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Sociology for AQA Revision Guide 1

AS and 1st-Year A Level




This revision guide, based on examiners’ advice and Ken Browne’s Sociology for AQA Volume 1: AS and 1st-year A level (Polity 2015), covers the AS examination and the first year of A level. The subject content aims to provide a quick overall summary for final revision, and assumes you know and can apply much of the material in the accompanying textbook – page references are included to help you find the relevant sections.

The subject content of the first year of the AQA A level specification is identical to the AS, but this is examined at the end of the second year, and the exam papers have some different types of questions, and contain additional Theory and Methods and Topics in Sociology material which is covered in Browne, Blundell and Law’s Sociology for AQA Volume 2: 2nd-year A level (Polity 2016). This is covered in an accompanying revision guide designed for the second year of the A level.


Note: This chapter covers the AS level exams only. Details of the A level exam are covered in chapter 1, ‘Preparing for the Exam and Answering Questions’, of Ken Browne’s Sociology for AQA Revision Guide 2 which, together with this book, provides the complete revision guide for both years of A level Sociology.

About the AS level exam

Two exam papers. Each worth 60 marks and each 1 hour 30 minutes. All questions are compulsory – no choice

Paper 1: Education and Methods in Context

Paper 2: Research Methods and Topics in Sociology

Education: 40 marks

Two 2-mark questions:

Define the term . . . (2 marks)

Using one example, briefly explain . . . (2 marks)

One 6-mark question:

Outline three . . . (6 marks)

One 10-mark question:

Outline and explain two . . . (10 marks)

One 20-mark extended essay, linked to an item: Applying material from Item A and your knowledge, evaluate . . . (20 marks)

Methods in Context: 20 marks

One 20-mark extended essay, linked to an item, on applying a particular research method to a particular educational context/situation:

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using (a research method) to investigate (an issue in education) (20 marks)

Section A Research Methods: 20 marks

One 4-mark question:

Outline two . . . (4 marks)

One 16-mark essay question:

Evaluate . . . (the problems, etc.) (16 marks)

Section B Topics in Sociology: 40 marks

Choose ONE from Culture and Identity; Families and Households; Health; Work, Poverty and Welfare. Two 2-mark questions:

Define the term . . . (2 marks)

Using one example, briefly explain . . . (2 marks)

One 6-mark question:

Outline three . . . (reasons/ways etc.) (6 marks)

One 10-mark question:

Outline and explain two . . . (reasons/ways etc.) (10 marks)

One 20-mark extended essay, linked to an item: Applying material from Item A and your knowledge, evaluate . . . (20 marks)

What will you be examined on?

At AS Sociology, you are assessed on three main objectives:

AO1: Knowledge and understanding (46% of the marks)

This involves demonstrating what you actually know – your knowledge and understanding of sociological theories, concepts, key terms and evidence, and of the range of research methods and sources of information used by sociologists, and the practical, ethical and theoretical issues arising in sociological research.

AO2: Application (31% of the marks)

This involves applying sociological theories, concepts, evidence and research methods to the issues raised in the exam question. You must show how the material – the sociologists, theories, research methods and examples you use – are relevant (applied) to the question being asked.

AO3: Analysis and evaluation (23% of the marks)

Analysis means being able to explain the issue or point that is being raised in the question, such as being able to recognise sociologically significant information. Evaluation involves making critical points, such as the strengths and weaknesses of sociological theories and evidence, presenting arguments, making judgements and reaching conclusions based on the arguments and evidence for and against a view or statement presented in the question.

How to answer 2-mark questions

These questions take two forms:

  1. Define . . . You must explain the meaning of a key term or concept.
  2. Using one example, briefly explain . . . You must explain the issue asked about, and use a relevant and clearly explained example to illustrate the point.

Example 1

Q. Define the term ‘divorce rate’. (2 marks)

A. The divorce rate refers to the number of people getting divorced [1 mark, partially correct] per 1000 married people in the population each year. [+1 mark for full definition] (2 marks awarded)

Example 2

Q. Using one example, briefly explain why some schools may try to select the pupils who attend their schools. (2 marks)

A. They might want to select their pupils so they can get good exam results for a high position in the school league tables [1 mark for identifying reason], for example by selecting only the brightest and most well-behaved middle class pupils who are most likely to work hard and get good results. [+1 mark for example which explains reason for selection] (2 marks awarded)

How to answer 4- and 6-mark questions

These questions take the form:

Outline two/three . . . (ways/factors/reasons/advantages/differences, etc.).

Example of a top-mark answer

Q. Outline three reasons why girls generally achieve more highly in education than boys.

A. Firstly, girls tend to mature more quickly than boys. [1 mark for identifying maturity] This means they are more likely to recognise the importance of success in exams at school, and so they work harder which results in better results than boys. [+1 mark for explaining link to question – higher achievement of girls] (2 marks awarded)

Secondly, girls’ peer groups are more likely to be pro-school. [1 mark for peer group support] This means girls are encouraged by their female friends to cooperate with teachers and not be disruptive like a lot of boys, and so they are more likely to do better in school work. [+1 mark for explaining link to achievement] (2 marks awarded)

Thirdly, teachers often have higher expectations of girls than boys. [1 mark for teacher expectations] These higher expectations could create a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging girls to perform better and therefore they achieve more than boys. [+1 mark for linking self-fulfilling prophecy to higher achievement] (2 marks awarded)

How to answer 10-mark questions

These questions take two forms:

  1. Outline and explain two . . . (ways/factors/reasons/advantages/differences, etc.) These appear on both AS and A level papers
  2. Applying material from the Item, analyse two . . .These questions appear only on A level papers and will not be considered here, but in the 2nd year A level revision guide.

You should spend about 15 minutes on these questions, writing about 1-1½ pages / 400 words. There is no need for an introduction, conclusion or evaluation, and no marks will be awarded for these.

Answer these questions using this PEL formula:

Point – what are the issues the question raises? State your first reason.

Explain in more detail how your reason links to the question, and explains it. Give evidence from research studies or examples to back up / illustrate your explanation.

Link your point back to the question . . . e.g., This shows . . . A useful device is to refer back to the wording of the question.


Example of a top-band answer

Q. Outline and explain two cultural factors that may contribute to the poorer educational progress of some social groups in schools. (10 marks)

A. Cultural factors are things like the values, attitudes, language, and level of parents’ education which are found in the home and social class or ethnic background of pupils. These cultural factors can affect how much progress some pupils make at school.

[Examiner comment: Good identification of cultural factors, and identifies some social groups as referred to in the question]

The first cultural factor that may affect progress is the attitudes and values of parents about education. If parents weren’t very successful themselves at school, and lack educational qualifications, they may not value education much. Children may then be socialised in their homes in a way that doesn’t see education as very important and they may lack ambition to be successful. This may mean they don’t make much progress at school. For example, in middle class homes education is likely to have been important for their parents jobs, and they therefore may encourage their children to work hard at school and make sure they do their homework, and their education means they can help them with schoolwork and encourage them to get qualifications. They are also more likely to visit the school and complain if their children aren’t doing as well as they think they should be. Some working class homes may lack this encouragement and support at school, and the education to help their children, and so they make less progress at school.

[Examiner comment: Well-developed and explained cultural factor (attitudes and values) linked clearly to issue of progress at school and social group (social class)]

A second cultural factor that may affect progress at school is language. Language is very important in school, for reading, writing answers and doing exams, and discussing and explaining things. Bernstein said that working class people use mainly the restricted code of language, which is the sort of simple everyday language used between friends. Schoolwork involves an elaborated code, which is the sort of language used in textbooks, and by teachers when they explain things in lessons. It is used to write essays and needed in exam answers. Bernstein said that middle class homes are more likely to use the same elaborated code used at school, and so children from middle class homes have a better start at school. This cultural difference in language means working class children might struggle a bit to understand teachers and textbooks, write essays and exam answers so make less progress than middle class pupils. Some ethnic minority children may also make poorer educational progress if English is not the main language used at home.

[Examiner comment: Well-developed second cultural factor (language), again linked clearly to issue of progress at school and social groups (social class and ethnicity)]

(Marks awarded: 10/10)

How to get top marks in the 16-mark question

This appears only on AS Paper 2 in relation to research methods, and takes the form: Evaluate . . . (the problems, etc.) (16 marks)

You should spend about 20–25 minutes on this question, writing about 2–2½ pages / 600 words.

Answer this question by first briefly describing the research method, and identifying any general problems. Then divide your answer into three sections using the PET formula:

P – Practical issues of using the method, for example costs, time, ease of getting a suitable sample to use that method, and whether the researcher has the personal skills and characteristics (gender, age, ethnicity, dress, language, etc.) necessary to use the method successfully.

E – Ethical issues, like whether using the method may have any harmful consequences, whether it enables participants to give their consent, and to protect their privacy.

T – Theoretical issues, such as validity, reliability, representativeness/generalisability of findings using the method, and use of quantitative or qualitative data linked to positivist or interpretivist sociology.

Then, apply the PEEL formula to each section. For example, for the Practical section:

Point(s) – Identify the practical issues / advantages / problems, etc., with using/applying the method. Explain – Describe in more detail what these practical issues are, and provide evidence in the form of research or examples, ensuring you link them to the method.

Evaluate – Consider any practical strengths or weaknesses/problems (depending on whether the question is asking you about strengths or problems), showing that there may be not just problems, and also possible ways any practical problems might be overcome.

Link – Tie your points back to the research method and reach a brief overall conclusion . . . e.g. This shows . . . A useful device is to refer back to the wording of the question.

Example of a top-band answer

Q. Evaluate the advantages of using participant observation in sociological research. (16 marks)

A. Participant observation is an interpretivist method which involves observing a group over a period of time by participating in it. The researcher may adopt an overt role, where they’re open and honest about what they’re doing. Or they might adopt a covert role, where they conceal that they’re a researcher.

[Examiner comment: Good opening para. identifying key features and theoretical basis of PO]

Some practical advantages of PO are that researchers can gain access to groups like gypsies or criminal gangs who don’t trust outsiders, but might learn to trust a participant observer. Such groups are less likely to hide things from a trusted participant observer, as Venkatesh found when he did PO in a crack dealing gang. PO can find things out that more positivist methods, like questionnaires and interviews, wouldn’t be able to as they’ve already decided what they wanted to ask questions about. By participating, researchers can get inside people’s heads and see the world like members of the group in a way they’d never get by dishing out questionnaires or doing interviews. Another advantage of PO is that the researcher doesn’t have to depend on people’s honesty in answering questions, as they can see for themselves what’s going on.

Another advantage is that PO studies people in their normal everyday life over a long period of time, but this means that it takes a long time and costs a lot. Adopting a covert role has the advantage that people won’t change their normal behaviour, so information is more valid. This would avoid the Hawthorne effect, where being observed changes behaviour giving invalid results.

An overt role might risk changing people’s behaviour, but this might be overcome as the researcher becomes more accepted. An overt role also has the advantage that it might help the researcher avoid getting involved in illegal or violent behaviour, as a group like Venkatesh’s crack-dealing gang was more willing to spare him knowing he was a researcher. An overt role also reduces personal risks to the researcher if a covert role was accidentally discovered, and the group decided to punish them for deceiving them.

[Examiner comment: A good range of practical advantages, with recognition of problems of overt v covert roles, and how they might be overcome, and advantages over positivist methods. Good level of understanding, explanation, analysis and evaluation, and appropriate material linked/applied to the question]

An ethical advantage of PO is when an overt role is adopted, because the group have given their informed consent by accepting the researcher into the group. This means the researcher gets all the practical advantages of the method, like insights into the group, but because members know what they’re doing, they avoid the deception of a covert role. The deception involved in a covert role has practical and theoretical advantages, but doesn’t allow for informed consent. The researcher might overcome this by respecting the group’s privacy and avoid harming them by keeping their identity secret, and could eventually come clean, share the research with the group and get their agreement before publishing it, as Parker did in his covert PO of a teenage gang. It was Patrick’s unethical failure to do this in his covert research on a Glasgow gang that led to threats to his personal safety after the gang discovered who he was when his research was published.

[Examiner comment: Shows good understanding of ethical issues, and some evaluation/analysis of how ethical issues might be overcome to retain practical and theoretical advantages of the method. Material and research applied accurately to the question]

Theoretical advantages of PO are that it produces qualitative data which interpretivists say give more valid information than positivist methods like questionnaires or interviews because they see the world from the group’s point of view, rather than imposing questions on them like questionnaires do. Whyte found that using PO meant he got answers to questions that he wouldn’t even have thought of asking if doing interviews.

Interpretivists see a range of advantages to PO producing more valid qualitative data, and ethical problems can be overcome. But positivists reject the validity of the information obtained, as it depends on the researcher’s interpretations about what is going on. They also don’t see it as reliable, as findings are hard to check and repeat, because they depend so much on the researcher’s personal characteristics.

[Examiner comment: Theoretical advantages well understood and applied accurately to the question, with good evaluative points on validity and reliability]

How to get top marks in the 20-mark questions

These questions appear in both AS Papers 1 and 2 and take the form:

Applying material from Item [A] and your knowledge, evaluate . . . (the problems / the view / the advantages / the disadvantages, etc.) (20 marks)

You should spend about 30 minutes on these questions, writing about 2–3 pages / 600–750 words.

Write a brief introduction identifying the issues/concepts/ideas/views shown in the item (‘As Item [A] suggests . . .)’, then organise your answer using the PEEL formula again:

Point(s) – Identify the issue/concept/idea/research you’re raising (linked to the information in the Item).

Explain – Describe in more detail, referring to evidence from research or examples, and drawing on material in the Item and your own knowledge gained during your course.

Evaluate – Consider any strengths / weaknesses / alternative views to that shown in the Item, and to the points you raise from your own knowledge.

Link – Tie your points back to the Item, e.g. ‘This shows the view in Item A is mistaken.’ Refer back to the wording of the question.

Example of a top-band answer

Q. Read Item B below and answer the question that follows.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge, evaluate the view that contemporary families have become partnerships of equals. (20 marks)

A. As Item B states, families are said to be less patriarchal, with more equal integrated conjugal roles in what Willmott and Young called symmetrical families. This is a change from the segregated roles found in Parsons functionalist view of the traditional family, where the domestic division of labour meant women did the expressive nurturing role of looking after children and the home, while men played the instrumental breadwinner role, and was in charge of family finances and all the important decisions.

This change was because, as Bott suggested, social and geographical mobility led to to weaker links between extended kin and looser friendships, which reduced the pressure on couples to retain traditional segregated roles. The most important reason was the improved status of women, and more women in paid employment. Having their own incomes made them less financially dependent on husbands, and increased their decision-making power in the family. The rise of feminism and the women’s movement, as well as their paid employment, encouraged women to be more assertive in demanding men do more housework and childcare. The commercialisation of housework and childcare e.g. ready-made foods, cleaning services and nurseries for young children, meant there was less to do, particularly in middle class couples who can easily afford to pay, so encouraging men to do more. Postmodernists suggest people aren’t so hung up about gender identities now, so aren’t so bothered about becoming ‘new men’ taking on jobs in the home traditionally seen as women’s work.

In modern symmetrical families, both partners should equally share the expressive and instrumental roles e.g. both doing housework, childcare, earning money and sharing decision making. However, feminists reject the view that the family is now symmetrical, and see most families as patriarchal. Oakley said that even in Young and Willmott’s research there wasn’t much evidence of husbands having high participation in housework. Surveys show that women still do most of the housework and childcare, even when they have full-time paid jobs. Bolton says men only help with housework and the pleasurable bits of childcare, and she says it’s important to look at who takes responsibility rather than just who does what job, and points out women both do more and take on the main responsibility.

Feminists argue women going out to work has created more inequality not less, because women now have the dual burden of paid work and unpaid domestic labour. Duncombe and Marsden say women now have a triple shift of paid work, domestic labour and emotional work, like dealing with upset children, which mainly women do.

Women’s domestic role disadvantages their careers e.g. childcare responsibilities mean they might have to work part time, or take time off for sick children. Employers often see women with children (but not men) as unreliable because of this, and so don’t promote them. Men therefore earn more than women, which gives men more power in the home. Edgell found men still have the final say in important decisions and control over resources, like moving house or spending larger amounts of money, and women’s decision-making is limited to less important things like the choice of food or children’s clothes.

Official statistics show it is mainly women who are on the receiving end of the most serious domestic violence, which is mostly committed by men. Feminists like Dobash and Dobash see domestic violence as evidence of power inequality, as it is about men controlling women, and is often set off when men think women challenge their authority in some way, though this doesn’t explain domestic violence by women against men.

There is some evidence of more equality in money matters. Pahl found more couples have some independence like their own bank accounts, and were pooling money and jointly responsible for household spending. This was more likely among younger couples who were both working full-time and didn’t have children, but declined for other couples.

Young people might be gradually adopting more equal roles as they adapt to the changes given earlier, and this might also be found in gay couples where gender roles may be less significant. The diversity of families and the difference experiences couples have in families makes it hard to generalise about all families today. However, the evidence on inequalities in housework and childcare, decision-making, power relations and the greater earning power of men suggest that the view in Item B that modern families are partnerships of equals is incorrect.

[Examiner’s comments: This is a very good answer, covering a range of appropriate points applied to the question. It shows that a partnership of equals is not just about housework and childcare, but also about power and control, including decision-making, control of resources, who takes responsibility and domestic violence as a form of control. It provides some good analysis of the reasons why the changes Item B identifies came about, and provides some good evaluation of these, e.g. feminist criticisms; how women’s position in the home ((dual burden/triple shift) can weaken women’s position in paid employment, which links back to more family inequality (men earn more).

There is good use of appropriate concepts, and theories are used accurately – functionalism, postmodernism, feminism, expressive and instrumental roles, domestic division of labour, domestic labour, segregated and integrated roles, patriarchy, dual burden and triple shift.

There is an appropriate conclusion linking back to the question, which recognises the difficulties in making generalisations in the context of family diversity.]

How to get top marks in the Methods-in-Context question

This question appears on Paper 1 of the AS level exams.

This takes the following form:

Applying material from Item B [Item C at A level] and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using (a research method) to investigate (an issue in education). (20 marks)

You should spend about 30 minutes on this question, writing about 2–3 pages / 600–750 words. There are three crucial things to remember to get top marks in this question:

  1. You MUST apply/use material referred to in the Item – ideally use words like ‘As shown in Item B . . .’, as well as using your own knowledge.
  2. You MUST link ALL your points to the specific educational context and educational issue the Item refers to, e.g. the particular research setting (school, home, classroom, etc.) and the particular characteristics of those involved (age, gender, ethnicity, professional role of teachers, language ability, etc.) which may lead to particular strengths or weaknesses in using the particular method.
  3. You should draw on your own knowledge of research methods, and not rely only on the information in the Item.

You can use P.E.R.V.E.R.T. to help you remember the points you might make, and the PEEL formula discussed earlier to organise your essay.


Practical issues (strengths/limitations) with using the method to research the particular educational issue with the particular groups of people in the particular educational setting.

Ethical issues arising from use of the method with particular groups of people in the particular educational setting.

Reliability of the information collected – could it be replicated?

Validity of the information obtained – will it provide true information given the issue being researched and the people involved?

Examples from research or your own understanding to illustrate the points you’re making. Representativeness of the information – could the findings based on the educational setting using the method be generalised to all similar settings?

Theoretical issues – such as positivist or interpretivist views of using the method to investigate the particular issue.

Example of a top-band answer

Q. Read Item B below and answer the question that follows.

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using self-completion written questionnaires to investigate parents’ attitudes to education. (20 marks)

A. As Item B suggests, parents’ attitudes to education can be a sensitive issue, as there is a lot of blame and stigma attached to parents who don’t show much interest or support for their child’s education. Some parents may not think they’re involved enough or care enough about their children’s education, so they might try to conceal it by not answering questions honestly, particularly in interviews, as Item B points out. This means research risks not producing valid results. Self-completion questionnaires might be able to overcome this problem, as they can be answered anonymously, which avoids the ethical problem of parents being harmed and stigmatised, and there is no interviewer there who might intimidate people from answering truthfully. Self-completion questionnaires completed in the privacy of their own homes will allow parents the chance to explain their attitudes to education if the questionnaire has some open-ended questions to make this possible.

Positivists prefer self-completion questionnaires because of this, as researchers are detached and not involved with the parents, avoiding things like interviewer bias. They also produce more objective quantitative data. This means it is possible to compare the results from different parents e.g. to see if the attitudes to education of middle class and working class parents or of ethnic groups are different. Comparisons like this should be relatively easy, as all parents will be answering the same questions, and the statistics should be easy to classify. As parents will be answering the same questions, the results should also be reliable, which means other researchers can repeat the survey themselves to check the findings. Even if parents’ think their attitudes to education are a private matter, they may not feel under pressure to answer a self-completion questionnaire as they might in an interview. They can choose to do it or not, so ethical problems are avoided as they have the opportunity to give their informed consent.

Another strength is that a questionnaire can be distributed easily and quickly to a large number of parents, and their names for a sampling frame would be easily available from schools, though parents would have to give their consent before the school provided them. Self-completion questionnaires are a cheap method, so a large sample of parents can be obtained producing representative results which means generalisations can be made and any patterns or trends identified.

A limitation of self-completion written questionnaires is that some poor parents or those from ethnic minorities may have literacy problems, or poor education, so may not understand the questions, or be able to write answers or their answers may not be very clear to researchers. As Item B suggests, self-completion questionnaires often have low response rates. Some parents may not want to take part because they feel guilty about not supporting their children more, or have a negative attitude to education as a result of their own experiences at school. They may not reply because of literacy issues or because they don’t want others to know what their attitudes to education are because they think it’s a private family matter. Parents who do complete the questionnaires may be those who show a real interest and involvement in their children’s education e.g. well-educated middle class rather than poorly educated working class parents. This means the results would be biased, invalid and unrepresentative. Interpretivists would say that questionnaires impose questions on parents, and statistics are fairly superficial and may not get at what parents really think, especially in structured questionnaires, as they don’t allow parents to say things in their own way e.g. some parents may have a very positive attitude to education in ways that the questionnaire doesn’t cover. This would make the results invalid and misleading. Statistical results may also not help much in explaining the differences in parents attitudes, but only describe them, though they might provide useful data to produce new hypotheses on parents’ attitudes to education to test in further research, or to investigate using other methods like unstructured interviews to really get at what parents’ attitudes are. If the questionnaires are distributed from the school, parents might think their individual answers will be seen by the school, especially if anonymity isn’t guaranteed, and threaten their children’s education or result in labelling of their children by teachers as having inadequate parents, which means parents might not return them, or tell the truth, and instead give answers they think the school would like to see. This would result in untruthful invalid results.

[Examiner comment: Overall, this answer shows a good understanding of a range of practical, ethical and theoretical strengths and limitations of self-completion written questionnaires. These are applied accurately to the specific issue of parents’ attitudes to education, and evaluation is explicit and relevant. There is use of and reference to Item B. It includes a range of research characteristics of parents, and the sensitivity of the research issue is addressed in a number of places. There are enough points to make this a top-band answer.]