Positivists vs Interpretivists

Halfpenny (1984) said that there are two main researcg traditions: interpretivism and postivism. Their views on the aims of researches differ, so they prefer different methods of collecting data.

POSITIVISM looks at the institutions in the society - macro sociology.
Positivists are concerned that sociology is scientific and anakyse social facts. Social facts affect individuals' behavour and can be easily measured. These factors are social external, for example, laws.
They look for what has caused a particular relationship and what are the effects of this relationship.
They favour quantitative data which can be easily turned into numbers and statistics.
They prefer using official statistics, structured interviews and questionnaires with close-ended questions.

INTERPRETIVISM (INTERACTIONISM) looks at the individual in the society - micro sociology.
Interpretivists are looking for meanings and motives behind people's actions like behaviour or interaction with others.
They criticise positivists, because statistics and numbers can't tell much about human's behaviour and that sociology is not a science. The methods that positivists used are also criticised - for example, respodents may not understand a question in a questionnaire or lie.
Interpretivists favour qualitative data - they try to analyse human's behaviour in depth and from the point of view of the individual. That's why they prefer unstructured interviews, where you can ask more about the question you are interested in and ask for details, and participant observation, which helps to understand the behaviour of the studied group by doing the same things and being in their atmosphere all the time.


Choosing a topic

This is the first thing you have to do when you decided to conduct a sociological research.
You should consider the following factors:

- Who is funding your research? The source of funding is very important. Charitable foundations (for example, Joseph Rowntree Foundation) will favour researches of lone-parent families or healthcare. Government organisations (Economic and Social Research Council) will support researches on political and economic views and on living conditions researches. Industries will fund market researches etc.
- Availability of the data on chosen topic, FBI is difficult to interview lol.
- Theoretical issues - Marxists will concentrate on the class, Feminists - on women etc.
- Researcher's values - what he thinks is important to study.
- Society's values - researcher might aim to change so stereotype views and therefore change society's views and values. Ann Oakley made the society to pay more attention to women's rights and equality with men, for instance.

Choosing a research method

When choosing an appropriate research method for a chosen topic, sociologists consider the following issues:

- Is it dangerous?
For example, studying gangs and crime authorities.
- How much will it cost?
- How much time will you have to spend on the research?
- How big will the sample be? Will it represent the population? Will it be easy to generalise the collected data?
- Is enough data available? Obviously, it's almost impossible to study FBI.

- Positivists tend to concentrate on the quantitative, 'hard', data like statistics. They are looking for causes and effects and prefer scientific approach. They will prefer questionnaires with close-ended questions and structured interviews.
- Interpretivists prefer qualitative data as it shows the meanings beyond the actions. They are more likely to use observation and unstructured interviews to get the data.

- Privacy. The respondents might regret about giving particular info during unstructured interview, for example.
- Confidentiality. Should the identity of the respondents be revealed? The Statement of Ethical Practise (1996) says that confidentiality must be honoured 'unless there are clear and overriding reasons to do otherwise'. For example, Homan (1991) says that the identity of people in powerful positions should be named if they misuse their power.
- Protection. The collected data might bring harm to someone. For example, Ditton's study (1977) of workers in a bread factoty revealed petty thefts - the publication his research might have affected them.
- Informed consent\deception. Should the respondents be informed that they are studied?
Many sociologists argue that the respondents should be informed about the research, its aims and process. However, awareness of the respondents might affect their behaviour thus provide inreliable or invalid results. This is known as the Hawthorne Effect.
On the other hand, there is deception - not informing respondents about a research or providing wrong information about the purpose of the study. This might be considered as unethical, but sometimes it's the only way to collect data. Cover observation includes deception. Or another example - Humphreys (1970) gathered info about gay men pretending that he was doing a health survey.

Primary data

Primary data is collected by researches. This includes:
- interviews
- questionnaires
- observations
- ethnography
- experiments

Both qualitative and quantative data can be collected.

You don't rely on other sociologists, you choose the most suitable method for you in order to make data valid and reliable. Primary data is up to date.
Some methods of collecting primary data are expensive and time-consuming, also dangerous.
You have to consider practical and ethical issues of your research, including the solution of the informed consent question (or your choice will be deception? isn't it unethical?).
Bias can occur if the reseacher is unobjective and his values might affect the result of the process.
Sometimes you cannot access the group you want to study.

Secondary data

Secondary data includes:

- official stats

- diaries

- letters

- memoirs

- emails

- TV documentaries

- newspapers

It's quickly collectable and easily comparable. 

It gives info about the past therefore the past and the present can be compared.

No need to worry about informed consent (making people awared that they are a part of a research or study)


- the data might be unreliable or invalid

- official stats might be biased

- sometimes the area you are particularly interested has not been studies before

- the original researcher's values might affect the way the data is presented - possiblity of misinterpretations is high

Content analysis

Quantitative content analysis - a research method which seeks to classify and quantify the content of a document.

- it can effectively measure simple straigtforward aspects of content

- it is easy to obtain and to make comparisons

- it's reliable

- however, researchers' interpretations might be biased or they might not agree with the content

- further explanation and interpretation of the data is needed

Qualitative content analysis looks for themes and meanings in media and documents. Interpretivists prefer this method because it uncovers hidden meanings. 

- it's valid

- however, because of different interpretations of the data, it's unreliable

John Scott (1990) says that sociologists should be very careful when analysing secondary data:

- the data might be fake

- the data might be not creditable - the researcher is lying

- the data might not be representative

- the data might be too old-fashioned and thus lots of old-fashioned meanings might affect the understanding of the content


Triangulation is when sociologists try to combine different methods or data to get the best out of all of them.

- it gives a more detailed picture and it's more valid

- it's reliable, because you can check different sets of data against each other

- it can be expensive and time-consuming

- sometimes triangulation cannot be done - not enough sources of data available, for example


sociology notes on education

today I will talk about labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy.

If people are defined in a certain way, this definition includes a prediction of their future behaviour. If others act as if the prophecy is true, then there is a tendency for it to come to fulfill itself.

In education there is a very common thing - labelling. If someone is labelled is as a certain kind of person, others will respond to them in terms of label.

I will give you some examples.
A student called D is labelled as the best one in class. The teacher puts this label on the student because of the student's abilities in a particular subject (simply because he has learned the subject in depth before). The teacher builds up his relationships with the student basing on this label, paying more attention to his progress etc.
A student called R is labelled as lazy and not working at all. The labelling happened after a certain period of time, when the student actually didn't show any interest or effort. Of course the teacher didn't realise that this might be because the student R saw how the student D was treated and understood that he is not able to achieve the same level (students are praised ONLY if they are at the same level with D), so he gives up.
Student K and L feel pretty the same as R and therefore don't do their best as they don't see any point in that.
Some students, like B, who tried to go against the label of the student D, were said to be angry and distruptive.
The student M is labelled as a troublemaker. Because of this label, he is never praised (label does not allow him to be praised), so the only thing he can do is actually.. deal with it. However, the student is accused of being the cause of the class's overall underachievement, just because of the label.

Or another example.
Students E and D are performing exactly the same in subject S - just perfect.
However, only one of them is frequently praised. Why is that? Maybe because of labelling.
Another student, M (do not confuse with the other one, who is an awful troublemaker and the cause of all problems), gave up after only one student in her class was praised. he was treated as a weak and confused student and in the end he gave up 2 weeks before the exams.