Like photographers, who may use a wide angle or close up and may take the same object from different standpoints and the individual photographer might be known for his style, social scientists usually are committed to specific paradigms. Paradigms are very specific perspectives to look on societies, they can consist of numerous theories.
We can distinguish three principal paradigms within social sciences: the paradigm of social order, of social action and of distributions.
A) The paradigm of social order.
Talcott Parsons, one of the giants of sociology, took this label from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In his pre-sociological book from the 17th century, Hobbes deals with the question, how society was set into being. He postulated that people entered a contract where they gave the power to an almighty Leviathan, the state, which guarantees safety and security in return. Since then social researchers have dealt with the problem of social order. They have dealt with the question how society works and keeps together. In modern diction, the endeavor was to analyze the structure of society (consisting of social norms and social roles) and the functions of societal systems like the family. Today modern system theories are committed contributing to the solution of the problem of social order.
This paradigm was most influential in family research. No wonder, I would say. Family can be seen as an entity, members have strong bindings, they form a social group, they frequently meet each other face to face, live together, have strong emotional bondings and well-defined socials roles (mother, father, and child for instance). For answering questions like: what holds the family together, as well as what destroys them, looking at structures and functions was – and still is – most attractive. So, whenever you hear of family roles, norms or values most of the time the research is placed within this paradigm.
B) The paradigm of social action.
It focusses on the individual, be it as a rational actor (in so-called rational choice theories) or seen more entirely as an actor with emotions, ideas, full of meanings and interpretations of reality and acting according to them. Researchers in this paradigm study how actors construct societies, how they interact, establish or change social reality. It is not a question what different definitions of roles for mother or father exist, it is more a question how these roles are performed and thus constructed and lived. Concepts and theories of doing family, family practices, biographical studies, case studies as well as models of rational choice actions characterize this paradigm.
C) The paradigm of distributions
The third paradigm I call the paradigm of distributions. Frankly, I have no better idea to name it, as it is not an established label. Some might understand it better when speaking of an empirical approach, but this would be too exclusive a name as empirical research is done in all paradigms. In family studies this paradigm deals with the plurality of families, thus it might also be called paradigm of plurality.
No matter how you call it, the main intention of this paradigm is to describe the social reality. The distribution of and the correlation between variables characterizes the studies. The focus is on statistics. This paradigm has as underlying questions: „how many?“ and „What?“. How many family forms are there? What family forms exist? How many people form a family? How many generations are living together? How much do family members support each other? How many people out of which family forms perform better in live? How many divorces, marriages, births occur in a society? How much do people earn? How many persons contribute to the income in a family? In what way? And so on, and so on. Numerous questions are asked, numerous correlations are found. It shows how the variables under research are connected with each other from two variables connections to multiple systemic networks in multivariate analysis. Thoroughly defined variables and especially representativeness are core quality criteria in this approach.
Most studies using statistics are placed in the last paradigm, but not all. Rational Choice models work with quantitative data but belong to the second paradigm as do a lot of in-depth qualitative studies. Finally, studies which test hypothesis stemming from a systemic view on society might be classified as belonging to the first paradigm.
Here are exemplary research questions for these paradigms:
How have family roles changed? This question could be best answered and explained referring to the structural-functional approach, the first paradigm.
How do women and men interact as fathers and mothers? This would be an excellent question for the second paradigm.
How many children do parents get at what age? This is a typical question for the third paradigm.
As the paradigms have different goals: a) show order, b) show action or c) show distribution they use specific approaches to reach those results: quantification, in-depth analysis, multivariate models, theoretical systematization as creating typologies.
This should help to categorize the studies I presented here and to understand the different standpoints of the researchers.