Positivism and interpretivism represent two broad theoretical approaches in sociological research. Positivism believes natural science principles can be applied to sociological research (and is generally indicative of an objectivist epistemology), whereas interpretivism believes such principles/strategies are inappropriate for the study of human society. This kind of perspective is embedded within a constructionist epistemology.
- Positivism applies the principles of the natural sciences (empirical measurement and the deducing and testing of hypotheses/theories) to the social sciences. Positivist research in sociology tries to discover ‘scientific laws’ (or rather tendencies) which could explain the causes, functions and consequences of social phenomena.
- The social world is inherently different from the natural world and cannot be studied in the same way. People construct and re-construct their worlds (i.e. society). Rather than seeking causal laws or relationships, sociology should seek to understand why people interpret the social world in various ways.
These different approaches raise the issue of value-freedom in social research. Positivists argue that their objective methods thus produce scientific ‘truth’. However, interpretivists belief that such objectivity/value-freedom is not possible, as what is studied and what counts as truth is invariably influenced by social factors and therefore values. Some social scientists (e.g. Becker 1963) believe sociology is a political and moral enterprise. It researches the experiences of the less powerful in society (whose experience is often misrepresented).