Sociological research methods - questionnaires

Using questionnaires is favoured by positivists as they produce results that can be easily generalised, are highly reliable and largely representable of the studied subjects. This also means that interpretivists dislike this method as the results are not personal and have very little depth to them. There are strengths and weaknesses to both arguments. An advantage of questionnaires is that they are cheap and fast to produce, this means that they can be produced on mass to produce more reliable results.

Answers in questionnaires are easily comparable with standardised and close ended questions and could produce representative, qualitative data that is also easily replicable. This means that sociologists are able to make links and comparisons in society in different areas and during different time periods. If a large number of questionnaires are sent out they should produce representative results with a better chance of being truly accurate. Connor and Dewson send out nearly 4000 surveys to 14 higher education institutes around the country which resulted in a large sample size.

This method is also favoured more for purposed of educational attitudes than others such as participant observations, which is used to study small groups and produce valid qualitative data. A researcher’s hypothesis should be proven or proven wrong with the results of the questionnaire but this may lead the researcher to produce leading questions, the parent, in this instance, may then try to please or attempt to second guess the researchers aims, leading to further invalid results.

Statements can then be produced from the questionnaires which will either prove or disprove the hypothesis, and a ‘cause-and-effect’ relationship can be gathered from relevant information and variables.

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Questionnaires also raise very few ethical problems even though they ask sensitive and intrusive questions as people are generally under no pressure to answer them and can skip questions if they choose to. This method produces unbiased results making them objective.

Practical problems include a low response rate as not all those that the survey is sent to will respond and end it back as they may think it is pointless, however the response rate is likely to be higher when considering questionnaires linked to education as most parents will assume that filling in the forms will benefit their child, as stated in item A, especially if the forms are from the school. However, this information is confidential, making it harder for a sociologist to acquire a reasonable and accurate sampling frame.

Also, parents may lie or answer incorrectly due to ‘right answerism’ when completing the questionnaire as they don’t want to be seen to be bad parents. It would be easier for them to lie by postal questionnaire, however if the questionnaire was done face to face their body language could be analysed. The response rate may also be raised if there is an incentive offered such as a prize or money. Questionnaires are also quite inflexible as if closed questions are used they are set for all potential respondents.

This means that if they do not understand the question or wish to add more information they will be unable to do so. In other methods such as unstructured interviews any area can be explored in-depth as it is much more flexible, the weakness to this method is that irrelevant issues which take up time. Questionnaires also only give a small snap shop of the whole picture and so may not consider outside factors that affect a pupil such as their peer group, ethnicity or class.

Therefore, this may not represent all parents’ attitudes to their children’s schooling as a whole as the picture is not totally valid. Sociologists that take an interpretivist approach such as Aaron Cicourel (1968) argue that questionnaires are too detached and so lack validity. They would argue that only methods that allow the researcher to get close to the subjects they are studying should be used so that the researcher can relate and understand the answers more clearly.

Without this contact it can be argued that may be misunderstanding that cannot be clarified as there is no way of knowing if the researcher and respondent are interpreting the questions in the same way. In conclusion, questionnaires are a good way to get quick results at a low cost and can produce reliable, quantitative results if the right questions are asked. However, other methods should also be used as well as questionnaires to get a clearer and more precise picture of how parents’ attitudes are towards their child’s education.

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