A discussion of the epistemology of sociology, and differences between structuralist and interpretivist approaches.
Sociology as a discipline assigns too much importance to the measurement of human behavior or interaction.
This statement concerns the epistemology of sociology – that is, the ways in which sociological knowledge is conceptually understood and produced.
The 19th-century philosophers Marx and Weber, whose sociological epistemologies concern behaviour and interaction based respectively on economic and religious motivations (Giddens, 1970), would disagree with this statement. Their conceptualisations fall under the broad descriptor “structuralism,” implying society to be something with objective macro-existence, displaying measurable reactions to economic, religious or other influences (Althusser and Balibar, 1970).
The 20th century, however, saw the advent of a more individualist approach to sociology – one that would agree with the statement. This approach, which may be broadly described as “interpretive,” focuses on knowledge creation through individual narrative and symbolism (Lyotard, 2005). Within this approach there is no objective existential sociological knowledge, so measuring behaviour and interaction in the structuralist sense is epistemologically meaningless. This has been subjected to critique by, among others, Atkinson (1997) who notes that without structural loci, sociology is no longer scientific. Ellis and Bochner (2003), however, resolve this “crisis of representation” through reflexivity on the part of the individual sociologist.
Agreement or disagreement with the statement presented above, therefore, depends on the preferred epistemology of the sociologist. A conscientious sociologist may, however, rather than inflexibly adhering to either a structuralist or interpretivist epistemology, use each according to applicability. Mead (2001) rightly chose a structuralist approach when conducting her broad-based study of Samoan culture, whereas Ellis (1995) chose an interpretive approach when studying personal reflections on bereavement and loss; and each, in her own way, produced sociological works that were both original and profound.
Althusser, L. and Balibar, E. (1970) Reading Capital, London: Verso
Atkinson, P. (1997) “Narrative turn down a blind alley” in Qualitative Health Research, 7 (3), pp. 325-344
Ellis, C. (1995) Final Negotiations: A Story of Love, Loss and Chronic Illness, Philadelphia: Temple University Press
Ellis, C. and Bochner, A. (2003) “Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: researcher as subject” in Denzin, N. and Lincoln, Y. (eds.)
Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, Thousand Oaks: Sage
Giddens, A. (1970) “Marx, Weber and the development of capitalism” in Sociology, 4, pp. 289-310
Lyotard, J.-F. (2005) The Postmodern Condition, Manchester: Manchester University Press