Outline and Explain Two Reasons Why Interpretivists Prefer to Use Qualitative Research Methods (10)

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.

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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.

Related Posts 

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.

Contents include:

  • 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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Scientific Quantitative Methodology in Sociology

Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.

This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.

Social Facts

The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.

According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:

  • they exist over and above individual consciousness
  • they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
  • each person is limited (constrained) by social facts

According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.

Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.

For a more in-depth account of social facts, have a look at this blog post: What are Social Facts?

Statistical data, Correlation, and Causation

Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.

The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.

If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.

Multivariate Analysis

Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.

Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.

Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.

Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour

A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.

According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.

Positivism and The Comparative Method

The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time

The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.

The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:

  • Moral problems are not as acute
  • The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
  • The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time

However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.

Related Posts

Positivism and Interpretivism in social research

Social Action Theory – criticises the positivist approach to social research, arguing that human consciousness is too complex to reduce to numbers.

 

 

Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

Positivists believe society shapes the individual and use quantitative methods, intepretivists believe individuals shape society and use qualitative methods.

Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two.

 

positivism-interpretivism

Positivism

  • Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.
  • Positivists see society as shaping the individual and believe that ‘social facts’ shape individual action.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research such as large scale surveys in order to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends, such as the relationship between educational achievement and social class. This type of sociology is more interested in trends and patterns rather than individuals.
  • Positivists also 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 just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • In positivist research, sociologists tend to look for relationships, or ‘correlations’ between two or more variables. This is known as the comparative method.

Interpretivism

  • An Interpretivist approach to social research would be much more qualitative, using methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation
  • Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that individuals are not just puppets who react to external social forces as Positivists believe.
  • According to Interpretivists individuals are intricate and complex and different people experience and understand the same ‘objective reality’ in very different ways and have their own, often very different, reasons for acting in the world, thus scientific methods are not appropriate.
  • Intepretivist research methods derive from ‘social action theory
  • Intereptivists actually criticise ‘scientific sociology’ (Positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed.
  • Interpretivists argue that in order to understand human action we need to achieve ‘Verstehen‘, or empathetic understanding – we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.

Positivism and Interpretivism Summary Grid 

Positivism and Interpretivism

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle

Theory Methods Revision CoverIf 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.

Contents include:

  • 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’.

Related Posts 

Links to more detailed posts on Positivism and Social Action Theory are embedded in the text above. Other posts you might like include:

Positivism in Social Research 

Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary

Links to all of my research methods posts can be found at my main research methods page.