Theoretical research considerations – from methodological perspective to questions of reliability and validity – form the third part of the P.E.T. (Practical, Ethical, Theoretical) triumvirate of research considerations and they represent an important counterweight to the idea that sociological research simply involves choosing the right tool for the job.
In everyday life, when faced with a problem like hanging a picture on a wall, most of us would reach for a hammer – mainly because we consider this the most appropriate and efficient tool for the job.
When carrying out sociological research, therefore, it would make sense to do something similar: choose a research topic and then select the most appropriate method with which to collect data.
Seeing research methods as tools – what Ackroyd and Hughes (1992) called the “Toolbox Approach” to sociological research – is, on one level, a perfectly sensible approach: if you want to collect quantitative data about some form of behaviour it’s not a great idea to use a method better-suited to collecting qualitative data – and vice-versa.
One problem here, however, is that in the practical world “the job” (in this case, “hanging a picture”) is considered unproblematic. That is, there are no arguments over what the job involves or indeed means. If everyone agrees about the task it’s just a matter of deciding on the most efficient and effective tool.
In the theoretical realm, however, “the job” itself is considered problematic. There may, for example, be differences of opinion about what “the job” involves, what needs to be done in order to complete it successfully and so forth. In this situation, while some sociologists will see some tools as entirely “fit for purpose”, other sociologists will consider those same tools totally unsuitable. This follows because different sociologists may have very different beliefs about things like:
These questions – and many others – are important theoretically because they sit at the heart of our (different) beliefs about how it is possible to generate reliable and valid knowledge about social behaviour. The “toolbox analogy” is, in this respect, complicated by the idea that sociological research is not just a question of “using the right tools”, per se, but rather not using tools that are judged to be manifestly unfit or inadequate for the task at hand from the theoretical standpoint of the researcher: to take a simple example, Interpretivist sociologists may shun the use of questionnaires not because such methods are “inherently weak” but rather because they do not fit an Interpretivist worldview that largely rejects the notion that the key to understanding the social world is through the quantification of relationships.
Theoretical research considerations, therefore, are more-concerned with choosing research methods that most-accurately capture data about the world as we fundamentally believe it to be, an idea we can explore in more depth in two ways: firstly, through the simple juxtaposition of positivist and interpretivist perspectives and, secondly, through an elaboration of the constituent parts of these worldviews and their affinity to different types of research methods.
Although the researcher’s theoretical perspective is by no means as strong as some texts might suggest, for the sake of illustration these ideas about theoretical research considerations we can note:
Interactionist researchers tend to avoid using statistical methods, mainly because their objective is to allow respondents to talk about their experiences, rather than to establish causality. In broad terms Interpretivists are more-interested in how people construct the social world through subjective meanings and the way to understand those meanings is to collect qualitative data.
Positivists, perhaps, tend to take the reverse view, mainly (but not necessarily) because they’re not particularly interested in descriptive accounts of people’s behaviour. Rather, their general objective is to discover how the social world is objectively patterned and to understand how such patterned (or structural) behaviour impacts on individuals. The way to achieve this objective is to quantify social relationships.
In this respect, therefore, there is an association between Interpretivist methodology and qualitative research methods (in-depth interviewing, participant observation, visual methods and the like), just as there is a similar association between Positivist methodology and quantitative methods (such as questionnaires and laboratory experiments).
Constructing a Worldview
The main reason for this positivist – interactionist split is that each perspective sees the social world quite differently, structured around their answers to four hierarchically-related questions – your answer to one question determines how you answer the following question.
1. “What do we believe exists?” (an Ontological question)
Ontological questions, in both the natural and social sciences relate to our fundamental beliefs about the world. How we answer these questions, therefore, fundamentally affects how we believe it’s possible to study the world. In relation to Sociology, an ontological question is one that considers what we believe the subject matter of Sociology to be. Is it, for example:
• To find solutions to social problems?
• To answer questions such as “why are we here?”?
• To elaborate the fundamental laws of social development?
• To understand the nature of social interaction? • Something quite different to any of the above
The significance of ontological questions is that our answers will condition:
2. “How we know what we claim to know about the social world?” (an Epistemological question).
This question relates to the previous by forcing us to think about the kinds of proof wewill accept to justify our answer to ontologicalquestions. For example, we may believe that:
• “Seeing is believing” or
• “Experiencing something is enough to demonstrate it exists”.
Alternatively, we may accept something on trust, or because we have faith (a characteristic, incidentally, of religious proof). Epistemological questions, therefore, relate to the evidence we
will accept to justify our belief something is true (or, more-correctly perhaps, not false).
For example, if you suspect someone of stealing your pen, what sort of proof will you accept in order to convince you they didn’t take it?
• Their word?
• The word of someone they were with at the time of the alleged theft (an alibi)?
• A thorough search of their belongings?
This idea is important, sociologically, because our beliefs about evidence influence our choice of research method. If you don’t, for example, believe questionnaires produce valid data, you’re not likely to use them in your research.
3. “How reliable and valid is the method?” (a Methodological question)
Methodology relates to beliefs about how to produce reliable and valid data / knowledge and you’ll probably have come across this type of question before, in relation to two ideas:
• The interview effect: If you believe interviews are a manipulative process whereby the respondent presents a picture to you that accords with the one they would like you to have, you are unlikely to see interview data as valid.
• The observer effect (Demand Characteristics): If you believe a researcher’s presence affects the behaviour of those being observed, you would not see overt participant observation as either a reliable or valid way of collecting data.
Reliability and validity are, in this respect, always significant theoretical (or methodological) research concerns since beliefs about the reliability and / or validity of particular methods will affect decisions about whether or not to use them – and these beliefs are often related theoretical approaches such as positivism or interpretivism (or, indeed realism, if you’re counting).
Values are a further theoretical consideration in the sense researchers have values too and these are reflected in ethical beliefs about how something should (or should not) be studied. If, like Polsky (1971) you believe covert participation is unethical and methodologically invalid you’re not likely to choose this research method.
Similarly, questions about what is considered “worthy of being studied” will be influenced by a range of values. These are both personal (if studying poverty holds no personal interest or fascination then a researcher is not likely to study it) and, most importantly for real-world research, institutional. Given that institutions such as universities and government departments are likely sources of research funding the topics they value are likely to be the ones actually researched in the way they want them researched. If a government sponsor values quantitative statistical data about some aspect of the education system, research involving in-depth qualitative data is not likely to be considered fit for purpose.
4. “How can we produce reliable and valid data? (a Methods question)
This refers to specific techniques used to collect data – questionnaires, interviews, experiments, observational methods – and ideas about their appropriateness, or otherwise, to research: ideas that, in a roundabout sort of way, will be conditioned by our ontological, epistemological and (deep breath) methodological beliefs.