Is Sociology A Science?

This post contrasts the Positivist view that sociology can be an objective science with the Interpretivist view that we need an interpretive understanding of human action; it then looks at Bruno Latour’s view that scientific knowledge is socially constructed, Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm critique of science, and Sayer’s Realist view of science based on the difference between open and closed system; finally it looks at postmodern views of science. 

sociology-and-science

What is a Science?

The Positivist Approach

  • Durkheim’s Suicide (1897) illustrates the positivist view of science. It is the most influential on sociology. Durkeim’s views are based on the following principles:
  • There are objective facts about the social world and they are expressed in statistics.
  • These facts are not influenced by the personal beliefs of the researcher.
  • Having collected stats, you should look for correlations which can reveal causal relationships
  • Durkheim believed human behaviour can be explained by external stimuli
  • By following this approach it is possible to uncover the laws of human behaviour
  • To be scientific, you should only study what you observe. It would be unscientific to study people’s emotions.
  • Durkheim’s approach is inductive – it involves starting with the evidence and then deriving theory.

Questioning Sociology as Scientific

Differences between society and the natural world

The three criticisms below hinge on the idea that the social world is fundamentally different to the natural, physical world

  • Social action theorists argue the social world is socially constructed
  • You cannot understand the world, or human action without understanding the meanings people attach to their actions
  • Some postmodernists argue you can only understand the world through language, thus there is no way to observe it directly.

Problems of prediction

  • People have consciousness, they judge situations and how to respond to them based on their life-histories, and personal opinions, which we cannot know objectively.
  • Thus if sociology aimed to make predictions, it would always be proved wrong.

Questioning the Objectivity of Science

The ‘objectivity’ of the natural sciences has increasingly been questioned. In the 1960s a branch of sociology called ‘science and technology studies’ emerged which argues From this perspective, David Bloor (1976) argued that it is a mistake to see science as something which is apart from the social world, it is itself shaped by a range of social factors.

From this point of view, we should study the processes through which scientific knowledge is constructed, rather than accepting the scientific method as apart from society and ‘superior’

Bruno Latour: Science as the ‘construction of versions of reality’

  • Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979) studied the way scientists did their research. They found that they spent a lot of time trying to win research grants (rather than doing actual research) and there was little incentive to disprove ideas
  • Scientists tended to form networks in which many individuals were all engaged in a ‘fierce battle to construct reality’, which could involve inventing special machines just to prove a theory true. If an individual challenged the version of reality being produced, they could be dis-enrolled from the network.

Thomas Kuhn: Paradigms and Scientific Revolutions

  • Kuhn noted that we tend to see scientists as objective and neutral, and working together to refine scientific knowledge, which is generally seen as evolving gradually, as new evidence helps to refine and develop existing theories.
  • Kuhn disagreed with this, arguing that the evolution of scientific knowledge is limited by what he called ‘paradigms’. A paradigm is a basic world-view which provides a framework for thinking about the world. It includes basic assumptions about the nature of reality, which limit the kind of questions scientists ask in their research.
  • According to Kuhn, most scientists build their careers working within the dominant paradigm, effectively ignoring any evidence which doesn’t fit in with their general framework, and any scientist who tries to ask questions outside of the ‘dominant paradigm’ is marginalised, and not taken seriously.
  • However, ‘rogue scientists’ who look at the world differently do exist, and engage in alternative research, and when sufficient evidence builds up which contradicts already existing paradigms, a ‘paradigm shift’ occurs, in which the old paradigms are rejected, and a new dominant paradigm comes into force.
  • One example of this is the science surrounding climate change. According to Sutton (2015) some (marginal) scientists were finding evidence of a link between the burning of fossil fuels and a warming climate in the 1950s, but this was largely dismissed by the scientific community until the 1990s, but today this is widely accepted.
  • In summary Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge shifted in a series of ‘revolutions’ as new ‘paradigms’ came to replace old ‘paradigms’; he is also suggesting that science should not be seen as being characterised by consensus – rather there are a number of competing paradigms within science, and not all of them get taken seriously by those with power.
  • Kuhn has been criticised by Lakatos (1970) – he argues that modern science is much more open to testing new ideas today than it was in the past.

 Realist Views of Science and Open and Closed Systems

  • Sayer suggests that there are two types of science – those which operate in closed systems, such as physics and chemistry, and those which operate in open systems such as meteorology.
  • Closed systems have only a limited number of variables interacting, all of which can be controlled, which makes it possible to carry out laboratory experiments and for precise predictions to be made.
  • However, sciences such as meteorology operate in open systems, where you cannot control all of the variables. These sciences recognise unpredictability.
  • Meteorology is still scientific – there are still forecasting models based on observation which allows us to predict with some degree of certainty when certain weather events will happen, and these models can, and are being refined.
  • Moreover, open systems sciences are engaged in trying to find ‘underlying structures’ which cannot be directly observed, such as magnetic fields, which can interfere with weather patterns.
  • Sayer argues that sociology can be scientific in the way meteorology is scientific, but not scientific in the way physics or chemistry can be scientific:
  • Quantitative sociology, for example can reveal hidden structures (such as the class structure), and make broad predictions about what percentage of people from a lower class background will fail, compared to those from a middle class background, without being able to predict exactly who will fail, and without us being able to SEE that class structure directly.

Modernity, Postmodernity and Science

  • The scientific world view and the idea of scientific sociology evolved out of the enlightenment and modernity – the belief that there was ‘one truth’ and science could reveal it.
  • Postmodernists challenge the idea that science produces the truth about the natural world. For Rorty (1984) scientists have just replaced priests as the source of truth – we want experts to explain the world to us. However, there are still many unanswered questions about the nature of reality even with science.
  • Lyotard (1984) also criticises the view that science stands apart from the natural world. He argues that language shapes the way we think about the world, and while scientific language may open our eyes to some truths; it just closes our eyes to others.

Summary – Can Sociology Be Scientific?

  • Early positivists suggested that sociology should aim to be scientific – this has largely been rejected
  • Interpretivists reject this because they believe reality is social reality is different to natural reality – we need to understand meanings.
  • Moreover, many people such as Kuhn argue scientific knowledge is also socially constructed
  • Sayer believes there is a ‘half way house’ – we can still do quantitative ‘scientific sociology’ in an open systems ways – many people within sociology subscribe to this.
  • Postmodernists reject the view that we should be scientific in any way, this closes our minds.

Related Posts 

Positivism and Intereptivism – A Very Brief Overview

Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

Sources used to write this post include:

Chapman et al (2016) Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book, Collins.

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