Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences

Winter School in Bamberg

ECPR ­(European Consortium for Political Research) is well known for its methods schools each summer and winter gathering not only political scientists, but also researchers and students of other disciplines, including sociology, anthropology and history. ‘Good research requires a solid methodology’ is the underlying slogan of the school where this March I’ve participated in a week-long course Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences.

Sabina Kubekė in Bamberg

It was one intellectually intensive week in Bamberg with a focus on different methodologies and their impact on the results of any research. As the course instructor prof. Frederic Schaffer highlighted on the first class, while usually researches know the difference between a method and a methodology, it is the former that typically gets much more attention in any academic piece of work. However, whilst missing the reflection on methodology, we as scientists might also miss to challenge ourselves with the question, what assumptions we take as given together with a choice of any method. Or to put it in other words, the important question is if we understand what aspects of a phenomena we cease to see when choosing one or another methodology. Therefore, the most useful takeaway of the week in Bamberg was to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the two main methodologies – positivist and interpretivist approaches. Both of them we discussed in detail and with lots of examples every day in the class.

While the positivist approach focuses on the neutral vocabulary to reconstruct the concepts and its properties, the interpretivist approach assumes that the social reality cannot be understood apart from the language people use and the meanings they share. In this way the interpretivist approach shows that although the positivist way to work with concepts tries to combat vagueness and ambiguity, it actually falls into the trap of one-sidedness, universalism and instead of being value-free actually imposes a biased view of a phenomena.

Reflections upon the basic assumptions of the concept of sustainability

During the course we discussed those strengths and flaws using our own chosen concepts we work in our different researches including terrorism, politician, compliance, development and many more. Every day working with our own particular concepts made me to reflect deeply upon the basic assumptions of the concept of sustainability: How do I reconstruct the concept and what properties I do have in mind? What methodology is suited the best to answer the questions I have in my research? Which strategy of interpretivist approach could I use in my own research? The main lesson we all took away after a week was that different methodologies answer different questions, so we have to choose the one which helps us to find out what we want. Moreover, thinking about their essential differences helps to determine their boundaries, as well as of any particular research.

Bamberg, Tagungsort der Winter School
„Altes Rathaus“ Bamberg

I have also to mention that all of this intensive work was accompanied by evening walks in an extremely beautiful old town of Bamberg which in included in the UNESCO heritage list. Similarly to Marburg, Bamberg is also a medieval town with lots of narrow winding streets, however, the catholic traditions makes it also very different in terms of its architecture and colours. It makes the learning very esthetic!

Sabina Kubekė M.A.

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