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Sociological Research Methods

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Social Studies

Have you ever wondered how sociologists collect their data? How do they find out what the latest trends, patterns and issues are?

If you read a statistic, for example, 70% of students claim they enjoy doing homework, you would (understandably) want to know how the researcher got to this conclusion. How many students did they ask? Did they interpret students' answers correctly?

Sociological research methods are integral to sociological research. This article introduces how sociologists use these methods to carry out sociological research.

  • You will learn the definition of sociological research and discover its context and process.
  • We will also discuss the reasons for carrying out sociological research.

What are sociological research methods?

Sociological research methods can be defined as a step-by-step process involving collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data to gain knowledge or a better understanding of the world we live in.

Sociological research focuses on various issues, including social groups, institutions, systems, developments, and changes in society. Sociologists draw upon the principles of social science and use a range of research methods in pursuit of patterns that would explain how society works. The choice of methods depends upon practical, philosophical, and ethical considerations, and the nature of the topic.

For example, in 1925 the famous researcher Margaret Mead went to the South Pacific territory of American Samoa to live with the local communities and study them. She observed their lives and conducted interviews and psychological tests to learn whether their experience of adolescence depended on their cultural upbringing. She then published a book interpreting her findings. Modern-day research methods can be a lot more sophisticated, but they are based on the same principles.

Society is in a process of constant evolution leaving gaps or inconsistencies in the existing literature. That provides fertile ground for asking more questions and searching for more answers.

Context of sociological research

There are a number of factors that form part of the context for sociological research and its methods.

Sociologists may have a specific view of the nature of social phenomena , which influences whether they adopt quantitative , qualitative or mixed methods of research.

  • Some sociologists believe that society should be studied scientifically as a collection of objectively measurable 'social facts'. Thus, quantitative methods broadly define a range of research instruments that aim to measure social phenomena in numerical terms.
  • Others believe that such a view is too restrictive and adopt a more profound, detail-oriented practice. Therefore, qualitative methods focus on categorical terms or ' thick descriptions' . These are insights about research subjects focusing in-depth on details and particularities. Hence, they are typically presented in a narrative format.

You can measure the socioeconomic status of a school student by asking how much their parents earn, which provides quantitative data. On the other hand, you could ask them to describe their lifestyle, which provides qualitative data.

Existing literature forms a key part of the research background. Sociologists must familiarize themselves with existing research in order to build upon it instead of repeating it.

Suppose a researcher wants to investigate the association between gender and academic achievement. They would need to study the existing body of literature to see what other researchers have already found and use their research to fill in the gaps.

Researchers should consider whether they will adopt inductive or deductive reasoning in their investigations. The inductive approach seeks to develop new theories, whilst the deductive approach aims to test existing ones. Researchers adopting inductive methods tend to collect data first to see where it will lead them. While those using deductive methods test whether the data collected fits or reinforces an already existing theory.

Researchers must obey the rules of research quality and adopt appropriate values, including an excellent grasp of research integrity and ethics . There is a lot of debate about the extent to which research can and should be value-free .

The table below presents an example of a step-by-step research scenario outlining the research process and a general overview of the sociological method.

Steps of the research processExplanation
Social PhenomenaYou observe that only a minority of the less affluent students in your group got offers from top universities.
TheoryYou read existing literature and find out that Pierre Bourdieu suggested that every individual has social and cultural capital that they can use to exert influence in society.
Hypothesis

Your hypothesis:

The more social and cultural capital a person has, the more likely they are to get an offer from a top university.

Research designYou want to find out if there is indeed a pattern that could describe students' achievement from various socioeconomic backgrounds - therefore, you need a quantitative element. You want to have detailed accounts of students' university application process - therefore, you need a qualitative element too.
Motto measures of conceptsYou choose to send a questionnaire to all the students applying to university and ask them about their socioeconomic status and whether they got their offer. You will use this data to create charts and trace whether there is a cause-effect relationship between having social and cultural capital and getting an offer from a top university. You then choose two case studies: one person who did get an offer, and one who did not. You will conduct semi-structured interviews.
Select research subjects/participantsSince you observed this social phenomenon at your college, you will use an opportunity sample for your quantitative stage and a purposive sample for the qualitative one.
Administer research tools/collect dataConduct the questionnaires and interviews.
Process/analyse/interpret dataLook at the data, search for patterns, put them in charts, examine the language students used in the interviews to investigate whether there is a pattern.
Report Findings/Conclusions
Write the report of your findings.

Sociological Research Methods - Key takeaways

  • Sociologists study the world using sociological research methods.
  • The research consists of steps involving data collection, analysis, and interpretation.
  • The choice of methods depends upon a range of factors. These include the nature of the topic, and practical, philosophical, and ethical issues.
  • Researchers can choose between quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods.
  • The sociologist's opinion on the objective or subjective nature of social phenomena also influences the choice of methods.

  • Researchers must obey the rules of research quality and adopt appropriate values, including integrity and ethical standards.

Sociological Research Methods

Sociological research methods (or research methods in sociology) are a set of data collection, analysis and interpretation procedures based on the principles of social science. Researchers use these methods to study how society works.

Final Sociological Research Methods Quiz

Question

What are sociological research methods?

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Answer

Sociological research methods (or research methods in sociology) are a set of data collection, analysis and interpretation procedures based on the principles of social science. 


Researchers use synthesis methods to study how society works.


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Question

What factors contribute to the context of sociological research?


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Answer

Factors contributing to the context of sociological research include:

  • the way researchers perceive the nature of the social phenomena, 
  • pre-existing literature, 
  • the inductive versus the deductive approach to developing theory,  
  • the research quality standards and rules.


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Question

What is the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning?


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Answer

The difference between inductive and deductive reasoning is in the way researchers approach theory development. 

  • The inductive approach seeks to develop new theories. 
  • The deductive approach aims to test existing ones.

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Do researchers need to use existing literature?

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Yes, they do. They need to familiarise themselves with what other researchers have already said and done to build upon it.

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Are researchers subject to any research quality standards?

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Yes, they should ensure the utmost research integrity and obey ethical standards.

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Question

What are the different types of research methods?


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Researchers broadly define quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods. 

  • Quantitative methods focus on producing objectively measurable data outputs that measure social phenomena in numerical terms. 
  • Qualitative methods emphasise the use of 'thick descriptions', i.e. deep insights full of details and particularities about each research subject. They are typically presented in a narrative format.
  • Mixed methods combine the use of both perspectives - that can, therefore, be called methodological pluralism.  

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Question

What are the different types of data in research methods?

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Researchers collect primary and secondary data. Using primary data involves using data collected by the researcher first-hand, whilst using secondary data means using someone else's research outputs. Data can also be of quantitative and qualitative nature.

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What is operationalisation?


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Operationalization is the process of transforming concepts into measurable units by adopting an indicator or a proxy. For example, researchers can measure performance by using standardised test results.


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What is quantitative and qualitative data?


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  • Quantitative data is used to measure social phenomena in numerical, statistical or analytical terms. For example, you could measure the height of your classmates in numerical terms, eg 162cm, 175cm etc;
  • Qualitative data is used to describe phenomena examined in categorical terms. Using the same example, you could ask your classmates to describe each other using categories “short”, “medium height” and “tall”. 


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What are mixed methods? 


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Mixed methods combine qualitative and quantitative methods in pursuit of a more detailed picture of a social phenomenon.

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What is triangulation?


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Triangulation is a technique that facilitates the validation of data through cross-verification from two or more sources.


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What is methodological pluralism?


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Methodological pluralism involves adopting the use of a variety of sources due to believing that no single research approach is superior to another.


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Question

What are the advantages of using primary data?


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1) Collected first-hand, no need to rely on another sociologist's figures.

2) It is the most up-to-date data.

3) Can present unexpected findings and steer the research in a new direction.

4) Data collected is unique to the specific research project.

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What are the disadvantages of using primary data?


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1) Some primary methods can be expensive, time-consuming, or even dangerous (eg conducting ethnographic research in a cannibalistic tribe).

2) Can be unethical if you do not have informed consent from the participants (eg cover observations).

3) Researchers' own values may bias the process.

4) The group you may be interested to study may not be accessible (eg too far away or may not want to participate)

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Question

What are the advantages of using secondary data?


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1) Easy access to data, e.g. ONS website.

2) No need to seek informed consent.

3) Your values will not influence the data as it was collected by someone else.

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What are the disadvantages of using secondary data?


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1) If the data is unreliable, ungeneralisable or invalid, you may need to search for alternative sources.

2) Documents (eg old paintings or archive documents) may not be authentic or credible.

3) Official statistics may have a bias.

4) The data you need may not be available in the format that you require.

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Question

What are the two philosophical positions in research methods?

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  • Positivism advocates for studying society as a collection of social facts through the use of objective measurements, ie quantitative data
  • Interpretivism refers to a philosophical position did emphasizes the importance of contexts, reasons and meanings of human behaviour. Therefore, interpretivist researchers tend to use qualitative data.


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Question

What primary research methods do positivists use?

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Answer

They typically choose experiments, questionnaires, and polls

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What primary research methods do interpretivists use?

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They typically choose observations, interviews, ethnographic study (ie immersing yourself into the researched environment), and focus groups.

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Question

What are the advantages of positivist philosophy?


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Answer

Focus on objective measurements


Can use large samples → can generalize findings onto whole populations, complete statistical analysis, make predictions


A more efficient method of data collection → surveys and questionnaires can be automated, easily input into a database and further manipulated

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Question

What are the disadvantages of positivist philosophy?


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Answer

Context and human uniqueness not accounted for


Can be hard to interpret the data without context or reasoning behind the facts


The focus of the research is very constrained, it cannot change in the middle of the study as it will invalidate the study.

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Question

What are the advantages of interpretivist philosophy?

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Answer

Creates an environment conducive to fieldwork


Can delve into contexts, interpersonal dynamics and reasons


Can provide immeasurable accounts such as emotions, beliefs, personality characteristics (no need to operationalize)


Allows the researcher to complete reflective work as an insider


Allows to change the focus of the study as it will not invalidate the data but rather enrich it with new perspectives

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Question

What are the disadvantages of interpretivist philosophy?


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Answer

Can only be done with small samples because working with large samples is impractical and sometimes even impossible → findings cannot be generalized.


May lead to unanticipated results, which can completely distort the research.


Some ethical dilemmas can be particularly hard (eg cover observations)


Data collection and handling can be very time-consuming and inefficient (eg every interview has to be transcribed and codified)


The risk of researchers introducing their own bias is higher.

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Question

What do researchers need to consider when choosing methods for their study?

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Answer

  • Nature of the topic
  • Philosophical underpinnings
  • The practical implications
  • Ethical standards of their study

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Question

What are the considerations concerning the nature of the topic?

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Answer

The nature of the topic concerns choices researchers make about the research design, e.g. cross-sectional, case study, experimental, longitudinal or ethnographic.

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Question

What are the philosophical considerations in research?

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Answer

Philosophical considerations focus on the philosophical position of the researcher: positivist or interpretivist. This position is key to deciding between quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods of research.

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Question

What are the practical considerations in research?

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Answer

Practical considerations include time, funding, access to prospective research subjects, personal characteristics of researchers, and trends in research. All of these could both benefit and limit researchers’ practice.

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Question

What are the ethical considerations in research? 

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Answer

Ethical considerations concern the moral aspect of how researchers treat participants. They broadly cover the following areas: 

  • Avoiding harm
  • Avoiding deception
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Obtaining informed consent

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Question

Name a few examples of ethically questionable experiments, and their authors.

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Answer

  • Little Albert Experiment (John Watson)
  • Stanford Prison Experiment (Phillip Zimbardo)
  • Milgram’s Obedience Experiment (Stanley Milgram)

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Question

Describe the key aspects of consent.

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Answer

  • It must be informed, i.e. the participant should fully understand what they are signing up for.
  • If the participant is not yet 18, the researcher should exercise caution and should, if necessary, seek consent from a third party that can advocate for the young person’s best interest, e.g. a parent, guardian, or another carer.
  • Sometimes informed consent is not possible if the study is purposefully covert.


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Why is deception considered ethically questionable?


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  • Because it is the opposite of informed consent. Participants not only have no understanding of their role in the project, but their belief of what they are consenting to is also a lie.
  • A researcher cannot predict how the study will affect the participant and whether there will be any harm done.

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Is there a benefit to society in conducting ethically questionable research?

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In certain circumstances, there is. If the researcher is trying to infiltrate a gang or an extremist group, for example. However, every researcher must have a very strong justification for violating ethical standards.

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What is research design in a study/investigation?

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The research design refers to the overall strategy a researcher undertakes in planning and executing data collection, analysis and interpretation of findings

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What types of research designs are there?

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Answer

Sociologists distinguish between the following types of research design: 

  • experimental
  • cross-sectional
  • case study
  • longitudinal
  • ethnographic

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What are the characteristics of experimental design?


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Answer

Experimental design involves conducting experiments in controlled laboratory environments or in the field

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What are the characteristics of cross-sectional design?

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The cross-sectional design is also otherwise known as survey design. 

  • It is conducted over a single time period
  • with a varied typically larger sample
  • looking for an association between variables 
  • using quantitative data


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What are the characteristics of longitudinal design?

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Longitudinal design involves collecting data from the same research subjects repeatedly over prolonged periods of time to trace patterns and social changes.

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What are the characteristics of case study design?

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Answer

The case study design is useful to researchers who study single cases, e.g. a single person, school, community etc. It allows to focus all research efforts on one thing only

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What is ethnographic research?


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Ethnographic research involves collecting data through immersing oneself in the environment being studied.

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What is important for a good research question?


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Research questions should be value-free, i.e. avoiding bias or any call for social change.

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What is a hypothesis?


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The hypothesis is defined as a statement predicting an outcome of an experiment or a relationship between two phenomena that needs to be tested using quantitative methods

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Question

What are research quality indicators related to research design?


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Answer

When choosing a research design, sociologists must consider whether their research will be 

  • valid
  • reliable
  • generalisable
  • transparent
  • credible

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Question

What do research quality indicators measure?

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  • Validity measures the accuracy of research methods
  • Reliability measures consistency/replicability of research methods 
  • Generalisability measures how far your results are true or relevant to a wider population or context
  • Transparency measures whether all the products of research are available for scrutiny
  • Credibility measures how much can we trust the findings


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What are the most common sampling types?


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Answer

  • Representative samples allow generalisability: random, random stratified, multi-stage, quota and systematic
  • Non-representative samples: purposive, opportunity and snowball


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What is the case study design?

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Answer

The case study design involves a single case or a small number of cases that are intensely explored in detail and depth.

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What are the characteristics of the cross-sectional design?

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The cross-sectional design has the following characteristics; it is conducted over a single time period, has a varied (typically larger) sample, looks for an association between variables and uses quantitative data

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What is the longitudinal study design?

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Answer

The longitudinal study design involves collecting data from the same research subjects repeatedly over prolonged periods of time to trace patterns and social changes.

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What is the experimental design?

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The experimental design involves conducting experiments in controlled laboratory environments or in the field (real-life setting). The scientific method is used in the experimental design.

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What does value freedom mean?

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Answer

Value freedom means that the social scientist successfully eliminates their own personal biases from the research and thus presents the impartial, objective truth.

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Question

What was Max Weber's approach to values in the choice of research topic?

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Answer

Max Weber argued that researchers’ personal values must influence their choice of the topic of research.

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