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Sociology Revision - Methodology, Positivism and Interpretivism

Jim Riley

28th April 2010

The last sections of our material on methods. The sections on positivism and interpretivism can be used to help you tackle the question of whether sociology is a science. It’s not a complete answer, but it does a lot of the work needed to get you there.

After that you will see a section on three vital concepts. If you know these well you can use them on a variety of questions - although that isn’t an invitation to keep repeating material. I don’t mean ‘know’, I mean ‘understand’. An understanding of validity, reliability, and representativeness can be applied to questions throughout the exam paper.


Positivism and Interpretivism

Positivism is the view that sociology can and should use the methods of the natural sciences, (e.g. physics and chemistry). That doesn’t usually mean using experiments because there are all sorts of ethical problems with doing that, but positivists do believe that sociologists should use quantitative methods and aim to identify and measure social structures. The classical example would be Durkheim’s study of suicide.

Anti-positivists, or interpretivists, argue the opposite. They take the view that since human beings think and reflect, scientific methods are inappropriate for the study of society. Unlike objects in nature, human beings can change their behaviour if they know they are being observed. So interpretivists argue that if we want to understand social action, we have to delve into the reasons and meanings which that action has for people. Take the example of crime. A positivist would argue that researchers can simply measure crime using quantitative methods and identify patterns and correlations. An interpretivist would argue that sociologists need to understand what people mean by crime, how they come to categorize certain actions as ‘criminal’ and then investigate who comes to be seen as criminal in a particular society.

These views thus reflect the main positions in a debate – now rather old – about whether sociology can or should be scientific. More recently, many sociologists avoid these polarised positions and adhere to what is called ‘realism’. Realists acknowledge that scientific methods are not foolproof (e.g. see Kuhn) and agree that humans are reflective. However, they would say that this doesn’t mean that either set of methods, positivist or interpretivist, have to be ditched. Realists argue that sociologists can be pragmatic and use whatever methods are appropriate for particular circumstances. Social reality is complex and to study it, sociologists can draw on both positivist and interpretivist methods.

Three Key Concepts

Reliability, Validity, and Representativeness

These are vital concepts, so learn them and get them right! Warning – they are easily confused, so you need to concentrate carefully.

Representativeness – is the research showing us what is typical? Can we make generalisations from it? A study of a group of girls from one town in the UK which found that they did better than boys in secondary school, but earn less than boys when they get work would be representative if it was found to be typical of most other towns in the UK. Sociologists interested in representativeness tend to be positivists – they want sociology to be scientific.

Reliability – if a research finding can be replicated the research is reliable. Positivists (see below) see this as a desirable characteristic, because they want sociology to be like science. Look at it this way; if an experiment kept giving different sets of results, scientists would say they were unreliable. So, sociologists taking a positivist approach want their research to be reliable. Scientific findings are supposed to be reliable – if different scientists repeat important experiments, they are supposed to get the same results. The idea is that if results can be repeated, they are likely to be true.

Validity – Not the same thing as reliability at all. It simply means – does the research ‘give a true picture’ of reality? Are the findings valid? A more complicated definition of validity is to say it’s about whether the research measures what it is supposed to measure. This is a more theoretical definition and relates to what is called ‘operationalisation’. Operationalisation is about how a researcher defines some aspect of society they want to study. Examples would be class, gender or educational attainment. The last two are fairly easy – we use the indicators of sex or level of qualifications attained. But things – social structures or forces like class are impossible to see, so researchers have to pick something observable to indicate the presence of a particular part of society.

This gets difficult! The best or at least, most important example is Durkheim’s study of suicide. Durkheim argued that suicide rates were caused by the level of social integration (impossible to see) in a society. However, interpretivist (or anti-positivists) critics argue that Durkheim wasn’t really measuring social integration, but rather the likelihood of coroners to bring in suicide verdicts, which was in itself heavily dependent on their own religious beliefs.

Good research would ideally be reliable, valid and representative. In reality, it’s very hard for any single piece of research to be really robust on all of these criteria. Some research does come close to it though, when methods are triangulated; that is, researchers use a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, thus making it easier to achieve all three of these key criteria. But researchers do not always triangulate in this way; it does very much depend on their theoretical approach and the aims of a particular research project.

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

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