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Sociological Theory: Positivistic, Interpretative, and Critical
Comment on the three types of sociological theories, explain and argue, based
on your library or Internet research, which type of theory is the most
appropriate theory for sociology to adopt.
The three general types of sociological theory are positivistic, interpretive
and critical theory.In determining which theory is the most appropriate for
sociology to adopt,a basic understanding of each theory’s strengths and
weaknesses is necessary.In defining each of these theories, it is important to
determine the ontological basis orthe theory’s basis for determining what is
knowable; the epistemological basis or the theory’s relationship between the
knower and the knowable; and, finally, the methodological basis or the theory’s
method for gathering data and obtaining knowledge.
The positivistic theory is based on an ontology ofbeing a realist.The realistic
slant of positivism is also known as determinism.The positivist knows that a
reality is “out there” to be defined and categorized.The hard sciences from the
time of Newton and Decartes have traditionally relied on the positivistic
approach.The positivist hopes to be able to approximate “reality” in a detailed
generalization or theory on how reality operates.The theories of a positivist
generallytake the form of cause and effect laws describing the outside
reality.Robert Merton defined these theorems as “clear verifiable statements of
the relationships between specified variables.”
Positivism relies onan objective epistemology.The observer remains distant and
does not interact with the observation or experiment.Values and any other
factors that might lead to bias are to be carefully removed so that the cold,
monological gaze of science can be used to analyze the data.The positivist is an
The methodology of positivism is experimental and manipulative. The approach is
the same as propounded in most junior high science classes:begin with a
hypothesis on how “reality” works, then gather data and test the data against
the hypothesis.The question propounded initially is tested against empirical
data gathered in the experiment under carefully controlled conditions.
The interpretivist ontology is relativism.The belief, unlike the positivist, is
that knowledge is relative to the observor.Reality is not something that exists
outside the observor, but rather is determined by the experiences, social
background and other factors of the observor.Because of this view sociological
law is not a constant, but a relationship between changing variables.
The epistemology of interpretivism is the subjective.The inquirer in
interpretisim becomes part of an interaction or communication with the subject
of the inquiry.The findings are the result of the interaction between the
inquirer and the subject. Reality becomes a social construction.
The methodology ofinterpretivism can best be described as hermenutic or
dialectic.Hermenutics is the study of how to make interpretive inquiry.Dialectic
is reflective of the dialogue imagined in the subjective approach and the need
to test interpretive theory against human experience. Max Weber described the
methodology as “a science which aims at the interpretative understanding of
social conduct and thus at the explanation of its causes, its course, and its
Through hermenutics, the raw data consists of description.The description is
made through the naturally symbolic use of language.The meaning of the language
is derived in part by the society from which it arises.Interpretive theory is
tested by referring back to human practice within the society.If the interaction
produces the anticipated result then the theory is corroborated and vice versa.
Criticalrealism is the ontology of critical theory.Critical realism believes
that a reality exists “out there” and is not merely relative.However, reality
can never be fully comprehended or understood.Natural laws still control and
drive realityand to the extent possible should be understood.
Critical theory is value oriented.Therefore, the critical theorist is subjective
to the extent that the inquiries are governed and conducted in the context ofthe
values expounded by the theorist.
Critical theory has a transformative methodology.The answers provided should be
on how we should live.The status quo is critiqued and attacked.Actions are
criticized because of the result they will bring.The transformation is brought
about by making societal participants more aware of the language and the world
in which they live.By rallying members of society around a common, clear and
“true” point, societal injustice and exploitation can be eliminated.
POSITIVISM VERSUS INTERPRETIVISM
The positivistic approach is excellent for examining exterior data that can
essentially be utilized in an objective fashion.The positivist is an excellent
philosophy for viewing societal trends andchanges.The monological or scientific
gazeis limited in its perceptions and can best be used for determining when and
to what extent groups in the society interact.
The interpretivist, on the other hand, wants to know why things are happening in
a particular society.The subjective approach allows communication with the
cultural background of a society and an understanding of why things operate.
An illustration of how the two approaches differ can be seen by examining
something like the local Mormon baptism ritual for 8 year old children.The
positivist would tell percentages of children who participated in comparison to
the time the parents spent in church.The hypothesis may begin that a higher
percentage ofchildren would participate in the ritual if their parents were more
active in the religion.Data would be gathered and tested against the
hypothesis.The conclusion would be that the data confirmed the hypothesis and so
the conclusion could be reached that the more active the parents , the more
likely that the child would participate in the ritual.
The interpretivist would survey and examine why the children were baptized and
what the baptism meant to the participants.The final construct for the
interpretivist would be thatthe baptism signified a religious cleansing and a
new beginning and acted as a right of passage for the young children.
Both conclusions are correct, the results are vastly different.The positivist
looks at the exterior of society, while the interpretivist looks at the
interior.It is the difference between examining the electrical synapses in the
brain and knowing what someone is thinking.Both inquiries have there value, but
in the end, they are looking at different aspects of the same subject.The
positivist examines the exterior, while the interpretivist examines the interior.
Critics of interpretivism and positivists attack interpretive theory for being
subjective and therfore being unreliable.This is not an accurate critique. Just
as there can be poor positivistic theories, there can be poor interpretive
theories. Likewise, there can be good positivistic and interpretive theories.
An analogy to literary critique is the best illustration.Literary critique is
always interpretive.A positivistic critique ofHamlet would amount to nothing
more than a catalog of the number of times each word is used, the amount of ink
and the number of pages in the story.It would tell us nothing about the power
and strength of the play. Interpretive approaches of Hamlet can be either good
or bad. An interpretation that it is a play about “being happy” would be a bad
interpretation, while a critique on revenge would be more accurate.The common
experience of people who have seen or read the play helps determine the quality
of an interpretation.While it is subjective, a reasonable determination can be
made as to its value.
Positivism also has some inherent difficulties in maintaing the objectivist view
when doing sociological research.Unlike physical science which can measure
equations like Force equals Mass times Acceleration, human institutions are
replete with human subjectivity.Positivistic science is a tool which only works
for external examinations. Biesta and Miedema describe the problem in this way:
The point here is, that the scientific study of human subjectivity
has aims that differ radically from the aims of physical science.
Physical science aims at control of a (human) subject over a (non-
human) object.The relationship between the two can be characterized
as an external relationship, firstly because the object is controlled
by the subject, and secondly becasue the knoweldge acquired by the
subject in order to explain the behavings of the object does not
influence the behavings of the object.
While effective for the external analysis,positivism is lacking in explaining
Probably, the biggest problem in utilizing positivism in a sociological setting
is the difficulty with language.Language, by its very nature, defies
establishing empirical truth. Positivism relies on empirical facts derived from
observation, yet “[t]here is no absolute way to isolate the analytic, necessary
truths from the merely empirical.”
Because of the inherent problems positivism has been modified in the
postpositivism movement.The ontology is that of the critical realist.The
objectivity is modified to recognize that it can only be approximated. The
methodology is a modified experimental which tries to conduct the research in
more natural settings with more qualitative components.This postpositivism
remains an ideal methodology for examining external components of the society.
POSITIVISTIC AND INTERPRETIVE VERSUS CRITICAL THEORY
The objective requirements of positivism are directly antagonistic to subjective
critical theory.Critical theory approaches sociology as a means to facilitate
societal change.A positivist would rather observe from behind a thick glass and
stand removed from the observation.
The stated purpose of critical theory is to transform society into a better
reality. Positivism merely wants to define reality, not redefine.Positivism will
be reductionsitic, while critical theory will tend to be holistic.The two
theories could not be farther apart. The goals and objectives are
antithetical.Balaban summarizes the conflict as follows:
Positivism and Critical Theory offer us a positivistic account of a
fetishistic society. The first accepts it (evaluates it positively);
the second rejects it (evaluates it negatively).Positivism praises
society, Critical Theory blames society.Meanwhile the human sciences
await a true critical explanation of society.
Likewise, interpretive theory and critical theory differ.Interpretive theory is
looking at the inside to understand why.Critical theory is trying to change the
society.The difference is between trying to understand and trying to
change.Thomas R. Schwandt described the difference betweeen the two theories as
If constructivism [interpretivism]can be characterized by its
concern with a hermeneutic consciousness — capturing the lived
experiences of participants — then critical theory can by
characterized by its critical consciousness — systematically
investigating the manner in which that lived experience may be
distorted by false consciousness and ideology. . . . If the
constructivist [interpretivist] methodologies are preoccupied
with the restoration of the meaning of human experience, then
critical science methodologies are preoccupied with reduction
of illusions in the human experience.
All three methodological approaches involve safeguards to regulate objectivity.
This is not the same as objectivism.Each has its own “norms for proceeding with
a particular form of inquiry in a rational manner.”However, because of the
orientation of each theory, the end results will vary.
Based upon these difference, critical theory does not seem to be a theory that
should be adopted by sociologists.It belongs more in the realm of politics and
legislation.Critical theory in that context could take advantage of scientific
inquiry by both positivistic and interpretive sociologists to make
determinations about social change.If indeed critical theorist are to be
involved in sociological study, full disclosure of prejudices and objectives
would be needed for any inquiry to be beneficial and trustworthy.
Postpositivism remains the best approach for observing the exteriors of
society.Coupled with the interpretivist’s view of the interior culture, the two
theories working hand in hand would be most beneficial for the sociologist in
examining society.Utilizing a dual approach would be the most comprehensive and
give the scientific inquiry both depth and span in evaluating our societies and
creating a useable body of sociological research.
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