Essay Writing Samples

Sociology and Anthropology: Research Methods

Different fields require different research methods, and this sample paper explores the differences in methodology between sociology and anthropology. This is an example of undergraduate writing in general and also presents some important points for anyone engaging in these fields of research. Though there are plenty of sources for finding this type of explanation, gathering the facts and organizing them in a logical pattern is a very common comparative essay assignment.

Sociology and anthropology research methods

Sociology and cultural anthropology are interrelated and overlapping yet separate and distinct academic disciplines. Previously, both disciplines would often be combined into a single academic department in universities. However, the two fields have become increasingly divergent from one another in more recent times. Similarly, both sociology and cultural anthropology often utilize similar methods to conduct primary research.

Yet the philosophical premises from which these methodologies proceed are somewhat different. It is interesting to compare and contrast the philosophical foundations of the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology and to examine how these theoretical differences impact the practical task of applying research methods.

Understanding the difference between sociology and anthropology

It is first necessary to formulate a proper definition of both sociology and cultural anthropology.


Sociology is normally regarded as the study of human behavior as it occurs in a social context. By extension, sociologists are concerned with the origin and development of human behavior within the framework of group dynamics, interpersonal interaction, and institutional relationships.

“Sociology is regarded as a science, rooted in positivist philosophical principles, where empirical methodology can be applied in a way that produces a better understanding of human social behavior, and the functions of human groups, organizations, and institutions” (Ashley & Orenstein, 2005).

Sociologists are concerned with such matters as systems of social organizations and social hierarchies, the origins and purposes of behavioral norms, and the role of society in shaping the behavior and personality of the individual. For example, sociologists would be more interested in how the society norms of nomadic settlers in the Middle East evolved. They wouldn’t be interested in the daily cultures as much as the big picture.


Cultural anthropology is a field of study that is derivative of the wider field of general anthropology and is to be contrasted with social anthropology. The principal area of concern to cultural anthropologists is the diversity to be found among human cultures. Greater weight is assigned to this variable among cultural anthropologists than among anthropologists generally. For example, anthropologists would be interested in the culture and history of the Philippines, while sociologists would focus more on how the culture evolved to that point.

Cultural anthropology emerged as a discipline in part as a reaction against older ideas in Western thought which tended to contrast human beings as they were thought to exist in a “state of nature,” versus “civilized” people who had developed culture as a process of their civilization.

During the era of classical European colonialism, many European scholars were able to engage in the direct observation of cultures previously regarded as “primitive,” and discovered that all human societies develop and maintain culture in some particular form. For instance, all cultures develop language, systems of social organization, and religion in the sense of differentiating between the sacred and profane or norms and taboos.

Common research techniques found among both fields

The fields of sociology and cultural anthropology both utilize similar research methods. As branches of social science, both fields are concerned with applying conventional principles of scientific investigation for the purpose of analyzing and investigating human social behavior in a vast array of contexts. However, sociology uses the experimental research methods and generally includes a greater role for such efforts as the accumulation of statistical data, and the pursuit of quantitative as well as qualitative research.

By contrast, cultural anthropology normally emphasizes research of an experiential or participatory nature. However, neither approach is exclusive to either of the two disciplines. Researchers in both fields will engage in both the gathering of quantitative data and in such practices as participant observation.

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Primary types of research conducted in sociology and anthropology

The two primary types of research in the field of sociology are quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative research

Quantitative research is data-driven and emphasizes such practices as the collection of statistical information and the conduction of experiments according to preconceived formulaic designs (Martin & Turner, 1986).

Qualitative research

Qualitative research involves research practices that more closely overlap with those of cultural anthropology. Among these are such methods as direct participant observation, examination of texts and artifacts, or interpersonal communication with individuals representing the social groups which are being studied.

Quantitative versus qualitative research

Sociologists differ among themselves concerning the question as to which form of conducting methodological research should be given the highest priority, and which approach is most relevant to the field. The majority of sociologists have normally assigned greater importance to quantitative rather than qualitative research.

The published writings of sociologists in academic journals and the content of the curriculum of sociology programs in universities reflect a general emphasis on quantitative research. Indeed, advanced training in the field of statistics is normally a significant part of the graduate level education of sociologists (Hunter & Leahey, 2008). The choices sociologists make concerning which type of research methods to use normally vary according to the specific nature of the research.

Sociologists: Quantitative versus qualitative research

A sociologist who wishes to develop a broad understanding of the general characteristics of a population will normally pursue quantitative research. For instance, a sociologist who wished to examine the attitudes of middle-aged people concerning such public controversies such as legalizing same-sex marriage would likely conduct a survey among a large and varied sample of persons between the ages of thirty-five and sixty.

An approach to research of this kind would be very helpful towards the task of gathering reliable data concerning the generalized beliefs and values of a particular age demographic, but the information that would be accumulated concerning the impact of such beliefs on the lives of individuals would be very limited.

However, a sociologist who wished to examine the impact of same-sex marriage on the lives of homosexual couples might well engage in research of a more qualitative nature. For example, a set of same-sex couples who are legally married might be chosen as the subjects of study, and the course of their lives and normal day-to-day interaction might be observed over a lengthy period of time.

A group of ten married same-sex couples might be observed over a period of fifteen years, and information would be gathered concerning which couples remained married, sought to adopt children or raised children from prior relationships, or the difficulties each couple faced pertaining to widely held negative attitudes towards their relationship in the wider culture.

Anthropologists: Quantitative versus qualitative research

The field of cultural anthropology normally assigns less importance to the role of statistical research and the accumulation of quantitative data than sociology. Indeed, this lack of emphasis on quantitative research originated in part as a movement in the field of anthropology against the research practices of nineteenth and early twentieth-century anthropologists. As mentioned, cultural anthropology began to grow as a field before the Industrial Revolution.

It was a time when Europeans were coming into ever closer proximity with the native or traditional cultures of many parts of the world. The diversity of these cultures, frequent intricacy of their forms of cultural organization, and the sophistication of their cultural institutions challenged the conventional cultural chauvinism of the Europeans (DeWalt, DeWalt, & Wayland, 1998).

Further, many anthropologists of the era were criticized as elite, aloof intellectuals who were too far removed from the subjects of their study, and who relied too heavily on second hand and often unreliable sources for their information. Consequently, cultural anthropologists began to develop new, more extensive and more reliable methods of studying diverse sets of cultural arrangements.


Cultural anthropology developed as newer generations of anthropologists began to apply such methods as direct participant observation in ways that were largely experiential in nature. Anthropologists would often spend time among the actual communities they were studying. They would become personally acquainted with individuals from these communities, examine their personal documents and artifacts, and engage in community life. Out of such efforts emerged the practice of “ethnography.”

This involves the study of particular groups of people in a specific environment, and during a particular period of time (Clifford & Marcus, 1986). This contrasts heavily with the practice of sociologists of gathering generalized information regarding large population samples utilizing quantitative methods. Out of the practice of ethnography developed the field of cross-cultural studies, which involves the comparison of ethnographic information gathered from different communities. Because of its reliance on the methods used by ethnographers, the cross-cultural studies pursued by cultural anthropologists continue to contrast with the general emphasis on the accumulation of quantitative data found among sociologists. Ultimately, both methods provide a rich resource for research paper writing, provided they are understood and properly applied.


Ashley, D. & Orenstein, D. (2005). Sociological theory: Classical statements (6th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson Education.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (1986). Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DeWalt, K., DeWalt, B., & Wayland, C. (1998). Participant observation. In H.R. Bernard (ed.) Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology.

Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press. Hunter, L., & Leahey, E. (2008). Collaborative research in sociology: Trends and contributing factors. American Sociologist 39 (4): 290–306.

Martin, P. & Turner, B. (1986). Grounded theory and organizational research. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 22(2): 141.

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