“Sociology cannot and should not be a science”. To what extent do sociological arguments and evidence support this view?
Sociologists such as Auguste Comte (1798) are impressed by science in explaining the natural world. These sociologists are called positivists. Positivists believe it’s possible to apply methods of natural sciences in study of society and by doing so we gain true and objective knowledge of the same type found in natural sciences. This provides a basis for progress and solving social problems. Positivists argue reality exists outside and independently of the human mind. They argue nature is made up of objective, observable, physical facts that are external to our minds. Similarly society is an objective reality – a real thing made up of social facts out there and independent to individuals.
Positivists argue reality is not random but patterned and can be observed empirically. It’s the job of the sociologist to observe, identify, measure and record patterns and then to explain them. Durkheim argues laws are discoverable and will explain patterns. Sociologists can discover laws that determine how society works; this is called induction or inductive reasoning. This involves accumulating data about the world through observation and measurement. As knowledge grows we begin to see patterns.
From this we can develop a theory that explains observations. After more observations verify the theory we can claim to have discovered the truth in the form of a general law. This approach is called verificationism. Positivists argue the patterns we observe, in nature and society can be explained in the same way by finding facts that caused them. Positivist sociologists thus seek to discover causes of patterns they observe. Like natural scientists they aim to produce general statements or scientific laws about how society works which can be used to predict the future and advise social policy. Positivists favour structural explanations such as functionalism and Marxism as they see society and its structures as social facts existing outside us and shape our behaviour patterns.
Positivists believe sociology should take the experimental method used in natural sociology for the model of research as it allows the investigator to test the hypothesis in a controlled way. Positivists use quantitative data to uncover measure patterns of behaviour allowing them to produce mathematically precise statements about relationships between facts their investigating. By analysing quantitative data positivists seek to discover laws of cause and effect that determine our behaviour. Positivist’s researchers should be detached and objective and now let subjective feeling influence the way they conduct experiments. In natural sciences its claimed scientist’s values make no difference to outcome of research. However in sociology there’s a danger of the researcher of contaminating the experiment. Positivists thus employ methods to allow maximum objectivity and thus use quantitative methods. These methods also produce reliable data that can be checked by other researchers repeating the experiment.
To show that sociology was a science with its own distinctive subject matter Durkheim chose to study suicide. He believed if he could show this highly individual act had social causes it would establish sociology’s status as a scientific discipline. Using quantitative data from official statistics Durkheim observed patterns in suicide rates. Rates for Protestants were higher then Catholics, thus he concluded patterns could not be the products of motives of individuals, but were social facts. Thus they must be caused by other social facts – forces acting on members of society to determine their behaviour. Durkheim argues the social facts responsible for determining suicide rates were levels of integration and regulation. As Catholics were more successful of integrating individuals they were less likely to commit suicide. Thus Durkheim claims to have discovered a real law, that different levels of integration produce different suicide rates. He claimed to have demonstrated that sociology had its own unique subject matter, social facts, and they can be explained scientifically. Thus positivists disagree with the statement that sociology cannot and should not be a science.
Interpretivist sociologists however do not believe sociology should model itself on the natural sciences. Interpretivist criticise positivists scientific approach as inadequate for the study of human beings.
Interpreitvists argue the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action, and we can only understand it by interpreting meanings and motives of actors involved. They argue sociology is about internal meanings and not external causes. Sociology isn’t a science because science only deals with laws of cause and effect and not human meanings. Thus they reject the use of natural science methods and explanations as a model for sociology. They argue there’s a fundamental difference between subject matter of the sciences and sociology. Natural science studies matter which has no consciousness. Thus behaviour can be explained as a straightforward reaction to external stimuli. Sociology studies people who have consciousness. People construct the world by attaching meanings to it. Actions can only be understood by these meanings and meanings are internal to people’s consciousness, they are ideas or constructs, not things. Unlike matter people have free will and have choice. Mead argues responding automatically to external stimuli humans interpret the meaning of stimulus and then choose how to respond to it. For example at a red light the driver interprets it as stop, though they don’t have to stop, and external forces don’t determine their behaviour. Thus Interpretivist argues individuals are not puppets manipulated by social facts but they are autonomous and construct their social world by meanings they give to it. The job of the sociologist is to uncover those meanings.
Interpretivists reject the methods of natural science. They argue to discover meanings people give to their actions we need to see the world from their viewpoint. This involves abandoning objectivity of positivists. We must put ourselves in the place of the actor using what Weber calls verstehen. Thus they favour the use of qualitative methods and data such as participant observation. These methods produce in depth and valid data and give the sociologist a subjective understanding of the actor’s meanings.
All interpretivists seek to understand actors meanings, however divided whether or not we can combine this understanding with positivist style casual explanation of human behaviour. Interactionists argue we can have casual explanations. However they reject the positivist view that we should have a definite hypothesis before we start our research. Glaser and Strauss (1968) argue it risks imposing our own view of what is important rather than the actors, so we end up distorting the reality we’re trying to capture. Glaser and Strauss favour a bottom up approach, or grounded theory. Rather than entering research with a fixed hypothesis at the start, our ideas should emerge from observations during the course of the research. These ideas can later be used to produce a testable hypothesis. Phenomenologist’s and ethno methodologists such as Garfinkel reject causal explanations of human behaviour. They take an anti structuralism view arguing society isn’t a real thing out there governing our actions. Social reality is simply the shard meanings or knowledge of members, thus society is not an external force but exists only in people’s consciousness thus the subject matter of sociology can only consist of interpretive procedures by which people make sense of the world. As peoples actions are not governed by external causes there’s no possibility of cause and effect explanation of the kind sought by positivists.
Interactionist Jack Douglas (1967) rejects the positivist idea of external social facts determining our behaviour. Individuals have free will and choose to act on basis of meanings. Thus to uncover suicide we must uncover meanings for those involved instead of imposing our own meanings. Douglas rejects Durkheim’s use of quantitative data from official statistics. They’re not objective facts but social constructions resulting from the way coroners label certain deaths as suicide Douglas argues we should use qualitative data from case studies of suicides since they can reveal actors meanings and give us a better idea of the real rate of suicide than the official statistics. Maxwell Atkinson (1978) rejects the idea that external social facts determine behaviour and agrees statistics are socially constructed. However unlike Douglas, Atkinson argues we can never know the real rate of suicide by even using qualitative methods since we can never know for sure what meanings the deceased held. Atkinson argues the only thing we can study is the ways the living make sense of deaths – the interpretive procedures coroners use to classify deaths. Ethno methodologists argue members of society have a stock of taken for granted assumptions with which they make sense of situations, including deaths. The sociologist’s role is to uncover what this knowledge is and how coroners use it to arrive at a verdict.
Postmodernists argue against the idea of a scientific sociology. They regard natural science as a meta-narrative. Despite the claim to have special action to the truth, science is another big story; its account of the world is no more valid than any other. Thus there’s no particular reason why we should adopt science as a model for sociology. Given the postmodernist view that there are as many different truths as there are points of view, a scientific approach is dangerous as it can claim a monopoly of truth and exclude other points of view. Thus scientific sociology not only makes false claims about the truth it’s also a form of domination. Feminists, such as post structural feminists share this view of scientific sociology. They argue the quest for a single scientific feminist theory is a form of domination as it excludes groups of women. Other feminists argue the quantitative scientific methods favoured by positivists are oppressive and cannot capture the reality of women’s experiences. Some writers argue that science is an undesirable model for sociology to follow as in practice science has not led to the progress that positivists believe it would. For example the emergence of risk society, with scientifically created dangers such as nuclear weapons and global warming, has undermined the idea that science inevitably brings benefits to human kind. If science produces such negative consequences it’s argued it would be inappropriate for sociology to adopt it as a model.
Although the interpretivists reject the positivist view that sociology is a science they tend to agree with positivists that natural sciences are actually as the positivists describe them. Positivists see natural science as inductive reasoning or verificationism applied to the study of observable patterns. However not everyone accepts the positivists portrayal of the natural sciences. A number of sociologists, philosophers and historians put forward a different picture of science.
Sir Karl Popper (1994) argues many systems of thought claim to have true knowledge about the world such as religion, political and scientific ideology Popper asks what distinguishes scientific knowledge and why has science grown so quickly in the last few centuries.
Popper differs from positivists in that he rejects their view that the distinctive feature of science lies in inductive reasoning and verificationism. The main reason why we should reject verificationism is because of the “fallacy of induction”. Induction is the process of moving from the observation of particular instances of something to arrive at a general statement. Popper uses swans to demonstrate this. By observing a large number of white swans, he generalised that all swans are white. It’s easy to make further observations to verify this. However despite how many swans we observe we cannot prove all swans are white as a single observation of a black swan will destroy the theory. Thus we can never prove a theory true simply by producing more observations that verify this.
Popper argues what makes science unique form of knowledge is the opposite of verificationism, a principle called falsificationism. A scientific statement is one that in principle is capable of being falsified by the evidence. We must be able to say what evidence would count as falsifying the statement when we come to put it to the test. Popper argues a good theory has two features. It’s in principle falsifiable but when tested it stands up to attempts to disprove it. It is also bold; it claims to explain a great deal. It makes generalisations that predict a large number of cases, thus is at greater risk of being falsified then a more timid theory that explains a small number of events.
For a theory to be falsifiable it must be open to criticism from other scientists. Popper argues science is a public activity. Everything is open to criticism thus flaws in a theory can be readily exposed and better theories developed. Popper explains this is why science has grown so rapidly. Popper argues science thrives in open or liberal societies, societies where ideas are open and open to challenge. Contrastingly closed societies are dominated by an official belief system that claims to have absolute truth. Such belief systems stifle growth of science as they conflict with the nature of science.
Popper argues much of sociology is unscientific because it consists of theories that can’t be put to the test with the possibility they can’t be falsified. For example Marxists predict there will be a revolution leading to a classless society however it hasn’t happened because of false consciousness. Thus the theory can’t be falsified as in all cases, Marx is always right. However popper believes sociology can be scientific as it can produce theories that in principle can be falsified. Julienne Ford (1969) hypothesised the comprehensive schooling would produce social mixing of pupils from different social classes. She was able to test and falsify this hypothesis through her empirical research. Although popper rejects Marxism as unscientific because it’s untestable, he doesn’t believe untestable ideas are worthless. Such ideas are valued as they become testable at a later date and we can still examine them for logistical consistency. For example debates between different sociological perspectives can clarify woolly thinking and help formulate a testable hypothesis. While sociology may have a larger quantity of untestable ideas then the natural sciences, this may be because it’s not been in existence as long as natural science has.
Thomas Kuhn (1970) idea is the paradigm. A paradigm is shared by members of a given scientific community and defines what their science is. It provides a basic framework of assumptions, principles, methods and techniques within which members of that community work. It is a world view that tells scientists what nature is like, which aspects are worth studying, what methods should be used, what kind of questions they should ask and even the sorts of answers they should find. The paradigm is thus a set of norms as it tells the scientist how they ought to think. Scientists come to accept the paradigm uncritically as a result of their socialisation. Kuhn argues a science cannot exist without a shared paradigm. Until there’s consensus on a single paradigm, there will only be rival schools of thought, not a science as such.
For the most of the time the paradigm goes unquestioned and scientists do what Kuhn calls normal science which is like puzzle solving. The paradigm defines the questions and the answers. Scientists are left to fill in detail or work out the neatest solution. Kuhn argues the advantage of the paradigm is that it allows scientists to agree on the basics of their field and helps production. This contrasts with poppers view of science. John Watkins (1970) argues while popper sees falsification as a unique feature of science, Kuhn argues its puzzle solving within a paradigm that makes science so special.
However not all puzzle solving is successful. Sometimes scientists obtain findings contrary to those the paradigm led them to expect. As these anomalies mount up confidence in the paradigm begins to decline and this leads to the argument about basic assumptions and to efforts to reformulate the paradigm so as to account for the anomalies. The science has now entered a period of crisis. Previously taken for granted foundations are questioned. Scientists begin to formulate rival paradigms and this marks the start of the scientific revolution. Kuhn argues rival paradigms are incommensurable; two competing paradigms cannot be judged or measured by the same set of standards to decide which ones best. What supporters of one paradigm regard as a decisive refutation of the other, supporters of the rival paradigm will not recognise as a valid test, as each paradigm is a different way of seeing the world. To move from one to the other requires a massive shift of mindset. Eventually one paradigm wins and becomes accepted by the scientific community, allowing normal science to resume, however with a new set of basic assumptions. However the process is not rational. Kuhn compares it with religious conversion. Generally the new paradigm gets support from younger scientists as they have less to lose then older superiors. Kuhn’s view of scientific community contrasts with popper. Popper argues the scientific community is open and rational, constantly seeking to falsify exiting theories by producing evidence against them. Progress occurs by challenging accepted ideas. Kuhn argues by contrast the scientific community is not normally characterised by openness. Most of the time during normal science scientists is conformists. Only during scientific revolution does this change. Even then scientists have no rational means of choosing one paradigm rather than another.
Currently sociology is pre paradigmatic and thus pre scientific, divided into competing perspectives. There’s now shared paradigm. On Kuhn’s definition sociology could only become a science if basic disagreements were resolved. Whether this is possible is a doubt. Postmodernists argue a paradigm may not be desirable in sociology. It sounds like a meta-narrative. Post modernists argue it silences minority views and it falsely claims to have the truth.
A third view from science comes from the realist approach. Russell Keat and John Urry (1982) stress similarities between sociology and natural science such as degree of control for the researcher. They distinguish between open and closed systems. Closed systems are where the researcher can control and measure all the relevant variables and can make precise predictions. The typical research method is a laboratory. Open systems are those where the researcher can’t control and measure relevant variables and thus cannot make precise predictions. Realists argue that sociologists study open systems where the processes are too complex to make exact predictions. For example we cannot predict the crime rate precisely as there are too many variables involved, most of which cannot be controlled, measured or identified.
Realists reject the positivist view that science is only concerned with observable phenomena. Keat and Urry argue science often assumes the existence of unobservable structures. Realists argue this also means interpretivists are wrong in assuming sociology can’t be scientific. Interpretivists believe because of actors meanings are in their minds and not directly observable they cannot be studied scientifically. However if realists are correct and science can study observable phenomena then it’s no barrier to study meaning scientifically. For realists both natural and social science attempt to explain the causes of events in terms of underlying structures and processes. Although these structures are often unobservable we can work out they exist by observing their effects. For example we cannot directly see social class but we can observe effects. Thus much sociology is scientific. Thus unlike interpretivists realists see little difference between natural sciences and sociology, except natural scientists can study in closed laboratories.
In conclusion, sociologists are divided about whether sociology is a science. While positivists favour adopting natural sciences as a model interpretivists reject the view that sociology can be scientific. This division is based in the disagreement of the nature of sociology and subject matter. Positivists see sociology as the study of causes. Social facts cause individuals to behave as they do. Positivists see this as the same as the natural sciences approach, to discover the causes of patterns they observe. Interpretivists see sociology the study of meaningful social action. Internal meanings are why actors behave the way they do. Human actions are not governed by external causes thus cannot be studied the same way as natural sciences. However while positivists and interpretivists disagree about whether sociology can be a science they both accept the positivist view of natural sciences of verificationism. Different pictures of science have emerged, having implications for sociology. Popper rejects verificationism in favour of falsificationism, thus much sociology is unscientific but has the potential to b e so. Kuhn argues sociology can only become a science if it develops its own paradigm. Realists argue science doesn’t only deal with observable phenomena as positivists argue but underlying unobservable structures. Thus Marxism and interpteivism can be seen as scientific.
Filed under SociologyTagged with comte, feminism, functionalism, interpretivsm, kuhn, laws, marxism, max weber, paradigms, popper, positivism, post modernism, realism, science, sociology, suicide, verstehen
Introduction There is a general consensus understanding that natural science produces true knowledge of the world, which can be used to help us improve the way we live.There is still a debate about whether or not it is possible or desirable for sociology to use the natural science model. Signpost: This essay will be assessing different contributions to the debate of sociology and science.
Positivism- Sociology can and should be a science Society exists’ outside the human mind, and is constructed of patterns. Favour macro-structural theories. Should use inductive reasoning to explain these patterns, involving collecting data through careful observation and measurement. Use quant methods, which are reliable and highly objectivity, to prevent researcher bias. Durkheim- studied suicide to prove that even such a personal act has social causes. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to use the scientific approach to study science, since it has previously had negative consequences on the world.
Interpretavism- Sociology can’t and shouldn’t be a science The subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action. Fundamental difference between the subject matter of science and of sociology, in that humans have consicousnesses. Research should see the world from the actor’s viewpoint, using verstehen. Use quant methods, which are highly valid. Douglas- studied suicide to prove that even such a personal act doesn’t have social causes. Sociology therefore does have its own subject matter, so can’t be explained scientifically.
Popper- Sociology can and should be a science Uses falsification to prove a theory, referring to the ability to prove a hypothesis to be wrong by evidence. All science is provision, meaning there is never absolute truth. A good theory isn’t necessarily true, but one which has withstood attempts to falsify it. At the moment sociology is unscientific, because it relies on unobservable phenomenon and theories which can’t be falsified. If sociology produces testable hypothesises, it can be scientific.
Kuhn- Sociology can be a science Sociology is pre-paradigmatic, since it is divided into many conflicting theories and there isn't one overriding theory. Sociology can only be a science is one single paradigm is established. In reality, this many not be possible because there has always been huge disagreement. Postmodernists argue that a paradigm in sociology wouldn’t be desirable, since it would just be a monopoly meta-narrative, thus silencing minority views and falsely claiming to have absolute truth.
Conclusion Sociologists are divided about whether sociology can or should be a science. Positivists think that sociology can and should be a science, whereas Interpretavists don’t. Recently, realist views have been added to the debate.