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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What is Ontology and What is Epistemology?
Ontology is the nature of reality (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988) and the epistemology can be defined as the relationship between the researcher and the reality (Carson et al., 2001) or how this reality is captured or known. There are two dominant ontological and epistemological traditions/ideologies: 1)Positivism, 2)Interpretivism.
The positivist ontology believes that the world is external (Carson et al., 1988) and that there is a single objective reality to any research phenomenon or situation regardless of the researcher’s perspective or belief (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Thus, they take a controlled and structural approach in conducting research by identifying a clear research topic, constructing appropriate hypotheses and by adopting a suitable research methodology (Churchill, 1996;Carson et al., 2001). Positivist researchers remain detached from the participants of the research by creating a distance, which is important in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between reason and feeling (Carson et al., 2001). They also maintain a clear distinction between science and personal experience and fact and value judgement. It is also important in positivist research to seek objectivity and use consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al., 2001). Statistical and mathematical techniques are central to positivist research, which adheres to specifically structured research techniques to uncover single and objective reality (Carson et al., 2001). The goal of positivist researchers is to make time and context free generalizations. They believe this is possible because human actions can be explained as a result of real causes that temporarily precedes their behaviour and the researcher and his research subjects are independent and do not influence each other (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Accordingly, positivist researchers also attempt to remain detached from the participants of the research by creating distance between themselves and the participants. Especially, this is an important step in remaining emotionally neutral to make clear distinctions between reason and feeling as well as between science and personal experience. Positivists also claim it is important to clearly distinguish between fact and value judgement. As positivist researchers they seek objectivity and use consistently rational and logical approaches to research (Carson et al. 2001; Hudson and Ozanne 1988).
The position of interpretivism in relation to ontology and epistemology is that interpretivists believe the reality is multiple and relative (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). Lincoln and Guba (1985) explain that these multiple realities also depend on other systems for meanings, which make it even more difficult to interpret in terms of fixed realities (Neuman, 2000). The knowledge acquired in this discipline is socially constructed rather than objectively determined (Carson et al., 2001, p.5) and perceived (Hirschman, 1985, Berger and Luckman, 1967, p. 3: in Hudson and Ozanne, 1988).
Interpretivists avoid rigid structural frameworks such as in positivist research and adopt a more personal and flexible research structures (Carson et al., 2001) which are receptive to capturing meanings in human interaction (Black, 2006) and make sense of what is perceived as reality (Carson et al., 2001). They believe the researcher and his informants are interdependent and mutually interactive (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). The interpretivist researcher enters the field with some sort of prior insight of the research context but assumes that this is insufficient in developing a fixed research design due to complex, multiple and unpredictable nature of what is perceived as reality (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). The researcher remains open to new knowledge throughout the study and lets it develop with the help of informants. The use of such an emergent and collaborative approach is consistent with the interpretivist belief that humans have the ability to adapt, and that no one can gain prior knowledge of time and context bound social realities (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988).
Therefore, the goal of interpretivist research is to understand and interpret the meanings in human behaviour rather than to generalize and predict causes and effects (Neuman, 2000; Hudson and Ozanne, 1988). For an interpretivist researcher it is important to understand motives, meanings, reasons and other subjective experiences which are time and context bound (Hudson and Ozanne, 1988; Neuman, 2000).
The following table summarizes the differences between the two research paradigms:
Ontology and epistemological differences of positivism and interpretivism
(Adopted from Carson et al. 2001, p. 6)
Nature of ‘being’/ nature of the world
Have direct access to real world
Single external reality
No direct access to real world
No single external reality
‘Grounds’ of knowledge/ relationship between reality and research
Possible to obtain hard, secure objective knowledge
Research focus on generalization and abstraction
Thought governed by hypotheses and stated theories
Understood through ‘perceived’ knowledge
Research focuses on the specific and concrete
Seeking to understand specific context
Focus of research
Role of the researcher
Techniques used by researcher
Concentrates on description and explanation
Detached, external observer
Clear distinction between reason and feeling
Aim to discover external reality rather than creating the object of study
Strive to use rational, consistent, verbal, logical approach
Seek to maintain clear distinction between facts and value judgments
Distinction between science and personal experience
Formalized statistical and mathematical methods predominant
Concentrates on understanding and interpretation
Researchers want to experience what they are studying
Allow feeling and reason to govern actions
Partially create what is studied, the meaning of phenomena
Use of pre-understanding is important
Distinction between facts and value judgments less clear
Accept influence from both science and personal experience
- Berger, P. L., and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Irvington Publishers.
- Black, I. (2006). The presentation of interpretivist research. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 9(4), 319–324.
- Carson, D., Gilmore, A., Perry, C., and Gronhaug, K. (2001). Qualitative Marketing Research. London: Sage.
- Churchill, G. A. (1996). Basic Marketing Research (3rd Ed.), Fort Worth, TX: The Dryden Press.
- Hirschman, E. C. (1985). Primitive Aspects of Consumption in Modern American Society. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 237-249.
- Hudson, L., and Ozanne, J. (1988). Alternative Ways of Seeking Knowledge in Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research, 14(4), 508–521.
- Hunt, S. D. (1983). Marketing Theory. Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin
- Lincoln, Y., and Guba, E. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. London: Sage.
- Neuman, L. W. (2000). Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (4th Ed.), USA: Allyn and Bacon.
Dr. Prabash A Edirisingha
Faculty of Business and Law
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK