Successful sociological research stems from a variety of factors. Clearly avoiding any ethical problems is a priority, as the safety and interests of those being researched and the researcher are paramount. However, to be successful, research must overcome any practical barriers, too, as these can impact on both the quantity and quality of the data collected. However, the nature of undertaking research that involves studying people means that it is not uncommon to encounter unintended consequences. Sociologists must always be alert to the fact that their research can have an impact on their respondents. It follows that conformity to professional ethical guidelines, such as those published by the BSA, is essential in the pursuit of successful research.
This is a detailed introduction focusing on the question.
Practical problems are often overlooked and not seen as so important in research but they can sometimes make or break it. An obvious starting point in considering factors that determine the success of research is the issue of adequate funding. Because research is expensive, without adequate funding the research proposal will have to be either reduced in scope or terminated prematurely. Either way the quality and quantity of data collected will be affected.
This paragraph examines the practical problems that can derive from funding issues.
Research can be time-consuming and therefore expensive. This is particularly the case with long-term research projects. If funding runs out prematurely then the research may be terminated. Another practical problem with long-term research is when participants drop out. When this happens the representativeness of the sample becomes undermined, lessening the value of the research.
The practical problem of time is unpacked in this paragraph. A good methodological point is made in the last sentence.
Sometimes the research method can be problematic for the researcher. If it is not the first choice of the sociologist, he or she may feel the research suffers from using a method he or she doesn’t feel comfortable with. However, the research situation often dictates which method would be most appropriate. Large samples necessitate the use of questionnaires. Therefore it is difficult to collect qualitative data when samples are large.
The problem of using methods that are not necessarily the ideal choice of the researcher can be problematic. This paragraph gives examples of how and why this situation might arise.
The career-based motives that lie behind a lot of research can shape the nature and extent of investigations. Because universities put enormous pressure on academics to publish their research, this means that what they choose to study is rarely a free choice. Research can be influenced by factors like their career specialism, what area might lead to funding or to promotion. It follows that whether research is qualitative or quantitative, such practical factors can shape it either positively or negatively by undermining its quality.
The issue of how pressure to publish from academic institutions and career aspirations can drive research and certain research areas is discussed here.
The first duty of any researcher is to obtain informed consent from the respondents. Sometimes this is not practical, as with the case of covert observation, which raises the interesting question as to whether all covert observations are ethically dubious unless shown to be appropriate and justified. Covert participation could be seen as unethical because deceit is essential. For non-covert research, participants must be able to sign their consent; they should be informed of the purpose and nature of the research; they should have the right to withdraw at any time; and they should not be made to participate under duress. However, it is worth noting that informed consent does not in itself make the research ethical.
The ethical issue of confidentiality and informed consent is discussed here. Note the two evaluative points at the end of the paragraph.
Another problem associated with participant research is the practical problem of ‘going native’. This refers to when researchers get too close to the people they are studying. While this can increase the quality of valid data, it can also be problematic by undermining the judgement and objectivity of the researcher. If a researcher is seen to side with one particular group in research this could lead to conflict or cause other groups to become resentful. Clearly, the dynamics of research and the interaction between researchers and their subjects can be problematic and professional judgement should always be used to ensure that research practice is correct and appropriate. However, any research that involves children is especially sensitive.
The potential problems of going native and professionalism are discussed here. A useful point about children is included at the end.
An essential ethical issue is that all respondents should be guaranteed anonymity and everything they say treated in the strictest confidence. A problem here is that identity can be inadvertently disclosed when research is published, simply from the way roles or situations are described. An essential feature of good research is that nobody should be harmed or disadvantaged, and inadvertently disclosing an identity could have serious consequences. Researchers must protect respondents, especially when researching sensitive issues where people are vulnerable. However, anonymity cannot be provided in research that involves focus groups as people voice their views in front of others.
The ethical issue of anonymity is discussed here. There is a good AO2 evaluative point in the final paragraph.
In conclusion it is clear that if researchers adhere to the professional research guidelines of the BSA then the risks of research becoming problematic are lessened. However, it follows that good research does involve overcoming the many practical and ethical issues that can render it problematic.
This is a short conclusion but one that refers back explicitly to the question, supporting the statement.
Can sociology be regarded as a science?
1 Positivism is a theoretical approach to research associated especially with the classical sociologists, who argued that the only approach to unbiased knowledge is through adoption of the methods of science. It is associated with the quantitative approach and research is centred on the collection of social facts. Durkheim demonstrated a positivistic approach in his famous study of suicide.
2 Durkheim used the term ‘social fact’ to refer to objective measurable facts that exist in society.
3 The term ‘empirical’ applies to data that can be measured or counted. Therefore the term ‘empirical evidence’ refers to supporting data that have been measured in an objective manner that can be subject to some form of verification. Thus empirical evidence of suicide statistics refers to the suicides that have been officially recorded by coroners — this does not necessarily prove, however, that it is a true reflection of suicidal behaviour; just that it is a measured amount.
4 The ‘hypothetico-deductive method’ is associated with the positivistic/scientific approach to research. It is centred on the deduction of a problem or relationship in a logical and systematic fashion that involves four stages: observation of a particular phenomenon; developing a hypothesis; experimentation; and analysis of the data collected. The hypothesis should then be either confirmed or rejected. If the latter occurs then another hypothesis needs to be constructed.
5 Quantifiability is important to positivists because adopting a scientific approach means that data collected are essentially numerical and factual. Statistics can therefore be compared, correlations identified and, if possible, cause-and-effect relationships established.
6 The research method most commonly used by positivists is the social survey in the form of questionnaires or structured interviews. Durkheim also favoured the comparative method, but this is not used exclusively by positivists as Max Weber also used it. Another method that could be used is the experiment, but sociologists do not commonly use this method.
7 Sociologists tend not to use experiments for many reasons:
The subject matter of sociology is different from the natural sciences. Our subject matter has consciousness, and therefore is aware it is being experimented on. As a consequence, behaviour may change and no longer be natural. This is referred to as the ‘experimenter effect’, which renders the data collected largely useless.
When scientists undertake experiments in the laboratory they ideally are able to isolate all variables except the one independent variable they are testing. With people it is impossible to control for all variables, so it is impossible to prove categorically that an outcome in the laboratory is due to an independent variable, or something that has influenced the person earlier in their life, such as socialisation, culture etc.
Many consider the very principle of experimenting on people as unethical. The subject of psychology is full of suspect experiments such as Milgram’s experiment on authority. It is claimed that researchers pay scant regard to the trauma and distress people can take away from the experiment.
8 Interpretivists’ starting point is that the subject matter of sociology is fundamentally different from the natural sciences as people are conscious and aware that they are being studied. In addition, their actions are voluntaristic and driven by meanings rather than being shaped by structures beyond people’s control. As a consequence, positivism is viewed as over-deterministic, ignoring people’s agency.
9 Weber used the term ‘verstehen’ to refer to the process of empathising with those being researched. He argued that the task of the researcher is to investigate how those being investigated interpret the world. In order to succeed in this task, the sociologist has to get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes. ‘Verstehen’ literally means ‘to understand’.
10 Realism is sometimes compared with peeling an onion because, unlike positivists, realists do not believe that social phenomena are necessarily observable. So just as the rings of an onion are only observable when the paper skin is removed, so the researcher has to probe beneath the surface of society to discover what is really going on.
11 Realists recognise strengths in the positivist approach and phenomenology and so attempt to break down the division between a preference for quantitative data (mainly by positivists) and the opposing view of interpretivists who insist on the primary importance of qualitative data. Therefore a realist approach will typically collect both quantitative and qualitative data.
12 The comparative method was developed first by Emile Durkheim within a positivist framework in his classic study of suicide. It supports the scientific approach to research as it involves the systematic comparison of apparently similar phenomena between societies or of groups in a society. However, it is also a method embraced by Max Weber who is most closely associated with the interpretivist approach to research. It is therefore a practical method that cuts across the traditional theoretical dichotomy of positivism/interpretivism and has been widely used by anthropologists in the past.
The interpretive approach was developed by Alfred Schultz and Edmund Husserl from the work and ideas of Max Weber. It developed as an alternative to the positivist approach associated originally with Comte and Durkheim who argued that sociology should adopt the same positivist approach that had enabled natural scientists to establish laws of nature. The interpretive approach regards this scientific approach as flawed as humans are distinctly different from the research matter of scientists and therefore cannot be studied objectively. However, the interpretive approach itself has been criticised for lacking rigour and inevitably resulting in subjective analysis. This essay will explore the merits of each and explore whether the logical approach is that of realism, combining the strengths of each approach.
This introduction focuses on the question and unpacks briefly the interpretive approach and how it developed as an alternative response to positivism. There is a brief critique of the interpretive approach with signposting of how the answer will progress. It gets the answer off to a good start — an important function of introductions.
The positivist approach embraces the scientific method. In addition, it should be viewed as a feature of its time of development: that is, a product of the period of modernity. The essence of positivism is that something can only be researched if it is directly observable. Positivists believe that external structural forces determine behaviour and ideas. Comte advocated an approach to research that embraced a rigorous methodology that would give sociology the same status as the natural sciences. To achieve this he stressed the importance of seeking out facts through observation in order to establish law-like regularities. However, although Durkheim supported this scientific method of inquiry, he felt that Comte was wrong to predict that it would one day lead to sociology being ‘the queen of sciences’!
Although this question is on the interpretive approach, it was felt necessary to discuss what preceded it and why it developed in opposition to it. The last evaluative point is interesting, as it differentiates Durkheim from Comte and offers a hint as to its potential weakness.
The interpretive approach completely rejects the deterministic view of positivism. It fundamentally disagrees with the assumption that people’s behaviour is shaped by external forces beyond their human control. Instead, interpretivists argue that human behaviour needs to be understood in terms of the meanings that lie behind people’s actions. Behaviour is thus linked to agency, rather than structures. Research is therefore embracing the approach of microsociology with the individual as the starting point and Weber’s ideas of social interaction. This approach focuses on the way individuals interact with one another and embraces Weber’s concept of ‘verstehen’, which means ‘to understand’. However, because understanding the social world depends so much on the interpretations of the researcher, it is argued that this could lead to a dangerous and subjective interpretation of people’s behaviour.
This paragraph outlines the interpretive approach in some detail and links it to the work of Weber and ‘verstehen’. Credit could have been given here to Schultz and Husserl who particularly developed the interpretive research position. A good evaluative point is made and there is a return to the question at the end of this paragraph.
It is argued by its advocates that interpretive sociology has produced some of the best sociological research. They argue that for sociology to really understand human behaviour it has to get to the heart of its subject matter, or as Hughes expressively stated: ‘get the seats of your pants dirty!’ As a consequence some amazing research has been undertaken into gangs (Whyte), schools (Willis) and religious groups (Barker’s participant observation of Moonies). However, critics argue there is always a danger of researchers getting too close to their subject matter, a process known as ‘going native’. If this happens, it will inevitably result in subjective and biased interpretations. Positivists thus argue a degree of distance and rigour is necessary in any research to remain objective and faithful to the truth.
This paragraph gives further justification of the interpretive approach. It is good to include examples; these are all classics and a little dated. Examiners will applaud evidence of awareness of recent research (Blundell and Griffiths, Sociology Since 2000 is a good source). Candidates could take a case study (or two) of interpretive sociology and write a paragraph either defending its approach (challenging the question) or criticising its approach (supporting the question). The evaluation point at the end again will secure AO2 marks and is a further reference back to the question.
Since the 1960s some sociologists, such as Berger and Luckman, have argued that the debate about structure versus agency is a sterile and meaningless exercise. Instead they have advocated a new approach embracing both action and structure. Their argument is that it is not possible to make sense of people’s behaviour without considering the sort of societies they live in. They have claimed that both the positivist and interpretive positions have some validity. People through agency create structures; however, once created, these structures shape and influence people.
There is an interesting inclusion of Berger and Luckman in this answer. They are not prominent sociologists, but their contribution to this debate is quite well known. Examiners will reward critical inclusions like this.
Anthony Giddens developed a similar idea through his theory of structuration whereby he argued that we cannot isolate structure and action from each other. His idea is an attempt to understand how people create structures but at the same time how structures constrain our actions. His bottom line is that if there were no structures, then human experience would not be possible. This fundamentally challenges the interpretive view that we can make sense of human behaviour by simply attempting to understand the motives that lie behind actions.
The work of Giddens and structuration theory is also an interesting inclusion. Like Berger and Luckman, he wants to get away from the idea that a valid approach is either structure or agency. Instead an approach that embraces both is advocated.
Realism recognises strengths in both the interpretivist and positivist approaches, yet it is also critical of key elements in both. Realists share the positivist view that the social world is made up of structures, but it disagrees that these are necessarily observable. It also shares the view of interpretivists that, because people have consciousness, they can both create and recreate the social world. Realists often adopt a triangulation approach to research and will collect both quantitative data and qualitative data, arguing that the strengths of each compensate for the weakness of the other.
The approach of realism is discussed and unpacked here. The paragraph could do with an evaluative point at the end of it.
Ray Pawson, as a realist, supports the premise of the question. He argues that the problem with the interpretive approach is that it can result in multiple interpretations. It therefore follows that there can never be any definitive, literal accounts of social action but only versions of why it has taken place, produced from the point of view of different observers. Therefore, realists criticise the interpretive approach on the grounds that if we have no access to the original data, how can this be objectively verified? With only descriptions of observations or accounts of interviews, we have to rely entirely on the researcher’s integrity in remaining unbiased.
The first sentence of this paragraph, mentioning the work of Pawson the realist, refers back to the question. Further critical ideas undermining the interpretive approach are discussed in the second half of this paragraph.
It is because of the problems discussed above that many research sociologists now embrace a combination of both interpretive and positivist approaches. By using this third approach of realism they can undertake research that embodies the strengths of each approach. The strengths of one approach can compensate for the weaknesses of the other. Therefore any risk of subjectivity in an interpretive approach can be balanced by the rigour and objectivity of the positivist nature of the realist approach. Realism, by advocating a triangular approach to methods and the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data, thus helps to overcome any accusation of subjectivity on the part of the researcher.
The approach of realism is reinforced here. There is further critical focus back to the question, which will be appreciated and rewarded by examiners.
In conclusion, although the interpretive approach can take some credit for producing engaging research, it does run the risk, as positivists have argued, of being little more than subjective interpretation. In response to this accusation, realists would argue for a third way that recognises both the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
This is a short but competent conclusion that is focused on the question. Note that conclusions do not have to be long, but are an essential part of an essay and should always return to the question.
AQA A2 Sociology Unit 4
Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods
Philip Allan, an imprint of Hodder Education © David Bown