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Joseph Kaminski

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August 19, 2019

Positivism and Interactionists and Whatnot

The idea behind subjectivity in sociological research being invalid is supported by positivists; positivism is a specific philosophical and sociological perspective that states that positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena, and therefore interactive studies that include participants along with the researcher are invalid. Information must be interpreted through reason and logic, coming from derived knowledge and relations through valid research.

At the turn of the 20th century, with new waves of ideological perspectives and additions to sociological knowledge sweeping Europe, German sociologists attempted to create and successfully introduced the methodological perspective of “antipositivism”, which proposed that research should concentrate not on derived knowledge but on human norms, values, symbols, and social processes. All of which could be viewed from a subjective perspective of research and knowledge. The background knowledge of positivism eventually goes along with Karl Marx’s ideologies and theories, such as his historical materialism.

The view stated, that “participant observation studies have little value in sociological research because they are too subjective”, is supported by a positivist perspective in the world of sociology. The argument that a sociologist shouldn’t be concerned with internal meanings or emotions are key aspects looked from a participant’s observation method. According to those such as Auguste Comte, scientific data should only be done through collecting information that can be objectively observed and therefore classified into scientific theory. This positivist approach tends to agree with the claim provided.

Data can be easily skewed, ruining patterns that could naturally be preserved outside of subjectively influenced experiments. This idea provides the structural foundation for research methods in quantitative research methods. However, by being too objective in their methods, sociologists that follow the positivist approach manage to be heavily criticized for their validity. Thus, taking everything into consideration, we can easily see that positivist methods used (such as but not limited to quantitative research) are questionable for being too objective in studies that are dependent to statistical patterns and facts. However, the positivist perspective takes the consideration towards the opposing side of the spectrum, associating a failure in data to come from subjective intervention.

In doing participant observation, a sociological researcher needs to consider what values — those of the researcher as well as other participants — are involved, and what implications these values hold for truthful findings. These questions, must be addressed constantly throughout the research, during all phases of research from the conceptualization of a problem to the final report of findings.

Interactionists support the participant observation through producing useful sociological explanations in research. According to Max Weber, one of the most prominent sociologists, the explanation of any social action underlies all human behavior. Therefore, a sociologist must interpret meanings given to actions by people, participants, themselves. According to interactionists – these so-called antipositivists – people reflect on their own behavior, explaining the patterns of lifestyles. In an attempt to obtain data, interactionists prefer participant observation over quantitative data.

This method, used to uncover true motives developed in actions taken by participants, has been proven to have incredible validity. This is evident in a study concerning mental hospitals done by Erving Goffman in 1968. Goffman, working as an Assistant Athletic Director within an asylum, created a mostly covert study. His research was incredibly covert, with only specific members of the asylum’s staff knowing of his research. Through subjective and covert ability, this method allowed him to uncover the unofficial reality of life inside mental institutions. Thus, this evidence provided in Goffman’s case study contradicted the view that positivists hold on subjectivity, proving that participant observation can in fact be useful in sociological research.


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