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Study Notes

The Nature of Knowledge


Last updated 13 Jun 2020

When it comes to Sociological theory and research, what do we mean by knowledge?

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence, of being. It may seem a little outside the domain of sociology, but is relevant to social research: are there social facts out there to be discovered? Or instead of an objective reality, are there only social constructs? Do the apparent "facts" in social research only exist in their subjective social context? Questions of ontology are closely linked with those of epistemology: it's not just whether things objectively exist, but how we know that they do.

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge. Epistemologists are interested in how and whether we know things. In sociology there is this discussion about social facts and social constructs at the heart of the debate between positivism and interpretivism. Positivists believe that it is possible to establish social facts through objective and scientific research; interpretivists believe that while we cannot objectively establish facts about human behaviour, we can investigate subjective interpretations of behaviour.

Phenomenology in sociology developed around symbolic interactionism and the idea that society is made by people rather than the other way around. For these sociologists, social phenomena are social constructs. The family, for example, is not an objective social fact but rather something that only makes sense in terms of what people mean by the word and what they mean can change over time or between societies. An example is Atkinson's study of suicide where he concluded that a suicide is not a social fact that can be objectively revealed in death statistics, but rather it is a conclusion reached by a coroner, who collates various pieces of evidence relating to the mode of death in order to reach that conclusion. As such, phenomenologists think it makes more sense to conduct qualitative research, rich in validity that offers verstehen, rather than focusing on reliabilty and trying to generalise to the whole of society.

For example, childhood is discussed by functionalist sociologists as if it were a social fact but really different societies and different historical eras have completely different ideas of what the word means, including the ages it starts and ends or the rights or privileges that might be expected to go along with that particular time of life.

Positivists believe that sociology can establish social facts: concepts and institutions in society that are objectively and scientifically verifiable. So a functionalist, hoping to prove levels of social cohesion in a particular society, would try to find a way to operationalise the concept and then objectively measure it through reliable research methods.

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