There are several methods that can be applied in researching law in society, and more than a single method is usually involved in such a study. However, there are four commonly used methods of data collection in sociology: All other approaches are variations and combinations of these four methods. The four methods that will be considered are the historical, observational, experimental, and survey methods.

Of course, actual research is much more complicated than these methods indicate. All research is essentially a process in which choices are made at many stages. There are several methods, and they are combined in various ways in the actual research. Methodological decisions are made on such diverse matters as the kind of research design to be used, the type of research population and sample, the sources of data collection, the techniques of gathering data, and the methods of analyzing the research findings. The differences among the four methods are more a matter of emphasis on a particular strategy to obtain data for a particular research purpose than a clear-cut “either/or” distinction. For example, in the observational method, although the emphasis is on the researcher’s ability to observe and record social activities as they occur, the researcher may interview the participants—a technique associated with the survey and experimental methods. Similarly, in the experimental method, the subjects are usually under the observation of the researcher and his or her collaborators. The information gained in such observations also plays a crucial role in the final analysis and interpretation of the data. Furthermore, historical evidence is often used in observational, survey, and experimental studies.

At all stages of social science research, there is interplay between theory and method (Schutt, 2015). In fact, it is often the theory chosen by the researcher that determines which methods will be used in the research. The selection of the method is to a great extent dependent on the type of information desired.

To study a sequence of events and explanations of the meanings of the events by the participants and other observers before, during, and after their occurrence, observation (especially participant observation) seems to be the best method of data collection.

Researchers directly observe and participate in the study system with which they have established a meaningful and durable relationship, as did, for example, Jerome H. Skolnick (1994) in his study of police officers. Although the observer may or may not play an active role in the events, he or she observes them firsthand and can record the events and the participants’ experiences as they unfold. No other data-collection method can provide such a detailed description of social events. Thus, observation is best suited for studies intended to understand a particular group and certain social processes within that group. When these events are not available for observation because they occurred in the past, the historical approach is the logical choice of method for collecting data.

If a researcher wishes to study norms, rules, and status in a particular group, intensive interviewing of “key” persons and informants in or outside the group is the best method of data collection. For example, in a well-known study, Jerome E. Carlin (1966) interviewed approximately 800 lawyers in New York City for his study of legal ethics and their enforcement. Those who set and enforce norms, rules, and status, because of their position in the group or relations with persons in the group, are the ones who are the most knowledgeable about the information the researcher wishes to obtain. Intensive interviews (especially with open-ended questioning) with these persons allow the researcher to probe for such information.

When an investigator wishes to determine the numbers, the proportions, the ratios, and other quantitative information about the subjects in his or her study, possessing certain characteristics, opinions, beliefs, and other categories of various variables, then the best method of data collection is the survey. The survey method relies on a representative sample of the population to which a standardized instrument can be administered.

As a final point, the experiment is the best method of data collection when the researcher wants to measure the effect of certain independent variables on some dependent variables. The experimental situation provides control over the responses and the variables, and gives the researcher the opportunity to manipulate the independent variables. In the following pages, I will examine and illustrate these methods in greater detail.

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