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Social research methods: a start to end guide


Table of Contents

What is social research?

Social research is the study that deals with learning about people and societies. Researchers and scientists inculcate this practice to get to know the working, attitude and nature of how everyone thinks as a crowd. These results then help the researchers to mould their products and services according to the people’s needs and requirements.

Well, for obvious reasons, the outcomes of this study are going to vary depending on the region it is done. People are going to have different views and attitudes in different parts of the country.  Social research helps understand these variations of socio-economic groups, by addressing their differences in thoughts about the social world. 

Social research mainly focuses on finding the patterns of norms in social life. This research generally deals with huge social-economic groups rather than a person.

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What is scientific social research methods?

As talked about earlier, sociologists may find it difficult to jot down the specific results. The reason being, field visits, surveys or experiments can have different people giving different opinions and views. While talking about science, it is more about testing right and wrong rather than getting into the ocean of social behaviour and regulations. Hence, using a scientific model to understand human behaviour sounds more logical, doesn’t it?

Scientific experiment methods make it a limitation to the variables influencing the study. BUT, they sure make the result accurate and highly reliable. It involves testing theories and hypotheses based on the already available evidence and follows series of steps to conduct systematic observations of the world.

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  1. Observation/questions mean asking appropriate questions with regards to the matter. The topic of interest should be within the bounds of time and geographic frames – a universal stand. Let’s take an example: you want to study “how is domestic environment affecting a child’s social behaviour” and that perfectly fits the bounds. 
  2. Research the topic area with the help of any existing study material. It can be previously conducted research or documentaries, movies, etc. Let us say you watch documentaries showing the effect of how children are treated in their households and how they mirror the same gestures and language while being with their friends at school. This way you don’t have to go to actual subjects to study their behaviours. And voila! You have the data on your hands already. 
  3. In the next step, frame a hypothesis. Determine how the variables in your study are related. Understand the independent and dependent variables in your study. Like in our example “domestic treatment of the children” is an independent variable while “how children behave in their social circle” is a dependent one. 
  4. Now it is time to test the hypothesis with experiments. Using the test research method, conduct the experiments by creating two groups of children, one in the treatment group and the other in the control group. Run the pre-tests and post-tests parallel with your experiment and note the changes in the children’s behaviours. 
  5. Analyse the results that you got. The treatment group of children went through kind and caring gestures in their household and that resulted in their similar behaviour in the social circle. Whereas the children in the control group were not subject to any such change and hence continued throwing tantrums and arrogance in their social circle.
  6. Reporting the conclusions includes drawing firm results from your study and using them in the relevant cases. It can be reported to any of your superiors or sociologists or even can be used for your references. 

A scientific approach to social research has opened the doors for data analysing and interpretation too. Researchers apply scientific logic and facts to the study where they are interested in the results. That being said, they are not just fixated on the results, but also the political and social concerns out of their social circle. 

Scientific methods help researchers to maintain the focus on the objective and consistency of the study. And that is possible due to the organized steps that carry out a consistent flow of the study. The data that we get from these types of experiments are believed to be valid, reliable and accurate too. 

What are different types of social research methods?

 Seriously we’ve been going on about the social research and scientific methods and blah blah right? How about we understand how exactly to carry out the social research? So get yourself focused till the end because we are in for some interesting types of social research methods that sociologists use for their researches;


our first and very commonly used social research method is Surveys. Surveys refer to a set of pre-designed questions given to a pre-defined sample of a huge population. Too overwhelming right? Let us get down to each component. Pre-designed questions are a set of questions that the researchers jot down which will open doors of information once they are answered by the responders. These responders are called a sample of a population, meaning, they are specifically selected individuals based on their diversities and best represents the population that researchers want to study. 

Surveys can have two types of questions, namely- close-ended and open-ended questions. Close-ended questions have a specific pre-defined set of answers and are commonly used while collecting quantitative data from the participants. While open-ended questions provide an opportunity for the responders to present their views briefly. This will help the researchers to dig deep into their problem statements and study more about social opinions and regulations. This type of data gathered from open-ended questions is called qualitative data, which enhances the chances of asking more questions to the people if needed.

Example: You want to study the adverse effect of fast food consumption amongst adults. Surveys can help you know the reasons behind the unhealthy lifestyle of adults. Let us see how a close-ended and an open-ended questions would look like, respectively, in this case;

Q1. On the scale of 1-5 how much do you crave fast food?

  1. Not at all
  2. A bit
  3. Average
  4. Most of the times
  5. All the times

Q2. What is the reason behind your heavy consumption of fast food? 

This will have a descriptive answer.

Now that we have an overview of what surveys are, let’s get into knowing its methods:

  • Online surveys

These type of surveys are conducted over internet channels. For example: we all surf through various websites and applications over the net. And most of the times stumble upon quick polls, questionnaires, etc. And most of the times we end up responding to them too. Those are called online surveys. They are conducted over emails, websites or any social media platforms. The best way to make the most out of this mode of the survey is by investing in the Omni-channel platforms, where customers have the convenience of switching between channels, resulting in more responses. 

  • Phone surveys

These are typical telephonic surveys, mainly run to gather customer queries and satisfactions. If we were to give an example: you ever looked for a customer care number on the back of certain products in case you have any issues with it. What happens when you dial it? An agent attends and asks for your problems. But this is not the case today. Most of the service providing companies practice IVR surveys. These are pre-recorded, automated messages which facilitates the customers to interact with the system by selecting options provided in the message. If the query is not solved by that means, the call is then forwarded to the agent and then it is solved on a one-to-one basis. 

  • Face-to-face interviews

As traditional as it sounds, they have their reasons to stand out and still be in use. As the name suggested, you take these types of surveys on a one-on-one basis. Of course, it is time consuming and involve more human efforts. But then why are they still preferred? Well, for starters, they have a scope of asking deeper questions and get as much information as possible. Secondly, it is easier to keep the customers focused. Because come on, we all give online surveys and how many times we just leave it mid-way right? But let’s say a salesman came to you and explicitly asked for your review and solves your issues. Now that feels promising. 

Advantages of using the survey as your social research method

After enough knowledge about the surveys, let us understand how they help in social research method;

  • Hypothesis testing benefits the most in the survey method. Say you were to test a hypothesis: the number of schools in the rural areas is less than the number of schools in the urban areas. With proper framing of survey questions, you can know the factors that affect this cause. 
  • Researchers can cover more ground when it comes to surveying a larger sample. This is called representativeness. With the right sampling methods, it is possible to make generic conclusions based on those samples. 
  • Surveys are reliable. Meaning, if the questions are used by some other researcher, it should give the same results.
  • Surveys are cheap and quick. All it takes is smartness to frame appropriate questions and try to make them give more information within a limited time. Proper use of various channels and deploying surveys at peak activity times should be sufficient to get the best out of them.
  • They are ethically valid too. It is up to the respondents that they want to complete the survey or not. Even though that affects your research, it is any day better than forcing the customers to answer your questions and disappoint them. 
Customer experience

Field surveys

The second social research method that contributes to most of the critical studies is field surveys or field research. Field surveys allows researchers to study the impact of field experiments. Sociologists mainly work in large geographical areas. Filed research requires sociologists to live, adapt and study various environments and gather primary data. The main factor here is that the research is conducted in the participants’ environment. It can be a small village, a café, a nursing home, etc. Field research primarily studies the behaviours of the subjects in their environments and the reasons behind their behaviour.

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Example: NGOs observe the lifestyle of the poor people in their environment. The way they eat, live, their education if any, all of this can be told only if they go on-site and study. This will tell them how and what to help them with their needs.

Participant Observation

This is a social research method, wherein sociologists go in-between the participants and observe them in their environment. And by “go in-between”, we mean LITERALLY! Ok let’s see an example to make it clear how this works:

Anna Lora- Wainwright: Living with pollution in rural china

Lora- Wainwright, from 2009-2013 stayed in 3 rural china villages to study the adverse effect of pollution there. It was a large scale industrial pollution and she wanted to know how people are coping with it. The high industrial waste has resulted in high pollution and that has affected the health of the people, so much that over the national average cancer deaths have been reported in those 3 villages.

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She studied how people reacted to the fact that they are exposed to high health risks, how they opposed along with having to adjust to the norms.

You can check even more examples on revisesociology.


Ethnography refers to a social research method, where researchers engage in the participants’ social circle and get to know their views about the social environment. It mainly focuses on how the people recognize themselves against the social group. 

The ethnographic environments may look like a country, town, mall, zoo, etc. anything but with a boundary. These are the places where the people gather with some purpose in their mind like worshipping, vacation, industrial visits, partying, etc. The researchers’ interest is to study their behaviour in those environments. 


Mears’s ethnography of the world of the fashion model

Mears spend two and a half years in the participant observation. She worked full-time in two agencies and took acts like modelling, catwalks, magazine shoots, etc. She also closely interacted with the bookers and spent time with them as one of them. At the end of the study, she interviewed a sample of bookers, managers and accountants.

You can check even more examples on revisesociology.

Case Study

A case, in this context, can be an individual, an event or a situation. A case study refers to a social research method of understanding the mentioned cases with the help of interviews, documents, direct engagement, etc. 

One drawback of a case study is that a researcher cannot generalize the outcomes depending only on one case. Like, you cannot study one cancer patient and claim that all the cancer patients suffer the same or go through the same treatments. However, case studies can be pretty firm when the case is unique. 

Example: Genie. Genie was a girl who was put through dangerous abuse and isolation. The researchers wanted to know if Genie could still learn a language when she is past her critical language learning age. Her case, later on, disclosed how scientific research can disturb the treatment going on, on the subjects.


This is a word we all hear and talk about very often. We conduct our small experiments too. It is a cause and effect study. Right from scientific experiments to our daily lives when we say, “I should eat a chocolate before studying, it will help me remember more.” but have we ever thought about it being a social research method that’s being used quite often? The researchers use this method of experiments while understanding social theories. There are two types of experiments namely; Lab-experiments: where maximum data is covered in a limited time. And Natural-experiments: where the data is more accurate since it is not controlled by researchers. 

As for sociological experiments, researchers gather subjects of similar characteristics like age, vicinity, etc. and divide them into two groups. They create an artificial variable based on their testing theory. They make one group undergo the treatment with the artificial variable and the other group is a control group. 

Example: A history special course is provided to the treatment group and the control group does not undergo any such training. After the experiment is done, a post-test confirms that the treatment group score well than their previous tests. And the control group did not show any such variation.

Secondary data analysis

As the name suggests, secondary data analysis works on the data that is already collected. It can be taken from already conducted research or data collected by different organizations. 

Using this approach not only saves time but also enhances the understanding of the topic. A researcher might find new sights to the data that originally was not noticed. 

Example: A researcher wants to study Hitler. For that, he might watch documentaries, interviews of other researchers, movies, newspapers, etc. 

As you can see, this did not require the researcher to go in person and meet the subjects (as it is not possible in this case) and it saved the time required for data collection. But that does not reduce the authenticity of the data or people behaviours and thoughts. Despite that, the real challenge occurs when you need to verify the validity of the data. It can be a tough take to gather privacy data too. It is also a task when you want to study the other side of the research, for example, you have the data of the cancer patients, but you will have to dig up data for how many of them beat the disease and are healthy now. 

Explore all the survey question types possible on Voxco

Explore all the survey question types possible on Voxco


While studying the social environment, sociologist mainly selects any one of the widely used research methods: surveys, experiments, field research and secondary data analysis.

Sociologists make use of tried and true research methods such as Surveys, Field research or textual analysis or secondary data analysis for their study.

Surveys are the widely used research methods. It not only cuts down the time and cost of the survey but is also convenient for the responders to depict their views and opinions through series of questions.

Qualitative research and quantitative research are the two main types of research in sociology. As qualitative research provides a deeper understanding of the topic, quantitative research is the best fit when it comes to averaging and statistical evaluation of the topic.

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