Taking Two Of The Theoretical Approaches To Social Research Discussed In The Module, Demonstrate The Connections Between Their Ontological, Epistemological And Methodological Assumptions. Which Method Or Methods Would Proponents Of Each Theory Favour As A Result Of Their Assumptions.
In order to understand the production of sociological knowledge one must first examine the thought processes that lay behind each piece of research. Before a particular subject matter is researched, the researcher firstly makes certain assumptions about that matter. These assumptions differ dependent on the theoretical approach that is taken. They can be divided into three logical areas, namely ontology, epistemology and methodology.
Sociologists researchers first make ontological assumptions. That is to say, they decide what they are studying or what should be studied. They decide what the subject matter consists of and the meanings behind it. They must consider the social reality and the nature of being, in relation to the subject matter.
Having satisfied this researchers then make epistemological assumptions surrounding the subject matter. They must decide on the type of evidence to be collected, considering which evidence will deliver optimum validity. They must decide which stance to take during research, objective or neutral, considering which would be possible or even favourable. They must then think about how this can be best achieved. Should the research be classified as ‘scientific’ or ‘unscientific’ and what determines this?
Based on the preceding ontological and epistemological assumptions a researcher then makes methodological assumptions. Having decided on exactly what is to be studied the researcher then decides how the research can best be managed thus formulating a plan of action. Considerations include whether the research used should be primary or secondary. Whether one will test an existing hypothesis or whether one will construct a theory after having collated evidence. Finally one can draw conclusions as to which strategy to implement with the ultimate goal of producing the type of knowledge that is required. This then results in the type of method or methods of research to be used.
To investigate this further I will discuss these assumptions and identify particular methods favoured in relation to two contrasting theories, critical and standpoint theory and positivism.
From a positivists perspective the world is an objective entity, therefore reality is what can be perceived by our five senses. This stance excludes unobservable human experiences or ‘feelings’ from social knowledge as these are subjective. In line with these beliefs comes the scientific belief of ‘cause and effect’. For example, when salt is placed into water, it becomes saline. Positivists would argue that natural scientists’ laws of cause and effect can be applied in social science. That is that one social phenomenon is linked to another. For instance, a positivist might agree that young men are more likely to commit crime than young women because the boys were given ‘greater freedom’ by their parents, whilst dismissing other notions such as ‘crime proves masculinity’ In this example one observable phenomenon is linked to another. In essence, social facts influence human behaviour or as Babbie (1979, p.423) summed it up, ‘some things are caused by other things.’
Having made these ontological assumptions it is logical to understand that the indicators and validation of satisfactory evidence are to be found on the discovery of the existence of scientific laws which control and conduct social life. It is also logical to understand that the researcher should remain neutral as only objective knowledge or reality constitutes evidence. The researchers own beliefs and values must not be allowed to taint the investigation for genuine causes of behaviour. In order for a piece of research to be classified as scientific it must be based on sense data, i.e. that which is observable. Only by using this empirical evidence can the existence of scientific social laws be proven. This scientific approach fails to take into account the differences between people and the objects of the natural science. (Bryman 1990 p.3).
As a positivist’s aim is to remain neutral and objective whilst researching, a hypothetico-deductive approach is taken. Social science laws are as predictable as natural science laws. Previous knowledge of what is ‘to be’, can be used to formulate hypotheses. For example, ‘Drink driving causes road accidents’. We know this to be true, but we also know road accidents can be attributed to other causes. Researchers must select the most likely explanation to hypothesise. By means of deduction the researcher can then test the hypothesis or theory by measuring or quantifying each time a link is shown between cause and effect. This method allows a relationship to be either proven or disproven based on empirical facts.
There is now an obvious link for the positivist to require research methods that are easily quantifiable. The methods chosen also have to produce neutral, empirical evidence to either prove or disprove relationships between social phenomena. There are a number of appropriate methods which can be utilised by the positivist researcher, all measurable and fairly neutral. A researcher can rely on one particular method or use methods in combination to further validate information gathered. The most suitable methods are structured surveys/questionnaires or the secondary analysis of existing statistics. These methods are particularly useful for generating large volumes of data. Other methods are variable analysis or content analysis which lend perfectly in proving or disproving hypotheses. All the methods mentioned produce some form of statistical information. One prominent study using quantitative methods has been Hirschi’s study of the Causes of Delinquency (1969). Using various methods including variable analysis and questionnaires, Hirschi set out to find links between social phenomena and thus explain the causes of delinquency. He concluded in his findings, ‘The casual chain runs from academic incompetence to poor school performance to disliking school to rejection of the schools authority to the commission of delinquent acts.’ (p.132) This is a classical piece of positivist research, relying on a social scientific hypothetico-deductive approach.
Critical and standpoint theory
This theory is very different from the positivist theory. Positivists assume it is possible to understand social problems regardless of who the researcher is. This is a key difference between the two theories as we shall later see. The theory’s emergence in the 1960s began to criticise earlier theories. It was found that these theories defined social problems as reflected by the dominant groups in society. That is to say, predominantly white middle class males. During the 1970’s critical theories of Marxism and Feminism gained prominence. Hirschi linked academic incompetence to poor school performance. Marxist theory might approach this from an alternative perspective perhaps concentrating on class inequalities and teacher pupil interaction . Did the teacher have lower expectations of working class children?
There followed attempts to reform or improve social research. Preceding research was viewed as examples of ‘bad science’ the solution being stricter adherence to the rules of science.
For a standpoint theorist there was a need to reconceptualise what counted as ‘scientific’ in social research. This became known as a successor science with new definitions and methodology.
From a standpoint point of view reality or material life is structured by relationships of gender, class, race, sexuality and so on. Therefore our understanding of social problems are based on our own experiences and what they mean to us. Our understandings are dependent on our own position within these structures and how we choose to explain them. Only with our own political interpretation of social problems can we then begin to understand them. Sociologists should therefore realise how dominance in society leads to oppression and in turn, distort interpretations of the causes of social problems.
Positivists see the understandings of dominant groups as partial and perverse. It could be due to simple naivete, that they are simply unaware of the problems experienced by oppressed groups. Additionally, it could be that they deliberately do not want to know as it would not serve their own political interests.
The understandings of the oppressed are more accurate and balanced. They have enlarged vision or the ability to view both sides of an account. Once achieving this less distorted view one is able to adopt a political standpoint. Sociologists should attempt to display how dominant understandings of social problems are distortions. For example, it is often said that people in receipt of state welfare benefits live a ‘cushy life’. This is simply a distortion of the truth and only someone who has experience of this can account a truer picture! Valid evidence is therefore more likely to stem from those that are oppressed. Standpoint theorists believe that since all research is biased to an extent, that it is best if the researcher is open about this. It is not possible to be neutral, therefore ones experiences, politics and values should be declared as they will inevitably influence the research. Research from a standpoint redresses the imbalance of mainstream research or ‘malestream’ research as it has become sarcastically dubbed by feminist researchers. Standpoint feminists Abbott and Wallace (1990) argue, ‘that since all depictions of reality are selective and partial, and since the selection is routinely male-biased in malestream sociology, all they are doing is rectifying this imbalance.’ There is however, a danger that one can become ‘over political’ and in turn affect the validity of a study.
Since this theory is aimed at improving the lives of the oppressed and redressing the imbalance in social research, it is logical to understand that the research be carried out by and for the group concerned. When this is not possible it is accepted that one should actively involve the subjects in the research. Researchers not belonging to the group concerned must first gain an overall understanding or awareness of any relevant issues before conducting any research. The subjects must be able to relay their own experiences and to raise any questions or issues that they may have. The research must be useful, ensuring that the reasons for the research are in the best interests of the oppressed and is necessary to bring about social change.
The methods favoured by standpoint theorists must give voice to the concerns of the oppressed. They must be able to be representative of those groups. This links this theory to qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing or participant observation. These methods would allow the researcher to come into close contact with the subject and allow the subject’s own point of view to be heard. Other methods can be used such as questionnaires, as long as they serve a useful purpose. As long they ultimately serve to improve the lives of the oppressed.
Using two theoretical approaches to social research namely, Positivism and Standpoint theory, I have demonstrated implicit connections in their respective assumptions. The ontological, epistemological and methodical assumptions are all integral facets of the understanding of social research. Once these are understood one can then draw conclusions as to which type or types of methods are appropriate to use.