There are many research methods involved in studying sociology. Although these vary between the types of study being conducted, sociologists are required to have a strong understanding of research methods to understand and interpret results from research. The two research methods that will be focused on here are surveys and interviews, which are both commonly used to acquire information from participants about the relevant topic. There are two main types of interview, the structured and the unstructured. Structured interviews generally rely on a group of selected questions that will help to keep the participant on-topic and to allow the researcher to really delve into the topic at hand. Unstructured interviews occur when participants are given a topic and are allowed to talk freely on it, with the interviewer taking their responses into consideration when asking questions (Bryman, 2012).
Questionnaires can also be structured or unstructured. Structured questionnaires generally involve a set of questions which will revolve around the topic at hand, although demographic information is generally collected at the same time to find links between age, gender and social class and the relevant responses. Unstructured questionnaires will usually have a few set questions with more open-ended elements that the participant can use to really delve into their feelings about the topic (Bulmer, 1984). The philosophical justification for using interviews are many. The main reason they are used is that they can go slightly off-topic which means that researchers can gain information about a topic that they may not have expected. Additionally, the presence of a researcher may help to prevent question bias and encourage participants to answer in a truthful way (Bulmer, 1984). Finally, interviews are used because they give more in-depth answers on a topic than questionnaires, which once distributed cannot be altered to reflect changing attitudes on the topic (Bulmer, 1984).
Although the discipline of cultural anthropology shares some of the same background with sociology, the research methods used can often be different. As opposed to sociology, cultural anthropology more often relies on observational methods rather than direct questioning (Bernard, 2011). One of the main research methods in cultural anthropology is participant observation. In this, a researcher will generally go to an event or practice being researched and will watch various communities or individuals participate in the event or practice (Bernard, 2011). This means that the researcher is not involved and therefore will have little effect on how it is being conducted, giving a true reflection of how the practice goes in reality.
Additionally, cultural anthropologists may use life histories as part of their research. In this, the researcher will generally question an individual about their life and how they have participated in the culture throughout their lifespan to gain information. In some cases, the anthropologist may do this on a longitudinal basis and follow the individual throughout a period of time to gain a true and current reflection of their life history (Bernard, 2011). The philosophical justification for using life histories is that it moves beyond a typical “snapshot” of daily life in the community of interest. It shows how the culture has evolved over time and how the individual in question has interacted with the changing community over time (Bernard, 2011). It may also give insight into the participant’s interaction with the community and how their feelings are about the practices that they have grown up with – some individuals may begin life as favorable to ideas such as female genital mutilation and then grow to have disdain for the cultural practice (Bernard, 2011). Overall, life histories can be used to give a full picture of life in the community rather than focus on a specific event.
Overall, there are both similarities and differences between cultural anthropological and sociological research methods. Sociological research methods often revolve around the research of how an individual interacts with society, which means that it more often focuses on the current. Additionally, it focuses on how the person feels about their place in society and how their views are shaped by their position (Bulmer, 1984). In this sense, it is more important to gain demographic information from the participant because this can then be used to see how it affects the person’s individuality and social position. It will also generally be used to see if a certain social group (based on gender, age or social standing) more often holds certain views or certain feelings about society.
Cultural anthropology research focuses more heavily on traditions and interactions within a cultural group. Much cultural anthropological research focuses on how important a certain ritual or rite is to a cultural group, which means that following an individual and observing how they interact with this ritual is important (Bryman, 2012). Cultural anthropologists also often focus on not disturbing the culture that they are witnessing, so they will either integrate themselves with the society in question or will observe from a non-threatening standpoint. The interesting thing about using life histories is that it can show how a culture has evolved over time. Although longitudinal studies are used in both disciplines, sociological research is generally used to show how attitudes as a whole have changed, whereas in cultural anthropology the aim is to see whether the individual’s relationship with their culture has evolved. Overall, there are different attitudes to research and what is hoped to be achieved by research between the two disciplines.
- Bernard, H. R. (2011). Research Methods in Anthropology. Rowman Altamira.
- Bryman, A. (2012). Social Research Methods. Oxford University Press.
- Bulmer, M. (1984). Sociological Research Methods. Transaction Publishers.