Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

8. Surveys

8.1 Introduction to surveys
8.2 Methodological approaches

8.2.1 Types of surveys
8.2.2 Positivism and surveys
8.2.3 Falsificationism and middle-range theorising
8.2.4 Criticism of the positivist (quantitative) approach to surveys
8.2.5 The social survey as a non-positivist method
8.2.6 Phenomenology and surveys
8.2.7 Critical approaches and surveys

8.3 Doing survey research
8.4 Summary and conclusion

8.2.4 Criticism of the positivist (quantitative) approach to surveys
The quantitative approach to surveying is criticised on several grounds.

First, non-positivists argue that it makes no sense to talk about causes in the social world in the same sense as in the natural world. It is not just a matter of it being difficult to establish social causes. People are reflective, conscious beings so they are able to change the way they behave and are not governed by causal laws (see Section 2.3). Therefore, it is incorrect to look for explanations of social phenomena.

Second, the falsificationist approach assumes that theory can be changed on the basis of observation that refutes it. People opposed to falsificationism argue that this can only lead to minor changes, a sort of fine-tuning of the theory. However, if the theory is fundamentally flawed it will never be thrown out in its entirety by this approach. Why? Because the theory determines what empirical evidence is collected and what hypotheses are tested. To change a theory fundamentally involves a complete shift to an entirely different perspective, or paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn (1970) called it. This is like lateral thinking. Falsificationism does not allow lateral thinking because it is preoccupied with tinkering with existing theory.

This leads to the third broad objection, that the quantitative approach to sociology, like all falsificationist approaches, ignores the theory laden nature of observation (Chalmers, 1994). In short, this view suggests that observations or 'facts' do not exist in their own right but only make sense in the theoretical context in which they are located. 'The Earth is the centre of the solar system' is not an incorrect 'fact' because we are able to observe that the Earth travels round the sun. The statement is flawed because we have a sophisticated theory about the nature of solar systems, planetary movements, gravitational forces, and so on. Once, when such theories did not exist, it was well known that the Earth must be the centre of the solar system and the sun revolve around it.

Given that observation of 'facts' only make sense in the context of theory, then observation alone will provide no basis for fundamentally testing a theory, as the meaning of the observations is determined by the theory that they are supposed to be testing.

Next 8.2.5 The social survey as a non-positivist method