Example Sociology Essay

Part One of Four: Building skills. Can the sectors with the most employment opportunities be defined in order to better target skills training or retraining?

The following briefing paper is written for the Minister for Skills, using data taken from ONS reports and with SPSS output included both here and in the appendix.

Even a cursory analysis of employment rates by sector will demonstrate that patterns of industry will have an impact on employability, according to the skills of the jobseeker.

An analysis of employment rates in the manufacturing and service employment sectors between 1978 and 2000 shows that there has been a clear trend towards increasing employment in the services sector, and a less marked but nevertheless clear reduction in manufacturing employment in this country (see Figure 1).

The average (mean) employment rate for the manufacturing sector over the 22 years in question was 5,153,520 people, compared to 18,284,300 on average in the services sector, see Table 1.


Statistic

Std. Error

manufacturing employment (000s)

Mean

5153.52

175.619

95% Confidence Interval for Mean

Lower Bound

4789.31

Upper Bound

5517.73

services employment (000s)

Mean

18284.30

380.118

95% Confidence Interval for Mean

Lower Bound

17495.99

Upper Bound

19072.62


Table 1, SPSS out put of ONS employment data by sector.

The data, taken from ONS reports, cannot of course explain the causes of the difference, but the patterns are difficult to ignore when considering the provision of skills training. From these data, it might be assumed that someone with service sector skills would have a higher chance of employment than someone with manufacturing sector skill, all other things being equal.

In fact, the scatterplot (see Figure 2) and its line of best fit show a strong negative correlation between employment levels in the services and manufacturing sectors. This is further backed up by calculation of the Pearson Correlation coefficient, which suggests a negative correlation of 0.852 between the two variables (significant at the 0.01 level).

It is important then to also consider this potential relationship when forming skills policy. A further decline in manufacturing employment could, without implying causation, happen at the same time as a further increase in service sector employment and vice-versa. If we were to assume the continuation of the current trend, this places even more focus on services sector, as opposed to manufacturing, skills, although the likelihood of the continuation of this trend should be examined.

These findings are supported by the recent government Skills Strategy, which found: "In common with other OECD economies, there has been a broad shift in the shares of both output and employment towards services and away from manufacturing " (BIS, 2009).

Other studies have emphasised the scale of this shift. For example, in their article on the impact of low wage economies on employment levels in the UK manufacturing sector, Hine and Wright describe the "large scale job losses" seen by the manufacturing sector, and the difficulties faced particularly by unskilled manufacturing workers to obtain re-employment (Hine and Wright, 1998).

The focussing of skills training and re-training towards sectors with the highest levels of employment seems a pragmatic approach, in order to make the most of available opportunities and avoid the costs, risks and necessity of retraining those unable to find employment.

The present analysis is limited by its comparison of only two sectors of employment. The picture of services and manufacturing sector employment levels compared with other areas of business and industry are not known. This limited analysis suggests that skills relevant to the services sector would give an individual a greater change of obtaining a job than skills in the manufacturing sector would.

Part Two of Four: What are the main criticisms that philosophers of science have made of positivism?

In its prime, positivism held the respect of many minds as a way of furthering scientific enquiry into the social world. Positivism holds that we can only know that which we have experienced. It was first espoused by Comte (1855, p26), who observed that theory and observation in science hold a circular dependence.

However, it has been largely abandoned as an epistemological perspective by mainstream social scientists as too limited and assumptive, both of other research methodologies and of the nature of scientific research itself.

Jurgen Habermas (1990) warned that positivism may be more like an ideology than a science, because of its unwavering trust in the truth of observed facts.

Philosophers of science such as Habermas have seen that there may be many opportunities for unscientific bias to creep into a project of observation, and that what one person may consider an objective fact may seem a subjective inference to a second person. Further, the nature of the subject matter being examined by social scientists is such that a comparative understanding of language and history may be just as, if not more, important to the study of societies than the examination of observable facts, such as (for psychologists) behaviours.

This is a similar criticism to that which is levelled against 'scientism', with which positivism is often associated, and which proposes that the methods of the 'natural sciences' (such as biology, chemistry and physics) can be applied to all research studies, including those of philosophy and the social sciences.

Along with this, the apparent infallibility lent to positivism by its adherents, who believed it could be applied to any scientific enterprise and was the only reliable method of study, has caused philosophers to pause over this universality and instead to conclude that observed facts, while pivotal to the study of social science, have only a partial role in the full understanding of that discipline.

However, over time philosophers of science have taken the best of positivist thought and honed the nuances of the reasoning. Emile Durkheim, for example, adopted sociological positivism and developed a foundation by which it could be used to contribute to social research. Perhaps his best known use of this methodology is his work on suicide rates, when he used police statistics to compare the frequency of suicides in Catholic as opposed to Protestant communities, and to draw conclusions from this (Durkheim, 2000).

In the main, however, positivism has been widely discredited. Well known philosophers of science and social science who have led criticism include Thomas Kuhn, Max Weber, who expounded sociology to be about social action rather than social science (Weber, 1998) and Georg Simmel, who focused on the associations of actors as fundamentally important to understanding society, rather than the isolated behaviours of particular actors (Simmel, 1971). These men fully rejected the more strict elements of the positivist perspective and – indeed – went further in their rejection by proposing an 'antipositivist' sociology, which describes any simplistic account of science and the scientific method as "deductivist" (Kuhn, 1977).

Positivism is now generally considered to be a building block of modern social science research, important for its role in the development of the discipline and an understanding of its history and origins, but no longer credibly held as an epistemological stance.

Part Three of Four: Has the discipline of school pupils deteriorated over the last twenty years? An evaluation of a pilot interview with a teacher.

This semi-structured interview gave a useful perspective of the research issue in question. The question being explored was: "Has the discipline of school pupils deteriorated over the last twenty years?"

In order to answer this question the researcher carried out a face-to-face interview with a school teacher who had been working in schools for 23 years. The interview, which was set up through a personal connection with the school, was undertaken with a volunteer teacher on condition of anonymity both of the school and the individual teacher concerned. The researcher was obliged not to relate any findings from the interview to other members of staff/authorities at the school. This was particularly relevant because of the subject matter being discussed, which could have professional connotations for the teacher and the school, and also in the interests of any pupils who came up in discussion, to ensure that their identity could not become known.

The most important thing at the beginning of the interview was to create an atmosphere and an empathetic relationship between subject and interviewer, in which the interviewer came across as non-judgemental yet interested in the subject's comments. Reflexive questioning was helpful in this regard, allowing the interviewer to remain distanced from the discussion whilst also conveying their interest and engagement with the comments and allowing further probing of the issues.

It was difficult to fully maintain an empathetic manner while taking notes during the interview. It is frequently acknowledged by researchers that while a recording of the conversation may allow a more free-flowing discussion to develop, this is balanced by the greater unease that the subject may feel at being recorded and at the use the interviewer may be able to make of note taking to prompt their own memory on further questions to ask and ensuring all the important areas had been covered.

In one example cited by Rafaeli (Rafaeli et al., 1997), two out of twenty five interviews could not be recorded because of technical failure or subject refusal, and it may well be that the at least some of the other subjects remained aware and potentially anxious about being recorded, which could have an effect on the extent of any useful information gathered.

At one stage in the semi-structured pilot interview, the subject asked the researcher's opinion on something that had been discussed. The subject had been describing a particular incident in class, where a pupil had stood up at their desk and verbally threatened the teacher. Though not shaken by the recollection, the subject was clearly still unsure about what the best way might have been to handle the situation and asked the researcher what they would have done. The researcher found it difficult at this point to remain empathetic in response without being drawn too far into the discussion. Instead, the researcher commented that the situation was clearly difficult and that there must have been several things passing through the subject's mind, and then passed another question back to the subject, asking if they had considered approaching another staff member for help. The interview could then continue on the same terms as before.

The interview, while useful for gaining information on the thoughts and feelings of one staff member with copious experience in the subject area being discussed, it would not be possible to extrapolate these findings even to other staff members in the same school, still less to staff members in other schools. Therefore, it would be most helpful to build a picture of the national experience using quantitative analysis of a national dataset on school discipline or teacher experiences, and to use the findings of the interview to more fully explain the implications for particular teachers, such as to examine the emotional journey that a teacher undergoes whilst facing poor discipline or to look at the impact of poor discipline on the mental health and wellbeing of teachers.

Part Four of Four. The philosophical and methodological underpinnings of interview-based research.

All social science research sits on the foundation of assumptions about the world, how the interaction of the world works, and the best ways of gaining a better understanding of it. It seems artificial, however, to base the research methodology of a particular project entirely on epistemological belief. In practice then, most researchers begin their study with a research question, and then make decisions about how to tackle the research methodology on the basis of the requirements of properly examining the question.

For concision here, I will address the two major areas of research practice and the broad differences between them: quantitative research, which often requires a statistical analysis of large datasets and seeks to discover relationships between variables that might, because of their statistical significance, imply causality. The second is qualitative research, which may use a variety of methods to examine the words and thoughts of those with a role in the issues raised by the research question. This method, while not able to make broad population-based conclusions, may lead to a more precise understanding of the interaction of the factors at work.

In the case of the semi-structured interview described above, the attempt was not to address the cause of any deterioration in discipline, but to discover the fact or fiction of that deterioration. This is because the research question sought to gain evidence for the historical situation, rather than to ask why it had happened.

Often, such a situation would mean that qualitative methods such as interview techniques are inadequate to answer the research question: broad assumptions about the increase across a whole population or even community cannot be made, and the researcher cannot even extrapolate the findings here to other teachers within the same school, as the issue of discipline often varies from one classroom to another. However, in this case there is a lack of reliable and fully informative quantitative data that would give any idea of how the situation in the classroom has changed over the last 20 years.

The best statistics available might be, for example, data on the number of pupils excluded from school. There may be many other reasons for changes in this sort of data though, such as changes to headteachers' motivation for or against excluding pupils and perhaps a change in teachers' attitudes to solving discipline problems with exclusion.

So since we have no way of satisfactorily examining the question using quantitative methods, qualitative interviewing might at least give an indication of the interacting factors and areas in which quantitative data is required to fully address the general question. Along the way, it is likely that we will discover an understanding of specific cases. In this way, the two styles, though so often approached as distant cousins, for practical purposes imply each other (Becker, 1996).

It is probable that a researcher using tentative statistics, such as the exclusion figures mentioned above, would need to attempt to draw conclusions from their findings. Herbert Blumer (1969) said that all social scientists attribute a point of view and interpretations to the people whose actions they analyse, whether implicitly or explicitly. It may be that this kind of qualitative interview is the best way of ensuring that the point of view of the subject is accurately attributed.

However, many would argue that any results of the semi-structured interview are meaningless at a community level without a foundation of quantitative research. So while the results of the interview above were interesting from the point of view of that teacher's perspective, nothing can be said about the experience of other teachers in the light of this unless more is first known about those other teachers' experiences.

There is such a diversity of research methods now operating within the social sciences that the division I have made here between quantitative and qualitative methods is almost redundant. However, the principles and discussions still apply, and the methodology of each project should be assessed according to its own research question, availability of information sources, resources and projected outcomes. In the end, the important thing is the validity of the research and its findings.

References

Becker, H., 1996. The Epistemology of Quantitative Research. In R. Jessor, A.Colby, and R. Schweder, eds. Essays on Ethnography and Human Development. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Blumer, H., 1969. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Comte, A.,1855. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. Translated by Harriet Martineau. New York: Calvin Blanchard.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Skills for Growth: Analytical Paper, 2009. London: DBIS

Durkheim, E,. 2000. Suicide: A study in Sociology. Translated by Spaulding, JA and Simson, G. London: Routledge

Habermas, J., 1990. On the Logic of the Social Sciences. Translated by Nicholsen, S W and Stark, JA. London: MIT Press

Hine, RC and Wright, PW., 1998. Trade with Low Wage Economies, Employment and Productivity in UK Manufacturing. The Economic Journal, 108 pp1500-1510.

Kuhn, T., 1977., Concepts of Cause in the development of Physics, in The Essential Tension, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rafaeli, A., Dutton, J E., Harquail, CV., and Lewis, S., 1997. Navigating by attire: The use of dress by female administrative employees. Academy of Management Journal, 40:1 pp9-45.

Runciman, WG. ed., 1998. Weber: selections in translation. Translated by Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Simmel, G., 1971. On Individuality and Social Forms, edited by Levine, D. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.