- When it was realized by scholars that sociological issues cannot be addressed using fixed laws only, they turned from positivism to non-positivism. While positivist methodologies saw society as given and man as mere part of it governed by its rules. Non positivists on the other hand considered man as independent thinking being who can influence society also. They rejected the over-socialized conception of man. Non-positivist methodologies, thus, tried to gauge what goes inside mind of man and how it affects society.
- Even before establishment of sociology as a formal discipline, such ideas were prevalent during late 18th century when German ‘idealist’ school attempted to define social realty differently. Scholars like Dilthey and Rickert highlighted the difference between natural and social world. According to them social world is based upon uniqueness of human society in terms of meaning, symbols and motives. The leader of German idealist school George Hegel argued, ‘Social phenomena are results of the ideas which are generated in the minds of individuals and these ideas are responsible for history’. This tradition was carried on and by the end of 19th century an alternate view to positivism has strongly emerged which contained variety of thoughts and was collectively known as non-positivist methodology.
- Weber was one of the pioneers of non-positivist approach. Other early doyens were like Mead, Herbert Blumer, Schutz etc. Weber laid foundation of interpretativist methodology and Mead pioneered symbolic Interactionism. Various non-positivist methods which emerged include – Symbolic Interactionism, Ideal Types and Verstehen of Weber, Phenomenology by Alfred Schutz in 1930s, Ethnomethodology by Harold Garfinkel in1940s and so on.
Various elements that run common to these methodologies are –
- Non-positivists study the internal processes represented through emotions, motives, aspirations and the individual’s interpretation of social reality. For example – Ethnomethodology relies upon the everyday methods used by actors and their narratives.
- Non-positivists emphasized upon using qualitative methods and not scientific methods. Earlier non positivists like Weber and Mead emphasized upon using of scientific methods, but later non-positivists like Alfred Schutz and Garfinkel out-rightly rejected their use.
- Non-positivists also suggested understanding of social reality and not prediction of events. They refrained from formulation of generalized universal theories. Weber and Mead though stressed upon cause and effect relations, but Schutz eliminated such possibility.
- Non-positivists also highlighted impossibility of total objectivity and hence were accommodative of subjectivity in research.
Some of the prominent non-positivist methodologies are mentioned below.
Symbolic Interactionism (Interactionism)
The symbolic interactionist perspective views social meaning as arising through the process of social interaction. Contemporary symbolic interactionism rests on three basic premises:
- Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that they attach to Them.
- These meanings are derived from, or arise out of, social interaction with others.
- These meanings may be changed or modified through the processes of interaction and interpretation.
- Symbols in Everyday Life. Without symbols, our social life would be no more sophisticated than
that of animals. For example, without symbols we would have no aunts or uncles, employers or
teachers—or even brothers and sisters. This sounds strange, but it is symbols that define our
relationships. There would still be reproduction, of course, but no symbols to tell us how we are
related to whom. We would not know to whom we owe respect and obligations, or from whom we
can expect privileges—the essence of human relationships.
- Look at it like this: If you think of someone as your aunt or uncle, you behave one way, but if you
think of that person as a boyfriend or girlfriend, you behave quite differently. It is the symbol that
tells you how you are related to others—and how you should act toward them.
- Let’s make this a little less abstract. Consider this example: Suppose that you have fallen head over heels in love. Finally, after what seems forever, it is the night before your wedding. As you are contemplating tomorrow’s bliss, your mother comes to you in tears. Sobbing, she tells you that she had a child before she married your father, a child that she gave up for adoption. Breaking down, she says that she has just discovered that the person you are going to marry is this child. You can see how the symbol will change overnight—and your behavior, too! It is not only relationships that depend on symbols to exist, but even society itself. Without symbols, we could not coordinate our actions with those of others. We could not make plans for a future day, time, and place. Unable to specify times, materials, sizes, or goals, we could not build bridges and highways. Without symbols, there would be no movies or musical instruments. We would have no hospitals, no government, no religion.
- Proponents of this perspective, often referred to as the interactionist perspective, engage in microlevel analysis, which focuses on the day-to-day interactions of individuals and groups in specific social situations. Three major concepts important for understanding this theoretical approach include meaningful symbols, the definition of the situation, and the looking-glass self. In addition, two important types of theoretical analysis fit within the interactionist perspective: dramaturgical analysis and the labelling approach.
- Meaningful Symbols: George H. Mead (1863–1931) insisted that the ongoing process of social interaction and the creating, defining, and redefining of meaningful symbols make society possible. Meaningful symbols are sounds, objects, colors, and events that represent something other than themselves and are critical for understanding social interaction. Language is one of the most important and powerful meaningful symbols humans have created, because it allows us to communicate through the shared meaning of words.
- Definition of the Situation: Definition of the situation refers to the idea that “if [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas, 1928:572). Simply put, people define social reality through a process of give and- take interaction. Once a definition is established, it shapes all further interactions. For example, have you ever decided that you were “in love” with someone? If so, how did that change the way you interacted with that person? Conversely, what happens when a married couple decides they are no longer in love? If they define their marriage as meaningless or decide they have irreconcilable differences, how does that affect their relationship? Is a marriage likely to survive if both partners have defined it as “over”?
- The Looking-Glass Self : The looking-glass self refers to the idea that an individual’s self-concept is
largely a reflection of how he or she is perceived by other members of society (Cooley,  1922).
Society is used as a mirror to reflect a feeling of selfpride, self-doubt, self-worth, or self-loathing. These
important elements of symbolic interactionism contribute to socialization and the process of becoming human as we establish our personal and social identities.
- Dramaturgical Analysis: A useful theoretical framework within symbolic interactionism, dramaturgical analysis, uses the analogy of the theatre to analyze social behavior. In this approach, people are viewed as actors occupying roles as they play out life’s drama. In real life, people do not passively accept others’ definitions of the situation nor the social identities assigned to them. Rather, they take an active part in the drama, manipulating the interaction to present themselves in the most positive light. Thus, people often use impression management to communicate favorable impressions of themselves (Goffman, 1959).
- The Labeling Approach: Another theoretical viewpoint within symbolic interactionism is the labeling approach, which contends that people attach various labels to certain behaviors, individuals, and groups that become part of their social identity and shape others’ attitudes about and responses to them. For example, in Outsiders, Howard Becker (1963) explored the fascinating world of jazz musicians and how their non-traditional music, penchant for marijuana, and open racial integration during the 1950s led mainstream Americans to label them “deviant.” The influence of the Chicago School and symbolic interactionism waned in the late 1950s, when a faction of sociologists argued that its approach was too dependent on ethnographic studies, personal observations, interviews, and subjective interpretations. Insisting that sociology must be more scientific, or at least, as Comte had envisioned, more positivistic, this group believed that sociology should rely more heavily on quantifiable data, facts, figures, and statistics. This led to the development of the Iowa School of symbolic interaction and also fueled a revival of structural functionalism.
Criticisms of Symbolic Interactionism (Interactionism)
- Interactionists have often been accused of examining human interaction in a vacuum. They have tended to focus on small-scale face to face interaction with little concern for its historical or social settings(Marxian Criticism).
- They have concentrated on particular situations and encounters with little reference to the historical events which led up to them or the wider social framework in which they occur. Since these factors influence the particular interaction situation, the scant attention they have received has been regarded as a serious omission.
- While symbolic interactionism provides a corrective to the excesses of societal determinism, many critics have argued that it has gone too far in this direction. Though they claim that action is not determined by structural norms, interactionists do admit the presence of such norms. However, they tend to take them as given rather than explaining their origin.
- As William Skidmore comments, the interactionists largely fail to explain ‘why people consistently choose to act in given ways in certain situations, instead of in all the other ways they might possibly have acted’. In stressing the flexibility and freedom of human action the interactionists tend to downplay the constraints on action. In Skidmore’s view this is due to the fact that ‘interactionism consistently fails to give an account of social structure’. In other words it fails to adequately explain how standardized normative behaviour comes about and why members of society are motivated to act in terms of social norms.
- Similar criticism has been made with reference to what many see as the failure of interactionists to explain the source of the meanings to which they attach such importance. Critics argue that such meanings are not spontaneously created in interaction situations. Instead they are systematically generated by the social structure.
- Marxists have argued that the meanings which operate in face to face interaction situations are
largely the product of class relationships. From this viewpoint, interactionists have failed to explain the most significant thing about meanings: the source of their origin.
- Interactionism is a distinctly American branch of sociology and to some this partly explains its
shortcomings. Thus Leon Shaskolsky has argued that interactionism is largely a reflection of
the cultural ideals of American society. He claims that ‘ interactionism has its roots deeply
imbedded in the cultural environment of American life, and its interpretation of society is, in a sense, a
“looking glass” image of what that society purports to be’. Thus the emphasis on liberty, freedom and
individuality in interactionism can be seen in part as a reflection of America’s view of itself.
- Phenomenological perspectives in sociology argue that the subject matter of the social and natural sciences is fundamentally different. As a result the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences are inappropriate to the study of man.
- The natural sciences deal with matter. To understand and explain the behaviour of matter it is sufficient to observe it from the outside. Atoms and molecules do not have consciousness. They do not have meanings and purposes which direct their behaviour. Matter simply reacts ‘unconsciously’ to external stimuli; in scientific language it behaves. As a result the natural scientist is able to observe, measure, and impose an external logic on that behaviour in order to explain it. He has no need to explore the internal logic of the consciousness of matter simply because it does not exist.
- Unlike matter, man has consciousness-thoughts, feelings, meanings, intentions and an awareness of being. Because of this, his actions are meaningful; he defines situations and gives meaning to his actions and those of others. As a result, he does not merely react to external stimuli, he does not simply behave, he acts. For Example, imagine the response of early man to fire caused by volcanoes or spontaneous combustion. He did not simply react in a uniform manner to the experience of heat. He attached a range of meanings to it and these meanings directed his actions. For example he defined fire as a means of warmth and used it to heat his dwellings; as a means of defence and used it to ward off wild animals; and as a means of transforming substances and employed it for cooking and hardening the points of wooden spears. Man does not just react to fire; he acts upon it in terms of the meanings he gives to it.
- If action stems from subjective meanings, it follows that the sociologist must discover those meanings in order to understand action. He cannot simply observe action from the outside and impose an external logic upon it. He must interpret the internal logic which directs the actions of the actor.
- Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to outline this perspective in detail. He argued that sociological explanations of action should begin with ‘the observation and theoretical interpretation of the subjective “states of minds” of actors’.
Analysis of Phenomenology:
- As the previous section indicated, interactionism adopts a similar approach with particular emphasis on the process of interaction. While positivists emphasize facts and cause and effect relationships, interactionists emphasize insight and understanding. Since it is not possible to get inside the heads of actors, the discovery of meaning must be based on interpretation and intuition. For this reason objective measurement is not possible and the exactitude of the natural sciences cannot be duplicated. Since meanings are constantly negotiated in ongoing interaction processes it is not possible to establish simple cause and effect relationships. Thus some sociologist argues that sociology is limited to an interpretation of social action and phenomenological approaches are sometimes referred to as ‘interpretive sociology’.
- A number of sociologists have argued that the positivist approach has produced a distorted picture of social life. They see it as tending to portray man as a passive responder to external stimuli rather than an active creator of his own society. Man is pictured as reacting to various forces and pressures to economic infrastructures and the requirements of social systems.
- Peter Berger argues that society has often been viewed as a puppet theatre with its members portrayed as ‘little puppets jumping about on the ends of their invisible strings, cheerfully acting out the parts that have been assigned to them’. Society instills values, norms and roles, and men dutifully respond like puppets on a string. However, from a phenomenological perspective man does not merely react and respond to an external society, he is not simply acted upon, he acts. In his interaction with others he creates his own meanings and constructs his own reality and therefore directs his own actions.
- Roughly translated, ethnomethodology means the study of the methods used by people. It is concerned with examining the methods and procedures employed by members of society to construct, account for and give meaning to their social world.
- Ethnomethodologists draw heavily on the European tradition of phenomenological philosophy and in particular acknowledge a debt to the ideas of the philosopher-sociologist Alfred Schutz.
- Many Ethnomethodologists begin with the assumption that society exists only in so far as members perceive its existence. With this emphasis on member’s views of social reality, ethnomethodology is generally regarded as a phenomenological approach. Ethnomethodology is a developing perspective which contains a diversity of viewpoints.
- One of the major concerns of sociology is the explanation of social order. From the results of numerous investigations it appears that social life is ordered and regular and that social action is systematic and patterned. Typically the sociologist has assumed that social order has an objective reality.
- Ethnomethodologists either suspend or abandon the belief that an actual or objective social order
exists. Instead they proceed from the assumption that social life appears orderly to members of society.
- Thus in the eyes of members their everyday activities seem ordered and systematic but this order is not necessarily due to the intrinsic nature or inherent qualities of the social world. In other words it may not actually exist. Rather it may simply appear to exist because of the way members perceive and interpret social reality. Social order therefore becomes a convenient fiction, an appearance of order constructed by members of society. This appearance allows the social world to be described and explained and so made knowable, reasonable, understandable and ‘accountable’ to its members.
- The methods and accounting procedures used by members for creating a sense of order form the subject matter of ethnomethodological enquiry. Zimmerman and Wieder state that the ethnomethodologist is ‘concerned with how members of society go about the task of seeing, describing and explaining order in the world in which they live’.
- Ethnomethodologists are highly critical of other branches of sociology. They argue that ‘conventional’ sociologists have misunderstood the nature of social reality. They have treated the social world as if it had an objective reality which is independent of members’ accounts and interpretations. Thus they have regarded aspects of the social world such as suicide and crime as facts with an existence of their own. They have then attempted to provide explanations for these ‘facts’. By contrast, ethnomethodologist argues that the social world consists of nothing more than the constructs, interpretations and accounts of its members. The job of the sociologist is therefore to explain the methods and accounting procedures which members employ to construct their social world. According to Ethnomethodologists, this is the very job that mainstream sociology has failed to do.
- Ethnomethodologist sees little difference between conventional sociologists and the man in the street. They argue that the methods employed by sociologists in their research are basically similar to those used by members of society in their everyday lives. Members employing the documentary method are constantly theorizing, drawing relationships between activities and making the social world appear orderly and systematic. They then treat the social world as if it had an objective reality separate from themselves.
- Ethnomethodologists argue that the procedures of conventional sociologists are essentially similar. They employ the documentary method, theorize and draw relationships and construct a picture of an orderly and systematic social system. They operate reflexively like any other member of society. Thus when a functionalist sees behaviour as an expression of an underlying pattern of shared values, he also used instances of that behaviour as evidence for the existence of the pattern. By means of their accounting procedures members construct a picture of society. In this sense the man in the street is his own sociologist. Ethnomethodologists see little to choose between the pictures of society which he creates and those provided by conventional sociologists.
Critique to Ethnomethodology:
- Ethnomethodology has labeled as conventional or ‘folk’ sociology. Its critics have argued that the members who populate the kind of society portrayed by Ethnomethodologists appear to lack any motives and goals.
- As Anthony Giddens remarks, there is little reference to ‘the pursuance of practical goals or interests’. There is little indication in the writings of Ethnomethodologists as to why people want to behave or are made to behave in particular ways. Nor is there much consideration of the nature of power in the social world and the possible effects of differences in power on members behaviour.
- As Gouldner notes, ‘The process by which social reality becomes defined and established is not viewed by Garfinkel as entailing a process of struggle among competing groups’ definitions of reality, and the outcome, the common sense conception of the world, is not seen as having been shaped by institutionally protected power differences’.
- Critics have argued that Ethnomethodologists have failed to give due consideration to the fact that members’ accounting procedures are conducted within a system of social relationships involving differences in power. Many Ethnomethodo-logists appear to dismiss everything which is not recognized and accounted for by members of society. They imply that if members do not recognize the existence of objects and events, they are unaffected by them. But as John H. Goldthorpe pointedly remarks in his criticism of ethnomethodology, ‘If for instance, it is bombs and napalm that are zooming down, members do not have to be oriented towards them in any particular way, or at all, in order to be killed by them’. Clearly members do not have to recognize certain constraints in order for their behaviour to be affected by them. As Goldthorpe notes, with reference to the above example, death ‘limits interaction in a fairly decisive way’. Finally, the Ethnomethodologists’ criticism of mainstream sociology can be redirected to themselves.
- As Giddens remarks, ‘any ethnomethodo-logical account must display the same characteristics as it
claims to discern in the accounts of lay actors’. Ethnomethodologists’ accounting procedures therefore become a topic for study like those of conventional sociologists or any other member of society. In theory the process of accounting for accounts is never ending. Carried to its extreme, the ethnomethodological position implies that nothing is every knowable. Whatever its shortcomings, however, ethnomethodology asks interesting questions.
- It is an umbrella term for various streams like Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism and so on.
- This approach was used for the first time by Max Weber in his book ‘Methods of Social Science’. Weber was highly influenced by idealists like Rickert and Dilthey. According to this approach, the task of sociology is to interpret the meanings attached by individuals to their actions in order thereby an explanation of its cause and effect.
- The basis of this approach is that ‘individual is having a voluntary will and his thoughts cannot be understood simply in terms of external influence’. Human beings have a consciousness which cannot be predicted. This approach also came to be known as voluntarist approach. Weber also proposed scientific methods for interpretative sociology. Methods used by Weber included – Verstehen, ideal type and comparative methods.
- Approach of Weber later influenced the emergence of purely non-positivist approaches like Phenomenology and Ethnomethodology. Georg Simmel a German sociologist was another early doyen of this approach. In America, Chicago School led by Louis Firth, Robert Park, Mead etc took this tradition forward.