Non-Positivist Methodologies.pdf

August 24, 2017 | Author: Aman Roy | Category: Phenomenology (Philosophy), Sociology, Positivism, Max Weber, Philosophical Movements
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Non-Positivist Methodologies When it was realized by scholars that sociological issues cannot be addressed using fixed laws only, they turned from positivism to non-positivism. While positivist methodologies saw society as given and man as mere part of it governed by its rules. Non positivists on the other hand considered man as independent thinking being who can influence society also. They rejected the over-socialized conception of man. Non-positivist methodologies, thus, tried to gauge what goes inside mind of man and how it affects society. Even before establishment of sociology as a formal discipline, such ideas were prevalent during late 18th century when German ‘idealist’ school attempted to define social realty differently. Scholars like Dilthey and Rickert highlighted the difference between natural and social world. According to them social world is based upon uniqueness of human society in terms of meaning, symbols and motives. The leader of German idealist school George Hegel argued, ‘Social phenomena are results of the ideas which are generated in the minds of individuals and these ideas are responsible for history’. This tradition was carried on and by the end of 19th century an alternate view to positivism has strongly emerged which contained variety of thoughts and was collectively known as non-positivist methodology. Weber was one of the pioneers of non-positivist approach. Other early doyens were like Mead, Herbert Blumer, Schutz etc. Weber laid foundation of interpretativist methodology and Mead pioneered symbolic Interactionism. Various non-positivist methods which emerged include – Symbolic Interactionism, Ideal Types and Verstehen of Weber, Phenomenology by Alfred Schutz in 1930s, Ethnomethodology by Harold Garfinkel in1940s and so on. Various elements that run common to these methodologies are – I.

Non-positivists study the internal processes represented through emotions, motives, aspirations and the individual’s interpretation of social reality. For example – Ethnomethodology relies upon the everyday methods used by actors and their narratives. II. Non-positivists emphasized upon using qualitative methods and not scientific methods. Earlier non-positivists like Weber and Mead emphasized upon using of scientific methods, but later non-positivists like Alfred Schutz and Garfinkel out-rightly rejected their use. III. Non-positivists also suggested understanding of social reality and not prediction of events. They refrained from formulation of generalized universal theories. Weber and Mead though stressed upon cause and effect relations, but Schutz eliminated such possibility. IV. Non-positivists also highlighted impossibility of total objectivity and hence were accommodative of subjectivity in research. Some of the prominent non-positivist methodologies are mentioned below. INTERPRETATIVIST SOCIOLOGY It is an umbrella term for various streams like Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and so on. This approach was used for the first time by Max Weber in his book ‘Methods of Social Science’. Weber was highly influenced by idealists like Rickert and Dilthey. According to this approach, the

© Nitin Sangwan task of sociology is to interpret the meanings attached by individuals to their actions in order thereby an explanation of its cause and effect. The basis of this approach is that ‘individual is having a voluntary will and his thoughts cannot be understood simply in terms of external influence’. Human beings have a consciousness which cannot be predicted. This approach also came to be known as voluntarist approach. Weber also proposed scientific methods for interpretative sociology. Methods used by Weber included – Verstehen, ideal type and comparative methods. Approach of Weber later influenced the emergence of purely non-positivist approaches like Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology. Georg Simmel a German sociologist was another early doyen of this approach. In America, Chicago School led by Louis Firth, Robert Park, Mead etc took this tradition forward. PHENOMENOLOGY It refers to a group of perspectives and it is a distinctive European branch of sociology which emerged as an alternative to positivism. It simply means study of phenomenon in society. Phenomenology was the most radical departure from positivist approach and perhaps the first pure non-positivist perspective in sociology. It argued that subject matter of natural sciences and social sciences are fundamentally different – man has consciousness, material things don’t have – and hence, methods of natural sciences cannot be applied on social sciences. Meanings don’t have their own independent existence. Instead, they are constructed and reconstructed by the actors in the course of their social interaction. From a phenomenological perspective, the social world is a world of meanings and there is no objective reality which lies beyond the meanings of individual. Max Weber was a big influence on the development on this stream of sociology. Effort to develop it can be traced to the publication of Alfred Schutz’s ‘The Phenomenology of the Social World’ in 1932, though its philosophical base was initially developed by Edmund Husserl. Schutz was focally concerned with the way in which people grasp the consciousness of others while they live within their own stream of consciousness. It describes how from a stream of undifferentiated experiences individuals develop their own subjective reality and meanings. Since meanings are constantly negotiated in ongoing interaction process, it is not possible to establish simple cause and effect relationship. Much of Schutz’s work focuses on an aspect of the social world called the ‘life-world’, or the world of everyday life. Phenomenology studies the everyday phenomena that happen in our social lives. Our life world or everyday world is an intersubjective world in which people both create social reality and are constrained by the preexisting social and cultural structures created by their predecessors. Schutz focused upon the dialectical relationship between the way people construct social reality and the stubborn external social and cultural reality that they inherit from those who preceded them in the social world. He was particularly interested in ‘typifications’ i.e. way the phenomenon which is being experienced is classified according to previous experience. It helps in a quick understanding of reality and makes it more predictable.

© Nitin Sangwan Basic premise of Alfred Schutz was later more systematized by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their famous book ‘The Social Construction of Reality, 1967’. Phenomenologists reject a causal explanation, generalization of theory and use of any specific methods. The social meanings of the phenomena keep on changing with time with changing individual’s subjectivity. According to Phenomenologists, there is no reality beyond the subjectivity of individual. They say that in order to decipher the phenomena, the sociologists must immerse themselves into the areas of life they seek to investigate, rather than attempting to fit the data into predefined categories. SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM Herbert Blumer, who was a student of Mead, coined the term symbolic interactionism in 1937 which originally flows from works of G H Mead who wrote several essays that were instrumental in its development. John Dewey, Cooley and William Thomas were other influences. Chicago School played significant role in its development for around 30 years till 1950s. Its basic tenets were similar to phenomenology, but it was distinctively American unlike Phenomenology which originated in Europe. It rejects both social and biological determinism and argues that man himself creates social reality by meanings created through interaction. It places a strong emphasis on symbols and language as core element of all human interactions. Symbolic interactionists have been affected by Weber’s ideas on Verstehen, as well as by others of Weber’s ideas. Symbolic interactionism was developed, in large part, out of Simmel’s interest in action and interaction and Mead’s interest in consciousness. Mead understood the human behavior as governed by the internal processes by which people interpret the whole world around them and give meanings to their lives. These meanings are reinforced and modified during the process of interaction. Symbolic interaction, thus, stresses upon that social phenomenon must be understood in terms of the interaction between the participating individuals. According to Mead, interactions are possible only through some symbols called ‘significant symbols’ like language, gestures etc. Thus, symbolic interactionism springs from a concern for language and meanings. It directs our attention to the details of interpersonal interaction. Irving Goffman is also one of the most successful symbolic interactionists and his studies of mental asylums and ways in which people present their selves in social encounters. To Blumer, behaviorism and structural functionalism both tended to focus on factors (for example, external stimuli and norms) that cause human behavior. As far as Blumer was concerned, both theories ignored the crucial process by which actors endow the forces acting on them and their own behaviors with meaning. Individuals in human society are not seen as units that are motivated by external or internal forces beyond their control, or within the confines of a more or less fixed structure. Rather, they are viewed as reflective or interacting units which comprise the societal entity. The crucial assumption that human beings possess the ability to think differentiates symbolic interactionism from its behaviorist roots. The ability to think enables people to act reflectively

© Nitin Sangwan rather than just behave unreflectively. The ability to think is embedded in the mind and mind is different from physiological brain. Mind is a result of socialization process and it is not a thing, but is a process. People possess only a general capacity for thought. This capacity must be shaped and refined in the process of social interaction. Such a view leads the symbolic interactionist to focus on a specific form of social interaction— socialization. The human ability to think is developed early in childhood socialization and is refined during adult socialization. Symbolic interactionists have a view of the socialization process that is different from that of most other sociologists. To symbolic interactionists, conventional sociologists are likely to see socialization as simply a process by which people learn the things that they need to survive in society. To the symbolic interactionists, ‘socialization is a more dynamic process that allows people to develop the ability to think, to develop in distinctively human ways’. Furthermore, socialization is not simply a oneway process in which the actor receives information, but ‘is a dynamic process in which the actor shapes and adapts the information to his or her own needs’. Interaction is the process in which the ability to think is both developed and expressed. All types of interaction, not just interaction during socialization, refine our ability to think. In most interaction, actors must take account of others and decide if and how to fit their activities to others. However, not all interaction involves thinking. According to Blumer, ‘non-symbolic interactions don’t require thinking, but symbolic interactions require thinking’. Symbolic interactionists conceive of language as a vast system of symbols. Words are symbols because they are used to stand for things. Words make all other symbols possible. Acts, objects, and other words exist and have meaning only because they have been and can be described through the use of words. Symbols are crucial in allowing people to act in distinctively human ways. Because of the symbol, the human being ‘does not respond passively to a reality that imposes itself but actively creates and re-creates the world acted in’. In addition to this general utility, symbols in general and language in particular have a number of specific functions for the actor – I.



First, symbols enable people to deal with the material and social world by allowing them to name, categorize, and remember the objects they encounter there. In this way, people are able to order a world that otherwise would be confusing. Language allows people to name, categorize, and especially remember much more efficiently than they could with other kinds of symbols, such as pictorial images. Second, symbols improve people’s ability to perceive the environment. Instead of being flooded by a mass of indistinguishable stimuli, the actor can be alerted to some parts of the environment rather than others. Third, symbols improve the ability to think. Although a set of pictorial symbols would allow a limited ability to think, language greatly expands this ability. Fourth, symbols greatly increase the ability to solve various problems. Lower animals must use trial-and-error, but human beings can think through symbolically a variety of

© Nitin Sangwan alternative actions before actually taking one. This ability reduces the chance of making costly mistakes. V. Fifth, the use of symbols allows actors to transcend time, space, and even their own persons. Through the use of symbols, actors can imagine what it was like to live in the past or what it might be like to live in the future. VI. Sixth, symbols allow us to imagine a metaphysical reality, such as heaven or hell. Symbolic interactionists’ primary concern is with the impact of meanings and symbols on human action and interaction. Meanings and symbols give human social action (which involves a single actor) and social interaction (which involves two or more actors engaged in mutual social action) distinctive characteristics. Basic principles of symbolic interaction are – I. II.

Human beings, unlike lower animals, are endowed with the capacity for thought. The capacity for thought is shaped by social interaction and not by virtue of external force. III. While Functionalists and Marxists focus on society as a whole, interactionists focus on small scale interaction. They don’t think that human action is in response to system. IV. In social interaction people learn the meanings and the symbols that allow them to exercise their distinctively human capacity for thought. V. Meanings and symbols allow people to carry on distinctively human action and interaction. VI. People are able to modify or alter the meanings and symbols that they use in action and interaction on the basis of their interpretation of the situation. Most recently and famously, the perspective was used by Arlie Hochschild in her ‘The Managed Heart, 1983’ which is based on her study of Delta Airlines. She studied how the air hostesses manage their emotions to serve the passengers better. She terms this as ‘emotional labor’. She used symbolic interaction to understand an aspect of life, which looked so basic and which most think as being understood, and concludes that a very personal thing like emotions is also commoditized. Symbolic interactionism has also been criticized on various counts – I. II. III.


Firstly, it ignores certain common social facts like power, structure and their constraining influence on human actions and interactions. Interactionists are accused of examining human interaction in a vacuum. They focus only on small face-to-face interaction and ignore the larger historical or social settings. Some researchers have also argued that modern service industry requires manipulation of emotional labor as well and very personal symbols like ‘smile’ are no longer voluntarily owned by individuals. According to Skidmore, interactionists largely fail to explain ‘why people consistently choose to act in given ways in certain ways instead of all other possible ways’. In this way, they conveniently ignore the social constraints that are there.

© Nitin Sangwan V.

Leon Shaskolsky also argue that Symbolic Interactionism embodies American values of liberty, freedom and individuality and is biased by it and deliberately ignore the harsher reality of life. VI. Marxists argue that meanings that are generated are not a result of interaction, but external force due to presence of class relationships. ETHNOMETHODOLOGY The term has Greek roots and Ethnomethodology literally means the ‘lay methods’ that people use on a daily basis to accomplish their everyday lives. People are viewed as rational, but they use ‘practical reasoning,’ not formal logic, in accomplishing their everyday lives. Ethnomethodology was proposed by American sociologist Harold Garfinkel beginning in the late 1940s, but it was first systematized with the publication of his ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ in 1967. It has various elements in common with European phenomenology because Harold Garfinkel was a student of Alfred Schutz at the New School who has a great influence on it. Garfinkel had previously studied under Talcott Parsons, and it was the fusion of Parsonian and Schutzian ideas that helped give Ethnomethodology its distinctive orientation. Aaron Cicourel was another big influence.

Conversation Analysis is the empirical study of conversations, employing techniques drawn from Ethnomethodology. Conversation analysis examines details of naturally occurring conversations to reveal the organizational principles of talk and its role in the production and reproduction of social order. In this, all facets of conversation for meaning – from the smallest words like Umm, Ooo etc to the timings of pauses, interruptions etc are also studied.

Whereas phenomenological sociologists tend to focus on what people think, ethnomethodologists are more concerned with what people actually do. Thus, ethnomethodologists devote a lot of attention to the detailed study of conversations. It is defined as – ‘the study of the body of common-sense knowledge and the range of procedures and considerations by means of which the ordinary members of society make sense of, find their way about in, and act on the circumstances in which they find themselves’. To put it another way, Ethnomethodology is concerned with the organization of everyday life and it examines the methods and procedures that people use to construct and account for their social world. Like Phenomenologists, ethnomethodologists also reject an objective view of reality and social order which starts from society and not individual. Like Durkheim, Garfinkel considers ‘social facts’ to be the fundamental sociological phenomenon. However, Garfinkel’s social facts are very different from Durkheim’s social facts. For Durkheim, social facts are external to and coercive of individuals. In contrast, Ethnomethodology treats the objectivity of social facts as the accomplishment of members. There are two central ideas to Ethnomethodology – I.

Indexicality – It means that sense of an object or phenomenon is context specific. For example, a same question may elicit different responses in different situations like

© Nitin Sangwan informal conversations, interview etc. Members make a sense of a phenomenon in the context of phenomenon. II. Reflexivity – It refers to the fact that our sense of order is a result of conversational process. It is created in talk. It is a reflective action and it is subjective interpretation of order. It implies that order doesn’t exist on its own, but is created by the individuals. Individuals compare a particular instance to the underlying pattern and vice-versa to reinforce each other. Garfinkel argues that mainstream sociology has depicted man as a ‘cultural dope’ who simply acts out the standardized directives provided by the culture of his society. Instead members give meanings to situations, construct their own world rather than being shaped by it. While ethnomethodologists refuse to treat actors as cultural dopes, they do not believe that people are ‘almost endlessly reflexive, self-conscious and calculative’. Rather, following Alfred Schutz, they recognize that most often action is routine and relatively unreflective. In sum, ethnomethodologists are interested in neither micro structures nor macro structures; they are concerned with the artful practices that produce both types of structures. Ethnomethodologists argue that social world is nothing more than the constructs, interpretations and accounts of its members. ‘Accounts’ are the ways in which actors explain (describe, criticize, and idealize) specific situations. Ethnomethodologists devote a lot of attention to analyzing people’s accounts, as well as to the ways in which accounts are offered and accepted (or rejected) by others. This is one of the reasons that ethnomethodologists are preoccupied with analyzing conversations and ‘conversation analysis’ is one of the important parts of the Ethnomethodology. Extending the idea of accounts, ethnomethodologists point out that sociologists, like everyone else, offer accounts. Thus, reports of sociological studies can be seen as accounts and analyzed in the same way that all other accounts can be studied. A good deal of sociology (indeed all sciences) involves commonsense interpretations. Ethnomethodologists can study the accounts of the sociologist in the same way that they can study the accounts of the layperson. Early ethnomethodological studies carried on by Garfinkel and his associates took place in casual, non-institutionalized settings such as the home. Later, there was a move toward studying everyday practices in a wide variety of institutional settings—courtrooms, medical settings. The second variety of Ethnomethodology is conversation analysis. Ethnomethodologists are criticized for taking a detached view of members of society. According to Giddens, they seem to have no goals. Alvin Gouldner says that they ignore the fact that interactions and the reality are shaped by the differential power relations that exist in society. According to Goldthorpe, it seems that what members don’t recognize, doesn’t exist for them and they remain insulated with that. This is, however, untrue. However, the non-positivist methodologies cannot resolve the dilemma of objectivity and subjectivity. Even Weber and Mead favored objectivity. Non-positivists could also not develop a single methodological principle leading to wide variations in non-positivist research and some even stressed on using quantitative methods. Non-positivist methods also depend heavily on ability of interrogator and as

© Nitin Sangwan a result, different explanations were given for same phenomenon. Non-positivists ignore independent existence of social phenomenon and overlook the fact that man is born in a pre-existing society.

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