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Critically Evaluate Three Philosophical Approaches to the Understanding of the Social World Commenting on the Implications That Arise for the Conduct of Social Research.

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The whole point of conducting research is to investigate, explore and aid in the development of theory about how the social world works. Social researchers use different tools to investigate their research, these tools are not value free and they imply a certain understanding of the world.

I will be critically evaluating these research tools in this essay because there is a range of considerations to take into account when choosing a research tool.

Epistemology - is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. It talks about variety of knowledge.

Ontology - is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being. What it means to be and live in the world because there is a difference between how people behave and how they think they behave in the world.


Epistemology looks at what knowledge is and there are two broad approaches within epistemology:

1. Positivism

2. Interpretivism

When choosing what method of research you are going to take you must first ask yourself if the social world is a suitable subject of study by the natural science model?

Science in the natural world explains, predicts and controls. Scientists believe that by fully understanding a phenomenon we find out facts and so control it. The function of science implies a particular understanding of knowledge called positivism.


Positivism is the epistemological position that advocates the application of the methods of the natural sciences to the study of the social reality. It's observing and recording empirical data. (Class Notes 2005)

Positivism developed in the mid-nineteenth century when they wanted to be seen as scientists.

Positivists begin by asserting that investigating the social and cultural world is no different in principle to investigating the natural world and that the same basic procedures apply to both. From this it follows that, as in the natural sciences, the only admissible scientific evidence is 'facts' established by systematic personal observation. (Deacon et al. 1999 p4)

In essence using this approach to study social research is saying that we should study understanding people in the world in the same way you would go about understanding biology or geology. The only difference being that humans can talk to the researchers so it's essential to use simple direct questions and don't allow your own values or beliefs to influence your work.

Positivists believe you can generalise to find universal truths about your research, they would argue that the social world can be studied as an objective reality. Critics however would say that it's not a natural study because you can't study humans in a laboratory because that's not a humans natural environment.


The ontological premise is that the world has a physical reality independent of the observer. This shows how positivists believe the world is something real that we can see, feel and touch. So again when choosing your method of research you must ask yourself if you believe this can apply to social research and not just in the study of physical phenomenon.

Positivists ontological approach is that they are objectivists, they only believe the research they collect to be useable fact if they have been completely objective during research.

Collecting useable facts requires researchers to be 'objective', keeping their distance from their research subjects and not allowing their work to be influenced by their own values or subjective judgements. (Deacon et al.1999 p4)

Objectivism is like a large organisation made up of all different people or different schools of thought. Everything in it is ordered. The organisation has a physical reality apart from the individual actors within it.

However it is immensely difficult to conduct research in a completely objective way and I don't feel that any research can be conducted without certain values impinging on the researcher and so their findings. I don't think that even in a laboratory conditions can be completely controlled when studying humans. Laboratories aren't natural environments so they can't show natural real life behaviour.

Research Strategy

If you believe that the scientific method of finding out information can be used to study the social world than you would use quantitative techniques, which is evidence that can be expressed in numbers. It's completely objective and rules out the variables, because they see qualitative research as being too value laden.

The two most fundamental doctrines of Logical Positivism are (1) that propositions of existential import have an exclusively empirical reference, and (2) that this empirical reference can be conclusively shown by logical analysis. The empiristic doctrine is thus to be proved by a logical method. (Weinburg 1936 p1)

Theory / Research Order

The research tool you decide on shows your relationship between research and theory, and the approach that positivism takes is deductive, the scientific method.

Deductive - if you operate in such a way that the theory comes first and your hypothesis comes from the theory. It's a traditional paradigm that is like a circular process, you start with a theory, form a hypothesis from the theory, test this, you get the findings and then revise the theory.

The circular process is used in all the natural sciences.

The place of theory in research:

1. Grand Theories

2. Middle Range Theories

Grand Theories are theories about why people act the way they do in the world; it's our general understanding of the world.

An example of this is Goftmans Dramaturgical model -

We all have roles as actors in every social place we go and you're given a broad outline of the script of what we should do.

Middle Range Theories are very abstract theories that



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