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Point of View
Positivism : Positivists assume that sociological explanations should be like those of the natural sciences, and that
sociologists should use the logic, methods and procedures of natural science.
Key Ideas:
Social Reality is capable of being measured objectively by using scientific methods
As with the natural world, social behaviour is governed by underlying casual laws and can, therefore, be
By systematic observation of casual relationships between social phenomena, these laws can be revealed.
+ As far as possible, scientists and sociologists must be personally objective in their research. The resulting
data would then be reliable and would not be dependent on the subjectivity of the researcher.
+ Positivists see the need to rely on empirical evidence in testing their assumptions. They argue that
assuming what people are thinking is both impossible and inappropriate to the scientific endeavour.
- Positivism fails to understand that individuals create social reality through their interactions.
- It assumes that there is only one view of social reality.
- It does not allow us to see the world from the position of a social actor.
Interpretivism : Unlike Positivism, Interpretivism rejects the idea that social behaviour can be studied using the
same methodology as that of the natural science. Interpretivist's do not accept a single social reality but see many
realities produced through the interactions of individuals. Weber's Versethen sociology emphasised that
sociologists had to interpret the meanings of social action as understood by the social actors involved. This meant
that sociologists needed to put themselves in the position of the person or group being observed.
Key Ideas
The subject matter of sociology is fundamentally different from that of the natural sciences
The subjective consciousness of individuals cannot be quantified.
There is no possibility of gaining understanding of social action through scientific methods.
Social meanings are the most important aspect of interaction and these points need to be understood by
sociologists using qualitative methods.
There are no causal laws governing social behaviour.
An example of this approach can be seen in Goffman's work on total institutions, where he showed how
inmates construct practices to `make out' in the institution.
+ Interpretivism allows us to see that individuals perceive social reality in different ways.
+ Individuals are not passive ­ they are not seen as simply manipulated by external forces but as active
individuals, making choices and acting on social meanings.
­ Methods used tend to rely on the subjectivity of the researcher.
­ It fails to examine the effects of power differences on social interaction.
­ It underestimates the extent and impact of social structure on individuals.
Links to Methods
Positivist: The sociologists see social reality as objective and measurable and tend to favour quantitative methods,
such as social surveys, questionnaires and/or structured interviews. There sometimes, but rarely, undertake lab
experiments and also make use of official statistics as secondary data. Content analysis of the media is usually
Interpretivist: These sociologists see social reality as constructed by social actors (individuals) through the
meanings of social action. They tend to favour qualitative methods such ass observation, participant observation,
unstructured and semi structured interviews and field experiments. Secondary data sources are mode likely to be
personal documents and descriptive historical documents and also oral histories and self report studies. Content
analysis of the media is qualitative and thematic, and semiology (the stud of signs) may sometimes be used.
However many sociologists are increasingly making use of methodological pluralism, that is using more than one
method in one research project. This enhances validity, reliability and generalisability.
Sampling Methods

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A great deal of sociological research makes use of sampling. This is a technique aiming to reduce the
number of respondents in a piece of research, whilst retaining as accurately as possible the
characteristics of the whole group.
The purpose of taking a sample is to investigate features of the population in greater detail than could be
done if the total population was used, and to draw inferences about this population.…read more

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Contacts are made until a quota is filled. Therefore, nonresponse cannot occur. The interviewer makes
the final choice of sample. However the choice is limited by availability, and the diligence and honesty of
the interviewer. The method is much used by market research and opinion pollsters.
Panel sample
This is a form of longitudinal study, but is usually of shorter duration and more focused. It involves
questioning the same sample at regular intervals to observe trends of opinion.…read more

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The experiment is the classic research method of the natural sciences. It is the means by which hypothesis are
empirically tested. Experiments involve the manipulation of an independent variable (cause) and the observation
of a dependent variable (effect), while controlling extraneous variables to test a hypothesis.
Lab Experiments
Lab experiments are designed to achieve rigorous empirical test in which variables are closely controlled and
observations and measurements are accurately recorded so that the effect of changing one or more of the
variables can be analysed.…read more

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Questions can be open ended, which gives the respondents the opportunity to expand on their answers, or, more
usually, closed/fixed choice questions were the respondents have limited choices.
Studies using questionnaires
Peter Townsend (1979) administered questionnaires so that he could measure the extent of poverty in the UK.
Shere Hite (1988) sent out postal questionnaires to 100,000 women in the USA to question them on their sexual
behaviour. Her book is passed on 4,500 replies.…read more

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Representativeness: Compared with unstructured interviews, structured interviews are relatively quick to
conduct. This means that a larger sample can be interviewed, which is likely to produce more
representative results, allowing the researcher to make generalisations. Structured interviews have a
higher response rate than mailed questionnaires and this also helps with representativeness.
+ Cost: Because they are quick to complete, structured interviews are the cheapest form of interview.
Interviews also need only a limited amount of training.…read more

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Openended questioning allows interviewees scope to give detailed, in depth reactions. The more detailed
the response, the greater the likelihood of the sociologists understanding the research subject's
­ Unstructured interviews may not achieve the validity that they claim to do:
­ The closer the interviewerinterviewee bond may increase the chance of the respondent seeking to please
by giving the answer they think the researcher wants to hear.…read more

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The priorities of P.O.
The emphasis is on qualitative research, where the social meanings of the actors are the basis for
explaining their actions. In the past a frequently overlooked method, devalued possibly by concern over its
ability to meet strict criteria of scientific adequacy. This resistance to P.O. comes particularly from
sociologists who have tended to see the social sciences in a positivist framework.
Kluckholm (1940) defines P.O. as:
'...…read more

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Furthermore, in this role the researcher is not achieving the aim of total neutrality as
their membership of the group lends support to that group.
Getting in, staying in, getting out
Getting in
Participant observers aim to become an unobtrusive part of the scene, nonthreatening to the
participants, and become 'taken for granted' by the participants. Some researchers emphasise the need to
move slowly into the group setting.…read more

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Covert participation raises many ethical issues. The group has not given consent to being observed and
their trust is broken.
­ Participant observation requires the researcher to participate in the groups activities and at the same time
remain sufficiently detached to observe and interpret their behaviour. This is not an easy thing to do.
Research can become overinvolved with the group's activities, stop observing and simply take part. This is
known as `going native'. Data produced are likely to be highly biased a very subjective.…read more


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