The limits of quantitative research in social sciences

“If there is no net force on an object, then its velocity is constant. The object is either at rest (if its velocity is equal to zero), or it moves with constant speed in a single direction“. First Newton law

The mastering of the so called “law-like generalizations” (Saunders et at, 2009) produced within natural science as the above example, as well as the supremacy of the way of thinking using reason that give the name to the so called Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) would eventually influence the development of social science in the 19th century.

Such authors as Auguste Comte would claim that only phenomena that you can observe will lead to the production of credible data. Like natural science does. Emile Durkheim´s theory on suicide exemplifies very well this idea. Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. In other words, suicide may be explained by a number of social laws.

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do Durkheim and Newton´s laws have in common? Both establish causal relationships between variables and both try to explain the reality (society and nature respectively): net force/velocity relationship on the one hand and the religion culture/suicide rate one on the other.

Many law-like generalizations have their precedent in suicide Durkheim theory. We all listen to statements based on this principal in media every day, e.g. “the more an employee earns the more satisfied is at work”, “the more economically advanced is a country the low is the birth rate in the world” This philosophy, so called positivism, is actually the essence of the quantitative approach in research. Furthermore, many of today´s decision making are based on this philosophy. Human resources management is often based on such relationships. “High productivity rates mean that one employee is working hard. For this reason, the manager decides to increase his salary“. It is simple common sense, isn´t it?

But, does relationship implies causality? Something like that must have wordered Max Weber at the turn of 20th century, who is considered one of the founders of antipositivism philosophy and, therefore of the qualitative approach. As Business Week’s Vali Chandrasekaran writes, “Correlation may not imply causation”. Although pretentious, the bellow graphic illustrates very well this argument. “Is facebook driving the Greek debt crisis?” Hopefully you already know better which way the wind is blowing regarding the limits of quantitative research.etc_correlation50__01__960

Max Weber Català: Max Weber al 1894

Max Weber Català: Max Weber al 1894 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moreover, Max Weber argued that the relationships of human “social action” might be spurious. As an antipositivist, making generalizations are not the essence of social research. It does not mean that one should not seek relationships between variables, but there is no reason to do law-like generalization. The emphasis is place, on the contrary, on obtaining a more accurate understanding of the phenomena under study. As well as positivist philosophy is the essence of the quantitative approach, the antipositivist one is the essence of qualitative.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Chandrasekaran , Vali  (2011, December 1). Correlation or Causation?. Retrieved from

Lewis, P., Saunders, M. N. K., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Research methods for business students Pearson.

Mella, O. (1998). Naturaleza y orientaciones teórico-metodológicas de la investigación cualitativa. Santiago: CIDE, 51.

1 thought on “The limits of quantitative research in social sciences


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