This post focuses on the practical, theoretical and ethical and strengths and limitations of laboratory experiment, applied mainly to sociology…
What are laboratory Experiments?
Laboratory experiments take place in controlled environments and are the main method used in the natural sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology. There are numerous experiments which have been designed to test numerous scientific theories about the temperatures at which various substances freeze or melt, or how different chemicals react when they are combined under certain conditions.
The logic of the experimental method is that it is a controlled environment which enables the scientist to measure precisely the effects of independent variables on dependent variables, thus establishing cause and effect relationships. This in turn enables them to make predictions about how the dependent variable will act in the future.
For a general introduction to the key features of experiments and the experimental method (including key terms such as hypothesis and dependent and independent variables) and some of their advantages please see this post: experiments in sociology: an introduction.
The laboratory experiment and is commonly used in psychology, where experiments are used to measure the effects of sleep loss and alcohol on concentration and reaction time, as well as some more ethically dubious experiments designed to measure the effects of media violence on children and the responses of people to authority figures.
However, they are less common in sociology. Having said that, they are still a requirement within the research methods component of A-level sociology and the AQA exam board does seem to like setting exam questions on experiments!
Laboratory Experiments: Theoretical Factors
Theoretical Advantages of Laboratory Experiments
Accuracy and Precision– Laboratory experiments allow the precise effects of independent variables on dependent variables to be measured. This in turn makes it possible to establish cause and effect relationships between variables.
Isolation of Variables – The controlled conditions of laboratory experiments allows researchers to isolate variables more effectively than with any other research method. This further allows researchers to precisely measure the exact effect which one or more independent variables have on the dependent variable. With the ‘tomato experiment’ for example, laboratory conditions would allow the researcher to control precisely variations in temperature, moisture and light, this would not be possible in a field (no pun intended).
Controlled conditions also allow the researchers to eliminate the effects of ‘extraneous variables’. Extraneous variables are undesirable variables which are not of interest to the researcher but might interfere with the results of the experiment. If you were trying to measure the effects of alcohol on reaction time for example, keeping respondents in a lab means you could make sure they all at and drank similar things, and did similar things, in between drinking the alcohol (or placebo) and doing the reaction time test.
Laboratory experiments have excellent reliability for two major reasons:
Firstly, the controlled environment means it easy to replicate the exact environmental conditions of the original experiment and this also means it is relatively easy for the researcher to clearly outline the exact stages of the experiment, again making exact replication easier. This is not necessarily the case in a field experiment, where extraneous variables may interfere with the research process in different ways with repeat-experiments.
Secondly, there is a high level of detachment between the researcher and the respondent. In an experiment, the researcher typically takes on the role of ‘expert’ and simply manipulates variables, trying to have as little interaction with the respondents as the experiment will allow for. This means there is little room for the researcher’s own values to influence the way the respondent reacts to an experiment.
Theoretical Limitations of Laboratory Experiments
Laboratory experiments lack external validity – sociologists hardly ever use lab experiments because the artificial environment of the laboratory is so far removed from real-life that most Sociologists agree that the results gained from such experiments tell us very little about how respondents would actually act in real life. Take the Milgram experiment for example – how likely is it that you will ever be asked by scientist to give electric shocks to someone you’ve never met and who you can’t see when they give the wrong answer to a question you’ve just read out? Moreover, when was they last time you were asked to do anything to anyone by a scientist? In the real world context, many of the Milgram respondents may have responded to real-world authority figure’s demands differently.
Laboratory Experiments: Practical Factors
The practical advantages of lab experiments
In terms of practical advantages experiments (assuming they are ethical) are attractive to funding bodies because of their scientific, quantitative nature, and because science carries with it a certain prestige.
Once the experiment is set up, if it takes place in a lab, researchers can conduct research like any other day-job – there is no travelling to visit respondents for example, everyone comes to the researcher.
The practical problems of lab experiments
Practical problems include the fact that you cannot get many sociological subjects into the small scale setting of a laboratory setting. You can’t get a large group of people, or a subculture, or a community into a lab in order to observe how the interact with ‘independent variables’.
Also, the controlled nature of the experiment means you are likely to be researching one person at a time, rather than several people completing a questionnaire at once, so it may take a long time to get a large-sample.
Laboratory Experiments: Ethical Factors
The ethical limitations of laboratory experiments
Deception and lack of informed consent are an ethical problem- The Hawthorne effect gives rise to the firs ethical disadvantages often found in experiments – it is often necessary to deceive subjects as to the true nature of the experiment so that they do not act differently, meaning that they are not in a position to give full, informed consent. This was the case in the Milgram experiment, where the research subjects thought the (invisible) person receiving the shocks was the actual subject rather than themselves.
A second ethical problem concerns harm to respondents. In the case of the original Milgram experiment, ‘many research participants were observed to sweat, stutter, tremble, bit their lips and dig their nails into their flesh, full-blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for three subjects’.
The ethical strenghts of laboratory experiments
While some laboratory experiments are notorious for their ethical problems, it is at least usually obvious that research is taking place (even if the exact purpose of the research may be hidden from respondents). Also, the benefits to society might well outweigh the costs to respondents.
Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority, which cites Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row. An excellent presentation of Milgram�s work is also found in Brown, R. (1986). Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.
If sociologists refer to something as being ‘ideological’, they typically mean that it supports powerful groups in society, effectively keeping the existing ruling class, or elites, in power.
Scientists generally claim that the process of conducting scientific research and constructing scientific knowledge is value-free, and thus ‘non-ideological’. In simple terms, they claim their research reveals ‘the truth’, or the underlying causal laws of nature and the universe.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that science is not also ‘ideological’. This part of the religion specification overlaps with the ‘is sociology a science’ part of Theory and Methods.
The argument that science is value free and thus non-ideological
The scientific method involves using controlled experiments to test a hypothesis bout how variables interact with each other
Because all of the steps of the experiments are carefully recorded, it allows anyone else to repeat the experiment and test the results, thus verifying the results are ‘true’.
It follows that scientists should strive to keep their own biases and values out of the research process, because they know anyone else can test their results.
This should mean the knowledge collected through scientific research is objective, value free, or non-ideological.
Three ways in which science might be said to be ‘ideological’
The research process itself may simply reflect the biases of influential scientists
Thomas Khun found that scientific research tends to be limited by dominant paradigms.
A paradigm is a set of assumptions about the way the world is, which frames scientific research.
Kuhn found that scientific findings which didn’t fit in with the existing, dominant paradigm, were ignored.
In this sense, groups of leading scientists who operate within the dominant paradigm ignored the work of younger scientists whose work may challenge their world view.
The wider field of scientific research is influenced by those who fund the research
Bruno Latour found that scientists would limit their research depending on where their funding came from.
For example, if a particular drug company was funding a lab, there would be reluctance to conduct research which found anything negative about that drug company’s products.
In this way, scientific research which harms powerful funding bodies is less likely to be carried out.
The dominance of the scientific world view may marginalise other non-scientific world views
The scientific world view is a quantitative, materialistic world view, it has worked well to bring about technological ‘progress’. Because of this it may have become oppressive to other forms of knowledge.
Feminists have suggested that it marginalises those who prefer to do research into the more subjective, feelingful aspects of social life.
Religious worldviews may also be taken less seriously because of the rise of ‘scientism’.
‘This book is about contemporary self-tracking cultures, analysed from a critical sociological perspective. It explores how the practices meanings, discourse, and technologies associated with self-tracking are the product of broader social cultural and political processes.’
This summary is really just some extended notes I took on the book as self-tracking and the quantified self are concepts which interest me.
It’s an academic book, written for an academic audience, and probably way beyond most A-level sociology students, but it’s still fascinating, and relevant as the practice of self-tracking is a growing trend.
Definition of self-tracking: ‘monitoring, measuring and recording elements of one’s body and life as a form of self-improvement and self-reflection’. Commonly using digital technologies.
Chapter 1 – Know Thyself: Self-Tracking Technologies and Practices
The emergence of self-tracking
Covers the pre-digital origins of the practice, a few examples of some self-tracking obsessives, outlines the self-tracking movement and charts the recent growth and ‘mainstreaming’ of the practice.
Contemporary self-tracking technologies
Provides an overview of the most common areas of social life to which self-tracking is applied – everything from education to emotions and from individual health to the home.
Research on self-tracking
A brief overview of research on self-tracking (going up to 2013-15): most of the studies are conducted by market research companies, there are few academic studies and focus on health.
From this research we find that in 2014, fitness bands were the most popular, and white middle class men with high levels of education and technological know how seem to be the most involved.
Academic research has revealed strong positive views about self-tracking among most self-trackers, with a measure of scepticism about how their personal data might be used. There is also evidence of strong ethos of self-responsibility (the neoliberal subject).
Chapter 2 – New Hybrid Beings: Theoretical Perspectives
Because self-tracking is a complex process, we should seek to understand it from multiple perspectives. This chapter outlines theoretical perspectives (in bold below) on self-tracking
Datafication via digital devices is a fundamental aspect of selfhood today.
People invest digital technologies with meaning, and we need to understand these meanings to understand people’s identities.
Individual human actors should be understood as part of an assemblage that consists of (besides humans), digital devices, software and networks.
Code/ space is another concept that’s been developed to capture the hybridity of human-technological networks
G. our objects may govern our access to space (e-tickets)
Draws on actor-network theory.
A concept developed by Nigel Thrift to denote the way that capitalism has shifted from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from the data they generate and upload.
This is in the context of a big data economy, there is a lot of money to be made from data-driven insights.
In the age of prosumumption, people upload this information for free, why social media sites are generally free, because it is the data that has value.
The four big tech companies need to be taken into consideration, due to the sheer amount of data they have access to, they have power.
Fluidity is key to metaphors used to describe the digital data economy.
HOWEVER, data can become frozen, stuck if people do not know how to use it.
Data can have a determining influence on people’s life chances
When data is rendered 2D it is frozen.
When data is represented, it is a result of social processes, we need to ask about who has made the decision to represent data in particular ways.
Self-tracking and the neo-liberal subject
Foucault’s concepts of selfhood, governmentality via biopolitics and surveillance are especially relevant to understanding the social significance of self-tracking.
In contemporary western societies, the dominant idea is that ‘care of the self’ is an ethical project that the individual is responsible for – the ‘good citizen’ sees the self as a project to worked on, they don’t expect much from the state or other people in society.
Giddens, Beck and Bauman have focused on how the self has become individualised – society is full of uncertainties, and lots of choices, and it is down to the individual to do the work to make those choices (and take responsibility for making the right choices).
The ‘self’ in today’s society is one which must be constantly re-invented – improved in order to be a success.
There is a dominant discourse of morality surrounding self-improvement – people are expected to do it!
The psy disciplines have become increasingly popular today because they fit this era of self-responsibility.
Despite the focus on the individual, power is still at work through these practices and discourses of the self. They fit in well with neoliberalism, which depends on soft modes of governing rather than hard – the former basically being everyone controlling themselves because they have taken responsibility for themselves and themselves only.
Discourses of self-improvement and the focus on the individual ignore the role of structural factors (class, gender, ethnicity) in shaping people’s lives and the problems they may face during their lives.
Self-tracking fits in with this neoliberal discourse of self-responsibilization.
Cultures of Embodiment
The way we understand our bodies is culturally, socially and historically contingent.
Digital devices offer people numerous ways for people to ‘digitise’ their bodies, and thus we are changing the way we think of our bodies.
Digital technologies mean people are starting to think of their bodies visually (the screen body) rather than haptically (to do with touch). Rather than rely on their ‘fleshy’ feelings they rely on the more ‘real’ visually represented data.
Self-tracking practices may be viewed simply as another set of technologies through which individuals seek to control their bodies.
Foucault’s concept of biopower is a useful analytical tool to explore digitised bodies: it emphasises how the body is a site of struggle.
Biopower is subtler than traditional forms of power and control – it focuses on the disciplines of self-management and control.
In the discourse of self-tracking, those who can control their bodies are ‘moral’, those who cannot are deficient.
Theories of boundary maintenance and purity (a la Mary Douglas) are also relevant: and we need to keep in mind that the boundary between the body and the social in digital space is less clear than ever.
Data tracking technologies render what was previously hidden about our bodies much more visible, and subject to greater control (but by whom>?).
NB – much of the way the body is visually represented is quantitatively – biometrics are largely quantitative, and this data can be used as a basis for inclusion and exclusion.
‘Critical data studies’ have emerged to challenge the claims of big data being ‘all positive’
The process of datatification = rendering complex human feelings and relationships into digital data. This typically involves metricization, which involves numbers
This makes complex and diverse humans ‘easily comparable’ and this formed the basis of control through normalization in the 19th century, it seems to be even more central to contemporary strategies of biopower.
Data collected is often quite narrow (e.g. think about education) and is often used by powerful agencies to control and manipulate people. However this is not a neutral process: value judgements lie behind what data is collected and how it is used.
We are entering into a world in which biopower and the knowledges which underpin them are increasingly digitised. Such data are frequently presented as neutral, more reliable than individual subjective data, and thus forming a more robust basis for ‘truth claims’.
Datafication offers a late modern promise of rendering messy populations understandable and controllable.
Algorithmic authority is increasingly important in identity construction and governing inclusion to areas of social life.
It is also sometimes difficult to challenge, given that the algorithms are often black-boxed.
Dataveillance = veillance which uses digital technology.
Dataveillance and Privacy
The generation of more data increases the opportunities for monitoring.
Veillance is Lupton’s preferred term – because there are multiple types of watching in society.
Some obvious forms of surveillance include CCTV and Passports, but Foucault’s idea of the panopticon is probably the most relevant to understanding veilance today – where people take on responsibility for controlling their own actions because they ‘might’ be being watched.
Veillance is extremely pervasive and works across multiple sites simultaneously and can be purposed and repurposed in multiple ways.
It is increasingly used as a means of categorising – often based on risk.
Sousveillance is increasingly important.
There is no longer a clear spatial boundary between public and private…. Some commentators have even suggested that the internet = the end of privacy.
We need to ask lots of questions about data ownership and usage rights.
Chapter 3 – ‘An Optimal Human Being’: The Body and Self in Self-Tracking Cultures
The reflexive monitoring of the self
analysis of interviews with two self-trackers reveals a discourse of self-awareness and self-improvement facilitated by self-tracking technology.
The data used is mainly quantitative and individuals seek greater understanding by finding patterns in their lives.
There is always a focus on ‘becoming’ – present data is interpreted in light of a desired future (very goal-oriented).
There is a focus on individual self-knowledge within the movement, which some have viewed as narcissistic.
There is a strong ethic of self-responsibility, and an implication that those who don’t seek to improve their lives through self-tracking are morally incomplete.
Self-tracking selves thus seem to be neoliberal subjects.
The concept of the self fits well with digital entrepreneurialism, especially where the tracking of productivity is concerned.
Representations of embodiment
Metaphors of the body as a machine and specifically as an information processing machine are often employed in self-tracking cultures.
Inputs/ outputs/ performance are all parts of the discourse.
‘I can therefor I am’ is also part of the discourse of selfhood (Lury 1997)
Digital wearable devices are viewed as ‘prosthetics’ (data prosthetics) – enhancing the capacity to act in a similar way to prosthetic limbs. E.g. videos of life loggers expand the human capacity to remember.
The prosthetics also extend the body into a network of other bodies…. E.g. through the representation of data in social networks.
It becomes increasingly unclear where the body ends and environmental space (‘out there’) begins (code/space is a new concept to describe this).
The affective dimensions of self-tracking
Self-tracking devices and software and the data they generate are invested with a high degree of personal meaning.
Obviously, the devices themselves, especially phones, matter to us, and the data collected through these devices is part of our lives, part of our biography: it is ‘my data’.
We use these data (images, stats etc to ‘present ourselves’ and engage in ‘algorithmic self-promotion’.
NB Even the way we organise our apps has personal meaning.
A more over affective dimension is where apps actually track our emotions.
The data generated by self-tracking and the responses this gets when presented also generates emotions – from satisfaction to frustration.
Those who do not self-track may be perceived as immoral because of not taking the responsibility to control their lives. (There is a barely hidden discourse of morality in the movement)
Emotions also come into the fact that devices sometimes measure what they are supposed to effectively, and sometimes don’t work at all – they tie people’s emotional states into the robustness of the material devices.
Wearable devices also affect people’s emotional states differently – if they make them feel more self-conscious, this may not be in a good way: some may feel ‘fitter’, others may feel fatter.
There are also design and fashion to consider – many people won’t wear devices if they don’t look good.
Taking and losing control
Part of the discourse of self-tracking is one of using data to gain greater control over one’s life.
This fits in well with the uncertainty of late modern society – data collection and using it is a means of reducing risk: in terms of poor health or broken relationships for example.
This is most advanced in the sphere of medicine and health where the concept of the ‘participatory patient’ is well established – many patients are expected to engage in a routine of data collection and monitoring, along with their Doctors.
However, this effectively brings the body under surveillance as never before: the technologies used may be talked about as ‘inobtrusive, but the effects are to foreground the body through the data collected.
Some ex self-trackers report they gave up because data ‘took over’ their lives, drowning out their intuition.
Others reported they gave it up as they found they were only happy when their numbers were trending upwards.
And if you don’t have your device, you might regret it…
Some people also change their habits because of their devices, not necessarily in good ways – eating foods because it fits your diet regime and not actually enjoying the food!
Self-tracking may be a terrible idea for those with OCD or anorexia.
Self-Tracking and Surveillance
Self-tracking and the data generated by it blur the boundary between the public and the private.
Especially when we publish our data on networking sites, our private data becomes public.
The practice of self-tracking is typically done as part of an assemblage – tracking of ‘intimate’ information, displayed in public.
There is a positive side to all of this – gamifying one’s data can be motivational, as can messages of support from others.
We need to consider that some forms of tracking may be imposed from above, and users have little choice over engaging in the practice
Finally, there are the political implications of how our data is stored and used!
Chapter 4 – You Are Your Data: Personal Data, Meanings, Practices and Materialisations
Covers the ways in which self-trackers seek to make sense of, materialise and use their personal information.
The meaning and value of personal digital data
Self-tracking is not only about controlling one’s body and one’s self, but controlling the data generated by self-tracking.
Data assemblages are constantly shifting, and the data drawn upon is context dependent. They are also reflexive and recursive – people may act on the data, and those changes in action change the data.
Even though certain data assemblages may provide a snap shot, frozen, the data are liquid entities, constantly shifting, and this requires self-trackers to engage in constant meaning negotiation to make sense of the data and the selves those data represent.
The Quantified Self Movement says this is one of its primary purposes – to help people make better sense of the data – as they see it, collecting it is easy, making sense of it a life skill which needs practice/ training.
There is a sense in which the data is more reliable than gut feeling or memory.
Personal Analytics (according to QS) will help us develop optimal selves often defined as us becoming more efficient/ productive.
There is a ‘big data mind set’ – we can get new insights from this data that was not previously available – e.g. I can look at my phone and see how stressed I am.
Self-trackers often present themselves as scientists, collecting their own data, the digitized an information processing system
The data is often presented as trustworthy, and the body’s perceptions as untrustworthy.
This fits in with a long held medicalized view of the body, the only difference now is that we are visual not haptic and data is available to the layman, not just the expert.
The data is seen as emblematic of their ‘true selves’.
Metricization and the Lure of Numbers…
Quantification is central to the quantified self discourse.
More and more areas of social life have become quantified in recent years (obviously?)
Although data is presented as neutral, there is a ‘politics’ to quantification.
The rationales of both commerce and government are supported by datafication – publics are rendered manageable by data: BIG DATA allows for people to be managed algorithmically.
‘Comensuration’ is a result of metricization…. This is the process whereby a broader range of previously different social phenomena are brought together under one metric – thus the process favours homogeneity over heterogeneity – – e.g. the Klout score.
Such metrics create ‘climates of futurity’.
These metrics invariably favour some qualities over others.
Viewing the self through such data/ metrics encourages one to take a scientific/ comparable, and reductionist view of life…
This cuts out the experience of (real?) life as messy/ complex/ contradictory.
Data Spectacles: Materializations of Personal Data
Visualising data is an integral part of the Quantified self-movement. A lot of these data visualizations are very ‘neat’.
Most self-trackers derive pleasure and motivation from seeing their data visualised
They also see the data as ‘more real’ than their own subjective feelings.
Artistic and Design Interventions
Artists/ designers have tried to enhance/ challenge the way self-trackers visualize their data.
FRICKBITS – invited self-trackers to turn their data into art
The ‘Dear Data’ projected invited women to physically draw an aspect of their ‘data lives’ once a week.
Lucy Kimbell’s LIX index took data from various aspects of her life, and turned them into one index to criticise self-tracking
Critical making and design fiction aim to combine critical theory and art/ fiction. Their purpose is to envisage alternative futures (that are not necessarily either utopian or dystopian) – to challenge dominant power/ knowledge regimes/ discourses.
These may be messier/ more ambiguous than many of the representations of current data and imagined futures made by self-tracking communities.
Outlines a few projects which have sort to get us thinking about the boundaries between self/machine, and how these are shifting in assemblages.
3D Printers are also being used to visualise data.
Data is also being used to produce things, based on data.
The Importance of Context
There is growing cynicism about the use of numbers in self-tracking, because it is often not clear what numbers mean (e.g. a high heart rate can mean different thing) – we thus need to know the context in which the data is collected.
‘Morris’ (blog) is a good example of how context and quality may be more useful – he took thousands of photos of his daily routine, on reviewing them he said he started to recognise more people on his daily commute, feeling more connected to them.
Presenting self-data is an important aspect, this is context, emotional.
Data collected and then presented back might conjure up uncomfortable emotions… e.g Eric Myer’s Facebook Year in Review experience.
Self-trackers are also self-qualifiers… they use the data to tell stories about themselves.
Chapter 5 – Data’s Capacity for Betrayal: Personal Data Politics
Covers the political dimension of self-tracking data (who stores the data, what they do with that data and how they benefit).
Self-tracking practices generate digital biocapital (value derived from a combination of bodies and data)
The generation and storage of this data is now beyond the consensual and the personal and this raises all sorts of questions pertaining to who should have access to this data and its use…. Much of which has been highlighted by the recent Facebook scandal.
Digital biocapital also raises the spectre of governments and corporations being able to algorithmically manipulate people.
Prosumption is a form of work… the value people derive from generating the data not monetary, but the data is commodified and then has a monetary value… this is exploitation.
Employers data trawl prospective employers
Insurance companies are already using predictive algorithms to set premiums
Data is being used in some legal cases.
Pushed and imposed self-tracking
Although self-tracking is usually presented as something voluntary, there are some fields where the practice is used ‘coercively’ – where institutions use self-tracking to ‘nudge’ (often unwilling) participants’ behaviour in a ‘desirable’ direction.
It is mostly in the sphere of health that we find this.
This fits in well with soft power in neoliberal regimes.
One example is insurance companies getting people to upload their health data (also driving).
Another is Corporations offering reduced health insurance packages for employees who enrol in their wellness programmes.
There is a fine line between consensual, pushed and imposed self-tracking.
Personal data security and privacy
Written before GDPR – ‘many companies fail to tell customers how their data will be used’.
Personal information is very sort after by criminal gangs who can gain access to it at two main points – data transfer, and when data is stored on online databases.
Survey data show that people are generally OK with their data being used for beneficial purposes but are suspicious of and worried about the use of data by governments and corporations to manipulate people, and of the fact that their data may be used to exclude them.
Communal self-tracking and taking control of personal data
Some in the quantified self movement talk of ‘pooling’ their small data so as to gain big data insights.
(Small data is personal and identifiable, big data as impersonal and anonymous).
Nafus and Sherman (2014) have theorised that this can be a form of resistance against control of big data by large companies.
A very small pool of experts can create their own means of dealing with their data, most people are dependent on commercial products.
Some self-tracking initiatives encourage collective positive projects – e.g. environmental, collective steps, hours meditated. This could be a new form of digital citizenship moving forwards.
Responses and resistances to dataveillance
Outlines three counter responses…
Selectively recording information (the power of forgetting)
Obfuscation – deliberately generating false data or digital noise.
Making people aware of the sheer amount of data being collected.
More detailed summary: chapter 1 (NB – find points of interest and think of the questions I can ask, to then find further research on (reorganising this!)
Self-tracking cultures have emerged in a sociocultural and political context in which various rationales, discourses, practices and technologies are converging… these include the following:
A self-concept that values self-knowledge and entrepreneurialism
The privileging of quantitative scientific knowledges seen as neutral
A moral imperative to take responsibility for the regulation and tight control of one’s body
Digital technologies which allow the recording of more aspects of life in ever greater detail
A digital data economy which commodifies personal data
Governments and commercial agencies seeking to use data to manipulate behaviours.
The notion of autonomous individualism is central to many self-tracking cultures – the individual is seen as being morally responsible for rationally improving their own well-being. Little account is taken of the role of structural factors (poverty, discrimination) in affecting life chances.
Technologies tend to have been designed by white middle class men in the global North, and the decisions about what to measure through tech reflects their bias – for example the Apple Watch does not track menstrual cycles.
At the same time as being reductive, the process of generating self-knowledge is also productive – it is an active process which gives rise to new knowledges, and people use them to ‘improve the self’.
How self-tracking knowledge changes power relations is not clear – presumption means lay people can track and present data, which challenges the role of the big tech companies. However, producers of data have little control over it once it has been generated and uploaded to social media sites.
Self-tracking practices are now mainstream, and way beyond just in the realms of health and fitness.
Lupton has identified five ‘modes’ of self-tracking:
The differences are to do with the extent of consent and the purposes for which data is used.
Data devices are learning more about humans. Some of them already tell us what to do. This makes future assemblages more complex – once the world of the Internet of Things really kicks into gear!
Data Literacy is a common thing today, but we need to focus more on getting people to think about the power relations between the users of tech and the designers who make them, and commercial and governmental agencies involved.
There are many new positive uses to which self-tracking might be put, and the penultimate few paragraphs outline some of these – such as ‘empathy’ projects and creative projects.
Are religious belief systems compatible with scientific belief systems? Is religious knowledge different to scientific knowledge?
This post considers the arguments and evidence for the view that religious beliefs are compatible with scientific belief systems.
One argument within the secularisation debate is that the Enlightenment started a process of rationalization within society, which led to technological developments and social progress. This in turn meant that the old, traditional, irrational religious belief systems were increasingly challenged, and so there was a corresponding decline in religion.
The above view holds that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are incompatible, and that more rational scientific knowledge has effectively replaced religious knowledge in society, because scientific knowledge is some how superior.
However, there are others who argue that the relationship between science and religion is more complex and nuanced. This is especially understandable given the trend towards religious pluralism and the increasing diversity, or sub-divisions within science.
It is highly likely that ecumenical movements, or those with new age beliefs are more likely to find common ground with science than those from highly conservative religious movements or those with fundamentalist beliefs.
Religion and Science are compatible
There are several different lines of argument for the view that religious belief systems and scientific belief systems are compatible.
Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion were concerned with different aspects of human life which deal with different human needs.
Gould argued that one human need was to understand the workings of nature, which science dealt with. The job of science was to uncover objective knowledge about the ‘laws of nature’, which could be discovered using the scientific method.
Another human need was to find a meaning for their own life and to figure out a moral code which they should live by. Such meaning and morality are subjective and so cannot be discovered through the scientific method. People need religion to help them discover meaning and to lead a moral life.
According to Gould, these two spheres of human need do not overlap, and so religious knowledge systems and scientific knowledge systems can exist side by side.
Monotheistic religions which have a belief in one, universal God are compatible with science. It is possible to believe that there is ‘one God’ who created the universe and the laws by which it is governed, and then to use science to uncover exactly what those rules are.
Some recent concepts developed in the field of physics seem to support the worldview of traditional Asian belief systems, such as Taoism. A good example of this is Fritjof Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics‘.
Some religions are actually based on science – The most obvious example here is scientology, which has developed devices such as the E-meter to track people’s progress towards the ‘Bridge to Total Freedom’.
I thought I’d take the unusual step of plugging a series of novels in this post….
The ‘Mars Trilogy’ by Kim Stanley Robinson (1990s) may well be a work of science fiction, but it’s full of sociological themes. I guess you’d call the genre something like ‘ecological science fiction’ – a lot of his novels are set in a future in which ecological limits play a major role in the story-lines, and the characters, like it or not, cannot escape such limits. Similarly, his novels, although science fiction, tend to imagine a world where corporate capitalism still remains the dominant power in society.
I actually first came across the author thanks to a quote by Naomi Klein in ‘This Changes Everything’, I guess it’s no surprise to find her linking to him, given that capitalism and climate change is her bag too.
In this particular series of novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) – the story follows Earth’s settlement of Mars, which starts with the ‘first hundred’ leaving for Mars and establishing a colony, soon to be followed by millions of other settlers.
The novels span about a couple of hundred years, and in the first novel (Red Mars) there’s lots of discussion among the first hundred about how to organise the environmental, social and economic aspects of ‘life on mars’.
A recurring theme is whether they should terraform the planet to make it suitable for human habitation – with views on the matter ranging between ‘Reds’ who want to leave Mars as it is and for humans to just live in ‘tents’, to the fullest supporters of terraforming, who want to turn the environment into one with liquid seas and breathable air.
Robinson also introduces the concept of ‘Aeroforming’ – a small group of the original settlers end up going ‘religious’ believing that the planet and themselves and their children need to co-evolve in a spiritual mutual-evolutionary process, and at various stages throughout the novel, Robinson comes back to the idea that New Mars needs some kind of religion to bind all of the disparate elements together.
Another major theme in the novels is the power of Transnational Corporations – which have become so powerful they effectively control the UN in the early stages of the of novels, but by the end they have effectively taken over whole countries on earth (because of bailing them out of their debts, sound familiar?).
The Transnationals basically see Mars as a place from which to extract resources to be shipped back to Earth, and idea which, in the second novel, is resisted by the third and fourth generation ‘Martians’ (who have never been to Earth) who have grown up in a world run largely on the basis of a ‘gift economy’ (made possible mainly by technological advances) rather than a profit economy.
Over the course of the novels, there are various conflicts between the TNCs, who have their own armed security forces, supported by various countries on Earth (rather than the other way around!) and the Martians, who actually reject the concept of ‘revolution’ because of it’s tainted history on Earth, developing a more selective and targeted, scientifically informed approach to getting rid of the TNCs.
Anyway, that’s a brief summary of some of the political and sociological themes in the novel, which also touches on issues of ageing (early on a treatment is invented that allows people to live well, well beyond 100 years); the issue of global warming (one key event on Earth is the collapse of a major Antarctic Ice Shelf) and obviously the role of technology in human relations (Robinson imagines it as mainly a liberating force); metaphysics (science vs religious frames of knowing the world); and the good old issue of cosmpolitanism (how can different cultures get along!?)
If you’re looking for sci-fi that imagines completely different futures, this isn’t it (so maybe it’s not actually sci-fi?), but if you want something that’s set in a future that seems like it’s a distinct possibility and in doing so reflects on many of the problems we face today, it’s a great read.
Just one criticism – each book is about 700 pages long, and each book IMO would benefit from loosing about 100 pages: too much unnecessary time is spent in ‘characters heads’ while adding little to the plot.
Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that became popular in the 1980s, and the ideas associated with it can be seen as a response to the social changes occurring with the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
Postmodernists claim that the classic social thinkers took their inspiration from the idea that history has a shape – it ‘goes somewhere’ and is progressive. Jean Francois Lyotard argues that this idea has now collapsed and there are no longer any ‘metanarratives’ – overall conceptions of history or society – that make any sense.
The postmodern world is not destined, as Marx hoped, to be a harmonious socialist one, and thus Marxism (along with Functionalism and Feminism) and its promise of a better future are no longer relevant to the more complex and less predictable post-modern age.
Similarly, Lyotard argues that scientific research is no longer done purely to uncover knowledge to make the world a better place (like the original Enlightenment thinkers thought was the case), but simply to empower those with the money who fund it. This could explain why we have nuclear weapons but no cure for cancer.
Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of scientific knowledge (and especially its application) has in some ways made the world a riskier, more dangerous place – nuclear weapons and global warming are both the products of science, for example.
Democracy has spread around the world, but in many developed political systems voters are apathetic and politicians reviled. In short, for many postmodern theorists, the grand project of modernity has run into the sand.
For Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), the post-modern age is a world where people respond to media images rather than to real persons or places. Thus when Diana, princes of Wales, died in 1997, there was an enormous outpouring of grief all over the world. But were people mourning a real person? Princes Diana existed for most people only through the mass media, and her death was presented like an event in a soap opera rather than an event in real life. Separating out reality from representation has become impossible when all that exists is ‘hyperreality – the mixing of the two.
Zygmunt Bauman (1992) offers a helpful distinction between two ways of thinking about the postmodern. Do we need a sociology of postmodernity, or a postmodern sociology?
The first view accepts that the social world has moved rapidly in a postmodern direction. The enormous growth and spread of the mass media, new information technologies, the more fluid movement of people across the world and the development of multicultural societies – all of these mean that we no longer live in a modern world, but in a postmodern world. However, on this view there is no compelling reason to think that sociology cannot describe, understand and explain the emerging postmodern world.
The second view suggests that the type of sociology which successfully analysed the modern world of capitalism, industrialization, and nation states is no longer capable of dealing with the de-centred, pluralistic, media-saturated, globalizing postmodern world. In short, we need a postmodern sociology for a postmodern world. However, it remains unclear what such a sociology would look like.
Bauman accepts that the modern project originating in the European Enlightenment of rationally shaping society no longer makes sense, at leas not in the way thought possible by Comte, Marx or other classical theorists. However, since the turn of the century, Bauman increasingly moved away from the term ‘postmodern’ – which he says has become corrupted by too much diverse usage – and now describes our age as one of ‘liquid modernity‘, reflecting the fact that it is in constant flux and uncertainty in spite of all attempts to impose order and stability on the world.
Many sociologists reject the thesis that we are entering a postmodern age altogether, and one staunch critic of postmodern theory is Jurgen Habermas (1983), who sees modernity as an ‘incomplete project’. Instead of consigning modernity to the dustbin of history, we should be extending it, pushing for more democracy, more freedom and more rational policy. Habermas argues that Postmodernists are essentially pessimists and defeatists.
Whichever view you think more plausible, it is the case that postmodern analyses have lost ground to the theory of globalisation, which has become the dominant theoretical framework for understanding the direction of social change in the 21st century.
Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.
This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.
The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.
According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:
they exist over and above individual consciousness
they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
each person is limited (constrained) by social facts
According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.
Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.
Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.
The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.
If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.
Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.
Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.
Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.
Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.
Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour
A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.
According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.
Positivism and The Comparative Method
The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time
The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.
The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:
Moral problems are not as acute
The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time
However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.
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.
An overview of theory and methods for second year A level sociology – a very brief overview covering the bare-bones of (1) Positivism and Interpretivism, (2) Is sociology a science?, (3) Sociology and value freedom, (4) Functionalism, (5) Marxism, (6) Feminism, (7) Social action theory, (8) Post and late modernism, (9) Sociology and social policy.
The notes below are deliberately designed to be very brief and ‘distraction free’ (and so I have kept the links below to a minimum), if you want more detailed information, much more in depth, you will find links to these on my ‘Social Theories Page‘ which follows the same structure as what is below!
1. Positivism and Interpretivism
Positivist approaches to social research are quantitative, ‘scientific’, objective.
Durkheim’s suicide is an example of a positivist study
Interpretivists criticise Positivist’s reliance on statistics (they are socially constructed)
Interpretivist approaches to social research = qualitative, empathetic, micro
Key example = Douglas’ study of the multiple meanings of suicide.
Positivists criticise Interpretivist research because it’s too subjective, not authoritative.
2. Is Sociology a science?
Key features of the scientific method = the experiment, objectivity, cause and effect relationships, making predictions.
Positivism = a scientific approach applied to society – Durkheim’s suicide as an example.
Interpretivist criticisms of the scientific method applied to society – humans are conscious actors, they cannot be understood using detached, quantitative methods
Criticisms of the ‘objectivity’ of science and the scientific method – Kuhn’s paradigm critique is especially important.
Realism – we can still usefully study society as an open system, rather than just focussing on individuals – for example we can still make general predictions about social behaviour based on statistical trends, even if we can’t predict exactly what that action will be or who, specifically will do what.
Postmodern views of science – the idea that ‘truth’ is no longer possible.
3. Can Sociology be value free?
Values = people’s own subjective beliefs and opinions. If social research is value free then it means that it is free of the personal biases of the researcher.
Positivism – Claimed that sociology could be value free using scientific methods which meant the researcher was as detached as possible.
Interpretivists criticise this – values creep into the quantitative research process – through the social construction of statistics for example.
Moreover – Interpretivists say we need to understand people’s values to understand how they act! However, it is harder to remain value free when doing qualitative research.
Weber argued that we could collect objective date on people’s values but we needed to be explicit about our own values all the way through the research process.
Some sociologists criticise ‘institutional sociology’ for being limited in scope, and argue we need a political, explicitly value laden sociology to counter-balance this.
For example Howard Becker argued sociologists should take the side of the underdog and give them a voice – this is an explicitly value-laden sociology
Marxist and Feminist sociology is also value laden in its choice of research topic – Sociology should be aimed at achieving political
Postmodernists believe objective knowledge is not possible, so all we can do is deconstruct knowledge, and criticise people who claim to have value-free, objective knowledge.
Late Modernists such as Giddens criticise at least one aspect of postmodernism – there are still objective social problems, such as global warming, migration, global inequality, which sociology needs to focus on.
However, constructing objective knowledge is a problem in contemporary sociology because knowledge is reflexive – it is part of the society it comes from – thus we need to careful to make our own value and opinions clear throughout the research process so that others can make an informed judgement about the usefulness of our research. That’s just the way it is!
Durkheim’s functionalism – social facts and anomie
Parson’s systems theory – the organic analogy and social evolution
Merton’s internal critique of functionalism – latent and manifest functions
Functionalism applied to the family – Murdock’s four universal functions, Parson’s functional fit theory and the two irreducible functions of the family – socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities
Functionalism applied to education – meritocracy, social solidarity, school as a bridge between home and society (particularistic and universalistic values)
Functionalism applied to Crime and Deviance – Durkheim’s three positive functions of crime, strain theory, consensus subcultural theories.
Functionalism and Modernisation Theory – Parson’s traditional and modern values and the evolutionary model of society
Functionalism and research methods – Durkheim’s Positivist approach to suicide
Karl Marx – the basics: bourgeoisie and proletariat, exploitation, alienation, false consciousness, revolution.
Gramsci’s humanistic Marxism – hegemony, dual consciousness and organic intellectuals
Althusser’s structuralist Marxism – the repressive state apparatus.
Marxism applied to the Family – capitalism, private property and the family, The family as a safe haven, ideological functions, also see Marxist Feminism
Marxism applied to education – the ideological state apparatus, reproduction of class inequality, legitimation of class inequality, correspondence principle
Marxism applied to Crime and Deviance – • Private Property and Crime, The costs of Corporate Crime, Selective Law Enforcement, Criminogenic Capitalism (“Dog Eat Dog” Society)
Marxism applied to Global Development – Colonialism and Slavery, The Modern World System, Unfair trade rules, TNC exploitation
Marxism and Research Methods – Social Class, Comparative Analysis, Objectivity/ Critical Research.
Liberal Feminism – does not seek revolutionary changes: they want changes to take place within the existing structure; the creation of equal opportunities is the main aim of liberal feminists – e.g. the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act
Marxist Feminism – capitalism rather than patriarchy is the principal source of women’s oppression, and capitalists as the main beneficiaries, through the housewife role for example; overthrowing capitalism remains the main objective.
Radical Feminism – Society is patriarchal, dominated and ruled by men – men are the ruling class, and women the subject class. Rape, violence and pornography some of the key tools through which men control women; separatism can be part of the solution.
Difference Feminism – women are not a homogenous group, they experience disadvantage in different ways.
Postmodern Feminism – critiqued preceding Feminist theory as being part of the masculinist Enlightenment Project; concerned with language (discourses) and the relationship between power and knowledge rather than ‘politics and opportunities‘.
7. Social Action Theory
Max Weber: Verstehen, and Social Change – observation alone is not enough to understand human action, we need empathetic understanding. Gaining Verstehen is the main point of Sociology, e.g. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).
Symbolic Interactionism – people’s self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them (the looking glass self); need to understand meanings to understanding actions; social roles are not specific or fixed; they can be interpreted in various different ways.
Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory – People are actors on a ‘social stage’ who actively create an impression of themselves
Labelling Theory – the definitions (meanings) people impose on situations or on other people can have real consequences (even if those definitions are not based in reality)
8. Post Modernism and Late Modernism
Economy and Politics = Industrial economies, jobs for life; Nation State, most people vote and are in trades unions; Organised/ Heavy Capitalism and the Welfare State
Society/ Culture reflects the underlying class and patriarchal structures; Nuclear family the norm, marriage for life; Identities shaped/ constrained by class position/ sex; Media – one way communication, reflects ‘reality’
Knowledge – The Enlightenment – Science/ Objective Knowledge/ Truth and Progress
Sociology – Positivism/ Functionalism – doing research to find how societies function and gradually building a better world; Marxism/ Feminism –emancipation.
Economy/ Politics = Post-Industrial, service sector, portfolio workers and consumption is central; Declining power of the Nation State; Disorganised Capitalism/ Liquid Capitalism (Bauman)
Society/ Culture – Culture is free from structure – it is more Diverse and Fragmented ; Relationships more diverse; More Individual Freedom to shape identities; Media – more global, two- way, hyperreality (Baudrillard)
Knowledge – Critique of the Enlightenment; Incredulity towards Metanarratives (Lyotard)
Sociology – Narrative histories; Deconstruction (Lyotard) and Destabilising Theory.
9. Sociology and social policy
Intro – Social policy = things the government does to steer society in some way. Examples include taxation which affects wealth distribution, various education policies and policies about how to tackle crime
There are several reasons why governments may ignore certain findings of research – e.g. lack of money; Marxists and Feminists believe governments generally have an ideological bias which mean they ignore certain research findings.
Positivists believe researchers should collect objective knowledge to assess the impact of social policies and to help introduce new policies
Social Democratic Perspectives generally agree with the above.
The New Right and Neoliberals – have had most influence on social policy recently – e.g. The education system/ crime policy and in International Development
Marxist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which favour the redistribution of wealth and promote equality of opportunity, such as the abolition of private schools.
Feminist approaches to social policy – prefer policies which emphasis gender equality, such as the Paternity Act.
Postmodernists focus on deconstruction rather than social policies
Late Modernists emphasise the importance and challenges of developing and evaluating social policies in an age of globalisation.
Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of A level sociology papers 1 and 3.
74 pages of revision notes
15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
Five theory and methods essays
‘How to write methods in context essays’.
Related Posts/ Find out More
Please see my ‘Social Theories Page‘ For more links to a whole range of posts – both summary and in depth on various social theories relevant to both A level sociology and beyond!
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.
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