Overview of Positivism, Interpretivism, and Realism
Positivism — Positivists aim to explain social phenomena in terms of the ‘collective conscience’ bearing down on individuals’ choices. Scientific research involves the ability to discover ‘social facts’ that determine individual behaviour.
• The researcher must be personally and systematically objective.
• Scientific research involves the ability to quantify and measure behaviour.
• They conduct research using quantitative research methods.
Interpretivism — Interpretivists aim to describe social behaviour in terms of the meanings and interpretations of the person who creates it.
• People have free will and they decide how to act rather than instantly react.
• Behavioural rules shift according to the context of the situation.
• The research method of participant observation is often used.
• The importance is on achieving greater validity.
• They conduct research using qualitative research methods.
➜ Humphries: Although participation is desirable to get a deeper insight into behaviour, there would be no objectivity that the positivists want. The importance is on achieving greater validity. Qualitative methods.
Realism — Realists believe that objective and subjective data is important to collect. For example, if studying crime, the empirical reality should be captured, and also the meanings/reasons for those actions.
• Realists use different methods to collect both quantitative and qualitative data.
Theoretical, Ethical, and Practical Considerations of Research
The theoretical issues related to the Positivist and Interpretivist dichotomy within sociology:
- The concept of validity: The extent to which a research method measures what it intends/claims to measure.
- The concept of reliability: The extent to which a research method effectively generates consistent results and replicable findings.
Positivists and interpretivists want to collect different types of data.
Realists, therefore, say that a mix of methods (data triangulation) can be used to satisfy different types of research questions within the same topic.
In turn, this relates to the theoretical perspectives (Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism, and Realsim) held by sociologists.
- Functionalism: Functionalists focus on the aspects of society which show how social institutions contribute to the maintenance of society.
- Marxism: Marxists focus on aspects of society relating to inequality, conflict and division.
- Feminism: Feminists focus on issues within society that are related to gender inequality and patriarchy.
- Interpretivism: Interpretivists focus on how individuals interact to create a sense of society. They also try to find the reason behind behaviours.
- Access to those being studied: It is easier for researchers to study easily accessible groups such as the general public. However, if the sample is only accessible in a closed setting, it will be difficult gaining access.
Schools, hospitals, religious cults, etc., are examples of closed settings from which it would be difficult gaining access to a sample.
- Time: Does the research have a short or long period?
- Cost: How much money does the researcher have? Large-scale research is very expensive and beyond the means of most sociologists. Hence, they will require a funding source.
However, your funding sources will limit aspects of your research. For example, the data and results found.
- The Researcher: The values held by the researcher. Whether the researcher has any personal or financial stake in the outcome of the study. Whether the research is ethical to study, and the topic is safe for the researcher to study?
- Informed Consent: Research participants should be offered the right to withdraw. They should know enough about the research to give informed consent. Participants must be debriefed after the study.
- Confidentiality and Privacy: Participants’ identities should be kept anonymous. Data must be kept confidential.
- Effects on Research Participants: Researchers should be aware of the possible effects of the research on the participant; for example, legal issues, and psychological harm.
- Vulnerable Groups: Particular care should be taken when researching certain vulnerable groups in society. For example, their age, disability, and physical and mental health.
- Safety: Everyone involved in the study must be physically and psychologically safe.
Studies which are deemed unethical:
➜ Milgram: Experimenting and causing distress to people who were unaware that they were being studied. Explain in the exam paper the reasons - electric shocks and authority.
➜ Rosenhan’s study tricked doctors into cooperating with students who faked schizophrenia.
Three ways in which a study may be influenced by sources of funding:
- Bias and interference: The research funding agencies expect the research to be to their advantage. Funding agencies might interfere with every part of the study, and the choices of researchers would be scrutinised by funders.
- Distortion of data: Funding agencies could distort the data as they have an ulterior motive.
- Selection and presentation of research subjects/respondents - a biased sample leads to biased responses.
Validity, Ecological Validity, Reliability, Objectivity, and Representativeness in Research
- Validity – The extent to which the study measures what was intended to measure.
- Ecological validity – The extent to which findings represent behaviour in real-life situations.
- Reliability – Refers to the effectiveness of the research approach in producing consistent results. Reliability can be checked by replicating the study.
- Objectivity – The concept that truth is independent of individual subjectivity.
- Representativeness – The extent to which the findings are generalisable to the target population.
Triangulation and Methodological Pluralism
Triangulation: When more than one research method is used to collect data on the same topic. All data collected can only be either quantitative or qualitative.
Triangulation is used to assure the validity of the research.
3 types of triangulations in research:
- Researcher triangulation – When different researchers used to interpret data to ensure validity.
- Data triangulation – When different sampling strategies (data collection at different times, and contexts, from different people).
- Theoretical triangulation – When different theoretical viewpoints are taken to explain social behaviour in the best way.
Methodological Pluralism: To ensure validity and reliability, more than one method is used to collect both qualitative and quantitative data. A holistic picture of the topic is gathered.
➜ Eileen Barker studied a religious sect, the ‘Moonies’ who were accused of brainwashing students. Barker implemented methodological pluralism to collect data about the Moonies.
Research methods used in the study: Overt participant observation, questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews.
➜ Weber said that a study should use both qualitative and quantitative data.
Implementing more than one research would require more time effort, funding, and researchers to carry it out.