Social Research

Fourth edition

by Sotirios Sarantakos

Chapter 1 - Introduction

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Educational objectives

After completing this chapter, you will:
  1. have a good grounding in the historical development and theoretical foundations of social research;
  2. have knowledge of the origins of positivism and of positivist methodology, and of its role in social research;
  3. have a critical understanding of the aims and motives of social research;
  4. be in a position to see research in the social and political context;
  5. have knowledge of the role of ethics in social research and its significance for the individual and the community.


  1. Historical overview
  2. The state of contemporary research
  3. Politics and the production of knowledge
  4. Ethics in social research
  5. Identity and power in social research

Points to remember

The following are the major points introduced in this chapter. Ensure that you are very confident with their meaning, content, context and significance.
  1. Social research is the purposive and rigorous investigation which aims to generate knowledge.
  2. Social research has a long history. It has been used extensively for more than 2000 years.
  3. Social research as we know it today was introduced by Comte in 1848.
  4. The theoretical basis of Comte's conception of social research is positivism.
  5. Positivistic research was developed to offer a 'scientific' impression of the world.
  6. Positivism and positivist research have dominated the research scene for the largest part of the history of the social sciences.
  7. Positivistic research is still the most dominant type of research in the social sciences.
  8. Positivistic research was challenged by a number of schools of thought, particularly by symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, phenomenology and philosophical hermeneutics.
  9. Criticisms came also from Marxists, feminists and supporters of action research.
  10. Some of the criticisms centred on perception of reality, the methods it used, the relationship between researcher and researched, the goals it served and the politics of research.
  11. The aims of research vary according to the type of underlying methodology. Positivists aim to explore, explain, evaluate, predict and to develop/test theories; interpretivists to understand human behaviour; and critical theorists to criticise social reality, emancipate, empower and liberate people, and propose solutions to social problems.
  12. The motives of research are educational, 'magical', personal, institutional, political and tactical.
  13. Adherence to ethical standards is expected in quantitative and qualitative research. Ethics relates to professional practice, the researcher “respondent relationship, the researcher“researcher relationship, and the researcher“animal relationship.
  14. The politics of research is very strong and affects the type and nature of knowledge produced by social inquiry.
  15. Social research was and still is pluralistic.

Short-answer questions

Answer each question carefully (there is no need to write down the answer). Consult your Social Research text when your memory fails you or when you are in doubt about the accuracy of your responses.
  1. What is positivism and in which ways did it influence the course of social research?
  2. What were the main reasons that motivated researchers to opt for positivism?
  3. What were the main reasons that motivated researchers to turn away from positivism?
  4. In what ways were previous research models different from the positivistic model?
  5. What are the major types of social research?
  6. How can research be used or misused in modern societies?
  7. In what ways and to what extent has ideology influenced the form, type and outcomes of social research?
  8. What are the main aims of social research?
  9. What are the limitations of social research?
  10. What is the essence of the debate about ethics in social research?
  11. In which areas of research is ethics relevant?
  12. What are the areas in which research can violate the code of ethics?
  13. How can politics affect research, the choice of research topic and research outcomes?
  14. Why is research evidence considered to be more credible than authority? Isn't the opinion of people in authority based on research evidence?
  15. How much of the 'truth' is reason and logic? Is conventional research free of reason and logic?
  16. What is the use of 'empirical' evidence if it is outside what ordinary people believe in and which guides their behaviour?
  17. Ethical standards require that social researchers maintain objectivity in the conduct of social inquiry. How binding is this ethical requirement within research paradigms (e.g. qualitative and feminist research) which in principle reject objectivity?

Fill-in questions

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True/False questions

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Multiple choice questions

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Practical exercises

  1. Choose two articles from professional journals, one employing a quantitative and one a qualitative design.
  2. Read the introduction and methodology sections focusing particularly on:
    a) whether ethical issues are being discussed, and if so which aspects are being listed in the paper.
    b) whether ethical standards are consistent with other research principles, such as objectivity.
    c) whether political issues overtly or covertly are considered.
  3. What are your conclusions as to the attention the author(s) gave to these two issues?