Research in the Social Studies

Research in the Social Studies

So I’ve finally got around to starting on my research methodology chapter. The simple version is that I need to write about 5 000 words explaining how and why I approached my data. Of course, that’s what I thought, but as with everything else to do with doctoral research, the actual details are far more complicated. In fact, the choices that I make – or have made, to be precise – have shaped the way I approach my research – there is far more at stake here than a simple discussion of surveys or interviews, which is something that I have only started to learn.

The first choice, as I see it, needs to be made about my ontological assumptions, or the way that I view the world. Traditionally, the sciences – and until recently, the social sciences – adopted a positivistic or post-positivistic approach. That is where we assume that reality is true and the same for everybody, and it can be measured. The only way it can be measured is through the experiences of the senses – kind of, ‘if we can touch it, we know that it is true.’ There is a second part to this: if we can’t measure it, then it is not important. Positivism, despite claims it might make against this, carries with it its own set of ideological beliefs. While positivism makes a lot of sense for people looking at physical sciences, where we can measure the boiling point of water or something similar, and this doesn’t change depending on who is doing it, it makes things like measuring love or evaluating the value of education much more difficult – if not impossible.

This led to the development of anti-positivism or interpretivism. Basically, interpretivism calls on social scientists to reject notions of empiricism and the scientific method. Instead, and this is where the name interpretivism fits in, it is important for researchers to try to interpret the social actions made by people in the groups being studied. Essentially, the emphasis is shifted from control and prediction to understanding and interpretation.

Having chosen an ontological point of view, the next step is to select a research methodology. Often, this is equated with the ontological point of view, but they are actually separate and can be combined with either. Most closely linked to positivism (but not always) js quantitative research. This is where the focus is on gathering ‘hard’ data – numbers – that can be analysed to make predictions. Common tools used here are surveys and experiments. On the other hand (and conversely linked to interpretivism) is qualitative research. This is often described as ‘words’ or ‘rich descriptions’ but that misses part of the importance of interpretivism – rich description is only the beginning, as the researcher attempts to understand the social phenomena that is taking place, and how meaning is constructed through those social phenomena.

It is important to remember that positivistic research might use qualitative methods, too, and interpretivism can use quantitative methods.