UNIVERSITY OF MALAWI
CENTRE FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH
INTRODUCTION TO SOCIAL RESEARCH METHODS
Social Research is the systematic collection of information about the society we live in.
Kenneth Prewitt has defined research methodology simply as "systematic to avoid self-deception".
We all gather information in our everyday life about other people, institutions, things, etc.
"We assume that the research scientist wants to accurately describe and explain
the things he has observed. If we read in a research report that there is no relationship between the educational level of a person and whether he participates in self-help projects, we assume that the researcher honestly believes there is to be no relationship. Yet a researcher can be honest but wrong. This is where methodology comes in. The trained researcher uses procedures which minimize the probability that he is inaccurate. He especially wants to guard against being unwittingly inaccurate, that is, to guard against self-deception. For if he deceives himself, he necessarily risks deceiving those who rely on his findings for action" (Prewitt, K 1975, 2).
It is the systematic data collection procedure concerning a given population that we are going to discuss in this course. There are many different ways of getting the information of a social scientist wants. He might simply as people questions. At other times, he stands aside and observes how people behave in different situations. When both of these are impractical, the social scientist might turn to the records which people leave of their behaviour or if it is an anthropologist studying work habits by analyzing the tools people use.
The choice of research strategy and thus the choice of data collected depend on several factors: most important is a clear understanding of the purpose to which the data are to be put . It is a waste of time and money to start collecting data without being clear of its use.
The second factor in deciding what sort of data to collect is cost. Data collection costs money and some research methods will cost more than others. For example, in a survey to determine the drop-out rate of Standard One pupils, a cheaper method might be to send a questionnaire to all headmasters of the selected schools. However, the researcher might decided to visit each school and interview the headmaster.
Thirdly, there are also some practical considerations that may play part in determining the research strategy.
2. DEFINITIONS ON SOME TERMINOLOGY
Before we continue it is important to define some important terms and concepts used in social research.
Survey is a method of collecting information about a human population in which direct contact is made with the units of the study (individuals, organizations, communities, etc.) through such systematic means as questionnaires and interview schedules.
Population or Universe is the total set of units about which information is desired.
Sample is a small part of a large, population which is thought to be representative of the larger population or the universe.
Census is a survey in which information is gathered from or about all members of a population.
Sample Survey is a study in which the information is gathered from a fraction of the population chosen to represent the whole.
3. TYPES OF SOCIAL RESEARCH METHODS
Social Research involves a relationship between the researcher and the respondent, the respondent being the person about whom the researcher wants information. The researcher can get information about an individual without getting that information from the individual. Thus we distinguish between reactive and non-reactive social research.
Reactive Research is when the respondent is presented with a stimulus by the researcher e.g. survey questionnaire. The questions asked in the interview are stimuli and the respondent responds.
Non-Reactive Research: In this type of research the information about the respondent is gathered without direct interaction between researcher and respondent. The best example is research based on public record data.
The primary advantage of reactive techniques is the control that the researcher has over the stimulus he presents, and thus his ability to get the information he wants. However, this also maybe a disadvantage in that in presenting a stimulus the researcher becomes part of the social situation and thus risks altering the normal behaviour of the people he is studying.
The advantage of non-reactive techniques is that the researcher stays out of the research situation, and thus is less of a distracting or biasing factor. But to rely on non-reactive technique is to be dependent on data collected by someone else and might have been collected for other reasons other than those related to the specific research.
It should be noted that several researchers employ more than one technique.
There are basically three types of research methods or techniques:
A. Sample Survey
This is the most commonly used method of data collection in Social Research. The basic concept of sampling is that very large aggregate of persons, households, organisations, or other units can be studied efficiently and accurately through detailed examination of a carefully selected subset of that aggregate, know as a sample. For example, you do not have to eat all the mangoes from a mango tree to determine whether there is enough salt or not.
This course is mainly about survey methods since it is the most widely used technique in Social Research.
B. The Public Record
There is a lot of data that is being collected everyday by government officials and other workers. This data exists in annual, monthly or daily reports. Newspapers also supply continuous account of relevant social, political and economic happenings. In addition to government reports and newspapers, institutions in Malawi also have their own publications.
It is important that before you go into the field to collect data, you should try to explore what data is already available. However, a word of caution on the use of public records as source of data.
Firstly, nearly all public records are the product of self-reporting and these reports are often biased. They exaggerate facts which work to the credit of the reporting agencies and under-play facts which would discredit it.
Secondly, public records are collected for reasons other than research. Most public records are inadequate as a source of research data and often areas of social life are very poorly documented.
Thirdly, there are records that are considered secret to which researchers have no access.
Biased reporting, incomplete records and secrecy are major problems which plague the researcher who depends on the public record for his data but these problems can be overcome. Excellent social research has been made which draws heavily on the public record.
Observation could be both reactive and non-reactive. In our everyday life, we all collect information by observing. However, the type of observation we are concerned with is not the usual observation but the one that is intended to produce systematic and quantifiable data. There are three major types of observational research:
(i) Participant observation in which the researcher participates in the events he intends to study. This type of observation is very demanding in that it may mean the researcher collecting data for as much as two or three years.
(ii) The second major type is non-participant observation where the researcher observes without participating and this is the most
frequently used method of observation.
(iii) The third major type of observation research occurs in laboratory conditions. In one version, a group is brought into a "Social laboratory", given a task to perform, and then the observer records the social interaction which occurs. Who exercises leadership in the group? Who dominates the group? What is the group process through which the problem is discussed and resolved? Etc. In this research, the observer normally remains hidden.
There are four rules to be followed when conducting observational research:
(i) There must be a clearly formulated research purpose;
(ii) Observations must be planned systematically. The researcher must know what he intends to observe and how he intends to observe it;
(iii) The observations must be systematically recorded.
(iv) Lastly, the observations should be subjected to controls.
Advantages of Observation
The first advantage of observational research over survey or documentary research is that behaviour can be recorded as it occurs. Secondly, observational research can enable the scientist to compare reported behaviour and actual behaviour.
The third advantage is that you can observe and record behaviour the subject is unwilling to report. Finally, observational research is useful when the subjects cannot give verbal reports e.g. when studying children.
Problems of Observational Research
(a) Observational research is costly. It can absorb a great deal of research time.
(b) Many things of interest to the researcher are not observable e.g. attitudes, past events, etc.
(c) Observational data are subject to many errors of misperception and mis-recording. The observer can see what he wants to see.