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«Am i r B. Mar vast i Qualitative Research in Sociology Qualitative Research in Sociology INTRODUCING QUALITATIVE METHODS provides a series of volumes ...»

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Am i r B. Mar vast i


Research in


Qualitative Research in Sociology

INTRODUCING QUALITATIVE METHODS provides a series of volumes which introduce qualitative

research to the student and beginning researcher. The approach is interdisciplinary and

international. A distinctive feature of these volumes is the helpful student exercises.

One stream of the series provides texts on the key methodologies used in qualitative

research. The other stream contains books on qualitative research for different disciplines or occupations. Both streams cover the basic literature in a clear and accessible style, but also cover the ‘cutting edge’ issues in the area.


David Silverman (Goldsmiths College)


Michael Bloor (University of Wales, Cardiff) Barbara Czarniawska (University of Gothenburg) Norman Denzin (University of Illinois, Champaign) Barry Glassner (University of Southern California) Jaber Gubrium (University of Missouri) Anne Murcott (South Bank University) Jonathan Potter (Loughborough University)


Doing Conversation Analysis Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis Paul ten Have Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer Qualitative Research in Social Work Using Foucault’s Methods lan Shaw and Nick Gould Gavin Kendall and Gary Wickham Qualitative Research in Information Systems The Quality of Qualitative Research Michael D. Myers and David Avison Clive Seale Researching the Visual Qualitative Evaluation Michael Emmison and Philip Smith Ian Shaw Qualitative Research in Education Researching Life Stories and Family Peter Freebody Histories Robert L. Miller Using Documents in Social Research Lindsay Prior Categories in Text and Talk Doing Research in Cultural Studies Georgia Lepper Paula Saukko Focus Groups in Social Research Qualitative Research in Sociology: An Introduction Michael Bloor, Jane Frankland, Michelle Amir B. Marvasti Thomas, Kate Robson Qualitative Research Through Case Studies Max Travers Qualitative Research in Sociology An Introduction Amir B. Marvasti SAGE Publications London • Thousand Oaks • New Delhi © Amit B. Marvasti 2004 First published 2004 Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form, or by any means, only with the prior permission in writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside those terms should be sent to the publishers.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 0 7619 4860 0 ISBN 0 7619 4861 9 (pbk) Library of Congress Control Number 2003105198 Typeset by C&M Digitals (P) Ltd., Chennai, India Printed in Great Britain by The Cromwell Press Ltd, Trowbridge, Wiltshire Contents

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This book could not have been completed without the extensive and generous support of Professor David Silverman, who patiently helped me improve this work from start to finish. I also owe much gratitude to Professor Jay Gubrium, who has both inspired and mentored me throughout my career. My thanks also go to Michael Carmichael, Zoë Elliot, and Sage staff for their assistance and consistent encouragement. Lastly, Karyn McKinney deserves my endless appreciation for helping me conceptualize and edit this work.

1 What is Qualitative Research?

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Social life is full of experiences that prompt people to reexamine their surroundings. For example, an unpleasant public encounter may motivate us to try retrospectively to make sense of the event (i.e., we ask how and why things happened as they did). In many ways, all human beings are novice researchers who give meaning to, interpret, and predict their social world. This work of researching and theorizing about society encompasses an infinite number of topics. For instance, some may wonder about their personal relationships (e.g., ‘Why did my significant other not return my phone call?’), while others may be preoccupied with weightier matters of social justice (e.g.,‘How can we stop all the violence in the world?’) or, as is often the case, we may be interested in both personal and global issues.

The specific focus of questions aside, all human beings are interested in understanding and explaining everyday experiences.This basic sense of curiosity is the foundation of social science research, or what may be defined loosely as the act of re-examining the social world with the goal of better understanding or explaining why or how people behave.This elementary definition emphasizes the rediscovery process that is invariably embedded in research. In a sense, the word ‘research’ can literally be interpreted as ‘renewed search,’ or ‘re-examination.’ Naturally, most people are not inclined to invest time or effort to formally study their social environment. Social scientists, by profession, are in the business of exploring all aspects of human behavior and environment.

You may be beginning to wonder how one should go about doing social science research.That is, what criteria inform the questions we ask and where do we look for answers? Is it reasonable, for example, to conclude that an


imaginary man named Joe does not return his girlfriend’s phone calls because of recent changes in the lunar cycle or misalignment of certain planets?

Perhaps. What is considered a reasonable course of inquiry, to a large extent, depends on the investigator’s disciplinary orientation. Certainly, for an astrologer, the arrangement of the constellations would be a very useful source of information. However, to the dismay of some, astrology does not meet the conventional requirements of scientific investigation, which demand logically connecting certain empirical facts with an explanation of those facts. The notion that planetary movements cause human behavior leaves many logical questions unanswered. Alternatively, a more scientifically oriented discipline, such as abnormal psychology, might explain Joe’s rude behavior in terms of his inability to empathize with the needs of others.

Therefore, it seems that the questions we ask about our social world and how we go about answering them depend on our disciplinary orientation. For the purpose of this book, we focus on the discipline of sociology and the qualitative methods employed by some of its practitioners.The first chapter begins with an overview of the field of sociology.We then explore the two perspectives of positivism and constructionism and their influence on social investigations.The final part of this chapter looks at some similarities and distinctions between quantitative and qualitative methods.

What is sociology?

Sociology is a social science that aims to empirically appreciate the complexity of human life. Embedded in this definition are the notions of science (strict adherence to systematic observations and logical explanations) and the complexity of everyday experience, which for sociologists, is not naturally selfevident and simple. In the broadest terms, sociology can be defined as an orientation that reveals ‘the strange in the familiar’ and ‘places individuality in social context’ (Macionis 2001: 2–5). For example, sociologists might explore why in the United States young people, who are eighteen or older, can be drafted into the military, be permitted to run for political office, and vote in elections, and yet the same individuals do not have the legal right to consume alcohol until they reach the age of twenty-one. In this case, seeing the strange in the familiar means questioning the peculiar nature of laws that trust eighteen-year-olds with guns, in defense of their country, while at the same time disallowing them from possessing or consuming a bottle of alcoholic beverage. Similarly, Durkheim’s (1966) classic study of suicide is an example of how sociologists place an individual act in a social context. In particular, Durkheim’s ingenious examination of suicide, a presumably psychological phenomenon, revealed that social factors, such as marital status and religious affiliation help predict the rate of suicide.

The discipline of sociology can also be defined in terms of its substantive focus. That is, sociology can be described as ‘the systematic study of human 3


society’ (Macionis: 2001: 1), but this definition is problematic in two ways.

First, accepting that sociologists study society does very little to define the boundaries of the discipline. Society, as a field of study, offers an infinite number of topics. It is impossible to think of anything that is not, in some form or another, part of society. Indeed, the subject matter of sociological investigations ranges from healthcare, to race and gender, to crime and deviance, and to virtually anything that involves human action or thought. Second, identifying sociology as the study of all that is social does not explain how a sociological investigation might be different from a psychological or an anthropological one. It is for these reasons that this book emphasizes the analytical and investigative orientation of sociology rather than its substantive interest. (Of course, it is inevitable that disciplinary boundaries will be occasionally crossed in this text in an attempt to better illustrate certain methodological points.) With this general definition of sociology in mind, the next question is: How is sociology done? Asking how a particular discipline investigates its topics of interest is another way of asking about its methodology (a general orientation about how research is done) and methods (specific research techniques used to study a topic) (Silverman 2001: 4). In most introductory texts the hows of investigation are discussed separately from the organizing principles and philosophical presuppositions (theory); however, in practice, the two are intricately linked in that one informs the other. Sociological investigations make use of different research methods depending on their theoretical orientations. For example, those who argue crime is caused by ‘low self-control’ (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1994) are likely to use questionnaires and other survey methods that are suitable for privately probing an individual’s psyche. Conversely, the view that crime is a product of societal reaction (Becker 1963) necessitates observational techniques that will allow the researcher to peer into the subtleties of the social interaction and how they transform a person’s self-concept from normal to deviant.

While numerous theories inform how sociologists approach and conceptualize their topics of interest, the two orienting frameworks of positivism and constructionism have been especially influential in shaping how social research is done. The following section offers a brief introduction to these approaches and their impact on qualitative methods.

Positivism versus constructionism

For sociologists, understanding and reporting how or why people behave as they do involves analyzing and presenting reality. In practice, this means sharing with an audience a convincing account of what was observed and its meaning.

You may have noticed in your readings that sometimes two researchers studying the same sociological topic may arrive at different conclusions, or offer competing reports. For example, one study of prostitution might emphasize occupational and client-management skills (Heyl 1977), while another will


explain how victims of incest are more likely to become prostitutes (Pines and Silbert 1983).Which study is a true and real reflection of the topic? One way of answering this question is to use a moral compass to judge one approach as more socially responsible than the other, and therefore more accurate.The problem with using morality as an evaluation criterion is that it closes other avenues of interest. That is to say, moral positions typically don’t require empirical support. In fact, a strictly moral agenda is somewhat antithetical to the idea of research, which, as defined earlier, requires a constant rethinking of what we know. As an alternative, we could bypass the dilemma of judging accuracy by replying that the two approaches reflect differing realities. If you will, they represent two truths, emerging from two theoretical perspectives, and serving different purposes. To elaborate on this point, let us explore two philosophical orientations that may have informed these studies of prostitution.

Both positivism and constructionism have to do with the nature of reality or assumptions about what is real and how it should be studied. Naturally, the average person takes reality for granted. In the everyday world, we know what is real and do not doubt its existence.This taken-for-granted view of reality is what one sociologist called the ‘natural attitude’ (Schutz 1967), or a way of understanding the social world that is based on common sense or what everyone intuitively knows and can agree on. It has been suggested that positivistic sociology is grounded in common sense (Filmer et al. 1973; Garfinkel 1967) or a vision of social reality that is based on self-evident truths that resemble physical laws of nature.As Hammersley and Atkinson suggest, positivistic social


1 view the methodological techniques of the physical sciences, physics in particular, as the ideal model for exploring the social world;

2 aim to uncover universal laws that provide probable causal explanations for human behavior, laws that presumably hold true across time and place; and 3 are exclusively interested in empirical observations that are described in the neutral or value-free language of science (1983: 4–5).

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