When researchers decide to carry out investigations and studies, they must first decide how they are going obtain the accurate data, which they need to support their initial hypothesis and aim. Once the researcher has selected the topic, which they want to investigate, they need to choose the correct methods to collect their data. The choice of the methods they use depends on a number of factors.
For example, there are practical considerations, in some cases participant observation or researcher participation may be a better way of investigating behaviour in gangs, than asking the members to fill out questionnaires and participate in interviews. On the other hand, interviews, questionnaires may be better used in other research topic circumstances, in which they provide important statistical data, from which general conclusions can be generalised from. Halfpenny (1984)1, suggests that there are, ‘Two main research traditions or approaches to research with sociology”.
Firstly, there are Positivist researchers. These researchers, when deciding methods to use in their research use hard quantitative data, such as questionnaires and surveys, mainly using first hand primary data. They gather numerical data, for example questionnaires, which have several advantages. For example, questionnaires can save time, they can be given out to a large sample and results can be straight away collected. Then from this, you can translate the answers given into numerical form, often resulting in statistics, which can be used officially.
They do this for many reasons. Positivists state that by just observing an event, you cannot gather hard meanings, therefore they aim to measure behaviour by translating it into numbers, scientific, empirical data, believing that, ‘logic of inquiry is the same across all sciences (social and natural)’2. Through the use of scientific data, it allows us to gather accurate results. Hard evidence, empirical data is the best generator or results rather than arguments, which can be generalised too much and not show the true conclusions.
Also, they have the main goal of developing a, ‘ultimate goal is to develop the law of general understanding’ Julian (2002)3, meaning that if they create a perfect model of any circumstance, then by manipulating the variables in this condition, you can generalise any situation from the results of that one event. They do this mainly by laboratory experiments, as it allows them to control any outside factors, which they do not want. It is controlled and safe.
The main reason for using scientific methods is that it provides secure evidence, Gregon (1994), claims that, ‘the ultimate goal of science is to produce knowledge, regardless of politics, morals, values, etc. involved in the research. Science should be judged by logic’. In summarising Positivists, it can be seen that they try and use scientific, primary research methods to gain evidence, which allows hard, safe results, which can give out the correct results. Postal questionnaires and structured interviews are examples of primary methods, which fit in with the positivist approach to research.
An example of Positivist research that has been studied widely is crime. One studied with official statistics showed that, ‘young working class men are the most criminal group in our society’4. Positivist sociologists would then ask why this is and try to identify a small number of factors, which would explain this, gaining their conclusions from the hard evidence. An example of positivist research comes from Albert Cohen (1998)5. He suggested that Crime was a solution to the problem of status frustration.
Young men were frustrated in trying to gain status in legal ways and therefore by becoming delinquents and engaging in unsocial activities, they achieved a certain kind of higher status within their peers. By doing this, he could see cause and effect and determine casual relations. However there are many disadvantages to using scientific methods, mainly concerning ethics and the fact that if the evidence is gained from, say a laboratory experiment, then how far can you generalise it to outside life and everyday social interactions? Another sociological approach comes from sociologists known as Interprevists.
These researchers prefer to understand human behaviour by seeing the world through the eyes of those being studied. They believed that people give meaning to their own behaviour and to the behaviour of others. Therefore to understand their behaviour, you have to discover and interpret the meanings, which give their actions. These sociologists prefer to use research methods such as participant observation, meaning observing people by being part of their activities. They see these methods are suitable for discovering the meanings of their actions.
However, these also give out problems. Sometimes, by the researcher being part of the actual experiment, it concludes in all sorts of bias. The research may see the actions through a subjective viewpoint, rather than objective. They take into account their own feelings and emotions which may bias results. Also, in participant observations, when the researcher joins in a particular group, say a gang, then it is not a hundred percent guarantee that the gang members will act the way they would normally, they may alter their behaviour while the researcher is there.
As a result, any evidence or data gained can be said to be biased and inaccurate. Qualitative Researchers are sometimes seen as ‘story tellers’, this is because their findings are often presented in the form of a story line. [Immy Holloway 97]6 Interprevists would never use questionnaires are part of their research. They prefer qualitative data, not statistical data, by word data, so they can look at meanings and interpretations. They see it as, ‘unlikely to provide such freedom of expression”. 7 There may be social desirability bias; people may lie in the questions just to make themselves seem more better.
There is no guarantee that answers will be correct and truthful. Other examples of qualitative interprevists research methods are secondary resources such as documents and text. An example of interpretivist research comes from the topic of suicide. Atkinson (1978), states, that, ‘The job of the interpretivist sociologist is to discover why particular deaths are defined as suicides”. 8 Showing that sociologists should explain individually, rather than collectively (like positivists do), the explanations for suicide.
By using observations and inquests and coroner interviews, Atkinson was able to conclude that coroners have a preset idea of what a typical suicide victim is. For example road accidents are rarely seen as suicides, while drownings, hangings and drug overdoses are more likely to be put down as suicides. Therefore, this shows that you cannot generalise completely. There may be circumstances. By using official data, like Positivists do, you just generalise to one situation, you are not allowing any other conclusions to come from it, there may be exceptions, such as a road accident could have been intended rather than just an accident.
The interpretivist views allow us to see all aspects of a circumstance and generalise all to conclusions, instead of having one preset idea. By having a preset idea, the world does not work in that way, society has exceptions, so you should not collectively generalise situations. Societies are all different, so are individuals, so they should allow their owning meanings of situations to be put across.
It is said that, ‘qualitative research has traditionally been used predominantly in the Social sciences such as in Sociology’ Denzin & Lincoln (1994). 9 In conclusion, there are many different viewpoints on how researchers should choose their methods when studying a topic. While both sides have their pro’s and cons, either way can be used. Some circumstances call for one type of view to be used, for example Positivists, while another may need an Interpretivist viewpoint. Maybe a combination of the both can allow better results (triangulation).