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.

Interpretivism research methods.png

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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Some (Relatively) Recent Examples of Participant Observation Studies

Participant observation is one the main research methods on the A level sociology syllabus, but many of the examples in the main text books are painfully out of date.  This post provides some more recent examples of research studies which employed participant observation as their main research method.

Covert Participant Observation

Pearson’s (2009) covert participant observation study of Blackpool Football Club’s supporters

Pearson carried out covert participant observation of supporters of Blackpool Football Club between 1995 and 1998. He was known to other supporters as a student pursuing a degree in law, but his status as an academic researcher was unknown to them. His approach was to meet up with them in the pub before a match or sometimes on entering the stadium, and to meet up with them afterwards for a drink. He attended seventy-eight matches but notes that because he did not live in the area, he was unable to observe the supporters outside of a football context.

He chose Blackpool F.C. because it was close to Lancaster, where he was a student, and because of its reputation as having problems with football hooliganism. He seems to have been able to gradually insinuate himself into the supporters’ world by being recognised as a regular fan. Pearson played up his knowledge of the game and the club and was able to integrate himself into their world.

Dr Geoff Pearson – only committed ‘minor’ offences while doing covert research

Pearson says of his research…’ whilst it was possible to avoid committing some individual offences, a refusal to commit crimes on a regular basis would have aroused suspicions and reduced research opportunities. As a result I committed ‘minor’ offences (which I tentatively defined as those would not cause direct physical harm to a research subject). My strategy was to commit only the offences which the majority of the research subjects were committing and that I considered necessary to carry out the research. Furthermore, whilst I would commit lesser offences with regularity, I would, if possible, avoid more serious ones.’ (Pearson, 2009).

You can read an interview with Dr Geoff Pearson here.

Pearson’s research is a good example of covert research in which Pearson participated fully with the activities of the group…he was a ‘covert full member’ of the group he was observing.  

Overt Participant Observation

Khan’s (2011, 2014) ethnography of an elite high school in the United States

The majority of ethnographic work seems to have been carried out with (on?) the poor and the marginalised, Khan’s work provides us with a rare ethnographic study of an elite institution.

Khan says: ‘ethnography is a method wherein the scholar embeds himself in the relations under study, spending long periods of time with research subjects. For me, it meant getting a job at St. Paul’s School… I moved into an apartment on campus, and… observed the daily life of the school. After my years at St. Paul’s I returned many times, and I sought out alumni to interview and discuss some of the things I’d learned (Khan 2014).

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul’s School – link to Amazon. The first few reviews summarise aspects of the book!

Similarly to Pearson, Khan is also a full member of the group which he is observing, it’s just that his group knows he is doing research.

In contrast to Pearson’s research, this ethnography by Khan illustrates one of the main advantages overt participant observation has over covert: you can carry on collecting data from the respondents afterwards!

Mears’s (2011) ethnography of the world of the fashion model

Ashley Mears (NB this may have been before she started her formal research!)

‘Two and a half years would be spend in participant observation, or more like ‘observant participation’ (a term borrowed from Wacquant 2004) working for both agencies in the full range of modelling work, including five Fashion Weeks, hundreds of castings, and dozens of jobs in every type of modelling work – catwalk shows, magazine shoots in studios and outdoors…. I sat besides bookers at their table in the office drank with them at their favourite pubs, and hung out with them backstage at fashion shows. As I was nearing the end of the participant observation phase… and withdrawing from modelling work, I formally interviewed a sample of bookers, managers and accountants’ (Mears, 2013).

Mears’s ethnography is reviewed in this London School of Economics book review post

In contrast to Khan’s research, Mears explicitly puts the observation before the participation, which suggests she is less immersed in the day to day life of her group than Kahn was.

Sampson’s (2013) ethnographic research on international seafarers

In April 1999, Sampson boarded her first cargo ship. ‘Contrary to my fears, the crew of Swedish and Filipino seafarers welcomed me into their lives and for forty-two days I lived and worked alongside them, painting the ship with them, venturing ashore to Seamen’s bars with them, laughing with them, even dancing and singing with them’. (2013)

Sampson’s study actually won Thinking Allowed’s first ethnography award in 2014 – A summary of the research can be found at the end of the show here – Thinking Allowed ethnography awards 2014.

This final example is what Bryman refers to as a ‘participating’ observer’ rather than a ‘full member’ – Sampson is working for the shipping company with the men on a very temporary basis.

The above four examples of participant observation studies are all taken from Bryman’s (2016) research methods book. Bryman ranges several studies (23 in total) on a scale ranging from ‘full member’ through to ‘partially participating observer’ down to ‘non-participating observer with interaction’.

Students might find it interesting to note that the well known study ‘Gang Leader for a Day’ (Venkatesh, 2008) is in Bryman’s ‘minimally participating observer’ category, 17th out of 23rd on the above scale, which makes it closer to a non-participant study! Actually I’ve read it, and I can see his point.

Sources

Bryman, Alan (2016) Social Research Methods, Oxford University Press

Related Posts

Participant Observation in Social Research

 

Qualitative Data – Strengths and Limitations

Qualitative data includes….

  • Open question questionnaires
  • Unstructured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Public and private documents such as newspapers and letters.

Theoretical strengths

  • Better validity than for quantitative data
  • More insight (Verstehen)
  • More in-depth data
  • More respondent-led, avoids the imposition problem.
  • Good for exploring issues the researcher knows little about.
  • Preferred by Interpretivists

Practical strengths

  • A useful way of accessing groups who don’t like formal methods/ authority

Ethical strengths

  • Useful for sensitive topics
  • Allows respondents to ‘speak for themselves’
  • Treats respondents as equals

Theoretical limitations

  • Difficult to make comparisons
  • No useful for finding trends, finding correlations.
  • Typically small samples, low representativeness
  • Low reliability as difficult to repeat the exact context of research.
  • Subjective bias of researcher may influence data (interviewer bias)
  • Disliked by Positivists

Practical limitations

  • Time consuming
  • Expensive per person researched compared to qualitative data
  • Difficult to gain access (PO)
  • Analyzing data can be difficult

Ethical limitations

  • Close contact means more potential for harm
  • Close contact means more difficult to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality
  • Informed consent can be an issue with PO.

Nature of Topic – When would you use it, when would you avoid using it?

  • Useful for complex topics you know little about
  • Not necessary for simple topics.

Crunch Paragraph/ Conclusion – Generally, how important is qualitative research to Sociology?

  • More hassle practically, lacks objectivity, but good for validity which is probably the most important factor required when doing research.

 

 

Evaluate the View that Theoretical Factors are the most Important Factor Influencing Choice of Research Method (30)

Just a few thoughts on how you might answer this in the exam. 

Introduction – A variety of factors influence a Sociologist’s decision as to what research method they use: the nature of topic, theoretical, practical and ethical factors.

Theoretical factors – Positivism vs Interpretivism – Positivists are interested in uncovering the underlying general laws that lie behind human action. They thus prefer quantitative methods because these enable large samples to be drawn and allow for the possibility of findings being generalised to the wider population.

They also prefer quantitative methods because the data can be put into graphs and charts, allowing for easy comparisons to be made at a glance.

Another method that is linked to the positivist tradition is the experiment – laboratory experiments allow researchers to examine human behaviour in controlled environments and so allow researchers to accurately measure the effects of one specific variable on another

Interpretivists generally prefer qualitative methods which are regarded as having high validity. Validity is the extent to which research provides a true and accurate picture of the aspect of social life that is being studied. Most sociologists would agree that there is little point doing sociological research if it is invalid.

Theoretical factors – Validity – Qualitative methods should be more valid because they are suitable for gaining an in depth and empathetic understanding of the respondent’s views of life. Qualitative methods are flexible, and allow for the respondents to speak for themselves, which avoids the imposition problem as they set the research agenda. Qualitative methods also allow for rapport to be built up between the respondent and the researcher which should encourage more truthful and in depth information to flow from the respondents.

The final reason why qualitative methods such as Participant Observation should yield valid data is that it allows for the researcher to see the respondents in their natural environment.

Theoretical factors – Reliability – Is the extent to which research can be repeated and the same results achieved. Positivists point out that it is more difficult for someone else to replicate the exact same conditions of a qualitative research project because the researcher is involved in sustained, contact with the respondents and the characteristics and values of the researcher may influence the reactions of respondents.

Moreover, because the researcher is not ‘detached’ from the respondents, this may detract from his or her objectivity. Participant Observers such as Willis and Venkatesh have, for example, been accused of going native – where they become overly sympathetic with the respondents.

Interpretivists would react to this by pointing out that human beings are not machines and there are some topics that require close human contact to get to the truth – sensitive issues such as abuse and crime may well require sympathetic researchers that share characteristics in common with the respondents. Interpretivists are happy to forgo reliability if they gain in more valid and in depth data.

 Representativeness – Obviously if one wants large samples one should use quantitative methods – as with the UK National Census. However, one may not need a large sample depending on the research topic.

 Practical Factors – Practical issues also have an important influence on choices of research method. As a general rule quantitative methods cost less and are quicker to carry out compared to more qualitative methods, and the data is easier to analyse once collected, especially with pre-coded questionnaires which can simply be fed into a computer. It is also easier to get government funding for quantitative research because this is regarded as more scientific and objective and easier to generalise to the population as a whole. Finally, researchers might find respondents more willing to participate in the research if it is less invasive – questionnaires over PO.

However, qualitative methods, although less practical, may be the only sensible way of gaining valid data, or any data at all for certain topics – as mentioned above UI are best for sensitive topics while participant observation may be the only way to gain access to deviant and criminal groups.

Ethical Factors – Ethical factors also influence the choice of research methods. In order for research to gain funding it will need to meet the ethical guidelines of the British Sociological Association. How ethical a research method is depends on the researcher’s efforts to ensure that informed consent is achieved and that data is kept confidential and not used for purposes other than the research.

Real ethical dilemmas can occur with covert participant observation. However, sometimes the ethical benefits gained from a study may outweigh the ethical problems. McIntyre, for example, may have deceived the hooligans he researched but at least he exposed their behaviour.

Howard Becker also argued that there is an ethical imperative to doing qualitative research – these should be used to research the underdog, giving a voice to the marginalised whose opinions are often not heard in society.

Nature of topic – There are certain topics which lend themselves naturally to certain modes of research. Measuring how people intend to vote naturally lends itself to phone surveys for example while researching sensitive and emotive topics would be better approached through UI.

Conclusion – In conclusion there are a number of different factors that interrelate to determine a sociologist’s choice of research method – practical, ethical, theoretical and the nature of the topic under investigation. In addition, sociologists will evaluate these factors depending on their own individual values. Furthermore it is too simplistic to suggest that sociologists simply fall into two separate camps, Positivists or Interpretivists.  Many researchers use triangulation, combining different types of method so that the advantages of one will compensate for the disadvantages of another.

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’.

Is Sociology A Science?

This post contrasts the Positivist view that sociology can be an objective science with the Interpretivist view that we need an interpretive understanding of human action; it then looks at Bruno Latour’s view that scientific knowledge is socially constructed, Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm critique of science, and Sayer’s Realist view of science based on the difference between open and closed system; finally it looks at postmodern views of science. 

sociology-and-science

What is a Science?

The Positivist Approach

  • Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) illustrates the positivist view of science. It is the most influential on sociology. Durkeim’s views are based on the following principles:
  • There are objective facts about the social world and they are expressed in statistics.
  • These facts are not influenced by the personal beliefs of the researcher.
  • Having collected stats, you should look for correlations which can reveal causal relationships
  • Durkheim believed human behaviour can be explained by external stimuli
  • By following this approach it is possible to uncover the laws of human behaviour
  • To be scientific, you should only study what you observe. It would be unscientific to study people’s emotions.
  • Durkheim’s approach is inductive – it involves starting with the evidence and then deriving theory.

Questioning Sociology as Scientific

Differences between society and the natural world

The three criticisms below hinge on the idea that the social world is fundamentally different to the natural, physical world

  • Social action theorists argue the social world is socially constructed
  • You cannot understand the world, or human action without understanding the meanings people attach to their actions
  • Some postmodernists argue you can only understand the world through language, thus there is no way to observe it directly.

Problems of prediction

  • People have consciousness, they judge situations and how to respond to them based on their life-histories, and personal opinions, which we cannot know objectively.
  • Thus if sociology aimed to make predictions, it would always be proved wrong.

Questioning the Objectivity of Science

The ‘objectivity’ of the natural sciences has increasingly been questioned. In the 1960s a branch of sociology called ‘science and technology studies’ emerged which argues From this perspective, David Bloor (1976) argued that it is a mistake to see science as something which is apart from the social world, it is itself shaped by a range of social factors.

From this point of view, we should study the processes through which scientific knowledge is constructed, rather than accepting the scientific method as apart from society and ‘superior’

Bruno Latour: Science as the ‘construction of versions of reality’

  • Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) studied the way scientists did their research. They found that they spent a lot of time trying to win research grants (rather than doing actual research) and there was little incentive to disprove ideas
  • Scientists tended to form networks in which many individuals were all engaged in a ‘fierce battle to construct reality’, which could involve inventing special machines just to prove a theory true. If an individual challenged the version of reality being produced, they could be dis-enrolled from the network.

Thomas Kuhn: Paradigms and Scientific Revolutions

  • Kuhn noted that we tend to see scientists as objective and neutral, and working together to refine scientific knowledge, which is generally seen as evolving gradually, as new evidence helps to refine and develop existing theories.
  • Kuhn disagreed with this, arguing that the evolution of scientific knowledge is limited by what he called ‘paradigms’. A paradigm is a basic world-view which provides a framework for thinking about the world. It includes basic assumptions about the nature of reality, which limit the kind of questions scientists ask in their research.
  • According to Kuhn, most scientists build their careers working within the dominant paradigm, effectively ignoring any evidence which doesn’t fit in with their general framework, and any scientist who tries to ask questions outside of the ‘dominant paradigm’ is marginalised, and not taken seriously.
  • However, ‘rogue scientists’ who look at the world differently do exist, and engage in alternative research, and when sufficient evidence builds up which contradicts already existing paradigms, a ‘paradigm shift’ occurs, in which the old paradigms are rejected, and a new dominant paradigm comes into force.
  • One example of this is the science surrounding climate change. According to Sutton (2015) some (marginal) scientists were finding evidence of a link between the burning of fossil fuels and a warming climate in the 1950s, but this was largely dismissed by the scientific community until the 1990s, but today this is widely accepted.
  • In summary Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge shifted in a series of ‘revolutions’ as new ‘paradigms’ came to replace old ‘paradigms’; he is also suggesting that science should not be seen as being characterised by consensus – rather there are a number of competing paradigms within science, and not all of them get taken seriously by those with power.
  • Kuhn has been criticised by Lakatos (1970) – he argues that modern science is much more open to testing new ideas today than it was in the past.

 Realist Views of Science and Open and Closed Systems

  • Sayer suggests that there are two types of science – those which operate in closed systems, such as physics and chemistry, and those which operate in open systems such as meteorology.
  • Closed systems have only a limited number of variables interacting, all of which can be controlled, which makes it possible to carry out laboratory experiments and for precise predictions to be made.
  • However, sciences such as meteorology operate in open systems, where you cannot control all of the variables. These sciences recognise unpredictability.
  • Meteorology is still scientific – there are still forecasting models based on observation which allows us to predict with some degree of certainty when certain weather events will happen, and these models can, and are being refined.
  • Moreover, open systems sciences are engaged in trying to find ‘underlying structures’ which cannot be directly observed, such as magnetic fields, which can interfere with weather patterns.
  • Sayer argues that sociology can be scientific in the way meteorology is scientific, but not scientific in the way physics or chemistry can be scientific:
  • Quantitative sociology, for example can reveal hidden structures (such as the class structure), and make broad predictions about what percentage of people from a lower class background will fail, compared to those from a middle class background, without being able to predict exactly who will fail, and without us being able to SEE that class structure directly.

Modernity, Postmodernity and Science

  • The scientific world view and the idea of scientific sociology evolved out of the enlightenment and modernity – the belief that there was ‘one truth’ and science could reveal it.
  • Postmodernists challenge the idea that science produces the truth about the natural world. For Rorty (1984) scientists have just replaced priests as the source of truth – we want experts to explain the world to us. However, there are still many unanswered questions about the nature of reality even with science.
  • Lyotard (1984) also criticises the view that science stands apart from the natural world. He argues that language shapes the way we think about the world, and while scientific language may open our eyes to some truths; it just closes our eyes to others.

Summary – Can Sociology Be Scientific?

  • Early positivists suggested that sociology should aim to be scientific – this has largely been rejected
  • Interpretivists reject this because they believe reality is social reality is different to natural reality – we need to understand meanings.
  • Moreover, many people such as Kuhn argue scientific knowledge is also socially constructed
  • Sayer believes there is a ‘half way house’ – we can still do quantitative ‘scientific sociology’ in an open systems ways – many people within sociology subscribe to this.
  • Postmodernists reject the view that we should be scientific in any way, this closes our minds.

Related Posts 

Positivism and Intereptivism – A Very Brief Overview

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Sources used to write this post include:

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book, Collins.

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.