Major Theoretical Strands in Research Methodology | UPSC Notes

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Major Theoretical Strands in Research Methodology

Facts never tell themselves what they mean. We use our common sense to make sense of life. That is, we put our events (our “facts”) into a framework of more-or-less related ideas in order to understand them. Sociologists do the same thing, but they put their findings into something called a theory. A theory is a broad statement about how some parts of the world fit together and how they work. It’s a way to explain how two or more “facts” are connected.


1. Functional analysis is based on the idea that society is a whole unit made up of parts that all work together. Functional analysis, which is also called functionalism and structural functionalism, has its roots in the beginnings of sociology. Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer both thought of society as a living thing. They wrote that society is like a person or an animal in that it has parts that work together. And just like a creature, society works best when all of its parts work well together.

2. Emile Durkheim also thought that society was made up of many parts, each of which had its own purpose. Society is in a “normal” state when all of its parts do what they are supposed to do. If they don’t do what they’re supposed to, society is in a “pathological” or “abnormal” state. Functionalists say that to understand society, we need to look at both its structure and its function. Structure is how the parts of a society fit together to make the whole. Function is what each part does and how it helps society.

3. Functionalism and Robert Merton. Robert Merton, who lived from 1910 to 2003, didn’t agree with the biological comparison, but he did agree with the main idea of functionalism, which is that society is made up of parts that work together. Merton used the word “functions” to talk about the good things that happen because of what people do. Functions help keep a group (society, social order) in balance. On the other hand, dysfunctions are bad for society because they upset the balance of a system.

4. A function can either be obvious or hidden. A visible function is a thing that is done to help some part of a system. For example, let’s say that government officials start to worry about the low number of births in our country. Congress gives married people a bonus of $10,000 for each child they have. The goal, or “manifest function,” of the bonus is to make families have more children. Merton pointed out that people’s actions can also have unintended effects that help a system change. So, let’s say the bonus works. As the number of babies born goes up, so do sales of diapers and furniture for babies. The benefits to these businesses were not what the bonus was meant to do, so they are called “latent functions.”

5. Of course, people can also do things that hurt a system. Merton called these kinds of effects “latent dysfunctions” because they usually happen by accident. Let’s say that the government hasn’t set a “stopping point” for its bonus scheme. Some people keep having kids so they can get more money from the government. But the more kids they have, the more they need the next bonus to stay alive. People tend to have big children, and the number of poor people grows. When welfare is brought back and taxes go up, people all over the country start to protest. Because these results were not planned and hurt the social order, they would be latent dysfunctions of the bonus programme.

6. From a functional analysis point of view, society is a unit that works, with each part connected to the whole. When we look at a smaller part, we need to look for how it works and how it doesn’t work to see how it fits into the whole. This basic method can be used with any kind of social group, from a whole society to a college to a family.

Criticisms of Functionalism

1. The conflict theorists think that the functionalist method is too idealistic and stress the need to study conflict in systems of stratification as a universal, all-pervasive, and always-present phenomenon.

2. Conflict thinkers say that all societies have some limits, disagreements, uncertainty, problems with control, and pressures that can’t be ignored.

3. But, unlike the functionalists, the conflict theorists do believe that disagreement leads to social stability and agreement.

4. When there are problems in a system, it’s important to also look at how agreement and balance work.

(Conflict Perspectives) Marxism

1. The conflict viewpoint says that society is made up of many different groups with different values and goals. In every culture, these groups get different amounts of money, power, and status. The Marxian approach, which focuses on economic determinism and the importance of social class, and the neoconflict approach, which focuses on differences in power and authority, are the most important parts of the conflict viewpoint.

2. The Marxist Approach to Conflict: The conflict approach can be traced back to Karl Marx’s ideas about how things work. A lot of the time, the ideas and goals of different groups are at odds with each other. Marx says that these conflicts are caused by economics and are based on social class, and that the bourgeoisie and the poor will always fight over their different values and goals. When these fights happen, the stronger group tries to impose its values and ideas on the weaker group. The result is that the rich and strong people in society (the bourgeoisie) rule over and take advantage of the masses (the proletariat). The conflict perspective is not just Marxist sociology, though. Today, conflict theorists often take a neoconflict method.

3. The Neoconflict Approach: Social conflict can be seen as a necessary and even useful part of society.

process. From this point of view, conflict forces people to talk and find a middle ground. This can lead to order and a reaffirmation of the social system. In a country as diverse as the U.S., conflicts between different racial, ethnic, religious, age, gender, and political groups are unavoidable, but they don’t have to be bad. For instance, most efforts to balance the national budget have failed because people can’t agree on which parts of the budget should be increased and which ones should be cut.

4. People who rely on Medicare and Social Security don’t want cuts to those programmes. Instead, they’d rather see cuts to, say, the military budget or government help for tobacco growers. On the other hand, Pentagon officials and cigarette makers are not going to sit back and let lawmakers balance the budget by taking money from them. Both sides use strong lobbyists to try to get lawmakers to vote in their favour. In these political and philosophical fights, there are often agreements or trade-offs that don’t make everyone happy but also don’t let one side completely win. When a society faces a threat from the outside, these internal conflicts may go away. As the saying goes, nothing brings a group together like a shared enemy. From this point of view, conflict is only bad when it threatens one or more of society’s most important beliefs.

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5. Neoconflict theorists also say that class conflict in industrialised countries is not so much a struggle over the means of production, as Marx thought, but rather a result of the unequal distribution of authority. For example, the different power and prestige of college professors and students can sometimes lead to tension and conflict between the two groups that has nothing to do with who owns property or the means of production. This version of the conflict view looks at how different groups have different levels of power and authority and how some groups are used by other, more powerful groups. C.Wright Mills’s work is a good example of this kind of method.

6. C. Wright Mills and the “Power Elite”: C. Wright Mills pushed for the conflict viewpoint when looking at how power and authority are shared in the United States. In his 1956 book The Power Elite, he argued that after World War II, the U.S. was run by a powerful military, economic, and political elite that set foreign and domestic policy to help the rich and powerful. His method was to look at the history and structure of class conflict and how ideology is used to gain power.

Symbolic Interactionism (Interactionism)

The symbolic interactionist view says that social meaning comes from the way people connect with each other. Modern symbolic interactionism is based on three key ideas:

• People act towards things based on how they see them and what they mean to them.

• These meanings come from or are based on how people connect with each other.

• Through contact and interpretation, these meanings can be changed or altered.

1. Everyday life is full of symbols. If we didn’t have symbols, our social lives wouldn’t be any more complex than animal behaviour. Without symbols, we wouldn’t have aunts and uncles, jobs, or brothers and sisters, or even teachers. This sounds strange, but images are what make us who we are and define our relationships. There would still be breeding, but there wouldn’t be any signs to tell us how we are doing – connected to whome. We wouldn’t know who we owe respect and obligations to or who we owe respect and obligations to get special treatment, which is the heart of any friendship.

2. Look at it this way: if you think of someone as your aunt or uncle, you act one way, but if you think of that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend, you act very differently towards them. It is the sign that teaches you how you are related to others and how you should treat them.

3. Let’s make this less hard to understand. Take this as an example: Let’s say you’re head over heels in love. After what seems like a long time, it’s finally the night before your wedding. As you think about how great tomorrow will be, your mother comes to you with tears in her eyes. She tells you, while crying, that she had a child before she married your dad, but that she gave the child up for adoption. She starts to cry and says that she just found out that this child is the person you are going to marry. You can see how the sign, and your behaviour, will change overnight. Not only do partnerships need symbols to work, but so does society as a whole. We couldn’t work together with other people if we didn’t have symbols. We couldn’t make plans for a day, time, or place in the future. We couldn’t build bridges and roads because we couldn’t decide on times, materials, sizes, or goals. There would be no films or musical instruments if there were no signs. We would have no hospitals, no government, and no church.

4. This point of view, which is often called the “interactionist perspective,” is based on microlevel analysis, which looks at how people and groups interact in specific social situations. Meaningful symbols, the definition of the situation, and the looking-glass self are three important ideas that help you understand this theoretical method. The interactionist point of view also fits with two important types of theoretical analysis: dramaturgical analysis and the labelling method.

5. Meaningful Symbols: George H. Mead (1863–1931) said that society is made possible by the constant process of social contact and the making, defining, and redefining of meaningful symbols. Meaningful symbols are sounds, objects, colours, and events that stand for something other than themselves. It’s important to understand how people connect with each other because of this. Language is one of the most important and powerful signs that humans have made, because it lets us interact through the shared meaning of words.

6. Definition of the Situation: This refers to the idea that “if [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas, 1928:572). People make up social reality through a process of giving and receiving. Once a meaning is set, it affects everything that comes after. Have you ever decided you were “in love” with someone, for example? If so, how did that affect your relationship with that person? What happens, on the other hand, when a married pair decides they no longer love each other? How does it affect their relationship if they say their marriage is pointless or if they decide they can’t get along? Is it likely that a marriage will last if both partners say it’s “over”?

7. The Looking-Glass Self: The “looking-glass self” is the idea that a person’s self-concept is based on how others see them.

Cooley (1902,1922) says that a person’s personality is largely a mirror of how other people see him or her.

Society is used as a mirror to show how someone feels about themselves, whether it’s pride, doubt, self-worth, or hatred. These important parts of symbolic interactionism help us form our personal and social identities, which is part of the process of socialising and becoming human.

8. Dramaturgical Analysis: An important part of symbolic interactionism, dramaturgical analysis looks at social behaviour through the lens of a play. From this point of view, people are like actors who play different parts in the story of life. In real life, people don’t just accept what others say about a situation or what their social identities are. Instead, they get involved in the drama and change the way people talk to each other to make themselves look better. So, people often try to make a good image of themselves through impression management (Goffman, 1959).

9. The Labelling Approach: The Labelling Approach is a theory that is part of symbolic interactionism. It says that people give different labels to different behaviours, people, and groups. These labels become a part of their social identity and affect how other people think about them and how they treat them. Howard Becker’s 1963 book Outsiders, for example, looked at the interesting world of jazz musicians and how their non-traditional music, love of marijuana, and open racial integration in the 1950s led most Americans to call them “deviants.” In the late 1950s, some sociologists said that the Chicago School and symbolic interactionism were losing their power because they relied too much on ethnographic studies, personal observations, and interviews. This group thought that sociology should depend more on quantifiable data, facts, figures, and statistics. They thought that sociology should be more scientific or, at the very least, more positivistic, as Comte had hoped. This led to the creation of the Iowa School of Symbolic Interaction and helped bring structure functionalism back into fashion.

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Interactionism (Symbolic Interactionism): What’s Wrong with It?

1. People often say that interactionists study how people communicate in a vacuum. (Marxist Criticism) They have tended to focus on small-scale face-to-face interactions and haven’t paid much attention to the political or social contexts of those interactions.

2. They have focused on specific situations and interactions and haven’t said much about the history that led up to them or the bigger social context in which they happen. Since these things affect the relationship situation, the fact that they haven’t gotten much attention is seen as a big mistake.

3. Many critics have said that symbolic interactionism has gone too far in this way. This is because symbolic interactionism is meant to fix the problems with societal determinism. Even though interactionists say that actions are not based on structural rules, they do agree that there are such norms. But they tend to take them for granted and not explain where they came from.

4. William Skidmore says that interactionists don’t do a good job of explaining “why people always choose to act in certain ways instead of all the other ways they could have acted.” The interactionists try to minimise the limitations on action by highlighting the flexibility and freedom of human action. Skidmore says that this is because “interactionism consistently fails to explain social structure.” In other words, it doesn’t do a good job of explaining how and why people act in accordance with social rules and how they become standardised.

5. The failure of interactionists to explain the origin of the meanings to which they give such importance has also come under fire. Critics say that these kinds of messages don’t just pop up when people talk to each other. Instead, they are made by the way the social organisation works.

6. Marxists have said that most of the ideas that come out of face-to-face interactions are the result of class differences. From this point of view, interactionists haven’t explained the most important thing about ideas, which is where they came from.

7. Interactionism is a type of sociology that is very American, and some people think that explains some of its flaws. So, Leon Shaskolsky has said that interactionism is mostly a reflection of the culture values of American society. He says that the roots of interactionism are deeply rooted in the cultural environment of American life, and that interactionism’s view of society is, in a way, a “looking-glass” picture of what that society claims to be. Interactionism’s focus on independence, freedom, and individuality can be seen as a reflection of how Americans see themselves.


• According to phenomenological views in sociology, the social and natural sciences’ subject matter is fundamentally different. Because of this, the methods and ideas of the nature sciences are not good for studying people.

• Matter is a topic in the natural sciences. To understand and describe how matter acts, all you have to do is look at it from the outside. Atoms and molecules don’t think or feel anything. They don’t have meanings and goals that guide how they act. Matter just responds “unconsciously” to outside forces; in science terms, it acts. So, the natural scientist can watch, measure, and put an outside logic on that action to try to figure out why it happens. He doesn’t have to figure out how the awareness of matter works on the inside because it doesn’t exist.

 Man is different from matter because he has consciousness, which includes thoughts, feelings, meanings, goals, and a sense of being. Because of this, his actions have meaning. He defines events and gives his own and others’ actions meaning. So, he doesn’t just react to things going on around him, and he doesn’t just act, he acts. Think about how early man would have reacted to fires caused by volcanoes or by themselves. He didn’t just react the same way every time he felt hot. He gave it many different meanings, and his behaviours were based on those meanings. For example, he thought of fire as a way to keep warm and used it to heat his homes. He also thought of it as a way to protect himself and used it to scare away wild animals. He also thought of it as a way to change things and used it to cook and harden the tips of wooden swords. Man doesn’t just respond to fire; he acts on it based on what he thinks it means.If actions are based on what people think they mean, then a sociologist must find out what those meanings are in order to understand actions. He can’t just look at things from the outside and try to put his own thinking on them. He has to figure out how the actor’s acts make sense from the inside.Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to give a detailed explanation of this point of view. He said that sociological explanations of behaviour should start with “the observation and theoretical interpretation of the subjective “states of mind” of actors.”

Phenomenology: A Look at It

1. As the last section said, interactionism takes a similar method, with a focus on how people interact with each other. While positivists focus on facts and how things happen because of other things, interactionists focus on understanding and insight. Since we can’t know what artists are thinking, we have to rely on interpretation and intuition to figure out what they mean. Because of this, it is not possible to measure things in an objective way, and the exactness of the natural sciences cannot be copied. Since meanings are always changing as people talk to each other, it is not possible to set up clear cause and effect relationships. So, some sociologists say that sociology is only about figuring out what is going on in society, and methods like phenomenology are sometimes called “interpretive sociology.”

2. A number of sociologists have said that the scientific way of looking at society has given a skewed picture of how people live. They say that it tends to show man as a passive creature who reacts to things outside of himself rather than as a maker of his own society. Man is seen as responding to different forces and pressures, such as the needs of economic infrastructures and social systems.

3. Peter Berger says that society has often been seen as a puppet theatre, with people seen as “little puppets jumping around on the ends of their invisible strings, happily acting out the parts that have been given to them.” Values, rules, and roles are taught by society, and men follow them like animals on a string. But from a psychological point of view, man doesn’t just react and respond to the outside world; he doesn’t just get acted on; he acts. In his interactions with other people, he makes up his own meanings and builds his own world, which means he decides what to do.

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1. In a general sense, ethnomethodology is the study of how people do things. It looks at the ways people build, explain, and give meaning to their social worlds.

2. Ethnomethodologists rely greatly on the European tradition of phenomenological philosophy and, in particular, the ideas of philosopher and sociologist Alfred Schutz.

3. Many ethnomethodologists start with the idea that society only lives in the minds of its members. Most people think of ethnomethodology as a psychological approach because it focuses on how people see social reality. Ethnomethodology is a new way of looking at things that includes many different points of view.

4. One of sociology’s main goals is to explain how social order works. From the results of many studies, it seems that social life is organised and predictable, and that people act in a systematic and predictable way. Sociologists have usually thought that social order is an absolute fact.

5. Ethnomethodologists either don’t believe in a real or objective social order or stop believing in it. Instead, they start with the idea that people think social life is well-organized.

So, from the members’ point of view, their daily activities seem planned and organised, but this isn’t always because of the way the social world is made or works. In other words, it might not be there. Instead, it may just seem to exist because of how people see and understand social reality. So, social order becomes a comfortable lie, a false sense of order made up by people in society. This look makes it possible to describe and explain the social world, making it known, reasonable, understandable, and ‘accountable’ to its members.

7. The subject matter of ethnomethodological inquiry is the methods and accounting practises that members use to establish a sense of order. Zimmerman and Wieder say that an ethnomethodologist is “interested in how people in society see, describe, and explain order in the world where they live.”

8. Ethnomethodologists criticise other areas of sociology a lot. They say that “traditional” sociologists don’t understand how social reality works. They have treated the social world as if it had a truth that is separate from what people say and how they see it. So, they have seen things in the social world, like death and crime, as facts that have their own lives. Then, they have tried to explain these ‘facts’. Ethnomethodologists, on the other hand, say that the social world is nothing but the ideas, interpretations, and stories of its people. So, a sociologist’s job is to explain how people build their social worlds and how they keep track of their actions. Ethnomethodologists say that this is the job that traditional sociology has not been able to do.

9. Ethnomethodologist doesn’t think there’s much of a difference between regular sociologists and regular people. They say that the ways sociologists do their study are pretty much the same as the ways people do things in their everyday lives. Members who use the documentary method are always coming up with theories, drawing connections between events, and making the social world look organised and logical. Then, they act as if the social world had its own reality that was different from them.

10. Ethnomethodologists say that the methods used by regular sociologists are pretty much the same. They use the documentary method, theorise about connections, and draw pictures to make a picture of a well-organized social system. They do things automatically, just like everyone else. So, when a functionalist thinks that behaviour is a representation of an underlying pattern of shared values, he uses examples of that behaviour to show that the pattern exists. Members build a picture of society based on how they do their accounts. In this way, the average person is also his own historian. Ethnomethodologists don’t see much difference between the pictures of society that traditional sociologists make and the ones that ethnomethodologists make.

Critique to Ethnomethodology:

1. Ethnomethodology has been called traditional sociology or “folk sociology.” Ethnomethodologists’ critics have said that the people in the kind of society they describe don’t seem to have any goals or motives.

2. Anthony Giddens says that “the pursuit of practical goals or interests” isn’t talked about much. Ethnomethodologists don’t explain why people want to behave or are made to behave in certain ways in their works very much. Not much thought is given to how power works in the social world or how different levels of power might affect how people act.

3. As Gouldner points out, Garfinkel doesn’t see the process of defining and establishing social reality as a struggle between competing groups’ definitions of reality. He also doesn’t see how the common sense view of the world has been shaped by institutionally protected power differences.

4. Ethnomethodologists have been criticised for failing to take into account the fact that members’ accounting processes are carried out in a social system with different levels of power. Many ethnomethodologists seem to think that anything that people don’t recognise and can’t explain is useless. They suggest that if people don’t know about things and events, they won’t be affected by them. But John H. Goldthorpe makes a very clear point in his criticism of ethnomethodology: “If, for example, bombs and napalm are flying down, members don’t have to be facing them in a certain way or at all to die from them.” Obviously, members don’t have to be aware of certain restrictions for them to change how they act. Goldthorpe says, using the case above, that death “limits interaction in a pretty clear way.” Lastly, the Ethnomethodologists’ complaints about conventional sociology can be turned back on them.

5. As Giddens says, “any ethnomethodological account must have the same features that it claims to find in the accounts of lay actors.” So, just like traditional sociologists or any other member of society, ethnomethodologists’ accounting practises become a subject of study. In theory, the process of keeping track of money is always going on. If you take the ethnomethodological viewpoint to its extreme, it means that you can never know anything. Despite its flaws, ethnomethodology does ask some interesting questions.