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Assess the view that sociologists should adopt a scientific approach to studying society (33)
Positivist sociologists would argue that sociology should be studied like the natural sciences through
objective quantitative research methods such as field and lab experiments, social surveys and official
statistics. However, Interpretivists argue that quantitative research methods are not the right way to
study society, and so sociologists should use qualitative research methods to gain an in-depth
understanding of society.
Positivists favour the `scientific method' which includes the experimental method, the hypo-deductive
method and the comparative method. The experimental method involves conducting experiments into
human behaviour. There are two kinds of experiments in sociology; field experiments, which are
conducted in `natural' settings and lab experiments, which are conducted in controlled settings. Karl
Popper's hypo-deductive method involves coming up with a specific hypothesis which can be tested
through research, observation and hunches. Popper's features of scientific method also include
`falsification', which is the aim of testing hypotheses against evidence to try and prove them wrong. This
allows for sociologists to find laws which are true in all cases.
Positivists favour quantitative methods because they are better at uncovering the `general laws of society'
which govern human behaviour and to uncover trends which can be compared with other trends to make
predictions about future societal trends. Quantitative data includes official statistics and social surveys,
which are critical for making comparisons and predicting trends. Quantitative methods are also objective,
which positivists favour because they believe that sociology should be value free. Emile Durkheim, the
`founder' of Functionalism, used quantitative methods when studying the rates of suicide. He used the
`comparative method' (finding trends and looking at the relationships between them to see how they
influence each other) by comparing official statistics on the suicide rate in different countries with social
phenomena such as divorce rates and unemployment levels. His `general law for social action' was that if
people are too attached/unattached or too regulated/unregulated then they are more likely to kill
themselves. The positivist `scientific method' is beneficial when studying society because it is supposedly
more objective and the data is therefore more reliable and representative of larger groups. Because of this,
scientific research is more likely to receive funding than non-scientific research. Science also gives
sociology `status' because people take it more seriously.
However, Anti-Positivists (Interpretivists) argue that quantitative methods should not be used to study
society, as the scientific method cannot be truly objective as positivists claim some degree of the
researchers views, or the commissioner of the research's views, are present when conducting research.
Also, quantitative methods do not gain an in-depth, fuller understanding of human behaviour; therefore
they are too restrictive when studying society. Thomas Kuhn's paradigm critique argues that scientists
tended to share similar assumptions about the world and society and conducted research based on these
assumptions, which Kuhn called `paradigms'. When an existing paradigm was challenged, the challenger's
views were often ridiculed because it led to an uncertainty about science. Kuhn also argues that paradigms
to some extent are a social construction when younger scientists challenge older scientists' work, a
paradigm `shift' is created, whereby the challenge is accepted and what was accepted before is
disregarded. Furthermore, another criticism of science is that it is heavily dependent on money and
financial support, therefore research tends to be funded by powerful and wealthy individuals. This poses
the risk of the research reflecting their views. This has made people more suspicious of science; therefore
it has lost its `status'. Feminists also criticise science because it has a tradition of excluding women as
practitioners and as subjects, unless they can be used to reproduce gender-normative stereotypes.
Interpretivists prefer qualitative methods because they are interested in gaining a `bigger picture' of
society through the in-depth thoughts and opinions of the people that they are researching. This allows for
`verstehen' an empathetic understanding of human behaviour. They argue that qualitative data allows
for a fuller understanding, at a human level, of why people do what they do. However, qualitative data
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There is also the risk of the imposition problem or the Hawthorne effect with
Interpretivist research methods; when the view of the researcher is imposed onto the respondent or the
respondent gives socially desirable answers.
In conclusion, positivists would argue that sociology should be studied as a science in order to uncover the
laws of society which govern human behaviour and to make predictions about future trends of society.…read more