Theory and Methods Topic 1 - Positivism and Interpretivism


Positivist Key Ideas

  • Believe that sociology can and should be studied as a science
  • Sociology should be able to uncover the laws that govern society and social behaviour through scientific methods
  • Scientific research should uncover objective truths about the causes of social action
  • Interested in looking at society as a whole and explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends
  • Use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys 
  • Quantitative methods allow the researcher to remain detached from the research process; this avoids bias and keeps the research objective 
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Durkheim's Suicide Study

  • Durkheim wanted to prove that laws governing society could even have an affect on something as personal as suicide
  • His analysis showed that the suicide rates were higher in countries experiencing rapid economic growth, among unmarried men and protestant countries
  • He therefore concluded that the 'causes' of higher suicide rates were low social integration and regulation
  • If people became detached from society, the more likely they were to kill themselves
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Criticisms of Positivism

  • Interpretivists would argue that positivist research lacks validity and cannot be truly objective as some researcher bias takes place, even with quantitative methods; the researcher has to choose what to study, how they will study it etc. 
  • They argue that it fails to looks at the meanings and interpretations of human behaviour
  • Marxists argue that official statistics are not a reliable source as they are produced by the Bourgeoisie
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Anti-Positivism / Interpretivism

  • Rejects positivism's structural views of society - that society's structure shapes individual behaviour
  • Argue that human behaviour is a result of micro-level interactions in daily life and how individuals interpret these interactions 
  • Do not agree that social laws exist to govern human behaviour but instead argue that humans attach meanings to their actions; so people can engage in the same action but for different reasons, depending on how they have interpreted their experiences 
  • In order to understand human behaviour and reach verstehen (empathetic understanding of human behaviour) we need to ask individuals why they are doing what they are doing
  • Prefer qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews, focus groups and participant observation
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Social Action Theory - Max Weber


  • Was the first to suggest a more individualistic approach to social research 
  • Argued that sociologists must understand the values individuals hold before they can understand social structures
  • Introduced the concept of verstehen
  • His analysis of why capitalism emerged in Europe in the 17th century illustrates his emphasis on the importance of human motives in explaining significant social transformation
  • Believed that values ad the meaning people give to interactions are the cause of social action                                                                                                                                   
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Social Action Theory - Symbolic Action Theory


  • Focuses on our ability to create the social world through our actions and interactions and it sees these interactions as based on the meanings we give to situations 
  • George Mead observed that human behaviour is not shaped by fixed instincts - we respond to the world by giving meanings to the things that are significant to us. Humans do not simply respond to a stimulus in an automatic, pre-determined way; an interpretive phase comes between the stimulus and our response because we have to interpret the stimulus' meaning. Once we have done this, we chose the appropriate response. We take the role of the other (putting ourselves in the place of the other person) to see ourselves as they see us in order to function as members of society
  • Herbert Blumer systamised Mead's ideas after his death by identifying three key principles:                                           

1. Our actions are based on the meanings we give to situations and events
2. These meanings arise from the interaction process
3. The meanings we give to situations are the result of the interpretive procedures that we use                     

  • These contrast strongly with the structural theories such as functionalism
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Social Action Theory - Labelling Theory

LABELLING THEORY                                                                                                    

  • The definition of the situation (W.I. Thomas)

A definition of something is its label. If we define something as real, it will have real consequences. If we believe something to be true, then this will affect how we act and will have its own consequences. For example, if a teacher labels a student as naughty, they will react accordingly with them with harsher punishments

  • The looking glass self (Charles Cooley)

How we develop our self-concept - our idea of who we are. Our self-concept arises out of our ability to take the role of the other - we come to see ourselves as others see us, so in other words, they act as a looking glass. Through this process, a self-fulfilling prophecy occurs - we fulfil the image that other have of us 

  • Career (Howard Becker)

Extended the concept of a career to apply it to groups such as medical students, marijuana smokers and those who suffer from paranoia. The individual has a 'career' through the label that they are given (if applied to crime, people can ave a deviant career if they are labelled as a criminal)

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Social Action Theory - Dramaturgical Theory

  • Described as dramaturgical because the theorist Goffman used analogies with drama as a framework for analysing social interaction - we are all 'actors' using 'scripts' with 'props' etc. 
  • Impression management - key concepts of the theory are the presentation of self and impression management. We seek to present a particular image of ourselves to our audience. To do so, we must control the impression our performance gives; we must study how our audience is responding and monitor and adjust our performance to present a convincing image. We can use language or tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions to pass for the kind of person we want our audience to believe we are
  • Goffman rejects the Functionalist view of roles and argues instead that there is a 'gap' or role distance between our real self and our roles. Like an actor on stage, we are not really the roles that we play. Roles are loosely scripted by society and we have a lot of freedom in how we can play them. This also suggests that we do not always believe in the roles that we play and our role performance may be cynical or calculating - appearances ar everything and people seek to present themselves to their best advantage 
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