A model answer to a possible 10 mark question which could appear on the AQA’s A-level papers 1 or 3.
If you’re a bit ‘all at sea’ with Intrepretivism, you might like to review your understanding of it first of all by reading this post: social action theory: a summary.
A developed model answer…
NB Warning – this is total overkill and probably completely unrepresentative of what 95% of actual A-level students are capable of producing.
The first reason is that Interpretivists believe that social realities are complex, and that individual’s identities are the results of 1000s of unique micro-interactions.
For example, labelling theory believes that students fail because of low teacher expectations, and these expectations are communicated to students in subtle ways over many months or years, until a student ends up with a self-concept of themselves as ‘thick’.
There is simply no way that quantitative methods such as structured questionnaires can capture these complex (‘inter-subjective’) micro interactions. In order to assess whether labelling has taken place, and whether it’s had an effect, you would need to go into a school and ideally observe it happening over a long period, and talk to students about how their self-perceptions have changed, which would require qualitative methods such as unstructured interviews. Alternatively you could use diaries in which students document their changing self concept.
A further reason why qualitative methods would be good in the above example is that you could, as a researcher, check whether teachers do actually have negative perceptions of certain students (rather than it being all in the student’s minds) – again qualitative methods are vital here – you would have to probe them, ask them testing questions, and look for body-language clues and observe them interacting to really assess whether labelling is taking place.
It would be all too easy for a teacher to lie about ‘not labelling’ if they were just filling out a self-completion questionnaire.
A second reason Interpretivists prefer qualitative methods stems from Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves.
Goffman distinguished between ‘front stage’ performances of social roles and the ‘back stage’ aspects of life (at home) where we are more ‘true to ourselves’.
Goffman argued that some people put on ‘genuine performances’ – e.g. one teacher might really believe in teaching, and genuinely care about their students – their professional role is who they ‘really are’. Others, however, put on what he calls ‘cynical performances’ – another teacher, for example, might act like they care, because their school tells them to, but behind the scenes they hate the job and want to do something else.
A Qualitative method such as participant observation would be pretty much the only way to uncover whether someone is genuinely or cynically acting our their social roles – because the flexibility of following the respondent from front stage to back stage would allow the researcher to see ‘the mask coming off’.
If you just used a questionnaire, even a cynical teacher would know what boxes to tick to ‘carry on the performance’, and thus would not give you valid results.
A brief overview of the difference between Positivism and Interpretivsm
Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of A level sociology papers 1 and 3.
- 74 pages of revision notes
- 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
- Five theory and methods essays
- ‘How to write methods in context essays’.
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