Methods Essay

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We can distinguish between: (1) methodology” as the theoretical understanding of basic principles, and (2) method” as research techniques (Abbot 2001). The topics discussed under methods often include both. A classical experimental design (CED), with random assignment to an experimental group and a control group, is a basic aspect of methodology. In most sociological research there is a multivariant approach. It would be very difficult to actually carry out an experiment on such multivariable models, hence we rely on path analysis” to simulate the logic of CED. The term methods is often used to primarily represent specific techniques of research, both quantitative and qualitative. All of the inferential statistics, parametric and non-parametric, may be studied as aspects of quantitative methods. Similarly, all aspects of ethnographic field-work, open-ended interviewing, and observation may be considered in the context of qualitative methods. There is also an interest in moving beyond the quantitative—qualitative distinction. There is a very vibrant literature on statistical techniques. For example, Karl Pearson’s (1900) product moment correlation coefficient” (rho, p) is based on a set of assumptions, including having data with a ratio or at least an interval level of measurement.” But much sociological data are categorical, numerically ordinal, or even nominal. So many researchers have attempted to use Pearson’s p with ordinal- or even nominal-level data (Lyons’s 1971 essay, Techniques for using ordinal measures in regression and path analysis”). Similarly, in qualitative data analysis there has been a move away from intuitive scanning of a complex body of material to the use of computer software packages which allow for summaries of aspects of the information gathered, especially blocks of text files.

The logic of method tends to overlap with the philosophy of science. That, in turn, has been influenced by science and technology studies (S&TS). Work on what actually happens in a laboratory provides a window on methodology in the broader sense. One widely discussed typology differentiates among positivism, interpretivism, and criticalism. For the positivist social scientist, it is important to stress the epistemological questions related to conducting research in such a way that a truly scientific body of data will be collected. But there is considerable disagreement concerning the precise nature of science in the social sciences. Many conceive of methods in terms of positivism and its “epistemological others” (Steinmetz 2005). Until the late 1960s there was a strong trend within sociology to try to make the discipline ”scientific.” Sociology hit a ”crisis” and a host of non-positivist methods were reiterated or invented. A great variety of methods became more acceptable. Pathbreaking was an inductive grounded theory” approach (Glaser & Strauss 1967). But the epistemological stress on grounded theory eventually led to a wider discussion reminiscent of the struggle concerning methodology in German-speaking Europe.

The interpretive approach downplays epistemological concerns and takes distance from physical sciences. Interpretive sociologists accept that the study of human beings is likely to produce different methodologies. One strain can be traced to Wilhelm Dilthey in his Introduction to the Human Sciences: Selected Works (vol. 1, 1989). Another important root source for the interpretive meta-paradigm is Georg Simmel, whose work directly influenced the Chicago School. For the interpretive social scientist it is the question of philosophical anthropology” that should be highlighted. How are human beings different? Are people different from rocks and stars? Are humans cognitively and emotionally different from other animals, even the higher apes? This sometimes leads to the conclusion that the best methodological approach is to study individual social actors and to regard all functional” arguments about collective structures” as ontologically suspect. The Chicago School of Sociology stresses the interpretive approach, as in the famous study of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Thomas and Znaniecki, which utilizes the kinds of documents of which Dilthey thought highly. Where both the positive and the interpretive meta-paradigms tend to agree is that questions of axiology (morals and ethics) as well as long-term, historical teleology (future end goals) are better left out. As Max Weber, following Heinrich Rickert, argued persuasively with regard to his own interpretive sociology (verstehende Soziologie), it is important to distinguish between the reasons we carry out research studies and the way in which we examine the evidence. A topic may have value relevance” but the actual study, positive or interpretive, should strive to be as value neutral” as possible.

The strong dissenting voice on this question of axiology and teleology is critical theory. The term is derived from the Frankfurt School but has gained wider coinage. Criticalists feel that some specific value or future end goal is of such importance that considerations of epistemology and ontology are less important. Those who hold to this position tend to emphasize the ways in which notions of value-free objectivity can be used to justify certain kinds of policy. Feminists also emphasize axiology and teleology, a society that has eliminated patriarchy.” Other forms of criticalism are environmentalism and Gandhianism.

Considerable debate continues to mark sociological research studies. The topic of triangulation has led to many different ways of conceiving a multimethod approach. The idea that it would be possible in principle to combine insights from positive, interpretive, and critical meta-paradigms is a key to Habermas’s general theory. Bourdieu has utilized multiple correspondence analysis (MCA), a form of data reduction based on dual scaling.

This has led to acceptance by some of a fourth attitude toward methods which can be called the postmodernist meta-paradigm in sociology. The social science version of postmodernism is a rejection of all “foundationalisms.” That lack of any methodological foundations does not, however, restrict postmodernist thinkers like Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, Lyotard, and Derrida from holding positions. A distinction needs to be made between postmodern epistemology and empirical study of the phenomena of late modernism. There have been modernist approaches to the study of postmodern societies.

There is some question as to whether the incommensurability” of paradigms may be overstated. Nevertheless, those who adhere to a specific approach tend to continue to refine and adjust their own methods and invent new techniques. The move from cross-tabulation to regression and path analysis in sociology in the 1970s led to speculation concerning the possibility of a mathematical and statistical approach to sociology. Ragin (2000) has criticized the conventional approach to quantitative methods. He points out that researchers are often insensitive to the difficulty of determining a population. He also points out that we need to distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions when making causal claims. He introduces a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) that emphasizes the comparison of diverse cases. Ragin also indicates the usefulness of fuzzy sets versus crisp sets. There has been significant rethinking of fundamental assumptions once taken as axiomatic.

In the future it is likely that techniques such as partial least squares (PLS), singular value decomposition (SVD), penalized logistic regression (PLR), and recursive feature elimination (RFE) will lead to more sophisticated techniques for the study of complex sociological systems. Secondary data sets generate a large volume of sociological data. Bioinformatics will probably be extended to human social structures. Bayesian statistics will also be important.


  1. Abbott, A. (2001) Chaos of Disciplines. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.
  3. Lyons, M. (1971) Techniques for using ordinal measures in regressin and path analysis. In: Dostner, H. L. (ed.), Sociological Methodology. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 147—71.
  4. Pearson, K. (1900) On the criterion that a given system of deviations from the probable in the case of a correlated system of variables is such that it can be reasonably supposed to have arised from random sampling. Philosophical Magazine, series 5, 50: 157—75.
  5. Ragin, C. (2000) Fuzzy-Set Social Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  6. Steinmetz, G. (ed.) (2005) The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

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