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An important aspect of sociological research is the decision as to how data should be collected.A research design is a detailed plan or method for obtaining data scientifically. Sociologists regularly use experiments, participant observations, surveys and unobtrusive techniques to generate data for their research.
Experiments. When sociologists wish to study a possible cause-and-effect relationship, they may conduct experiments.An experiment is an artificially created situation that allows the researcher either to confirm or to refute the hypothesis under study. In the classic method of conducting an experiment, two groups of people are selected and compared:the experimental group which is exposed to the experiment andthe control group which is not.
Participant observation. It is a research technique in which an investigator collects information through direct participation in and observation of a group or a community under study. In some cases, the sociologist actually «joins» the group for a period of time to get an accurate sense of how it operates. In conducting participant observation research the investigator may face several problems. Firstly, in our society many people resent the feeling of '«being studied». Thus, if the group sees the researcher as an outsider and an observer — rather than a member of the group — its members may feel uneasy and hide many thoughts and emotions. On the other hand, if the researcher disguises his or her identity or purpose, he or she is being somewhat dishonest and this may also distort the group process. Finally, sociologists must learn to see the world as the group sees it. This raises a delicate question regarding the effect of the group on the observer and the observer on the group. The sociologist must retain a certain level of detachment from the group under study and the observer cannot allow the close associations or even friendships that inevitably develop or influence the conclusion of the study.
Surveys. Almost all of us have responded to surveys of one kind or another.A survey is a study, generally in the form of an interview or a questionnaire, which provides sociologists with information concerning how people think and act.
Each of these forms has its own advantages. An interview can obtain a high response rate because people find it more difficult to turn down a personal request for an interview than to throw away a written questionnaire. On the other hand, questionnaires have the advantage of being cheaper. Also, since the questions are written, the researcher knows that there is some guarantee of consistency, whereas five interviewers can ask the same question in five different ways.
Unobtrusive measures. They include a variety of research techniques that have no impact on who or what is being studied. Social scientists and students from the University of Arizona studied people's spending and eating habits by examining household garbage left out on the street. This is an unconventional example of the use of unobtrusive measures in social scientific research.
The basic techniques of unobtrusive measures are the use of statistics and studying cultural, economic and political documents, including newspapers, periodicals, radio and television tapes, diaries, songs, folklore and legal papers, to name a few examples.
It is important to realize that research designs need not be viewed as mutually exclusive. Two or more methods used together may be especially informative. For example, unobtrusive methods have proved to be valuable as a supplement to other research methods. One investigator wished to examine the relationship between reported and actual beer consumption. He obtained a «front door» measure of consumption by asking residents of houses how much beer they drank each week. At the same time, a «backdoor» measure was developed by counting the number of beer cans in their garbage. This backdoor method produced a considerably higher estimate of beer consumption.
Ethics of research. Most sociological research uses people as sources of information — as respondents to survey questions, participants in experiments or subjects of observation. That is why in conducting research sociologists must abide by the code of ethics that puts forth the following basic principles:
1. Maintain objectivity and integrity in research.
2. Respect the subject's right to privacy and dignity.
3. Protect subjects from personal harm.
4. Preserve confidentiality.
5. Acknowledge research collaboration and assistance.
6. Disclose all sources of financial support.
The ethical considerations of sociologists lie not only in the methods used, but in the way the results are interpreted. We recognize that sociologists will be influenced by their own personal values in selecting questions for research but under no condition can a researcher allow his or her personal feelings to influence the interpretation of data. In conducting research, sociologists must practicevalue neutrality in Max Weber's phrase. And as part of this neutrality, investigators have an ethical obligation to accept research findings even when the data run counter to their own personal views, to theoretically based explanations, or to widely accepted beliefs.
The issue of value neutrality becomes especially delicate when one considers the relationship of sociology to government. Max Weber urged that sociology remain an autonomous discipline, and not become unduly influenced by any one segment of society. According to his ideal of value neutrality, sociologists must remain free to reveal information that is embarrassing to government.