Of Methods and Methodology: 4. Postmodernism

A methodology is a framework for research that focuses on how it is possible to collect reliable and valid data about, in this instance, the social world. It’s shaped by two main considerations:

1. Our beliefs about the fundamental nature of the social world (ontological concerns).

2. How we believe is possible to construct knowledge about the world (epistemology).

In turn, these ideas shape our choice of research methods when we come to actually collect data.

Unlike the three previous posts in this short, but pithy, series (Positivism, Interpretivism and Realism in case you hadn’t noticed) the status of “postmodernism” as a form of sociological research methodology is, at best ambivalent. However, in terms of the basic definition I’ve used to introduce these posts it does represent a perspective on how it’s considered possible to generate reliable and valid information about the world and, for this reason, I’ve decided to invite it to the party.

Feel free to disagree.

Basic Principles

1. A postmodernist methodology is founded on two basic ideas:

Firstly, the critique of modernism focused on the idea that concepts like ‘universal truth’ and ‘objectivity’ are inherently subjective constructions that need to be considered as narratives within a scientific discourse. In other words, such ideas represent stories that describe the social world from a particular position of power, rather than unequivocal, objective features of that world.

Secondly, postmodernism is constructivist, in the sense of seeking to describe how narratives and discourses develop and disappear as people construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the social world. Such constructionism involves thinking about two main types of subjectivities:

• Personal: how people experience and reflect on the social world in terms of their particular beliefs, values, norms, identities and so forth.

• Social: personal experience grounded in the experiences and activities of others. Traditionally, for example, one way of expressing this idea is to think about areas like primary and secondary socialisation and how the behaviour of others (such as parents, friends and the media) impacts on how we see both ourselves and the social world. More-recently however we see social subjectivities developing around various forms of social media.

Postmodernism and the social media rabbit hole…

2. In an inherently subjective social world it follows that all explanations of that world are relative. Or, as Troest (1999) puts it, “we have no way of objectively distinguishing that which is true from that which is false”. This claim has important ramifications for sociological research because, if true (?) it follows that concepts like reliability and validity are simply social constructs that reflect one view of methodological order. They are, in other words, simply part of one “narrative of science” that is no more – and no less – valid than any other description of science. Taken to its logical conclusion this argument, Curran and Takata (2004) note, means that for postmodernists there is no possibility of ‘a unifying overall truth’ about the social world. That would just be one more metanarrative to add to the expanding list…

3. These claims suggest that in postmodernity we need to define the role of sociology, from one seen by early-modern sociologists, such as Comte, Durkheim and Marx, as a “quest for validity” (by attempting to evaluate the differing claims put forward by, for example, scientific and religious discourses) to one of describing competing claims to “truth”.

For Yeatman (1994), this involves rejecting the assumption knowledge about the world somehow ‘stands outside’ the individual in a way ‘free of the power regimes in which it is constructed’. In other words, sociological research should focus on understanding and describing the power relationships that give rise to different forms of knowledge, rather than seeking to establish some forms as superior or inferior to others – an argument that makes concepts like reliability and validity redundant. They are not needed because there is no point trying to objectively evaluate something – such as socially-constructed knowledge – that is by-definition wholly subjective. The role of sociology, in this respect, becomes one of understanding why some forms of knowledge are considered ‘more reliable’ or ‘more valid’ than others in different cultures and at different times.

4. The social world, therefore, consists, at different times and in different places, of competing explanations or discourses that attempt, some successfully, some not so successfully, to define “reality” and how it can be reliably and validly measured – at least in terms of the dominant discourse:

  • In pre-modernity a religious discourse dominated and defined the social world.
  • In modernity, although a scientific discourse rose to prominence religious discourses didn’t disappear, as such. Their reliability and validity as explanations for human behaviour were merely supplanted by science.
  • In postmodernity, the unending battle for ideological supremacy has entered a new phase, with all kinds of scientific and pseudoscientific discourses fighting it out in new media arenas.
  • The key argument here, however, is that we are simply talking about different interpretations of the world between which we have no objective way of discriminating. The ‘search for objectivity’, therefore, is a symptom of how knowledge is organised by powerful interest groups: something is true not because it has some inherent quality of truth, but because powerful groups successfully define it as true. As Crebbin (2000) puts it: ‘Knowledge and meanings are culturally and historically situated, and saturated with previous power contests. Knowledge is therefore understood to be political, contested, and diverse.’

    5. Having said this, every discourse – scientific, religious or whatever – has its own internal logic and rules. Within a particular discourse, therefore, it may be possible to make objective statements about the world as seen from the particular logic of the discourse in question. Within a scientific discourse, for example, the world is seen as round. Some pseudoscientific discourses dispute this by claiming the world is flat. Although, for very different reasons, these ideas have currency within each discourse, such statements may not have much, if any, currency outside the confines of the discourse within which they were created.

    6. If the social world simply consists of social constructions it follows it can be deconstructed (Derrida, 1967). This involves, for Marling (2001), “taking something apart”, such as a narrative or discourse, to show how it has been socially constructed: to lay bare, in effect, the various underlying ideological elements by which a particular, “taken-for-granted” set of meanings (such as “science”) is underpinned.

    7. An important aspect of postmodern methodology, therefore, is ‘textual deconstruction”: understanding how and why people construct their beliefs in the ways they do. Neuman (2000), for example, suggests postmodern methodology has three main characteristics:

    • Subjectivity: Rather than seeking the impossible (objectivity), postmodernists combine ‘intuition, imagination, personal experience, and emotion’ to produce descriptive interpretations.

    • Relativity: The postmodern world consists of ‘infinite interpretations’, none of which is (objectively) superior or inferior.

    • Representation: All forms of research are simply representations of whatever is being studied.

    Sociological research, in this respect, consists of different ‘representations of truth’ (as conceived by the researcher, the researched, the reader, and so forth) rather than ‘truth’ itself.

    As Usher (1996) argues, academic research texts are always partial in the sense that they are subjective narratives that must conform to the ‘rules and language games’ of academic discourse. Coffey (2000) takes this idea a little further by arguing that the role of the researcher is not one of an “innocent bystander”; that is, someone objectively detached from whatever they are researching. All research, in other words, is necessarily partial, in the sense of being constructed from a particular viewpoint that excludes other possible viewpoints.

    The Internet: A Rhizomatic structure. Just like the social world?

    8. A final point to note here is that postmodern societies have what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) term a rhizomatic structure: they are “a system without a trunk that has no pattern and expands endlessly from any of its points in all directions” – the Internet being a good representation of this idea. It has no clearly defined structure and is constantly being made and remade through the interaction of its users. Just like ‘society’.

    Trying to study ‘society’, therefore, is like trying to step into a river in the same place twice; each time you step off the bank (even if it’s exactly the same spot), the water you step into is not the same water. There is, therefore, little point in trying to quantify something (human behaviour) that’s both changing as you measure it and changed in unknown ways by your presence.

    A further takeaway here is that replication, one of the mainstays of natural scientific forms of enquiry, is not seen as being possible when dealing with social phenomena.


    1. The social world is a subjective construction filled with stories that describe it from a particular position of power (religion, science, pseudoscience…).

    2. For postmodernism, a variety of socially-constructed narratives and discourses develop and disappear as people construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct the social world “in their own image” and “for their own particular purposes”. Think, for example, about how Trump has successfully introduced a “fake news” discourse into American political debate.

    3. The role of sociology is to describe competing claims to “truth”. This is achieved by deconstructing the “truth discourse” in order to examine and understand how and why it functions.

    4. Dominant definitions of concepts like reliability and validity are simply expressions of underlying (hidden) power.

    5. Replication is not possible in the social world.

    6. A postmodern methodology has three main characteristics: subjectivity, relativity and representation.

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