Introduction to theory

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Introduction to theory

These notes are concerned with explaining how theory underlies sociological research. Anybody has to decide what to research and how to research. That decision is made on the basis of assumptions.

  1. The nature of reality, and how we can know it.
  2. The sort of information required.

In sociology, two different assumptions about the nature of our world have given rise to different and opposed research traditions: positivism and phenomenology.

There are a number of key terms used here, that, while not common currency at 'A' level, are very useful for organising your thinking, and getting extra marks:

Ontology: The nature of reality. Is reality external to the individual imposing itself on individual consciousness; or is reality a product of individual consciousness, actively created by individuals through interaction?

Epistemology: Knowledge. Is knowledge an accumulation of objective 'facts' or is it based on subjective experience?

Human nature: Free will (voluntarism) or Determinism. Does society create us or do we create society?

Methodology: How can we acquire knowledge? This depends on what counts as knowledge and the view of reality. Nomothetic methodologies argue that there are regularities in the social world that can be measured and used to predict behaviour. In nomothetic theory, individual/subjective consciousness is seen as unimportant since the individual is propelled by external forces. Idiographic methodology sees reality in terms of individual subjective experience, concentrating on how individuals perceive situations.

Methodology = ontology, epistemology and method.

There are different kinds of truth! To believe in God is for the believer a belief in a truth - God exists. This type of ' ' is perhaps best viewed as a belief or 'faith'. Another type of truth depends on 'authority' - a doctor tells you that you have a disease. Another type of truth is 'common sense' - stealing is wrong; this is simply a normative agreement. Finally, a person might argue that a picture or piece of writing is beautiful - an aesthetic truth.

What links all the above truths is that they are statements that something 'is the case'. What makes 'scientific' truth different is that it does not rest on an assertion of the truth but on its demonstration. Science shows something to be true by producing data that backs-up an assertion. Sociology was founded as a scientific discipline and many sociologists would describe themselves as social scientists, they are committed to empirical demonstration of the claims that they make.

However, what it means to show something is the case is not agreed upon even by philosophy, and some sociologists reject the 'conventional' scientific approach completely. There are three broad philosophical positions that dispute the question of how best to study humans. They are:

  1. Positivism.
  2. Realism.
  3. Interpretivism (Humanism).

Sociology has, throughout its history, had a central - and to date - unresolved (and unresolvable?) theoretical problem - namely, how should sociological research proceed. Unlike the picture traditionally (but not so much now) presented by the natural sciences, sociology does not have a universally agreed picture (paradigm) of the nature of reality. Put simply, different sociologists see the nature of their subject and the possibilities and limitations of research in opposed ways.

You are not expected to resolve this theoretical nightmare, and indeed, some sociologists such as Pawson regard the theoretical argument as an intellectual 'red herring'. You should, however be able to comment in an informed way on the opposed philosophical traditions of positivism and interpretivism (also sometimes referred to as humanistic or phenomenological), and give examples of research conducted using the methods of each tradition.