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Methodological pluralism

October 31, 2012

by Geoff Payne via The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods (2006)

Print pages: 174-176


An approach that advocates flexibility in the selection of social research methods, based on the principle of choosing the most suitable methods for the nature of the problem being researched. More generally, methodological pluralism calls on the researcher to be tolerant of other people’s preferred methods even when they differ from one’s own.

Distinctive Features

From time to time, disagreements among social scientists about which are the ‘best’ social research methods become more vocal and indeed, confrontational. An example of this is the competition between older, ethnographic research styles associated with sociologists at the University of Chicago, and the (then newer) work based on social surveys being promoted by Harvard and Columbia after World War II. In the UK a conflict between quantitative methods and several newer forms of qualitative research took place during the 1970s. These disputes are usually marked by antagonistic criticisms of published work, lengthy expositions in defence of particular methods, and even personal abuse.

Methodological pluralism, promoted by Bell and Newby (1977), rejected the idea that one type of methods was automatically better than another. They argued that it was healthy for sociology to contain a number of different theoretical perspectives, and that while each perspective tended to imply a given method of research, each new research project should be tackled on the basis of its own particular features. The research methods selected for the project should be the ones that best fitted the characteristics of the phenomena being studied.

For example, studies of the national rates at which something was occurring, or projects dealing with simpler concepts that could be relatively easily measured, were better suited to social surveys, pre-coded questionnaires and other quantitative methods. On the other hand, when more detail was required, or phenomena were complex, subtle, or unclear, this was more suited to research by observation, less structured interviews, ethnographic description and other qualitative styles. Not every researcher would use every style of research during their careers, nor should they be proficient in all research methods. The plurality would be achieved in the total research output of the discipline as a whole (Bell and Roberts, 1984).


Despite the common sense of methodological pluralism, more sociologists pay lip-service to it than actively adopt it as a philosophy. The main reason is that during their education and early careers, each researcher acquires a set of personal preferences for one type of social science over others. This is not just a question of technical skills, but rather an interest in certain topics and a philosophical view of the social world and how it can be analysed.

There are genuine differences between schools of research, from those seeking to involve and empower the people being researched, through to those that regard ‘respondents’ merely as sources of information, and from those that see the social world as intricately interconnected and difficult to ‘know’, to those that concentrate on the generality of patterned associations between small sets of ‘variables’. While not always consciously returning to the complex social theories that underlie their positions, researchers read mainly a sub-set of the literature written by like-minded colleagues, defining research problems in specific ways, and therefore carry out their research using a narrow repertoire of methods.

In some cases, this results only in a rather focused approach, without much concern for other approaches. In others, the intellectual context of the research is strongly associated with a particular method: the context defines what is worth researching, how it should be researched and what order of interpretations can be made. In its more extreme form this results in ritualized denunciation of alternatives often becoming a part of publication. Where some researchers adhere to a ‘standpoint’ position, their intention is an explicitly ideological one which goes beyond just making new discoveries, to the promotion of the interests of one particular group. Challenging other researchers’ methods is one way of undermining the position of rival interest groups (Payne and Payne, 2004: 89-93, 152-7).

Such out-of-hand dismissal because of the type of methods a study has used is a different matter from legitimately debating the competency of its research basis, when that is part of a general evaluation. However, it would be wrong to portray academic life as consisting solely of calm, rational, philosophical debate. Academics also compete for resources (research funding, access to journals, tenured posts, career promotion) in just as determined a way as do people in other walks of life. Attacking the type of research methods used by rivals is one weapon in the struggle between individuals, and institutions, for supremacy.

Not surprisingly, methodological pluralism’s failure to recognize these processes has meant that its call for toleration has largely gone unheeded. For example, in the UK the sociology that has been published in recent years has depended heavily on a narrow range of qualitative methods. A recent study of journal papers found only a minority using quantitative methods: only 2.6 per cent ‘involved bivariate analysis and were written by sociologists at British universities, and only 8 (3.5%) involved multivariate techniques … This can hardly be described as methodological pluralism’ (Payne et al., 2004: 160).

Geoff Payne

Associated Concepts:

Key Readings

Bell, C. and Newby, H. (1977) Doing Sociological Research. London: Allen & Unwin.

Bell, C. and Roberts, H. (eds) (1984) Social Researching. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Payne, G. and Payne, J. (2004) Key Concepts in Social Research. London: Sage.

Payne, G., Dingwall, R., Payne, J. and Carter, M. (1981) Sociology and Social Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Payne, G., Williams, M. and Chamberlain, S. (2004) ‘Methodological pluralism in British sociology’, Sociology, 38 (1): 153-63.

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