methodological pluralism

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During the 1970s sociologists were prone to argue that a long-standing positivistic hegemony in sociology had crumbled, and that the idea that there was one style of social research (underpinned by a unified philosophy of social science and methodology) had given way to the realization that there were many such styles. The positivist orthodoxy was usually associated with the names of Talcott Parsons (leading theorist of functionalism) and Paul Lazarsfeld (principal proponent of so-called abstracted empiricism). The new methodological pluralism was a consequence of the emergence of phenomenological and structuralist sociologies, the fragmentation of Marxism into sectarian neo-Marxisms, and the emergence of philosophical relativism. Some observers employed the alternative terms epistemological pluralism or epistemological anomie to describe the now seemingly normless situation in which many different theories of knowledge or paradigms competed for sociological primacy. One commentator, Paul Feyerabend (Against Method, 1975), argued that, even in the natural sciences, researchers often changed what they were doing and how they did things. They had no single method as such; indeed, successful science demanded that there be no slavish adherence to a single method, but required instead a state of epistemological anarchy. Feyerabend, therefore, declared himself to be against method and in favour of such anarchy.

In large part these various labels are interchangeable. Each implies a rejection of methodological exclusiveness, and each rests on a somewhat misleading contrast with a positivist orthodoxy which never actually existed, since neither functionalism nor abstracted empiricism ever held hegemonic sway over the theory and practice of sociology during the previous period. Marxism, idealism, and symbolic interactionism (to take only the most obvious examples) offered ever-present philosophical and methodological alternatives.

Subjects: Sociology.

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