Social research methods: Brief guide

Social research involves finding hard-to-reach participants, usually for public policy research.  This Social Research Methods: Brief Guide explains how recruitment is done for social research and the methods typically used for gathering insights and data.

Acumen is an award-winning market research agency that excels at finding hard-to-reach participants for all kinds of public policy and societal research. 

Our dedicated social research team combines years of experience with innovation and flexibility to meet our clients’ briefs and deliver beyond expectations.

If you’d like to talk to us about your social research and get a quote, get in touch by calling 0161 234 9940 or email


What is social research exactly?

Social research aims to learn more about people and societies so that products and services can be designed that cater to various needs of the people. 

Different socio-economic groups and people belonging to different regions think differently. Social research seeks to engage with different aspects of human behaviour and experience, to gain meaningful insights about the social world.

Any topic can trigger social research – new features of a brand, market trend changes or an upgrade in old technology. 

At Acumen social research work is often centred around the public sector – politics, public policy and experiences of public services – in addition to some private sector work.

The case study below provides an excellent example of social research methodology in action. 

It makes clear the challenges for fieldworkers in finding suitable participants. And it illustrates the right methods for recruitment, data gathering and analysis, and safeguarding.


Social research methods: case study

During the Coronavirus pandemic, our social research agency was asked to look into how the crisis was affecting and impacting certain communities differently. 

Specifically, our client wanted to find out more about the provision of public services for people on the margins of society. This case, which we call our Marginalised Vocies social research, gives a good understanding of social research methods in action.

Research design and participants

Our client required more than 200 participants from backgrounds as diverse as members of Traveller communities, the LGB community, transgender men and women, people with life-limiting conditions, and victims of sex trafficking.

Desired outcome

The aim of the research was to gain a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by people who identified as belonging to marginalised communities when accessing public services.

Read the case study: Marginalised Voices.


Traditional fieldwork methods

Finding research participants like the ones described above can call for fieldworkers to work like detectives. 

Once we’ve identified suitable people, getting them to take part in the social research calls for a different set of skills beyond traditional fieldwork. Specifically, social research fieldworkers require good persuasion and communication skills as well as sensitivity to individual needs.

Database and social media

Acumen has a huge database of opt-in market research participants and a well-established social media presence. It’s one of the pillars of our success as a market research company. 

However, even this wasn’t enough to identify the 200-plus marginalised voices our client needed for the Marginalised Voices research.

A new, flexible approach

So Acumen’s social research team went further, developing a new set of contacts, researching extensively and making changes to our screening style. Below we give a step by step guide of how our team recruited participants for this challenging social research brief.


New methods for social research recruitment

Grassroots engagement

For the Marginalised Voices project, we sought out community members and grass-roots campaigners to help with recruitment among wary asylum-seekers and trafficking victims. 

We sourced elderly and homeless groups mostly through family members, providing IT assistance and training when needed to ensure they were able to take part. 

Sensitive and thoughtful screening

To ensure transgender participants and victims of sexual harassment were included in the study, we screened respectfully, using indirect and conversational style questions.

Building rapport with participants

To persuade participants to take part, we used a combination of online outreach, long telephone discussions and sharing information on the goals of this important initiative. 

Building rapport and trust is an essential part of the recruitment in social research projects and it’s one of the most important methods to get right to ensure a successful outcome.


Recruitment outcome summary

Through our perseverance, fully flexible approach and innovative thinking, we were able to provide views and experiences of people who are often stigmatised, marginalised or otherwise underrepresented in market research.

This is one of the rewards of conducting social research – the insight and data gained has an impact on society that can lead to positive changes.

Acumen was nominated for an industry award for our work on this social research project. You can read more about our Marginalised Voices research project and more of our case studies here.


Qualitative and quantitative methods

As a result of our fieldwork, our client held online focus groups and gathered feedback from hundreds of people from diverse communities about their experiences during the pandemic.

Focus groups are an excellent qualitative method commonly used in social research. Here are examples of all the data-gathering methods we can bring to social research projects.

Qualitative research methods

  • Focus groups
  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Workshops
  • Participant and stakeholder events

You can read more about all our qualitative research services here.

Quantitative research methods

  • Online surveys and questionnaires
  • User testing
  • Hall testing
  • Exit interviews

Read more about our quantitative research methods here

Additional methods: Screening and safeguarding

Careful screening is an important part of social research, and valuable information and knowledge can be gained at this stage, if the individual goes on to take part in the project.

In addition, we were keenly aware of our safeguarding responsibilities during our Marginalised Voices project. We created a policy on how to respond to disclosures of harm or trauma from some of the most vulnerable participants in the study. This is just one example of how our social research team goes beyond the brief to deliver valuable and thoughtful outcomes.

Why choose Acumen for social policy research?

Now that you understand the methods used in social research, perhaps you’re considered how to take your research further. A key is finding the right social research company to partner with.

Trust the experts at Acumen

Acumen’s social research specialists have over 15 years’ collective experience in fieldwork. From the moment we receive an inquiry through to our regular updates at every stage of the project, we offer unparalleled expertise.

Proven track record in fieldwork

We have a proven track record of finding participants who match even the most niche requirements, using the outstanding fieldwork methods and resources at our disposal.

We’ve won several awards for our work and excel at face-to-face data gathering.

Industry leaders in quality

As an agency, Acumen is committed to rigorous quality standards. We are members of a number of organisations which ensure we always deliver work to the highest standards. 

Our exclusive Acumonitor system – only available to our clients – screens for fresh and authentic participants.

Outstanding client care

Our in-house data analysts work alongside our fieldworkers, collaborating every step of the way. This gives our clients the superior results you can only achieve from combining these two disciplines throughout each stage of the project.

Our clients include nationally recognised brands and research agencies. We aim to create long-lasting partnerships, growing with you on every project. 


Work with our research agency

If you’d like to work with us on your social research project, or find out more about the work we do, please get in touch with our Social Research Team:

Call 0161 234 9940 or email
Or use our online CONTACT FORM.