A Comparison of Sociology and Anthropology Research Methods

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This paper will examine research methods used in sociological and anthropological research. As such, this paper will be divided into four main sections. The next section will discuss two sociological research methods and the justification for employing one of these methodologies. The third section will undertake this same discussion for anthropology. The final section will compare and contrast these research approaches.

Sociological Research Methods

The two sociological methods to be discussed in this paper are the experimental and observational methods. For the experimental method, the classic research design is the randomized experiment. The features of such an experiment include two groups. The first group is the experimental group. This group is given the treatment whose efficacy is being tested. The second group is the control group. This group is given the placebo. If no change is observed between the two groups then the treatment is not efficacious. This research design includes a pretest and posttest. The classic design is commonly used in medical, psychological and educational research (Champney, 1995).

But often in social science disciplines a modified quasi-experimental design is used. This is because the variables of interest are not changeable. That is, they can’t be administered or withheld at will by the researchers. Thus the main difference between quasi-experimental or non-classical designs is the lack of a control group. These designs can also be referred to as “posttest” only design or “nonequivalent control group” design. A single observation is made of two groups, one of which has already received a treatment. Leedy and Ormrod (2007) stated that quasi-experimental designs don’t control for all confounding variables. This means alternative explanations for the stated results can’t be completely ruled out.

The second design is the observation research method. This method can be either participant or non-participant. A significant draw back in using participant method is it can cause what is known as the Hawthorne Effect. This effect can complicate results in participant methodology because the individuals under observation are known to change their behavior. This is because when individuals are aware they are under observation, they don't behave in quite the same manner they would as if they were not under observation. Thus a central problem in social research is creating the ideal conditions under which research subjects behave in a natural manner.

To get mitigate this limitation, social researchers sometimes chose the non-participant observation method. This method involves the social researcher living among the community members that are under study. The researcher will often not disclose to the community participants that an observational research study is being done. This has hazards of its own as the social researcher may be placed in situations that carry risk. To mitigate this risk, it's recommended that the observational work be conducted in a public place.

Research Method Justification

The justification for using the experimental research design is that, when conducted successfully, such designs can yield results that have considerable reliability. This means that if the same study is repeated by different researchers and at a different time, the same result occurs. This result also requires that no change has occurred in the object being measured (Black, 1993; Leedy and Ormrod, 2007; Karpf, 2012). Reliability depends upon how accurately, precisely and carefully the data were collected. Also, experimental research designs can produce results which can be generalized to the entire population.

Anthropological Research Methods

The two anthropological methods to be discussed in this section are the reflexivity and participatory action research (PAR) methods. Reflexivity requires the researcher to always be aware of how of the researcher, and how the researcher's own biases, may influence the research results. This method is also known as the "Thomas Theorem" because it was first formulated by William Thomas . Indeed, even the anthropologist’s very presence may color the quality of the data being received due to the above mentioned Hawthorne Effect.

One mitigating factor in reflexivity is the use of 'cultural relativism' in the field of cultural anthropology ("Fluehr-Lobban, 1995). Cultural relativism is the view that researchers should not make subjective judgments about the groups, individuals or cultures they study. They should merely report the data they receive without using a culturally or personally biased filter. A key assertion of this concept is that each culture under study has its own values, beliefs, and practices. These cultural components may conflict with, or even offend, the researcher's own personal views and sensitivities. Therefore, an awareness of one's own personal or culturally defined biases is important when conducting social research. In addition, it's important to keep these biases from influencing how the data are represented.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) involves using local community members to conduct social research. This method is conducted using five steps . These steps are 1) education on the process or creating a dialogue, 2) collective investigation, 3) collective interpretation, 4) collective action, and 5) transformation: self-determination and empowerment.

Research Method Justification

The PAR approach is justified based on two major advantages it has over previous participant observation research methodologies. First, a non-native does not have to learn the tenets and norms of the selected culture first. Second, the subjects under investigation may relate more positively to a member of their own group conducting the research as opposed to an outsider.

Methodologies: Compare and Contrast

In general terms, anthropology and sociology differ not so much in how social phenomenon are studied, but in the types of venues in which research is undertaken. For instance, anthropology applies its research methods to the study of primitive or pre-industrial, non-Western societies. Sociology applies these research techniques to the study of social phenomenon in modern, Western societies. In addition, the two selected research methods, experimental design for sociology and PAR for anthropology, also differ in important ways. Experimental design uses quantitative research methods and PAR uses qualitative research methods. This introduces important differences. For instance, qualitative research seeks to explore and explain human behavior, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs through the techniques of in-depth interviewing of individuals and groups, observing people in natural settings or laboratories, and by analyzing texts such as diaries, verbal expressions or images that respondents create. As such, its results can, lead to deeper understandings of social behavior. Quantitative methodology is the more commonly used of the two methodologies. In contrast, it involves any research which involves statistical measurement. In addition, its results can quantify insights and statistically project findings to the population under study. This is because, unlike in the case qualitative research, quantitative research methods are representative of an entire population and its methods can accommodate large sample sizes.


Black, T. R. (1993). Evaluating social science: An introduction. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.

Champney, L. (1995). Introduction to quantitative political science. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.

Fluehr-Lobban, C. (1995, June 9). Anthropologists, cultural relativism, and universal rights. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/culturalrelativism.html. Dec. 9, 2013.

Karpf, D. (2012): Social science research methods in internet time. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 639-661. Accessed http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.665468.

Leedy, P., & Ormrod, J. E. (2005). Practical research: planning and design, 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.