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Unit 1 Social Inquiry and the Scientific Method

Unit Author: Professor Nick J Fox

Learning objectives

Having successfully completed the work in this unit, you will be able to:

  • Present the main features of the scientific world view.
  • Explain the purposes of the philosophy of science.
  • Distinguish between ontology, epistemology and methodology.
  • Assess whether a study uses a realist or constructionist epistemology.


For many people starting social research for the first time, it may seem strange to ask questions about why science is the way it is. Is it not the case that research is conducted – be it in social settings or in a laboratory – because it is effective in getting the right answers to questions about the topics that we want to understand? There is nothing more to it than that: people who are starting what may become a career in research need to learn the tools of their trade, how to interview study respondents, or how to do a telephone survey; and if they learn these skills they will be successful in their efforts to extend scientific understanding.

Up to a point this is true, and the WISDOM course in social research methods is very much concerned to provide you with a nuts-and-bolts approach to doing research. In the course, you will study every stage of the research process, from identifying a question to completing the report for publication.

But there is an aspect to the research process that comes even before the idea or the curiosity that sparks scientific investigation of a particular topic. This foundational step concerns the very nature of what we are doing as social researchers, and addresses what is generally known as the philosophy of science, or the philosophy of research. Often, this is a taken-for-granted stage, because it concerns the assumptions about how it is possible for human beings to know the world (epistemology), and indeed, what is the character of the social world (ontology) – for instance, is it ‘real’ or a ‘social construction’?

Before we get started on the ‘how to’ aspects of doing social research, we will use this introductory unit to look at some of these issues. As you progress through the course, you may want to return to the issues raised in this unit, to think more about how research is done. I have provided a short bibliography of further reading at the end of this unit.

Let us begin by thinking about what is meant by ‘science’.

1. The scientific world-view

The roots of science can be traced back to philosophers like Roger Bacon (1214-1292), a Franciscan monk and teacher at Oxford University. Bacon argued that the key to knowing the world was observation. This may seem so obvious to us now, but of course it is not. For 1500 years previously (from ancient Greece and throughout the rise and spread of Christianity), philosophy had considered logic – reasoning from first principles – as the resource by which (with or without the help of God or the gods) humans could understand the world and their part in it. For example, what we might now see as an applied science: the practice of medicine, was consequently based not on observations of disease and cure, but upon obscure theories of bodily ‘humours’.

This emphasis on observation as the basis for inquiry was finally consolidated around 1800, during the ‘Enlightenment’. The Enlightenment marked a change in the way that Western people viewed the world, away from theological perspectives of knowledge as something which was for God to give and humans to receive, toward a secular view that human reason was the means by which the world and everything in it can be known.

As science developed, so did the debates about exactly how to do it. This led to the emergence of a distinct philosophy of science and we will now explore a few of the key ideas that have been developed to give shape and structure to scientific inquiry.

2. Why a philosophy of science?

In a nutshell, the philosophy of science concerns itself with research’s logic of investigation. Without such a logic, research would be an undirected, haphazard business. (In fact, chaos lurks round every corner in the world of research, and it is only by holding fast to rules and models that social research can sustain its integrity as a rational pursuit.) What philosophers of science have tried to do is to remove some of the uncertainty in scientific practice, by offering theories and explanations of what science is and is not.

The philosophy of science is crucial for all scientific research (natural or social), because it put science into a historical and cultural context. It also explains why certain kinds of activity are acknowledged as ‘scientific’, while others, such as astrology, are not accepted as science. It invites us to develop an understanding of what we are doing when we research the social world, and what is the status the knowledge that we produce through social inquiry.

This understanding can help with some key problems in doing social research. For example:

  • What is the difference between social research and journalism?
  • Do social scientists discover the social world or create their own representations of it?
  • What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches to researching the social world?
  • How important is theory in developing social scientific knowledge?

Two well-known philosophies of science offer different frameworks for scientific inquiry.

Karl Popper (1902–1994) argued that scientific knowledge develops slowly but progressively over time as scientists develop theories to explain their findings and then use further data to disprove or falsify the theory and offer a newer, better, more comprehensive theory. A classic example is the replacement in physics of Newtonian laws of motion with Einstein’s theory of relativity and then Bohr’s quantum mechanics.

However, Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996) argued that what Popper considered a rational and progressive process of replacing poor theory by better theory was actually a series of only semi-rational paradigm shifts. Often, Kuhn suggested, a theory was discounted before it had been fully disproved, while other theories were retained long after their sell-by date because they were the established and entrenched paradigm. This irrationality in the practice of science derives from social pressures within the scientific community, and makes science a much more unpredictable affair than Popper had claimed.

Philosophers of science continue to seek both to understand what scientists do and to establish the rules of scientific method. In the next section I will look at one of the key concepts that underpins the philosophy of science and the practice of social research: epistemology

3. Epistemology in the social sciences

Let us begin with three useful definitions.

  • Ontology is the study of the nature of being, and deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist.
  • Epistemology is the study of how these entities can be known by researchers.
  • Methodology describes the practical research designs that researchers use to gain knowledge of the social or natural world, based within a specific epistemology.

Social science and social research have tended to leave debates over ontology (Is there actually a world out there to be known?) to philosophers and some social theorists, focusing instead on the epistemological and methodological problems of how to gain knowledge of that world. While most of this course is devoted to methodology, to make sense of methodology, we need to have an understanding of how social scientists have understood epistemology.

Epistemology establishes the framework within which scientists use particular research designs and methods to gain knowledge of the world. For social scientists, the question of how we know the world has exercised many minds and many books have been written on the subject. (For a recent comprehensive survey, see Danermark et al, 2002). It is an important issue because as scientists we should be certain about the basis for our claims to knowledge and this is only possible if we can assert some kind of authority for this basis.

Epistemology is of course not limited to science, there are multiple different epistemologies in use in today’s culture. To give an example, if you or I were to go to a religious service (for instance, in a Christian church), we might be told that ‘we should respect our parents’. How do we know this statement to be ‘true’? Well for Christians the answer is that the Bible states it, and that the Bible is the word of God. Therefore we know that this is a truth. This is a theological epistemology, which tells us what is true or false.

If instead you or I went to a psychotherapist, we might be told that it is OK not to respect our parents in all things, because parental influences during childhood can lead to neuroses or depression later in life. If we asked why we should believe this, the psychotherapist might state that this is based on studies of family interactions and psychological theories of the mind. This would be a scientific epistemology.

What differentiates these two epistemologies is not the theories they espouse or the knowledge that is produced, but the underpinning relation between the world and the knower. In a theological epistemology, we know the world because God has provided an absolute explanation of it; in a scientific epistemology, we know the world by using human reason to make sense of observations.

In the contemporary world, there are multiple epistemologies at work, and these can come into conflict. Rival epistemologies can divide people in terms of what kind of information is considered to be ‘valid knowledge’, and even form the basis for distinctions between the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences.

To think a bit more about this epistemological plurality, look at the following self-assessment exercise (SAQ).

SAQ 1.1 What’s the epistemology?

You are talking to people you meet a party and they make various statements. What kind of epistemology is underpinning each of the following statements?

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Earlier, I noted that the scientific world-view has observation at its heart, and we may conclude from that that for science, observation is a key means to know the world. So, observation is a foundation for a scientific epistemology. Let us look at this in more detail now, to understand the ways in which philosophers of science have added subtlety to this understanding of how science can know the world.

3.1 Empiricism and positivism

Observation, and the collection of observed data (a plural noun, Latin, for ‘those things which are provided’) is sometimes called the gathering of empirical evidence. Beliefs, attitudes, feelings and ‘common-sense’ are excluded from such a definition of what is ‘empirical’. Most science (but not all) is based upon the collection of empirical evidence from the world: the things that are sometimes (and inaccurately) called the ‘facts’. Thus, biology collects observations about the structures and functions of animals and plants; psychology observes human behaviour; chemistry observes the interactions of chemicals; and so on.

The epistemology known as empiricism holds that all that is necessary for scientific research to be successful in disclosing truth about the world is the collection of observational data, which can be verified and demonstrated without reference to theory.

A second epistemological position, positivism, rejected this claim that the ‘facts speak for themselves’, recognising the need for theory to make sense of data and thereby reveal the underlying ‘laws’ governing both natural and social worlds. However, positivism still regards observational data (along with data from logical or mathematical models) as the only source of information by which we can know the world – thus ruling out religion, poetry and the arts, and metaphysics as sources of valid knowledge. The term positivism was first applied by one of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1887), but came to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s in the form of logical positivism: a perspective aimed at promoting science as a strategy distinct from metaphysics and religion for knowing the world.

Positivism is still influential in the natural sciences and is either explicit or implicit in some quantitative social sciences, including behaviourism in psychology, economics and survey-based sociology. In all these fields, the objective is to reveal the underlying ‘laws’ or ‘mechanisms’ that govern social processes.

3.2 Post-positivism

Within the social sciences, and especially in sociology and anthropology, positivism has fallen out of favour. Most social scientists now would call themselves post-positivists, because of the need to acknowledge the role that human interpretation plays in developing knowledge of the world.

Central to post-positivism is the recognition that unlike the objects of study in the natural sciences, those studied in social research are active, sense-making human beings, who are engaged in interpreting and ascribing meaning to their social world in interaction with each other. Yet this also applies to the social scientist herself, who is a further active interpreter of this same social world. As a result, understanding rather than explanation is sometimes regarded as the objective of post-positivist enquiry (Fox, 2008).

Post-positivism has spawned the rival epistemologies currently used in social inquiry as the basis of knowledge-generation: realism and constructionism. We will now consider these in some detail, as they are the predominant social science epistemologies that you will encounter, and which will be mentioned at various points during this course.

4. Realism and constructionism

4.1 Realism

The premise of realism is that social researchers can aspire to know and understand an underlying social reality that exists independently of human concepts. For example, the realist will claim that the association between material deprivation and well-being is mediated by factors such as physiological susceptibility to disease and bodily responses to stress, but also to the broader human experiences of living in deprived circumstances.

The aspirations of the realist social scientist is to find methods that can enable her to gather valid data (for instance, about the deprivation/well-being association), and from this data develop theories that mirror the reality they want to understand. Critical realists in particular wish to reveal the hidden, underlying mechanisms that drive social processes such as capitalist markets or social inequalities, and believe that this is a feasible outcome of social inquiry.

This realist position does not simply recapitulate positivism. While realism considers there is an objective social reality that can be discerned through sufficiently sophisticated social research tools, it also recognises that some of these tools (understanding and interpretation) are inevitably value-laden, theory-laden and context-dependent. All that can be hoped for is that by continual efforts towards methodological rigour, triangulation from various data sources and meticulous analysis of data that we can get close to truth. Choice of appropriate and adequate research designs and methods are crucial to this project.

4.2 Constructionism

Also sometimes known as constructivism, this is very different from realist epistemology. It is based on the premise that the events that people experience in their lives are not direct indicators of some underlying social reality, but are a result of individual and collective interpretations.

In its strictest form, constructionism argues that there must inevitably be multiple representations of a situation, deriving from the differing values or viewpoints of different actors in an event. Because all have equal value in showing us aspects of a situation from the different perspectives of social actors, none of these representations (including that of the researcher) can be claimed to be ‘the truth’. For this reason, some constructionists will talk of the ‘truths’ of an event.

So, when we talk to people about experiences of deprivation and well-being, we will learn many things about what their experiences mean for them, but these do not then form the basis by which we can ‘get beyond the interpretation’ and know what is the ‘reality’.

Constructionists suggest that when realist researchers make claims to discern the ‘hidden mechanisms’ that underlie social processes, they are merely creating a further representation informed by social theories, and one that cannot have any privilege over those of one or another person we interview.

Constructionism is considered by its proponents as providing insights into how contexts produce certain understandings of the social world. However, it is criticised by realists for being relativist about knowledge, denying any absolute truth. By claiming that knowledge (lay or scientific) is always relative to a particular standpoint, this limits the use of social scientific explanation.

These different epistemologies are influential in social research, and when you read a social science paper, you will be aware from the language used which epistemology the authors are using. To ensure you understand the principles of each, please now complete the following SAQ.

SAQ 1.2 Realist and constructionist epistemologies


Please read the following conclusions drawn by different researchers, and indicate if they are applying a realist or constructionist epistemology.

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Earlier, I quickly glossed over the issue of social ontology (which addressed the nature of the social world), noting that most social scientists and researchers focus instead upon epistemology: how we should know that world. While most natural scientists (except perhaps for quantum physicists) accept the reality of stones or chemical or bodies, the reality of the social world is less certain. Given that much of it is comprised of human concepts, ideas and thoughts, of cultural formations such as ‘marriage’ and ‘citizenship’, and of social institutions such as ‘the family’ or ‘work’, just how ‘real’ is the social world?

The epistemologies we have studied here (realism and constructionism) are in part proxies for different social ontologies. Realists assume that there is an objective reality independent of human consciousness waiting to be discovered; constructionists are much more doubtful and some (often called ‘constructivists’) suspect that there is nothing to be discovered apart from social constructions.

So epistemologies (and the methodologies that derive from them) are not just a matter of choice: they ultimately derive from the ontological assumptions one holds about social reality. Some social scientists are now looking again at ontology, seeing this, and not epistemology, as the starting point for developing research methods (Fox and Alldred, 2014). These debates, however, are outside the main concerns of this course; readers can find a relevant reference in the ’further reading’ at the end of this unit.


In this chapter we have looked at the fundamentals of the social science world-view, and how the philosophy of science has attempted to establish the rules of scientific method. We have looked at the key role of observation in modern science, and the problems of epistemology that follow from making this the route to knowledge.

This introductory unit sets the scene for everything that follows in this course on social research methods. As you read the units that follow, remember that social research is a human invention, not some kind of pre-given solution to how we discover the workings of the social world. As new concepts (such as ‘validity’ or ‘representativeness’) are introduced, think back to the content of this introduction and consider how the philosophy of science and the different epistemologies of the social sciences we have explored impinge on the day-to-day practice of social inquiry.

To complete this unit, now please undertake the following reflective exercise, for inclusion in your log-book.

Reflective exercise 1.1

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Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., Jaokobsen, L. and Karlsson, J. (2002) Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Fox, N.J. (2008) Post-positivism. In Given, L. (ed.) Sage Encyclopaedia of Qualitative Research Methods. London: Sage.

Fox, N.J. and Alldred, P. (2014) ‘New materialist social inquiry: designs, methods and the research-assemblage’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2014.921458

Further reading

Alvesson, M. and Skoldberg, K. (2009) Reflexive Methodology (2nd edition). London: Sage.

Danermark, B., Ekstrom, M., Jaokobsen, L. and Karlsson, J. (2002) Explaining Society. Critical Realism in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.

Answers to SAQ 1.1

  1. This is a scientific epistemology: based on observations, the speaker has drawn conclusions about your work. (There is actually an implicit theory at work here: that teachers dress in a particular way.)
  2. This is a romantic, artistic or humanistic epistemology based on the proposition that beauty is equivalent to truth.
  3. The speaker is using a faith-based epistemology.
  4. This might be regarded as a lay or ‘common-sense’ epistemology, based on ungrounded or populist theories.

Answers to SAQ 1.2

  1. Constructionist: social actors interpret the world in differing ways
  2. Realist: data have been used to develop a firm conclusion about the social world.
  3. Realist: interview data has been analysed to draw this conclusion.
  4. Constructionist: over time, social contexts affected how scientists interpreted homosexuality.

This unit is part of our course on Social Research Methods. You must be registered and logged in to access course content. Back to courses Welcome page.


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