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Research Methodology: The Foundation of Social Exploration


Research Methodology can be understood as including the researcher’s decision about what to research and the perspective that is adopted towards the creation and testing of theories. It also addresses the criteria that determine the method for collection and interpretation of data (Brunskell, 1998: 37).

Scientific empirical[1] research is concerned with describing, explaining and predicting objective or material phenomena guided by evidence obtained through systematic and controlled observations (Punch, 1998: 28). However, whilst the social sciences adopt the same approach as the natural sciences the complexity of the human condition makes it more difficult to achieve an inter-subjective agreement about the subject of study (May, 1993: 4). For instance, different perspectives towards social enquiry occupy various positions along a continuum. These positions ranges from the absolutist understanding that any approach which fails to achieve both objectivity and truth is to be rejected to a relativist[2] position that doubts whether there is absolute truth at all (Blaikie, 1993: 212). This polarity is manifest through an analysis of the scientific components of the three traditions of the approaches known as positivism, interpretivism and critical theory.


A positivist approach upholds the supremacy of scientific knowledge in the belief that through dispassionate observation of specific material social facts researchers are able to offer true explanations provided that their evidence includes no logical or empirical contradiction (Neuman, 1994: 60). However, an explanation must be repeatedly replicated[3] to ascertain whether the findings can be falsified. In its purest form, positivism maintains that research should be completely objective and value free thereby occupying a position at the extreme of absolutist understanding (Neuman, 1994: 61). However, many contemporary adherents to the positivist model would not defend this extremely deterministic position (Punch, 1998: 50) although still recognising that the strategy produces covering laws about the way humans behave (May, 1993: 5).

Positivists embrace quantitative[4] research as part of a statistical methodology that has the objective of offering an explanation of the differences that have been observed in values acquired from various units of analysis. The reasoning employed requires a search for regularities within the available statistics, which may reveal how the values of different variables relate to each other (Alsuutari, 1998: 58). In this context critics note that positivist approaches ignore “the differences between the natural and social world by failing to understand the meanings that are brought to social life” (Silverman, 1998: 82). However, most researchers using quantitative techniques, whilst considering that they undertake scientific exploration, do not accept this assertion as they are not aiming to produce scientific laws but, instead, sets of cumulative generalisations through the analysis of data (Silverman, 1998: 82).

The quantitative research process begins with the construction of a hypothesis[5] that is the result of a strategy of logical deduction from a prior theoretical scheme (Bryman, 1988: 21). This statement is then operationalised[6] before data is collected by such methods as a survey, structured observation on predetermined schedules and analysis of the content of discourse (Silverman, 1988: 81). Measurements from the variables will then be used to produce statements of correlation before induction is employed leading to findings that either confirm the initial hypothesis or require its rejection or modification (Layder, 1993: 19).

Outputs from this research strategy tend to exceed descriptive generalisations about the available data. Nevertheless, researchers may be reluctant to comment beyond the specific determinable relationships that seem to exist between certain variables resulting in possible causal relationships about phenomena being omitted from research reports. (Layder, 1993: 28). Furthermore, within quantitative research, all subjects belong to a distinct group within the population and the geographic boundaries selected for a study determines the extent that generalised findings apply (Alasuutari, 1998: 58). Therefore a subset of potential evidence is needed from the available data to validate that the sample is representative (Ragin, 1994: 27).

Thus, the positivist research paradigm examines a limited range of material or objective variables over a restricted time-period thereby conveying “a view of social reality which is static in that it tends to neglect the impact and role of change in social life” (Bryman, 1988: 101). Furthermore, (Bryman, 1988: 102) notes that:

there is a tendency for quantitative researchers to view social reality as external to actors and as a constraint on them, which can be attributed to the preference for treating the social order as though it were the same as the objects of the natural scientist.

Therefore, this research paradigm places the burden of explanation on individual-level characteristics that are statistically associated with various forms of group behaviour and not on any unobservable processes related to the interaction of individuals within groups. This position accords with:

(1) the hierarchical assumption, which guides the individual to believe that they must be loyal and duty-bound to important others, thus their social actions and social relationships are the product of a sense of duty and obligation. Therefore, their social engagement circumstances are objectively knowable by the application of deductive and inductive reason, and that they have little capacity to determine how they conduct these relationships, because of the necessary impact of structural influences on their wishes, desires, beliefs, or will power.

(2) the individualistic assumption, which guides the individual to believe that they must author their own lives in their own self-interest making their social actions and social relationships the product of self-interest calculations. Therefore, they would only embrace a weak form of positivism as whilst they presume that they conduct their interpersonal relations in a set of social engagement circumstances that are objectively knowable by the application of deductive and inductive reason. Therefore, they have the capacity to determine how they conducts these relationships because their interpersonal relationships are the product of their wishes, desires and beliefs, or will that is enabled or constrained by his or her physiological, neurological and psychological make-up.


Interpretivism is founded in idealism,[7] which gives priority to the meanings arrived at by human agents through their own experiences and in their interaction with others (Williams and May, 1996: 59). Some versions of this approach place it at an extreme relativist position as “it is not possible for a researcher to stand outside history or become detached from culture” (Blaikie, 1993: 212). However this does not imply that the world is unreal but rather that there is not an immediate relationship between reality and our perceptions. Therefore, sensory data is interpreted through each person’s mind (Williams and May, 1996: 60). Moreover, multiple interpretations of human experience leads to interpretative theory that may include “informal norms, rules or conventions used by people in everyday life” (Neuman, 1994: 64). In contrast to positivism, values are recognised as central to the research process, so they should be made explicit and each treated with equal importance (Neuman, 1994: 66).

Interpretivists embrace qualitative[8] research with its origins in hermeneutics, relativism and idealism that result in the approach sometimes being referred to as an interpretivist paradigm. Thus, the perspective focuses on “subjective meanings, definitions, metaphors, symbols and descriptions of specific cases” (Neuman, 1994: 318). Therefore, data will be narrative, verbal or textual employing research traditions such as ethnography[9] or grounded theory[10]. This scenario enables social theory to accord with our everyday experiences (May, 1993: 29), as the researcher interprets the shared meanings individuals create together in a process of socialisation that brings understanding to their reality. Thus, the imperative of appreciating social context is a critical characteristic of the qualitative approach (Neuman, 1994: 319), permitting tentative understandings, sometimes called hypotheses to be formulated then possibly explored in relation to other data. Therefore, the qualitative process employs deductive reasoning but it is sometimes criticised as being a-theoretical in view of qualitative researchers’ distaste for comparing findings from one context with another and thereby discouraging the development of theory (Bryman, 1988: 86). However, such critics seem committed to the belief that we can find generalities in social life that makes the study of individual’s values and attitudes of lesser importance than the identification of explicit propositions about group preferences and norms of behaviour.

Therefore, this research paradigm recognises that the social world must contain a multitude of subjective truths, which render the notion of objective truth paradoxical, and thereby problematic (Warnock, 1970: 8–9). This position accords with:

(1) the egocentric assumption, which guides the individual to believe that they must approach social engagements wearily and reluctantly, mindful of what other people expect, making their social actions and social relationships the product of past experience and happenstance. Therefore, they conduct their interpersonal relations in a set of social engagement circumstances the meaning of which they individually construct in the process of their search for self-identity and self-fulfilment. Furthermore, they have the potential to determine how they conduct these relationships because they can draw the power of will from immediate personal experience. If the struggle for this authenticity proves too much personal relationships can be afflicted with a tendency towards fatalistic self-referentiality.

(2) the egalitarian assumption, which guides the individual to believe that they must make and express common commitments to like-minded others making their social actions and social relationships the product of a sense of commendable collegiality. Therefore, individuals would only embrace a weak form of interpretivism as they conduct their interpersonal relations in a set of social engagement circumstances that are socially constructed by a process of discourse. During this process, they have some capacity to determine how they conduct these relationships. However, this autonomy becomes subordinate to the outputs and outcomes of the discourse as it socially constructs meaning about and collectively interprets the social roles of self and others in a collective reality.

Critical Theory

This approach also rejects any attempt to separate facts and values for critical theory, unlike positivism; reality cannot be uncovered by the stringent application of scientific techniques of enquiry to determine the objective truth (May, 1993: 28). Instead social reality is understood as mis-leading, hiding oppression and requiring the assiduous researcher to attempt to uncover conflict possibly through intentionally motivating participants in a research project to reflect on issues of power and domination (Neuman, 1994: 67). On the absolutist/relativist continuum critical theory can fall between the two perceptions of reality with truth “not a matter of evidence from observation…[but achieved through consensus]…founded on reason…[inspired by]…open and equitable critical discussion (Blaikie, 1993: 213). Alternatively, a pragmatic view of truth in relation to reality has begun to feature in the reasoning of some critical theorists, who accept as true theoretical propositions that axiomatically require action to address an issue of oppression (May, 1993: 45).

Therefore, this research paradigm recognises that social relationships are conducted in a set of social engagement circumstances that are socially constructed by a process of discourse. However, unlike the strong form of interpretivism, it is recognised that these engagement would lead, following discussion, to a group consensus about the social roles of self and others in a collectively understood reality. Thus, the egalitarianindividual can fully embrace the tenets of this research approach.

Adopting a Methodology for Unity in Diversity

When writing about the effects of governmentality Foucault (1991) observed that an individual become the way he or she is identified and the way he or she identify themselves. No dominant potency dwells within this paradigm — instead a variety of powerful, sometimes discrete and sometimes mutually dependent, influences play on the psyche with singular intensities. So, each individual’s knowledge and the meaning he or she give to his or her lives is the consequence of strategies of power that lead to the notion of power and knowledge being replaced by “power-knowledge” (Sheridan, 1980: 162). Within this scenario, the pragmatism of Charles Peirce offers an epistemological and ontological foundation that provides a distinction between truth and reality (Pierce, 1932). Here, the meanings that a subject attaches to his or her social world are, to an extent, sanctioned through the discourses that result from the interaction with people that surround them. Moreover, by adopting suitable research techniques, this truth can be explored however ultimate reality remains an existence independent of human inquiry.

Therefore, adoption of a pragmatic standpoint leaves the notion of quantitative and qualitative approaches, as separate scientific methods for particular types of investigation, open to question. Instead, the methodological challenge undergoes a fundamental metamorphosis into the question of how to apply an appropriate mix of techniques in a manner that can appropriately address the theoretical underpinnings of the research question, where the individual is the unit of analysis. In this context, there is an imperative to focus on the exploration of existing data, which can be the result of deductive reasoning, to develop hypotheses that relate to a person’s experience instead of attempting a process with a limited aim like the falsification of existing knowledge. Furthermore, this observation can be substantiated through the commonalities between the epistemological approaches of quantitative and qualitative methods. Both methods recognise that there is more than one way to approach reality and, in view of the fallible nature of all inquiry, conclusions drawn can only be tentative. Whilst qualitative research relies on language and quantitative research on statistical computations to break down data neither seems able to offer a pattern which supplies a complete picture of the subject. Arising from the conundrum when designing a research programme the researcher should endeavour to incorporate some of the benefits of quantitative analysis with the meanings that people attribute to their experiences so that the research findings are informed by the particular connotations selected by the respondents.


Following Peirce it is necessary to make a distinction between truth (the condition that must be met if a particular knowledge claim is to be accepted as true) and reality (everything, whether observable or not, that is accessible or understandable by any system of analysis). Within the human conceptualization of truth and reality there are contending methodological approaches that can be used to uncover what constitutes genuine knowledge however, this paper maintains that they are not substitutes for each other. Instead, by adopting Pierce's pragmatic alternative and utilizing an appropriate combination of research techniques the researcher is recognizing that individuals reach common meanings that constitute the truth, whilst also being part of reality and reality being part of them (Habermas, 2003). As this proposal avoids the paradox within relativism, that beliefs or judgements do not need to meet independent standards, through maintaining the assertion that by assiduous and continuous testing of theories truth can gradually evolve towards reality. Thus, those individuals embracing one of the four assumptions - hierarchical, individualistic, egocentric or egalitarian - can recognize their epistemological preferences in a synergistic research pattern where the subjects of the programme describe, explain and understand their social domain.


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[1] The concept of empirical research is defined as the observation of something or the impact of something (Punch, 1998: 28). The term is often used interchangeably by commentators with the term “data.” [2] Relativism, in relation to the research findings from a particular study, is the notion that “the representativeness is unknown and probably unknowable, so that the generalizability of such findings is also unknown” (Bryman, 1988: 100). [3] The hypothetico-deductive approach is used to try to refute hypotheses by continued attempts at falsification. This is known as demarcation criterion, as the more a theory is quoted the more falsifiable it becomes. Testing should be as demanding as possible to ensure that only the best explanations will survive (Blaikie, 1993: 144–45). [4] Quantitative research can be defined as “a methodology that uses numerical data to reach its findings. Thus any statistical techniques for the collection and analysis of material; any transformation of human behaviour into the form of numbers” (Silverman, 1998: 94–95) achieves this classification. [5] A hypothesis can be defined as “ an untested statement of the relationship between concepts in a theory…or simply that part of a theory subject to empirical test” (Williams and May, 1996: 198). [6] Operationalisation is “deciding how to translate the abstract…into something more concrete and directly observable” (de Vaus, 1996: 19). For instance the notion of deprivation has a social dimension that converts into a sub-dimension of social isolation, which then has operational definitions in such measures as (1) number of friends; (2) contact with family; and (3) contact with neighbours. [7] Idealism is a doctrine that, although taking many forms, has the common theme that reality is fundamentally mental in nature and what we call the external world is a creation of the mind. Thus it is opposed to the naturalistic belief that mind itself is exhaustively understood as a product of natural processes. “this does not mean that idealists claim that there is no real world but that we can never directly perceive the real world” (Williams and May, 1996: 198). [8] Qualitative research can be defined as “a methodology that privileges material drawn from non-quantitative sources. Thus any work in the social sciences that collects and analyses its material in the form of conversations; written or recorded responses to questions; sections of books, reports or newspapers; attitude tests; focus group discussion and so on. A methodology that focuses on the texture and the value qualities of its data” (Silverman, 1998: 11). [9] Ethnography can be defined as “describing a culture and understanding another way of life from the native point of view” (Neuman, 1994: 333). [10] Grounded theory recognises that theory construction begins with a set of observations (descriptive) and moves on to develop theories of these observations. It is also called grounded theory because it is based on observations — not simply armchair speculation (de Vaus, 1996: 11–12).

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