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

1. Basics

1.12 Dichotomies
There is a tendency, when introducing sociology, to create simple alternatives to help new students understand some of the complexities of social theory and methodology. These alternatives, or dichotomies, are used to show how one approach to sociology varies from another.

Some of the frequently used dichotomies are:

Unfortunately, this approach to introducing sociology is ultimately more confusing and misleading than helpful. Often these dichotomies are grouped together to suggest, for example, that positivistic sociology uses quantitative methods to provide 'objective' explanations that are 'scientific', while phenomenological sociology provides 'subjective' interpretations that are 'non-scientific'.

An analogy would be to characterise all the people you know as either:

  • good or bad;
  • clever or stupid;
  • happy or miserable;
  • deep or shallow;
  • friendly or hostile.

Then divide your acquaintances into those who are friendly, happy, clever, deep and good as opposed to those who are hostile, miserable, stupid, shallow and bad. Of course, life is more complicated than this and so is sociology.

As we have seen, theorists make decisions about whether society can be treated as a reality that is external to the individual or as a reality that is socially created by the people who make up society. This dichotomy approach, for example, projects Durkheim and Marx as structural theorists who gave priority to society whilst Weber is characterised as an action theorist who Weber gave priority to individual action. In reality, it is possible to see elements of structure and action in the work of all three.

It is important not to make judgements about the work of sociologists based on a small part of their work.

The Hewett sociological theory map was an example of how unhelpful dichotomisation can be. It divided sociological theory into 'macro' and 'micro' sociology. Then it equated 'structuralism' with macro and 'social action' with micro. In turn 'structuralism' is equated with 'positivism' and 'social action' with 'phenomenology'. Positivism is then divided into another dichotomy, 'conflict' and 'consensus'. Marxism represents the former and functionalism the latter. Marxism itself is then divided into 'humanist' and 'structuralist' camps. So reading back, humanist Marxists are positivists concerned with social facts! This despite Marx quite clearly opposing positivism in his writings.

This simplistic dichotomisation is actually very unhelpful for the new sociologist who would be led into thinking there are rigid camps that fall under neat categorisations that everyone agrees with.

The advice to social researchers is to be highly critical of dichotomies and do not assume that labels are correct.

At best labels will be indicative and often incorrect.

Throughout this Guide, stereotypical dichotomisation will be addressed and dismantled.


Next 1.13 Product or producer