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Examine the reasons why positivists prefer quantitative data whilst interpretivists prefer
qualitative data. (20 marks)
Positivism and Interpretivism are two schools of thought within the choice of
research topics. Their beliefs on how to study society and sociology differ, as positivists
strive for objectivity in their work, whilst interpretivists prefer to study society in a more
subjective way. These ideas are called the sociologist's methodology, which refers to the
research technique being carried out.
Qualitative data is data which is presented in the form of words, to put it simply.
Qualitative methods tend to be used on a smaller scale to provide more valid accounts, as it
provides in-depth details which cannot be obtained by any form of quantitative data, due to
the usage of closed-ended questions. Qualitative data allows the researcher to put
themselves in the position of the participant, and achieve `Verstehen', which is Weber's
term for empathy. This type of data can be obtained through unstructured interviews, and is
especially helpful when studying sensitive areas such as domestic violence, as the
interviewer can build a rapport with the respondent. Dobash and Dobash used this method
when researching domestic violence. However, this type of data is difficult to analyse, due to
the amount of rich detail and the lack of numeric data.
The alternative type of data is quantitative data, which is presented in the form of
numbers and is therefore easy to statistically analyse. This type of data is often obtained
through methods such as questionnaires, such as the census, which happens every ten
years in the UK. Quantitative data can easily portray correlations between issues as it is easy
to put into graphical form. For example, Durkheim could easily state that the suicide rate
was higher in the North than the South as he studied the issue as a `social fact' in an
objective way. However, this type of data lacks depth and tends to focus more on numeric
facts rather than the depth of the data.
It is known that Positivists prefer qualitative data. Positivists believe that society can
be studied in an objective way, and that issues can be studied as `social facts', like the
natural sciences of biology, chemistry and physics. Positivists can also be called social
structuralists, therefore suggesting that society influences the individual's behaviour, yet
this approach is often referred to as a macro approach. Marxists, Feminists and
Functionalists are classed as social structuralists, as they research how the individual is
influenced by society. Positivists like to establish cause and effect in relationships and
correlations in their social facts. For example, Durkheim used a comparative method to
establish cause and effect of suicide rates in Europe, therefore treating it as a `social fact'.
Ultimately, this school of thought believes that the way to establish cause and effect is by
working scientifically and completing research which is objective and is therefore free from
Methods used by positivists include questionnaires and structured observations.
Quantitative data is collected from these methods, as it is objective and therefore better
for positivists. These methods can be said to be more reliable and representative, as similar
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These methods are also representative as they are usually
carried out on large samples of the population, as they tend to be quicker and cheaper than
an unstructured interview, for example.
On the other hand, Interpretivists are a group of sociologists who prefer to study
how the individual influences society, which can also be referred to as a micro approach.
Under the umbrella of `interpretivism', there are several different types of sociologist, such
as phenomenologists and interactionists.…read more
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In contrast, a positivist would
struggle to interpret this study due to its data type, as it is not numeric and therefore not
easy to analyse or put it into a graph to establish cause and effect, for example.
In contrast, some sociologists may use a method called triangulation, where more than one
research method is used to gain reliability, representativeness and validity. An example would
be Eileen Barker, who used questionnaires as well as participant observation her study on
the Moonies.…read more