Social Science Approaches to People in Organizations

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  • 0:00 Social Science in…
  • 1:01 Nominal Vs. Realism
  • 2:30 Anti-Positivism Vs. Positivism
  • 4:02 Voluntarism Vs. Determinism
  • 5:26 Ideographic Vs. Nomothetic
  • 6:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Social science research looks at the way people work in organizations. In this lesson, we'll examine the various approaches to studying human behavior and focus on the four major debates in the field.

Social Sciences in Organizations

Mark is interested in how people work within organizations. In particular, he's wondering about people of color and women in the workforce. He's heard a lot about racism and sexism within different organizations and wants to find out more; but he's stuck on the question of how he should do his research.

Mark is interested in organizational psychology and sociology, which are about studying how people work within an organizational structure. Whether it's a company, or a government entity, or another organization, organizational psychology and sociology look at how the organization influences the people in it, and vice versa.

Both psychology and sociology are part of the social sciences, and there are different ways to approach studying people and organizations in the social sciences. To help Mark figure out how to study the issues he's thinking about, let's take a look at a few of the disagreements in approach.

Nominal vs. Realism

If Mark wants to study a topic like racism or sexism within organizations, he'll first have to figure out how he thinks about reality. If that sounds odd, just stay with this idea for a moment. In the social sciences, one disagreement about how to study people involves nominalism and realism. Nominalism is the belief that nothing really exists outside individuals' perceptions and understandings. In contrast, realism is the belief that there are real-world structures that exist, whether we see and experience them or not.

To help clarify, let's look at one of the issues Mark is interested in. Many people believe that organizations often run into institutional racism, which involves subtle ways that organizations are set up to disadvantage people of color. To nominalists, institutional racism is in the eye of the beholder. If no one in an institution feels like they are discriminated against because of their race, then institutional racism does not exist. A realist, though, would say that institutional racism exists whether we acknowledge it or not.

Nominalism versus realism is often referred to as an ontological debate because it is about the way things are, which is what ontology means; so whether Mark is a nominalist or realist, he's making an ontological decision about the world, which will color the way he does his research.

Anti-positivism vs. Positivism

Whatever Mark decides about the ontological debate, he still has other approaches to decide on. Another major debate in the social sciences is known as the epistemological debate because it is about knowledge and understanding, which is what epistemology looks at.

The two sides in the epistemological debate are positivism and anti-positivism. Positivism is about studying patterns in human behavior to try to determine general laws or trends in how people interact in organizations. Positivists try to predict human behavior based on what most people do in that situation. Anti-positivism, on the other hand, is the belief that it is impossible to predict behavior or make laws about how people will act because everything is dependent on what this specific person will do in this specific situation.

Again, let's look at Mark's interest in how race influences people within organizations. He's heard about something called stereotype threat, which makes it more likely that people of color will do poorly in work or school if they are reminded about stereotypes of their race. Positivists would point out that many studies have shown that stereotype threat causes performance anxiety and decreases performance in most people of color. Anti-positivists, on the other hand, will say that people will react differently to stereotypes each time they are presented with them. Each individual and each scenario is special, and therefore a theory like stereotype threat isn't helpful.

Voluntarism vs. Determinism

Wow. Mark's head is already spinning with the different approaches to social science research; but there are a couple of others left, so stick with us, Mark!

Next up is what's known as the human nature debate, which is (unsurprisingly) about human nature. Specifically, this debate looks at how much control humans have over their behaviors. Voluntarism says that humans behave the way they do because they have free will. They voluntarily act the way they do, hence the name voluntarism. On the other end of the spectrum, there's determinism, which says that our actions are dictated by outside forces. Specifically, determinism says that we will behave certain ways because of situational factors.

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