Research Methods in Social Psychology: A Comparative Analysis

Vlad-Petre Glăveanu
EJOP Editor


Research in social psychology would be inconceivable today without the use of questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. This essay will briefly present all three methods and compare their characteristics through an analysis of their importance for stereotype, identity and social representations research.

Both questionnaires and interviews / focus groups help researchers gather verbal data and all start from the same key-element: questions. This aspect is most obvious in the case of questionnaires that may resemble a “simple” set of questions. Nevertheless, the hardest task for researchers is to establish the right questions, formulate and then order them. Questionnaires need also to be completed by participants with certain characteristics in either a self-administered or staff-administered manner (Babbie, 1998) although it is quite common to have a combination of the two where research staff offer questionnaire for completion to a large number of subjects, inform them about the testing and assist them only if necessary.
If questionnaires, due to their structured nature, have come to symbolize (along with tests and experiments) the quantitative approach, interviews are often central to qualitative studies and involve a more or less guided dialogue between an interviewer and interviewee (where, unlike usual discussions, the roles of the two remain stable). The most common forms are dilemma-interviews, clinical and biographical interviews (Hopf, 2004). But, despite this apparent antagonism questionnaires and interviews “glide” into one another quite frequently. Not all interviews are qualitative and nondirective. In fact, the schedule-structure interview (Frankfort and Nachmias, 2000) is noting more than face to face application of a questionnaire. In their turn, questionnaires can include many open-ended questions that invite respondents to express their views in a completely unstandardized way.
In the last decades the use of group interviews has been generalised well beyond its “traditional” areas of group dynamics, persuasive communication, and mass media (Stewart and Shamdasani, 1990). Methodological developments have perfected focus groups as a method in its own right and not simply interviews applied in a group context. The name indicates how crucial it is for moderators to focus the group discussion on one specific topic of interest and stimulate members’ interactions (not their agreement). Although within a focus group it is not uncommon for participants to complete / score certain scales, most data is idiosyncratic in nature and thus challenging to interpret and summarize.
In order to understand the exact particularities, advantages and limitations of these three methods in a comparative manner it is best to take classic themes of study in social sciences as examples. In this case let us focus on the following three related topics – stereotypes, identity and social representations – standing at the heart of social psychology research.
The study of stereotypes has traditionally been performed by designing questionnaires that solicit attribute generation and/or evaluation. One of the first benefits of using surveys was the capacity to collect data from large samples, ensure confidentiality and obtain quantitative responses that are easy to statistically test. Despite these obvious benefits, many researchers started to doubt the capacity or willingness of respondents to “objectify” their stereotypes and more indirect approaches have been elaborated (e.g. Gaertner and McLaughlin, 1983). Such methods, largely based on cognitive and physiological principles, are also contested for failing to reveal social and motivational aspects in the elaboration and functioning of stereotypes. Interviews could be one solution for overcoming these shortcomings and generally allowing a more in-depth analysis of this phenomenon. In this case though a limited number of subjects can be studied and there is always the risk of participants distorting their beliefs due to self-presentation biases. In what concerns focus groups, they wouldn’t be particularly appropriate if the discussion is centred on personal stereotypes but can prove to be useful in investigating how respondents understand and approach cultural stereotypes.
Research on identity, unless following an experimental design, has employed primarily a qualitative approach and the use of interviews. In this case the claimed “incapacity” of questionnaires to offer any valuable phenomenological insight and their standardized nature led to lesser usage. However, as argued before, questionnaires can include open-ended questions and seem to be particularly fit to assess aspects like self-esteem (although rarely to explain it). It is through interviews that social psychologists commonly address the problem of identity. Recognized as representative for a “thematic, topic-centred, biographical and narrative approach” (Mason, 2002), interviews allow respondents the necessary freedom to explore and express their self-identity. Acknowledging the fact that identities are socially constructed and dependent on social interaction allows focus groups to be used almost to the same extent as individual interviews. Focus group research on identity (Howarth, 2002) has been helpful in observing how identities are generated, played out and transformed at the level of the community.
Finally, the social representations theory, that tried to surpass a rather individualistic view on stereotypes and identity and to “recover the social”, nowadays relies extensively on interviews and focus groups as means of investigation. Although the capacity of these methods to explore both the individual and group level dynamics of representations is undeniable, many traditional studies in the field, especially those following a structural approach, used questionnaires and data that were straightforwardly quantified. Maybe the peak accomplishment in this regard is that of Guimelli and Rouquette (1992), who turned their model of basic cognitive schemes into 28 questions. Again questionnaires have proved to be very effective in collecting clear-cut responses and organizing them according to research purposes.
In concluding, questionnaires, interviews and focus groups all have their special strengths and limitations. In order to surpass the disadvantages two basic recommendations can be formulated. The first is to consider the nature of the research topic and to make an informed and careful selection of method(s). Second, to use whenever possible multiple methods in order to increase the chances of obtaining more types of data and a larger range of perspectives. Nevertheless, this method triangulation should be thought of strategically and not just eclectically (Mason, 2002) and always in relation to the particular research objectives.

Babbie, E. (1998). The Practice of Social Research, eighth edition. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Frankfort-Nachmias, C. & Nachmias, D. (2000). Research Methods in the Social Sciences, sixth edition. New York: Worth Publishers.
Gaertner, S.L. & McLaughlin, J.P. (1983). Racial stereotypes: Association and ascriptions of positive and negative characteristics. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, pp.23-30.
Guimelli, C. & Rouquette, M.L. (1992). Contribution du modèle associatif des schèmes cognitifs de base a l’analyse structurale des représentations sociales. Bulletin de psychologie, 405, pp. 43-48.
Hopf, C. (2004). Qualitative Interviews: An Overview. In U. Flick, E. Kardoff and I. Steinke (eds.), A Companion to Qualitative Research. London: Sage, pp. 203-208.
Howarth, C. (2002). Identity in Whose Eyes? The Role of Representations in Identity Construction. Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour, 32(2), pp. 145-162.
Mason, J. (2002). Qualitative Researching, second edition. London: Sage.
Stewart, D. & Shamdasani, P. (1990). Focus Groups: Theory and Practice. Newbury Park: Sage.

Biographical Note
The author has graduated from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Bucharest, and is currently an MSc student in Social and Cultural Psychology at the London School of Economics. His main interests are in: creativity, social representations, social and developmental psychology, qualitative methods.