Outlined below are the two major ways how sociologists and other social scientists conduct research. Sociologists are committed to the use of EMPIRICAL research methods involving the systematic collection of information – data – to provide a sound foundation or warrant for their claims about society. When they carry out their research, social scientists will generally use either a QUANTITATIVE or a QUALITATIVE approach or strategy (see Box 1).



• QUANTITATIVE approaches involve the testing of clearly formulated theories or hypotheses by data collection involving relatively large sample sizes. Quantitative social scientists are concerned to establish precise statistical relationships between the aspects of society – these are referred to as VARIABLES – under investigation. An ideal portrayal of a quantitative research approach is depicted in Diagram 1.

• QUALITATIVE approaches aim to arrive at an in-depth understanding or interpretation of a particular group or social situation. Qualitative social scientists are particularly concerned with the social meanings that a situation has for people and to build up a theoretical understanding of that situation during data collection rather than commence with a pre-given hypothesis. An ideal portrayal of a qualitative research approach is depicted in Diagram 2.

DIAGRAM 1: Ideal Portrayal of a Quantitative Research Process

Identification of a topic

Review of previous literature

Theory or hypotheses to be tested/formulated

Research design, techniques chosen

Data collection → Data analysis

Do results support existing theory or hypothesis




Look for alternative Report findings explanations

Begin process again

DIAGRAM 2: Ideal Portrayal of a Qualitative Research Process

Identification of a topic

Review of previous literature

Research design, techniques chosen

Data collected via: Observation


Interaction Documentation

Elaboration of concepts
and theories →

Simultaneous Analysis
and initial Theory formation

BOTH of these approaches can be seen as `scientific’ in that they require researchers to adopt clearly defined methods of data collection and analysis.

Report published i.e.

Research paper

Complete ethnography

However particular methods of data collection tend to be associated with each of the two strategies. Quantitative social scientists tend to use methods such as the SURVEY or a QUESTIONNAIRE or possibly CONTENT ANALYSIS. Qualitative social scientists in contrast favour the methods of PARTICIPANT-OBSERVATION, IN-DEPTH INTERVIEWING or CASE STUDIES (see boxes 2 & 3).




⚫ The method of asking a relatively large sample of people a series of questions via a standardised questionnaire. People can be interviewed face-to-face, by telephone or they can administer the questionnaire themselves. Most surveys try to ensure that samples are representative of the entire population, so that findings can be generalised to other groups.


⚫ The method of analysing the contents of documents or other non-statistical material in such a way as to make statistical comparisons between them. It is a method which is frequently used for the analysis of mass media output – newspapers, magazines, books, television etc. Essentially the social scientist tries to identify categories in the material and then count their frequency of occurrence.


⚫ The method most commonly associated with qualitative research. The aim of the sociologist employing this technique is to describe the ‘way of life’ or culture of a group of people by taking part, to varying degrees, in the activities of a group that is being observed. Such a group can be quite large (e.g. studies of community studies of whole towns or communities), or quite small (e.g. studies of juvenile gangs, or school pupils). The overall purpose of such research is to describe the lifestyle of the group of people being studied in a way that is as faithful as possible to the way they see it themselves.


⚫ The method of asking a relatively small sample of people a series of questions in a face-to-face context. This method tends to be used in case-studies that cannot be generalised to other groups. It can also be used in conjunction with participant-observation techniques.


INTERVIEWER: Well, Dr Popper, I see you have finished your research project on unemployment. How did you go about collecting and analysing your data for the study?

DR POPPER: After I received a $200,000 grant from the Department of Employment, Education and Training, I hired four research assistants and two consultants. Working together we constructed a 15-page questionnaire that was sent to a random sample of all the unemployed youth in Australia. After receiving 52 percent of the questionnaires back, we used a computer to run statistical tests. By analyzing those print-outs we arrived at our conclusions.

INTERVIEWER: My, that’s very interesting. Oh, I see your friend Dr Goffman. Dr Goffman, you also just finished a study of unemployment. How did you go about your research?

DR GOFFMAN: Well, I interviewed some people who were looking for jobs at the CES office in Logan City. I also hung out with some street kids in the Valley. I did some volunteer work for the Salvos and that enabled me talk to people in the soup kitchen.

Of course, I had to do a lot of careful thinking about the facts I gathered in these places. I tried to integrate all the bits and pieces I learned into a meaningful theory of group behaviour.

Which of these two social scientists was using scientific methods in his research? Was it the computerised wizard with thousands of questionnaires, or the one who studied people in natural settings? The answer is simple: both. Both were using legitimate sociological methods to learn about human behaviour.

Adapted from: V. Baldridge, Sociology: A Critical Approach to Power, Conflict and Change. New York: Wiley, 1975, p.27.


Social Science can be understood as the scientific study of human social behaviour. Sociology is perhaps the broadest of the social sciences in that its subject matter embraces everything from the dynamics of face to face interaction to the processes which bring about social change in whole societies. Despite this diversity of focus, all sociologists are particularly interested in the interrelationships between the personal interactions of everyday life (the micro-level of society) and the larger social structures and processes in which they are embedded (the macro-level of society). (See Boxes 1, 2 and 3).

BOX 1 & 2


1. The macro level of analysis refers to the large scale or long term social structures and processes in a society.

2. The micro level of analysis refers to the details of individuals’ experiences – what they do and say in their everyday lives.

3. It is important that these not be seen as opposed or that we have to choose between them: a full understanding of one level can only be reached through insights gained from the other.

4. For example, macro analysis is essential if we are to understand the institutional background to day-to-day life. The way in which people live their everyday lives is greatly affected by such `macro’ issues as the level of development in the society, the overall economy, the state and political processes etc.

5. Conversely micro studies can help us understand broad institutional patterns. Face-to-face interaction is basic to all forms of social organization. All institutions – work, education, the legal system, the family, medical care, etc., can be seen as being continually ‘recreated’ or ‘reproduced’ at a micro level in the mundane interactions through which they are experienced.


The contribution which macro- and micro- perspectives can provide can be illustrated through an examination of how sociologists might investigate the issue of unemployment and the economic system.

1. A macro perspective might wish to consider unemployment at an aggregate level, looking particularly at the overall rates for unemployment and possible reasons why these change within a

given country and why different societies experience quite different rates at any given time.

2. For example, in a comparison of OECD nations, the Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn has convincingly shown that high rates of unemployment are not inevitable or automatic. During the 1980s when unemployment first began to exceed 10% in many countries, other countries were able to keep the level below 2%. The crucial factor here was government policies specifically designed to address the issue.

3. In general terms then, a macro sociological perspective sees unemployment levels as crucially shaped not only by other economic factors but by political decisions. This is in contrast to both commonsense and media portrayals where economic forces are generally seen as intractable as the weather, as something we experience as fixed or external and as constraining our behaviour.

4. A micro perspective might want to examine the experience of unemployment and its occurrence and consequences amongst specific sub-groups in society: youth in general, street-kids, particular ethnic or racial groups. Research here may well employ qualitative or ethnographic methods in an attempt to discover the day to day realities of unemployment.

5. Micro level research on case studies of unemployment has documented the links between long term unemployment and such things as loss of self image, crime and delinquency, drug use and even suicide. It also suggests that the unemployed remain unaware of the connections between their own lives and the wider economic forces and processes which ultimately determine their fate.

6. In general terms then, both macro and micro perspectives are necessary to help reach a full understanding of unemployment. Through them we can help demystify the inevitability of the phenomenon. In addition, we can establish the connections between the wider structures of society and the way individuals come into contact with ‘the system’ and experience its power and coercion.


⚫ Main exponents `Structuralists’⚫ Main exponents `Interactionists’

⚫ Afocusonthe ⚫ Afocuson whole society, the acting individuals and

social structure and the relationship between the partstheir interpretations or definitions of the situation
⚫ Society is seen as a real collective entity, something greater than individuals which comprise it and which constrains their behaviour⚫ Only the individual is a real entity. Individuals may belong to groups or organisations but these have no independent existence
⚫ Society is seen as either held together by shared or common values (functionalist or consensus approaches) or else as competing interest groups in conflict. In this case, coercion or more subtle forms of persuasion (hegemony) may bring about social order⚫ Individuals interacting using language and other symbols are the foundation of social life. It is our ability to engage in meaningful interpretation of one another’s conduct which makes social order possible.
⚫ Empirical research here tends to be large scale and quantitative. Behaviour or attitudes (dependent variables) are seen as caused by the fundamental features of social structure – class position, religion, educational background, etc (independent variables)

1.1 Sociology the Basics


What: Exploring how sociologists view themselves and the world around them.

Why: To understand what sociologist do and how the subject is different from other social sciences


This week starts by asking the question, ‘What is sociology?’. This seems like a straight forward question, but like most things it doesn’t have a simple answer. We will start by getting orientated with the concept of sociology and the benefits of studying it. 

We will now develop our understanding of sociology and how it differs from other social sciences in our first ‘mini lecture’. This is quite important for seeing how the subject of sociology compares/contrasts to some of the other discipline areas you will be studying as part of your Program.

The lectures in this course are delivered by Dr Brad West who has his own Twitter feed about current sociology. The account @WestSociology is regularly updated with highlights from media articles relevant to the issues and debates raised in this course. 

Consider following Brad on twitter and start to comprehend the relevance of your study for the continual remaking of the social world.


Sociology? The Basics 9m 33s

 Sociology? The Basics Transcript


It’s time to move on to our first readings. The readings may be different from those which you are usually accustomed to.  This is quite common in Sociology but, because it is new to you, it might be a little difficult. Don’t worry about that, everything will become more clear as you watch the videos and participate in the interactive activities. Remember that although the content introduced here is very important, as long as you have some idea of the terms and their meanings that’s fine for now.

There are two readings in this section. The first one looks at What is sociology, and the second one looks at Howwe do sociology.

Van Krieken, R., Habibis, D., Smith, P., Maton, K., Churchill, B., West, B. & Hansen, E. 2020. Sociology, 7th Ed. Pearson, Melbourne.

  • Chapter 1: pp 1-25 (this will introduce you to the basics of sociology)
  • Chapter 16: pp. 504-508; pp. 513-521 (this will show you some different ways that social research is approached by sociologists)

Important Note: The page numbers that are given throughout this course are for the physical textbook. The way that ProQuest is set up means that you might have different page numbers for the online version, or if you download it as a PDF. In this case it is best to look up the name of the chapter and you can work out how many pages you need to read from there.

Reading 1 – Textbook Chapter 1: What is Sociology?

This excerpt (pp. 1-25) provides an introduction to the study of sociology and gives you an overview of some of the basic concepts you are likely to encounter. It explains how and why developing a ‘sociological imagination’ in thinking about social life is useful to understand the world you live in and how it is changing. It also outlines how sociology has changed over time in response to changes in the social context. 

The first part of this chapter introduces some key sociological concepts and perspectives. The second part of chapter 1 will give you some insight into how the subject of Sociology has changed over time. It looks at the development of sociology and social change to the present day. This chapter ends with covering Australian Sociology and how it compares/contrasts to that around the world.

Reading 2 – Textbook Chapter 16: Social Research Methods

The second reading covers Sociological Research (chapter 16) and the various methods used. Please take note of the page numbers that you’re required to read. Don’t worry if you come across theorist’s and/or theories that we have not covered in the week, we shall get to them in due time. 

Thus, It’s not essential that you read these pages in great detail, but it is more important that you have a basic understanding of the context surrounding sociology and sociological research. So don’t spend hours on this reading, instead look to develop your knowledge of the key terms.

When you complete these readings you may notice that there are tutorial activities and questions indicated throughout the chapter, you are not required to do any of the activities.

It is important that anytime you come to a reading in the course that you look closely to see exactly which pages you are required to read. This is your responsibility, so pay attention and make sure you don’t read a whole chapter when you are only required to read selected pages. 

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