiction is under threat owing to
others using the very research methods over which
sociologists used to claim special expertise and the
emergence of new kinds of data about social issues in
which sociologists play little or no role. As a result, the
fi eld of research methods can be viewed as an arena in
which there are competing claims to methodological
profi ciency with regard to revealing the nature of the

These are just a small number of ways in which we can
talk about a politics of the research process.

Thinking deeply 6.2
Taking sides in social research:

the Becker–Gouldner dispute

In the late 1960s there was an interesting dispute between two sociologists who were leaders in the fi eld in the

USA and beyond: Howard S. Becker (1928–) and Alvin Gouldner (1920–80). Their debate raised many issues

concerning the role of values and politics in research, but the issue of taking sides in research is a particularly

interesting aspect of their dispute. Becker (1967) argued that it is not possible to do research that is unaffected

by our personal sympathies. When we conduct research, we are often doing so in the context of hierarchical

relationships (police–criminal, managers–workers, warders–prisoners, doctors–patients, teachers–students).

Becker felt that it is diffi cult in the context of such relationships not to take sides; instead, the bigger dilemma

is deciding which side we are on. Becker recognized that within the fi eld in which he conducted his research

at the time—the sociology of deviance—the sympathies of many practitioners lay with the underdogs in these

hierarchical relationships. At the very least, the sociologist of deviance may seek to express or represent the point

of view of criminals, prisoners, mental patients, and others, even if they do not go as far as to identify with them.

However, when sociologists of deviance take the perspective of such groups, Becker argued that they are more

likely to be accused of bias, because they are ascribing credibility to those whom society shuns and in many

cases abhors. Why is a study stressing the underdog’s perspective more likely to be regarded as biased? Becker

proffered two reasons: because members of the higher group are widely seen as having an exclusive right to

defi ne the way things are in their sphere and because they are regarded as having a more complete picture.

In other words, credibility is differentially distributed in society.

Gouldner (1968) argued that Becker exaggerated the issues he described in that by no means all research entails

the need to take sides. He also argued that it was a mistake to think that, simply because the researcher takes

the point of view of a section of society seriously, he or she necessarily sympathizes with that group. Much more

recently, Liebling (2001) has argued that it is possible to see the merits of more than one side. Taking the case of

prison research in the UK, she shows that, not only is it possible to recognize the virtues of different perspectives,

but it is also possible to do so without incurring too much wrath on either side—in her case, prison offi cials and


9780199588053_C06.indd 152 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 153


Issues to consider in connection with ethical issues

� Have you read and incorporated into your research the principles associated with at least one of the

major professional associations mentioned in this book?

� Have you read and incorporated the requirements for doing ethical research in your institution?

� Have you found out whether all proposed research needs to be submitted to the body in your

institution that is responsible for the oversight of ethical issues?

� If only certain types of research need to be submitted, have you checked to see whether your

proposed research is likely to require clearance?

� Have you checked to ensure that there is no prospect of any harm coming to participants?

� Does your research conform to the principle of informed consent, so that research participants


� what the research is about?

� the purposes of the research?

� who is sponsoring it?

� the nature of their involvement in the research?

� how long their participation is going to take?

� that their participation is voluntary?

� that they can withdraw from participation in the research at any time?

� what is going to happen to the data (e.g. how they are going to be kept)?

� Are you confi dent that the privacy of the people involved in your research will not be violated?

� Do you appreciate that you should not divulge information or views to your research participants that

other research participants have given you?

� Have you taken steps to ensure that your research participants will not be deceived about the research

and its purposes?

� Have you taken steps to ensure that the confi dentiality of data relating to your research participants

will be maintained?

� Once the data have been collected, have you taken steps to ensure that the names of your research

participants and the location of your research (such as the name of the organization(s) in which it took

place) are not identifi able?

� Does your strategy for keeping your data in electronic form comply with data protection legislation?

� Once your research has been completed, have you met obligations that were a requirement of doing

the research (for example, submitting a report to an organization that allowed you access)?

9780199588053_C06.indd 153 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research154

Key points

● This chapter has been concerned with a limited range of issues concerning ethics in social research,
in that it has concentrated on ethical concerns that might arise in the context of collecting and
analysing data. My concern has mainly been with relations between researchers and research
participants. Other ethical issues can arise in the course of social research.

● While the codes and guidelines of professional associations provide some guidance, their potency is
ambiguous and they often leave the door open for some autonomy with regard to ethical issues.

● The main areas of ethical concern relate to: harm to participants; lack of informed consent; invasion
of privacy; and deception.

● Covert observation and certain notorious studies have been particular focuses of concern.

● The boundaries between ethical and unethical practices are not clear cut.

● Writers on social research ethics have adopted several different stances in relation to the issue.

● While the rights of research participants are the chief focus of ethical principles, concerns about
professional self-interest are also of concern.

● Ethical issues sometimes become diffi cult to distinguish from ones to do with the quality of

● The Internet and other new media have opened up new arenas for ethical decision-making.

● There are political dimensions to the research process that link with the place of values.

● The political dimensions of research are concerned with issues to do with the role and exercise of
power at the different stages of an investigation.

Questions for review

● Why are ethical issues important in relation to the conduct of social research?

● Outline the different stances on ethics in social research.

Ethical principles

● Does ‘harm to participants’ refer to physical harm alone?

● What are some of the diffi culties that arise in following this ethical principle?

● Why is the issue of informed consent so hotly debated?

● What are the main diffi culties of following this ethical principle?

● Why is the privacy principle important?

● Why does deception matter?

● How helpful are notorious studies like Milgram’s electric shock experiments and Humphreys’s study
in terms of understanding the operation of ethical principles in social research?

Ethics and the issue of quality

● Why do issues to do with ethics sometimes become diffi cult to distinguish from issues to do with the
quality of research?

● Is it possible to maintain a distinction between ethics and research quality?

9780199588053_C06.indd 154 10/20/11 10:07 AM

Ethics and politics in social research 155

The diffi culties of ethical decision-making

● To what extent do new media throw up new areas of ethical concern?

● How easy is it to conduct ethical research?

● Read one of the ethical guidelines referred to in this chapter. How effective is it in guarding against
ethical transgressions?

Politics in social research

● What is meant by suggesting that politics plays a role in social research?

● In what ways does politics manifest itself in social research?

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of ethics
and politics in social research. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and
gain further guidance and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C06.indd 155 10/20/11 10:07 AM

This page intentionally left blank

Part Two

Part Two of this book is concerned with quantitative research. Chapter 7 sets the

scene by exploring the main features of this research strategy. Chapter 8 discusses

the ways in which we sample people on whom we carry out research. Chapter 9

focuses on the structured interview, which is one of the main methods of data

collection in quantitative research and in survey research in particular. Chapter 10

is concerned with another prominent method of gathering data through survey

research—questionnaires that people complete themselves. Chapter 11 provides

guidelines on how to ask questions for structured interviews and questionnaires.

Chapter 12 discusses structured observation, a method that provides a systematic

approach to the observation of people. Chapter 13 addresses content analysis,

which is a distinctive and systematic approach to the analysis of a wide variety of

documents. Chapter 14 discusses the possibility of using, in your own research, data

collected by other researchers or offi cial statistics. Chapter 15 presents some of the

main tools you will need to conduct quantitative data analysis. Chapter 16 shows

you how to use computer software in the form of SPSS—a very widely used package

of programs—to implement the techniques learned in Chapter 15.

These chapters will provide you with the essential tools for doing quantitative

research. They will take you from the very general issues to do with the generic

features of quantitative research to the very practical issues of conducting surveys

and analysing your own data.

9780199588053_C07.indd 157 10/20/11 10:07 AM

This page intentionally left blank

The nature of
quantitative research

Chapter outline

Introduction 160

The main steps in quantitative research 160

Concepts and their measurement 163

What is a concept? 163

Why measure? 164

Indicators 164

Using multiple-indicator measures 166

Dimensions of concepts 167

Reliability and validity 168

Reliability 168

Validity 170

Refl ections on reliability and validity 173

The main preoccupations of quantitative researchers 175

Measurement 175

Causality 175

Generalization 176

Replication 177

The critique of quantitative research 178

Criticisms of quantitative research 178

Is it always like this? 179

Reverse operationism 180

Reliability and validity testing 180

Sampling 181

Key points 181

Questions for review 182

Reliability and validity testing 180

Sampling 181

KeyKey po pointintss 181

Questistionsons fo fofor rr revieview 182182

9780199588053_C07.indd 159 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research160


In Chapter 2, quantitative research was outlined as a
distinctive research strategy. In very broad terms, it was
described as entailing the collection of numerical data,
as exhibiting a view of the relationship between theory
and research as deductive and a predilection for a nat-
ural science approach (and of positivism in particular),
and as having an objectivist conception of social reality.
A number of other features of quantitative research were
outlined, but in this chapter we will be examining the
strategy in much more detail.

It should be abundantly clear by now that the descrip-
tion of the research strategy as ‘quantitative research’

should not be taken to mean that quantifi cation of
aspects of social life is all that distinguishes it from a
qualitative research strategy. The very fact that it has a
distinctive epistemological and ontological position sug-
gests that there is a good deal more to it than the mere
presence of numbers. In this chapter, the main steps in
quantitative research will be outlined. We will also exam-
ine some of the principal preoccupations of the strategy
and how certain issues of concern among practitioners
are addressed, such as the concerns about measurement

Chapter guide

This chapter is concerned with the characteristics of quantitative research, an approach that has
been the dominant strategy for conducting social research. Its infl uence has waned slightly since the
mid-1970s, when qualitative research became increasingly infl uential. However, it continues to exert
a powerful infl uence in many quarters. The emphasis in this chapter is very much on what quantitative
research typically entails, though at a later point in the chapter the ways in which there are frequently
departures from this ideal type are outlined. This chapter explores:

• the main steps of quantitative research, which are presented as a linear succession of stages;

• the importance of concepts in quantitative research and the ways in which measures may be devised
for concepts; this discussion includes a discussion of the important idea of an indicator, which is
devised as a way of measuring a concept for which there is no direct measure;

• the procedures for checking the reliability and validity of the measurement process;

• the main preoccupations of quantitative research, which are described in terms of four features:
measurement; causality; generalization; and replication;

• some criticisms that are frequently levelled at quantitative research.

Figure 7.1 outlines the main steps in quantitative re-
search. This is very much an ideal-typical account of the
process: it is probably never or rarely found in this pure
form, but it represents a useful starting point for getting
to grips with the main ingredients of the approach and
the links between them. Research is rarely as linear and

as straightforward as the fi gure implies, but its aim is to
do no more than capture the main steps and to provide a
rough indication of their interconnections.

Some of the chief steps have been covered in Chapters
1, 2, and 3. The fact that we start off with theory signifi es
that a broadly deductive approach to the relationship

The main steps in quantitative


9780199588053_C07.indd 160 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 161

between theory and research is taken. It is common for
outlines of the main steps of quantitative research to sug-
gest that a hypothesis is deduced from the theory and is
tested. This notion has been incorporated into Figure 7.1.

However, a great deal of quantitative research does not
entail the specifi cation of a hypothesis, and instead the-
ory acts loosely as a set of concerns in relation to which
the social researcher collects data. The specifi cation of
hypotheses to be tested is particularly likely to be found
in experimental research. Other research designs some-
times entail the testing of hypotheses. In Chapter 2 a
study that employed a cross-sectional design using social
survey research instruments was cited as an example
(see Research in focus 2.4) that involved hypothesis test-
ing. However, as a rule, we tend to fi nd that Step 2 is
more likely to be found in experimental research.

The next step entails the selection of a research design,
a topic that was explored in Chapter 3. As we have seen,
the selection of research design has implications for a
variety of issues, such as the external validity of fi ndings
and researchers’ ability to impute causality to their fi nd-
ings. Step 4 entails devising measures of the concepts in
which the researcher is interested. This process is often
referred to as operationalization, a term that originally
derives from physics to refer to the operations by which a
concept (such as temperature or velocity) is measured
(Bridgman 1927). Aspects of this issue will be explored
below in this chapter.

The next two steps entail the selection of a research site
or sites and then the selection of subjects/respondents.
(Experimental researchers tend to call the people on
whom they conduct research ‘subjects’, whereas social
survey researchers typically call them ‘respondents’.)
Thus, in social survey research an investigator must fi rst
be concerned to establish an appropriate setting for his
or her research. A number of decisions may be involved.
The well-known Affl uent Worker research undertaken by
Goldthorpe et al. (1968: 2–5) involved two decisions
about a research site or setting. First, the researchers
needed a community that would be appropriate for the
testing of the ‘embourgeoisement’ thesis (the idea that
affl uent workers were becoming more middle class in
their attitudes and lifestyles). As a result of this consider-
ation, Luton was selected. Second, in order to come up
with a sample of ‘affl uent workers’ (Step 6), it was
decided that people working for three of Luton’s lead-
ing employers should be interviewed. Moreover, the
researchers wanted the fi rms selected to cover a range
of production technologies, because of evidence at that
time that technologies had implications for workers’ atti-
tudes and behaviour. As a result of these considerations,
the three fi rms were selected. Industrial workers were
then sampled, again in terms of selected criteria that
were to do with the researchers’ interests in embour-
geoisement and in the implications of technology for

Figure 7.1Figure 7.1
The process of quantitative research

1. Theory

2. Hypothesis

3. Research design

4. Devise measures of concepts

5. Select research site(s)

6. Select research subjects/respondents

7. Administer research instruments/collect data

8. Process data

9. Analyse data

10. Findings/conclusions

11. Write up findings/conclusions

9780199588053_C07.indd 161 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research162

work attitudes and behaviour. Research in focus 7.1 pro-
vides a more recent example of research that involved
similar deliberations about selecting research sites and

Step 7 involves the administration of the research
instruments. In experimental research, this is likely to
entail pre-testing subjects, manipulating the independ-
ent variable for the experimental group, and post-testing
respondents. In cross-sectional research using social
survey research instruments, it will involve interviewing
the sample members by structured interview schedule or
distributing a self-completion questionnaire. In research
using structured observation, this step will mean an
observer (or possibly more than one) watching the
setting and the behaviour of people and then assigning
categories to each element of behaviour.

Step 8 simply refers to the fact that, once information
has been collected, it must be transformed into ‘data’. In
the context of quantitative research, this is likely to mean
that it must be prepared so that it can be quantifi ed. With

sampling respondents. In experimental research, these
two steps are likely to include the assignment of subjects
into control and treatment groups.

some information this can be done in a relatively straight-
forward way—for example, for information relating to
such things as people’s ages, incomes, number of years
spent at school, and so on. For other variables, quantifi –
cation will entail coding the information—that is, trans-
forming it into numbers to facilitate the quantitative
analysis of the data, particularly if the analysis is going to
be carried out by computer. Codes act as tags that are
placed on data about people to allow the information to
be processed by the computer. This consideration leads
into Step 9—the analysis of the data. In this step, the
researcher is concerned to use a number of techniques of
quantitative data analysis to reduce the amount of data
collected, to test for relationships between variables, to
develop ways of presenting the results of the analysis to
others, and so on.

Research in focus 7.1
Selecting research sites and sampling

respondents: the Social Change and

Economic Life Initiative

The Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI) involved research in six labour markets: Aberdeen,

Coventry, Kirkaldy, Northampton, Rochdale, and Swindon. These labour markets were chosen to refl ect

contrasting patterns of economic change in the early to mid-1980s and in the then recent past. Within each

locality, three main surveys were carried out.

• The Work Attitudes/Histories Survey. Across the six localities a random sample of 6,111 individuals was

interviewed using a structured interview schedule. Each interview comprised questions about the individual’s

work history and about a range of attitudes.

• The Household and Community Survey. A further survey was conducted on roughly one-third of those

interviewed for the Work Attitudes/Histories Survey. Respondents and their partners were interviewed by

structured interview schedule, and each person also completed a self-completion questionnaire. This survey

was concerned with such areas as the domestic division of labour, leisure activities, and attitudes to the

welfare state.

• The Baseline Employers’ Survey. Each individual in each locality interviewed for the Work Attitudes/Histories

Survey was asked to provide details of his or her employer (if appropriate). A sample of these employers was

then interviewed by structured interview schedule. The interview schedules covered such areas as the gender

distribution of jobs, the introduction of new technologies, and relationships with trade unions.

The bulk of the results was published in a series of volumes, including Penn et al. (1994) and A. M. Scott (1994).

This example shows clearly the ways in which researchers are involved in decisions about selecting both research

site(s) and respondents.

9780199588053_C07.indd 162 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 163

On the basis of the analysis of the data, the researcher
must interpret the results of the analysis. It is at this stage
that the ‘fi ndings’ will emerge. The researcher will consider
the connections between the fi ndings that emerge out
of Step 8 and the various preoccupations that acted as
the impetus of the research. If there is a hypothesis, is it
supported? What are the implications of the fi ndings for
the theoretical ideas that formed the background to the

Then the research must be written up. It cannot take on
signifi cance beyond satisfying the researcher’s personal
curiosity until it enters the public domain in some way by
being written up as a paper to be read at a conference or
as a report to the agency that funded the research or as a
book or journal article for academic social researchers. In
writing up the fi ndings and conclusions, the researcher is
doing more than simply relaying what has been found to
others: readers must be convinced that the research con-
clusions are important and that the fi ndings are robust.
Thus, a signifi cant part of the research process entails
convincing others of the signifi cance and validity of one’s
fi ndings.

Once the fi ndings have been published, they become
part of the stock of knowledge (or ‘theory’ in the loose
sense of the word) in their domain. Thus, there is a feed-
back loop from Step 11 back up to Step 1. The presence of
an element of both deductivism (Step 2) and inductivism
(the feedback loop) is indicative of the positivist founda-
tions of quantitative research. Similarly, the emphasis
on the translation of concepts into measures (Step 4) is
symptomatic of the principle of phenomenalism (see
Key concept 2.2) that is also a feature of positivism. It is to
this important phase of translating concepts into measures
that we now turn. As we will see, certain considerations
follow on from the stress placed on measurement in
quantitative research. By and large, these considerations
are to do with the validity and reliability of the measures
devised by social scientists. These considerations will
fi gure prominently in the following discussion.

As noted at the outset of presenting the model in
Figure 7.1, this sequence of stages is a kind of ideal-typical
account that is probably rarely found in this pure form.
At the end of this chapter, the section ‘Is it always like
this?’ deals with three ways in which the model may not
be found in practice.

What is a concept?

Concepts are the building blocks of theory and represent
the points around which social research is conducted.
Just think of the numerous concepts that have already
been mentioned in relation to research examples cited so
far in this book:

structure, agency, social class, job search method,
deskilling, emotional satisfaction, religious orthodoxy,
religious orientation, preservation of self, informal
social control, negotiated order, culture, academic
achievement, teacher expectations, charismatic lead-
ership, healthy lifestyle, conversion.

Each represents a label that we give to elements of the
social world that seem to have common features and that
strike us as signifi cant. As Bulmer (1984: 43) succinctly
puts it, concepts ‘are categories for the organisation of ideas
and observations’. Thus, with a concept like social mobility,
we notice that some people improve their socio-economic
position relative to their parents, others stay roughly the

same, and others are downwardly mobile. Out of such
considerations, the concept of social mobility is reached.

If a concept is to be employed in quantitative research,
it will have to be measured. Once they are measured,
concepts can be in the form of independent or dependent
variables. In other words, concepts may provide an ex-
planation of a certain aspect of the social world, or they
may stand for things we want to explain. A concept like
social mobility may be used in either capacity: as a pos-
sible explanation of certain attitudes (are there differences
between the downwardly mobile and others in terms of
their political dispositions or social attitudes?) or as some-
thing to be explained (what are the causes of variation in
social mobility?). Equally, we might be interested in evi-
dence of changes in amounts of social mobility over time
or in variations between comparable nations in levels of
social mobility. As we start to investigate such issues, we
are likely to formulate theories to help us understand why,
for example, rates of social mobility vary between coun-
tries or over time. This will in turn generate new concepts,
as we try to tackle the explanation of variation in rates.

Concepts and their measurement

9780199588053_C07.indd 163 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research164

Why measure?

There are three main reasons for the preoccupation with
measurement in quantitative research.

1. Measurement allows us to delineate fi ne differences
between people in terms of the characteristic in
question. This is very useful, since, although we can
often distinguish between people in terms of extreme
categories, fi ner distinctions are much more diffi cult
to recognize. We can detect clear variations in levels
of job satisfaction—people who love their jobs and
people who hate their jobs—but small differences are
much more diffi cult to detect.

2. Measurement gives us a consistent device or yardstick
for making such distinctions. A measurement device
provides a consistent instrument for gauging differ-
ences. This consistency relates to two things: our
ability to be consistent over time and our ability to
be consistent with other researchers. In other words,
a measure should be something that is infl uenced
neither by the timing of its administration nor by the
person who administers it. Obviously, saying that the
measure is not infl uenced by timing is not meant to
indicate that measurement readings do not change:

they are bound to be infl uenced by the process of
social change. What it means is that the measure
should generate consistent results, other than those
that occur as a result of natural changes. Whether
a measure actually possesses this quality has to do
with the issue of reliability, which was introduced in
Chapter 3 and which will be examined again below.

3. Measurement provides the basis for more precise estim-
ates of the degree of relationship between concepts (for
example, through correlation analysis, which will be
examined in Chapter 15). Thus, if we measure both
job satisfaction and the things with which it might be
related, such as stress-related illness, we will be able
to produce more precise estimates of how closely they
are related than if we had not proceeded in this way.


In order to provide a measure of a concept (often referred
to as an operational defi nition, a term deriving from
the idea of operationalization), it is necessary to have an
indicator or indicators that will stand for the concept (see
Key concept 7.1). There are a number of ways in which
indicators can be devised:

Key concept 7.1
What is an indicator?

It is worth making two distinctions here. First, there is a distinction between an indicator and a measure. The

latter can be taken to refer to things that can be relatively unambiguously counted, such as personal income,

household income, age, number of children, or number of years spent at school. Measures, in other words,

are quantities. If we are interested in some of the causes of variation in personal income, the latter can be

quantifi ed in a reasonably direct way. We use indicators to tap concepts that are less directly quantifi able.

If we are interested in the causes of variation in job satisfaction, we will need indicators that will stand for the

concept. These indicators will allow job satisfaction to be measured, and we can treat the resulting quantitative

information as if it were a measure. An indicator, then, is something that is devised or already exists and that is

employed as though it were a measure of a concept. It is viewed as an indirect measure of a concept, like job

satisfaction. We see here a second distinction between direct and indirect indicators of concepts. Indicators

may be direct or indirect in their relationship to the concepts for which they stand. Thus, an indicator of marital

status has a much more direct relationship to its concept than an indicator (or set of indicators) relating to job

satisfaction. Sets of attitudes always need to be measured by batteries of indirect indicators. So too do many

forms of behaviour. When indicators are used that are not true quantities, they will need to be coded to be

turned into quantities. Directness and indirectness are not qualities inherent to an indicator: data from a survey

question on amount earned per month may be a direct measure of personal income. However, if we treat

personal income as an indicator of social class, it becomes an indirect measure. The issue of indirectness raises

the question of where an indirect measure comes from—that is, how does a researcher devise an indicator of

something like job satisfaction? Usually, it is based on common-sense understandings of the forms the concept

takes or on anecdotal or qualitative evidence relating to that concept.

9780199588053_C07.indd 164 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 165

• through a question (or series of questions) that is part
of a structured interview schedule or self-completion
questionnaire; the question(s) could be concerned with
the respondents’ report of an attitude (for example, job
satisfaction) or their social situation (for example,
poverty) or a report of their behaviour (for example,
leisure pursuits);

• through the recording of individuals’ behaviour using
a structured observation schedule (for example, pupil
behaviour in a classroom);

• through offi cial statistics, such as the use of Home
Offi ce crime statistics to measure criminal behaviour;

• through an examination of mass media content through
content analysis—for example, to determine changes

in the salience of an issue, such as AIDS, in the mass
media (Beharrell 1993).

Indicators, then, can be derived from a wide variety of
different sources and methods. Very often the researcher
has to consider whether one indicator of a concept will
be suffi cient. This consideration is frequently a focus for
social survey researchers. Rather than have just a single
indicator of a concept, the researcher may feel that it may
be preferable to ask a number of questions in the course
of a structured interview or a self-completion question-
naire that tap a certain concept (see Research in focus 7.2
and 7.3 for examples).

Research in focus 7.2
A multiple-indicator measure of a concept

The research on the effects of redundancy by Westergaard et al. (1989), which was referred to in Chapters 2 and

3, was conducted by structured interview with 378 steel workers who had been made redundant. One of the

authors’ interests was whether their respondents’ commitment to work varied according to whether they were

still unemployed at the time of the interview or had found work or had retired. In order to measure commitment

to employment, the authors gave their respondents ten statements and asked them to indicate their level of

agreement or disagreement on a seven-point scale running from ‘Yes, I strongly agree’ to ‘No, I strongly disagree’.

There was a middle point on the scale that allowed for a neutral response. This approach to investigating a

cluster of attitudes is known as a Likert scale, though in many cases researchers use a fi ve-point rather than

a seven-point scale for responses. See Key concept 7.2 for a description of what a Likert scale entails. The ten

statements were as follows.

1. Work is necessary, but rarely enjoyable.

2. Having a job is not very important to me.

3. I regard time spent at work as time taken away from the things I want to do.

4. Having a job is/was important to me only because it brings in money.

5. Even if I won a great deal of money on the pools I’d carry on working.

6. If unemployment benefi t were really high, I would still prefer to work.

7. I would hate being on the dole.

8. I would soon get bored if I did not go out to work.

9. The most important things that have happened to me involved work.

10. Any feelings I’ve had in the past of achieving something worthwhile have usually come through things I’ve

done at work.

In fact, the authors found that their respondents’ replies did not differ a great deal in terms of whether they had

found work since being made redundant or were still unemployed or had taken retirement.

9780199588053_C07.indd 165 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research166

Using multiple-indicator measures

What are the advantages of using a multiple-indicator
measure of a concept? The main reason for their use is
a recognition that there are potential problems with a
reliance on just a single indicator:

• It is possible that a single indicator will incorrectly
classify many individuals. This may be due to the
wording of the question or it may be a product of mis-
understanding. But, if there are a number of indica-
tors, if people are misclassifi ed through a particular
question, it will be possible to offset its effects.

• One indicator may capture only a portion of the
underlying concept or be too general. A single question

may need to be of an excessively high level of general-
ity and so may not refl ect the true state of affairs for
the people replying to it. Alternatively, a question may
cover only one aspect of the concept in question. For
example, if you were interested in job satisfaction,
would it be suffi cient to ask people how satisfi ed they
were with their pay? Almost certainly not, because most
people would argue that there is more to job satisfac-
tion than just satisfaction with pay. A single indicator
such as this would be missing out on such things as
satisfaction with conditions, with the work itself, and
with other aspects of the work environment. By asking
a number of questions, the researcher can get access
to a wider range of aspects of the concept.

Key concept 7.2
What is a Likert scale?

The investigation of attitudes is a prominent area in much survey research. One of the most common techniques

for conducting such an investigation is the Likert scale, named after Rensis Likert, who developed the method.

The Likert scale is essentially a multiple-indicator or multiple-item measure of a set of attitudes relating to

a particular area. The goal of the Likert scale is to measure intensity of feelings about the area in question. In its

most common format, it comprises a series of statements (known as ‘items’) that focus on a certain issue or

theme. Each respondent is then asked to indicate his or her level of agreement with the statement. Usually,

the format for indicating level of agreement is a fi ve-point scale going from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’,

but seven-point scale and other formats are used too. There is usually a middle position of ‘neither agree nor

disagree’ or ‘undecided’ indicating neutrality on the issue. Each respondent’s reply on each item is scored, and

then the scores for each item are aggregated to form an overall score. Normally, since the scale measures

intensity, the scoring is carried out so that a high level of intensity of feelings in connection with each indicator

receives a high score (for example, on a fi ve-point scale, a score of 5 for very strong positive feelings about an

issue and a score of 1 for very negative feelings). The measure of commitment to work referred to in Research in

focus 7.2 is an example of a Likert scale. Variations on the typical format of indicating degrees of agreement are

scales referring to frequency (for example, ‘never’ through to ‘always’) and evaluation (for example, ‘very poor’

through to ‘very good’).

There are several points to bear in mind about the construction of a Likert scale. The following are particularly


• The items must be statements and not questions.

• The items must all relate to the same object (job, organization, ethnic groups, unemployment, sentencing of

offenders, etc.).

• The items that make up the scale should be interrelated (see the discussion of internal reliability in this

chapter and Key concept 7.3).

It is useful to vary the phrasing so that some items imply a positive view of the phenomenon of interest and

others a negative one. Thus, in the example in Research in focus 7.2, some items imply a negative view of work

(for example, ‘Having a job is not very important to me’) and others a positive view of work (for example, ‘I would

soon get bored if I did not go out to work’). This variation is advised in order to identify respondents who exhibit

response sets (see the sections on ‘Response sets’ in Chapters 9 and 10).

9780199588053_C07.indd 166 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 167

• You can make much fi ner distinctions. Taking the
Westergaard et al. (1989) measure of commitment
to work as an example (see Research in focus 7.2), if
we just took one of the indicators as a measure, we
would be able to array people only on a scale of 1 to 7,
assuming that answers indicating no commitment
were assigned 1 and answers indicating a very high

Dimensions of concepts

One elaboration of the general approach to measurement
is to consider the possibility that the concept in which

level of commitment were assigned 7, the fi ve other
points being scored 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. However, with
a multiple-indicator measure of ten indicators the
range is 10 (10 × 1) − 70 (10 × 7). Key concept 7.2
provides some information about the kind of scale (a
Likert scale) that was used in the study by Westergaard
et al.

you are interested comprises different dimensions. This
view is particularly associated with Lazarsfeld (1958).
The idea behind this approach is that, when the re-
searcher is seeking to develop a measure of a concept, the

Research in focus 7.3
A multiple-indicator measure of another concept

In Kelley and De Graaf’s (1997) research on religious beliefs, two of the main concepts in which they were

interested—national religiosity and family religious orientation—were each measured by a single indicator (see

Research in focus 2.4). However, religious orthodoxy was measured by four survey questions, answers to which

were aggregated for each respondent to form a ‘score’ for that person. Answers to each of the four questions

were given a score and then aggregated to form a religious belief score. The four questions were as follows.

1. Please indicate which statement below comes closest to expressing what you believe about God:

• I don’t believe in God.

• I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe there is any way to fi nd out.

• I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind.

• I fi nd myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others.

• While I have doubts, I feel that I do believe in God.

• I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.

2. Which best describes your beliefs about God?

• I don’t believe in God and I never have.

• I don’t believe in God, but I used to.

• I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to.

• I believe in God now and I always have.

3. How close do you feel to God most of the time?

• Don’t believe in God.

• Not close at all.

• Not very close.

• Somewhat close.

• Extremely close.

4. There is a God who concerns Himself with every human being, personally.

• Strongly agree.

• Agree.

• Neither agree nor disagree.

• Disagree.

• Strongly disagree.

9780199588053_C07.indd 167 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research168

different aspects or components of that concept should
be considered. This specifi cation of the dimensions of a
concept would be undertaken with reference to theory
and research associated with that concept. Examples of
this kind of approach can be discerned in Seeman’s (1959)
delineation of fi ve dimensions of alienation (powerless-
ness, meaninglessness, normlessness, isolation, and self-
estrangement). Bryman and Cramer (2011) demonstrate
the operation of this approach with reference to the
concept of ‘professionalism’. The idea is that people scor-
ing high on one dimension may not necessarily score
high on other dimensions, so that for each respondent
you end up with a multidimensional ‘profi le’. Research
in focus 7.4 demonstrates the use of dimensions in

Although the terms ‘reliability’ and ‘validity’ seem to be
almost synonymous, they have quite different meanings
in relation to the evaluation of measures of concepts, as
was seen in Chapter 3.


As Key concept 7.3 suggests, reliability is fundamentally
concerned with issues of consistency of measures. There

connection with the concept of ‘deskilling’ in the socio-
logy of work.

However, in much if not most quantitative research,
there is a tendency to rely on a single indicator of
concepts. For many purposes this is quite adequate. It
would be a mistake to believe that investigations that
use a single indicator of core concepts are somehow
defi cient. In any case, some studies, like Kelley and
De Graaf (1997, see Research in focus 7.3), employ both
single- and multiple-indicator measures of concepts.
What is crucial is whether measures are reliable and
whether they are valid representations of the concepts
they are supposed to be tapping. It is to this issue that we
now turn.

are at least three different meanings of the term. These
are outlined in Key concept 7.3 and elaborated upon


The most obvious way of testing for the stability of a meas-
ure is the test–retest method. This involves administering
a test or measure on one occasion and then readminister-
ing it to the same sample on another occasion—that is:

Research in focus 7.4
Specifying dimensions of a concept:

the case of deskilling

This example is taken from social survey research primarily concerned with social class in Britain by Marshall

et al. (1988). The research was based on structured interviews with a national, random sample of individuals. One

of the researchers’ areas of interest was Braverman’s (1974) deskilling thesis (see Research in focus 2.2). Based on a

reading of the literature on this topic at the time, the authors argued that two important components or dimensions

of deskilling on which they were able to shed light were ‘skill as complexity and skill as freedom’, which ‘are

central to the thesis that work is being proletarianized through the deskilling of tasks’ (Marshall et al. 1988: 116).

‘Skill as complexity’ was measured by a single interview question asking respondents whether their current jobs

required more, less, or about the same amount of skill as when they fi rst started. ‘Skill as freedom’ was measured

by seven indicators that were treated separately and not aggregated. The questions entailed asking respondents

about such things as whether they were able to reduce the pace of their work or to initiate new tasks in their

work. Neither dimension comprised measures that offered signifi cant support for the deskilling thesis.

Reliability and validity

9780199588053_C07.indd 168 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 169

T1 T2

Obs1 Obs2

We should expect to fi nd a high correlation between
Obs1 and Obs2. Correlation is a measure of the strength
of the relationship between two variables. This topic will
be covered in Chapter 15 in the context of a discussion
about quantitative data analysis. Let us imagine that we

However, there are a number of problems with this
approach to evaluating reliability. Respondents’ answers at
T1 may infl uence how they reply at T2. This may result in
greater consistency between Obs1 and Obs2 than is in fact
the case. Second, events may intervene between T1 and
T2 that infl uence the degree of consistency. For example,
if a long span of time is involved, changes in the economy
or in respondents’ personal fi nancial circumstances could
infl uence their views about and predilection for designer
goods. For example, Berthoud (2000b) notes that an index
of ill-health devised from the British Household Panel

develop a multiple-indicator measure that is supposed
to tap a concept that we might call ‘designerism’ (a
preference for buying goods and especially clothing with
‘designer’ labels). We would administer the measure to a
sample of respondents and readminister it some time
later. If the correlation is low, the measure would appear
to be unstable, implying that respondents’ answers can-
not be relied upon.

Survey (BHPS) achieved a high test–retest reliability.
He notes that this is very encouraging, because ‘some of
the variation between tests (a year apart) will have been
caused by genuine changes in people’s health’ (Berthoud
2000b: 170). There is no easy way of disentangling the
effects of a lack of stability in the measure from ‘real’
changes in people’s health over the year in question.

There are no clear solutions to these problems, other
than by introducing a complex research design and
so turning the investigation of reliability into a major
project in its own right. Perhaps for these reasons, many

Key concept 7.3
What is reliability?

Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure of a concept. The following are three prominent factors involved

when considering whether a measure is reliable:

• Stability. This consideration entails asking whether a measure is stable over time, so that we can be confi dent

that the results relating to that measure for a sample of respondents do not fl uctuate. This means that, if we

administer a measure to a group and then readminister it, there will be little variation over time in the results

obtained. In February 2010, the then Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, was roundly criticized by the

UK Statistics Authority for comparing Home Offi ce statistics from the late 1990s with current fi gures to

suggest that there had been a big increase in violent crimes since Labour took offi ce in 1997. The reason for

the criticism was that there had been a change to the defi nition of violent crime, which had produced an

immediate 35 per cent increase in the crime. In this case, the measure of violent crime was not reliable from

the point of view of inferring a change over time. For this story, see ‘Chris Grayling Accused of Damaging

Public Trust over Crime Figures’,

(accessed 9 August 2010).

• Internal reliability. The key issue is whether the indicators that make up the scale or index are consistent—

in other words, whether respondents’ scores on any one indicator tend to be related to their scores on the

other indicators.

• Inter-observer consistency. When a great deal of subjective judgement is involved in such activities as the

recording of observations or the translation of data into categories and where more than one ‘observer’ is

involved in such activities, there is the possibility that there is a lack of consistency in their decisions. This can

arise in a number of contexts, for example: in content analysis where decisions have to be made about how to

categorize media items; when answers to open questions have to be categorized; or in structured observation

when observers have to decide how to classify subjects’ behaviour.

9780199588053_C07.indd 169 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research170

if not most reports of research fi ndings do not appear to
carry out tests of stability. Indeed, longitudinal research
is often undertaken precisely in order to identify social
change and its correlates.

Internal reliability

This meaning of reliability applies to multiple-indicator
measures like those examined in Research in focus 7.2
and 7.3. When you have a multiple-item measure in which
each respondent’s answers to each question are aggre-
gated to form an overall score, the possibility is raised
that the indicators do not relate to the same thing; in other
words, they lack coherence. We need to be sure that all
our designerism indicators are related to each other. If
they are not, some of the items may actually be unrelated
to designerism and therefore indicative of something else.

One way of testing internal reliability is the split-half
method. We can take the commitment to work measure
developed by Westergaard et al. (1989) as an example
(see Research in focus 7.2). The ten indicators would be
divided into two halves with fi ve in each group. The indi-
cators would be allocated on a random or an odd–even
basis. The degree of correlation between scores on two
halves would then be calculated. In other words, the aim
would be to establish whether respondents scoring high


As noted in Chapter 3, the issue of measurement validity
has to do with whether a measure of a concept really
measures that concept (see Key concept 7.5). When
people argue about whether a person’s IQ score really
measures or refl ects that person’s level of intelligence,

on one of the two groups also scored high on the other
group of indicators. The calculation of the correlation
will yield a fi gure, known as a coeffi cient, that varies
between 0 (no correlation and therefore no internal con-
sistency) to 1 (perfect correlation and therefore complete
internal consistency). It is usually expected that a result
of 0.80 and above implies an acceptable level of internal
reliability. Do not worry if the fi gures appear somewhat
opaque. The meaning of correlation will be explored in
much greater detail later on. The chief point to carry
away with you at this stage is that the correlation estab-
lishes how closely respondents’ scores on the two groups
of indicators are related.

Nowadays, most researchers use a test of internal reli-
ability known as Cronbach’s alpha (see Key concept 7.4).
Its use has grown as a result of its incorporation into com-
puter software for quantitative data analysis.

Inter-observer consistency

The idea of inter-observer consistency is briefl y outlined
in Key concept 7.3. The issues involved are rather too
advanced to be dealt with at this stage and will be touched
on briefl y in later chapters. Cramer (1998: ch. 14) provides
a very detailed treatment of the issues and appropriate

they are raising questions about the measurement valid-
ity of the IQ test in relation to the concept of intelligence.
Similarly, one often hears people say that they do not
believe that the Retail Price Index really refl ects infl ation
and the rise in the cost of living. Again, a query is being
raised in such comments about measurement validity.
And whenever students or lecturers debate whether

Key concept 7.4
What is Cronbach’s alpha?

To a very large extent we are leaping ahead too much here, but it is important to appreciate the basic features

of what this widely used test means. Cronbach’s alpha is a commonly used test of internal reliability. It essentially

calculates the average of all possible split-half reliability coeffi cients. A computed alpha coeffi cient will vary

between 1 (denoting perfect internal reliability) and 0 (denoting no internal reliability). The fi gure 0.80 is typically

employed as a rule of thumb to denote an acceptable level of internal reliability, though many writers work with

a slightly lower fi gure. In the case of the commitment to work scale devised by Westergaard et al. (1989: 93),

alpha was 0.70, which they refer to as ‘a satisfactory level’. In the case of Kelley and De Graaf’s (1997) measure of

religious orthodoxy, which comprised four indicators, alpha was 0.93. The alpha levels varied between 0.79 and

0.95 for each of the fi fteen national samples that make up the data. Berthoud (2000b: 169) writes that a minimum

level of 0.60 is ‘good’ and cites the case of an index of ill-health used in the BHPS that achieved a level of 0.77.

9780199588053_C07.indd 170 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 171

formal examinations provide an accurate measure of
academic ability, they too are raising questions about
measurement validity.

Writers on measurement validity distinguish between
a number of ways of appraising measurement validity.

Face validity

At the very minimum, a researcher who develops a new
measure should establish that it has face validity—that
is, that the measure apparently refl ects the content of the
concept in question. Face validity might be established
by asking other people whether the measure seems to be
getting at the concept that is the focus of attention. In
other words, people, possibly those with experience or
expertise in a fi eld, might be asked to act as judges to
determine whether on the face of it the measure seems to
refl ect the concept concerned. Face validity is, therefore,
an essentially intuitive process.

Concurrent validity

The researcher might seek also to gauge the concurrent

validity of the measure. Here the researcher employs a
criterion on which cases (for example, people) are known
to differ and that is relevant to the concept in question. A
new measure of job satisfaction can serve as an example.
A criterion might be absenteeism, because some people
are more often absent from work (other than through
illness) than others. In order to establish the concurrent
validity of a measure of job satisfaction, we might see
how far people who are satisfi ed with their jobs are less
likely than those who are not satisfi ed to be absent from
work. If a lack of correspondence were found, such as
there being no difference in levels of job satisfaction
among frequent absentees, doubt might be cast on
whether our measure is really addressing job satisfac-
tion. Similarly, Wood and Williams (2007) discuss the
problem of asking people in questionnaires how much
they spend on gambling, because self-reported gambling

These types really refl ect different ways of gauging
the validity of a measure of a concept. These different
ways of appraising measurement validity will now be

expenditure tends to be inconsistent with actual revenue
that accrues from gambling. The authors asked a large
random sample of residents in Ontario, Canada, how
much they had spent in the last month in twelve different
ways. They note that even slight variations in the word-
ing of questions could result in very different estimates
of expenditure on the part of respondents, a concern
that relates to issues that are discussed in Chapter 11.
However, some questions did produce answers that were
more consistent with an estimate of gambling expendi-
ture per person in Ontario, which acted as the concurrent
validity criterion. The authors recommend on the basis
of its performance in the validity test and its face validity
the following question:

Roughly how much money do you spend on [specifi c
gambling activity] in a typical month? What we mean
here is how much you are ahead or behind, or your net
win or loss in a typical month. (Wood and Williams
2007: 68)

The question required aggregating respondents’ estim-
ates of their gambling expenditure on each of several
gambling activities.

Predictive validity

Another possible test for the validity of a new measure is
predictive validity, whereby the researcher uses a future
criterion measure, rather than a contemporary one, as
in the case of concurrent validity. With predictive validity,
the researcher would take future levels of absenteeism as
the criterion against which the validity of a new measure

Key concept 7.5
What is validity?

Validity refers to the issue of whether an indicator (or set of indicators) that is devised to gauge a concept really

measures that concept. Several ways of establishing validity are explored in the text: face validity; concurrent

validity; predictive validity; construct validity; and convergent validity. Here the term is being used as a shorthand

for what was referred to as measurement validity in Chapter 3. Validity should therefore be distinguished from the

other terms introduced in Chapter 3: internal validity; external validity; and ecological validity.

9780199588053_C07.indd 171 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research172

of job satisfaction would be examined. The difference
from concurrent validity is that a future rather than a
simultaneous criterion measure is employed.

Construct validity

Some writers advocate that the researcher should also
estimate the construct validity of a measure. Here, the
researcher is encouraged to deduce hypotheses from a
theory that is relevant to the concept. For example, draw-
ing upon ideas about the impact of technology on the
experience of work, the researcher might anticipate
that people who are satisfi ed with their jobs are less
likely to work on routine jobs; those who are not satisfi ed
are more likely to work on routine jobs. Accordingly, we
could investigate this theoretical deduction by examin-
ing the relationship between job satisfaction and job rou-
tine. However, some caution is required in interpreting
the absence of a relationship between job satisfaction
and job routine in this example. First, either the theory or
the deduction that is made from it might be misguided.
Second, the measure of job routine could be an invalid
measure of that concept.

Convergent validity

In the view of some methodologists, the validity of a
measure ought to be gauged by comparing it to measures

of the same concept developed through other methods.
For example, if we develop a questionnaire measure of
how much time managers spend on various activities
(such as attending meetings, touring their organization,
informal discussions, and so on), we might examine its
validity by tracking a number of managers and using a
structured observation schedule to record how much
time is spent in various activities and their frequency.
In addition to using a test of concurrent validity for their
research on gambling expenditure, Wood and Williams
(2007) used a diary to estimate gambling expenditure
for a subsample of their respondents that could then be
compared to questionnaire estimates. Respondents began
the diary shortly after they had answered the survey ques-
tion and continued completing it for a thirty-day period.
This validity test allowed the researchers to compare
what was actually spent in the month after the question
was asked (assuming the diary estimates were correct)
with what respondents thought they spent on gambling.

An interesting instance of convergent invalidity is
described in Thinking deeply 7.1. In this example, the
British Crime Survey (BCS) was consciously devised to
provide an alternative measure of levels of crime so
that it would act as a check on the offi cial statistics. The
two sets of data are collected in quite different ways:
the offi cial crime statistics are collected as part of the

Thinking deeply 7.1
A case of convergent invalidity: Home Offi ce

crime statistics
An article in the Sunday Times (Burrell and Leppard 1994) proclaimed the government’s claims about the fall in

crime a sham. The opening paragraph put the point as follows:

The government’s much heralded fall in crime is a myth. Hundreds of thousands of serious crimes have been

quietly dropped from police records as senior offi cers massage their statistics to meet new Home Offi ce

targets. . . . Crime experts say at least 220,000 crimes, including burglary, assault, theft and car crimes,

vanished from offi cial statistics last year as a result of police manipulation of the fi gures.

What gave the ‘crime experts’ and the reporters the confi dence to assert that the much-trumpeted fall in crime

was a myth because the fi gures on which the claim was made had been massaged? The answer is that data from

the British Crime Survey (BCS) had ‘recently reported that actual crime rose faster over the past two years than

during the 1980s’ (see Research in focus 7.2 for details of the BCS). In each case, a large, randomly selected

sample of individuals is questioned by structured interview. The survey is not based on a panel research design,

because the same people are not interviewed with each wave of data collection. The BCS is an example of what

is known as a ‘victimization survey’. With this kind of survey, a sample of a population is questioned about its

experiences as victims of crime. The idea is that unreported crime and other crime that does not show up in the

offi cial statistics will be revealed. The categories of crime used in the survey are meant to refl ect those reported

in the offi cial statistics (Coleman and Moynihan 1996: 83–6). The 1994 survey found that there had been a

marked increase in most categories of crime.

9780199588053_C07.indd 172 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 173

bureaucratic processing of offenders in the course of
the activities of members of the British criminal justice
system, whereas the BCS entails the collection of data by
interview from a national sample of possible victims of
crime. In the case reported in Thinking deeply 7.1 a lack
of convergent validity was found. However, the problem
with the convergent approach to testing validity is that it
is not possible to establish very easily which of the two
measures represents the more accurate picture. The BCS
is not entirely fl awless in its approach to the measure-
ment of crime levels, and, in any case, the ‘true’ picture
with regard to the volume of crime at any one time is an
almost entirely metaphysical notion (Reiner 2000b).
While the authors of the news item were able to draw
on bits of anecdotal evidence to support their thesis that
the fi gures were being massaged and this together with
the BCS evidence casts doubt on the offi cial statistics,
it would be a mistake to hold that the survey evidence
necessarily represents a defi nitive and therefore un-
ambiguously valid measure.

Research in focus 7.5 provides a brief account of a new
scale using the Likert procedure and some of the ways in
which reliability and validity were assessed.

Refl ections on reliability and validity

There are, then, a number of different ways of investigat-
ing the merit of measures that are devised to represent
social scientifi c concepts. However, the discussion of
reliability and validity is potentially misleading, because
it would be wrong to think that all new measures of

concepts are submitted to the rigours described above. In
fact, most typically, measurement is undertaken within a
stance that Cicourel (1964) described as ‘measurement
by fi at’. By the term ‘fi at’, Cicourel was referring not to
a well-known Italian car manufacturer but to the notion
of ‘decree’. He meant that most measures are simply
asserted. Fairly straightforward but minimal steps may
be taken to ensure that a measure is reliable and/or valid,
such as testing for internal reliability when a multiple-
indicator measure has been devised and examining face
validity. But in many if not the majority of cases in which
a concept is measured, no further testing takes place.
This point will be further elaborated below.

It should also be borne in mind that, although reliabil-
ity and validity are analytically distinguishable, they are
related because validity presumes reliability. This means
that, if your measure is not reliable, it cannot be valid
(see page 47). This point can be made with respect to
each of the three criteria of reliability that have been dis-
cussed. If the measure is not stable over time, it simply
cannot be providing a valid measure. The measure could
not be tapping the concept it is supposed to be related
to if the measure fl uctuated. If the measure fl uctuates,
it may be measuring different things on different occa-
sions. If a measure lacks internal reliability, it means that
a multiple-indicator measure is actually measuring two
or more different things. Therefore, the measure cannot
be valid. Finally, if there is a lack of inter-observer consis-
tency, it means that observers cannot agree on the mean-
ing of what they are observing, which in turn means that
a valid measure cannot be in operation.

Research in focus 7.5
Developing a Likert scale: the case of attitudes

to vegetarians

Chin et al. (2002) describe how they went about developing a scale designed to measure pro- or anti-vegetarian

attitudes. They note that non-vegetarians sometimes see vegetarianism as deviant and that, as a result,

vegetarians are sometimes regarded with suspicion if not hostility. The authors developed a scale comprising

thirty-three items. Each item is a statement to which the respondent is asked to indicate strength of agreement

or disagreement on a seven-point scale. The items were arrived at following: interviews with both vegetarians

and non-vegetarians; a review of the literature on vegetarianism; fi eld observations (though it is not clear of what

or whom); brainstorming within the team; and an examination of attitude scales addressing other forms of

prejudice for possible wording and presentation. The items were meant to tap four areas:

• forms of behaviour in which vegetarians engage that are viewed as irritating—for example, ‘Vegetarians

preach too much about their beliefs and eating habits’ (possibly a double-barrelled item—see Chapter 11);

• disagreement with vegetarians’ beliefs—for example, ‘Vegetarians are overly concerned with animal rights’;

9780199588053_C07.indd 173 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research174

• health-related aspects of being a vegetarian—for example, ‘Vegetarians are overly concerned about gaining


• appropriate treatment of vegetarians—for example, ‘It’s OK to tease someone for being a vegetarian’.

The scale was tested out on a sample of university undergraduates in the USA. Some items from the scale were

dropped because they exhibited poor internal consistency with the other items. Cronbach’s alpha was conducted

for the remaining twenty-one items and found to be high at 0.87 (see Key concept 7.4). The construct validity

(see above on the meaning of this term) of the scale was also tested by asking the students to complete other

scales that the researchers predicted would be associated with pro- or anti-vegetarian attitudes. One method

was that the authors hypothesized that people with authoritarian attitudes would be more likely to be

anti-vegetarians. This was confi rmed, although the relationship between these two variables was very small.

However, contrary to their hypothesis, the scale for attitudes towards vegetarianism was not found to be related

to political conservatism. The scale emerges as internally reliable (see Key concept 7.3 on the meaning of this

term) but as being of slightly questionable construct validity.

Research in focus 7.6
Assessing the internal reliability and the

concurrent and predictive validity of a measure

of organizational climate

Patterson et al. (2005) describe the way they went about validating a measure they developed of organizational

climate. This is a rather loose concept that was fi rst developed in the 1960s and 1970s to refer to the perceptions

of an organization by its members. Four main dimensions of climate were developed based around the following


1. human relations model: feelings of belonging and trust in the organization and the degree to which there is

training, good communication, and supervisory support;

2. internal process model: the degree of emphasis on formal rules and on traditional ways of doing things;

3. open systems model: the extent to which fl exibility and innovativeness are valued;

4. rational goal model: the degree to which clearly defi ned objectives and the norms and values associated with

effi ciency, quality, and high performance are emphasized.

An Organizational Climate Measure, comprising 95 items in a four-point Likert format (defi nitely false, mostly

false, mostly true, defi nitely true) was developed and administered to employees in 55 UK organizations, with

6,869 completing a questionnaire—a response rate of 57 per cent. A factor analysis (see Key concept 7.6) was

conducted to explore the extent to which there were distinct groupings of items that tended to go together.

This procedure yielded seventeen scales, such as autonomy, involvement, innovation and fl exibility, and clarity

of organizational goals.

The internal reliability of the scales was assessed using Cronbach’s alpha, showing that all scales were at a level of

0.73 or above. This suggests that the measure’s constituent scales were internally reliable.

Concurrent validity was assessed following semi-structured interviews, with each company’s managers in

connection with their organization’s practices. The interview data were coded to provide criteria against which

the validity of the scales could be gauged. In most cases, the scales were found to be concurrently valid. For

example, the researcher examined the correlation between a scale designed to measure the emphasis on

tradition and the degree to which practices associated with the ‘new manufacturing paradigm’ (Patterson et al.

2005: 397) were adopted, as revealed by the interview data. The correlation was −0.42, implying that those fi rms

9780199588053_C07.indd 174 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 175

The main preoccupations of

quantitative researchers

Both quantitative and qualitative research can be viewed
as exhibiting a set of distinctive but contrasting preoccu-
pations. These preoccupations refl ect epistemologically
grounded beliefs about what constitutes acceptable
knowledge. In this section, four distinctive preoccu-
pations that can be discerned in quantitative research
will be outlined and examined: measurement, causality,
generalization, and replication.


The most obvious preoccupation is with measurement, a
feature that is scarcely surprising in the light of much
of the discussion in the present chapter so far. From the
position of quantitative research, measurement carries
a number of advantages that were previously outlined.
It is not surprising, therefore, that issues of reliability
and validity are a concern for quantitative researchers,
though this is not always manifested in research practice.


There is a very strong concern in most quantitative
research with explanation. Quantitative researchers are
rarely concerned merely to describe how things are, but
are keen to say why things are the way they are. This
emphasis is also often taken to be a feature of the ways
in which the natural sciences proceed. Thus, researchers
are often not only interested in a phenomenon like racial
prejudice as something to be described, for example, in
terms of how much prejudice exists in a certain group of

individuals, or what proportion of people in a sample are
highly prejudiced and what proportion are largely lack-
ing in prejudice. Rather, they are likely to want to explain
it, which means examining its causes. The researcher
may seek to explain racial prejudice in terms of personal
characteristics (such as levels of authoritarianism) or in
terms of social characteristics (such as education, or social
mobility experiences). In reports of research you will
often come across the idea of ‘independent’ and ‘depend-
ent’ variables, which refl ect the tendency to think in terms
of causes and effects. Racial prejudice might be regarded
as the dependent variable, which is to be explained, and
authoritarianism as an independent variable, and which
therefore has a causal infl uence upon prejudice.

When an experimental design is being employed,
the independent variable is the variable that is manipu-
lated. There is little ambiguity about the direction of
causal infl uence. However, with cross-sectional designs
of the kind used in most social survey research, there is
ambiguity about the direction of causal infl uence in that
data concerning variables are simultaneously collected.
Therefore, we cannot say that an independent variable
precedes the dependent one. To refer to independent
and dependent variables in the context of cross-sectional
designs, we must infer that one causes the other, as in
the example concerning authoritarianism and racial pre-
judice in the previous paragraph. We must draw on com-
mon sense or theoretical ideas to infer the likely temporal
precedence of variables. However, there is always the
risk that the inference will be wrong (see Research in
focus 27.6, for an example of this possibility).

that were perceived as rooted in tradition tended to be less likely to adopt new manufacturing practices. Here

the adoption of new manufacturing practices was treated as a criterion to assess the extent to which the scale

measuring perceptions of tradition really was addressing tradition. If the correlation had been small or had been

positive, the concurrent validity of the scale would have been in doubt.

To assess predictive validity, the researchers asked a senior key informant at each company to complete a

questionnaire one year after the main survey had been conducted. The questionnaire was meant to address two

of the measure’s constituent scales, one of which was the innovation and fl exibility scale. It asked the informants

to assess their company in terms of its innovativeness in a number of areas. For example, the correlation between

the innovation and fl exibility scale and informants’ assessments of their companies in terms of innovativeness

with respect to products achieved a correlation of 0.53. This implies that there was indeed a correlation between

perceptions of innovativeness and fl exibility and a subsequent indicator of innovativeness.

9780199588053_C07.indd 175 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research176

The concern about causality is refl ected in the pre-
occupation with internal validity that was referred to in
Chapter 3. There it was noted that a criterion of good
quantitative research is frequently the extent to which
there is confi dence in the researcher’s causal inferences.
Research that exhibits the characteristics of an experi-
mental design is often more highly valued than cross-
sectional research, because of the greater confi dence
that can be enjoyed in the causal fi ndings associated with
the former. For their part, quantitative researchers who
employ cross-sectional designs are invariably concerned
to develop techniques that will allow causal inferences to
be made. Moreover, the rise of longitudinal research like
the BHPS almost certainly refl ects a desire on the part of
quantitative researchers to improve their ability to gener-
ate fi ndings that permit a causal interpretation.


In quantitative research the researcher is usually con-
cerned to be able to say that his or her fi ndings can be
generalized beyond the confi nes of the particular context
in which the research was conducted. Thus, if a study of
racial prejudice is carried out by a questionnaire with a
number of people who answer the questions, we often
want to say that the results can apply to individuals other
than those who responded in the study. This concern
reveals itself in social survey research in the attention
that is often given to the question of how one can create
a representative sample. Given that it is rarely feasible to
send questionnaires to or interview whole populations
(such as all members of a town, or the whole population
of a country, or all members of an organization), we have
to sample. However, we will want the sample to be as rep-
resentative as possible in order to be able to say that the

results are not unique to the particular group upon whom
the research was conducted; in other words, we want to
be able to generalize the fi ndings beyond the cases (for
example, the people) that make up the sample. The pre-
occupation with generalization can be viewed as an attempt
to develop the lawlike fi ndings of the natural sciences.

Probability sampling, which will be explored in
Chapter 8, is the main way in which researchers seek to
generate a representative sample. This procedure largely
eliminates bias from the selection of a sample by using a
process of random selection. The use of a random selec-
tion process does not guarantee a representative sample,
because, as will be seen in Chapter 8, there are factors
that operate over and above the selection system used
that can jeopardize the representativeness of a sample.
A related consideration here is this: even if we did have
a representative sample, what would it be representative
of? The simple answer is that it will be representative of
the population from which it was selected. This is cer-
tainly the answer that sampling theory gives us. Strictly
speaking, we cannot generalize beyond that population.
This means that, if the members of the population from
which a sample is taken are all inhabitants of a town,
city, or region, or are all members of an organization,
we can generalize only to the inhabitants or members
of the town, city, region, or organization. But it is very
tempting to see the fi ndings as having a more pervasive
applicability, so that, even if the sample were selected
from a large city like Birmingham, the fi ndings would be
relevant to all similar cities. We should not make infer-
ences beyond the population from which the sample was
selected, but researchers frequently do so. The concern
to be able to generalize is often so deeply ingrained that
the limits to the generalizability of fi ndings are fre-
quently forgotten or sidestepped.

Student experience
Generalizability in a student project
For his team-based survey research on students at his university, Joe Thompson felt that issues to do with

reliability and validity were important. In particular, it appears from the following comment that the

generalizability of the fi ndings was especially signifi cant.

Again, the main considerations were reliability and validity of the research. Thus the methods used refl ected this;

the questionnaire went through a modifi cation period where we as a group not only tested it on our sample but

also received information from staff who worked within the area our research project was aimed at. We knew that

the sample had to be representative of the whole university, so the number of members from the group interviewing

students from different halls was in ratio to the number of students who lived within those residences.

To read more about Joe’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C07.indd 176 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 177

The concern with generalizability or external validity
is particularly strong among quantitative researchers
using cross-sectional and longitudinal designs. There is a
concern about generalizability among experimental re-
search, as the discussion of external validity in Chapter 3
suggested, but users of this research design usually give
greater attention to internal validity issues.


The natural sciences are often depicted as wishing to
reduce to a bare minimum the contaminating infl uence of
the scientist’s biases and values. The results of a piece of
research should be unaffected by the researcher’s special
characteristics or expectations or whatever. If biases and
lack of objectivity were pervasive, the claims of the nat-
ural sciences to provide a defi nitive picture of the world
would be seriously undermined. As a check upon the
infl uence of these potentially damaging problems, scien-
tists may seek to replicate—that is, to reproduce—each
other’s experiments. If there was a failure to replicate, so
that a scientist’s fi ndings repeatedly could not be repro-
duced, serious questions would be raised about the valid-
ity of his or her fi ndings. Consequently, scientists often
attempt to be highly explicit about their procedures so
that an experiment is capable of replication. Likewise,
quantitative researchers in the social sciences often
regard replication, or more precisely the ability to repli-
cate, as an important ingredient of their activity. It is easy
to see why: the possibility of a lack of objectivity and of
the intrusion of the researcher’s values would appear to
be much greater when examining the social world than

when the natural scientist investigates the natural order.
Consequently, it is often regarded as important that the
researcher spells out clearly his or her procedures so that
they can be replicated by others, even if the research does
not end up being replicated.

Whether research is in practice replicated is another
matter. Replication is not a high-status activity in the
natural and social sciences, because it is often regarded
as a pedestrian and uninspiring pursuit. It is striking that,
in the example referred to in Research in focus 7.7, the
exercise is referred to as a ‘replication and extension of
several previous studies’ (emphasis added), conveying
the impression that it is not just a replication.

Moreover, standard replications do not form the basis
for attractive articles, so far as many academic journal
editors are concerned. Consequently, replications of re-
search appear in print far less frequently than might be
supposed. A further reason for the low incidence of pub-
lished replications is that it is diffi cult to ensure in social
science research that the conditions in a replication are
precisely the same as those that pertained in an original
study. So long as there is some ambiguity about the
degree to which the conditions relating to a replication are
the same as those in the initial study, any differences in
fi ndings may be attributable to the design of the replica-
tion rather than to some defi ciency in the original study.
To some extent, this is the case with the research referred
to in Research in focus 7.7. Nonetheless, it is often regarded
as crucial that the methods taken in generating a set of
fi ndings are made explicit, so that it is possible to replicate
a piece of research. Thus, it is replicability that is often
regarded as an important quality of quantitative research.

Research in focus 7.7
Replicating a study of cartoons

S. N. Davis (2003: 412) conducted what she refers to as a ‘replication and extension of several previous studies’.

The replication was of previous research—particularly that of L. Smith (1994)—that conducted content analyses

of the characters in commercial cartoons that are broadcast in between children’s television programmes in the

USA. Content analysis is a technique that aims to provide quantitative analyses of different kinds of content in

a systematic fashion. It is covered in detail in Chapter 13. Davis (2003) was especially interested in the extent to

which the cartoon characters exhibited sex-role stereotyping. Based on previous research, Davis deduced several

hypotheses concerning the sex-role stereotyping of the cartoon characters in the 1990s. Examples of such

hypotheses are:

• ‘characters in major roles will be more likely to be male than characters in minor roles’ (2003: 411);

• ‘the character will be more likely to be male if the activity is an individual activity than a group activity’

(2003: 411);

• ‘characters in activities with high amounts of movement will be more likely to be male than those characters

who are portrayed with low amounts of movement’ (2003: 411).

9780199588053_C07.indd 177 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research178

Davis depicts her research as partly a replication and partly an extension, because Smith’s research was

concerned with children’s television progammes in general, whereas hers is just concerned with animated

cartoon programmes. She analysed the content of cartoons shown in one month of 1995. A cartoon entered the

sample just once, no matter how many times it was shown. Through this process, there were 167 cartoons and

478 characters that were analysed. Her fi ndings confi rmed that advertising through cartoons aimed at children

does indeed entail sex-role stereotyping. However, she also writes:

As this project largely replicated Smith’s research, it shows the need for continued replication of this kind of

analysis, as some of the fi ndings in Smith’s research were not reproduced in the analysis. The differences could

be a function of the more narrowly defi ned sample of television programming from which the advertisements

were drawn, or they could show a change in advertisers’ methods of advertising their products to children.

(S. N. Davis 2003: 421)

This research shows that a replication can be very valuable in establishing that the fi ndings from a study

should not be too readily accepted at face value. On the other hand, the second sentence in this quotation

demonstrates how diffi cult it is to interpret the fi ndings of a replication study. It is diffi cult to know how to

interpret any divergences in the fi ndings. Instead, as Davis implies, it is not that the original fi ndings are ‘wrong’

but that it could be that, when applied to a different kind of sample, the same kind of analysis yields different

fi ndings or that there has been a change in advertisers’ practices. It is common for there to be ambiguities of this

kind with replications in social research.

The critique of quantitative research

Over the years, quantitative research along with its
epistemological and ontological foundations has been
the focus of a great deal of criticism, particularly from
exponents and spokespersons of qualitative research. To
a very large extent, it is diffi cult to distinguish between
different kinds of criticism when refl ecting on the dif-
ferent critical points that have been proffered. These
include: criticisms of quantitative research in general as
a research strategy; criticisms of the epistemological and
ontological foundations of quantitative research; and
criticisms of specifi c methods and research designs with
which quantitative research is associated.

Criticisms of quantitative research

To give a fl avour of the critique of quantitative research,
four criticisms will be covered briefl y.

1. Quantitative researchers fail to distinguish people and
social institutions from ‘the world of nature’. The phrase
‘the world of nature’ is from the writings of Schutz
(1962) and the specifi c quotation from which it has
been taken can be found on page 13 above. Schutz
and other phenomenologists charge social scientists
who employ a natural science model with treating the

social world as if it were no different from the natural
order. In so doing, they draw attention to one of posi-
tivism’s central tenets—namely, that the principles of
the scientifi c method can and should be applied
to all phenomena that are the focus of investigation.
As Schutz argues, this tactic is essentially to imply
that this means turning a blind eye to the differences
between the social and the natural world. More par-
ticularly, as was observed in Chapter 2, it therefore
means ignoring and riding roughshod over the fact
that people interpret the world around them, whereas
this capacity for self-refl ection cannot be found
among the objects of the natural sciences (‘molecules,
atoms, and electrons’, as Schutz put it).

2. The measurement process possesses an artifi cial and
spurious sense of precision and accuracy. There are a
number of aspects to this criticism. For one thing, it
has been argued that the connection between the
measures developed by social scientists and the con-
cepts they are supposed to be revealing is assumed
rather than real; hence, Cicourel’s (1964) notion
of ‘measurement by fi at’. Testing for validity in the
manner described in the previous section cannot
really address this problem, because the very tests

9780199588053_C07.indd 178 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 179

themselves entail measurement by fi at. A further way
in which the measurement process is regarded by
writers like Cicourel as fl awed is that it presumes that
when, for example, members of a sample respond to
a question on a questionnaire (which is itself taken
to be an indicator of a concept), they interpret the
key terms in the question similarly. For many writers,
respondents simply do not interpret such terms
similarly. An often used reaction to this problem is
to use questions with fi xed-choice answers, but this
approach merely provides ‘a solution to the problem
of meaning by simply ignoring it’ (Cicourel 1964:

3. The reliance on instruments and procedures hinders the
connection between research and everyday life. This
issue relates to the question of ecological validity that
was raised in Chapter 3. Many methods of quantita-
tive research rely heavily on administering research
instruments to subjects (such as structured interviews
and self-completion questionnaires) or on controlling
situations to determine their effects (such as in ex-
periments). However, as Cicourel (1982) asks, how
do we know if survey respondents have the requisite
knowledge to answer a question or whether they are
similar in their sense of the topic being important
to them in their everyday lives? Thus, if respondents
answer a set of questions designed to measure racial
prejudice, can we be sure that they are equally aware
of what it is and what its manifestations are and can
we be sure that it is of equal concern to them in the
ways in which it connects with everyday life? One can
go even further and ask how well their answers relate
to their everyday lives. People may answer a question

designed to measure racial prejudice, but respon-
dents’ actual behaviour may be at variance with their
answers (Thinking deeply 12.2).

4. The analysis of relationships between variables creates a
static view of social life that is independent of people’s
lives. Blumer (1956: 685) argued that studies that aim
to bring out the relationships between variables omit
‘the process of interpretation or defi nition that goes
on in human groups’. This means that, for example,
we do not know how an apparent relationship be-
tween two or more variables has been produced by
the people on whom the research was conducted.
This criticism incorporates the fi rst and third criti-
cisms that have been referred to—that the meaning
of events to individuals is ignored and that we do not
know how such fi ndings connect to everyday con-
texts—but adds a further element—namely, that it
creates a sense of a static social world that is separate
from the individuals who make it up. In other words,
quantitative research is seen as carrying an objectivist
ontology that reifi es the social world.

We can see in these criticisms the application of a set of
concerns associated with a qualitative research strategy
that reveals the combination of an interpretivist epistem-
ological orientation (an emphasis on meaning from the
individual’s point of view) and a constructionist ontology
(an emphasis on viewing the social world as the product
of individuals rather than as something beyond them).
The criticisms may appear very damning, but, as we will
see in Chapter 17, quantitative researchers have a power-
ful battery of criticisms of qualitative research in their
arsenal as well!

Is it always like this?

One of the problems with characterizing any research
strategy, research design, or research method is that to a
certain extent one is always outlining an ideal-typical
approach. In other words, one tends to create something
that represents that strategy, design, or method, but that
may not be refl ected in its entirety in research practice.
This gap between the ideal type and actual practice can
arise as a result of at least two major considerations.
First, it arises because those of us who write about and
teach research methods cannot cover every eventuality
that can arise in the process of social research, so that we

tend to provide accounts of the research process that
draw upon common features. Thus, a model of the pro-
cess of quantitative research, such as that provided in
Figure 7.1, should be thought of as a general tendency
rather than as a defi nitive description of all quantitative
research. A second reason why the gap can arise is that,
to a very large extent when writing about and teaching
research methods, we are essentially providing an ac-
count of good practice. The fact of the matter is that these
practices are often not followed in the published research
that students are likely to encounter in the substantive

9780199588053_C07.indd 179 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research180

courses that they will be taking. This failure to follow
the procedures associated with good practice is not
necessarily due to incompetence on the part of social
researchers (though in some cases it can be!), but is
much more likely to be associated with matters of time,
cost, and feasibility—in other words, the pragmatic con-
cerns that cannot be avoided when one does social

Reverse operationism

As an example of the fi rst source of the gap between
the ideal type and actual research practice we can take
the case of something that I have referred to as ‘reverse
operationism’ (Bryman 1988a: 28). The model of the
process of quantitative research in Figure 7.1 implies that
concepts are specifi ed and measures are then provided
for them. As we have noted, this means that indicators
must be devised. This is the basis of the idea of opera-

tionism or operationalism, a term that derives from
physics (Bridgman 1927), and that implies a deductive
view of how research should proceed. However, this view
of research neglects the fact that measurement can entail
much more of an inductive element than Figure 7.1 im-
plies. Sometimes, measures are developed that in turn
lead to conceptualization. One way in which this can
occur is when a statistical technique known as factor

Reliability and validity testing

The second reason why the gap between the ideal type
and actual research practice can arise is because re-
searchers do not follow some of the recommended prac-
tices. A classic case of this tendency is that, while, as in

analysis is employed (see Key concept 7.6). In order to
measure the concept of ‘charismatic leadership’, a term
that owes a great deal to Weber’s (1947) notion of charis-
matic authority, Conger and Kanungo (1998) generated
twenty-fi ve items to provide a multiple-item measure of
the concept. These items derived from their reading of
existing theory and research on the subject, particularly
in connection with charismatic leadership in organiza-
tions. When the items were administered to a sample of
respondents and the results were factor analysed, it was
found that the items bunched around six factors, each of
which, to all intents and purposes, represents a dimen-
sion of the concept of charismatic leadership:

1. strategic vision and articulation behaviour;

2. sensitivity to the environment;

3. unconventional behaviour;

4. personal risk;

5. sensitivity to organizational members’ needs;

6. action orientation away from the maintenance of the
status quo.

The point to note is that these six dimensions were not
specifi ed at the outset: the link between conceptualiza-
tion and measurement was an inductive one. Nor is this
an unusual situation so far as research is concerned
(Bryman 1988a: 26–8).

the present chapter, much time and effort are expended
on the articulation of the ways in which the reliability
and validity of measures should be determined, often
these procedures are not followed. There is evidence from
analyses of published quantitative research in organiza-
tion studies (Podsakoff and Dalton 1987), a fi eld that

Key concept 7.6
What is factor analysis?

Factor analysis is employed in relation to multiple-indicator measures to determine whether groups of indicators

tend to bunch together to form distinct clusters, referred to as factors. Its main goal is to reduce the number of

variables with which the researcher needs to deal. It is used in relation to multiple-item measures, like Likert

scales, to see how far there is an inherent structure to the large number of items that often make up such

measures. Researchers sometimes use factor analysis to establish whether the dimensions of a measure that they

expect to exist can be confi rmed. The clusters of items that are revealed by a factor analysis need to be given

names (for example, innovation and fl exibility or autonomy in the example in Research in focus 7.6). It is a

complex technique that is beyond the level at which this book is pitched (see Bryman and Cramer 2011: ch. 13),

but it has considerable signifi cance for the development of measures in many social scientifi c fi elds.

9780199588053_C07.indd 180 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research 181

draws extensively on ideas and methods used in the
social sciences, that writers rarely report tests of the
stability of their measures and even more rarely report
evidence of validity (only 3 per cent of articles provided
information about measurement validity). A large pro-
portion of articles used Cronbach’s alpha, but, since
this device is relevant only to multiple-item measures,
because it gauges internal consistency, the stability and
validity of many measures that are employed in the fi eld
of organization studies are unknown. This is not to say
that the measures are necessarily unstable and invalid,
but that we simply do not know. The reasons why the
procedures for determining stability and validity are
rarely used are almost certainly the cost and time that are
likely to be involved. Researchers tend to be concerned
with substantive issues and are less than enthusiastic
about engaging in the kind of development work that
would be required for a thoroughgoing determination of
measurement quality. However, what this means is that
Cicourel’s (1964) previously cited remark about much
measurement in sociology being ‘measurement by fi at’
has considerable weight.

The remarks on the lack of assessment of the quality
of measurement should not be taken as a justifi cation
for readers to neglect this phase in their work. My aim is
merely to draw attention to some of the ways in which
practices described in this book are not always followed
and to suggest some reasons why they are not followed.


A similar point can be made in relation to sampling,
which will be covered in the next chapter. As we will see,
good practice is strongly associated with random or prob-
ability sampling. However, quite a lot of research is based
on non-probability samples—that is, samples that have
not been selected in terms of the principles of probability
sampling, to be discussed in Chapter 8. Sometimes the
use of non-probability samples will be due to the impos-
sibility or extreme diffi culty of obtaining probability

samples. Yet another reason is that the time and cost
involved in securing a probability sample are too great
relative to the level of resources available. And yet a third
reason is that sometimes the opportunity to study a
certain group presents itself and represents too good an
opportunity to miss. Again, such considerations should
not be viewed as a justifi cation and hence a set of reasons
for ignoring the principles of sampling to be examined
in the next chapter, not least because not following the
principles of probability sampling carries implications
for the kind of statistical analysis that can be employed
(see Chapter 15). Instead, my purpose as before is to
draw attention to the ways in which gaps between recom-
mendations about good practice and actual research
practice can arise.

Key points

● Quantitative research can be characterized as a linear series of steps moving from theory to
conclusions, but the process described in Figure 7.1 is an ideal type from which there are many

● The measurement process in quantitative research entails the search for indicators.

● Establishing the reliability and validity of measures is important for assessing their quality.

● Quantitative research can be characterized as exhibiting certain preoccupations, the most central of
which are: measurement; causality; generalization; and replication.

● Quantitative research has been subjected to many criticisms by qualitative researchers. These
criticisms tend to revolve around the view that a natural science model is inappropriate for studying
the social world.

9780199588053_C07.indd 181 10/20/11 10:08 AM

The nature of quantitative research182

Questions for review

The main steps in quantitative research

● What are the main steps in quantitative research?

● To what extent do the main steps follow a strict sequence?

● Do the steps suggest a deductive or inductive approach to the relationship between theory and

Concepts and their measurement

● Why is measurement important for the quantitative researcher?

● What is the difference between a measure and an indicator?

● Why might multiple-indicator approaches to the measurement of concepts be preferable to those
that rely on a single indicator?

Reliability and validity

● What are the main ways of thinking about the reliability of the measurement process? Is one form of
reliability the most important?

● ‘Whereas validity presupposes reliability, reliability does not presuppose validity.’ Discuss.

● What are the main criteria for evaluating measurement validity?

The main preoccupations of quantitative researchers

● Outline the main preoccupations of quantitative researchers. What reasons can you give for their

● Why might replication be an important preoccupation among quantitative researchers, in spite of the
tendency for replications in social research to be fairly rare?

The critique of quantitative research

● ‘The crucial problem with quantitative research is the failure of its practitioners to address adequately
the issue of meaning.’ Discuss.

● How central is the adoption by quantitative researchers of a natural science model of conducting
research to the critique by qualitative researchers of quantitative research?

Is it always like this?

● Why do social researchers sometimes not test the validity and/or reliability of measures that they

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of the
nature of quantitative research. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions,
and gain further guidance and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C07.indd 182 10/20/11 10:08 AM


Chapter outline

Introduction to survey research 184

Introduction to sampling 186

Sampling error 188

Types of probability sample 190

Simple random sample 190

Systematic sample 191

Stratifi ed random sampling 192

Multi-stage cluster sampling 193

The qualities of a probability sample 195

Sample size 197

Absolute and relative sample size 197

Time and cost 198

Non-response 199

Heterogeneity of the population 200

Kind of analysis 201

Types of non-probability sampling 201

Convenience sampling 201

Snowball sampling 202

Quota sampling 203

Limits to generalization 205

Error in survey research 205

Key points 206

Questions for review 206

9780199588053_C08.indd 183 10/20/11 10:09 AM


Introduction to survey research

Once the research questions have been formulated, the
planning of the fi eldwork can begin. In practice, decisions
relating to sampling and the research instrument will
overlap, but they are presented in Figure 8.1 as part of a
sequence. The fi gure is meant to illustrate the main phases
of a survey, and these different steps (other than those to
do with sampling, which will be covered in this chapter)
will be followed through in Chapters 9–11 and 15–16.

The survey researcher needs to decide what kind of
population is suited to the investigation of the topic and
also needs to formulate a research instrument and how
it should be administered. By ‘research instrument’ is
meant simply something like a structured interview
schedule or a self-completion questionnaire. Moreover,
there are several different ways of administering such
instruments. Figure 8.2 outlines the main types that are
likely to be encountered. Types 1 through 4 are covered
in Chapter 9. Types 5 and 6 are covered in Chapter 10.
Types 7 through 9 are covered in Chapter 28 in the con-
text of the use of the Internet generally.

Chapter guide

This chapter and the three that follow it are very much concerned with principles and practices
associated with social survey research. Sampling principles are not exclusively concerned with survey
research; for example, they are relevant to the selection of documents for content analysis (see
Chapter 13). However, in this chapter the emphasis will be on sampling in connection with the selection
of people who would be asked questions by interview or questionnaire. The chapter explores:

• the role of sampling in relation to the overall process of doing survey research;

• the related ideas of generalization (also known as external validity) and of a representative sample;
the latter allows the researcher to generalize fi ndings from a sample to a population;

• the idea of a probability sample—that is, one in which a random selection process has been employed;

• the main types of probability sample: the simple random sample; the systematic sample; the stratifi ed
random sample; and the multi-stage cluster sample;

• the main issues involved in deciding on sample size;

• different types of non-probability sample, including quota sampling, which is widely used in market
research and opinion polls;

• potential sources of error in survey research.

This chapter is concerned with some important aspects
of conducting a survey, but it presents only a partial pic-
ture, because there are many other steps. In this chapter
we are concerned with the issues involved in selecting
individuals for survey research, although the principles
involved apply equally to other approaches to quantita-
tive research, such as content analysis. Chapters 9, 10,
and 11 deal with the data-collection aspects of conduct-
ing a survey, while Chapters 15 and 16 deal with issues to
do with the analysis of data.

Figure 8.1 aims to outline the main steps involved in
doing survey research. Initially, the survey will begin
with general research issues that need to be investigated.
These are gradually narrowed down so that they become
research questions, which may take the form of hypo-
theses, but this need not necessarily be the case. The
movement from research issues to research questions is
likely to be the result of reading the literature relating to
the issues, such as relevant theories and evidence (see
Chapters 1 and 4).

9780199588053_C08.indd 184 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 185

Figure 8.1Figure 8.1
Steps in conducting a social survey

Issue(s) to be researched

Review literature/theories relating to topic/areg a

Formulate research question(s)

Consider whether a social survey is appropriate (if not, consider an alternative research design)

Consider what kind of population will be appropriate

Consider what kind of sample design will be employed

Explore whether there is a sampling frame that can be emplog yed

Decide on sample size

Decide on mode of administration (face-to-face; telephone; postal; email; Web)

Develop questions (and devise answer alternatives for closed questions)

Review questions and assess face validity

Pilot questions

Revise questions

Finalize questionnaire/schedule

Sample from population

Administer questionnaire/schedule to sample

Follow up non-respondents at least once

Transform completed questionnaires/schedules into computer readable data (coding)

Enter data into statistical analysis program like SPSS

Analyse data

Interpret findings

Consider implications of findings for research questions

9780199588053_C08.indd 185 10/20/11 10:09 AM


Introduction to sampling

resources to conduct a survey of all these students. It is
unlikely that you would be able to send questionnaires
to all 9,000 and even more unlikely that you would be
able to interview all of them, since conducting survey re-
search by interview is considerably more expensive and
time consuming, all things being equal, than by postal
questionnaire (see Chapter 10). It is almost certain that
you will need to sample students from the total popula-
tion of students in your university.

The need to sample is one that is almost invariably
encountered in quantitative research. In this chapter I
will be almost entirely concerned with matters relating
to sampling in relation to social survey research involving
data collection by structured interview or questionnaire.
Other methods of quantitative research involve sampling
considerations, as will be seen in Chapters 12 and 13,
when we will examine structured observation and con-
tent analysis respectively. The principles of sampling
involved are more or less identical in connection with

Many of the readers of this book will be university or
college students. At some point in your stay at your
university (I will use this term from now on to include
colleges) you may have wondered about the attitudes of
your fellow students to various matters, or about their
behaviour in certain areas, or something about their
backgrounds. If you were to decide to examine any or all
of these three areas, you might consider conducting
structured interviews or sending out questionnaires in
order to fi nd out about their behaviour, attitudes, and
backgrounds. You will, of course, have to consider how
best to design your interviews or questionnaires, and the
issues that are involved in the decisions that need to be
made about designing these research instruments and
administering them will be the focus of Chapters 9–11.
However, before getting to that point you are likely to
be confronted with a problem. Let us say that your uni-
versity is quite large and has around 9,000 students.
It is extremely unlikely that you will have the time and

gu e 8.Figure 8.2
Main modes of administration of a survey


Structured interview Self-completion

Face-to-face Telephone Supervised









Email Web






Notes: CAPI is computer-assisted personal interviewing; CATI is computer-assisted telephone interviewing.

9780199588053_C08.indd 186 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 187

these other methods, but frequently other considerations
come to the fore as well.

But will any old sample suffi ce? Would it be suffi cient
to locate yourself in a central position on your campus
(if it has one) and then interview the students who
come past you and whom you are in a position to inter-
view? Alternatively, would it be suffi cient to go around
your student union asking people to be interviewed?
Or again to send questionnaires to everyone on your

The answer, of course, depends on whether you want
to be able to generalize your fi ndings to the entire student
body in your university. If you do, it is unlikely that any of
the three sampling strategies proposed in the previous
paragraph would provide you with a representative
sample of all students in your university. In order to be
able to generalize your fi ndings from your sample to the
population from which it was selected, the sample must
be representative. See Key concept 8.1 for an explanation
of key terms concerning sampling.

Key concept 8.1
Basic terms and concepts in sampling

• Population: basically, the universe of units from which the sample is to be selected. The term ‘units’ is

employed because it is not necessarily people who are being sampled—the researcher may want to sample

from a universe of nations, cities, regions, fi rms, etc. Finch and Hayes (1994), for example, based part of their

research upon a random sample of wills. Their population, therefore, was a population of wills. Thus,

‘population’ has a much broader meaning than the everyday use of the term, whereby it tends to be

associated with a nation’s entire population.

• Sample: the segment of the population that is selected for investigation. It is a subset of the population.

The method of selection may be based on a probability or a non-probability approach (see below).

• Sampling frame: the listing of all units in the population from which the sample will be selected.

• Representative sample: a sample that refl ects the population accurately so that it is a microcosm of the population.

• Sampling bias: a distortion in the representativeness of the sample that arises when some members of the

population (or more precisely the sampling frame) stand little or no chance of being selected for inclusion in

the sample.

• Probability sample: a sample that has been selected using random selection so that each unit in the

population has a known chance of being selected. It is generally assumed that a representative sample is

more likely to be the outcome when this method of selection from the population is employed. The aim of

probability sampling is to keep sampling error (see below) to a minimum.

• Non-probability sample: a sample that has not been selected using a random selection method. Essentially,

this implies that some units in the population are more likely to be selected than others.

• Sampling error: error in the fi ndings deriving from research due to the difference between a sample and the

population from which it is selected. This may occur even though probability sampling has been employed.

• Non-sampling error: error in the fi ndings deriving from research due to the differences between the

population and the sample that arise either from defi ciencies in the sampling approach, such as an

inadequate sampling frame or non-response (see below), or from such problems as poor question wording,

poor interviewing, or fl awed processing of data.

• Non-response: a source of non-sampling error that is particularly likely to happen when individuals are being

sampled. It occurs whenever some members of the sample refuse to cooperate, cannot be contacted, or for

some reason cannot supply the required data (for example, because of mental incapacity).

• Census: the enumeration of an entire population. Thus, if data are collected in relation to all units in a

population, rather than in relation to a sample of units of that population, the data are treated as census data.

The phrase ‘the census’ typically refers to the complete enumeration of all members of the population of a

nation state—that is, a national census. This form of enumeration currently occurs once every ten years in the

UK, although there is some uncertainty at the time of writing about whether another census will take place.

However, in a statistical context, like the term population, the idea of a census has a broader meaning than this.

9780199588053_C08.indd 187 10/20/11 10:09 AM


Why might the strategies for sampling students previ-
ously outlined be unlikely to produce a representative
sample? There are various reasons, of which the follow-
ing stand out.

• The fi rst two approaches depend heavily upon the
availability of students during the time or times that
you search them out. Not all students are likely to be
equally available at that time, so the sample will not
refl ect these students.

• They also depend on the students going to the loca-
tions. Not all students will necessarily pass the point
where you locate yourself or go to the student union,
or they may vary hugely in the frequency with which
they do so. Their movements are likely to refl ect such
things as where their halls of residence or accom-
modation are situated, or where their departments are
located, or their social habits. Again, to rely on these
locations would mean missing out on students who do
not frequent them.

• It is possible, not to say likely, that your decisions
about which people to approach will be infl uenced by
your judgements about how friendly or cooperative
the people concerned are likely to be or by how com-
fortable you feel about interviewing students of the
same (or opposite) gender to yourself, as well as by
many other factors.

• The problem with the third strategy is that students
on your course by defi nition take the same subject as
each other and therefore will not be representative of
all students in the university.

In other words, in the case of all of the three sampling
approaches, your decisions about whom to sample are
infl uenced too much by personal judgements, by pro-
spective respondents’ availability, or by your implicit
criteria for inclusion. Such limitations mean that, in the
language of survey sampling, your sample will be biased.
A biased sample is one that does not represent the popu-
lation from which the sample was selected. Sampling
bias will occur if some members of the population

In order to appreciate the signifi cance of sampling error
for achieving a representative sample, consider Figures
8.3–8.7. Imagine we have a population of 200 people

have little or no chance of being selected for inclusion in
the sample. As far as possible, bias should be removed
from the selection of your sample. In fact, it is incredibly
diffi cult to remove bias altogether and to derive a truly
representative sample. What needs to be done is to
ensure that steps are taken to keep bias to an absolute

Three sources of sampling bias can be identifi ed (see
Key concept 8.1 for an explanation of key terms).

1. If a non-probability or non-random sampling method is
used. If the method used to select the sample is not
random, there is a possibility that human judgement
will affect the selection process, making some mem-
bers of the population more likely to be selected than
others. This source of bias can be eliminated through
the use of probability/random sampling, the pro-
cedure for which is described below.

2. If the sampling frame is inadequate. If the sampling
frame is not comprehensive or is inaccurate or suffers
from some other kind of similar defi ciency, the sample
that is derived cannot represent the population, even
if a random/probability sampling method is employed.

3. If some sample members refuse to participate or cannot
be contacted—in other words, if there is non-response.
The problem with non-response is that those who
agree to participate may differ in various ways from
those who do not agree to participate. Some of the
differences may be signifi cant to the research ques-
tion or questions. If the data are available, it may be
possible to check how far, when there is non-response,
the resulting sample differs from the population. It is
often possible to do this in terms of characteristics
such as gender or age, or, in the case of something like
a sample of university students, whether the sample’s
characteristics refl ect the entire sample in terms of
faculty membership. However, it is usually impossible
to determine whether differences exist between the
population and the sample after non-response in
terms of ‘deeper’ factors, such as attitudes or patterns
of behaviour.

and we want a sample of 50. Imagine as well that one of
the variables of concern to us is whether people watch
soap operas and that the population is equally divided

Sampling error

9780199588053_C08.indd 188 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 189

between those who do and those who do not. This split
is represented by the vertical line that divides the popu-
lation into two halves (Figure 8.3). If the sample is
representative we would expect our sample of 50 to be
equally split in terms of this variable (Figure 8.4). If there

is a small amount of sampling error, so that we have one
person too many who does not watch soap operas and
one too few who does, it will look like Figure 8.5. In
Figure 8.6 we see a rather more serious degree of over-
representation of people who do not watch soaps. This

Figure 8.3Figure 8.3
Watching soap operas in a population of 200

Watch soaps Do not watch soaps

Figure 8.4Figure 8.4
A sample with no sampling error

Watch soaps Do not watch soaps

gu e 8.5Figure 8.5
A sample with very little sampling error

Watch soaps Do not watch soaps

gu e 8.6Figure 8.6
A sample with some sampling error

Watch soaps Do not watch soaps

9780199588053_C08.indd 189 10/20/11 10:09 AM


time there are three too many who do not watch them
and three too few who do. In Figure 8.7 we have a very
serious over-representation of people who do not watch
soaps, because there are 35 people in the sample who do
not watch them, which is much larger than the 25 who
should be in the sample.

It is important to appreciate that, as suggested above,
probability sampling does not and cannot eliminate sam-
pling error. Even with a well-crafted probability sample,
a degree of sampling error is likely to creep in. However,
probability sampling stands a better chance than non-
probability sampling of keeping sampling error in check
so that it does not end up looking like the outcome
featured in Figure 8.7. Moreover, probability sampling
allows the researcher to employ tests of statistical signi-
fi cance that permit inferences to be made about the
sample from which the sample was selected. These will
be addressed in Chapter 15.

gu e 8.Figure 8.7
A sample with a lot of sampling error

Watch soaps Do not watch soaps

Imagine that we are interested in levels of alcohol con-
sumption among university students and the variables
that relate to variation in levels of drinking. We might
decide to conduct our research in a single nearby univer-
sity. This means that our population will be all students
in that university, which will in turn mean that we will
be able to generalize our fi ndings only to students of
that university. We simply cannot assume that levels of
alcohol consumption and their correlates will be the same
in other universities. We might decide that we want
our research to be conducted only on full-time students,
so that part-time students are omitted. Imagine too that
there are 9,000 full-time students in the university.

Simple random sample

The simple random sample is the most basic form of
probability sample. With random sampling, each unit of
the population has an equal probability of inclusion in
the sample. Imagine that we decide that we have enough
money to interview 450 students at the university. This
means that the probability of inclusion in the sample is


, i.e. 1 in 20

This is known as the sampling fraction and is expressed



where n is the sample size and N is the population size.
The key steps in devising our simple random sample

can be represented as follows.

1. Defi ne the population. We have decided that this will
be all full-time students at the university. This is our N
and in this case is 9,000.

2. Select or devise a comprehensive sampling frame. It
is likely that the university will have an offi ce that
keeps records of all students and that this will enable
us to exclude those who do not meet our criteria for
inclusion—i.e. part-time students.

3. Decide your sample size (n). We have decided that
this will be 450.

Types of probability sample

9780199588053_C08.indd 190 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 191

4. List all the students in the population and assign them
consecutive numbers from 1 to N. In our case, this will
be 1 to 9,000.

5. Using a table of random numbers, or a computer
program that can generate random numbers, select
n (450) different random numbers that lie between 1
and N (9,000).

6. The students to which the n (450) random numbers
refer constitute the sample.

Two points are striking about this process. First, there
is almost no opportunity for human bias to manifest
itself. Students would not be selected on such subjective
criteria as whether they looked friendly and approach-
able. The selection of whom to interview is entirely
mechanical. Second, the process is not dependent on
the students’ availability. They do not have to be walk-
ing in the interviewer’s proximity to be included in the
sample. The process of selection is done without their
knowledge. It is not until they are contacted by an inter-
viewer that they know that they are part of a social

Step 5 mentions the possible use of a table of random
numbers. These can be found in the appendices of many
statistics books. The tables are made up of columns of
fi ve-digit numbers, such as:


The fi rst thing to notice is that, since these are fi ve-digit
numbers and the maximum number that we can sample
from is 9,000, which is a four-digit number, none of the
random numbers seems appropriate, except for 09188
and 08358, although the former is larger than the largest
possible number. The answer is that we should take just
four digits in each number. Let us take the last four digits.
This would yield the following:


However, two of the resulting numbers—9188 and 9415
—exceed 9,000. We cannot have a student with either of
these numbers assigned to him or her. The solution is
simple: we ignore these numbers. This means that the
student who has been assigned the number 45 will be the
fi rst to be included in the sample; the student who has
been assigned the number 3189 will be next; the student
who has been assigned the number 5768 will be next;
and so on.

However, this somewhat tortuous procedure may be
replaced in some circumstances by using a systematic
sampling procedure (see next section) and more gener-
ally can be replaced by enlisting the computer for
assistance (see Tips and skills ‘Generating random

Systematic sample

A variation on the simple random sample is the system-

atic sample. With this kind of sample, you select units
directly from the sampling frame—that is, without re-
sorting to a table of random numbers.

We know that we are to select 1 student in 20. With
a systematic sample, we would make a random start
between 1 and 20 inclusive, possibly by using the last
two digits in a table of random numbers. If we did this
with the ten random numbers above, the fi rst relevant
one would be 54016, since it is the fi rst one where the last
two digits yield a number of 20 or below, in this case 16.
This means that the sixteenth student on our sampling
frame is the fi rst to be in our sample. Thereafter, we
take every twentieth student on the list. So the sequence
will go:

16, 36, 56, 76, 96, 116, etc.

9780199588053_C08.indd 191 10/20/11 10:09 AM


This approach obviates the need to assign numbers to
students’ names and then to look up names of the stu-
dents whose numbers have been drawn by the random
selection process. It is important to ensure, however, that
there is no inherent ordering of the sampling frame,
since this may bias the resulting sample. If there is some
ordering to the list, the best solution is to rearrange it.

Stratifi ed random sampling

In our imaginary study of university students, one of the
features that we might want our sample to exhibit is a
proportional representation of the different faculties to
which students are attached. It might be that the kind
of discipline a student is studying is viewed as relevant
to a wide range of attitudinal features that are relevant
to the study of drinking. Generating a simple random
sample or a systematic sample might yield such a repres-
entation, so that the proportion of humanities students
in the sample is the same as that in the student popula-
tion and so on. Thus, if there are 1,800 students in the
humanities faculty, using our sampling fraction of 1 in
20, we would expect to have 90 students in our sample
from this faculty. However, because of sampling error,
it is unlikely that this will occur and that there will be
a difference, so that there may be, say, 85 or 93 from
this faculty.

Because it is almost certain that the university will
include in its records the faculty in which students are
based, or indeed may have separate sampling frames for
each faculty, it will be possible to ensure that students are
accurately represented in terms of their faculty member-
ship. In the language of sampling, this means stratifying
the population by a criterion (in this case, faculty mem-
bership) and selecting either a simple random sample or
a systematic sample from each of the resulting strata. In

the present example, if there are fi ve faculties we would
have fi ve strata, with the numbers in each stratum being
one-twentieth of the total for each faculty, as in Table 8.1,
which also shows a hypothetical outcome of using a
simple random sample, which results in a distribution of
students across faculties that does not mirror the popula-
tion all that well.

The advantage of stratifi ed random sampling in a case
like this is clear: it ensures that the resulting sample will
be distributed in the same way as the population in terms
of the stratifying criterion. If you use a simple random or
systematic sampling approach, you may end up with a
distribution like that of the stratifi ed sample, but it is
unlikely. Two points are relevant here. First, you can con-
duct stratifi ed sampling sensibly only when it is relatively
easy to identify and allocate units to strata. If it is not
possible or it would be very diffi cult to do so, stratifi ed
sampling will not be feasible. Second, you can use more
than one stratifying criterion. Thus, it may be that you
would want to stratify by both faculty and gender or

Tips and skills
Generating random numbers

The method for generating random numbers described in the text is what might be thought of as the classic

approach. However, a far neater and quicker way is to generate random numbers on the computer. For example,

the following website provides an online random generator which is very easy to use: (accessed 9 August 2010).

If we want to select 450 cases from a population of 9,000, specify 450 after Generate, the digit 1 after random

integers between and then 9000 after and. You will also need to specify from a drop-down menu ‘with no repeats’.

This means that no random number will be selected more than once. Then simply click on GO and the 450 random

numbers will appear in a box below OUTPUT. You can then copy and paste the random numbers into a document.

Table 8.1
The advantages of stratifi ed sampling

Faculty Population Stratifi ed

simple random
or systematic

Humanities 1,800 90 85

Social sciences 1,200 60 70

Pure sciences 2,000 100 120

Applied sciences 1,800 90 84

Engineering 2,200 110 91

TOTAL 9,000 450 450

9780199588053_C08.indd 192 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 193

faculty and whether students are undergraduates or
postgraduates. If it is feasible to identify students in
terms of these stratifying criteria, it is possible to use
pairs of criteria or several criteria (such as faculty mem-
bership plus gender plus undergraduate/postgraduate).

Stratifi ed sampling is really feasible only when the
relevant information is available. In other words, when

Multi-stage cluster sampling

In the example we have been dealing with, students to
be interviewed are located in a single university. Inter-
viewers will have to arrange their interviews with the
sampled students, but, because they are all close together
(even in a split-site university), they will not be involved
in a lot of travel. However, imagine that we wanted a
national sample of students. It is likely that interviewers
would have to travel the length and breadth of the UK to
interview the sampled students. This would add a great
deal to the time and cost of doing the research. This kind
of problem occurs whenever the aim is to interview a
sample that is to be drawn from a widely dispersed popu-
lation, such as a national population, or a large region, or
even a large city.

One way in which it is possible to deal with this poten-
tial problem is to employ cluster sampling. With cluster

data are available that allow the ready identifi cation of
members of the population in terms of the stratifying cri-
terion (or criteria), it is sensible to employ this sampling
method. But it is unlikely to be economical if the identifi –
cation of population members for stratifi cation purposes
entails a great deal of work because there is no available
listing in terms of strata.

sampling, the primary sampling unit (the fi rst stage of
the sampling procedure) is not the units of the popula-
tion to be sampled but groupings of those units. It is the
latter groupings or aggregations of population units that
are known as clusters. Imagine that we want a nationally
representative sample of 5,000 students. Using simple
random or systematic sampling would yield a widely
dispersed sample, which would result in a great deal of
travel for interviewers. One solution might be to sample
universities and then students from each of the sampled
universities. A probability sampling method would need
to be employed at each stage. Thus, we might randomly
sample ten universities from the entire population of uni-
versities, thus yielding ten clusters, and we would then
interview 500 randomly selected students at each of the
ten universities.

Now imagine that the result of sampling ten univer-
sities gives the following list:

Student experience
Probability sampling for a student project

Joe Thompson describes the sampling procedure that he and the other members of his team used for their study

of students living in halls of residence at the University of East Anglia as a stratifi ed random sample. The following

description suggests that they employed a systematic sampling approach for fi nding students within halls.

Stratifi ed random sampling was used to decide which halls of residence each member of the research team

would go to and obtain questionnaire responses. This sampling method was the obvious choice as it meant

there could be no fi xing/bias to which halls the interviewee would go to and also maintained the

representative nature of the research.

The stratifi ed random sampling method known as the ‘random walk process’ was used when conducting the

interviews. Each member of the research group was assigned a number between 4 and 8 as a sampling fraction

gap: I was assigned the number 7 and ‘Coleman house block 1’ as my accommodation block. This meant that,

when conducting my interviews, I would go to Coleman house and knock on the 7th door, and then the

14th door, adding 7 each time, until I had completed fi ve interviews. If I encountered a lack of response from

the 6th door, I would return to the fi rst fl at but add one each time to avoid periodicity. This sampling method

was determined by the principles of standardization, reliability, and validity.

To read more about Joe’s research experiences, go to the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book at:

9780199588053_C08.indd 193 10/20/11 10:09 AM


• Glasgow Caledonian

• Edinburgh

• Teesside

• Sheffi eld

• University College Swansea

• Leeds Metropolitan

• University of Ulster

• University College London

• Southampton

• Loughborough

This list is fi ne, but interviewers could still be involved
in a great deal of travel, since the ten universities are
quite a long way from each other. North American and

In a sense, cluster sampling is always a multi-stage
approach, because one always samples clusters fi rst, and
then something else—either further clusters or popula-
tion units—is sampled.

Many examples of multi-stage cluster sampling entail
stratifi cation. We might, for example, want to stratify
universities in terms of whether they are ‘old’ or ‘new’
universities—that is, those that received their charters
after the 1991 White Paper for Higher Education, Higher

Australian readers who examine this last comment by
looking at a map of the United Kingdom may view the
universities as in fact very close to each other!

One solution is likely to be to group all UK universities
by standard region (see Research in focus 8.1 for an ex-
ample of this kind of approach) and randomly to sample
two standard regions. Five universities might then be
sampled from each of the two lists of universities and
then 500 students from each of the ten universities.
Thus, there are separate stages:

• group UK universities by standard region and sample
two regions;

• sample fi ve universities from each of the two regions;

• sample 500 students from each of the ten universities.

Education: A New Framework. In each of the two regions,
we would group universities along the old/new univer-
sity criterion and then select two or three universities
from each of the two strata per region.

Research in focus 8.1 provides an example of a
multi-stage cluster sample. It entailed three stages: the
sampling of parliamentary constituencies, the sampling
of polling districts, and the sampling of individuals.
In a way, there are four stages, because addresses are

Research in focus 8.1
An example of a multi-stage cluster sample

For their study of social class in modern Britain, Marshall et al. (1988: 288) designed a sample ‘to achieve 2,000

interviews with a random selection of men aged 16–64 and women aged 16–59 who were not in full-time


• Sampling parliamentary constituencies

— Parliamentary constituencies were ordered by standard region (there are eleven).

— Constituencies were allocated to one of three population density bands within standard regions.

— These subgroups were then reordered by political party voted to represent the constituency at the

previous general election.

— These subgroups were then listed in ascending order of percentage in owner–occupation.

— 100 parliamentary constituencies were then sampled.

— Thus, parliamentary constituencies were stratifi ed in terms of four variables: standard region; population

density; political party voted for in last election; and percentage of owner–occupation.

• Sampling polling districts

— Two polling districts were chosen from each sampled constituency.

• Sampling individuals

— Nineteen addresses from each sampled polling district were systematically sampled.

— One person at each address was chosen according to a number of pre-defi ned rules.

9780199588053_C08.indd 194 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 195

sampled from polling districts and then individuals
are sampled from each address. However, Marshall et al.
(1988) present their sampling strategy as involving just
three stages. Parliamentary constituencies were strati-
fi ed by four criteria: standard region, population density,
voting behaviour, and owner–occupation.

The advantage of multi-stage cluster sampling should
be clear by now: it allows interviewers to be far more

geographically concentrated than would be the case
if a simple random or stratifi ed sample were selected.
The advantages of stratifi cation can be capitalized upon
because the clusters can be stratifi ed in terms of strata.
However, even when a very rigorous sampling strategy
is employed, sampling error cannot be avoided, as the
example in Research in focus 8.2 shows.

Research in focus 8.2
The 1992 British Crime Survey

The British Crime Survey (BCS) is a regular survey, funded by the Home Offi ce, of a national sample drawn from

the populations of England and Wales. The survey was conducted on eight occasions between 1982 and 2000

and has been conducted annually since 2001. In each instance, over 10,000 people have been interviewed. The

main object of the survey is to glean information on respondents’ experiences of being victims of crime. There is

also a self-report component in which a selection of the sample are interviewed on their attitudes to crime and

to report on crimes they have committed. Before 1992, the BCS used the electoral register as a sampling frame.

Relying on a register of the electorate as a sampling frame is not without problems in spite of appearing robust:

it omits any persons who are not registered, a problem that was exacerbated by the Community Charge (poll

tax), which resulted in a signifi cant amount of non-registration, as some people sought to avoid detection in

order not to have to pay the tax. In 1992 the Postcode Address File was employed as a sampling frame and has

been used since then. Its main advantage over the electoral register as a sampling frame is that it is updated

more frequently. It is not perfect, because the homeless will not be accessible through it. The BCS sample itself

is a stratifi ed multi-stage cluster sample. The sampling procedure produced 13,117 residential addresses. Like

most surveys, there was some non-response, with 23.3 per cent of the 13,117 addresses not resulting in a ‘valid’

interview. Just under half of these cases were the result of an outright refusal. In spite of the fact that the BCS is

a rigorously selected and very large sample, an examination of the 1992 survey by Elliott and Ellingworth (1997)

shows that there is some sampling error. By comparing the distribution of survey respondents with the 1991

census, they show that certain social groups are somewhat under-represented, most notably: owner–occupiers,

households in which no car is owned, and male unemployed. However, Elliott and Ellingworth show that, as the

level of property crime in postcode address sectors increases, the response rate (see Key concept 8.2) decreases.

In other words, people who live in high-crime areas tend to be less likely to agree to be interviewed. How far

this tendency affects the BCS data is diffi cult to determine, but the signifi cance of this brief example is that,

even when a sample of this quality is selected, the existence of sampling and non-sampling error cannot be

discounted. The potential for a larger spread of errors when levels of sampling rigour fall short of a sample like

that selected for the BCS is, therefore, considerable.

The reason why probability sampling is such an im-
portant procedure in social survey research is that it is
possible to make inferences from information about a
random sample to the population from which it was
selected. In other words, we can generalize fi ndings

derived from a sample to the population. This is not to
say that we treat the population data and the sample data
as the same. If we take the example of the level of alcohol
consumption in our sample of 450 students, which we
will treat as the number of units of alcohol consumed in

The qualities of a probability sample

9780199588053_C08.indd 195 10/20/11 10:09 AM


the previous seven days, we will know that the mean
number of units consumed by the sample (X) can be used
to estimate the population mean (m) but with known
margins of error. The mean, or more properly the arith-

metic mean, is the simple average.

In order to address this point it is necessary to use
some basic statistical ideas. These are presented in Tips
and skills ‘Generalizing from a random sample to the
population’ and can be skipped if just a broad idea of
sampling procedures is required.

Tips and skills
Generalizing from a random sample to

the population

Let us say that the sample mean is 9.7 units of alcohol consumed (the average amount of alcohol consumed in

the previous seven days in the sample). A crucial consideration here is: how confi dent can we be that the mean

level of alcohol consumption of 9.7 units is likely to be found in the population, even when probability sampling

has been employed? If we take an infi nite number of samples from a population, the sample estimates of the

mean of the variable under consideration will vary in relation to the population mean. This variation will take the

form of a bell-shaped curve known as a normal distribution (see Figure 8.8). The shape of the distribution implies

that there is a clustering of sample means at or around the population mean. Half the sample means will be at

or below the population mean; the other half will be at or above the population mean. As we move to the left

(at or lower than the population mean) or the right (at or higher than the population mean), the curve tails off,

implying fewer and fewer samples generating means that depart considerably from the population mean. The

variation of sample means around the population mean is the sampling error and is measured using a statistic

known as the standard error of the mean. This is an estimate of the amount that a sample mean is likely to

differ from the population mean.

This consideration is important because sampling theory tells us that 68 per cent of all sample means will lie

between + or − 1 standard error from the population mean and that 95 per cent of all sample means will lie

between + or − 1.96 standard errors from the population mean. It is this second calculation that is crucial,

because it is at least implicitly employed by survey researchers when they report their statistical fi ndings.

The distribution of sample means









Value of the mean

Notes: 95 per cent of sample means will lie within the shaded area. SE = standard error of the mean.

Figure 8.8

9780199588053_C08.indd 196 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 197

As someone who is known as a teacher of research
methods and a writer of books in this area, I often get
asked questions about methodological issues. One ques-
tion that is asked almost more than any other relates
to the size of the sample—‘how large should my sample
be?’ or ‘is my sample large enough?’ The decision about
sample size is not a straightforward one: it depends on a
number of considerations, and there is no one defi nitive
answer. This is frequently a source of great disappoint-
ment to those who pose such questions. Moreover, most
of the time decisions about sample size are affected by
considerations of time and cost. Therefore, invariably
decisions about sample size represent a compromise
between the constraints of time and cost, the need for

precision, and a variety of further considerations that
will now be addressed.

Absolute and relative sample size

One of the most basic considerations, and one that is pos-
sibly the most surprising, is that, contrary to what you
might have expected, it is the absolute size of a sample
that is important not its relative size. This means that a
national probability sample of 1,000 individuals in the
UK has as much validity as a national probability sample
of 1,000 individuals in the USA, even though the latter
has a much larger population. It also means that increas-
ing the size of a sample increases the precision of a sample.

They typically employ 1.96 standard errors as the crucial criterion in how confi dent they can be in their fi ndings.

Essentially, the criterion implies that you can be 95 per cent certain that the population mean lies within + or

− 1.96 sampling errors from the sample mean.

If a sample has been selected according to probability sampling principles, we know that we can be 95 per cent

certain that the population mean will lie between the sample mean + or − 1.96 multiplied by the standard error

of the mean. This is known as the confi dence interval. If the mean level of alcohol consumption in the previous

seven days in our sample of 450 students is 9.7 units and the standard error of the mean is 1.3, we can be 95 per

cent certain that the population mean will lie between

9.7 + (1.96 × 1.3)


9.7 − (1.96 × 1.3)

i.e. between 12.248 and 7.152.

If the standard error was smaller, the range of possible values of the population mean would be narrower; if the

standard error was larger, the range of possible values of the population mean would be wider.

If a stratifi ed sample is selected, the standard error of the mean will be smaller because the variation between

strata is essentially eliminated because the population will be accurately represented in the sample in terms of

the stratifi cation criterion or criteria employed. This consideration demonstrates the way in which stratifi cation

injects an extra increment of precision into the probability sampling process, since a possible source of sampling

error is eliminated.

By contrast, a cluster sample without stratifi cation exhibits a larger standard error of the mean than a comparable

simple random sample. This occurs because a possible source of variability between students (i.e. membership

of one university rather than another, which may affect levels of alcohol consumption) is disregarded. If, for

example, some universities had a culture of heavy drinking in which a large number of students participated, and

if these universities were not selected because of the procedure for selecting clusters, an important source of

variability would have been omitted. It also implies that the sample mean would be on the low side, but that is

another matter.

Sample size

9780199588053_C08.indd 197 10/20/11 10:09 AM


This means that the 95 per cent confi dence interval
referred to in Tips and skills ‘Generalizing from a random
sample to the population’ narrows. However, a large
sample cannot guarantee precision, so that it is probably
better to say that increasing the size of a sample increases
the likely precision of a sample. This means that, as sam-
ple size increases, sampling error decreases. Therefore,
an important component of any decision about sample
size should be how much sampling error one is prepared
to tolerate. The less sampling error one is prepared to
tolerate, the larger a sample will need to be. Fowler (1993)
warns against a simple acceptance of this criterion. He
argues that in practice researchers do not base their

Time and cost

Time and cost considerations become very relevant in
this context. In the previous paragraph it is clearly being
suggested that the larger the sample size the greater the
precision (because the amount of sampling error will
be less). However, by and large, up to a sample size of
around 1,000, the gains in precision are noticeable as the
sample size climbs from low fi gures of 50, 100, 150, and
so on upwards. After a certain point, often in the region
of 1,000, the sharp increases in precision become less
pronounced, and, although it does not plateau, there is a

decisions about sample size on a single estimate of a
variable. Most survey research is concerned to generate
a host of estimates—that is, of the variables that make
up the research instrument that is administered. He also
observes that it is not normal for survey researchers to be
in a position to specify in advance ‘a desired level of preci-
sion’ (Fowler 1993: 34). Moreover, since sampling error
will be only one component of any error entailed in an
estimate, the notion of using a desired level of precision
as a factor in a decision about sample size is not realistic.
Instead, to the extent that this notion does enter into
decisions about sample size, it usually does so in a general
rather than in a calculated way.

slowing-down in the extent to which precision increases
(and hence the extent to which the sample error of
the mean declines). Considerations of sampling size are
likely to be profoundly affected by matters of time and
cost at such a juncture, since striving for smaller and
smaller increments of precision becomes an increasingly
uneconomic proposition. As Hazelrigg (2004: 85) suc-
cinctly puts it: ‘The larger the size of the sample drawn
from a population the more likely (X) converges to m;
but the convergence occurs at a decelerating rate (which
means that very large samples are decreasingly cost
effi cient).’

Tips and skills
Sample size and probability sampling

As I have said in the text, the issue of sample size is the matter that most often concerns students and others.

Basically, this is an area where size really does matter—the bigger the sample, the more representative it is likely

to be (provided the sample is randomly selected), regardless of the size of the population from which it is drawn.

However, when doing projects, students clearly need to do their research with very limited resources. You should

try to fi nd out from your department whether there are any guidelines about whether samples of a minimum size

are expected. If there are no such guidelines, you will need to conduct your mini-survey in such a way as to

maximize the number of interviews you can manage or the number of postal questionnaires you can send out,

given the amount of time and resources available to you. Also, in many if not most cases, a truly random

approach to sample selection may not be open to you. The crucial point is to be clear about and to justify what

you have done. Explain the diffi culties that you would have encountered in generating a random sample. Explain

why you really could not include any more in your sample of respondents. But, above all, do not make claims

about your sample that are not sustainable. Do not claim that it is representative or that you have a random

sample when it is clearly not the case that either of these is true. In other words, be frank about what you have

done. People will be much more inclined to accept an awareness of the limits of your sample design than claims

about a sample that are patently false. Also, it may be that there are lots of good features about your

sample—the range of people included, the good response rate, the high level of cooperation you received from

the fi rm. Make sure you play up these positive features at the same time as being honest about its limitations.

9780199588053_C08.indd 198 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 199


However, considerations about sampling error do not
end here. The problem of non-response should be borne
in mind. Most sample surveys attract a certain amount of
non-response. Thus, it is likely that only some members
of our sample will agree to participate in the research.
If it is our aim to ensure as far as possible that 450 stu-
dents are interviewed and if we think that there may be
a 20 per cent rate of non-response, it may be advisable
to sample 540–50 individuals, on the grounds that
approximately 90 will be non-respondents.

The issue of non-response, and in particular of refusal
to participate, is of particular signifi cance, because it has
been suggested by some researchers that response rates
to social surveys (see Key concept 8.2) are declining
in many countries. This implies that there is a growing
tendency towards people refusing to participate in
social survey research. In 1973 an article in the American
magazine Business Week carried an article ominously
entitled ‘The Public Clams up on Survey Takers’. The
magazine asked survey companies about their experi-
ences and found considerable concern about declining
response rates. Similarly, in Britain, a report from a
working party on the Market Research Society’s Research
and Development Committee in 1975 pointed to similar

A further interesting issue in connection with non-
response is that of how far researchers should go in order
to boost their response rates. In Chapter 10, a number
of steps that can be taken to improve response rates to
postal questionnaires, which are particularly prone to

concerns among market research companies. However,
an analysis of this issue by T. W. Smith (1995) suggests
that, contrary to popular belief, there is no consistent evi-
dence of such a decline. Moreover, Smith shows that it is
diffi cult to disentangle general trends in response rates
from such variables as the subject matter of the research,
the type of respondent, and the level of effort expended
on improving the number of respondents to individual
surveys. However, an overview of non-response trends
in the USA based on non-response rates for various
continuous surveys suggests that there is a decline in the
preparedness of households to participate in surveys
(Groves et al. 2004). Further evidence comes from a
study by Baruch (1999) of questionnaire-based articles
published in 1975, 1985, and 1995 in fi ve academic
journals in the area of management studies. This article
found an average (mean) response rate of 55.6 per cent,
though with quite a large amount of variation around
this average. The average response rate over the three
years was 64.4 per cent in 1975, 55.7 per cent in 1985,
and 48.4/52.2 per cent in 1995. Two percentages were
provided for 1995 because the larger fi gure includes
a journal that publishes a lot of research based on top
managers, who tend to produce a poorer response rate.
Response rates were found that were as low as 10 per
cent and 15 per cent.

poor response rates, are discussed. However, boosting
response rates to interview-based surveys can prove
expensive. Teitler et al. (2003) present a discussion of
the steps taken to boost the response rate of a US sample
that was hard to reach—namely, both parents of newly

Key concept 8.2
What is a response rate?

The notion of a response rate is a common one in social survey research. When a social survey is conducted,

whether by structured interview or by self-completion questionnaire, it is invariably the case that some people

who are in the sample refuse to participate (referred to as non-response). The response rate is, therefore, the

percentage of a sample that does, in fact, agree to participate. However, the calculation of a response rate is a

little more complicated than this. First, not everyone who replies will be included: if a large number of questions

are not answered by a respondent or if there are clear indications that he or she has not taken the interview or

questionnaire seriously, it is better to employ only the number of usable interviews or questionnaires as the

numerator. Similarly, it also tends to occur that not everyone in a sample turns out to be a suitable or appropriate

respondent or can be contacted. Thus the response rate is calculated as follows:

number of usable questionnaires

total sample – unsuitable or uncontactable members of the sample
× 100

9780199588053_C08.indd 199 10/20/11 10:09 AM


born children, where most of the parents were not
married. They found that, although there was evidence
that increasing the response rate from an initial 68 per
cent to 80 per cent meant that the fi nal sample resembled
more closely the population from which the sample had
been taken, diminishing returns undoubtedly set in. In
other words, the improvements in the characteristics
of the sample necessitated a disproportionate outlay of
resources. However, this is not to say that steps should
not be taken to improve response rates. For example,
following up respondents who do not initially respond to
a postal questionnaire invariably results in an improved
response rate at little additional cost. A study based on
a survey of New Zealand residents by Brennan and
Charbonneau (2009) provides unequivocal evidence of
the improvement in response rate that can be achieved
by at least two follow-up mailings to respondents to
postal questionnaire surveys, which tend to achieve
lower response rates than comparable interview-based
surveys. A chocolate sent with the questionnaire helps
too apparently!

As the previously mentioned study of response rates
by Baruch (1999) suggests, there is wide variation in the
response rates that social scientists achieve when they
conduct surveys. It is diffi cult to arrive at clear indica-
tions of what is expected from a response rate. Baruch’s
study focused on research in business organizations,

Heterogeneity of the population

Yet another consideration is the homogeneity and
heterogeneity of the population from which the sample
is to be taken. When a population is very heterogene-
ous, like a whole country or city, a larger sample will be

and, as he notes, when top managers are the focus of
a survey, the response rate tends to be noticeably lower.
In the survey component of the Cultural Capital and
Social Exclusion (CCSE) project referred to in Research
in focus 2.9, the initial main sample constituted a 53 per
cent response rate (Bennett et al. 2009). The researchers
decided to supplement the initial sample in various
ways, one of which was to have an ethnic boost sample,
in large part because the main sample did not include
suffi cient numbers of ethnic-minority members. How-
ever, the response rate from the ethnic boost sample was
substantially below that achieved for the main sample.
The researchers write: ‘In general, ethnic boosts tend to
have lower response rates than cross-sectional surveys’
(Thomson 2004: 10). There is a sense, then, that what
might be anticipated to be a reasonable response rate
varies according to the type of sample and the topics
covered by the interview or questionnaire. While it is
obviously desirable to do one’s best to maximize a re-
sponse rate, it is also important to be open about the
limitations of a low response rate in terms of the likeli-
hood that fi ndings will be biased. In the future, it seems
likely that, given that there are likely to be limits on the
degree to which a survey researcher can boost a response
rate, more and more effort will go into refi ning ways of
estimating and correcting for anticipated biases in fi nd-
ings (Groves 2006).

needed to refl ect the varied population. When it is rela-
tively homogeneous, such as a population of students
or of members of an occupation, the amount of variation
is less and therefore the sample can be smaller. The
implication of this is that, the greater the heterogeneity
of a population, the larger a sample will need to be.

Research in focus 8.3
The problem of non-response

In December 2006 an article in The Times reported that a study of the weight of British children had been

hindered because many families declined to participate. The study was commissioned by the Department of

Health and found that, for example, among those aged 10 or 11, 14 per cent were overweight and 17 per cent

were obese. However, The Times writer notes that a report compiled by the Department of Health on the

research suggests that such fi gures are ‘likely systematically to underestimate the prevalence of overweight and

obesity’ (quoted in Hawkes 2006: 24). The reason for this bias in the statistics is that parents were able to refuse

to let their children participate, and those whose children were heavier were more likely to do so. As a result,

the sample was biased towards those who were less heavy. The authors of the report drew the inference about

sampling bias because they noted that more children were recorded as obese in areas where there was a poorer

response rate.

9780199588053_C08.indd 200 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 201

Kind of analysis

Finally, researchers should bear in mind the kind of ana-
lysis they intend to undertake. A case in point here is
the contingency table. A contingency table shows the
relationship between two variables in tabular form. It
shows how variation in one variable relates to variation
in another variable. To understand this point, consider
the basic structure of a table in the study by Marshall
et al. (1988) of social class in Britain. This research was
referred to in Research in focus 8.1. The table is based on
the 589 cohabiting couples (1,178 people) of the sample
in which both partners are employed in paid work. The
authors aim to show in the table how far couples are of
the same or a different social class in terms of Goldthorpe’s
seven-category scheme for classifying social class. The
result is a table in which, because each variable comprises
7 categories, there are 49 cells in the table (i.e. 7 × 7). In
order for there to be an adequate number of cases in each

cell, a fairly large sample was required. Imagine that
Marshall et al. had conducted a survey on a much smaller
sample in which they ended up with just 150 couples. If
the same kind of analysis as Marshall et al. carried out
was conducted, it would be found that these 150 couples
would be very dispersed across the 49 cells of the table. It
is likely that many of the cells would be empty or would
have very small numbers in them, which would make it
diffi cult to make inferences about what the table showed.
In fact, quite a lot of the cells in the actual table in Marshall
et al. have very small numbers in them (8 cells contain 1 or
0). This problem would have been even more pronounced
if they had ended up with a much smaller sample of
couples. Consequently, considerations of sample size
should be sensitive to the kinds of analysis that will be
subsequently required, such as the issue of the number of
cells in a table. In a case such as this, a larger sample will
be necessitated by the nature of the analysis to be con-
ducted as well as the nature of the variables in question.

The term ‘non-probability sampling’ is essentially an
umbrella term to capture all forms of sampling that are
not conducted according to the canons of probability
sampling outlined above. It is not surprising, therefore,
that the term covers a wide range of different types
of sampling strategy, at least one of which—the quota

sample—is claimed by some practitioners to be almost
as good as a probability sample. In this section we will
cover three main types of non-probability sample: the
convenience sample; t he snowball sample; and the
quota sample.

Convenience sampling

A convenience sample is one that is simply available to
the researcher by virtue of its accessibility. Imagine that
a researcher who teaches education at a university is
interested in the kinds of features that teachers look for
in their headmasters. The researcher might administer a
questionnaire to several classes of students, all of whom
are teachers taking a part-time master’s degree in educa-
tion. The chances are that the researcher will receive
all or almost all of the questionnaires back, so that there
will be a good response rate. The fi ndings may prove
quite interesting, but the problem with such a sampling

strategy is that it is impossible to generalize the fi ndings,
because we do not know of what population this sample
is representative. They are simply a group of teachers
who are available to the researcher. They are almost
certainly not representative of teachers as a whole—the
very fact they are taking this degree programme marks
them off as different from teachers in general.

This is not to suggest that convenience samples should
never be used. Let us say that our lecturer/researcher
is developing a battery of questions that are designed
to measure the leadership preferences of teachers. It is
highly desirable to pilot such a research instrument
before using it in an investigation, and administering it
to a group that is not a part of the main study may be a
legitimate way of carrying out some preliminary analysis
of such issues as whether respondents tend to answer
in identical ways to a question, or whether one question
is often omitted when teachers respond to it. In other
words, for this kind of purpose, a convenience sample
may be acceptable though not ideal. A second kind of
context in which it may be at least fairly acceptable to use
a convenience sample is when the chance presents itself
to gather data from a convenience sample and it repre-
sents too good an opportunity to miss. The data will not
allow defi nitive fi ndings to be generated, because of the

Types of non-probability sampling

9780199588053_C08.indd 201 10/20/11 10:09 AM


problem of generalization, but they could provide a
springboard for further research or allow links to be
forged with existing fi ndings in an area.

It also perhaps ought to be recognized that convenience
sampling probably plays a more prominent role than is
sometimes supposed. Certainly, in the fi eld of organiza-
tion studies it has been noted that convenience samples
are very common and indeed are more prominent

Snowball sampling

In certain respects, snowball sampling is a form of con-
venience sample, but it is worth distinguishing because it
has attracted quite a lot of attention over the years. With
this approach to sampling, the researcher makes initial
contact with a small group of people who are relevant
to the research topic and then uses these to establish

than are samples based on probability sampling (Bryman
1989a: 113–14). Social research is also frequently based
on convenience sampling. Research in focus 8.4 contains
an example of the use of convenience samples in social
research. Probability sampling involves a lot of prepara-
tion, so that it is frequently avoided because of the
diffi culty and costs involved.

contacts with others. I used an approach like this to
create a sample of British visitors to Disney theme parks
(Bryman 1999).

Research in focus 8.5 describes the generation of
a snowball sample of marijuana-users for what is often
regarded as a classic study of drug use. Becker’s com-
ment on this method of creating a snowball sample
is interesting: ‘The sample is, of course, in no sense

Research in focus 8.4
A convenience sample

Miller et al. (1998) were interested in theories concerning the role of shopping in relation to the construction of

identity in modern society. Since many discussions of this issue have been concerned with shopping centres

(malls), they undertook a study that combined quantitative and qualitative research methods in order to explore

the views of shoppers at two London shopping centres: Brent Cross and Wood Green. One phase of the research

entailed structured interviews with shoppers leaving the centres. The interviews were conducted mainly during

weekdays in June and July 1994. Shoppers were chiefl y questioned as they left the main exits, though some

questioning at minor exits also took place. The authors tell us: ‘We did not attempt to secure a quota [see below]

or random sample but asked every person who passed by, and who did not obviously look in the other direction

or change their path, to complete a questionnaire’ (Miller et al. 1998: 55). Such a sampling strategy produces a

convenience sample because only people who are visiting the centre and who are therefore self-selected by

virtue of their happening to choose to shop at these times can be interviewed.

Research in focus 8.5
A snowball sample: Becker’s study of


In an article fi rst published in 1953, Becker (1963) reports on how he generated a sample of marijuana-users.

He writes:

I conducted fi fty interviews with marijuana users. I had been a professional dance musician for some years

when I conducted this study and my fi rst interviews were with people I had met in the music business.

I asked them to put me in contact with other users who would be willing to discuss their experiences with

me. . . . Although in the end half of the fi fty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered

a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions. (Becker 1963: 45–6)

9780199588053_C08.indd 202 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 203

“random”; it would not be possible to draw a random
sample, since no one knows the nature of the universe
from which it would have to be drawn’ (Becker 1963:
46). What Becker is essentially saying here (and the same
point applies to my study of Disney theme park visitors)
is that there is no accessible sampling frame for the popu-
lation from which the sample is to be taken and that the
diffi culty of creating such a sampling frame means that
a snowball sampling approach is the only feasible one.
Moreover, even if one could create a sampling frame of
marijuana-users or of British visitors to Disney theme
parks, it would almost certainly be inaccurate straight
away, because this is a shifting population. People will
constantly be becoming and ceasing to be marijuana-
users, while new theme park visitors are arriving all the

The problem with snowball sampling is that it is very
unlikely that the sample will be representative of the
population, though, as I have just suggested, the very
notion of a population may be problematic in some
circumstances. However, by and large, snowball sampling
is used not within a quantitative research strategy, but
within a qualitative one: both Becker’s and my study
were carried out within a qualitative research frame-
work. Concerns about external validity and the ability
to generalize do not loom as large within a qualitative re-
search strategy as they do in a quantitative research one
(see Chapter 17). In qualitative research, the orientation
to sampling is more likely to be guided by a preference
for theoretical sampling than with the kind of statistical
sampling that has been the focus of this chapter (see Key
concept 18.3). There is a much better ‘fi t’ between snow-
ball sampling and the theoretical sampling strategy of
qualitative research than with the statistical sampling
approach of quantitative research. This is not to sug-
gest that snowball sampling is entirely irrelevant to
quantitative research: when the researcher needs to
focus upon or to refl ect relationships between people,
tracing connections through snowball sampling may be a
better approach than conventional probability sampling
(Coleman 1958).

Quota sampling

Quota sampling is comparatively rarely employed in
academic social research, but is used intensively in com-
mercial research, such as market research and political
opinion polling. The aim of quota sampling is to produce
a sample that refl ects a population in terms of the relative
proportions of people in different categories, such as
gender, ethnicity, age groups, socio-economic groups,

and region of residence, and in combinations of these
categories. However, unlike a stratifi ed sample, the sam-
pling of individuals is not carried out randomly, since
the fi nal selection of people is left to the interviewer.
Information about the stratifi cation of the UK population
or about certain regions can be obtained from sources
like the census and from surveys based on probability
samples such as the General Household Survey, British
Social Attitudes, and the British Household Panel Survey.

Once the categories and the number of people to be
interviewed within each category (known as quotas)
have been decided upon, it is then the job of interviewers
to select people who fi t these categories. The quotas will
typically be interrelated. In a manner similar to stratifi ed
sampling, the population may be divided into strata in
terms of, for example, gender, social class, age, and ethni-
city. Census data might be used to identify the number of
people who should be in each subgroup. The numbers to
be interviewed in each subgroup will refl ect the popula-
tion. Each interviewer will probably seek out individuals
who fi t several subgroup quotas. Accordingly, an inter-
viewer may know that among the various subgroups
of people he or she must fi nd, and interview, fi ve Asian,
25–34-year-old, lower-middle-class females in the area
in which the interviewer has been asked to work (say, the
Wirral). The interviewer usually asks people who are
available to him or her about their characteristics (though
gender will presumably be self-evident) in order to deter-
mine their suitability for a particular subgroup. Once a
subgroup quota (or a combination of subgroup quotas)
has been achieved, the interviewer will no longer be con-
cerned to locate individuals for that subgroup.

The choice of respondents is left to the interviewer,
subject to the requirement of all quotas being fi lled, usu-
ally within a certain time period. Those of you who have
ever been approached on the street by a person toting
a clipboard and interview schedule and have been asked
about your age, occupation, and so on, before being
asked a series of questions about a product or whatever,
have almost certainly encountered an interviewer with a
quota sample to fi ll. Sometimes, he or she will decide not
to interview you because you do not meet the criteria
required to fi ll a quota. This may be due to a quota
already having been fi lled or to the criteria for exclusion
meaning that a person with a certain characteristic you
possess is not required.

A number of criticisms are frequently levelled at quota

• Because the choice of respondent is left to the
interviewer, the proponents of probability sampling

9780199588053_C08.indd 203 10/20/11 10:09 AM


argue that a quota sample cannot be representative.
It may accurately refl ect the population in terms of
superfi cial characteristics, as defi ned by the quotas.
However, in their choice of people to approach, inter-
viewers may be unduly infl uenced by their percep-
tions of how friendly people are or by whether the
people make eye contact with the interviewer (unlike
most of us, who look at the ground and shuffl e past
as quickly as possible because we do not want to be
bothered in our leisure time).

• People who are in an interviewer’s vicinity at the times
he or she conducts interviews, and are therefore avail-
able to be approached, may not be typical. There is a
risk, for example, that people in full-time paid work
may be under-represented and that those who are
included in the sample are not typical.

• The interviewer is likely to make judgements about
certain characteristics in deciding whether to ap-
proach a person, in particular, judgements about age.
Those judgements will sometimes be incorrect—for
example, when someone who is eligible to be inter-
viewed, because a quota that he or she fi ts is unfi lled,
is not approached because the interviewer makes an
incorrect judgement (for example, that the person is
older than he or she looks). In such a case, a possible
element of bias is being introduced.

• It has also been argued that the widespread use of
social class as a quota control can introduce diffi cul-
ties, because of the problem of ensuring that inter-
viewees are properly assigned to class groupings
(Moser and Kalton 1971).

• It is not permissible to calculate a standard error of the
mean from a quota sample, because the non-random
method of selection makes it impossible to calculate
the range of possible values of a population.

All this makes the quota sample look a poor bet, and
there is no doubt that it is not favoured by academic
social researchers. It does have some arguments in its
favour, however.

• It is undoubtedly cheaper and quicker than an inter-
view survey on a comparable probability sample. For
example, interviewers do not have to spend a lot of
time travelling between interviews.

• Interviewers do not have to keep calling back on
people who were not available at the time they were
fi rst approached.

• Because calling back is not required, a quota sample
is easier to manage. It is not necessary to keep track
of people who need to be recontacted or to keep track
of refusals. Refusals occur, of course, but it is not
necessary (and indeed it is not possible) to keep a
record of which respondents declined to participate.

• When speed is of the essence, a quota sample is
invaluable when compared to the more cumbersome
probability sample. Newspapers frequently need to
know how a national sample of voters feel about a
certain topic or how they intend to vote at that time.
Alternatively, if there is a sudden major news event,
such as a terrorist incident like the London bombs of
July 2005, the news media may seek a more or less
instant picture of the nation’s views about personal
security or people’s responses more generally. Again,
a quota sample will be much faster.

• As with convenience sampling, it is useful for conduct-
ing development work on new measures or on re-
search instruments. It can also be usefully employed
in relation to exploratory work from which new
theoretical ideas might be generated.

• Although the standard error of the mean should not
be computed for a quota sample, it frequently is. As
Moser and Kalton (1971) observe, some writers argue
that the use of a non-random method in quota sam-
pling should not act as a barrier to such a computation
because its signifi cance as a source of error is small
when compared to other errors that may arise in
surveys (see Figure 8.9). However, they go on to argue
that at least with random sampling the researcher can
calculate the amount of sampling error and does not
have to be concerned about its potential impact.

There is some evidence to suggest that, when compared
to random samples, quota samples often result in biases.
They under-represent people in lower social strata,
people who work in the private sector and manufactur-
ing, and people at the extremes of income, and they
over-represent women in households with children and
people from larger households. On the other hand, it has
to be acknowledged that probability samples are often
biased too—for example, it is often suggested that they
under-represent men and those in employment (Marsh
and Scarbrough 1990; Butcher 1994).

9780199588053_C08.indd 204 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 205

Limits to generalization

Error in survey research

One point that is often not fully appreciated is that, even
when a sample has been selected using probability sam-
pling, any fi ndings can be generalized only to the popula-
tion from which that sample was taken. This is an obvious
point, but it is easy to think that fi ndings from a study
have some kind of broader applicability. If we take our
imaginary study of alcohol consumption among students
at a university, any fi ndings could be generalized only
to that university. In other words, you should be very
cautious about generalizing to students at other univer-
sities. There are many factors that may imply that the
level of alcohol consumption is higher (or lower) than
among university students as a whole. There may be a
higher (or lower) concentration of pubs in the univer-
sity’s vicinity, there may be more (or fewer) bars on the
campus, there may be more (or less) of a culture of drink-
ing at this university, or the university may recruit a
higher (or lower) proportion of students with disposable
income. There may be many other factors too. Similarly,
we should be cautious of overgeneralizing in terms
of locality. Lunt and Livingstone’s (1992: 173) study of
consumption habits was based on a postal questionnaire
sent to ‘241 people living in or around Oxford during
September 1989’. While the authors’ fi ndings represent a
fascinating insight into modern consumption patterns,
we should be cautious about assuming that they can
be generalized beyond the confi nes of Oxford and its

We can think of ‘error’, a term that has been employed on
a number of occasions, as being made up of four main
factors (Figure 8.9).

1. Sampling error. See Key concept 8.1 for a defi ni-
tion. This kind of error arises because it is extremely
unlikely that one will end up with a truly representa-
tive sample, even when probability sampling is

2. We can distinguish what might be thought of as
sampling-related error. This is error that is subsumed
under the category non-sampling error (see Key con-

There could even be a further limit to generaliza-
tion that is implied by the Lunt and Livingstone (1992)
sample. They write that the research was conducted in
September 1989. One issue that is rarely discussed in this
context and that is almost impossible to assess is whether
there is a time limit on the fi ndings that are generated.
Quite aside from the fact that we need to appreciate that
the fi ndings cannot (or at least should not) be general-
ized beyond the Oxford area, is there a point at which we
have to say, ‘well, those fi ndings applied to the Oxford
area then but things have changed and we can no longer
assume that they apply to that or any other locality’? We
are, after all, used to thinking that things have changed
when there has been some kind of prominent change.
To take a simple example: no one would be prepared to
assume that the fi ndings of a study in 1980 of university
students’ budgeting and personal fi nance habits would
apply to students in the early twenty-fi rst century. Quite
aside from changes that might have occurred naturally,
the erosion and virtual dismantling of the student grant
system has changed the ways students fi nance their educa-
tion, including perhaps a greater reliance on part-time
work (Lucas 1997), a greater reliance on parents, and the
use of loans. But, even when there is no defi nable or re-
cognizable source of relevant change of this kind, there is
none the less the possibility (or even likelihood) that
fi ndings are temporally specifi c. Such an issue is impos-
sible to resolve without further research (Bryman 1989b).

cept 8.1) but that arises from activities or events that
are related to the sampling process and that are con-
nected with the issue of generalizability or external
validity of fi ndings. Examples are an inaccurate
sampling frame and non-response.

3. There is also error that is connected with the
implementation of the research process. We might
call this data-collection error. This source of error
includes such factors as: poor question wording in self-
completion questionnaires or structured interviews;
poor interviewing techniques; and fl aws in the
administration of research instruments.

9780199588053_C08.indd 205 10/20/11 10:09 AM


4. Finally, there is data-processing error. This arises from
faulty management of data, in particular, errors in the
coding of answers.

The third and fourth sources of error relate to factors
that are not associated with sampling and instead relate

much more closely to concerns about the validity of mea-
surement, which was addressed in Chapter 7. However,
the kinds of steps that need to be taken to keep these
sources of error to a minimum in the context of social
survey research will be addressed in Chapters 9–11.

Key points

● Probability sampling is a mechanism for reducing bias in the selection of samples.

● Ensure you become familiar with key technical terms in the literature on sampling such as:
representative sample; random sample; non-response; population; sampling error; etc.

● Randomly selected samples are important because they permit generalizations to the population and
because they have certain known qualities.

● Sampling error decreases as sample size increases.

● Quota samples can provide reasonable alternatives to random samples, but they suffer from some
defi ciencies.

● Convenience samples may provide interesting data, but it is crucial to be aware of their limitations in
terms of generalizability.

● Sampling and sampling-related error are just two sources of error in social survey research.

Questions for review

● What do each of the following terms mean: population; probability sampling; non-probability
sampling; sampling frame; representative sample; and sampling and non-sampling error?

● What are the goals of sampling?

● What are the main areas of potential bias in sampling?

gu e 8.9Figure 8.9
Four sources of error in social survey research






9780199588053_C08.indd 206 10/20/11 10:09 AM

Sampling 207

Sampling error

● What is the signifi cance of sampling error for achieving a representative sample?

Types of probability sample

● What is probability sampling and why is it important?

● What are the main types of probability sample?

● How far does a stratifi ed random sample offer greater precision than a simple random or systematic

● If you were conducting an interview survey of around 500 people in Manchester, what type of
probability sample would you choose and why?

● A researcher positions herself on a street corner and asks 1 person in 5 who walks by to be
interviewed. She continues doing this until she has a sample of 250. How likely is she to achieve a
representative sample?

The qualities of a probability sample

● A researcher is interested in levels of job satisfaction among manual workers in a fi rm that is
undergoing change. The fi rm has 1,200 manual workers. The researcher selects a simple random
sample of 10 per cent of the population. He measures job satisfaction on a Likert scale comprising
ten items. A high level of satisfaction is scored 5 and a low level is scored 1. The mean job satisfaction
score is 34.3. The standard error of the mean is 8.58. What is the 95 per cent confi dence interval?

Sample size

● What factors would you take into account in deciding how large your sample should be when
devising a probability sample?

● What is non-response and why is it important to the question of whether you will end up with a
representative sample?

Types of non-probability sample

● Are non-probability samples useless?

● In what circumstances might you employ snowball sampling?

● ‘Quota samples are not true random samples, but in terms of generating a representative sample
there is little difference between them, and this accounts for their widespread use in market research
and opinion polling.’ Discuss.

Limits to generalization

● ‘The problem of generalization to a population is not just to do with the matter of getting a
representative sample.’ Discuss.

Error in survey research

● ‘Non-sampling error, as its name implies, is concerned with sources of error that are not part of the
sampling process.’ Discuss.

Online Resource Centre

Visit the Online Resource Centre that accompanies this book to enrich your understanding of
sampling. Consult web links, test yourself using multiple choice questions, and gain further guidance
and inspiration from the Student Researcher’s Toolkit.

9780199588053_C08.indd 207 10/20/11 10:09 AM


Chapter outline

Introduction 209

The structured interview 209

Reducing error due to interviewer variability 210

Accuracy and ease of data processing 211

Other types of interview 212

Interview contexts 213

More than one interviewee 213

More than one interviewer 214

In person or by telephone? 214

Computer-assisted interviewing 216

Conducting interviews 217

Know the schedule 217

Introducing the research 217

Rapport 218

Asking questions 219

Recording answers 219

Clear instructions 219

Question order 220

Probing 223

Prompting 224

Leaving the interview 225

Training and supervision 225

Problems with structured interviewing 227

Characteristics of interviewers 227

Response sets 227

The problem of meaning 228

The feminist critique 228

Key points 229

Questions for review 230

Problems with structured interviewing 227

Characteristics of interviewers 227

ResResponponsese setsets 222727

TheThe pr prproblobloblemem ofof meameaninning 22g g g 2282828

The femininnnistististi ccr criititique 2222222288

KeKeKeKeKeyKeKeyKeyKe popointntss s 22922922922

QuQueQueQueQueQuueue tstististististioonsons fo for rr r revieviewew 230230

9780199588053_C09.indd 208 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing 209


In the social research interview, the aim is for the
interviewer to elicit from the interviewee or respondent, as
he or she is frequently called in survey research, all man-
ner of information: interviewees’ own behaviour or that
of others; attitudes; norms; beliefs; and values. There are
many different types or styles of research interview, but
the kind that is primarily employed in survey research is
the structured interview, which is the focus of this chap-
ter. Other kinds of interview will be briefl y mentioned in
this chapter but will be discussed in greater detail in later

emphasized in this chapter. The structured interview is
one of the two main ways of administering a survey
research instrument, and its main forms are briefl y out-
lined in Figure 8.2. This fi gure should be consulted as a
background to this chapter and Chapter 10.

Chapter guide

The structured interview is one of a variety of forms of research interview, but it is the one that is most
commonly employed in survey research. The goal of the structured interview is for the interviewing of
respondents to be standardized so that differences between interviews in any research project are
minimized. As a result, there are many guidelines about how structured interviewing should be carried
out so that variation in the conduct of interviews is small. The chapter explores:

• the reasons why the structured interview is a prominent research method in survey research; this issue
entails a consideration of the importance of standardization to the process of measurement;

• the different contexts of interviewing, such as the use of more than one interviewer and whether the
administration of the interview is in person or by telephone;

• various prerequisites of structured interviewing, including: establishing rapport with the interviewee;
asking questions as they appear on the interview schedule; recording exactly what is said by interviewees;
ensuring there are clear instructions on the interview schedule concerning question sequencing and
the recording of answers; and keeping to the question order as it appears on the schedule;

• problems with structured interviewing, including: the infl uence of the interviewer on respondents and
the possibility of systematic bias in answers (known as response sets); the feminist critique of
structured interview, which raises a distinctive cluster of problems with the method, is also examined.

The interview is a common occurrence in social life,
because there are many different forms of interview. There
are job interviews, media interviews, social work inter-
views, police interviews, appraisal interviews. And then
there are research interviews, which represent the kind
of interview that will be covered in this and other chapters
(such as Chapters 20 and 21). These different kinds of
interview share some common features, such as the elicit-
ing of information by the interviewer from the interviewee
and the operation of rules of varying degrees of formality
or explicitness concerning the conduct of the interview.

The research interview is a prominent data-collection
strategy in both quantitative and qualitative research.
The survey is probably the chief context within which
social researchers employ the structured interview (see
Key concept 9.1) in connection with quantitative re-
search, and it is this form of the interview that will be

The structured interview

9780199588053_C09.indd 209 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing210

The reason why survey researchers typically prefer the
structured interview is that it promotes standardiza-
tion of both the asking of questions and the recording
of answers. This feature has two closely related virtues
from the perspective of quantitative research: reducing
error due to variation in the asking of questions, and
greater accuracy in and ease of processing respondents’

Reducing error due to interviewer


The standardization of both the asking of questions and
the recording of answers means that, if the interview is
properly executed, variation in people’s replies will be
due to ‘true’ or ‘real’ variation and not due to the inter-
view context. To take a simple illustration, when we ask a
question that is supposed to be an indicator of a concept,

we want to keep error to a minimum, an issue that was
touched on at the end of Chapter 8. We can think of the
answers to a question as constituting the values that a
variable takes. These values, of course, exhibit variation.
This could be the question on alcohol consumption
among students that was a focus of Chapter 8 at certain
points. Students will vary in the number of alcohol units
they consume (as in Figure 9.1). However, some respond-
ents may be inaccurately classifi ed in terms of the vari-
able. There are a number of possible reasons for this (see
Thinking deeply 9.1).

Most variables will contain an element of error, so that
it is helpful to think of variation as made up of two com-
ponents: true variation and error. In other words:

variation = true variation + variation due to error.

The aim is to keep the error component to a minimum
(see Figure 9.2), since error has an adverse effect on the

Key concept 9.1
What is a structured interview?

A structured interview, sometimes called a standardized interview, entails the administration of an interview

schedule by an interviewer. The aim is for all interviewees to be given exactly the same context of questioning.

This means that each respondent receives exactly the same interview stimulus as any other. The goal of this style

of interviewing is to ensure that interviewees’ replies can be aggregated, and this can be achieved reliably only if

those replies are in response to identical cues. Interviewers are supposed to read out questions exactly and in the

same order as they are printed on the schedule. Questions are usually very specifi c and very often offer the

interviewee a fi xed range of answers (this type of question is often called closed, closed ended, pre-coded, or fi xed

choice). The structured interview is the typical form of interview in survey research.

Thinking deeply 9.1
Common sources of error in survey research

There are many sources of error in survey research in addition to those associated with sampling. This is a list of

the principal sources of error:

1. a poorly worded question;

2. the way the question is asked by the interviewer;

3. misunderstanding on the part of the interviewee;

4. memory problems on the part of the interviewee;

5. the way the information is recorded by the interviewer;

6. the way the information is processed, either when answers are coded or when data are entered into the


9780199588053_C09.indd 210 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing 211

validity of a measure. If the error component is quite
high (see Figure 9.3), validity will be jeopardized. The
signifi cance for error of standardization in the structured
interview is that two sources of variation due to error—
the second and fi fth in Thinking deeply 9.1—are likely to
be less pronounced, since the opportunity for variation in
interviewer behaviour in these two areas (asking ques-
tions and recording answers) is reduced.

The signifi cance of standardization and of thereby re-
ducing interviewer variability is this: assuming that there
is no problem with an interview question due to such
things as confusing terms or ambiguity (an issue that will
be examined in Chapter 11), we want to be able to say as
far as possible that the variation that we fi nd is connected
with true variation between interviewees and not to
variation in the way a question was asked or the answers
recorded in the course of the administration of a survey
by structured interview. Variability can occur in either of

two ways. First, intra-interviewer variability, whereby an
interviewer is not consistent in the way he or she asks
questions and/or records answers. Second, when there is
more than one interviewer, there may be inter-interviewer
variability, whereby interviewers are not consistent with
each other in the ways they ask questions and/or record
answers. Needless to say, these two sources of variability
are not mutually exclusive; they can coexist, compounding
the problem even further. In view of the signifi cance of
standardization, it is hardly surprising that some writers
prefer to call the structured interview a standardized
interview (e.g. Oppenheim 1992) or standardized survey
interview (e.g. Fowler and Mangione 1990).

Accuracy and ease of data processing

Like self-completion questionnaires, most structured
interviews contain mainly questions that are variously
referred to as closed, closed ended, pre-coded, or fi xed
choice. This issue will be covered in detail in Chapter 11.
However, this type of question has considerable relev-
ance to the current discussion. With the closed ques-

tion, the respondent is given a limited choice of possible
answers. In other words, the interviewer provides re-
spondents with two or more possible answers and asks
them to select which one or ones apply. Ideally, this pro-
cedure will simply entail the interviewer placing a tick
in a box by the answer(s) selected by a respondent or
circling the selected answer or using a similar procedure.
The advantage of this practice is that the potential for
interviewer variability is reduced: there is no problem
of whether the interviewer writes down everything that
the respondent says or of misinterpretation of the reply
given. If an open or open-ended question is asked, the
interviewer may not write down everything said, may
embellish what is said, or may misinterpret what is said.

However, the advantages of the closed question in the
context of survey research go further than this, as we
will see in Chapter 11. One advantage that is particularly
signifi cant in the context of the present discussion is that
closed questions greatly facilitate the processing of data.
When an open question is asked, the answers need to
be sifted and coded in order for the data to be analysed
quantitatively. Not only is this a laborious procedure,
particularly if there is a large number of open questions
and/or of respondents; it also introduces the potential
for another source of error, which is the sixth in Thinking
deeply 9.1: it is quite likely that error will be introduced
as a result of variability in the coding of answers. When
open questions are asked, the interviewer is supposed to
write down as much of what is said as possible. Answers

gu e 9.Figure 9.1
A variable


Figure 9.3Figure 9.3
A variable with considerable error

True variation Variation due
to error

Figure 9.2Figure 9.2
A variable with little error

True variation
Variation due to error

9780199588053_C09.indd 211 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing212

can, therefore, be in the form of several sentences. These
answers have to be examined and then categorized, so
that each person’s answer can be aggregated with other
respondents’ answers to a certain question. A number
will then be allocated to each category of answer, so that
the answers can then be entered into a computer data-
base and analysed quantitatively. This general process is
known as coding and will be examined in greater detail
in Chapter 11.

Coding introduces yet another source of error. First, if
the rules for assigning answers to categories, collectively
known as the coding frame, are fl awed, the variation
that is observed will not refl ect the true variation in inter-
viewees’ replies. Second, there may be variability in the
ways in which answers are categorized. As with inter-
viewing, there can be two sources: intra-coder variability,
whereby the coder varies over time in the way in which
the rules for assigning answers to categories are imple-
mented, and inter-coder variability, whereby coders dif-
fer from each other in the way in which the rules for
assigning answers to categories are implemented. If
either (or both) source(s) of variability occur, at least part
of the variation in interviewees’ replies will not refl ect
true variation and instead will be caused by error.

The closed question sidesteps this problem neatly,
because respondents allocate themselves to categories.
The coding process is then a simple matter of attaching
a different number to each category of answer and of
entering the numbers into a computer database. It is not
surprising, therefore, that this type of question is often
referred to as pre-coded, because decisions about the
coding of answers are typically undertaken as part of the
design of the schedule—that is, before any respondents
have actually been asked questions. There is very little
opportunity for interviewers or coders to vary in the
recording or the coding of answers. Of course, if some

respondents misunderstand any terms in the alternative
answers with which they are presented, or if the answers
do not adequately cover the appropriate range of pos-
sibilities, the question will not provide a valid measure.
However, that is a separate issue and one that will be re-
turned to in Chapter 11. The chief point to register about
closed questions for the moment is that, when compared
to open questions, they reduce one potential source of
error and are much easier to process for quantitative data

Other types of interview

The structured interview is by no means the only type of
interview, but it is certainly the main type that is likely to
be encountered in survey research and in quantitative re-
search generally. Unfortunately, a host of different terms
have been employed by writers on research methodology
to distinguish the diverse forms of research interview.
Key concept 9.2 represents an attempt to capture some of
the major terms and types.

All the forms of interview outlined in Key concept 9.2,
with the exception of the structured interview and the
standardized interview, are primarily used in connection
with qualitative research, and it is in that context that they
will be encountered again later in this book. They are
rarely used in connection with quantitative research, and
survey research in particular, because the absence of
standardization in the asking of questions and recording
of answers makes respondents’ replies diffi cult to aggre-
gate and to process. This is not to say that they have no
role at all. For example, as we will see in Chapter 11, the
unstructured or semi-structured interview can have a use-
ful role in relation to developing the fi xed-choice alterna-
tives with which respondents are provided in the kind of
closed question that is typical of the structured interview.

Key concept 9.2
Major types of interview

• Structured interview. See Key concept 9.1.

• Standardized interview. See Key concept 9.1.

• Semi-structured interview. This is a term that covers a wide range of instances. It typically refers to a context

in which the interviewer has a series of questions that are in the general form of an interview schedule but is

able to vary the sequence of questions. The questions are frequently somewhat more general in their frame of

reference from that typically found in a structured interview schedule. Also, the interviewer usually has some

latitude to ask further questions in response to what are seen as signifi cant replies.

9780199588053_C09.indd 212 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing 213

In an archetypal interview, an interviewer stands or sits
in front of the respondent asking the latter a series of
questions and writing down the answers. However, there
are several possible departures from it, although this
archetype is the most usual context for an interview.

More than one interviewee

In the case of group interviews or focus groups, there is
more than one, and usually quite a few more than one,
respondent or interviewee. Nor is this the only context in
which more than one person is interviewed. McKee and
Bell (1985), for example, interviewed couples in their
study of the impact of male unemployment, while, in

my research on visitors to Disney theme parks, not just
couples but often their children took part in the inter-
view as well (Bryman 1999). However, it is very unusual
for structured interviews to be used in connection with
this kind of questioning. In survey research, it is almost
always a specifi c individual who is the object of question-
ing. Indeed, in survey interviews it is very advisable to
discourage as far as possible the presence and intrusion
of others during the course of the interview. Investigations
in which more than one person is being interviewed tend
to be exercises in qualitative research, though this is not
always the case: Pahl’s (1990) study of patterns of control
of money among couples employed structured interview-
ing of couples and of husbands and wives separately.

• Unstructured interview. The interviewer typically has only a list of topics or issues, often called an interview

guide or aide-mémoire, that are to be covered. The style of questioning is usually informal. The phrasing and

sequencing of questions will vary from interview to interview.

• Intensive interview. This term is employed by Lofl and and Lofl and (1995) as an alternative term to the

unstructured interview. Spradley (1979) uses the term ethnographic interview to describe a form of interview

that is also more or less synonymous with the unstructured interview.

• Qualitative interview. For some writers, this term seems to denote an unstructured interview (e.g. Mason

1996), but more frequently it is a general term that embraces interviews of both the semi-structured and

unstructured kind (e.g. Rubin and Rubin 1995).

• In-depth interview. Like the term ‘qualitative interview’, this one sometimes refers to an unstructured interview

but more often refers to both semi-structured and unstructured interviewing. The use of this term seems to be


• Focused interview. This is a term devised by Merton et al. (1956) to refer to an interview using predominantly

open questions to ask interviewees questions about a specifi c situation or event that is relevant to them and

of interest to the researcher.

• Focus group. This is the same as the focused interview, but interviewees discuss the specifi c issue in groups.

See Key concept 21.1 for a more detailed defi nition.

• Group interview. Some writers see this term as synonymous with the focus group, but a distinction may be

made between the latter and a situation in which members of a group discuss a variety of matters that may

be only partially related.

• Oral history interview. This is an unstructured or semi-structured interview in which the respondent is asked

to recall events from his or her past and to refl ect on them. There is usually a cluster of fairly specifi c research

concerns to do with a particular epoch or event, so there is some resemblance to a focused interview (see the

section on ‘Life history and oral history interviewing’ in Chapter 20.).

• Life history interview. This is similar to the oral history interview, but the aim of this type of unstructured

interview is to glean information on the entire biography of each respondent (see the section on ‘Life history

and oral history interviewing’ in Chapter 20.)

Interview contexts

9780199588053_C09.indd 213 10/20/11 10:10 AM

Structured interviewing214

More than one interviewer

This is a very unusual situation in social research, because
of the considerable cost that is involved in dispatching
two (or indeed more than two) people to interview some-
one. Bechhofer et al. (1984) describe research in which
two people interviewed individuals in a wide range of
occupations. However, while their approach achieved a
number of benefi ts for them, their interviewing style was
of the unstructured kind that is typically employed in
qualitative research, and they argue that the presence of
a second interviewer is unlikely to achieve any added
value in the context of structured interviewing.

There are several advantages of telephone over per-
sonal interviews.

• On a like-for-like basis, they are far cheaper and also
quicker to administer. This arises because, for per-
sonal interviews, interviewers have to spend a great
deal of time and money travelling between respond-
ents. This factor will be even more pronounced when
a sample is geographically dispersed, a problem that
is only partially mitigated for personal interview
surveys by strategies like cluster sampling. Of course,
telephone interviews take time and hired intervi