positivists vs interpretivists

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  • Created on: 18-12-19 11:36

Positivist’s assumptions

  •  Positivists are very influenced by the natural sciences.
  •  Positivists see human behaviour as the product of the structure of society produces social laws over which we have no control or choice and which determine our behaviour; they see people as the puppets of societ
  • Positivists are interested in looking at society as a whole, in order to find out the general laws which shape human action, and numerical data is really the only way we can easily study and compare large groups within society, qualitative data by contrast is too in-depth and too difficult to compare. Numerical data allow us to make comparisons easily as once we have social data reduced down to numbers, it is easy to put into graphs and to make comparisons and find correlations, enabling us to see how one thing affects another. For example, Durkheim famously claimed that the higher the divorce rate, the higher the suicide rate, thus allowing him to theorise that lower levels of social integration lead to higher rates of suicide (because of increased anomie)
  •  Positivists think it is important to remain detached from the research process, in order to remain objective, or value free. Quantitative methods allow for a greater level of detachment as the researcher does not have to be directly involved with respondents, meaning that their own personal values are less likely to distort the research process, as might be the case with more qualitative research. This should be especially true for official statistics, which merely need to be interpreted by researchers, but less true of structured questionnaires, which have to be written by researchers, and may suffer from the imposition problem.
  • positivists stress reliabiity 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
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Experiments - conducted in a controlled environment. In a laboratory experiment, the researcher is interested in the relationship between an independent variable (a possible cause) anda dependent variable (a possible effect). The experimental group is exposed to the independent variable and its behaviour is often compared to the control group (which is not exposed) to monitor any differences between the two. Any differences are seen as effects.

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  •  Experiments have a standardized procedure and therefore easily replicated to test the reliability
  •     It produces quantitative data, so the results can be compared to identify trends.
  •  It is a detached and objective method - the researcher merely manipulates the variables and records the results.
  •  Humans are complex it is impossible to construct identical human experimental and control groups. No two humans are exactly alike, because we experience and interpret all social situations in different ways.
  •   Artificial stimuli- laboratory experiment uses a artificial environment and any behaviour that occurs may be a product of the environment leading to demand characteristics .e.g. Hawthorne effect.
  •   Experiments may result in the harming of research subjects. For example, exposing children to violent films for long periods may result in long-term psychological or emotional damage.
  •    Interpretivists argue that humans are fundamentally different from other natural phenomena. We have free will and the ability to choose how to behave. Our behaviour is not 'caused by external forces beyond our control, so it cannot be explained in terms of cause-and-effect relationships. 
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social surveys

Social surveys- involves collecting large amounts of statistical data from many people, usually via questionnaires or structured interviews. Some surveys may be longitudinal research, which means that the same group of people may be surveyed over a long period of time.


·         These provide a clear image of changes in attitudes and behaviour over time

  • but can be problematic, because respondents may die, drop out or researchers may lose track of them. The views of those that remain in the sample may also be significantly different from the views of those who drop out, so over time the sample may become increasingly unrepresentative.
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Questionnaires- A questionnaire is simply a list of questions that are written down in advance. They are the main method used in social surveys. handed out or posted to the P’s.  Most questionnaires are self-completion questionnaires. Others may be read out and filled in on behalf of the respondent by trained interviewers known as the formal or structured interview.

When constructing a questionnaire, the questions must focus on the hypothesis. Turning the hypothesis into a series of questions is called 'operationalization. Ideally, questions should be objective and it is essential that they contain neutral wording.

However, questions can be biased, in that they can 'lead' respondents to the answers the researcher requires. They can sometimes be 'loaded', or written in such a way that the respondent is provoked into an emotional response that seeks to evade the truth. Questionnaires tend to use 'closed' questions with a choice of pre-set answers with accompanying tick boxes, which produce quantitative data. Questionnaires have a number of strengths and weaknesses, as shown in the table below.

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  • If postal, can be used to reach large numbers of people around the country, which may improve the representativeness of the sample (e.g. sociologists might want to compare how people in Scotland view crime compared to people in England or Wales)
  • They are less time-consuming for respondents than interviews/ Reasonably cheap compared to other methods
  •  Useful for research that includes sensitive or embarrassing questions, as these can be answered in the privacy of the home rather than face-to-face, which might undermine validity
  • Ensure that the sociologist has minimum contact with the respondent, so reducing the possibility of the respondent feeling suspicious or threatened


  • Especially if postal, suffer from low response or even non-response
  • Those returned may not be representative of the research population, as the replies may be from people with strong unrepresentative views. May not be suitable for finding out why people behave the way they do, as real life is often too complex to categorize in closed questions and responses
  • Respondents may interpret questions in a different way from that intended by the researcher
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Self-report questionnaires

Self-report questionnaires-  a type of questionnaire called a self-report. It lists various petty criminal acts and asks respondents to tick those they have committed without being caught.

  • Evaluation: Sociologists attempt to improve validity by stressing confidentiality and anonymity. Marsh notes that the validity of self-reporting is undermined by under reporting and over-reporting.
  •  People may under-report because self-report studies are retrospective and depend on being able to remember crimes committed 12 months before. Some people, especially boys, may exaggerate offences to create a 'tough' impression. Others keep quiet, as they fear that the police will be informed.
  •   It is impossible to include all criminal acts in a questionnaire. This means the researcher must be selective, which raises problems as to which offences should or should not be included.
  •  Self-reports are distributed mainly to young people - it would be difficult to get business people to cooperate and admit in a self-report questionnaire to various types of white-collar or corporate crime.
  • Josine Junger-Tas (1989) reports a sliding scale of responses to self report questionnaires, depending on how much contact respondents have had with the criminal justice system. Response rates from people with a criminal record were lower than from those without.
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Structured interviews

Structured interviews-  These usually involve the researcher reading out a list of closed questions from an interview schedule - a type of questionnaire – and ticking boxes or writing down answers according to pre-set fixed categories on behalf of the respondent. The interviewer may not deviate from the interview schedulequestions. The Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) of 2015-16 conducted about 50,000 structured interviews with a sample of people aged 16 and over, living in private households in England and Wales. Using laptop computers, 22 trained interviewers recorded the responses.

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  •    The focus on closed questions and fixed categories means they are very useful for collecting straightforward factual data
  • Can use large samples as they can be conducted quickly
  •  The interviewer can explain the aims and objectives of the research clarify instructions and generally make sure that informed consent has ben granted
  •   Reliable as standardized procedure as interviewers can be trained to conduct each interviewer in exactly the same way and so should produce similar data
  •    Inflexible as interviewer on schedule and experimenter must stick to it unable to follow interesting leads
  •   Only a snapshot taken at one moment in time fail to capture social change
  •     Interpretivists note there is often a gap between what people say they do and what their actually do they may not put their prejudices into action or they may be unaware that they behave in certain ways
  •    Lack validity as interviewee may respond in a socially desirable way they may try to manipulate interviewers impression of them by being untruthful or partial answers therefore increasing the potential for invalid data
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Official statistics

 Positivists are keen on some types of secondary data, such as official statistics collected by government agencies. A questionnaire survey that is conducted every 10 years on the whole population. Official statistics have a number of strengths and weaknesses.


Official statistics - strengths

  •  easy and cheap to access, involving little effort on the part of the sociologist
  •     usually collected in a standardized, systematic and scientific way (e.g. registration data on birth, marriage, divorce and death is highly reliable and valid, because it is the outcome of longstanding, systematic procedures) allow us to make comparisons between groups (e.g. the Census covers the whole UK population at the same time and asks everyone the same questions, making it easy to compare different groups and regions) trends over a period of time can be observed easily (e.g. sociologists might notice that there is less property crime and more violent crime in 2017 compared with 2016)
  •  generally regarded as representative, as they have been produced by large-scale studies, often covering the whole population
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Official statistics - weaknesses

  •  may not present a complete picture of whatever the sociologist is studying (e.g. the government does not collect statistics relating to the socio-economic background or employment status of people who have been arrested, prosecuted or convicted and sent to prison)
  •  open to political abuse (e.g. they can be manipulated or ' massaged by governments for political advantage)
  •    socially constructed (i.e. they are often the end result of someone making a decision that a particular set of activities needs to be recorded and that statistics need to be collected in a particular way - for example, statistics on ethnic minority crime may tell us more about institutional racism in the police or the stereotypical decisions by some police officers to stop black people more frequently than white people)
  •  they tell us very little about the human stories or interpretations that underpin them (e.g. crime and prison statistics tell us little about why people commit crime or what it feels like to be sent to prison)
  • may be based on operational definitions, with which sociologists would not agree (e.g. the government often changes definitions of serious drug offences)
  • Marxists argue that their ideological function is to conceal or distort reality and keep the capitalist class in power - e.g. the official crime statistics (OCS) create the impression that street crime committed by the working class is the main criminal problem in the UK, but Marxists argue that such statistics serve to distract society from white-collar, corporate and state crime
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Key study- Émile Durkheim and suicide

Key ideas- Durkheim was a positivist sociologist, who believed that even a supremely 'individual' act such as suicide was influenced by society/ He believed that sociology was a science. His study of suicide was intended as an illustration that suicide was a social fact.

Source of data - As his main source of data, used 19th-century official statistics of suicide taken from a range of European societies for the period 1840-70. Durkheim used the comparative method, comparing sets of official statistics to discover the social phenomena responsible for suicide rates. 

Key trends

1. Within single societies the suicide rate remains constant over time.

2. The suicide rate vares constantly between different societies.

3. The suicide rate varies constantly between different groups within the same society

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What does this show about social facts

  •  Firstly, Durkheim looked at possible non-social influences on suicide such as climate, heredity, alcoholism and mental illness, but concluded that none of these profoundly affected the suicide rate. suicide is the product of the way societies were organized.
  •   'egoistic' suicide,resulted from experiencing a lack of social integration. people do not experience a strong sense of community. They suffer from an 'excess of individualism'.some people were better integrated into society because of religious and family influences.  He noted that suicide rates showed that married people with children are more protected from suicide. Durkheim suggested that the protection comes not from marriage itself, but from the integrating effects of family life and children.  observed that suicide rates tended to decline in times of war or political upheaval. This is because more individuals identify themselves with a common cause'. They become more patriotic and therefore more integrated into collective life.
  •  'altruistic' suicide is the opposite of egoistic suicide. caused by the over-integration of the individual into the social group.the individual's ego, rather than being too great, is too weak to resist the  demands of society, so that the individual feels he or she must commit suicide.  Recent examples of such suicides include suicide bombers and the mass suicides committed by religious sects such as 'People's Temple'.
  •  'anomic' suicide' . coems from the lack of regulation of the individual by society. For example, in times of rapid economic change, individuals might find themselves in radically changed circumstances. A wealthy person who has suddenly become poor because of, for example, a stock market crash may not be able to cope with the new set of norms and values he or she must deal with. The confusion or anomie experienced can result in suicidal action
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  •   It has been suggested that suicide statistics collected between 1840 and 1870 are not reliable, because there was no systematic medical examination of the dead in many parts of Europe until the late 19th century
  • Durkheim failed to explain why suicide is the most likely result of not enough or too much integration - why not some other course of action, such as crime?
  •   Durkheim did not offer any guidance on how to recognize different types of suicide. Interpretivist sociologists note that, without knowing the intention of the deceased, it is difficult to use Durkheim's classification
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overall evaluation

  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  •   Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  •   The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  •  By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour
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 interpretivists reject the positivist view that human behaviour is the product of social laws over which people have no control. They argue that we are not the puppets of society. Interpretivists point out that people have free will.

Interpretivists therefore argue that people socially construct society. creating their own social realities rather than being passively shaped by social factors over which they have no control. For example, a family is not just a group of people with a biological relationship, they are a group of people who interpret themselves as a family and interact accordingly.

 Interpretivist sociologists therefore stress the concept of validity - seeing the world as it really is to understand the meanings of people's actions. They argue that sociologists need to adopt sociological research methods that are ethnographic - methods that access people's natural everyday environment. Such methods should get inside people's heads in order to see the social world through the eyes of those being studied. This is called verstehen or empathetic understanding.

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Field or social experiments

reject lab experiments as humans different to natural phenomena. Unlike these objects, we have free will and choice. Our behaviour is not 'caused by external forces, so it cannot be explained in terms of cause and effect.

 field experiments aim to examine the way people behave in everyday, small social groups. The sociologist manipulates one particular variable and observes the reactions of the individual or group who are being studied and who are often not aware that a social experiment is taking place. These experiments differ from conventional laboratory experiments in that control groups are not always apparent.

 Key study- Rosenthal and Jacobson - Pygmalion in the classroom Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson (1968) manipulated teachers expectations about students by giving them misleading information about students' abilities in order to discover what effects this would have on students' achievements.

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  •  Field experiments allow the sociologist to unravel the often hidden processes and rules of day-to-day social life, as they enable the researcher to get close to people's interpretations of everyday experiences.
  •   However, there is often a trade-off between naturalism and control the more natural and realistic the situation, the less control the sociologist has over variables.
  •   Such experiments may be unethical because they have not gained the informed consent of the participants and they often involve deception. However, interpretivist sociologists argue that deception rarely involves harm being done and that the data generated by the experiment often benefits society.
  •  There is a danger of a Hawthorne effect being created. For example, if a field experiment were to be conducted in a prison, any change everyday procedures might be noticed by prisoners and guards their behaviour might change because of the experiment.
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Unstructured interviews

like a guided conversation, where the researcher plays an active role they manage the questions to ensure that the participant sticks to the subject of the research. The interviewer has a list of topics to discuss rather than an interview schedule or questionnaire. A skilful interviewer will flexibly follow up ideas, probe responses and investigate motives and feelings in ways a questionnaire can never do.

 Interpretivist sociologists are keen on unstructured interviews, because they are concerned with understanding the meanings or interpretations that underpin social life. They believe that unstructured interviews bring about validity through involvement, meaning that valid qualitative data can only be obtained by getting close to people's experiences and ways of thinking.

The way an unstructured interview is organized stresses that what the interviewee says, or thinks is the central issue - the respondent is placed at the centre of the research. By developing trust and rapport with the interviewee, the researcher can visualize his or her points of view - which is important, because it can give insight into why he or she acts in a certain way.

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  •   strengths: allow researchers to build up and modify their hypothesis during the course of the research, as new and important insights come about, either because the interviewee trusts the researcher or because the flexible nature of the interview results in unexpected information being uncovered
  •    some sociologists use them as a starting point to develop their initial ideas, before using more structured methods such as questionnaires allow the interviewer to make sure that he or she shares the same meaning as the interviewee about a particular issue, thus increasing validity
  •   seen as particularly suited to researching sensitive groups (i.e. people who might be suspicious of or hostile to outsiders - such as deviants or criminals). provide richer, more vivid and more qualitative data the data collected often speaks for itself in the form extensive quotations from those being interviewed
  •  weaknesses: regarded as unreliable by positivists because they cannot be replicated and their results verified by another sociologist
  •   practically speaking, the final research cannot contain all the information gathered and, often, the interviewer will select aspects of the interview transcript that fit the hypothesis - such selectivity may reflect the ideological biases of the researcher
  •  data is difficult to analyse and categorize because of the sheer volume of material in the respondent's own words
  •  expensive, as training must be thorough and specialized - interviewers need to be trained in interpersonal skills so that they establish good relationships with interviewees
  •  exceptionally time-consuming to conduct and transcribe
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Personal documents

  use a form of secondary data known as personal or expressive documents, made up of diaries, letters and autobiographies. These can be historical or contemporary.

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  • rich source of qualitative data about, experiences, feelings, attitudes, emotions and motives for behaviour.
  • Sociologists are drawn to this type of data because they are a free or economical source of Information, already having been gathered, They may also be used when no other source of data exists. For example, sociologists might not be able to gain access to criminal gangs, but the diary or autobiography of a gang member may give us important insights into criminal behaviour
  •   Interpretivists like documents enable sociologists to get close to people's reality. For example, suicide notes can be taken to be the final thoughts of the individual committing suicide. Personal documents are particularly useful for giving insight into how people behaved in the past.
  • However, personal documents are often very subjective and biased, in that the writer usually wants to justify his or her actions. There may also be doubts about the authenticity of the document - letters and diaries can be forged. A document may lack credibility if it was written long after the events it describes, when key details might have been forgotten.
  •  Finally, the people who write personal documents may not be representative - not all sections of society keep diaries describing their behaviour. The nature of criminal activity means that criminals are less likely than other social groups to leave personal records that incriminate them and perhaps lead to their prosecution.
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observation gives first-hand insight into how people interpret the social world around them. It allows sociologists to record behaviour by observing people's actions on a daily basis. Consequently, they see the world through the eyes of the group they are observing.

 Non-participant or direct observation- This has been used extensively in the field of criminal justice and usually involves the researcher observing an activity such as police-suspect interaction. The researcher plays no active role. For example. Smith and Grey went out on the beat with London Metropolitan Police officers, while Cicourel sat in the back of patrol cars and observed LA police officers interact with suspects and members of the general public.

 Participant observation- This is the most common type of observation and involves sociologists immersing themselves in the lifestyle of the group they wish to study Sociological observers participate in the same activities as the group being researched and observe their everyday lives. The aim of participant observation is to understand what is happening from the point of view of those involved and to understand the meaning that they give to their situation. The research, then, is ethnographic - conducted in the natural environment of the group being studied. This type of research may take many months and even years to complete. Participant observation can be either: overt, when the researcher joins in the activities of a group but some or all of the group know his or her identity.  covert, when the researcher conceals the fact that she or he is doing research, and pretends to be a member of the group.

 It can be very difficult to gain entry to a group. A skilled researcher will focus on 'looking and listening and going with the flow of social life once gained entry to a group, and will not try to force the pace or interfere with or disrupt 'normality Instead, the skilled researcher will blend into the background until he or she has gained the group's trust and his or her presence is taken for granted. Much of participant observation, therefore, involves hanging around’

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key study

Key study- Sudhir Venkatesh spent seven years hanging out with gang members of a crack-dealing gang called the Black Kings in the late 1990s. Venkatesh was able to establish a trusting friendship with JT, the leader of the Black Kings, who showed him how the gang operated on a daily basis within the project. Venkatesh was able to gain access to areas of gang life that are not usually accessible.

Venkatesh observed that his relationship with JT meant he was able to gain insights into how gang members saw themselves and justified their behaviour, which was unlikely to be obtained via questionnaires or interviews. For example, JT often expressed how hard it was to manage the gang, to keep the drug economy running smoothly and to deal with the law-abiding tenants, who saw him as an adversary. The research culminated in a remarkable research opportunity when JT invited Venkatesh to become the 'gang leader for a day'.

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  • strength:  the researcher is placed in exactly the same situation as the group under study and large amounts of qualitative data are generated, giving the sociologist a feel for what it is like to be a member of the group. This allows the sociologist to achieve a state of verstehen or empathetic understanding - the sociologist sees the world through the eyes of the group being studied which increases the validity of the data.
  •  what people say and what they actually do can be very different and people are often unaware that they are acting in a certain way (ie in observation studies, the sociologist can see what people really do, so is more likely to be able to record the truth, so validity is high)
  •   it can generate new ideas and lead to new insights for example, would a gang leader have admitted that they found their job 'hard' if Venkatesh had been using a positivist research method?
  •   hypotheses can be changed or developed as the research progresses or as new situations are encountered, allowing an understanding of how changes in attitudes and behaviour take place over months and years
  •  weaknesses:  presence of observer may result in the group acting less naturally because they are aware of being observed and studied, though cover observation is less likely to lead to this effect
  •  some observers can get too close or attached to their group and consequently observations become biased the sociologist must make value judgements in selecting what to include and what to omit from their final account, leaving a potential for bias, because the sociologist may select aspects of the observation that fit his or her research hypothesis- Venkatesh was accused of this
  •   some sociologists object to this method because it lacks ethical consideration for those being researched especially if covert. Humphreys argues that some situations, particularly the study of deviant behaviour, will always have to involve some degree of deception to ensure validity. For example, it may involve the sociologist being forced to break the law in order to gain or retain the trust of the group, or to protect his or her cover. Humphreys therefore suggests that the situation determines the ethical approach - situational ethics means that sometimes the potential research findings are so important that ethical considerations need to be suspended
  •  observation produces large amounts of qualitative data, which is difficult to analyse and categorize.
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Key study- J. Maxwell Atkinson study of coroners

Key ideas- Atkinson is critical of Durkheim's use of official statistics He argues that suicide rates are not social facts, as Durkheim argued. Rather. suicide rates are socially constructed because they are the end product of a complex set of interactions and interpretations involving victims doctors, friends and relatives of the deceased and, significantly, coroners

 source of data- Atkinson specifically focuses on the role of coroners. These are legal officers whose function is to investigate suspicious death Atkinson notes that officially a death is not a suicide until it has been labelled as such by a coroner's court.

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What does this show about social facts

When investigating suspicious death, coroners in the UK can use five possible verdicts.  misadventure (accidental death), homicide or suicide. The open' verdict is used if evidence is insufficient. A coroner will only bring in a suicide verdict if he or she is convinced that the deceased intended to die. Atkinson observed coroner's courts and interviewed coroners.

He found that they aim to uncover suicidal intent intention to die, by looking for primary and secondary suicidal cues Primary cues include suicide notes, mode of death and location of death However, these are not clear indicators of intent to die Only a minority of suicides leave notes, many of which are vague, ambiguous in content and open to interpretation. Some types of modes of deaths are clearly suicidal - for example, hanging - but others, particularly drug overdoses, are not clear-cut. However. Atkinson concludes that primary cues in themselves are insufficient to prove suicidal intent.

 The coroner requires extra evidence in the form of secondary cues. which involve the coroner looking for signs of intent in the deceased's life history and state of mind prior to death Atkinson also argues that dominant cultural meanings associated with suicide (for example that it is it is caused by despair and great unhappiness) also influence coroners

 In conclusion, then, Atkinson suggests that we cannot take suicide statistics at face value, as Durkheim did. Sociologists must look at the way suicide statistics are socially constructed. It may be that the official suicide statistics tell us more about the ways particular death are interpreted by coroners than they tell us about the causes of suicide

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mixing methods

Triangulation involves the use of more than one research method or source of data in the course of a single study. A researcher can use more than one primary source and also use secondary data. Positivists promote the use of exclusively quantitative sources, whereas interpretivists prefer qualitative sources. In practice, many studies combine both types of sources and the triangulation of methods is common.

 Types of triangulation- Martyn Hammersley (1996) distinguishes three ways of combining methods:

1. Triangulation- findings are cross-checked using a variety of methods; for example, interviews are used to check the responses made in questionnaires.

2. Facilitation - one method is used to assist or develop the use of another method; for example, in-depth unstructured interviews might be used to help devise closed questions and their coded responses for questionnaires.

3. Complementarity - different methods are combined to dovetail different aspects of an investigation; for example, questionnaires might be used to discover overall statistical patterns and participant observation might be used to reveal the reasons for these patterns.

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