Sociology as a science

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Sociology as a science

  1. 1. What is a science? To answer the question if sociology is a science or not, first we need to know what is a science, otherwise the question does not make much sense. Actually current philosophical views on the nature of science are diverse, and largely liberalized from previous views. First, they no longer accept strong criteria of falsification as a scientific method. There are several ways to formulate falsification, but here I mean something like this: Scientific theories should make observable predictions and we should discard a theory if we find only one discrepancy between a prediction of the theory and an observation. Because even physics cannot meet such a strong criteria, now philosophers like Lakatos (1970) admit tolerance to such failure to some extent. Another new movement in philosophy is the attack on the universal laws. Cartwright (1983) argued that seemingly universal physical laws are not really universal, from logical point of view. This and other reasons, Cartwright (1983) and Hacking (1983) presented a new view of science in which piecemeal "models", instead of universal laws and theories, play the central role of scientific investigation. Here, "models" means oversimplified mental pictures of structure. For example, planetary model of atoms is long known as an oversimplification, but still it is widely used by chemists as a convenient way for thinking about chemical reactions.
  2. 2. Is Sociology a Science? With the analysis of science in the previous section in mind, let us turn to sociology. Early sociologists tried to establish sociology as a science, and their arguments are mainly on the methodology of sociology. Comte claimed that sociology uses four different kinds of methodologies, namely observation, experiment. These are the methodology used in several other scientific fields, especially in biology. So if his sociology had really followed these methods, it would have been a strong case for sociology as a science. But actually he never did an empirical research, so we cannot take his argument at the face value. But his argument influenced on other sociologists, especially Durkheim. For Durkheim, sociology is a study o f social fact. A social fact is “a thing that is external to, and coercive of, the actor". Because they are external, social facts cannot be investigated by introspection. We should use empirical research. Durkheim used statistics on suicide rate to establish his argument that suicide is a social phenomenon. Durkheim applied too strict criteria of falsification to rival accounts. Adoption of these strict criteria is suicidal for sociology, because it is hard for a sociological theory to make a precise prediction, let alone to make a precise and correct prediction. And without this, the falsification criteria do not work. Another related problem is in his rejection of introspection as a sociological method. This restricts the scope of sociology too narrowly, and in fact even Durkheim's own study becomes impossible. For example, Durkheim's definition of suicide is "any case of death 'resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of an individual against himself, which he knows must produce this result'" (ED p.32). But, without using introspection, how can we decide if he knows the result or not, from external evidence only? It is said that Weber's methodology provides an answer to these problems. His key word in this point is "Verstehen", a German word for "understanding". According to him, we can "understand" other people's motivation through understanding of our own intentions, and this kind of knowledge is necessary for sociology. This is exactly what Durkheim denied as a method of sociology, but as we saw even Durkheim himself used this "understanding" in his actual work. But, of course, the problem is if this is permissible as a scientific method. Strong falsification of a theory is almost impossible by such facts, because if an interpreted fact runs counter to the theory we can just change the interpretation. But, as we saw in the last section, such strong falsification is given up by philosophers of science as too strict criteria. Moreover, the arbitrariness of interpretation is not as great as one might worry. For example, Comte's three stage theory has no follower today because there is no way we can reasonably interpret the evolution of society as obeying such a law. In this case we can say that Comte's theory was falsified. As far as we have this minimal possibility of falsification, we can admit "Verstehen" as a scientific method of sociology, thus "interpretive" sociology as a science. One of the reason people may argue against sociology as a science is the lack of the sociological theory. We have Marx's theory, Durkheim's theory, and Weber’s theory and so on, but none of them are shared by all sociologists. This seems to make a strong contrast with other fields of science where scientists agree on the basic theories.
  3. 3. Value Free Sociology To talk about value free sociology, I am introducing a distinction made by philosophers. This is the distinction between epistemic values and non-epistemic values. Epistemic values are related to a special type of question "what should we accept as knowledge (or a fact)? Logical consistency, empirical adequacy, simplicity etc, are the criteria to answer such a question, and they are called epistemic values. On the other hand, other values are supposed to be used to answer a wider question "what should we do?" These are non-epistemic values. With this said, we will find that the claims of value free sociology made by early sociologists were actually the claims for independence of epistemic values from other values in sociology. First, let us see the case of Spencer. Spencer distinguished several kind s of emotional biases, and claimed that we should exclude these biases from sociological research. None of these biases are epistemic value as said above. Moreover, Spencer claims that we should exclude these biases as a value judgment, but this is an epistemic value judgment, and as far as this claim itself is not affected emotional biases, to apply such a value to sociology should be ok. So Spencer's argument agrees with my definition of value free sociology. The same argument applies to Weber. Weber says that teachers should not exploit the circumstances in a lecture room to imprint upon the students his personal political views, because the task of teacher is to teach his students to recognize. Again this is a value judgment, but epistemic one. Apparently sociology or any other science cannot be free from all values because the ideal of value free sociology itself is a value, but at least it can be free from non-epistemic kinds of values, when we decide what a fact is and what is not. I guess even Marx can agree this notion of value free sociology to some extent. Of course in Marx's theory the value judgment and the theory are inseparably related, but his actual arguments show that he distinguished these two things. Of course I admit non-epistemic values and sociology have many interrelationships. For example, the choice of research topic is influenced the sociologist's personal values, and sometimes a result of sociological research has immediate normative implications. But still, I think, at the point of accepting something as a fact, we should be free from non-epistemic values. The scope of sociology Comte thought that sociology is the study of social structure and social change. Durkheim thought that sociology should deal with social facts. Simmel claimed that everything which was not science of external nature must be science of society. Do any of them have the right answer? I don't think that there is anything right or wrong on this topic, but my own preference is Simmel's answer quoted here. I think that Comte's and Durkheim's answers tried to restrict the subject field of sociology to establish sociology as an independent scientific field. But now no one would doubt sociology is an independent field (even though someone might object that it is not a "scientific" field). In this situation, such a conscious self restriction of subject matter is nothing but an obstacle to interdisciplinary cooperation’s with psychology and other neighbor fields. This is why I like Simmel's answer.
  4. 4. Conclusion According to the liberalized philosophical view on science, there is nothing wrong with admitting Weber's "Verstehen" and "ideal types" as scientific method, thus admitting sociology using this method as a science. Recent distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values makes the claim of "value free" sociology intelligible, and I think it is a reasonable position if taken in the sense I defined. I also briefly talked about the scope of sociology, and argued that we should not be restrictive on the subject matter of sociology as a science
  5. 5. Bibliography 1959 “The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press”. Neuman, Lawrence 1986 “Three scientific world views and the covering law model”. Henslin, James M 2009 “sociology for Caribbean Students”. Mustapha, Nasser
  6. 6. Name: Karayme Bartley Subject: Sociology Teacher: Ms. Gordon Date: September 30, 2013

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