Should Sociology Be Scientific?
In sociology there are two main contrasting views to how the subject of sociology should be approached and studied, as a science or not. In this essay I will be explaining the arguments of each side of the discussion fully, and aim to show the positive and negative points of either approach to studying sociology. The first argument I will analyse is Positivism.
Positivists support the view that sociology should be studied as a science, arguing that society and the activities of the individuals in society as a whole hold main similarities and attributes to the physical or natural world.
Positivists believe that social factors are largely involved in determining human behaviour, an example being that positivists think that people wish to seek partners in order to allow them to marry and produce children, letting them fulfil societies expectations of them. Positivists use scientific methodology, which means that their procedures resemble methods of collecting data that are usually seen in practice in natural sciences. Examples of some of these methods are questionnaires, structured interviews or statistics.
Using scientific procedures in the Positivists view means that more accurate results will be collected, they hold the view that it is possible to see society in an objective way. An example of this is Durkheim, who believed the social facts of society could be considered in the same way as objects and events of the natural world. He thought that social facts did not only consist of things that could be observed objectively or in a direct manner, but also belief systems which exist in the consciousness of individuals.
To look at these belief systems in a scientific manner Durkheim thought that they couldn’t be changed at will, but were controlled by society making them available to scientific approaches. Correlation is another part of scientific methodology, where by looking at different social facts correlations are found between them, where there is evidence of a relationship between two or more different factors. Durkheim found that in his study of suicide there was a relationship between suicide and religions, (e. g. Protestantism and a high suicide rate).
After correlations are found between social facts the researcher may believe that one social fact causes another to make a hypothesis, such as crime causes a person to become working class, or being working class causes a person to commit crime. One problem with this part of the positivist scientific methodology is that some correlations found by researchers may just be by chance or indirect. This can happen where two social facts are found together but in actual fact don’t have any direct connections to each other.
It can happen that a third social fact has a relationship with both the other social facts, which can cause them to be linked. An example of this is gender being the cause of both level of criminality and location in the class hierarchy, which illustrates that class and crime aren’t actually linked, but are both related to gender. In positivists research they also believe that if findings are verified and found in many different contexts such as in different societies around the world and during different time periods the research can be see as being a law of human behaviour, which is the main aim of the positivist perspective.
This is where a statement is found to be true in all circumstances, a comparison being scientific laws such as gravity being established, positivists hold the view that these laws can be found in human behaviour. Durkheim thought he had found a law of human behaviour when his research into suicide had the conclusion that suicide rates always increased when in society there was a drastic change in the economy.
Using scientific methodology such as questionnaires does have the positive of being reliable, as the data could be collected repeatedly and it is likely to achieve the same conclusions over and over again, but also has the weakness that people can lie and be biased in the questionnaires towards themselves. Another problem is that questionnaires restrict the answers of the individual being asked the questions, which also can happen in structured interviews where the individual cant put across what they want to say because of the structured questions and style of the interview.
Also questionnaires and scientific methodology doesn’t take into account the individual differences that could be involved in the issue that is being researched. An example of this is suicide. Research into the matter of suicide has been criticised when it has been done using scientific matters as Douglas made the criticism of Durkheim’s research that not all suicides can be treated as the same type of act as they could have different or contrasting meanings behind them, e. g. lderly Eskimo’s will kill themselves for the sake of their society, where as a someone in a western society may kill themselves because they are depressed.
Also, in Durkheim’s research into suicide, J. D Douglas criticized him saying that the statistics used weren’t valid, as the decision to if the sudden death was a suicide is made by the coroner, who in turn is influenced by the family and friends of the victim. This creates the possibility of there being systematic bias in the decision, having the consequence of not very reliable statistics to base his conclusions on.
Another weakness of scientific methodology is it can result in generalisations in the conclusions, where the researcher will split the data collected into different categories, as Durkheim carried out in his study into suicide, which can be too reductionist, missing out important factors in the issue being researched such as the background of the suicides etc. Another method used in sociological research is observation, which positivists believe that the social world can be objectively observed and classified.
Observation is not only used by positivists, but is also used by many anti-positivist sociologists who have observed situations in connection with subjects like education and suicide, where Atkinson observed the processes involved in the decisions made by coroners in the coroners courts. One problem with using observation is that it is restrictive in the type of situations it can be used in, such as in the study of the subject of politics, sociologists are prohibited from observing the British Cabinet.
Also because the results are based on how the situation was observed through the researcher, it is possible for there to be interference from the researcher in the data collected. Another group that support the idea of sociology being a science is realists, who see much of sociology being scientific. An example of this is the realist’s sociologist Keat, who saw Marxist sociology as scientific as the models developed by Marx was evaluating processes and institutions in society based on empirical data.
Realists suggest that both natural and sociological sciences have the same aim in the research carried out which is to develop theories and create perspectives to explain the world based on collected evidence. Auguste Comte was a founder of sociology, and through founding the subject attempted to show it as a science using a scientific manner in his research, studying social phenomena. He talked about discovering the laws social phenomena being the main aim behind the subject of sociology, and scientific methods being the best way of accomplishing this.
He also thought that society as a whole was greater than the individuals within it, which in other words meant that society was more complex than the number of people in it, that it involved many other variables. One procedure that Comte supported was the HD procedure, which was where you started with a theory, created a hypothesis based on that theory, slected a research method that could be verified and analysise the data collected through this method to see if the hypothesis was correct.
One problem with this procedure is that although it does have reliable data that is collected, and a straight forward procedure involved, a negative aspect of creating a hypothesis to work with before carrying out the research is that it brings in the possibility that the researcher will pick a research method which will be biased to the hypothesis by be the method most likely to prove it. An example of where this happened was the research into aids attempting to prove it as a ‘gay plague’. Another example of a positivist theory was made by Karl Popper, who created the theory of falsification.
Popper believed that the best way to see if a theory or conclusion was true was to let it stand the test of time. In this he meant that the longer a theory was supported and unreputed by other sociologists, the more true it was. Popper was critical towards Marx, saying that he was unscientific because he didn’t use empirical data and that Marx’s theory couldn’t be proved wrong or right as Marx left his theory open to when the revolution would actually happen, meaning that if a revolution didn’t happen in that time period, Marx would still be able to argue that it was going to happen ‘some day in the future’.
The other side of the argument of should sociology be scientific is held by anti positivists, such as Max Weber. Weber claims that to come to true conclusions the motives of a situation or a persons actions must first be understood. An example of this is if a person is fishing, are they doing it because its their hobby, or maybe because they are hungry. One process supported by Weber was verstehen, which is where the sociologist imagines himself or herself as the person or in the position of the person whose being studied.
Weber thought that the motives behind an action are just as important as the actions themselves for coming to the truth behind a subject. There third perspective involved in the debate is Post Modernism, which believe in the grand narrative, or that there is no such thing as just having one dominant theory. Post Modernists believe the best results and theories are academic pick and mix’s, where conclusions are drawn from many different perspectives and theories to get an all round finding that includes all the different points of view involved.
Post Modernists also think that there is no such thing as one objective truth, and that no one method or way of looking at sociology can arrive at true conclusions as in reality, society is always changing as is the norms and values within society. One post modernist who believes that there is no one technique that can find the truth (a belief held by epistemology) is Lyotard, who sees all epistemology as being based on more the researchers opinions instead of being based on objective knowledge. This is known as being a metanarrative.