MINISTERY OF EDUCATION OF THE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS
Belarus State Economic University
”Research methods to collect primary empirical information”
Research methods are strategies or techniques to conduct a systematic
research. To collect primary data four main methods are used: survey,
observation, document analysis and experiment, but not any of them is
adequate or best for all purposes – all should be supplemented and
The most wide-spread method that provides almost 90% of empiric data is
survey research. Survey is a poll in which researchers gather facts
applying to respondents whose verbal statements are a source of
information. Respondents are people who provide data for analysis.
The strengths of surveys are seen in the following: survey research is
useful in describing the characteristics of a large population without
having to interview each person in that population. It is useful in
analyzing social change or documenting the existence of a social
problem. It is cheap to organize and makes a maximum use of technical
devices to process the obtained data.
A weakness of survey research is that quality of obtained data may be
affected by a respondent’s personality – his education, culture, memory,
attitudes to the study problem, on the one hand, and the researcher’s
personality – his professional level, communicative skills etc., on the
Survey data are collected by using such methods as questionnaire,
interviewing, sociometric survey and expert survey.
Questionnaire is a popular method of data collection with a
questionnaire form as a printed research instrument containing a series
of items for respondents to answer. It may be self-administered by a
respondent or administered by an interviewer in face-to-face encounter
or by telephone.
The advantages of questionnaire are well-known: data can be collected
fast on specific items; these data can be easily transferred into forms
allowing quantified and computerized analyses; the task of data
collection can be delegated to less expensive field staff.
However, several problems can arise when using questionnaire. It can
impose a rigid, preconceived idea of reality which may be inappropriate
for the particular situation. If field enumerators are not supervised
properly, errors in recording data can occur. Problems may also arise
from respondents concealing, misreporting, or misunderstanding the
The design and preparation of a questionnaire form are extremely
important, as they will influence the type of information collected, in
somewhat the same way as the mesh-size of a fish-net determines the fish
that are caught.
First, the questionnaire form must be strictly designed: it begins with
an introduction that should make a respondent interested in
participating in the poll; so it informs him about the research aim, way
of filling in, guarantees of anonymity etc. The second section is a set
of pre-arranged questions. The final part contains demographic data
Selecting and phrasing of particular questions is of utmost importance
in any survey as their purpose is to discover what people know, not what
they do not know. They should follow in a logical order so that the
researcher can obtain maximum information, and people should be reminded
of aspects on which they might comment. Sometimes it is good to start
with a general question, “What do you think about X? ”followed by
specific questions. Questions must be carefully phrased so that they can
be understood by any respondents who belong to a certain
socio-demographic group. They should fit with indigenous knowledge
systems, and with local perceptions. The researcher must have enough
basic knowledge of the community to know which questions would be
meaningful, and how exactly they should be framed so as to minimize the
possibility of creating ambiguity or embarrassment.
Besides, the questionnaire form should meet the requirements of validity
and reliability. Validity is the extent to which a study or research
instrument accurately measures what it is supposed to measure.
Reliability is the extent to which a study or research instrument yields
consistent results when applied to different individuals at one time or
to the same individuals over time.
In questionnaire forms the following types of questions can be used:
· open-ended questions – when a respondent himself formulates the
answer, for example, “How did you spend tonight? ”– “I went to the
cinema”or “I chatted in the Internet”;
· closed questions – when a respondent is provided with some
alternatives, for example, “What do you think of smoking? ”– “It’s bad
for health”, “It’s a way of coming down under stress”or “I’m neutral
about it”. One and the same question can be made open-ended or closed.
Closed questions are easier to computerize, but they need the
researcher’s comprehensive knowledge on the issue. Open-ended questions
are used when this knowledge is limited;
· semi-closed questions – when a respondent is provided with
alternatives and given a chance to express his own opinion on the issue.
Normally it’s included as “other”followed by a space for a respondent’s
· scale questions – when a respondent checks a scale (of incidence,
preference, or quantity) of 0-5 (1-10 etc);
· menu questions – when a respondent can choose any combination of
· alternative questions supposing to choose only “yes”or “no”answers.
Although the questionnaire ought to cover all questions needed, it
should be neither too elaborate nor too long. The number of questions
should vary from 25 to 30 as a bigger number creates more accidental and
inadequate information because a respondent becomes tired. Consequently,
an hour is usually a maximum time period for filling in any
questionnaire. Besides, most people have a lot of demands on their time,
so they cannot spend too much time on answering questions. Whether to
use a closed form (with itemized answers) or an open-ended form
questionnaire depends on the researcher’s own needs and requirements.
Where computer facilities are available, it is advisable to frame and
code questionnaires so that computer analysis is possible. When the
totality of samples is big, such as in a national or other macro-level
survey, the use of computers is almost essential. By computer, we refer
not only to macro-computers but also PCs, and even some calculators.
Manual analysis often can be done quickly and cheaply so that
preliminary results are obtained in a few days, instead of waiting at
the mercy of the computer for months. When computers are used, a member
of the computer staff is recommended to be part of the research team.
Interviewing is a data-collection encounter in which an interviewer asks
the respondent questions and records the answers. It is a personal
contact between a respondent and an interviewer that differentiates
interviewing from questionnaire.
A short-cut method to gather data fast is to interview groups rather
than individuals. In applying this method, a problem of
representativeness may arise, since any chosen group is unlikely to
represent a true cross-section of the local population, although
attempts to include individuals of different socio-economic status
should be made. The knowledge and experience of several individuals may
serve as checks on information given by each others. There is nothing
specialized about a group interview as compared to a person interview.
In an interview, it is usual to have a set of questions to ask, and in
most circumstances an open-ended type of interview is advised because it
allows the conversation to be directed to some extent by the respondent.
Closed-forms or standardized interviews, consisting of pre-arranged
questions and answers, are seldom the best approach, unless the
interviewer already has both extensive, accurate and up-to-date
knowledge of the community in general and the energy system. In general,
a non-standardized format that allows flexibility is best. The
interviewer asks questions from a standardized questionnaire and his
task is to record the respondent’s answers in the exact way. Anyway,
this kind of interview is complex for both the respondent as it takes a
lot of time to think over the question and formulate the answer, and the
interviewer who spends a lot of time and efforts to record the answers.
Several problems can also arise in processing and decoding the obtained
data. That’s why non-standardized interviews are not often used in
sociological research, although in some cases they are of great value as
they provide most complete, comprehensive, informative answers in a
widest range. A semi-standardized interview combines peculiarities of
both interviews spoken about.
Sociometric survey is a survey form used in small social groups to
discover interpersonal relations between group members by fixing
preferences, likings, dislikings etc. The sociometric technique is based
on qualitative criteria to measure emotional relations and character of
interactions between group members, each member’s status, non-formal
group leaders etc. Respondents are asked questions of the type, “Which
of your group will you choose for …? ”or “Which of your group will
choose you for …? ”The criteria can be formal or connected with
organizing joint activities and non-formal or connected with emotional,
interpersonal relations, entertainments, leisure time etc.
When members of a group are asked to choose others in the group,
everyone in the group makes a choice and describes why he does so. From
these choices a description (a drawing, like a map) called a sociogram
emerges. The following is a sample of sociogram:
Ann Bob Nick DonEdnaFredAnn +-0+0Bob0-++0Nick
Data processing is supposed to build up various matrices which present
results in the form of a matrix or table, calculating coefficients as
far as the group’s emotional solidarity is concerned etc. Such table is
called a sociomatrix:
Ann Bob Nick DonEdnaFredTOTAL +240341TOTAL 0212214TOTAL – 103000Total
choices received: 555555Not chosen by: 000000MUTUALS: MUTUAL
+120120MUTUAL 0100201MUTUAL – 101000
Expert survey is a survey form conducted to have expertise on the issue.
Its distinction is that its respondents are people who are competent in
a definite area of knowledge or practice. That’s why expert survey can’t
provide any anonymity.
In social research, observation can also be used to collect data.
Observation is a method of direct recording of social events and
conditions under which they take place. Its advantages are as follows:
it allows to record events and elements of human behaviour at the moment
they take place; the researcher doesn’t depend on the object of
research, he can collect facts, no matter whether or not individuals or
groups are willing to respond or able to answer. However, it means some
subjectivism as the observer is closely connected with the object of
observation and it affects how the observer perceives social reality and
interprets the essence of the observed phenomena.
Due to its character, observation can be standardized when a researcher
focuses his attention on pre-arranged phenomena most significant for
characterizing the situation under study, and non-standardized when such
elements are not arranged beforehand.
Due to the observer’s position with regard to the object of research,
two forms of observation are differentiated: participant and
non-participant. Observation is participant when a researcher is inside
the study object. He usually decides beforehand what particular
activities are to be observed and recorded, and even the form of the
record. Participant observation allows the observer to become an
“insider”because he directly participates in the study population’s
activities. This permits an understanding of the study population and
their activities from their own perspective. Participant can make
observation either incognito when the group doesn’t know the aims and
objectives of the research or open when the group knows this.
Participant observation has been a major research strategy in
anthropology. A classical example is an American sociologist W. Whyte
who lived in the block of houses with Italian migrants in one of
American cities learning their relations, customs, language, their
adaptation to a new culture etc. Another known example is a Russian
anthropologist N. Miklukho-Maklai who went to Papua Guinea to learn the
indigenous population there.
In non-participant observation, the observer remains separate from his
study population’s activities, and attempts to be unobtrusive.
Information on particular social problems may also be available from a
variety of documents of official, historical, anthropological, or other
character. Analysis of documents is used at every stage of a research:
to study a problem situation, to give a comprehensive analysis of the
object and its interpretation etc.
A document in sociology is any sign or graphic information fixed by
people on any material carrier, for instance, any printed or typed text,
pictures, photo – and video-recordings, CDs etc. These important sources
of written information may shed light on a community, its history, and
patterns of human behaviour, values, norms etc.
Documents are classified according to different criteria: according to
their status, documents can be non-official such as private letters,
diaries and any documents created by individuals on their own
initiative, and official such as documents of various organizations;
according to their character, they are primary if created by the author
on his own experience, and secondary if created on generalization of
To analyze documents sociologists use both non-formalized or
qualitative, and formalized or qualitative-quantitative methods.
Qualitative analysis means reading documents and interpreting their
contents with general logic operations. To avoid subjectivism that may
be caused by the investigator’s knowledge, abilities, ideological
position etc. while interpreting documents, content-analysis is used.
Content-analysis is a formalized method by which the information is
transferred into definite quantitative parameters for further
Unlike other methods, experiment is seldom used in sociology.
Experiments are carefully designed situations, in which a researcher
studies the impact of certain variables on the people’s attitudes or
behaviour. Experiments may occur in either laboratory or natural
setting. In a laboratory experiment, people are studied in a closed
setting, so researchers can maintain as much control as possible over
the research. Natural experiments are real-life occurrences that provide
research conditions such as natural disasters, war or other social
Experiments require that people should be divided into two groups: an
experimental and control group. Members of the groups are matched for
similar characteristics to make comparisons between the groups. The
experimental group contains people who are exposed to an independent
variable (the experimental condition) to study its effect on them. The
control group contains people who are not exposed to the independent
variable. The experimental and control groups are compared to see
whether they differ in relation to the dependent variable, and the
hypothesis about the relationship of two variables is confirmed or
One of the problems that may arise from experiments is reactivity, the
tendency of people to change their behaviour in response to the presence
of the researcher or to the fact that they know they are being studied.
Experiments have their strengths and weaknesses. The major strength of
the controlled experiment is the researcher’s control over the
environment and the ability to isolate the experimental variable.
Perhaps, the greatest limitation of experiments is that they are
artificial. Social processes that occur in a laboratory setting often do
not occur in the same way in other settings.
Aim – the final result a researcher wants to get.
Alternative question – a question which supposes to choose only “yes”or
Analysis of documents – an analysis of documents to study a problem
situation, to give a comprehensive analysis of the object and its
Analytical ASR – the deepest type of an applied sociological research
which is both to describe structural elements of the study phenomenon
and find out causes affecting its character and specificity.
Applied sociological research (ASR) – a sociological research which is
carried out to solve a particular social problem.
Closed question – a question when a respondent is provided with some
Content-analysis – a formalized (qualitative-quantitative) method to
analyze documents by which the information is transferred into definite
quantitative parameters for further interpretation.
Descriptive ASR – an applied sociological research which is to get
empiric data enabling to make up an integral presentation of a study
phenomenon and its structural elements.
Experiment – a carefully designed situation in which the researcher
studies the impact of certain variables on people’s attitudes or
Expert survey – a survey form conducted to have expertise on the issue,
that’s why people who are competent in a definite area of knowledge or
practice are invited as its respondents.
Fundament sociological research – a sociological research which is
carried out to get new knowledge.
General sample – the number of units with a common feature attributing
them to the analyzed entity.
Hypothesis – a statement of the relationship between two or more
concepts, the object’s structure, or possible ways to solve a problem.
Incognito participant observation – participant observation when the
study group doesn’t know the aims and objectives of the research.
Instant ASR – an applied sociological research which provides
information about the state of an object and its characteristics at the
moment of its study, or in statics.
Interviewing – a data-collection encounter in which an interviewer asks
the respondent questions and records the answers.
Menu question – a question when a respondent can choose any combination
Methodological part – part of a research design which is to show what is
studied (problem, aims and objectives, object and subject of research,
hypotheses, basis conceptions etc).
Non-formalized analysis of documents – a qualitative method to analyze
documents which means reading documents and interpreting their contents
with general logic operations.
Non-standardized interview – a flexible format when an interviewer asks
questions from a standardized questionnaire and his task is to record a
respondent’s answers in the exact way.
Non-standardized observation – observation when a researcher does not
arrange the study phenomena beforehand.
Objective – a totality of definite purposeful orientations which provide
additional requirements to analyzing and solving the problem.
Observation – a method of direct recording of social events and
conditions under which they take place.
Open-ended question – a question when a respondent himself formulates
Open participant observation – participant observation when the study
group knows the aims and objectives of the research.
Participant observation – observation when a researcher is inside the
Pilot ASR – an applied sociological research which is to check up how a
basic ASR is prepared.
Problem situation – a contradiction between knowledge of people’s needs
in some actions and lack of ways, methods and means of realizing such
Proceeding part – part of a research design which is to show how to
study (applied methods, sample etc).
Random sample – the number of units from a general sample that a
researcher is to put under study.
Reliability – the extent to which a study or research instrument yields
consistent results when applied to different individuals at one time or
to the same individuals over time.
Repeated ASR – a study of one and the same object or objects carried out
over a period of time or at several different points in time under same
or different conditions, or in dynamics.
Research design – a part of an ASR which gives theoretic grounds for
methodological approaches, methods and techniques of learning the object
and subject of research; it consists of methodological and proceeding
Respondent – a person who provides data for analysis.
Questionnaire – a method of data collection with a questionnaire form as
a printed research instrument containing a series of items for
respondents to answer.
Scale question – a question when a respondent checks a scale (of
incidence, preference, or quantity) of 0-5 (1-10 etc).
Semi-closed question – a question when a respondent is provided with
alternatives and given a chance to express his own opinion on the issue.
Social monitoring – an integral system of getting social information
about the phenomena and processes taking place in the society; it is
designed to fix, keep and make primary analysis of the obtained data.
Sociological monitoring – an integral system to monitor changes taking
place in the society, which is based on study and analysis of mass
conceptions about these changes.
Sociometric survey – a survey form used in small social groups to
discover interpersonal relationships between group members by fixing
preferences, likings, dislikings etc.
Standardized interview – a closed form consisting of pre-arranged
questions and answers.
Standardized observation – observation when a researcher focuses his
attention on pre-arranged phenomena most significant for characterizing
the situation under study.
Statistical monitoring – a system of getting quantitative
characteristics (statistical indices, parameters, coefficients etc) of
different sides of the society.
Survey – a poll in which researchers gather facts applying to
respondents whose verbal statements are a source of information.
Validity – the extent to which a study or research instrument accurately
measures what it is supposed to measure.
Variable – a concept with measurable traits or characteristics that can
change or vary from one person (time, situation, or society) to another.
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