Relationships between Theory & Methods

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • define the key concepts of reliability, validity, objectivity and representativeness
  • outline the relationship between theory and methods
  • identify the theoretical, practical and ethical considerations influencing sociological research

Key concepts

A research method is said to have high reliability if another researcher is able to repeat the study exactly and obtain the same results. Objectivity refers to the ability to be open-minded and free from personal or political bias. The data or evidence collected by a particular method has validity for sociologists if it accurately reflects the reality of those being studied. Representativeness refers to whether the group being studied is typical of the larger group to which the sociologist thinks they belong. If this is the case, the sociologist can generalise their findings to the larger group.

The debate between positivist and interpretivist sociology

Traditionally, a sociologist’s choice of research method depended on whether they subscribed to a positivist or interpretivist view of society.


  • Positivists believe that only science can provide the objective ‘truth’ or facts about the world.
  • Positivist sociologists believe that human behaviour is determined by social forces beyond the control of society’s members. These forces are generally referred to as ‘laws’ or ‘social facts’. Positivists claim these are the product of the way in which societies are organised.
  • Positivist sociologists therefore believe that sociology should be a scientific discipline based on the logic and methods of the natural sciences. The job of sociologists is to uncover the social laws that govern human behaviour.

When positivists collect information about the social world, they usually subscribe to a scientific model known as the hypothetico-deductive approach. This is the model that natural science employs in, for example, laboratory experiments.

  • Stage 1 - Phenomena are observed.
  • Stage 2 - A testable hypothesis (an educated guess) is constructed to explain the phenomena.
  • Stage 3 - Empirical data (factual information) is collected in a systematic way.
  • Stage 4 - The data is interpreted and analysed to see whether it confirms or refutes the hypothesis.
  • Stage 5 - If the hypothesis is confirmed time and time again, it becomes a theory. If the data refutes the hypothesis, the scientist should reject or revise it, and begin the data-collection process again.

The major scientific method in the natural sciences used for collecting data is the laboratory experiment. In Sociology, the major scientific method used by positivists is the social or sample survey, which incorporates the use of the questionnaire and/or structured interview. Positivists also advocate the use of some types of secondary data, particularly official statistics.

The interpretivist critique of positivism

  • Interpretivist (anti-positivist) sociologists are sceptical about sociology’s scientific status. They argue that human behaviour is not the result of external social laws. Society is the product of interaction – meaning when people come together in social groups. The way people interpret these social interactions is centrally important to the understanding of social behaviour.
  • Interpretivists prefer methods such as unstructured interviews and observation because these uncover the meanings behind action and emphasise validity. Such methods attempt to see the social world through the eyes of the people who inhabit it by studying their everyday life (verstehen) or by letting those being studied speak for themselves.

Practical constraints on choice of method

In addition to the theoretical, there are also practical reasons why a particular

research method might be chosen.

  • Funding – if the sociologist does not have access to large funds, a cheap method will be required. Secondary data is cheap because it has already been collected. Postal questionnaires are cheaper than interviews, which are probably cheaper than observation studies.
  • Time – if you have years, observation may be possible. However if you only have months, you need a method that results in a quick response like questionnaires and/or interviews.
  • The subject matter is going to influence choice of research. For example, research into trends may suit quantitative research whilst research into attitudes may suit qualitative methods.
  • The research population may not be accessible because it is regarded as deviant and may feel threatened. If this is the case, covert observation may be necessary.
  • The research population may be geographically dispersed. If it is, a postal questionnaire may be necessary, especially if money is tight.

Ethical considerations

There are some generally agreed professional guidelines which are followed in

social research. For example:

  • Subjects should not have their physical, social and psychological well-being adversely affected by research.
  • Research should be based on the freely given, informed consent of those being studied.
  • Research should not involve an intrusion on privacy, and research subjects should be allowed anonymity and confidentiality if they so wish.
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