Some sociologists have tried to adopt the methods of the natural sciences. In doing so, they have tended to advocate the use of quantitative methods. To use such methods in sociology is known as positivism. First, as a positivist, Comte believed that the scientific study of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. Comte argued they sociologists should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives, feelings and emotions of individuals. Since these mental states exist only in the person’s consciousness, they cannot be observed and so they cannot be measured in any objective way.
The second aspect of positivism concerns its use of statistical data. Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable social facts and so produce statistics. For example, Durkheim collected data on social facts such as the suicide rate and the membership of different religions.
The third stage of positivist methodology entails looking for correlations between different social facts. A correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them. In his study of suicide, Durkheim found an apparent correlation between a particular religion (Protestantism) and a high suicide rate.
The fourth stage of positivist methodology involves a search for causal connections. If there is a strong correlation between two or more types of social phenomena, then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena was causing the other to take place. However this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data carefully before any such conclusion can be reached. The example of class and criminality can be used to illustrate this point. Many sociologists have noted a correlation between being working class and a relatively high chance of being convicted of a crime.
Positivists believe that multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables. If these findings are checked in a variety of contexts, then the researchers can be confident that they have attained the ultimate goal of positivism: a law of human behaviour.
Durkheim claimed to have discovered laws of human behaviour that governed the suicide rate. According to Durkheim, the suicide rate always rose during an economic boom or slump.
Positivists and Durkheim, then, believe that laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the social world in a statistical form, by the careful analysis of these facts, and by repeated checking of findings in a series of contexts. From this point of view humans have little or no choice about how they behave.
Durkheim conceived of sociology as the scientific study of a reality sui generis, a clearly defined group of phenomena different from those studied by all other sciences, biology and psychology included. It was for these phenomena that Durkheim reserved the term social facts, i.e., “a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking, and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.”
Since these facts consisted of actions, thoughts, and feelings, they could not be confused with biological phenomena; but neither were they the province of psychology, for they existed outside the individual conscience. It was to define the proper method for their study that Durkheim wrote ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’ in 1895.
His work on suicide, of which the discussion and analysis of anomie forms a part, must be read in this light. Once he discovered that certain types of suicide could be accounted for by anomie, he could then use anomic suicide as an index for the otherwise immeasurable degree of social integration.
Durkheim distinguished between types of suicide according to the relation of the actor to his society. When the restraints of structural integration, as exemplified in the operation of organic solidarity, fail to operate, men become prone to egoistic suicide; when the collective conscience weakens, men fall victim to anomic suicide.
Advantages of official statistics:
Availability – It may be that official statistics are the only available source in a particular sociological area of interest e.g. when studying suicide.
Practicality – The researcher does not have to spend time and money collecting his/her own information. It may be unnecessary for a researcher to create some forms of data using primary methods when such data already exists.
Examination of trends/changes over time – Using statistical data drawn from a number of different years it is possible to see how something has changed over a long period.
Comparison – Statistics can be used for inter-group comparisons (e.g. the differences between middle and working class) as well as cross-cultural comparisons (e.g. a comparative study of crime rates in different countries).
“Before” and “after” studies – For example, you can use official data to examine the effect that changes in the law regarding divorce have by seeing the number of divorces before and after.
Disadvantages of official statistics:
Statistics are not always reliable.
People may to lie to make them look better. Therefore, can we trust the methods through which these statistics are obtained?
Statistics give us generalisations; they do not reflect a reality, they impose one.
It has been argued that official statistics simply show a person’s judgement rather than objective facts.
The research may have been collected for a different purpose therefore the data will not necessarily reflect the truth.
The basis for the collection of stats by the governments may change over time.
Any statistical account will represent only a ‘snapshot’ of social interaction.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex