Comparison of the three major sociological theories
Comment on the three types of sociological theories, explain and argue, based on
your library or Internet research, which type of theory is the most appropriate
theory for sociology to adopt.
The three general types of sociological theory are positivistic, interpretive and
critical theory. In determining which theory is the most appropriate for sociology to
adopt, a basic understanding of each theory's strengths and weaknesses is necessary. In
defining each of these theories, it is important to determine the ontological basis or the
theory's basis for determining what is knowable; the epistemological basis or the theory's
relationship between the knower and the knowable; and, finally, the methodological basis
or the theory's method for gathering data and obtaining knowledge.
The positivistic theory is based on an ontology of being a realist. The realistic
slant of positivism is also known as determinism. The positivist knows that a reality is
"out there" to be defined and categorized. The hard sciences from the time of Newton
and Decartes have traditionally relied on the positivistic approach. The positivist hopes to
be able to approximate "reality" in a detailed generalization or theory on how reality
operates. The theories of a positivist generally take the form of cause and effect laws
describing the outside reality. Robert Merton defined these theorems as "clear verifiable
statements of the relationships between specified variables."
Positivism relies on an objective epistemology. The observer remains distant and
does not interact with the observation or experiment. Values and any other factors that
might lead to bias are to be carefully removed so that the cold, monological gaze of
science can be used to analyze the data. The positivist is an objectivist.
The methodology of positivism is experimental and manipulative. The approach is
the same as propounded in most junior high science classes: begin with a hypothesis on
how "reality" works, then gather data and test the data against the hypothesis. The
question propounded initially is tested against empirical data gathered in the experiment
under carefully controlled conditions.
The interpretivist ontology is relativism. The belief, unlike the positivist, is that
knowledge is relative to the observor. Reality is not something that exists outside the
observor, but rather is determined by the experiences, social background and other factors
of the observor. Because of this view sociological law is not a constant, but a relationship
between changing variables.
The epistemology of interpretivism is the subjective. The inquirer in interpretisim
becomes part of an interaction or communication with the subject of the inquiry. The
findings are the result of the interaction between the inquirer and the subject. Reality
becomes a social construction.
The methodology of interpretivism can best be described as hermenutic or
dialectic. Hermenutics is the study of how to make interpretive inquiry. Dialectic is
reflective of the dialogue imagined in the subjective approach and the need to test
interpretive theory against human experience. Max Weber described the methodology as
"a science which aims at the interpretative understanding of social conduct and thus at the
explanation of its causes, its course, and its effects."
Through hermenutics, the raw data consists of description. The description is made through the
naturally symbolic use of language. The meaning of the language is derived in part by the society from which it
arises. Interpretive theory is tested by referring back to human practice within the society. If the interaction
produces the anticipated result then the theory is corroborated and vice versa.
C. CRITICAL THEORY
Critical realism is the ontology of critical theory. Critical realism believes that a
reality exists "out there" and is not merely relative. However, reality can never be fully
comprehended or understood. Natural laws still control and drive reality and to the
extent possible should be understood.
Critical theory is value oriented. Therefore, the critical theorist is subjective to the
extent that the inquiries are governed and conducted in the context of the values
expounded by the theorist.
Critical theory has a transformative methodology. The answers provided should
be on how we should live. The status quo is critiqued and attacked. Actions are criticized
because of the result they will bring. The transformation is brought about by making
societal participants more aware of the language and the world in which they live. By
rallying members of society around a common, clear and "true" point, societal injustice
and exploitation can be eliminated.
POSITIVISM VERSUS INTERPRETIVISM
The positivistic approach is excellent for examining exterior data that can
essentially be utilized in an objective fashion. The positivist is an excellent philosophy for
viewing societal trends and changes. The monological or scientific gaze is limited in its
perceptions and can best be used for determining when and to what extent groups in the
The interpretivist, on the other hand, wants to know why things are happening in a
particular society. The subjective approach allows communication with the cultural
background of a society and an understanding of why things operate.
An illustration of how the two approaches differ can be seen by examining
something like the local Mormon baptism ritual for 8 year old children. The positivist
would tell percentages of children who participated in comparison to the time the parents
spent in church. The hypothesis may begin that a higher percentage of children would
participate in the ritual if their parents were more active in the religion. Data would be
gathered and tested against the hypothesis. The conclusion would be that the data
confirmed the hypothesis and so the conclusion could be reached that the more active the
parents , the more likely that the child would participate in the ritual.
The interpretivist would survey and examine why the children were baptized and
what the baptism meant to the participants. The final construct for the interpretivist would
be that the baptism signified a religious cleansing and a new beginning and acted as a right
of passage for the young children.
Both conclusions are correct, the results are vastly different. The positivist looks
at the exterior of society, while the interpretivist looks at the interior. It is the difference
between examining the electrical synapses in the brain and knowing what someone is
thinking. Both inquiries have there value, but in the end, they are looking at different
aspects of the same subject. The positivist examines the exterior, while the interpretivist
examines the interior.
Critics of interpretivism and positivists attack interpretive theory for being
subjective and therfore being unreliable. This is not an accurate critique. Just as there
can be poor positivistic theories, there can be poor interpretive theories. Likewise, there
can be good positivistic and interpretive theories.
An analogy to literary critique is the best illustration. Literary critique is always
interpretive. A positivistic critique of Hamlet would amount to nothing more than a
catalog of the number of times each word is used, the amount of ink and the number of
pages in the story. It would tell us nothing about the power and strength of the play.
Interpretive approaches of Hamlet can be either good or bad. An interpretation that it is a
play about "being happy" would be a bad interpretation, while a critique on revenge would
be more accurate. The common experience of people who have seen or read the play
helps determine the quality of an interpretation. While it is subjective, a reasonable
determination can be made as to its value.
Positivism also has some inherent difficulties in maintaing the objectivist view
when doing sociological research. Unlike physical science which can measure equations
like Force equals Mass times Acceleration, human institutions are replete with human
subjectivity. Positivistic science is a tool which only works for external examinations.
Biesta and Miedema describe the problem in this way:
The point here is, that the scientific study of human subjectivity has aims that differ
radically from the aims of physical science. Physical science aims at control of a
(human) subject over a (non-human) object. The relationship between the two can
be characterized as an external relationship, firstly because the object is controlled
by the subject, and secondly becasue the knoweldge acquired by the subject in
order to explain the behavings of the object does not influence the behavings of the
While effective for the external analysis, positivism is lacking in explaining social
Probably, the biggest problem in utilizing positivism in a sociological setting is the
difficulty with language. Language, by its very nature, defies establishing empirical truth.
Positivism relies on empirical facts derived from observation, yet "[t]here is no absolute
way to isolate the analytic, necessary truths from the merely empirical."
Because of the inherent problems positivism has been modified in the postpositivism movement. The
ontology is that of the critical realist. The objectivity is modified to recognize that it can only be approximated.
The methodology is a modified experimental which tries to conduct the research in more natural settings with
more qualitative components. This postpositivism remains an ideal methodology for examining external
components of the society.
POSITIVISTIC AND INTERPRETIVE VERSUS CRITICAL THEORY
The objective requirements of positivism are directly antagonistic to subjective
critical theory. Critical theory approaches sociology as a means to facilitate societal
change. A positivist would rather observe from behind a thick glass and stand removed
from the observation.
The stated purpose of critical theory is to transform society into a better reality.
Positivism merely wants to define reality, not redefine. Positivism will be reductionsitic,
while critical theory will tend to be holistic. The two theories could not be farther apart.
The goals and objectives are antithetical. Balaban summarizes the conflict as follows:
Positivism and Critical Theory offer us a positivistic account of a fetishistic
society. The first accepts it (evaluates it positively); the second rejects it
(evaluates it negatively). Positivism praises society, Critical Theory blames
society. Meanwhile the human sciences await a true critical explanation of society.
Likewise, interpretive theory and critical theory differ. Interpretive theory is looking at the inside to
understand why. Critical theory is trying to change the society. The difference is between trying to understand
and trying to change. Thomas R. Schwandt described the difference betweeen the two theories as follows:
If constructivism [interpretivism] can be characterized by its concern with a hermeneutic
consciousness -- capturing the lived experiences of participants -- then critical theory can by
characterized by its critical consciousness -- systematically investigating the manner in which that
lived experience may be distorted by false consciousness and ideology. . . . If the constructivist
[interpretivist] methodologies are preoccupied with the restoration of the meaning of human
experience, then critical science methodologies are preoccupied with reduction of illusions in the
All three methodological approaches involve safeguards to regulate objectivity.
This is not the same as objectivism. Each has its own "norms for proceeding with a
particular form of inquiry in a rational manner." However, because of the orientation of
each theory, the end results will vary.
Based upon these difference, critical theory does not seem to be a theory that should be adopted by
sociologists. It belongs more in the realm of politics and legislation. Critical theory in that context could take
advantage of scientific inquiry by both positivistic and interpretive sociologists to make determinations about
social change. If indeed critical theorist are to be involved in sociological study, full disclosure of prejudices
and objectives would be needed for any inquiry to be beneficial and trustworthy.
Postpositivism remains the best approach for observing the exteriors of society. Coupled with the
interpretivist's view of the interior culture, the two theories working hand in hand would be most beneficial for
the sociologist in examining society. Utilizing a dual approach would be the most comprehensive and give the
scientific inquiry both depth and span in evaluating our societies and creating a useable body of sociological
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