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.
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.
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.
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
1959 “The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press”.
1986 “Three scientific world views and the covering law model”.
Henslin, James M
2009 “sociology for Caribbean Students”.
Name: Karayme Bartley
Teacher: Ms. Gordon
Date: September 30, 2013