Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.
The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’.
Positivism and Value Freedom
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.
As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.
So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.
Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.
Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.
- Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?
- Is it possible to completely objective/value free?
‘Right Wing’ Perspectives on Value Freedom and Sociology
The New Right argue that sociology is not value free but rather left-wing propaganda.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:
‘Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people… Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent… huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.’
In ‘Bias against Business’, Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:
‘Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies – alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.’
Feminism – Sociology is biased against women
Feminists are critical of the ‘value-free’ scientific claims of ‘malestream’ Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ While Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.
Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bias can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker’s ‘Whose Side are We On’) suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:
‘A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women’s inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women’s subordination must be questioned and challenged… feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary’. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).
Interpretivism – sociology cannot and should not be value free
There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:
Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’. He argues that Sociologists react to political, economic and social events – and what is seen as a political or social ‘issue’, a social ‘problem’ is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality – to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do – Sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.
Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’ – what Positivists call value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment.
‘The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.’
Gouldner, along similar lines to Gomm, argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.
Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: ‘Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.’ He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used.
Howard Becker, in ‘Whose side are we on?’ takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged.
Signposting and Related Posts
This topic is a core aspect of the social theories part of ‘theory and methods’ within A-level sociology.
Personally I tend to think of this topic as an extension of the Positivsm-Interpretivism debate within Sociology.
‘Is Sociology a Science?’ also overlaps with this topic.
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