Values and Ethics in SociologyPositivists argue that sociologists should work in the same way as other scientists –they must observe, measure, classify and test and as a result construct theories and‘social facts’. Theories can then be constructed which will then be tested (peerreviewed) by other researchers.It was Durkheim’s mission to establish sociology as a science; he argued sociologycould be as objective as the natural sciences as long as it studied social facts. In hisfamous study Le Suicide (1897), he attempted to establish the social facts thatmotivated people to take their own lives. • What did Durkheim argue caused suicide?Other sociologists argue that this is far too idealistic a stance. Even Durkheim wasmotivated to conduct his research as a result of the death of a friend. Max Weber,who is most closely associated with the idea of value freedom, was probably primarilyattempting to keep Prussian censors at bay, when he advocated this position.Is neutrality possible?The biggest employer of researchers in the UK is the government, who require allthose working for them to sign away their rights to publish, as a result they will surelybe less inclined to publish anything controversial.At Warwick University in the 1970s and 1980s one of the lecturers in the PoliticsDepartment had the title, ‘Volkswagen Lecturer in German Politics’. • How might this undermine the neutrality of the research being undertaken?Personal interests and beliefs will clearly influence the selection of the research beingundertaken. Carrying out research can take up years of a person’s life, researchersmust clearly have a passion for what they are doing. • What would you do research on?Often researchers find it difficult to get the go ahead to research a topic, Ann Oakleyfound it very hard to get her supervisors to allow her to carry out research for‘Housework’ (1974). • Why do you think this was?Today green issues are arguably ignored.Foucault agues, from a postmodernist perspective, that all knowledge is that which thepowerful want to impose on the rest of society. Being ‘value free’ is therefore a set ofvalues itself.Committed Sociologists believe that the discipline should not be neutral. Marx wasvery critical of other theorists; ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world invarious ways. The point however is to change it’. Althusser argued that the role ofsociology is to expose the real nature of capitalism in order to hasten its downfall.
Similarly, radical feminists believe that highlighting the real nature of patriarchy willfree women, and that far too much sociology at present reflects ‘malestream’ thinking.Howard Becker argued that sociology should always be on the side of the underdog –the powerless. Gouldner went a step further in terms of the study of crime; hebelieved that either the police officer or the criminal hold real power, this is held bythose who create the structures of oppression. • Who do you think he meant by this?In terms of actual research, sociologists are always obliged to take ethicalconsiderations into account, but in reality many sociologists such as Venkatesh(‘Gang Leader for a Day’) cross the line.Dick Hobbs did ethnographic research on the non-uniformed police (the C.I.D.) and criminals in Tower Hamlets. He discovered that both groups behaved illegally,but he refused to pass criminal information to the police. He also was also doing illicitobservation on the police. By using these methods he was arguably able to produce amore important study than if he had stuck to the rules.Laud Humphreys in his study ‘Tearoom Trade’ did covert research on gay sexualencounters in public toilets. He had become an accepted member of the gay scene inChicago (he was not gay), and he acted as a ‘watch queen’ during their illegalactivities, pretending to be a voyeur. He also noted down car number plates andobtained addresses through police contacts. He called on one hundred of thesecontacts and interviewed them having changed his appearance, pretending to beconducting a health survey.Some of Humphreys colleagues at Washington University demanded that he besacked for using these methods, while members of the gay community praised him forcreating a greater understanding and dispelling myths and stereotypes. In other words:the ends justified the means.According to D. Warwick (1982) ‘Social research involving deception andmanipulation ultimately helps produce a society of cynics, liars and manipulators andundermines the trust which is essential to a just social order’.Gomm (2004) argues that sociology cannot be value-free as society is among otherthings composed of values.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Practice questionItem A‘Patriarchal knowledge is based on the premise that the experience of only half of thehuman population needs to be taken into account and the resulting version can beimposed on the other half.’ [D. Spender – 1985]Item B‘There are numerous points at which bias and the intrusion of values can occur.Values can materialise at any point during the course of research. The researcher may
develop an affection or sympathy, which does not necessarily present at the outset ofthe investigation, for the people being studied. It is quite common, for example, forresearchers working within a qualitative research strategy, and in particular when theyuse participant observation of very intensive interviewing, to develop a close affinitywith the people they study to the extent that they find it difficult to disentangle theirstance as social scientists from their subjects’ perspective. This possibility may beexacerbated by the tendency that Becker identified for sociologists in particular to bevery sympathetic to underdog groups.’ [A.Bryman -2004]Using material from the items and elsewhere, assess the view that values inevitablyenter sociological research in many ways.How to tackle this question- you need to examine the debate between those whoadvocate value-free and value-laden sociology. You should first present the positivistsclaim that it is possible to keep values out of the research process. Then contrast thiswith the view that the values of those who fund the research will inevitably influencethe process (‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’). Similarly, the politics, values andcareer interests (publish in the most prestigious journals to promote your career), aswell as the choice of topic, methods and findings will always intrude into the process.You should also consider whether it is desirable to keep values out of research andwhether Becker is right that sociologists should take sides.