Choices of Research Topic

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  Choices of research topicValues  The values of the researcher are undoubtedly going to play a role in what they decide to research because a person is unlikely to carry out research into a subject that they do not consider to be particularly important, let alone spend a large amount of time  putting together proposals for research. Developments in sociology and society  As society progresses there are undoubtedly going to be aspects of wider social development that affect which research topics are seen as the major issues of the day and which are seen as having little or no significance to the advancement of sociologyas an academic discipline. While some sociologists pursue the doctrine as a means of helping those in society that they view as oppressed groups such as feminists and Marxists many see it is a career and as such wish to do what they can to leave a lasting impact on the subject, something which is unlikely to happen if they undertakeresearch topics that many do not consider to be particular relevant anymore. For example many have developed on the theories of late modernity as social institutions such as the labour market have changed in structure (for example in the UK from  being largely based around the production and manufacturing sectors to the service sector) and some sociologists have built on theories such as the risk society first developed by Ulrich Beck, often to consider topics such as the environment which have been largely neglected by sociology up until the last two decades as discoveries in the natural sciences have provided greater understanding as to how crucial an issue for society it is. The theory of secularisation has also been used as a starting point in recent years to examine the revival of religious fundamentalism in various parts of theworld such as the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and the USA.  There is also an inbuilt tendency within sociology as a discipline to try and understandthe underlying causes of social change rather than focus on societies or aspects of societies that appear stagnant. This mind-set has its roots in the founding of the subject in the 19 th  century where the first major theorists such as Marx, Comte, Weber and Durkheim tried to provide differing accounts as to why society had experienced such radical changes on an unprecedented scale following industrialisation.  Government policies can also act as a catalyst which galvanises a change in direction within the discipline as can be seen in contemporary studies of education that have come to focus on increased marketisation within the system. Funding  Funding can often be the most decisive factor in whether proposed research actually  becomes a reality. There are a variety of organisations that can provide grants to sociologists which include government departments or bodies like the Economic and  Social Research Foundation, universities, businesses or charities/independent bodies such as the Rowntree Foundation. One of the problems this immediately throws up is that it leaves sociological research open to the special interests and influence of those who fund the study in the first place. While this may not be the case for small scale interpretive or qualitative research for those that look to study a large sample across a variety of geographical areas are likely to require a large amount of funding. When it comes to bodies such as the ESRC it is uncommon for them to fund research that is likely to be critical of their policies or lack of with regards to particular issues which  presents a problem for sociologists as it is the largest source of funding the Britain. Competition between researchers is one way that been criticised for being influenced too heavily by the interests of government or commercial interests. One final problem for researchers with regards to funding is that the organisations which provide it are unlikely to do so without expecting some form of benefit as such businesses are only likely to fund those which will help with issues inside their organisational structures and governments will mostly focus funding on those that they believe will return with concrete policy proposals, especially if they believe that these are likely to fit their ideological goals. Practicalities  Other than the issues with attaining funding for proposed research there are several  practical factors that can influence if and how topics are researched for example the availability of previously produced data on the subject or the likelihood of being able to produce strong data. Durkheim for example undertook his study of suicide because there was a large amount of statistical data available on suicide from a variety of European countries. Issues that may affect whether data is easy to collect may include the subject group(s) of the study as certain groups in society may not wish to come under sociological scrutiny (this could include people involved in certain criminal activities or those at the top of society such as business owners or politicians) and there may be an issue with gaining access to certain locations where the target groups spend a lot of their time. Ethics in sociology  Even if a sociologist is able to deal with the numerous other considerations that go into choosing a research topic they may not decide to undertake the research if there isa risk of long time harm to the community or social group that they are intending to study or if their research would contravene ethical guidelines that have been laid down by organisations such as the British Sociological Association or the British Criminological Society, or those laid down by specific universities that they are funded by or doing the research on behalf of. Though these guidelines vary between organisations Israel and Hay identified some which are common to most organisationsincluding (1) informed consent from participants prior to research which involves the  participants being completely informed as to the intentions of the researchers and the methods that they are intending to employ so as to prevent researchers being able to  mislead participants in their study which if found out could lead to trust issues  between participants and researchers which adversely affect the data. This has  particular problems for those carrying out experiments of various sorts as it means that there is less chance of having full control of the variables involved, and it also threatens the validity of the research as people may act different from usual in the situations that are being studied as they are aware that their behaviour is being monitored, or they may respond differently to questions in interviews if they know what aspects of their answers are going to be taken into consideration. Further  problems for research that stem from the need to provide informed consent to all  participants is that it limits the likelihood of being able to study certain social groups adequately as they may not want to participate – this can range from those involved incriminal activities to people who self-harm or have other forms of mental health issues. While educational research can be made easier by obtaining consent from  parents rather than the children that are being directly studied the need for parental consent can make research into other groups of children such as homeless teenagers much harder as it is not easy to acquire.  Confidentiality is another common requirement of ethics because it may unlikely for those in certain social groups to consent to being interviewed without confidentiality  being guaranteed. For example people who are unlikely to agree to the research such as criminals may only be convinced to do so if they know that their privacy is guaranteed and that the details of their criminal activities will not be handed on to the government or police. While this may not be a large issue when it comes to victimless’ crime such as drug use with regards to more serious offences such as violent crime or indeed murder the maintenance of anonymity becomes more troublesome as there is more public and media attention devoted to these types of crimes so if the research records any details regarding the motivations or offences of for example murderers it may be possible to deduce the identity of some of those researched because the details of their crimes may have previously been made public.  While the previous two ethical considerations have the potential to be waived according to some researchers or as a result of certain circumstances one that is considered as absolute to all research is the need to prevent harm to those being studied and as a consequence to do good, the former principle being referred to as non-maleficence and the latter as beneficence. When it comes the non-maleficence however there is little dispute about its necessity across the spectrum of approaches. Researchers who have pursued alternative methodologies such as feminists and critical social scientists have been particularly dedicated to the latter, for example AnnOakley in her study of domestic labour became close to the women that she interviewed, occasionally helping out with housework and other tasks and indeed ended up remaining friends with some of those in her sample. While there is certainly a case to be made for the use of social science research in trying to alleviate the oppression suffered by some social groups one problem with pursuing beneficence is that severely restricts the topics that can be covered by those researchers, however many who do so would argue that the topics that they study have not had enough  focus on them from conventional researchers which itself warrants additional emphasis from critical researchers.  However due to the fact that there is a wide variety of research approaches that can beimplemented there has been some controversy over studies where the sociologists involved have taken different positions with regards to some ethics. One of those that can be looked at closely is Goode (1999, 2002) which was a study of members of the  National Association for the Advancement of Fat Americans where those who were studied only consented to being involved if he dated women who were in the organisation, one of whom ended up having his child. This raising questions about whether it is ethical for researchers to enter into sexual relationships with those studied and if so under what circumstances.  A clear example of a violation of non-maleficence is the El Dorado scandal in which the researchers not only refused to act to prevent a measles epidemic from infecting one of the tribes that were being studied but they also provided information to Brazilian mining companies and therefore they became actively complicit in the destruction of non-human animal habitats and environments that were vital to certain tribes.  One study that violated the ethics of informed consent included students being sent byresearchers to carry out covert observations within Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to try and establish if there was a clear relationship between social class, alcoholism and attempted rehabilitation.  One criticism of the increasing influence of ethics regulations is that by continually developing ever greater restrictions on what researchers can and cannot do it limits the ultimate scope of the social sciences as researchers are inevitably discouraged from undertaking studies into more sensitive issues.
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