Bias – where someone’s personal, subjective feelings or thoughts affect one’s judgement.
Falsification – where scientists attempt to design experiments to disprove a hypothesis rather to prove a hypothesis correct.
Generalisability – the extent to which research findings can be applied to other (similar) cases
Hawthorne effect – where respondents alter their behaviour because they know they are being observed. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of overt laboratory and field experiments.
Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.
Hypothetico-Deductive Model – a method of gaining knowledge by proposing a hypothesis and then doing experiments to obtain observable data which can then be used to either affirm or reject and reformulate the hypothesis.
Objective knowledge – knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world
Realism – The view that sociology can be scientific in the way in which ‘open systems’ sciences such as meteorology are scientific, but not scientific in the way in which ‘closed systems’ sciences such as physics or chemistry can be scientific:
Social Facts – according to Emile Durkheim, these are forces which exist externally to the individual and constrain that individual, such as language.
Socially constructed – Interpretivists argue that official statistics are socially constructed – that is they are the result of the subjective decisions made by the people who collect them rather than reflecting the objective underlying reality of social life. For example Crime Statistics do not reflect the actual crime rate, only those activities which are defined as crimes by the people who notice them and who then go on to report those activities to the police.
Subjective knowledge – knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view. See also ‘objective knowledge’.
The Scientific Method – see the Hypothetico deductive model
Value Freedom – where a researcher’s personal opinions, beliefs and feelings are kept out the research process so that data collected is not influenced by the personal biases of the researcher.
Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes.
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.
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.