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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Basic assumptions, concepts and epistemologies in Social Sciences (Biju P R)

Prepared by

Biju. P. R.
Assistant Professor and H o D
Department of Political Science
Government Brennen College

-Any understanding about social world presupposes and necessitates a methodology, a perspective and mode of enquiry.
-When we enquire, why poverty, violence, terrorism, unemployment, gender problems, social discrimination and an endless lists of avoidable social problems, we are often hunt by a whole lot of understanding surrounding us.
-A bunch of perspectives and understanding lead us to conclusions encountering our social world, and let it be, nonprofessional understanding, be it theological, be it linguistic, be it common sense, be it opinionated and be it superstitious.
-Yet, among all this understandings and perspectives, one thing that makes all other understanding inferior and insignificant is the scientific understanding surrounding the social sciences.
-Corruption, middle class anxieties, political apathy, gender discrimination, poverty, unemployment, inflation, fiscal crisis, diplomatic stalemate, caste troubles,  terrorism, war, among few, the social sciences have a mode of enquiry, an approach, a systematic understanding and a perfect solution.
-All this approaches to social sciences are largely drawn up in a series of concepts, and perspectives.
-A beginner to any social science discipline should develop a deep understanding about some basic concepts and assumption in social sciences. With out preliminary knowledge about the preliminary concepts of social sciences, we are not able to develop and intellectual craftsmanship, a sociological imagination and how to know what to know.
-A beginner to social sciences must have a preliminary grounding on the basic assumptions, concepts and epistemologies in social sciences, such as Research strategy- induction and deduction, Ontology- the objectivism and constructivism , Epistemology- positivism and interpretivism, Methodology- quantitative and qualitative. Let us examine this one by one.

Induction and deduction

In social science, there are two ways of arriving at a conclusion: deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning.

Deductive Reasoning

Deductive reasoning happens when a researcher works from the more general information to the more specific. Sometimes this is called the “top-down” approach because the researcher starts at the top with a very broad spectrum of information and they work their way down to a specific conclusion. For instance, a researcher might begin with a theory about his or her topic of interest. From there, he or she would narrow that down into more specific hypotheses that can be tested. The hypotheses are then narrowed down even further when observations are collected to test the hypotheses. This ultimately leads the researcher to be able to test the hypotheses with specific data, leading to a confirmation (or not) of the original theory and arriving at a conclusion.
This tradition begins from Plato. For instances, every day, I leave for work in my car at eight o’clock. Every day, the drive to work takes 45 minutes I arrive to work on time. Therefore, if I leave for work at eight o’clock today, I will be on time.
Theory, hypothesis, observation and confirmation, is the mode arriving at conclusion here.

Inductive Reasoning

Inductive reasoning works the opposite way, moving from specific observations to broader generalizations and theories. This is sometimes called a “bottom up” approach. The researcher begins with specific observations and measures, begins to then detect patterns and regularities, formulate some tentative hypotheses to explore, and finally ends up developing some general conclusions or theories. This tradition begins from Aristotle. An example of inductive reasoning can be seen in this set of statements: Today, I left for work at eight o’clock and I arrived on time. Therefore, every day that I leave the house at eight o’clock, I will arrive to work on time.
Observation, pattern, tentative hypothesis, and theory are the mode arriving at conclusion. 

Ontology- Objectivism and Constructivism.

In the social sciences, ontology covers the assumptions social scientists hold about reality: how they see the world.
It refers to "Way" and the "Ways" of Knowing. The term ontology derives from Greek, with “onto” meaning “being”, and “logos” usually interpreted as “science”; so that ontology, as traditionally understood, is the science or study of being.
The term ontology concerns what is said to exist in some world that which potentially can be talked about. Wand and Weber (1993:220) refer to ontology as  "a branch of philosophy concerned with articulating the nature and structure of the world." By ontology is sometimes also meant a set of terms and their associated definitions intended to describe the world in question (e.g., Uschold, 1995:1). 
Ontology is the most preliminary and fundamental assumption surrounding the social world. For instances, if you study gender discrimination, just go to the nearest Textile shop and see the number of women staff. Seeing this, do you think that women are empowered in our area since great number of women work in shops like textiles, and do you make the fundamental assumption that world is women friendly or do you assume that world is patriarchal? Ontology will address such fundamental issues of how to know and ways to know. See your college and wonder the large number of girl students studying there. Do you assume that great number of women affording higher education is a signifier of the fact that world is women friendly or do you think that there is an inside story to this fact that the number women does not relate with women and their empowerment and do you dare to assume that the world is patriarchal still. Your ontology will address this fact of social world.
Two different worldviews will be considered: An objectivistic and a constructivistic in ontology.

Objectivistic Ontology

Objects with properties exist in the social world independent of the inquiring observer. With an objectivistic worldview, a mountain is a mountain for everyone, a product is a product for everyone, and a work process is a work process for everyone. The meaning of a phenomenon is inherent to the phenomenon and can be experienced by interacting with it.
Hence, sense making from an objectivist point of view is considered as rational analysis of data in a mental problem space and construction of deductive arguments of cause-and-effect

Constructivistic Ontology

Firstly, realities are local and specific in the sense that they vary between groups of individuals. Secondly, reality is actively constructed, i.e., not merely discovered. Thirdly, reality is socially constructed, i.e., the constructions are not personal or technical. Although perception and thinking necessarily is individual, the construction process involves other social and cultural artifacts and therefore inevitably becomes social. Your professor is some one who teaches you about ontology but when he finishes the lecture forty students in the class will get forty notions or more about ontology. This means that meaning is socially decided and those who see it.
Sense-making from a constructivist point of view is a process of attributing meaning to constructions according to the actor's local reality and simultaneously influencing the local reality. How an actor interprets a phenomenon and whether it makes sense or not depends upon the local reality of the actor. This view is consistent with ideas associated with hermeneutics. In the vocabulary of hermeneutics, the local reality can be viewed as a horizon, being the pre-understanding that all perceived phenomena are interpreted and made sense of against. An actor may access his horizon through a process of bracketing, being an attempt at isolating and investigating one's own presumptions.


How we know what we know .Epistemology addresses the why question in ontology. It answers the questions in ontology. It gives a framework for reaching at conclusion that raised in the ontological position. For instance, while seeing women staff at shops people concluded that world is women friendly  or patriarchic and epistemology goes to explain why the world is so designed.
The epistemology of the social sciences is a sub-topic of the philosophy of social science; an area of study with a substantial amount of literature available. By a study of epistemology, it means the study of what is knowledge in social science, how knowledge is acquired in social science, how knowledge is justified, and how social scientists come to know what they know.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. It attempts to answer the basic question: what distinguishes true (adequate) knowledge from false (inadequate) knowledge? Let us start with the Greek philosophers. In Plato's view knowledge is merely an awareness of absolute, universal Ideas or Forms, existing independent of any subject trying to apprehend to them. Though Aristotle puts more emphasis on logical and empirical methods for gathering knowledge, he still accepts the view that such knowledge is an apprehension of necessary and universal principles. Following the Renaissance, two main epistemological positions dominated philosophy: empiricism, which sees knowledge as the product of sensory perception, and rationalism, which sees it as the product of rational reflection.


In a positivist view of the world, science was seen as the way to get at truth, to understand the world well enough so that we might predict and control it. The world and the universe were deterministic -- they operated by laws of cause and effect that we could discern if we applied the unique approach of the scientific method.
Positivism suggests that all knowledge is grounded in empirical data. The quest for a certainty of knowledge grounded in the idea that just as day is likely to follow night, condition A is likely to be associated with condition B in a regular and hence highly predictable manner. Sea waves in to land, earth rotates 23.5 degree perpendicular to the centre. Apple falls down to earth. There are cause and effect relation to every social phenomenon. Positivism emphasizes the quantifiability and predictability of mental and behavioral processes.  Models and methods from the natural sciences are frequently applied to the study of human affairs.
Positivism: The Researcher as Scientist
! The Natural Sciences as a Model
! The Quest for Objective Knowledge
! A Deductive or Theory-Testing Approach *
! Underpinned by an Objectivist or Realist ontology: facts are facts
! Explaining how and why things happen: Measurement, Correlation,
Statistical Logic, Verification
! Typical Methods: Surveys, Questionnaires, Random Sampling
! Example Hypothesis: Violence on TV Leads to Juvenile Violence
! Problems with this approach?


Interpretive research is especially helpful when the questions being examined are explanatory in nature.  It is then necessary to focus heavily on human intent and meaning, which is at the heart of interpretive research.  Interpretive ontology views all reality as subjective reality and that is why it cannot be sufficiently understood from the positivist's distance.  Every human being is unique and every bit of social life has its own meaning, feeling, intention and motivation.  This ontology takes a holistic and systems perspective, which sees everything and everyone as interconnected.
Interpretivism: Researcher as Detective
! Arises from a Critique of Using the Natural Sciences as a Model for Social Research
! The Quest for Subjective Knowledge
! An Inductive or Theory-Building Approach *
! Underpinned by a Subjectivist ontology: people are people
! Understanding How and Why Things Happen: Elucidating Meaning
! Typical Approaches: Ethnographic Study; In-depth Interviews; Analytical Approaches
! Revisiting the Example: What are the Causes of Juvenile Violence?
! Problems with this Approach

Research methodology

-It is a systematic way to solve problem. It is a science of studying how research is to be carried out. Essentially, the procedures by which researchers go about their work of describing, explaining and predicting phenomena are called research methodology. It is also defined as the study of methods by which knowledge is gained. Its aim is to give the work plan of research. Methodology concerns research strategy as whole.
-There are a number of ways in which research methodology is defined by traditional scholars.A methodology involves presenting rules of procedure about matters such as collection of data and their analysis. These rules are impersonal in that they are meant to apply equally to all researchers.it is assumed that any two researchers who approach same problem should arrive at identical as long as neither infringes methodological rules.So individual bias is avoided from research process.

Quantitative and qualitative metholdology

-Quantitative and qualitative methods are studied within the context of positivistic and phenomenological paradigms. The researche can be quantitative or qualitative or even both. Quantitative research is based on the measurement of quantity or amount. Here a process is expressed or described in terms of one or more quantities. Qualitative research is concerned with quailtative phenomenon involving quality. It is non-numerical,descriptive, applies reasoning and uses words. Its aim is to get the meaning, feeling and describe the situation. We measure and weigh things in the study of substance or structure. Can we measure or weigh patterns? We cannot measure or weigh patterns. But to study patterns we must map a configuration of relationships. That is, structures involve quantities whereas patterns involve qualities. If one wishes to investigate why certain data are random then it is a qualitative research. If the aim is to study how random the data is, what is the mean,variance and distribution function then it becomes quantitative. Explaining how digestion of food takes place in our body is a qualitative description. It does not involve any numbers or data and quantities. The detection of a particular compound is a qualitative analysis. This can be done by carrying out physical or chemical tests. Determination of exact amount of a particular compound present in a volume is essentially quantitative analysis. This can be done by volumetric, gravimetric and calorimetric methods or instrumental methods. Experimental and simulation studies are generally quantitative research.


Quantitative research methods focus on statistical approaches .Quantitative methods emphasise on objective measurements and numerical analysis of data collected through polls, questionnaires or surveys. While quantitative involves many phenomena with few variables quantitative data involves numbers quantitative research is deductive. All quantitative research requires a hypothesis before research can begin. In quantitative research, the researcher is ideally an objective observer that neither participates in nor influences what is being studied. Quantitative research is generally better for confirming and clarifying. To quantify data and generalize results from a sample to the population of interest. To measure the incidence of various views and opinions in a chosen sample. Sometimes followed by qualitative research which is used to explore some findings further


Qualitative methods are based on content analysis, comparative analysis, grounded theory, and interpretation (Strauss, 1990). Qualitative research focuses on understanding social phenomena through interviews, personal comments etc. Qualitative research usually involves few cases with many variables. Typically qualitative data involves words. Qualitative research is inductive. In qualitative research, a hypothesis is not needed to begin research. In qualitative research, however, it is thought that the researcher can learn the most about a situation by participating and/or being immersed in it.. Qualitative research is usually better for exploring, understanding, and uncovering. To gain an understanding of underlying reasons and motivations. To provide insights into the setting of a problem, generating ideas and/or hypotheses for later quantitative research. To uncover prevalent trends in thought and opinion

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