Sociology and Value Freedom

Can Sociology be value free

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.


  1. Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?

  1. Is it possible to completely objective/value free?

The ‘New Right’ – Sociology is not value free – it is left wing propaganda!

Value freedom and Sociology: ‘right wing’ perspectives..

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 not value free because it 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 aim to 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.

Official Crime Statistics for England and Wales

The two main sources of official statistics on Crime in the UK (or rather England and Wales!) are:

  1. Police Recorded Crime – which is all crimes recorded by the 43 police forces in England and Wales (as well as the British Transport Police)

  2. The Crime Survey for England and Wales which is a face to face victim survey in which people are asked about their experiences of crime in the previous 12 months.

NB – There are other sources of official statistics on crime, which I’ll come back to later, but these are the two main ones.

Below are three very good web sites which you can use to explore crime stats from the above two sources. The point of this post is really just to direct students to good sources which they can use to explore these statistics (strengths and limitations of crime statistics posts will be forthcoming shortly!)

OneCrime in England and Wales

Published by the Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales provides the most comprehensive coverage of national crime trends. I’d actually recommend starting with the methodology section of this document, which states

‘Crime in England and Wales has 2 main data sources: The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and police recorded crime. The CSEW is a face-to-face victimisation survey in which people are asked about their experiences of crime in the 12 months prior to the interview. Police recorded crime figures are supplied by the 43 territorial police forces of England and Wales and the British Transport Police.’

Crime trends UK


This is a good starting point for exploring crime statistics. You can click on an interactive map which will show you how much crime there is in your area. NB this map shows you only police recorded crime, and there are many, many crimes which are not recorded, for various reasons.

Crime in Kent


This site describes itself as ‘the leading crime and property data’ website – scroll down for a nice colour coded analysis of crime trends for a number of different crime categories. Reported month by month (2 month data lag). I think the table below is CSEW data

What I particularly like about this web site is that it provides data tables by police force – Here’s a link to data for the Surrey Police (Local link, I teach in Surrey, where my measly teacher salary makes me feel poor because of the sickening and unjustified wealth in the local area.) The data below is Police Recorded Crime data.

Crime in England and Wales

When looking at statistics on crime, make sure you know whether the stats come from Police Recorded Crime or the Crime Survey of England and Wales (a victim survey) – the two figures will be different, and the difference between them will be different depending on the type of crime – for example the stats for vehicle theft are quite similar (because of insurance claims requiring a police report) but domestic violence figures are very different from these two sources because most offences do not get reported to the police, but many more (but not all) get reported to the CSEW researchers.

Related Posts

Official Statistics in Sociology

Crime Statistics Revision Video

Methods in Context Mark Scheme

My pared down mark scheme for the methods in context question in the previous post, which is adapted from the AQA’s own mark scheme, just put into easier language:

Applying material from Item B and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties (20)

Marks Level Descriptors


If work your guts off you could get here!


Knowledge of the strengths and limitations of covert participant observation will be accurate and conceptually detailed.

Application will be very focussed on the specific topic. Students will consider at least two of the following in relation to the specific issue (pupils with behavioural difficulties)

1.    Who you might be researching (e.g. pupils, peer groups, parents, teachers, support staff).

2.    Where you might be doing the research (e.g. classrooms, staffrooms, pupils’ homes).

3.    The sensitivity of researching pupils with behavioural difficulties (e.g. vulnerability, stigmatisation, parental consent, school reputation).

Evaluation of the usefulness of covert participant observation will be explicit and relevant. Analysis will show clear explanation and may draw appropriate conclusions.

Students will typically apply 4/5 of the following strengths and limitations of covert Participant Observation to the above issue:

1.    Practical issues in the research process: Access (getting in, staying in, getting out), data recording, time/ cost

2.    Ethical issues – e.g. sensitivity, informed consent

3.    Issues of validity: qualitative data/ verstehen/insight, flexibility

4.    Interpretation and analysis problems

5.    Small sample size/ unrepresentativeness


Marks Level Descriptors

You should aim to be here!


1.    Knowledge of the strengths and limitations of covert participant observation will be accurate, broad and deep, but incomplete.

2.    Application of knowledge to the topic (students with behavioural difficulties) will be more generalised or more restricted way, for example:


•      applying the method to the study of education in general, not to the specifics of studying pupils with behavioural difficulties, or


•      specific but undeveloped application to pupils with behavioural difficulties, or


•      a focus on the research characteristics of pupils with behavioural difficulties, or groups/contexts etc. involved in it.


3.    Evaluation and analysis are likely to be explicit but limited



It’s reasonable but not desirable to be here

1.    Knowledge of the strengths and/or limitations of covert participant observation will be accurate but with limited breadth and depth


2.    Application of the method will be limited to education in general, rather than the specific topic


3.    Evaluation and Analysis will be limited, with answers tending towards the descriptive.



No one should be here!

1.    Knowledge of covert participant observation will be limited and undeveloped – e.g. two to three insubstantial points about some features of covert participant observation.


2.    Application to the topic will be very limited and at a tangent to the demands of the question, e.g. perhaps drifting into an unfocused comparison of different methods.


3.    Minimal/no evaluation.



You defo shouldn’t be here!

Answers in this band will show very limited knowledge, eg one to two very insubstantial points about methods in general. Very little/no understanding of the question and of the presented material.

Significant errors, omissions, and/or incoherence in application of material.

Some material ineffectually recycled from the Item, or some knowledge applied solely to the substantive issue of pupils with behavioural difficulties, with very little or no reference to covert participant observation.