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D822 Investigating the Social World

Lucy Boxall

TMA02
The notion of theory plays a crucial role in all social science investigations, it is important to first
understand the ideas of scientific theory, in order to assess its limitations and strengths of research
relating to a particular topic. The concept of the Risk Society is a difficult area of research as its
definitions are in constant debate, but this essay will look at risk research, investigating the different
epistemological and methodological approaches that this topic is inherent with. This analysis will
enable my future research to be better informed and aware of possible weaknesses.
To gain an initial understanding of the role theory plays in analysing the Risk Society thesis it
may be useful to summarise the key theorists in this area. Anthony Giddens (1938 - ) and Ulrich
Beck (1944 - ) both echo certain similarities in their approaches, specifically in the rejection of
postmodernism and concerns with structure and agency. They analyse contemporary society at the
structural and action levels, blaming the increase in manufactured risk on science; Science has
become the protector of a global contamination of people and nature. In that
respect, it is no exaggeration to say that in the way they deal with risks in
many areas, the sciences have squandered until further notice their historic
reputation for rationality (Beck, 1992, p.70). With this in mind the two contrasting articles
will now be analysed for their opposing epistemological perspectives and methodological
preferences.
The initial article was chosen for its clear use of quantitative methods; Class or Individual? A
Test of the Nature of Risk Perceptions and the Individualisation Thesis of Risk
Theory (Cebulla, 2007), was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. Due to
the funding element, there may be a bias towards the natural sciences in order to create universal
laws, thus giving an initial idea into the approach of the researcher; The theory of risk
society claims that individualisation has led social class positions to lose their
significance in explaining risk and risk perceptions in late modernity. Using
social survey data from England, this proposition was put to an empirical test
for three types of risks: income loss, accident or illness, and peer customer
service or advice. (Cebulla, 2007). The hypothesis suggests Karl Poppers (1902-92) concept
of falsification is sought, linking in with a positivist view that favours quantitative methods and
testable theories.
The empirical methodology applied to collect this data are quantitative in their scale and data
collection;...using data from a representative population survey conducted in
England in 2004, we explore statistically the extent to which class position and
individualisation affect perceptions and experiences of social risk. (Cebulla,
2007). Methods applied were that of logistic regression analysis of risk perception for 1,400 adults
asked survey questions face to face in their homes, the questions asked require straightforward
answers to generalise to complex theories such as individualisation. The researcher expects an
outcome in line with the hypotheses, due to this it would seem impossible to be truly objective,
which is not addressed. However, the methodological approach here does aim at the creation of
scientific law, possibly to the detriment of acknowledging social factors and subjectivity.
The inequality of security: Winners and Losers in the risk society by Marianne
Cooper (2008) presents the other side of methodology, and therefore one would assume, of
epistemology; Drawing on a qualitative study of 89 workers who are members of
50 socioeconomically diverse families...examining how an individuals social
class background influences both their level of exposure to risk and their ability
to navigate through the risk society (Cooper, 2008). The methods applied are

D822 Investigating the Social World

Lucy Boxall

qualitative, with the use of in-depth ethnographic research conducted with five families, over a twoyear period. This possibly shows a more encompassing and complex approach to Cebulla, taking
into account the unobservable. In contrast to the application of logistic regression, the
methodological framework applied is that of Bordieu (1977, 1990) which presents a focus on
structure and agency; ...derived from his dynamic conceptualization of the
relationship between structure and agency (Cooper, 2008).
Cebulla is attempting to link the social with the natural sciences, objectivity is sought, assuming a
detachment from the object of study, and the situatedness of the research is not acknowledged,
suggesting simplification of reality. While the second article by Cooper clearly embraces the
inevitability of subjectivity, with the researchers own values and interpretations present throughout
the conclusions drawn, being involved with the participants; ...the capitals at Angela
Barbiaris disposal are not as harmonious with a society moving away from
collective structures and towards a model of self-provisioning (Cooper, 2008).
Cebullas methodology is clear in the aim to create a closed system in order to achieve results
that can be falsified, and applied as scientific law. This was sought through experimental closure;
Identifying variables that were conceptually suitable for measuring the extent
to which individuals were still embedded in social networks...presented a
considerable challenge. In the end we were able to rely on one survey
question (Cebulla, 2007). However many social scientists would argue that social experiments
can never be completely controlled, and that Cebullas method is too simplistic generalising from
one survey question, Cooper accepts an open system and studies at one level; the particular
subject, not aiming to control the variables present.
Although assumptions cannot be made on the theoretical perspectives of these researchers purely
on the basis of their choice of methods, the differing ontologies and the questions asked provide a
deeper view. Cebulla presents a broader approach than the use of methods would suggest, with a
focus on class and individualisation; ...expect indicators measuring individualisation
to exert a defining influence on risk perceptions and that this influence is
stronger than that of social class position (2007). While Cooper seems to have a
different idea of knowledge questioning individuals backgrounds and life experiences; ...life
history case studies of two workers in different structural locations to highlight
different capitals...and shows how structural positions and cultural
dispositions interact over time influencing future levels of inequality (2008).
The differing use of methodologies indicate opposing epistemological perspectives, but it is
necessary to analyse the possible theoretical approaches, using key information from the researchers
conclusions and the methodological analysis. Cebullas approach, favouring empiricism to
formulate causal relations and create a testable hypothesis shows strong links to the theory of
positivism. While Coopers research methodologies presents a more complex theoretical basis,
possibly realism.
Assumptions of positivism are reflected in Cebullas research through a desire to relate to
scientific methods and explain reality through ascertaining scientific laws. Cumulativeness is also
sought in aiming to create a closed system and control experimental variables, while starting with
falsifiable hypothesis. The language used also reflects the natural sciences; The stronger the
influence of individualisation should result in a higher statistical significance of
indicators of individualisation than of class position when used to predict
perceptions of risk. (Cebulla, 2007). Ontology is not a key concern, the conclusions drawn
and the understanding sought being limited to observable measures. Here value freedom of the
researcher is sought, suggested through Cebullas methodology, with the only conclusions drawn

D822 Investigating the Social World

Lucy Boxall

based on direct observation, however the epistemology cannot be completely drawn from the
methodology.
As with limitations of the standard positivist approach, there are clearly key weaknesses to
Cebullas research, one being that all observers would interpret the data in the same way. However,
Cebulla does seem to progress from the positivist methodologies used, and in concluding becomes
more aware of the situatedness and the importance of factors outside of immediate observation;
Social and economic changes in late modernity have undermined many
truths and beliefs that, a few generations earlier, had still been taken for
granted. (Cebulla, 2007). In this particular area, the two researchers move closer towards similar
epistemologies, with interpretation involving belief systems.
The methods used by Cebulla are detached and focus on the notion of statistical probability, but
the questions themselves suggest a differing epistemological view into what the researcher classes
as knowledge. Positivists aim to provide an impartial way of measuring the scale of a phenomena,
factors, such as class can be weighed to assess their importance to the subject. This seems to link
in with the key questions of the article, but in researching risk and individualisation, the researcher
is automatically drawn into questions of social structures and bonds, and the acknowledgement of
values moves away from Positivism; When class did not appear to affect risk
perceptions, the effect of value orientations was the strongest (Cebulla, 2007).
Collective identities previously captured by class, but also gender and family
relations, are being replaced by a value system of individualisation; here
Cebullas conclusions link to personal values and social ties, this is very much against strict
positivism with fuzzy social science concepts being meaningless and not worthy of study. Many
would disagree with this but use applications of positivism to search for causal relationships and
provide a basis for universal laws. With this is mind the theoretical approach may have progressed
from positivism to take on neo-kantian idealism, with an idiographic approach focusing on small
scale study with no attempt to generalise, explaining the quantitative study of only 1400 to be
representative of England. The study of values with no clear separation from facts suggests Cebulla
may aim to predict general patterns, using empirical methodology to explain reality.
Links to interactionism could be possible through the methodologies of both articles, being the
only aspect where the two relate, with hints of limiting ontology to individuals concepts and ideas,
focusing on beliefs and meanings. Interactionist use of empirical evidence in order to test theories
may also relate to Cebullas quantitative methods, but neither article is irretrievably linked to this
approach. In contrast to Cebulla, Cooper does not aim for the formation of scientific laws, moving
away from the natural sciences and embracing subjectivity; The sample in this study is not
intended to be a representative one, rather it was selected to provide a diverse
range of viewpoints and subjective understandings (Cooper, 2008). However, a
weakness to this is the assumption of definitions, assuming they mean the same to everyone, and
that conclusions drawn would be the same for everyone, an inherent problem of subjectivity.
Although there are links to idealism through the methodologies present in Coopers research, that
of ethnographic research against the empirical basis to knowledge, it is clear that the strongest
indicator is the situatedness of the research. Cooper presents a realist epistemological approach
through accepting unobservable phenomena, seeing the task of science to understand dimensions of
a complex reality through objects and structures; ...how structural position and cultural
disposition interact over time and how this interaction relates to the withdrawel
of the public safety net and to inequality more generally (Cooper, 2008).

D822 Investigating the Social World

Lucy Boxall

The approach here is essentially untestable with an open mind to research methods in order to
develop a credible theory, in complete contrast to the initial article. By focusing on structure,
different criteria for causality than empiricism are identified, not looking at regularities to develop
scientific laws; ...show impact that class has on ways of navigating privatized risk
as clear relationships existing between these ways and the disposition and
resources held by different workers (Cooper, 2008). The emphasis here is not on
scientific causality, but the link between structure and agency, Cooper is looking at meaningful
social interactions.
While Cebullas research aims for scientific laws, realism is emancipatory, and Coopers
conclusions focus on inequality, aiming to transform social structures; ...changes in work and
increases in equality are likely to be intensifying class variation in the lived
experience of risk and in the means of coping with it (Cooper, 2008). Present in the
key questions asked and the conclusions drawn it is clear that the ontological perspective of the
research is more closely linked to the social rather than the initial article with empiricism.
In conclusion, from a personal perspective Coopers realist approach seems more fitting to the
research into risk; These findings provide a more complicated picture of the risk
society than those that view it as either universally good or universally bad,
and those that tend to assume we are all exposed to the same risks and
respond to such risks in the same way (Cooper, 2008). Both articles clearly present
differing epistemological perspectives predominately through their methodologies; Cebulla looking
for causal relations to generalise as scientific laws, and Cooper looking at subjective ideas with a
goal of social emancipation. This is suggestive of differing ontologies, although this is expected
considering epistemology and ontology are inextricably linked.
The very nature of research is reflexive, and the articles suggest they are strongly influenced by
past researchers, Cebulla with standard positivism. With relation to the risk society thesis, it is
obvious that Coopers approach echos that of the traditional risk theorists, although to some extent
positivist aspects are present in risk perspectives with cognitive and learning approaches falling into
this category; Most technical and scientific theories of risk are categorised as
realist in their equation of risks with objectively existing hazards, an approach
that implies that it is possible to distinguish between real and imaginary
sources of risk (Taylor-Gooby & Zinn, 2006).

Bibliography

D822 Investigating the Social World

Lucy Boxall

Beck, U. (1992) Risk society: towards a new modernity, (1st edn) London, Sage.
Cebulla, A. (2007) Class or Individual? A Test of the Nature of Risk Perceptions and the
Individualisation Thesis of Risk Society Theory, Journal of Risk Research, Vol. 10, No. 2. pp.
129. doi:1366-9877 (Accessed 28th May 2010)
Cooper, M. (2008) The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society, Human
Relations, Vol. 61, No. 9. pp. 1229-1258. doi:10.1177/0018726708094911 (Accessed 2nd June
2010)
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern
Age, (1st edn) Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.
Taylor-Gooby, P. and Zinn, J. (2006) Risk in Social Science, (1st edn) United States, OUP
Oxford.