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Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

4. The Polarisation of Positivism and Interpretivism

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In this lecture, we explore the development of interpretivism following the death of Weber in 1920, focusing in particular on: (i) the development of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism; (ii) the work of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and the development of the tradition of symbolic interactionism; (iii) Mead's distinction between the "I" and the "Me", and the popularisation of Mead's ideas in the US by Herbert Blumer (1900-87); (iv) the continuation of the tradition with Ervine Goffman (1922-82), his work 'The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life', and the idea of that social roles are 'played'; (v) the work of Alfred Schütz (1899-59), his book 'The Phenomenology of the Social World' (1932), and his view that humans attempts to 'typify' everything, i.e. to categorise people and things to better understand them within the context of society; and (vi) the extent to which Schütz supported positivist approaches in particular fields, e.g. neoclassical economics.


In this course, Professor William Outhwaite (Newcastle University) explores the positivist and interpretivist approaches to social research. In the first lecture, we provide an introduction to positivism. In the second lecture, we turn to some of its criticisms. In the third lecture, we explore the emergence of interpretivism, thinking first about its combination with positivism in the work of Max Weber (1864-1920). Next, we look at the polarisation of positivism and interpretivism from about 1920 onwards. In the fifth lecture, we explore ethnomethodology. In the sixth lecture, we look at hermeneutics. In the seventh and final lecture, we consider how the social researcher should negotiate all these different approaches. To what extent are they compatible? Are some 'better' than others?


William Outhwaite is Emeritus Professor is the Department of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. His research focuses on social theory and the philosophy of social science, and some of his recent publications include Social Theory (2015), Europe Since 1989 (2016), Contemporary Europe (2017) and Transregional Europe (2020), an edited book on Brexit (2017) and (co-edited with Stephen P. Turner) The SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology (2018).

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APA style

Outhwaite, W. (2021, August 23). Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research - The Polarisation of Positivism and Interpretivism [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Outhwaite, W. "Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research – The Polarisation of Positivism and Interpretivism." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 23 Aug 2021,

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