Table of Contents
T his chapter suggests some small practical research projects that you can try out. There is a big difference between reading about research and actually doing it. Practical experience of trying to answer a question and collecting evidence systematically is a very valuable experience. This experience will hopefully introduce you to the excitement and also some of the difficulties of sociological research. Before you read this chapter, please refer once again to Chapter 5 (“Doing Sociology: Research Methods”) in the Class XI textbook, Introducing Sociology.
The projects suggested here have tried to anticipate the potential problems of organising this kind of activity for large number of students in different kinds of schools located in different kinds of contexts. These are intended just to give you a feel for research. A “real” research project would obviously be more elaborate and involve much more time and effort than is possible in your setting. These are meant as suggestions; feel free to think up ideas of your own in consultation with your teachers.
Every research question needs an appropriate or suitable research method. A given question may be answered with more than one method, but a given research method is not necessarily appropriate for all questions. In other words, for most research questions one has a choice of possible methods but this choice is usually limited. One of the first tasks of the researcher – after carefully specifying the research question – is to select a suitable method. This selection must be done not only according to technical criteria (i.e., the degree of compatibility between question and method), but also practical considerations. These latter might include the amount of time available to do the research; the resources available in terms of both people and materials; the circumstances or situations in which it has to be done, and so on.
For example, let us suppose you are interested in comparing co-educational schools with ‘boys only’ or ‘girls only’ schools. This, of course, is a broad topic. You must first formulate a specific question that you want to answer. Examples could be: Do students in co-educational schools do better in studies than students in boys/girls only schools? Are boys only schools always better than co-educational schools in sports? Are children in single sex schools happier than children in co-educational schools, or some other such question. Having decided on a specific question, the next step is to choose the appropriate method.
For the last question, ‘Are school children in single sex schools happier?’, for example, you could choose to interview students of different kinds of schools. In the interview you could ask them directly how they felt about their school. You could then analyse the answers you collect to see if there is any difference between those who attend different kinds of schools. As an alternative, you could try to use a different method – say that of direct observation – to answer the research question. This means that you would have to spend time in co-educational and boys/girls schools, observing how students behave. You would have to decide on some criteria by which you could say if students are more or less happy with their school. So, after observing different kinds of schools for sufficient time, you could hope to answer your question. A third method you could use is the survey method. This would involve preparing a questionnaire designed to get information on how students felt about their schools. You would then distribute the questionnaire to an equal number of students in each kind of school. You would then collect the filled-in questionnaires and analyse the results.
Here are some examples of some practical difficulties that you might face when doing research of this kind. Suppose you decide to do a survey. You must first make enough copies of the questionnaire. This involves time, effort and money. Next, you may need permission from teachers to distribute the questionnaire to students in their classrooms. You may not get permission the first time, or you may be asked to come back later….. After you have distributed the questionnaire you may find that many people have not bothered to return it to you or have not answered all questions, or other such problems. You then have to decide how to deal with this – go back to your respondents and ask them to complete the questionnaires; or ignore the incomplete questionnaires and consider only the complete ones; consider only the completed answers, and so on. You must be prepared to deal with such problems during research work.
7.1 Variety of Methods
You may remember the discussion of research methods in Chapter 5 of the Class XI textbook, Introducing Sociology. This may be a good time to revisit this chapter and refresh your memory.
A survey usually involves asking a relatively large number of people (such as 30, 100, 2000, and so on; what is considered ‘large’ depends on the context and the kind of topic) the same fixed set of questions. The questions may be asked by an investigator in person where they are read out to the respondent, and his/her answers are noted down by the investigator. Or the questionnaire may be handed over to the respondents who then fill it up themselves and give it back. The main advantage of the survey is that it can cover a lot of people, so that the results are truly representative of the relevant group or population. The disadvantage is that the questions to be asked are already fixed. No on-the-spot adjustments are possible. So, if a question is misunderstood by the respondents, then wrong or misleading results can be produced. If a respondent says something interesting then this cannot be followed up with further questions on the subject because you have to stick to the questionnaire format. Moreover, questionnaires are like a snapshot taken at one particular moment. The situation may change later or may have been different before, but the survey wouldn’t capture this.
An interview is different from a survey in that it is always conducted in person and usually involves much fewer persons (as few as 5, 20, or 40, usually not much more than that). Interviews may be structured, that is, follow a pre-determined pattern of questions or unstructured, where only a set of topics is pre-decided, and the actual questions emerge as part of a conversation. Interviews may be more or less intensive, in the sense that one may interview a person for a long time (2-3 hours) or in repeated visits to get a really detailed version of their story.
Interviews have the advantage of being flexible in that promising topics may be pursued in greater detail, questions may be refined or modified along the way, and clarifications may be sought. The disadvantage of the interview method is that it cannot cover a large number of people and is limited to presenting the views of a select group of individuals.
Observation is a method where the researcher must systematically watch and record what is happening in whatever context or situation that has been chosen for the research. This sounds simple but may not always be easy to do in practice. Careful attention has to be paid to what is happening without pre-judging what is relevant to the study and what is not. Sometimes, what is not happening is as important or interesting as what does actually happen. For example, if your research question is about how different classes of people use specific open spaces, then it is significant that a given class or group of people (say poor people, or middle class people for example) never enter the space, or are never seen in it.
Combinations of More Than One Method
You can also try to combine methods to approach the same research question from different angles. In fact, this is often highly recommended. For example, if you are researching the changing place of mass media sources like newspapers and television in social life, you could combine a survey with archival methods. The survey will tell you about what is happening today, while the archival methods might tell you about what magazines, newspapers or television programmes were like in the past.
7.2 Possible themes and subjects for small research projects
Here are some suggestions about possible research topics; you can always choose other topics in consultation with your teachers. Remember that these are only topics – you need to select specific questions based on these topics. Remember also that most methods can be used with most of these topics, but that the specific question chosen must be suitable for the method chosen. You can also use combinations of methods. The topics are in no particular order. Topics that are not obviously or directly derived from your textbooks have been emphasised because it will be easier for you and your teachers to think of your own project related to the texts.
1. Public Transport
What part does it play in people’s lives? Who needs it? Why do they need it? To what degree are different types of people dependent on public transport? What sorts of problems and issues are associated with public transport? How have forms of public transport been changing over time? Does differential access to public transport cause social problems? Are there groups who do not need public transport? What is their attitude towards it? You could also take up the case of a particular form of transport – say the tonga, or the rickshaw, or the train – and write about its history in relation to your town or city. What are the changes this mode of transport has gone through? Who have been its main rivals? Is the competition with rivals being lost or won? For what reasons? What is the likely future of this mode of transport? Will anyone miss it?
If you live in Delhi, try to find out more about the Delhi Metro. Could you write a science-fiction like account of what the Metro would be like fifty years from now, in, say 2050 or 2060? (Remember, it is not easy to write good science fiction! You must give reasons for the things you imagine; these future things must be related in some coherent fashion to things/relations/situations that exist in the present. So you would have to imagine how public transport will evolve given present conditions, and what the role of the Metro would be in future compared to what it is now.)
2. Role of Communication Media in Social Life
Communication media could include the mass media, like newspapers, television, films, internet and so on – i.e., media which convey information and are seen/accessed by large numbers of people. It could also include the media that people use for communicating with each other, such as the telephone, letters, mobile phones, email and internet. In these areas, you could try to investigate, for example, the changing place of mass media in social life and the shifts within major formats like print, radio, television, and so on. At a different level, you could try to ask a different sort of question about the likes and dislikes of particular groups (classes, age groups, genders) regarding films, books etc. How do people perceive the new communication media (like mobile phones, or internet) and their impact? What can we learn through observation and inquiry about their place in people’s lives? Observation allows you to capture the divergence (if any) between stated views and actual behaviour. (How many hours do people really watch television, as different from how many hours they feel they watch, or feel is appropriate to watch etc..) What are some of the consequences of shift in format? (For example, has tv really reduced the importance of radio and newspapers, or does each format still have its own special niche?) What are the reasons why people prefer one or the other format?
Alternatively, you could think of doing any number of projects based on a content analysis of the media (newspapers, magazines, television etc.) and how they have treated particular themes or subjects, such as, for example, schools and school education, the environment, caste, religious conflicts, sports events, local versus national or regional news, etc.
3. Household Appliances and Domestic Work
This refers to all the devices used to do work in the household, such as gas, kerosene or other type of stoves; mixies, grinders and food processors of various kinds; the electric or other kind of iron for ironing clothes; washing machines; ovens; toaster; pressure cooker, and so on. How has work within the household changed over time? Has the coming of these devices changed the nature of work and specially the intra-household division of labour? Who are the people who use these devices? Are they mostly men or women, young or old, paid or unpaid workers? How do the users feel about them? Have they really made work easier? Have there been any changes in the age-related jobs done within the household? (i.e., do younger/older people do different kinds of jobs now as compared to earlier?)
Alternatively, you could simply concentrate on how the domestic tasks are distributed within the household – who does what, and whether there have been changes lately.
4. The Use of Public Space
This research topic is about the different uses to which public space (such as an open field, the roadside or footpath, empty plots in housing colonies, space outside public offices, and the like) is put. For example, some spaces support a lot of small scale commercial activity like roadside vendors, small temporary shops and parking lots etc. Other spaces seem empty but get used in different ways – to hold marriage or religious functions, for public meetings, as a dumping ground for various kinds of things… Many spaces are occupied by poor homeless people and become in effect their homes. Try to think of research questions in this general area: What do people from different classes (e.g., the poor, middle classes, affluent people etc.) feel about the use of public space? What kind of a resource do they represent for these groups? How has the use of a particular open space in your neighbourhood been changing over time? Has it generated any conflicts or frictions? What are the reasons for this conflict?
5. Changing Aspirations of Different Age Groups
Did you always have the same ambitions throughout your life? Most people change their goals, specially at young ages. This research topic tries to discover what these changes are and whether there are any patterns to the changes across different groups. You could try choosing research groups such as different age groups (eg., classes 5, 8 and 11) in different kinds of schools; different genders; different parental backgrounds etc. and see if any patterns emerge. You could also include adults in your research design and see what they remember about these sorts of changes, and whether there is any pattern to changes after school as compared to changes within the school-going age.
6. The ‘Biography’ of a Commodity
Think of a particular consumption item in your own home, such as a television set, a motor cycle, a carpet or a piece of furniture. Try to imagine what the life-history of that commodity would be. Write about it as though you were that commodity and were writing an ‘auto-biography’. What are the circuits of exchange through which it has moved to get to where it is now? Can you trace the social relations through which the item was produced, traded, and purchased? What is its symbolic significance, for its owners – i.e. for you, your family, for the community?
If it could think and talk, what would your television set (or sofa set, or motorcyle…) have to say about the people it meets or sees (like your family or other families or households that you can imagine)?
TOPIC / AREA
|TYPE OF RESEARCH METHOD / TECHNIQUE
|Modes of Public Transport; Local Railway or Bus Station
|Modes of behaviour, expected etiquette, space sharing
|Opinions on changes over time; experiences, difficulties etc.
|Domestic Appliances (Use of cooking fuel/mode; fan, cooler, ac; iron; fridge; mixie...)
|Patterns of use; domestic division of labour; gender aspects
|Attitudes/memories relating to different type of appliances
|Use of Public Spaces (roadside, empty land, etc)
|Observe how comparable open spaces are used in different localities
|Opinions of a cross-section of people on different uses of specific public spaces
|Changing Aspirations of School Children at different ages (e.g. Classes 5, 8, 11)
|Boys and Girls Adults of different generations (from memory)
|Place of the means of communication in social life (from mobile phones to satellite tv)
|Watch how people use mobile phones in public – what place do these devices have in their lives?
|How much TV do different kind of people watch, and what are their preferred programmes?
|TYPE OF RESEARCH METHOD / TECHNIQUE
|COMMENTS / SUGGESTIONS
|Newspaper and other sources for history of change
|Views of regular vs occasional users;men vs. women etc.
|Suitable only for biggish cities?
|Advertisement patterns for different kinds of appliances
|How do different type of people respond to specific appliances?
|Boys to be encouraged to this; should not become a ‘girl’s topic’
|What were the different uses to which a particular space was put over the years?
|Do people of different social classes, groups have use of space?
| Best to take familiar, specific places that people know about and relate to
|Depends on availability of material from the past (such as school essays on this subject)
|Talk to one group about their own evolution; or talk to different
|Interviewees should not be from own school
|Analysis of media coverage and content on any current issue of
|What do people feel about the decline of after the coming of phones?
| Try not to pre-judge the the issue letter writing (e.g. it is so sad that letter writing has declined) – ask, don’t tell.