Non-empirical methods: an introduction

If you have come to sociology from earlier courses, notoriously the British AS-level course, with its accompanying text books, you may be rather surprised to find that there are sociological methods that do not employ either questionnaires or interviews, or any of the other techniques for gathering empirical information. Some of the perspectives and approaches discussed on this page propose that gathering empirical information is not a profitable way to proceed at all, and that sociology makes a mistake if it confines itself to these methods.

Marxist alternatives, for example, offer important and penetrating criticisms of empirical data, and of the usual methods for acquiring it. Marx himself used empirical data gathered by a variety of other bodies, including UK government sources of information about factory conditions or health, and he also used actual examples of matters such as prices and costs from the economics of the day. However, he was certainly not content just to gather data like this. The point was to explain it, to place it in context, to interrogate it, and to move beyond it. Much of this data described the capitalist system  'on the surface', for example, and the whole point was to explore the mechanisms operating underneath the surface. Empirical data alone could not get to those mechanisms. Instead, a critical method had to be used, based on philosophical, historical and political forms of argument. Marxist method combined theory, political purpose, and techniques to gather information, in ways which are really quite different to the conventions of modern sociology.

This method is what I have tried to illustrate in the materials gathered here. Marxists believe that it generates far more useful and reliable knowledge of the system than gathering data from questionnaires or doing interviews alone. Although it is now common to incorporate marxist perspectives into sociology courses, it is important to remember the important methodological differences. Students taking sociology courses have doubtless noticed these occasionally uncomfortable connections between marxism and sociology, and those who have never investigated marxism in its own right must be rather puzzled.

Other dimensions have arisen in very important discussions about what social life itself actually is. It is clear, for example, that the ability to speak and use language is an important aspect of our social lives. For some philosophers, that means that we should try to understand how people use language to understand their world, to play various  'language games', and to express social ideas. Taken to extremes, this means that the study of language should replace conventional sociology altogether, and that we should pursue different inquiries, based on linguistic philosophy. This argument lies behind a good deal of current  'post' criticism of social theory -- post structuralism, post-marxism and postmodernism. Students might also like to cut their teeth on an earlier approach, developed by Peter Winch, which proposed that linguistic philosophy should replace the very idea of a social science. Wittgenstein, whose work lies behind these approaches, also spawned a number of arguments in social phenomenology and ethnomethodology.

Semiotics is a powerful general approach examining the workings of 'signs'. Since a sign is an object,image or word conveying meaning, it is clear that semiotics claims a very wide range of application.There happen to be several actual approaches, which can be roughly divided into European and American types. Equally roughly, the former tended to concentrate on what might be called actual texts ( including performances) : particular examples include aspects of popular culture, especially films and images, TV, newspapers and the like. What made the approach controversial was that since academic writing, that could be understood as a semiotic activity too. In post-structuralist developments, the activiities of constructing academic texts, including sociological theories could be understood as an example of the operation of 'writing' techniques in the broadest sense - making accounts meaningful by emphasising some meanings, suppressing or ignoring others, developing arguments in particular ways and so on.  This clearly denies the role of scoial science texts to be offering indepenedent or objective 'science'. One particularly powerful  application of this argument is to 'deconstruct' ethnographic writing as operating with certain literary conventions to claim a sense of 'realism', but the argument has also been directed at most other academic disciplines and approaches, including all the major sociological theories.

American semiotics, especially in the work of CS Peirce had a different trajectory. As an approach based on how 'ordinary people' make sense of their worlds by developing and sharing certain kinds of signs, Peircian semiotics led to a whole approach to social science (and other cognitive activities including natural science and politics). This approach is usually known as 'American pragmatism', and it has had a major influence on the development of American 'symbolic interactionist' sociology, pickjed up by all the founding fathers from Park to Goffman.Here, there have been some actual empirical sociological investigations, but of a rather characteristic ' interactionist' kind ( ususally some form of participant observation). The approach has been deployed most successfully in sociology (perhaps) as a source of critique of more 'positivist' approaches. The deconstructionist approach has been successfully critical of symbolic interaction in its turn. Overall this tradition in particular has been largely neglected in basic British sociology textbooks, and instead a kind of myth of origin has been developed which sees Weber as somehow the father of symbolic interactionism.

Finally in this series there is a whole tradition called 'hermeneutics'. A number of strands come together here. The approach tried to 'recover subjective meaning' but does not simply interrogate individuals to do that. Subjective meanings also are found in cultural traditions, and these pre-date actual individuals. Hermeneutics attempts to explain how these cultural traditions have affected modern ways of thinking by a kind of historical analysis, one which traces the meanings of words and how they change, for example. There are various schools  which ensue, with most of the modern ones influenced by Heidegger. Palmer's introduction is one of the better ones to get the whole picture. What makes these approaches different from conventional sociological ones is that they want to see cultural traditions as having an existence in their own right, as not just the product of social or economic forces working behind the scenes (as, say a marxist or a functionalist might).