Sociological Scenarios™: Research Methods Revision

Revision is probably one of the least-interesting things you’ll ever do as either a student or a human being, and if you haven’t been revising throughout your course, you’ll be faced with a few weeks of staring blankly at your “Notes” (a word I use optimistically) trying frantically to remember “stuff” that you can somehow successfully apply in your exams. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, along comes the Research Methods revision you’ve been putting-off until the bitter end…

Methods “revision”: there is a better way.

Thankfully, with a bit of preparation and forethought it doesn’t have to be this way (at least not for Research Methods – I don’t know about the other stuff because I haven’t thought about it yet).

A simple way to make Methods revision more interesting, stimulating and productive (i.e. you’re probably going to remember things) is to use Sociological Scenarios™ as a way of creating a context and purpose for your revision. Scenarios are also an interesting way to actually teach Research Methods, but that’s another story I’m going to keep for another day.


A Sociological Scenario™ is basically a thought experiment: a situation you imagine against which to apply your knowledge. In this instance, to test your knowledge and understanding of methods. While the scenario can be anything familiar, a particularly simple and effective one for Methods revision is to create a research scenario based on your school or college. This gives you ample scope to practice applying a range of methods – from quantitative questionnaires to qualitative participation – in a scenario you know like the back of your hand.

Imagine, therefore, you’ve been employed to research your school / college in any way you see fit.

Against this familiar backdrop of a place you know well you can organise your revision by walking through various processes in your mind.

The trick here is to make sure you know before you start your revision walk through the various categories on the Specification. AQA, for example, involves the following:

  • quantitative and qualitative methods of research; research design
  • sources of data, including questionnaires, interviews, participant and non-participant observation, experiments, documents and official statistics
  • the distinction between primary and secondary data, and between quantitative and qualitative data
  • the relationship between positivism, interpretivism and sociological methods; the nature of ‘social facts’
  • the theoretical, practical and ethical considerations influencing choice of topic, choice of method(s) and the conduct of research.
  • You can use each of the categories to guide you through your imaginary data collection – from research design (what kinds of questions do you need to ask?) to the practical, ethical and theoretical research considerations surrounding each method.



    Begin your revision with a list of the research methods you want to revise – just a simple list of names (questionnaires, interviews, observation…) will suffice and for each method in turn, simply think about how you would use it to research your school or college. If you start with questionnaires, for example, imagine applying them to your school and walk yourself through the process of collecting data.

    You would probably begin by thinking about the kinds of questions this method would be best-suited to answering and, by extension, the kinds of data they would collect.

    Then imagine yourself actually using the method to collect data. This will lead you to think about the strengths and weaknesses of the method, as well as any practical research problems you might face (how, for example, are you going to get access to the group of Year 11 chemistry students you need for your research?).

    For example, one method you need to revise is Participant Observation so you need to imagine a research question it would be useful to answer – something along the lines of “What do teachers and students really think about the education provided by the school?”. It doesn’t matter what the question is – you’re not, after all, actually going to answer it – but it should be something that allows you to test the strengths and limitations of the method in your mind.

    If you can’t remember anything about Participant Observation you need to give yourself a quick refresher via your Notes (or some other source if necessary). Even if you only know there are two types – covert and overt – that’s something you can work with.

    Taking covert participant observation as a starting point you need to think about how you go about using it to answer your research question:

    If you could pass yourself off as a teacher in your school how could you use the method to gather data? What, in short, would be its strengths and weaknesses in the context of the research question?

    On the other hand, the fact that you couldn’t pass yourself off as a teacher should help you think about possible limitations of the method, based on the reasons for being unable to study your school using this method. You would, for example, need to be the right age, be able to get a job as a teacher – and for that you’d need various qualifications. Once safely working inside the school you’d need to have access to a range of teachers and you’d have to be able to question them without it looking like you were questioning them. That, of course, would require a range of social skills.

    There’s a great deal more you could think about, but you should be getting the idea…

    Once you’ve finished with the nuts-and-bolts of each research method you can then turn to more-theoretical questions – like the reliability and validity of each method – as well as thinking more-holistically about research methodologies like Interpretivism and Positivism.

    As you may imagine(?), this is just a very broad overview of how Sociological Scenarios™ could work for you in making Methods revision more-interesting and productive. Once you’ve grasped the basic premise you can shape and mould the technique to your own particular needs in whatever ways you find most useful.

    Bonus Feature

    Using your visual memory

    An added bonus of this kind of Scenario-based revision is the fact that it can help you remember important information in the exam, because it utilises powerful visual cues. In basic terms, where you have trained yourself to associate particular ideas with particular visual memories, the combination of the two dramatically improves your power to recall information. This is because the one – a visual cue – is intimately related to the other. And because it’s much easier to recall visual information, by associating the two types, you improve your chances of recalling non-visual information.

    Going back to the previous example of covert participant observation, when you read this verbal cue in an exam you should be able to visualise in your mind the situation in which you revised it. In this instance you were thinking about how you could use this method in your school / college research on teachers – what you would be able to do if you could pass as a teacher and the problems you would encounter if couldn’t…

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