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Research methods debates

What are the key debates related to Research Methods. How is sociology involved, and what are the popular discussions around sociology and research methods?

Is Sociology a science?

What sort of subject is Sociology? Is it a science in the same category as Biology or Physics or is it an arts or humanities subject like English or History? This debate raises key questions about the nature of sociology and the study of social structure and social relationships. Positivist sociologists take the view that sociology should strive to meet the criteria of a science. They believe that society exists independently of individuals and regulates their behaviour. ‘Social facts’ (Durkheim) can be observed and measured. This means that there are similarities between the social and natural worlds so a similar scientific methodology can be used to study the social world and natural world. In sociology this means adopting thehypothetico-deductive method where a hypothesis is developed and then tested using an objective procedure. Scientists use an experimental method but this is not always possible in sociology because variables cannot be controlled (although some field experiments are carried out). The nearest many sociologists can get to a scientific approach is using quantitative methods such as questionnaires and official statistics.

Interpretive sociologists on the other hand believe that people are not like chemicals and rocks because they plan, have ambitions, motives, anxieties and so on – they give meaning to the world around them and choose their actions based on that interpretation. This means that there are important differences between the social and natural worlds so sociology needs to use a different methodology to that used by the natural sciences. This involves using approaches which aim to uncover the meanings people give to their own and other’s actions. These approaches are ethnographic and involve trying to achieve verstehen – or empathy. Ethnographic methods involve participant observation, semi- or unstructured interviews and other qualitative sources of data.

Positivist sociologists criticise interpretive approaches for lacking reliability and representativeness – samples are small and the researcher gets personally involved in the data collection so the research cannot be repeated.

In reality most sociologists do not take either fully interpretivist or positivist positions. Some adopt a Realist position that believes that sociology can be scientific to the extent that research should be rigorous and as objective as possible, uncovering patterns in societies that are not immediately observable.

Can sociology be value free?

This is part of the debate about the extent to which sociology can lay claim to being scientific. Everyone has values and sociologists are no exception. But can they ignore these values and be objective or do their values inevitably affect their work?

The classic early sociologists such as Durkheim believed that objectivity was crucial if sociology was to be taken seriously as a science. Values needed to be put aside and research conducted in a systematic and scientific manner, using methods as close as possible to those used by the natural sciences such as physics and biology. This tradition later came to be known as positivism (see above).

Other sociologists argue that values may enter into the research process at any point. Choice of topic is influenced by the organisation funding the research, choice of methods may be quantitative or qualitative according to the researcher’s theoretical preference and analysis of data is always prone to subjective interpretations.

Perhaps sociologists should recognise the influence of values and deliberately take a particular side. The interactionist sociologist Howard Becker (born 1928) argued that sociology should take the side of the ‘underdog’ as the voice of the powerless is rarely heard. His views have influenced many ethnographic studies of deviant groups. Feminists and Marxists too believe that sociology should be committed to reducing inequalities; appearing value free merely plays into the hands of the dominant groups – the ruling class in the view of Marxism and men in the view of feminists.

A more practical solution may be to recognise the influence of values but to constantly question those values when doing research – an approach known as reflexivity.

How do sociologists select methods?

A range of practical factors influence the selection of methods. If the purpose of the research is to make generalisations based on large samples or to find out relatively straightforward factual information then quantitative methods are most suitable. On the other hand, if the aim is to uncover the meanings individuals give to their own and other’s actions then qualitative methods are a more suitable approach. Some research requires analysis of the interaction between group members so methods such as observation or group interviews need to be used which allow the researcher access to that interaction. If the research focuses on the past then using secondary data may be the only option.

Sociologists often research sensitive issues and deviant groups. In these situations in particular ethical issues (the moral principles that guide research) need to be considered. These are set out in the British Sociological Association’s Statement of Ethical Practice and include avoiding deception and ensuring that participants give ‘informed consent’. Ethical issues are one of the reasons why covert (hidden) research is relatively rare and why experiments, perhaps the classic method used by the natural sciences, are rarely used in sociology. Taking one twin away from its parents and observing its progress of the twins over the next ten years might provide great insight into the socialisation process but it is simply not ethically justifiable.

The theoretical preference of the researcher can also influence methodological selection. Interpretive sociologists are likely to use qualitative methods such as semi-structured interviews while more positivistic sociologists will opt for large scale surveys. In reality however, few sociologists fit neatly into these two camps and most will choose the methods that are ‘fit for purpose’; in other words, the methods most likely to achieve the aims of the research.