Sociology is the study of human social behavior. Sociologists use a combination of tools and methods to analyze people and society to better understand interpersonal relationships and social institutions. The use of sociology tools to produce social change is often called applied sociology, which involves using sociological tools and methods to address real-world research questions.

Questionnaires: Acquiring Information

A man filling out a survey in an auditorium.
A man filling out a survey in an auditorium.

A questionnaire is a list of questions to be answered by a participant. Questionnaires -- either written or oral -- are generally quick and easy to create, anonymous, standardized and can reach large groups of people. Questions can be open-ended, meaning the respondent answers freely in her own words, or closed-ended, which means the answer options are provided. However, this tool has some disadvantages: Questionnaire answers are typically more limited and therefore do not allow the researcher to analyze complex issues deeply, and it can be difficult to ensure participants understand the questions and actually return the questionnaires.

Observations: Watching People

A close-up of a man looking out a window.
A close-up of a man looking out a window.

Sociologists often collect data about society through observation. A sociologist might observe the everyday life of a group of people. He might become a member of a group he is studying to gain an intimate understanding of the group and particular individuals. Members of the group may or may not be aware he is studying them. Observation is an effective tool for studying interactions and relationships in depth. However, this tool can be more time consuming, as the sociologist may need to conduct observations over a long period. He is then likely to have lengthy notes to read through to find the answers to his research questions and develop theories.

Interviews: Asking for Insight

A close-up of a man taking notes during an interview.
A close-up of a man taking notes during an interview.

An interview is a tool used in sociology to gain information and insight from an individual. The researcher asks questions orally and records the answers. Interviews are typically conducted face to face or on the phone. Interviews used for sociological purposes are planned in advance and have a specific purpose. The sociologist analyzes the answers for meaning and also determines the reliability of the answers. However, interview answers may not always be valid, because participants may feel embarrassed about answering certain questions.

Experiments: Studying Effects

Close-up of woman taking notes at table.
Close-up of woman taking notes at table.

Experiments are used to collect specific information in a strategic way. Sociologists perform experiments to answer questions or study people's responses. An experiment usually involves an experimental group and control group. The individuals in the experimental group are exposed to something new, such as a specific diet, less sleep or a certain reward or punishment for a named behavior. The control group is not exposed to the same circumstances. The only difference between the groups must be the new circumstance being researched. For example, a sociologist could conduct an experiment about the effects of pre-bedtime television on sleep quality in preteens. One group would watch television before bed and the other group would not. Sociological experiments can help determine solutions for problems. However, the results may be less reliable, as experiments are forced and do not always unfold naturally.