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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.1 Identifying approaches
Chapter 1 identified three broad epistemological approaches; positivist, phenomenological and critical.

These, we argue, encompass the major alternative perspectives in sociological research and they are explored in detail in this chapter.

Others would argue that the positivist, phenomenological, critical distinction does not cover all possibilities: for example, separate categories are required for realism, postmodernism and feminism. Alternatively, others may argue that the real distinction is the realist versus constructivist dichotomy or any of the other simplistic dichotomies discussed in Section 1.12. However, the categorisation that we have adopted does account for all these alternatives and provides a basis for exploring real world research. The trichotimisation used in this Guide may not be perfect (although we are not convinced by any other alternative classificatory system) but it does provide a straightforward basis for exploring actual research and helping students come to grips with the variations in practice and disputes over theory, method and methodology.

2.1.1 Comparing approaches

Let us briefly explore the differences between critical, positive and phenomenological approaches to the social world. Let's take a concrete social phenomenon.

Why is it that some graduates from university get the jobs they want and others do not?

A positivist approach would be to break the problem down by identifying the specific knowledge, skills and abilities ('attributes') that graduates need in order to get employed, taking into account (controlling for) the size of employer organisation and the sector of the labour market. On the basis of this, a set of preferred attributes might be determined by surveying employers to see what they want. It would then be possible to predict the likelihood of a graduate obtaining the preferred employment. So, for example, some employers have a list of 'criteria' such as:

  • a good class of degree in a numerate subject;
  • ability to work in teams;
  • evidence of leadership;
  • experience of the world of work;
  • good oral communication skills.

A phenomenologist would argue that such an approach might be indicative of the necessary attributes but is not sufficient to explain why some people get jobs and others do not. The problem, they would argue, is that it is not possible to provide generalisable explanations. The process of employing graduates involves people, each of whom have different ways of interpreting the recruitment process. The problem is that even if we could accurately identify the attributes of any given graduate, which would be unlikely as individuals have a complex array of attributes, it is not the possession of the attributes that will ensure success in getting a job but the demonstration of them during the recruitment process. This requires a close analysis of the interpretation placed upon the parts of the recruitment process by the recruiters and the applicant. How does the applicant convince the recruiters that he or she has what they want? The sociological enterprise, for the phenomenologist, is to explore the process of interpretation that is going on between recruiter and applicant as the former try and uncover whether the applicant would be suitable for the post and the applicant attempts to interpret what is required and thus to represent themselves in the best light.

The critical social researcher would be mindful of the expressed desires of the employers and the specification of personal attributes required of applicants. Similarly, the critical social researcher would take into account the phenomenologist's analysis of how the specification is interpreted in recruitment processes. However, the critical social researcher would also want to set the recruitment process in a wider setting. The world of work is changing rapidly and so are the requirements of employers. On one hand, organisations are changing structure to accommodate new working practices, for example, they are removing layers of management, they are tending towards less hierarchy and more team project working. They tend to be reducing in size as certain types of workers (mostly manual labourers) are no longer being recruited. Increasingly, firms are contracting out parts of their work to smaller independent companies, often abroad ('outsourcing', as it is known). All of this has an impact on the recruitment process, the type of graduate needed and the subsequent career of the graduate once recruited. Furthermore, large organisations are very diverse and the practices employed by the recruitment manager may not match with what the recruit's line-manager wants nor what the company strategic manager may be looking for in the long run. Conversely, small organisations may not have the time, money or skills to undertake elaborate recruitment processes and, even if they specify skills, they may abandon them in favour of recruitment of someone they know will 'fit in'. In short, the critical social researcher wants to go beyond the skills specification and the close analysis of the recruitment process to take account of the changing world of graduate recruitment to explore not what recruiters want nor what procedures they use but how they relate their practices to their needs in a rapidly-changing, fiercely-competitive, global market.


Next 2.2 Positivism