Methodology in sociocultural

VidarHAndersenIn sociocultural research, the goal is to see how people interact and influence each other. Various research methods  - both qualitative and quantitative - are used to study this behaviour. Quantitative methods – such as experiments and surveys - are used extensively, but many researchers within the field now also use qualitative methods - such as focus groups, participant observations and semi-structured interviews. In case studies, method triangulation is used – studying behavior by both quantitative and qualitative methods.

A key reason for the shift towards a more qualitative approach to studying social and cultural phenomena is that qualitative studies tend to be more holistic, reporting much richer detail about the lives of individual participants. Since the researcher often interacts with participants for a longer period he or she may also get a much better understanding of the participants’ perspective.

Qualitative researchers are also concerned with the richness of data, that is that they take detailed field notes and use descriptive data that can be analyzed in depth to really capture the subjective world of the participants. This is a contrast to the numbers and figures in quantitative research that uses statistics to analyze data.

Because researchers within qualitative research think it is important that the behaviour of the participants is as realistic as possible, a significant amount of research is naturalistic - that is, done in the environments in which the behaviour is most likely to take place. In spite of its “realism”, however, it should be noted that the methods mentioned here do not manipulate an independent variable so they cannot be used to determine cause-and-effect relationships. However, the researchers can see trends in several similar studies and begin to see which behaviors may be representative of certain groups in certain contexts.

Today, social psychologists frequently attempt to “see the world through the eyes of the people being studied”. In order to do this, participant observation is often used. Participant observation is when researchers immerse themselves in a social setting for an extended period of time and observe behaviour. When the participants in the group know that they are being observed, this is an overt observation. If the researcher does not inform the participants that they are being observed, it is a covert observation.

Overt observations require the researcher to gain the trust of the group that is to be observed. For example, O’Reilly (2000)  acted as a volunteer in local British clubs in Fuengirola on the Costa Del Sol.  In this role, she performed field research over a period of fifteen months and studied how British expatriates saw themselves. Contrary to the prevailing belief at the time of the migrants as paradise-seekers, going to endless cocktail parties; the study found that the picture was much more complex. O'Reilly found that the way the migrants saw themselves was full of contradictions. For example, they live fun, leisurely lives and talk about community as if it includes the Spanish as well as other nationalities. And yet their behavior betrayed isolation from the local community and an overall sense of boredom and loneliness.  Although they reported that they were in paradise, almost every day members of the migrant community were choosing to go back to the UK. O’Reilly concluded that they deny their boredom and suppress their loneliness as this contradicts the image they wish to portray of a happy, friendly and exciting experience.

In order to uncover the complexity of their experience, she had to spend a significant amount of time among the expatriates. She participated in everyday conversations, carried out several interviews and observed their behaviour in many different situations. In order to guarantee that they would discuss their lives openly with her, she had to develop a trusting relationship, in which she was non-judgmental of her participants. She needed to try to see the world through their eyes.

Covert observations are sometimes used with groups that would be hostile to an outsider observing their behaviour, or who would not be open and honest, perhaps because of the illegal nature of their activities—for example, drug users. Although the researcher must gain the trust of the members of the group, this is done through deceit. The researcher does not disclose his or her intentions to the members of the group, and then records the participants’ behaviour without obtaining informed consent. In addition to these ethical concerns, covert observers have difficulties taking notes and often have to rely on memory, meaning that their data are open to distortion. Finally, unlike overt observations, interviews cannot be carried out, for fear of being “discovered”.

Research in psychology: Festinger et al.’s When Prophecy Fails (1956)

Perhaps the most well-known covert participant observation in social psychology was carried out by Festinger and his colleagues (1956). In Chicago, there was a religious doomsday cult that believed the world would end on 21 December. The leader of the cult claimed to have received a message from a distant planet that the world would end in a great flood, but the cult members would be rescued by flying saucers, as long as they followed the prescribed rituals and read the sacred texts. They were also to remain isolated from all non-believers. This made it very difficult for psychologists to study them.

Festinger and his team decided to become cult members in order to carry out a covert participant observation. It was covert because the members of the cult were unaware that the researchers were studying them. They fully believed that Festinger and his colleagues were also believers in the cult. It was a participant observation because the researchers became members of the group that they were studying - and interacted with them. The researchers remained with the cult up to the fateful day of 21 December - when nothing happened. Festinger monitored the group members’ response after realizing that the world would not end, in spite of the fact that they had dedicated so much of their time and resources to the cult. The members of the cult were able to justify their belief in the cult by deciding that God had not destroyed the world as a result of their prayers. They now believed that they had saved the world. Festinger argued in line with cognitive dissonance theory that the cult members had changed their beliefs to reduce their feelings of dissonance – in this case, the anxiety created when they realized that they sacrificed so much for something that seemed to be wrong.

You can read a more in-depth summary of the study here: Festinger (1956).

ATL:  Thinking critically

If you were a reporter covering the study, what questions would you ask Festinger and his team?

Discuss the ethical concerns you would have with this research.

Possible SAQ

Explain the use of one research method used in the sociocultural approach.

Assessment advice

This question asks you to explain, which means you have to give a detailed account including reasons or causes. You should describe the main features of the method you choose,  outline one example of a research study using this method and then  explain why this particular method is used in sociocultural approach.

Checking for understanding

Which of the following is an example of method triangulation?

Method triangulation is when we use more than one method to guarantee that the results that we have obtained are not due to the method we chose.  By using another method and getting the same results, we increase the credibility (validity) of the results.


What method did O'Reilly use to study British expatriates living on the Costa del Sol?

The study was an observation as no independent variable was manipulated.  The study was overt as the individuals being observed knew that she was studying their behaviour. THe study was also a participant observation as O'Reilly interacted with the participants.


Which of the following is not a limitation of carrying out a naturalistic observation?

The fact that a study is naturalistic does not mean that the participants are being deceived. This depends on whether the study is covert or overt.


What did Festinger conclude from his study of the Doomsday cult?

Festinger argued that this was an example of cognitive dissonance.  The cult members had to cope with the fact that as intelligent people, they had been led to believe that the world was going to end.  When it didn't, they look foolish.  To lessen this feeling of failure, they rationalized what happened - that is, they explained that they had actually saved the world through their prayers.


Which of the following is not an ethical concern of the Festinger study of the Doomsday cult?

Festinger broke pretty much all ethical rules with this study.  He did not obtain consent, he deceived the participants, he did not keep their data anonymous, he did not debrief them and the publication of his book causes undue stress. Researcher bias is not an ethical consideration.  It is potentially a methodological problem.  Since Festinger recorded conversations sometimes several hours after they happened, it is possible that his own biases influenced what was remembered.


Which of the following is not an advantage of collecting qualitative data?

Quantitative data has the advantage of easily being analysed through statistical analysis; for qualitative data, researchers must carry out content analysis to establish trends in the data.


Total Score:

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Comments 4

RWA Psychology1 20 March 2018 - 05:48

Dear John,
Will the students ever be asked to write an ERQ related to research methodology, or will it only require them to write as a response a SAQ?

John Crane 21 March 2018 - 05:22

Dear RWA

in the new curriculum, all questions may be asked as ERQs. There are no longer questions which may only be asked as SAQs.

James Meyer 10 April 2018 - 15:06

Perhaps there is a reference to this which I've missed, but I'm wondering if case study methodology can be profitably used with the sociocultural approach. The story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, for example, might be used as a case study which has something to say about enculturation. And there are many, many memoirs of people learning to live in the presence of other cultures as adults--acculturation, integration, separation, etc. I'm interested in ways that this might be developed and in case studies which might be particularly good examples and might be particularly well suited for discussion in psychology. I understand that this would need to be different from anthropology--there's just not enough time for everything--so some case studies which yielded a lot in terms of psychology would be very helpful.

John Crane 10 April 2018 - 21:23

Dear James

I would not use the wild boy of Averyron. The subject reports have repeatedly warned teachers not to use 19th century research - and the Wild Boy of Aveyron is actually 18th century! And this was the end of the 18th century. But otherwise, yes, case studies can be used if they are actually published case studies.