Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

In our articles we often use the phrase “based on sociological studies” or “based on social research”. But most readers don’t know what we’re talking about. So in this article we decided to cover this question in detail.

Sociological study is a peculiar system of organizational and technical procedures, thanks to which it is possible to obtain scientific knowledge about social phenomena. This is a system of theoretical and empirical procedures that are collected in the methods of sociological research.

Types of studies

Before examining the main methods of sociological studies, it is worth examining their varieties. Basically, research is divided into three broad groups: by purpose, by duration, and by depth of analysis. In terms of objectives, sociological research is divided into fundamental and applied studies:

  • Fundamental studies identify and study social trends and patterns of social development. The results of these studies help to solve complex problems;
  • Applied studies study specific objects and deal with certain problems, which are not of a global nature.

All methods of sociological studies differ from each other in their duration. Thus, there are:

  • Long-term studies that last more than 3 years;
  • Mid-term studies that last from six months to three years;
  • Short-term ones last from 2 to 6 months;
  • Express studies are very fast – from 1 week to 2 months maximum.

Social research also differs in its depth, dividing it into exploratory, descriptive, and analytical:

  • Exploratory studies are considered the simplest, they are used when the subject of the study has not yet been studied. They have simplified tools and programs and are most often used in the preliminary stages of larger studies to set benchmarks about what and where to collect information;
  • Descriptive studies provide scholars with a holistic view of the phenomena under study. They are conducted based on a full program of the chosen method of sociological research, using detailed tools and a large number of people to conduct interviews;
  • Analytical studies describe social phenomena and their causes.

About methodology and methods

Reference books often refer to such concepts as methodology and methods of sociological research. For those who are far from science, it is worth explaining one fundamental difference between them. Methods are ways of using organizational and technical procedures designed to collect sociological information. Methodology is the totality of all possible research methods.

Thus, methodology and methods of sociological research can be considered related concepts, but by no means identical. All methods known in sociology can be divided into two large groups:

  • Methods that are designed to collect data;
  • Methods responsible for their processing.

In turn, the methods of sociological research, which are responsible for collecting data, are divided into quantitative and qualitative. Qualitative methods help the scientist understand the essence of the phenomenon that occurred, and quantitative methods show how massively it has spread.

The family of quantitative methods of sociological research includes:

  1. Sociological survey;
  2. Content analysis of documents;
  3. Interviews;
  4. Observation;
  5. Experiment.

Qualitative methods of sociological research are focus groups and case studies. It can also include unstructured interviews and ethnographic studies.

As for methods of analysis of sociological research, they include all kinds of statistical methods, such as ranking or scaling. To be able to apply statistics, sociologists use special software such as OSA or SPSS.

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

So, the methodology is understood. Now let’s take a closer look at all variants of sociological research, their features, pros and cons.

Social survey

The first and main method of sociological research is considered a social survey. A survey is a method of collecting information about the object under study during a questionnaire or interview.

With the help of a survey you can get information that is not always reflected in documentary sources or cannot be seen during the experiment. Interviewing is resorted to when the desired and only source of information is a person. Verbal information obtained through this method is considered more reliable than any other. It is easier to analyze and turn it into quantitative indicators.

Another advantage of this method is that it is universal. During the interview, the interviewer records the motives and results of the individual’s activities. This allows us to obtain information that no other method of sociological research can provide.

In sociology, such a notion as reliability of information (it is when the respondent gives the same answers to the same questions) is of great importance. However, a person may answer differently under different circumstances, so how the interviewer knows how to take all conditions into account and influence them is of great importance. As many factors affecting reliability need to be kept as stable as possible.

Every sociological survey begins with an adaptation phase, when the respondent is given some motivation to respond. This phase consists of a greeting and the first few questions. Beforehand, the respondent is explained the contents of the questionnaire, its purpose, and the rules for completing it.

The second phase of the questionnaire is the achievement of the set goal, i.e. the collection of basic information. In the course of the interview, especially if the questionnaire is very long, the respondent’s interest in the task may fade. Therefore, the questionnaire often uses questions, the content of which is interesting for the subject, but may be absolutely useless for the study.

The last stage of the questionnaire is the completion of the work. At the end of the questionnaire usually write easy questions, most often this role is played by a demographic map. Such a way helps to relieve tension, and the respondent will be more loyal to the interviewer. After all, as practice shows, if you do not take into account the condition of the subject, the majority of respondents refuse to answer questions already on the half of the questionnaire.

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

Content analysis of documents

Document analysis also belongs to sociological research methods. This technique is second in popularity only to sociological surveys, but in some areas of research content analysis is considered to be the main one.

Content analysis of documents is widespread in the sociology of politics, law, civil movements, etc. Very often, by examining documents, scholars deduce new hypotheses, which are later tested by questioning. This document is a means to verify information regarding facts, events or phenomena of objective reality.

When using documents, it is worth considering the experience and traditions of a particular field, as well as the related humanities. During the analysis, it is worthwhile to be critical of the information, this will help to properly assess its objectivity.

Documents are classified according to different characteristics. Depending on how they record information, they are divided into written, phonetic, and iconographic. If authorship is taken into account, then the documents can be official and personal origin. Also, the creation of documents is influenced by motives. Thus, provoked and unprovoked materials are distinguished.

Content analysis is a precise study of the content of a text array in order to identify or measure the social trends described in those arrays. It is a specific method of scientific-cognitive activity and sociological research. It is best used when there is a large amount of unsystematic material (e.g., when a text cannot be examined without summative assessments or when a high level of accuracy is needed).

The main thing in content analysis is to correctly identify semantic units. These can be words, phrases, and sentences. By analyzing documents in this way, the sociologist can easily understand the main trends, changes, and predict further development in a particular social segment.


Another method of sociological studies is the interview. It refers to personal communication between the sociologist and the respondent. The interviewer asks questions and records the answers. The interview can be direct, i.e. face-to-face, or indirect, e.g. by phone, mail, online, etc.

According to the degree of freedom interviews are:

  • Formalized. In this case, the sociologist always clearly follows the research program. In sociological research methods, this method is often used in mediated surveys;
  • Semi-formalized. Here the order of questions and their wording can vary depending on how the interview is conducted;
  • Informalized. Interviews can be conducted without questionnaires; depending on the course of the conversation, the sociologist chooses his or her own questions. This method is used in pilot or expert interviews when there is no need to compare the results of the conducted work.

Depending on who is the bearer of information, surveys can be:

  • Mass surveys. Here the main sources of information are representatives of various social groups;
  • Specialized surveys. When only people knowledgeable in a particular survey are interviewed, which allows for quite authoritative answers. This survey is often referred to as an expert interview.

Thus, in brief, the method of sociological research (in this case, an interview) is a very flexible tool for collecting primary information. Interviews are indispensable when it is necessary to study phenomena that cannot be observed from the outside.

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

Observation in sociology

It is a method of purposefully recording information about an object of perception.

Sociology distinguishes between scientific and everyday observation. The characteristic features of scientific research are purposefulness and orderliness. Scientific observation is subordinated to the certain purposes and is carried out under the prepared plan in advance. The researcher records the results of observation and controls their sustainability.

There are three main features of observation:

  1. The method of sociological research assumes that the knowledge of social reality is closely connected with the scholar’s personal preferences and value orientations;
  2. The sociologist emotionally perceives the object of observation;
  3. Then the difficulty of repeating the observation is assessed (because objects are always subject to various factors that change them).

Thus, when observing, the sociologist faces a number of difficulties of a subjective nature, since he or she interprets what he or she sees through the prism of his or her judgment.

As for objective problems, the following can be said: not all social facts can be observed, all observed processes are limited in time. Therefore, this method is used as an additional method for collecting sociological information.

Also observation is used, if it is necessary to deepen the knowledge or when it is impossible to receive the necessary information by other methods. The program of observation consists of such stages:

  1. Determination of the goal and objectives;
  2. Selection of the type of observation that best meets the objectives;
  3. Identification of the object and subject;
  4. Choosing a way to record data;
  5. Interpretation of received information.

Types of observation

Each particular method of sociological observation is classified according to different characteristics. The method of observation is not an exception.

According to the degree of formalization it is divided into structured and not structured. That is, those which are conducted according to a preconceived plan and spontaneously, when only the object of observation is known.

According to the position of the observer, such experiments can be included or not included. In the first case, the sociologist takes a direct part in the object under study (for example, contacts the subject or participates with the subjects under study in the same activity). In uninvolved observation, the scientist simply watches and records the events unfold.

In terms of location and conditions, observations come in the field and in the laboratory. In the laboratory, candidates are specially selected and a situation is played out, while in the field, the sociologist simply observes how individuals act in their natural environment.

Observations can also be systematic, when they are conducted repeatedly in order to measure the dynamics of change, and incidental (i.e. one-off).


For sociological research methods, the collection of primary information is of paramount importance. But it is not always possible to observe a particular phenomenon or to find respondents who have been in particular social conditions.

Therefore, sociologists begin to conduct experiments. This specific method is based on the fact that the researcher and the subject interact in an artificially created environment.

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

An experiment is used to test hypotheses about the causes of certain social phenomena. Researchers compare two phenomena, where one has a hypothesized cause for the change and the other does not. If, under the influence of certain factors, the research subject acts as previously predicted, the hypothesis is considered proven.

Experiments can be exploratory or confirmatory. Exploratory ones help to determine the cause of certain phenomena, while confirmatory ones establish how true these causes are.

Before conducting an experiment, the sociologist must have all the necessary information about the research problem. First, the problem must be formulated and key concepts defined. Next, identify the variables, particularly external variables, that could significantly affect the experiment.

Particular attention should be paid to the selection of subjects. That is, take into account the characteristics of the general population, modeling it in a reduced format. Experimental and control subgroups should be equivalent. During the experiment, the researcher directly influences the experimental subgroup, while the control subgroup is not influenced in any way.

The resulting differences are the independent variables from which new hypotheses are subsequently derived.

Focus group

Among qualitative methods of sociological research, focus groups have long been in the first place. This method of obtaining information helps to obtain reliable data without requiring long preparation and significant time expenditures.

To conduct the study, you need to select 8 to 12 people who do not know each other before, and appoint a moderator, someone who will lead the dialogue with those present. All participants in the study must be familiar with the research problem.

A focus group is a discussion of a particular social problem, product, phenomenon, etc. The main task of the moderator is to keep the conversation moving. He or she should stimulate the participants to express their opinions. To do this, he or she asks leading questions, quotes or shows video clips, asking for comments. Each participant must give his/her opinion without repeating what has already been said.

The entire procedure lasts about 1-2 hours, is recorded on video, and after the participants leave, the material is reviewed, the data is collected and interpreted.

Sociological Studies: Methods and Types

Case study

The No. 2 method of sociological research in modern science is the case study.

It originated in the Chicago School at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a type of research, where the object is a specific phenomenon, a case or a historical person. Researchers pay close attention to them in order to be able to predict in the future the processes that may occur in society.

There are three main approaches to this method:

  • Nomothetic. The singular phenomenon is reduced to the general, the researcher compares what happened to the norm and concludes how likely the phenomenon is to spread en masse;
  • Ideographic. The singular is considered unique, the so-called exception to the rule, which cannot be repeated in any social environment;
  • Integrated. The essence of this method is that during the analysis of the phenomenon is considered as unique and as common, it helps to find the features of the pattern.

Ethnographic Studies

Ethnographic research plays an important role in the study of society. The basic principle is the naturalness of data collection.

The essence of the method is simple: the closer the research situation is to everyday life, the more realistic the results will be after the collection of materials. The task of researchers who work with ethnographic data is to describe in detail the behavior of individuals in certain conditions and give them meaning.

The ethnographic method is represented by a kind of reflective approach, with the researcher himself at its center. He studies materials that are informal and contextual. These can be diaries, notes, stories, newspaper clippings, etc. On their basis, the sociologist must create a detailed description of the life world of the public under study. Such a method of sociological research allows new ideas for research to emerge from theoretical data not previously taken into consideration.

It depends on the problem of study which method of sociological research the scholar chooses, but if one is not to be found, a new one can be created. Sociology is a young science that is still evolving. Every year there are more and more new methods of studying society, which allow to predict its further development and, as a result, to prevent the inevitable.

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