Foundations of Social Research
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Foundations of Social Research

Meaning and perspective in the research process

Michael Crotty

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  1. 256 páginas
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eBook - ePub

Foundations of Social Research

Meaning and perspective in the research process

Michael Crotty

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Choosing a research method can be bewildering. How can you be sure which methodology is appropriate, or whether your chosen combination of methods is consistent with the theoretical perspective you want to take? The Foundations of Social Research links methodology and theory with great clarity and precision, showing students and researchers how to navigate the maze of conflicting terminology. The major epistemological stances and theoretical perspectives that colour and shape current social research are detailed: positivism, constructionism, interpretivism, critical inquiry, feminism and postmodernism. Crotty reveals the philosophical origins of these schools of inquiry and shows how various disciplines contribute to the practice of social research as it is known today. The Foundations of Social Research is essential reading for new and experienced researchers, students and professionals, in the social and health sciences.'.a wonderful piece of writing, expounding the philosophical and theoretical considerations of the research process for social researchers in a clear, fair minded and friendly way.'Clive Seale, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London

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Social Sciences


. . . many arrows, loosèd several ways,
Fly to one mark . . .
William Shakespeare, Henry V
They call it ‘scaffolded learning’. It is an approach to teaching and learning that, while careful to provide an initial framework, leaves it to the learner to establish longer term structures.
What is presented here is offered in this spirit. It is to be seen as in no way a definitive construction of the social research process but merely a framework for the guidance of those wishing to explore the world of research.
Research students and fledgling researchers—and, yes, even more seasoned campaigners—often express bewilderment at the array of methodologies and methods laid out before their gaze. These methodologies and methods are not usually laid out in a highly organised fashion and may appear more as a maze than as pathways to orderly research. There is much talk of their philosophical underpinnings, but how the methodologies and methods relate to more theoretical elements is often left unclear. To add to the confusion, the terminology is far from consistent in research literature and social science texts. One frequently finds the same term used in a number of different, sometimes even contradictory, ways.
In response to this predicament, here is one reasonably clear-cut way of using terms and grasping what is involved in the process of social research. It is obviously not the only way in which these terms are used, nor is it being suggested that it is the only defensible way to use them. Equally, it is not the only way of analysing and understanding the research process. This is scaffolding, not an edifice. Its aim is to provide researchers with a sense of stability and direction as they go on to do their own building; that is, as they move towards understanding and expounding the research process after their own fashion in forms that suit their particular research purposes.


As a starting point, it can be suggested that, in developing a research proposal, we need to put considerable effort into answering two questions in particular. First, what methodologies and methods will we be employing in the research we propose to do? Second, how do we justify this choice and use of methodologies and methods?
The answer to the second question lies with the purposes of our research—in other words, with the research question that our piece of inquiry is seeking to answer. It is obvious enough that we need a process capable of fulfilling those purposes and answering that question.
There is more to it than that, however. Justification of our choice and particular use of methodology and methods is something that reaches into the assumptions about reality that we bring to our work. To ask about these assumptions is to ask about our theoretical perspective.
It also reaches into the understanding you and I have of what human knowledge is, what it entails, and what status can be ascribed to it. What kind of knowledge do we believe will be attained by our research? What characteristics do we believe that knowledge to have? Here we are touching upon a pivotal issue. How should observers of our research—for example, readers of our thesis or research report—regard the outcomes we lay out before them? And why should our readers take these outcomes seriously? These are epistemological questions.
Already our two initial questions have expanded. We find ourselves with four questions now:
  • What methods do we propose to use?
  • What methodology governs our choice and use of methods?
  • What theoretical perspective lies behind the methodology in question?
  • What epistemology informs this theoretical perspective?
At issue in these four questions are basic elements of any research process, and we need to spell out carefully what we mean by each of them.
  • Methods: the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyse data related to some research question or hypothesis.
  • Methodology: the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes.
  • Theoretical perspective: the philosophical stance informing the methodology and thus providing a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria.
  • Epistemology: the theory of knowledge embedded in the theoretical perspective and thereby in the methodology.
In social research texts, the bulk of discussion and much of the terminology relate in one way or another to these four elements. What one often finds, however, is that forms of these different process elements are thrown together in grab-bag style as if they were all comparable terms. It is not uncommon to find, say, symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism simply set side by side as ‘methodologies’, ‘approaches’, ‘perspectives’, or something similar. Yet they are not truly comparable. Lumping them together without distinction is a bit like talking about putting tomato sauce, condiments and groceries in one basket. One feels compelled to say, ‘Hang on a moment! Tomato sauce is one of many forms of condiment. And all condiments are groceries. Let’s do some sorting out here’. Similarly, one may feel urged to do some sorting out when confronted by items like symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism all slung together.
Ethnography, after all, is a methodology. It is one of many particular research designs that guide a researcher in choosing methods and shape the use of the methods chosen. Symbolic interactionism, for its part, is a theoretical perspective that informs a range of methodologies, including some forms of ethnography. As a theoretical perspective, it is an approach to understanding and explaining society and the human world, and grounds a set of assumptions that symbolic interactionist researchers typically bring to their methodology of choice. Constructionism1 is an epistemology embodied in many theoretical perspectives, including symbolic interactionism as this is generally understood. An epistemology, we have already seen, is a way of understanding and explaining how we know what we know. What all this suggests is that symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism need to be related to one another rather than merely set side by side as comparable, perhaps even competing, approaches or perspectives.
So there are epistemologies, theoretical perspectives and methodologies. If we add in methods, we have four elements that inform one another, as depicted in Figure 1.
Figure 1
One or other form of constructionism is the epistemology found, or at least claimed, in most perspectives other than those representing positivist and post-positivist paradigms. As we have just noted, the epistemology generally found embedded in symbolic interactionism is thoroughly constructionist in character. So, if we were to write down the four items we are talking about, we would be justified in drawing an arrow from constructionism to symbolic interactionism to indicate this relationship. Ethnography, a methodology that sprang in the first instance from anthropology and anthropological theory, has been adopted by symbolic interactionism and adapted to its own purposes. For that reason, our next arrow may go from symbolic interactionism to ethnography. Ethnography, in turn, has its methods of preference. Participant observation has traditionally been accorded pride of place. So, out with the pen for yet another arrow. Here, then, we have a specific example of an epistemology, a theoretical perspective, a methodology and a method, each informing the next as suggested in Figure 2.
The textbooks describe several epistemological positions, quite a number of theoretical stances, many methodologies, and almost countless methods. An attempt to list a representative sampling of each category might result in something like Table 1. (But note the several ‘etceteras’ occurring in this table. It is not an exhaustive listing.)
Figure 2
To denote another typical string, an arrow could start with ‘objectivism’. Objectivism is the epistemological view that things exist as meaningful entities independently of consciousness and experience, that they have truth and meaning residing in them as objects (‘objective’
Table 1
Epistemology Theoretical perspective Methodology Methods
Subjectivism (and their variants)
Positivism (and post-positivism)
• Symbolic interactionism
• Phenomenology
• Hermeneutics
Critical inquiry
Experimental research
Survey research
Phenomenological research
Grounded theory
Heuristic inquiry
Action research
Discourse analysis
Feminist standpoint research
Measurement and scaling
• participant
• non-participant
Focus group
Case study
Life history
Visual ethnographic methods
Statistical analysis
Data reduction
Theme identification
Comparative analysis
Cognitive mapping
Interpretative methods
Document analysis
Content analysis
Conversation analysis
truth and meaning, therefore), and that careful (scientific?) research can attain that objective truth and meaning. This is the epistemology underpinning the positivist stance. Research done in positivist spirit might select to engage in survey research and employ the quantitative method of statistical analysis (see Figure 3). Once again the arrows go across the columns from first to last.
Figure 3
What purpose can these four elements serve?
For one thing, they can help to ensure the soundness of our research and make its outcomes convincing. Earlier we recognised the need to justify the methodologies and methods employed in our research. Setting forth our research process in terms of these four elements enables us to do this, for it constitutes a penetrating analysis of the process and points up the theoretical assumptions that underpin it and determine the status of its findings.
How might we outline our research proposal in these terms?


First, we describe the concrete techniques or procedures we plan to use. There will be certain activities we engage in so as to gather and analyse our data. These activities are our research methods.
Given our goal of identifying and justifying the research process, it is important that we describe these methods as specifically as possible. To this end, we will not just talk about ‘carrying out interviews’ but will indicate in very detailed fashion what kind of interviews they are, what interviewing techniques are employed, and in what sort of setting the interviews are conducted. We will not just talk about ‘participant observation’ but will describe what kind of observation takes place and what degree of participation is involved. We will not just talk about ‘identifying themes in the data’ but will show what we mean by themes, how the themes emerge, how they are identified, and what is done with them when they do.


We now describe our strategy or plan of action. This is the research design that shapes our choice and use of particular methods and links them to the desired outcomes.
What is called for here is not only a description of the methodology but also an account of the rationale it provides for the choice of methods and the particular forms in which the methods are employed. Take ethnographic inquiry, for instance. Ethnographic inquiry in the spirit of symbolic interactionism seeks to uncover meanings and perceptions on the part of the people participating in the research, viewing these understandings against the backdrop of the people’s overall worldview or ‘culture’. In line with this approach, the researcher strives to see things from the perspective of the participants. It is this that makes sense of the researcher’s stated intention to carry out unstructured interviews and to use a non-directive form of questioning within them.


Next we describe the philosophical stance that lies behind our chosen methodology. We attempt to explain how it provides a context for the process and grounds its logic and criteria.
Inevitably, we bring a number of assumptions to our chosen methodology. We need, as best we can, to state what thes...