Assess the Usefulness of Positivist Approaches to Social Research (30)

Just a few thoughts on how you might go about answering this question… if it comes up on paper 3 of the A level sociology exam

 Paragraph one – outline the key ideas of Positivism

  • Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.
  • By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action
  • Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.
  • To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys
  • These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

An example of the Positivist tradition in Sociological research – Durkheim’s cross national study of suicide in 1897. Durkheim believed that if he could prove that one of the most individual acts any human being could perform, that is, killing himself or herself, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s analysis of official statistics, showed that rates of suicide were higher in countries experiencing rapid economic growth , among unmarried men rather than married men and in Protestant countries rather than Catholic countries.

Durkheim further theorised that the ‘causes’ of a higher suicide rate were low social integration and low social regulation. Thus Durkheim’s ‘general law of social action’ is that if people become detached from society they are more likely to kill themselves.

Paragraph two – Two Interpretivist criticisms of Positivism

Firstly, they argue that the ‘objective’ quantitative methods favoured by positivists are not actually objective at all, arguing that if we look at positivist methods in more detail, there are a number of subjective factors that influence the research process. Somebody has to write the structured questionnaires that are used to collect quantitative data, meaning there is probably selection bias over the questions used – and official statistics are collected by people.

Atkinson criticised Suicide Stats and Interpretivists more generally have criticised both police crime stats and imprisonment stats for being socially constructed.

Secondly, Interpretivists argue that human beings are not just puppets, merely reacting to social forces. In order to fully understand human action, once again, we need more in depth qualitative approaches to see why and how certain students can turn disadvantage around and make schooling work for them! People are also unpredictable, and sometimes irrational. Because individuals are thinking and self-aware, they can react to their situations in different ways.

Max Weber argued that human behaviour that has a “sense of purpose”. Human beings attribute their own meanings to their actions, and different people can engage in the same action for different reasons.   In order to understand human action, we need to ask individuals why they are doing what they are doing!

Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that one can only truly understand social action by understanding the meanings and motivations that people give to their own actions. They don’t believe that one’s actions are simply shaped by one’s position in the social structure, rather that they are a result of micro level interactions in daily life and how individuals interpret these micro-level interactions.

An Interpretivist approach to social research – An Interpretivist Approach to social research would be much more flexible and qualitative seeking to see the world through the eyes of the respondents. Good examples of Interpretivist research include Paul Willis’ study of ‘The Lads’, Venkatashes’ study – gang leader for a day and Douglas’s study of suicide – which explored the different meaning behind suicide.

What all of these qualitative studies provide is an in depth account of the lives of the people being researched. You get ‘their story’ and get to see the ‘world through their eyes’ – the researcher allows the respondents to speak for themselves and we can an empathetic understanding as they tell us what they think is important, find out why they act in the way they do according to their interpretation of the world.

The rich data the above studies doesn’t easily translate into stats and you can’t generalise these findings to the wider population, but Interpretivists argue that these qualitative studies are better because you get a much fuller understanding, at a human level, of why people act in the way that they do.

Paragraph three – Positivist criticisms of Interpretivism

A Positivist Criticism of Interpretivist research is that it may lack objectivity because of the intense involvement of the researcher with the respondents and that the government cannot use Interpretivist research to inform social policy because it is too expensive to get sample sizes that represent the whole of the population

Positivists are also uncomfortable with the idea that there is no ‘end goal’ to Interpretivist research, it just goes on and on, leading to an open ended post-modern relativism.

Paragraph four – Positivist research today/ Conclusion  

Sociologists have not completely abandoned the positivist tradition today – many researchers still do quantitative research focusing on correlations and generalisations. Two excellent recent examples of this are Inglehart’s World Values Survey and Richard Wilkinson’s cross national research on the effects of inequality – published in the spirit level – both suggest that a general ‘law’ of society is that the greater the level of inequality in a society, the more social problems such as crime and depression there are.

However, most researchers today have abandoned the extreme idea that society exists independently of the individual and that people are predictable – for example Anthony Giddens developed the concept of structuration to point out that people have to consciously make society, even though they often end up reproducing similar structures, while many recent events such as Brexit clearly show that people are not that predictable.

In conclusion, there is clearly still some usefulness in understanding society at a macro level and recognising the fact that individuals are ‘steered’ by the social structure, but we need to combine this will understanding people’s thoughts and feelings to truly explain human action.

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