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What is Sociological Research? - Positivist, Interpretive and Critical Approaches

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  1. 0:06 Sociological Research
  2. 2:02 Positivist Sociology
  3. 3:30 Interpretivist Sociology
  4. 4:43 Critical Sociology
  5. 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Human society is a complex network, and there are many ways to study it. In this lesson, we'll look at three approaches to sociology: positivist, interpretive and critical.

Sociological Research

No one lives in a vacuum. People interact with society every day. Even if you stay in your room all day and don't go outside, you are still expected to obey the laws and rules of society. You might turn on your computer, watch television or read a book or magazine, all of which are influenced by society. In short, everyone is influenced by society.

Sociology is the study of human society and its patterns. Sociologists do research on the problems and development of societies and the ways that humans interact. For example, a sociologist might look at how a specific society deals with public health issues like obesity. What does the society do? How do people in the society view the issue? What things work to combat the problem?

Whether they are looking at class, gender, race, social movement or one of many other topics, sociologists do research by analyzing statistics, languages and the social movements of societies. There are three main lenses through which sociologists look at society: positivist, interpretivist and critical theories. Let's look closer at each one.

Positivist Sociology

Imagine that you are a sociologist. You've noticed a trend in your culture that voting is low among poor and young people. Older, richer people are still voting regularly, but people who are not part of the upper class and/or older generation are voting less and less as the years pass. You want to know why this is happening.

How do you go about studying this phenomenon? Positivist sociology studies the rules that govern behavior in society through a scientific lens. If you are a positivist sociologist, you are interested in the science of society. You want to apply the scientific method and scientific tools to your studies to find the natural laws of human behavior within society.

You know how people are bound by the laws of gravity? Science has tested and shown that gravity is a natural force that works on human bodies. Positivism looks at sociology the same way that scientists look at gravity; it says that there are certain natural forces that work on societies, and they should be studied in a scientific manner.

So, let's go back to our scenario. You're a sociologist, and you want to study why younger, poor people are not voting. As a positivist sociologist, you might look for an external force that causes this to happen. Is it because younger, poorer people are less educated and therefore less likely to follow elections?

Let's say that education is your hypothesized cause of lower voting among certain parts of society. You want to test this hypothesis using tools like surveys and statistical analysis. This is the essence of positivist sociology; you develop a hypothesis about the forces at work in society and test it using scientific tools.

The essence of positivist sociology is testing hypotheses using scientific tools
Positivist Sociology

Interpretivist Sociology

Positivism is only one way to approach sociology. Another way to look at society is to ask how people interpret the world around them and react to those interpretations. Interpretivist sociology looks at the way society is shaped by the interpretations of the world. This can be the way that subsets of society are viewed, how religious beliefs shape a society or a variety of other factors that might shape the way people interpret society and their role in it.

Sociologist Max Weber pointed out that sociologists come into their studies with a certain world view. This can shape the way that they do their research, but Weber stressed that sociologists need to set their own value systems aside and take seriously the values of the culture they are studying.

Remember the problem with voting that we want to study? One way to look at it is to ask the question of how people who are not voting are interpreting the world around them. Is voting not valued in that segment of society? Do they view their votes as not counting? These are interpretivist questions that could shape the way you study the problem.

Critical Sociology

Positivist and interpretivist sociology focus on answering questions so that we can understand the way that society works. These views see the purpose of sociology as describing or understanding society. But, what if we want to move beyond just description? What if we want to solve problems?

Critical sociology is a branch of sociology that focuses on studying society in order to change it for the better. Remember our question about voting: we've discovered that poor and young people are not voting. While positivist and interpretivist sociologists study the causes and stop there, critical sociologists will study the causes in an attempt to create a solution. For critical sociologists, then, the question is not simply why this segment of the population is not voting, but how we can use that information to convince them to vote more.

Lesson Summary

Sociology is the study of human society and its patterns. There are three major views on sociological research. The positivist view looks at underlying natural laws that shape society by using the scientific method. The interpretivist view looks at the way people interpret the world around them. Finally, critical sociology looks at both why society works the way it does, and what can be done to improve it.

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