Positivism and Interpretivism are two very important, and very different approaches to sociological research and study. Here are some key features of these two positions, which highlight the fundamental differences between them.
1) Associated with ‘scientific method’
- Positivists believe the social sciences can be as rigorously scientific as the natural sciences
- Theories and ‘hypotheses’ can be generated and then tested using direct observation or ‘empirical’ research
- Positivists are most likely to use ‘quantitative’ analysis using statistical methods etc
2) Believe in value-free, objective research
- Using interpretivist research methods make it impossible to see beyond our own personal baises and experiences.
- A scientific methodology allows us to gain objective, trustworthy and generalisable data, more beneficial to sociological theory.
1) Our knowledge of the world is ‘socially constructed’
- Knowledge is not ‘objective’ and ‘value-free', but is transmitted to us through ideas, discourses and experiences.
- There are no simple 'facts', only interpretations of the world.
2) The type of ‘objective’ and scientific social science which positivists attempt is simply not possible.
- Attempting to discover 'facts' wastes time that could be spent attempting to udnerstand the ways in which different people interpret the world.
- It is not possible to make valid causal statements or predictions about the social world.
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 and Interpretivism
- Positivistsprefer 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
- 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.
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
What are Social Facts?
Research Methods Key Terms
Official Statistics in Sociology
Max Weber’s Social Action Theory
The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary
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External Posts I Like
S-Cool – Positivism (click through for Interpretivism)
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