Aqa a2 Sociology Unit 4 Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods

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Exam-style question

Questionnaires are the method preferred by positivists and researchers to collect data from a large and/or dispersed population. Questionnaires involve standardised questions written on a piece of paper (or in electronic form) for respondents to answer in their own writing (or by typing and clicking boxes). Given the sensitive nature of cyber-bullying, which can be defined as the use of electronic devices to intimidate or upset, questionnaires, through offering anonymity, may well offer the best method choice.

In this introduction questionnaires are defined and explained, as is cyber-bullying, which is also recognised as a sensitive area for respondents to write about.

For research into cyber-bullying to be representative and capable of making generalisations, the sample used needs to be quite large. Because questionnaires are less time-consuming and cheaper than interviews since no interviewers are needed, this supports the case for using them. However, compared with interviews, the response rate can be low (a feature of research by Smith et al.), which will undermine the representativeness of the sample, resulting in biased results.

The strength of questionnaires in relation to representativeness and generalisability is recognised. This is offset by an AO2 point highlighting the problem of low response rates.

The fact that questionnaires offer anonymity, as the Item states, should encourage respondents to open up and answer more honestly about either being a victim of cyber-bullying or reporting the committing of this deviant act. However, respondents may feel uncomfortable answering the questionnaires and could give distorted or exaggerated answers. A weakness of questionnaires is that the researcher has no idea if people are telling the truth.

The key strength of anonymity is highlighted here in the context of respondents writing about cyber-bullying as either a victim or an offender. This is followed by a good AO2 point evaluating how people may give distorted or false information in questionnaires.

The absence of interviewers means there is no risk of interviewer effect or interviewer bias whereby the presence of the interviewer could distort the answers given. However, with questionnaires on cyber-bullying there is no guarantee that the answers will be legible, complete or accurate. Another weakness of using questionnaires is that there is no opportunity to follow up interesting answers. Consequently, questionnaires could be viewed as an inflexible method.

The absence of any interviewer effects is highlighted as a potential strength. This is followed by two AO2 points: first about quality of answers and second about a lack of opportunity to ask for elaboration.

As a research method questionnaires are seen to be generally higher in reliability. This means that any research into cyber-bullying is more likely to be replicable. However, interpretative sociologists argue that questionnaires are low in validity, so the meanings, motives and experiences of cyber-bullying may not be teased out sufficiently.

The quality of questionnaires being generally higher in reliability is discussed, followed by the AO2 point that they tend to be lower in validity.

A weakness of any questionnaire is that respondents may not understand some questions and this could apply to cyber-bullying. For example, there may be problems operationalising what cyber-bullying actually is as the term may mean different things to different people. In the case of interviews, interviewers could explain any questions and operationalise the term, thus reducing any ambiguity or confusing questions.

The problem of operationalisation is discussed here, which is evaluated against how interviewers can explain questions and operationalise cyber-bullying.

In conclusion, questionnaires offer many advantages for the study of cyber-bullying, but they also involve some potential problems. While reliability should be high using questionnaires, validity may be low as the motives that lie behind cyber-bullying may not necessarily be found.

This answer ends with a balanced and reflective conclusion.


1 The term ‘gatekeeper’ refers to individuals who facilitate access to other potential respondents. The term is usually applied to people in authority such as head teachers, but can apply to anyone who will provide contact with others in a snowball sample.

2 Although structured interviews collect quantitative data, the main type of data collected by semi-structured, unstructured and focus groups is qualitative data.

3 Structured interviews are similar to questionnaires so the data collected tend to be quantitative and the questions asked are mainly closed questions. Note that qualitative data can be collected through open questions, but this type of data is normally collected through semi-structured or structured interviews.

4 One advantage of structured interviews over questionnaires is that the interviewer can clarify terms or explain ambiguous questions. In addition, the response rate tends to be higher than with questionnaires. With home-completion questionnaires, anyone can fill in the answers, whereas with a structured interview the interviewer can make sure the right respondent answers the questions and assess whether a person is telling the truth. Responses from those suspected of lying can be marked in some way and discarded.

5 Focus groups enable researchers to investigate group dynamics. It is sometimes felt that data received will be more valid (truer to life) when a group is researched together rather than interviewed individually. However, countering this is the risk of people not being prepared to say things because they are shy in the group context or do not wish to offend or contradict other members of the group.

6 The accurate transcription of interviewee responses is crucial; otherwise there might be a misrepresentation of what they said. Interviewers must transcribe accurately, otherwise there might be a temptation to write down what the interviewer thought they meant rather than what they actually said. If this occurred then the research would become biased and have low validity.

7 Semi-structured interviews could be viewed as offering the best of both worlds. They have the benefits of structured interviews in that every interviewee can be asked a set of standardised questions, and the benefits of unstructured interviews in that there is an opportunity to seek clarification or ask supplementary questions. A rapport can be established and data rich in validity can be gained. So as a method semi-structured interviews can produce both reliable and valid data as well as quantitative and qualitative data.

8 The emphasis of qualitative research, which is associated with unstructured interviews, is on deriving validity rather than representativeness. However, in terms of making generalisations to the wider population, there is no reason why interviews are inferior to questionnaires, other than sample sizes being much higher for the latter.

9 When researching offenders, there is the potential for ethical issues to come to the fore. In the course of an unstructured interview there may be disclosure of embarrassing information. This could create awkwardness and inhibit the flow of information and thus the validity of the data. Researchers normally grant interviewees anonymity and confidentiality in research. However, the researcher is put in a problematic position when offenders disclose crimes they have committed, sometimes of a serious nature, such as rape, child abuse etc. Great care must be taken when writing up the research that no one can be identified and hence everyone remains anonymous.

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