In sociological research, even the most minute of details may provide great insight into the everyday life and functioning of the family, one of if not the most important sociological structures in society. Because of this, researchers are always searching for new research methods that not only provide this greater understanding of family life but that also work to overcome the common biases they may face when using traditional methods, including overcoming biases and “the problem of telling the difference between correlation and cause” (Cohen 2015, 24). Some popular research methods that sociologists researching families have found successful include sample surveys, longitudinal surveys, in-depth interviews, and time use studies.
Sample surveys are a “research method in which identical questions are asked of many different people and [the] answers [are] gathered into one large data file,” and are the “most common method of gathering data for sociological studies” (Cohen 2015, 25). It is the most common method in sociological studies because, if completed correctly, it allows for researchers to take the input from the surveys and use it to predict future behaviors among a population (Cohen 2015, 26). Surveying in research allows for researchers to identify and study patterns among the subjects’ responses, and through those patterns may be associations that can aid in a better understanding of family life (Cohen 2015, 25). There are also different types of surveys that can be used specifically in certain research situations, and a popular type of survey found in family research is the longitudinal survey. This survey is “a research method in which the same people are interviewed repeatedly over a period of time…[allowing researchers] to track trends in people’s answers over time” (Cohen 2015, 26). These surveys place an emphasis on the importance of the sequence in which families complete or participate in events and daily activities. However, to ensure that the research is accurate and true to family life, researchers must make sure they overcome the potential biases encountered when subjects are filling out surveys as well as the difficulty in ensuring that the sample for the survey is representative of the population as a whole. Biases are faced in surveys for two reasons. The first is that the questions are prepared ahead of time by the researchers, and in having those specific questions already prepared, answers may be guided in ways or may not fully provide insight into the context that surrounds those answers. Second, if answers to a survey are not pulled from a random selection or representative sample, then there is no way of knowing if the “results are not skewed by who is included or excluded” (Cohen 2015, 26). Because of these common difficulties, the research obtained from sample surveys may run the risk of being skewed or not accurately representing the general population. Researchers may therefore opt for the more personal research method of the in-depth interview.
In-depth interviews help to avoid the problems faced in sample surveying by arranging “much longer, in-depth interviews with a small number of people, usually those who share traits researchers want to study” (Cohen 2015, 27). This allows for amore personal and detailed answers that provide greater understanding of families as well as allows for the discovery of background information that may provide context for the answers of the subjects. Although in-depth interviews provide a more thorough examination of family life, they “still rely on the answers provided to the researcher” (Cohen 2015, 28). This still leaves the opportunity for a subject’s biases, “interpersonal dynamics and the…subtleties of daily life” to interfere with the honesty or accuracy of the information provided (Cohen 2015, 28). For this reason as well as the difficulties faced with sample surveying, current researchers have become more interested in pursuing time use studies as their main way of gaining insight into family life.
A time use study collects “data on how people spend their time during a sample period, such as a single day or week” (Cohen 2015, 28). The increased use of time use studies, also known as time-diary data, “has allowed analysts to research a wide variety of questions whose investigation was previously limited by data that was either nonexistent or subject to substantial recall bias,” like the sample surveys and in-depth interviews (Frazis & Stewart 2012, 243). Some of these questions include “primary activity (What did you do?), temporal location (Time you began?), secondary activity (What else were you doing?), location of activity (Where?), social contacts (With whom?), [and] additional items (Remarks) which can elaborate the event” (Harvey 1990, 312). Time use studies are able to avoid the biases that other research methods encounter because “time diaries ask respondents to list all of their activities rather than asking about… a few select activities…[allowing them to be] relatively free of social desirability bias” (Frazis & Stewart 2012, 231). Time use studies also allow for researchers to study large groups of people, whereas in-depth interviews are time consuming and prevent this. Time use studies allow for researchers to look inside the everyday life of families by having them account for their daily activities, no matter how minuscule, and allows for researchers to look at many different families at the same time. For these reasons sociologists are currently opting for this research method as opposed to others in family research, although the methods of sample surveying, including longitudinal surveying, and in-depth interviews are still effective and efficient ways to gain insight into family life as long as they are conducted properly.
- If you were conducting research and your main concern was avoiding subject biases, which research method would you find most effective?
- If you were conducting research and your main concern was time and efficiency, which research method would you find most effective?
- In your opinion, do you believe it is important to ensure that the sample you are studying is representative? Why or why not?
- What might be some flaws in a research’s conclusions or findings if the sample is not representative?
- What are some conclusions that can be drawn about family life from the activities tracked in time use studies?
Cohen, Philip N. The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Frazis, Harley, and Jay Stewart. “How to Think about Time-Use Data: What Inferences Can We Make about Long- and Short-Run Time Use from Time Diaries?” Annals of Economics and Statistics, no. 105/106 (2012): 231-45.
Harvey, Andrew S. “Time Use Studies for Leisure Analysis.” Social Indicators Research 23, no. 4 (1990): 309-36.