Question amirah Social Sciences

Sociological research paradigms

What are the assumptions of the positivist and interpretivist methods in sociological research?

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The positivist method is based on a natural sciences worldview which assumes that everything follows universal rules and laws. It relies on facts and figures, and often involves repeatable experiments and tests, in which the variables are controlled, in order to compare results and draw conclusions (Matthews and Ross, 2010). This method has the advantage of providing large amounts of data, for example in sets of measurements or census questionnaires. This is useful in sociology for gaining an overview of long term trends, or comparing one country with another. The disadvantage of this method is that it has limited explanatory value in areas like human motivation and individual choices, conflict, group behaviour, etc. where the variables cannot be controlled or even fully identified.

The interpretivist method assumes that each person sees the world differently, and constructs his or her own version of reality. It is particularly concerned with social interactions and mental processes, including ritual and symbolic elements which are observed and interpreted by the observer. This approach has the advantage of allowing a researcher to gain in-depth knowledge about individual cases, taking account of contextual factors and exploring interesting issues that arise during the research. It does not depend so much on rules, but can identify patterns and make comparisons. It can capture the richness of human experience, and provides insights into different perspectives and dynamic forces such as group behaviour. The disadvantages of the interpretivist method include the fact that it takes a large amount of time to collect and analyse the data, and it can produce contradictory or nonsensical results, because people do not always act or speak consistently and they often disagree (Denscombe, 2014). Both methods are useful in sociology, but they tend to be used for different purposes.


Denscombe, N. O. (2014) The Good Research Guide. Fifth edition. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Matthews, B. and Ross, L. (2010) Research Methods: A Practical Guide for the Social Sciences. Harlow: Pearson Education.