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  1. 1. Sociology and Science EMILE DURKHEIM: Concepts- inductive and positivism What is science? Science is a system for answering questions, e.g. why do apples fall from trees not float off into space? The scientist gathers evidence by observing and measuring the relationship between variables, looks for patterns and then develops a hypothesis to explain this event which other scientists repeat to test if the theory is accurate. This is an inductive approach as you follow the evidence to find the solution rather than following a hunch (deductive approach). Can sociology be a science? Durkheim argued that he had indeed followed the above process in his investigation of suicide. He claimed that he had objective data (suicide statistics from a range of different countries over the same time frame) which accurately measured suicide. He then analysed the data and discovered how certain variables were causal in the decision to take your own life e.g. your religious orientation or your marital status. He hypothesised that Catholics and married people had higher levels of social integration compared to single people or Protestants and, hence, this stopped them from taking their own lives. He believed that this blueprint for research (which he called positivism) could be deployed by other researchers to scientifically explain human behaviour. Evaluation of Durkheim: Is his definition of science accurate? Scientists would recognise the method that Durkheim advocated as being an accurate model of what they do and his methodological approach has inspired a mass of other sociologists to use positivism to explain why two variables are correlated. However, Popper would claim that Durkheim is mistaken in his claim that scientists do not start with a hypothesis which they then attempt to falsify and, secondly, scientists would claim that his variable of social integration cannot be accurately measured unlike say, length or temperature. Is his claim that sociology can be a science accurate? Durkheim did find correlations between the suicide rate of different social groups and most would accept that he did so in an objective ‘scientific’ manner. However, his claim that sociology can be a science by following his positivist approach is one that is highly disputed. This is because sociologists then always invent concepts that cannot be accurately and objectively measured to explain what they have hypothesised about. Therefore, sociology can never truly be a science so Durkheim did not prove that it could in fact become a science. Should sociology be a science? Durkheim was writing at the time of the enlightenment when there was a shared belief that everything in the universe was planned and ordered and that by applying the principles of scientific research we would be able to unlock all of its secrets. He was inspired by Comte who had argued that there was a gap in academia for a subject that tried to understand human behaviour – sociology. Therefore, not only did Durkheim agree that sociology should be a science but also he believed that his research into suicide would establish it as the queen of science. Is his claim that sociology should be a science accurate? In our postmodern age, we are much more sceptical about science and the desirability of it as a body of knowledge; fewer people would claim it should be a science today that did in Durkheim’s day. However, science is still viewed as the highest form of academic study by many in society so many sociologists still want to associate themselves with subjects like physics. Conclusion: The nature of sociological research means that we will always use immeasurable concepts and, therefore, we can never be scientists. In many ways, whether sociology should be a science is a redundant question because if we cannot meet the criteria to become a science then what does it matter if we should/shouldn’t be a science?
  2. 2. KARL POPPER: Concepts- falsification and deductive approach What is science? In direct contrast to Durkheim’s inductive approach, Popper claims that true science should adopt a deductive approach i.e. start out with a hypothesis and then try to falsify it as opposed to verifying it. His classic question is how you investigate the view that ‘all swans are white?’ Popper claims that rather than trying to find every swan and then concluding they are all white, one should set out to prove oneself wrong i.e. find a black swan. The longer that a theory lasts without being falsified the more likely it is to be accepted as scientific truth. In order for this to happen a hypothesis must be more akin to a SMART target and the researcher must specify precisely what will happen in a particular situation. Can sociology be a science? Popper argued that Marx’s ‘scientific’ claim that capitalism would eventually be replaced by communism is an unfalsifiable hypotheses as Marx didn’t specify when this would happen, so that type of sociology is unscientific. BUT if future sociologists use hypotheses that they or others can attempt to falsify then Popper believes that YES Sociology can become a science. Evaluation of Popper: Is his definition of science accurate? Scientists work in closed systems so are able to control all of the variables to establish causal relationships and, therefore, they have the capacity to falsify their hypotheses. Originally it was conceived that atoms were solid balls with electrons embedded into them, however, this hypothesis was falsified by Rutherford who developed the model of the atom we accept today. However, the research diaries of famous scientists often reveal that data that challenges (falsifies) their views is rejected and, hence, they would not be deemed to be scientists according to Popper. It is rather naïve of him to assume that scientists do not set out with the intention of proving that they are right as opposed to trying to disprove their own ideas as Popper claims that they do. Is his claim that sociology can be a science accurate? Sociologists deal with open systems that make it impossible to control all of the variables in the same way that you can do in the lab. This means that it is very easy to falsify sociological hypotheses because the thing that they are trying to explain is multi-causal. E.g. if one hypothesised that absentee fathers were causal in crime it would take seconds to find an exception to this rule whereas in science this is much more difficult to do. Should sociology be a science? Popper would definitely argue that sociology should be a science. One of the reasons why he was so critical of Marxism was that Marxists used concepts like false class consciousness which is impossible to falsify. Popper argued that sociology was a pseudo-science and, that as a consequence, it lacked credibility. Is his claim that sociology should be a science accurate? As with what was said about Durkheim, science is not as valued now as it was at the time when Popper was writing. Therefore, the question as to whether sociology should be a science is a subjective judgement. Far more money is devoted to academic research in science than the arts so there is a very pragmatic reason why sociology should continue to try to be regarded as a science. Conclusion: The nature of sociological research means that it is unable to create falsifiable hypotheses, therefore, it cannot be a science according to Popper’s model. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that scientists themselves don’t falsify so ironically many scientists should not be called scientists, according to Popper.
  3. 3. THOMAS KUHN: Concepts - paradigm What is science? Kuhn argued that the scientific outlook on the world is shaped by the existence of paradigms. A paradigm is set of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions that all researchers in a particular area of specialism agree upon and that it frames how future research should be undertaken. The paradigm is passed on to subsequent generations where they are taught classic experiments and whose ideas to worship. Any new research that correlates to the paradigm is accepted as being true not because it has been falsified but because it conforms to the paradigmatic rules and anything that challenges existing beliefs is either rejected or modified. To use modern language, Kuhn would argue that it is generally impossible to think outside of the box. After an extended period of time the weight of contradictory evidence becomes so great that a scientific revolution takes place whereby the old values are suddenly rejected and a new paradigm is born, Kuhn calls this a scientific revolution. Can sociology be a science? Kuhn argued that sociologist have never been able to form a consensus as to what sociology is - its rules and shared practices i.e. have a paradigm. BUT Kuhn believes that YES Sociology can become a science but only if sociologists can move from being pre-paradigmatic to paradigmatic. Evaluation of Kuhn: Is his definition of science accurate? Each new generation of school kids are taught the same classic experiments, scientific laws and concepts so that they can fit their ideas and discoveries into the existing framework. Groups like the Royal Society rigorously test new science to see if the findings can be proven. Lakatos also claims that Kuhn is wrong in his claim that scientists operate in a uniform paradigm. Kuhn’s depiction of ‘pre-paradigmatic’ sociology is equally applicable to the intellectual arguments that characterise science. Also, much of science is linked to secrecy and not sharing ideas (e.g. pharmaceuticals) so the idea that scientists all work together in harmony is questionable. Is his claim that sociology can be a science accurate? Sociologists disagree with each other on pretty much everything. From basic questions like whether or not use quantitative methods or qualitative ones to if we have entered the postmodern age to what is the main source of inequality in society. Therefore, it is definitely pre-paradigmatic. However, these differences are so great that it is impossible to conceive a time when sociology creates a shared paradigm. Therefore, it can never be a science using Kuhn’s definition. Should sociology be a science? Kuhn would be less certain that sociology should be a science given how critical he is of scientists’ inability to think outside of the box. In spite of this, Kuhn did classify himself as a scientist so presumably wouldn’t be entirely unhappy if sociology too was labelled to be a science. Is his claim that sociology should be a science accurate? His doubts have been championed by postmodern sociologists who claim that the faith that humanity put in science during the Enlightment have been replaced with increased cynicism in that we are much more sceptical of science as a result of things like global warming so our desire to want sociology to be viewed as a science is not as strong as one was the case. Conclusion: There is much more consensus in science than there ever will be in sociology, however, many would agree that with Lakatos that science is also a long way from having a shared paradigm either. Therefore, as with Popper, Kuhn’s definition of science may be unattainable even for ‘science’ so it definitely cannot help us to determine if sociology is a science. Of the three writers considered, Kuhn would seem to be the theorist who is the weakest advocate that it is in the interests of sociology to continue to its quest to be a science. Final Conclusion: It would seem that sociology cannot be a science according to the three definitions of science we have assessed. As to whether it should be, it seems that the main motivation now is to attract greater funding rather than to part something as grand as the Enlightenment!
  4. 4. Value Freedom What is Value Freedom? Value freedom is the notion that a researcher can let the facts do the talking and not make any theoretical assumptions that will somehow taint the data. It is closely linked with the idea that sociology can be a science in that it is a commonly held assumption that a scientist remains objective and detached when s/he is developing a theory. This view is very clearly advocated by Popper in his views on falsification – that you are so value free that you set out to prove yourself wrong. However, the counter-argument can be traced to the ideas of Kuhn who would claim that a paradigm is a set of values that makes scientists resistant to facts “outside the box” – that is to say they in fact have values and, therefore, are not value free. EMILE DURKHEIM: Can sociology be value free? He most definitely would have argued that sociology can be value free. In exactly the same way as he advocated that it could be a science by using observation and measurement he thought that this process would prevent him from imposing his values onto the research and would simply see what was there. He argued that the statistics he analysed were created independently and, hence, they were comparable to those generated by an experiment. He then sought to find trends and patterns in the data which led to the generation of a testable hypothesis. Durkheim believed that his legacy to sociology was that he left it a value free methodological approach to study society which other sociologists could apply to their chosen topic area. He called this positivism. Is his claim that sociology can be value free accurate? Interpretativist sociologists question whether the statistics that Durkheim analysed were indeed value free. Instead, they claim that all statistics are socially constructed as the decision to record a verdict of suicide is often linked to labels about mental health or perceptions of individual coroners. Following this logic, as the data that sociologists use will always be subject to such external forces, it would seem that Durkheim was mistaken in his view that sociology could be value free. Moreover, as was stated in the science debate, the hypothesis that sociologists create will unwittingly reflect their theoretical beliefs and cannot be measured in an objective way. E.g. a radical feminist would link most phenomena to patriarchy and would only research issues that demonstrate the unequal position of women in society. Should sociology be value free? Durkheim was writing at the time of the Enlightenment when there was a shared belief that everything in the universe was planned and ordered and that by applying the principles of scientific research we would be able to unlock all of its secrets. Given that one of the most fundamental principles of science is the ability to remain value free, Durkheim would most definitely agree that sociology should be value free because, quite simply, if it was deemed not to be objective then it would not be taken seriously by others in the scientific community. Is his claim that sociology should be value free accurate? In our postmodern age, we are much more sceptical about whether science and scientists are value free. So much scientific research is funded by corporations and pharmaceutical companies that many believe that scientists set about proving what they are told to prove by their patrons. However, science is still king in our society. Therefore, many would still argue that it is to the benefit of sociology that it does remain objective and value free so that it can tick one of the boxes required to be accepted as a scientific subject. Conclusion: Value freedom as conceived by Durkheim would appear to be an unrealistic goal for sociology. Moreover, whereas there would have been no doubt at the height of modernity that sociology should be a science, sociologists today would be far from certain that this is something that is desirable.
  5. 5. ALVIN GOULDNER: Concepts- domain assumptions Can sociology be value free? He believes that all researchers are governed by what he terms domain assumptions. A domain assumption is essentially an ideological outlook on the problems of the world and how one should resolve them, for example should one collect quantitative or qualitative data? Given that Gouldner believes we cannot escape from these he would consequently argue that sociology cannot be value free. However, he claims that the fact that it cannot be value free actually improves the quality of sociological research compared to findings from other subjects! This is because the sociologist can be up-front about the assumptions s/he has made in the research. Readers can then use these as a guide when deciding whether or not they accept the findings so the chances are if s/he comes from a similar academic tradition s/he would endorse the theory and vice versa. In essence, had Durkheim declared he was a positivist and a functionalist in the introduction to his suicide study then other sociologists would have respected his honesty and used their analysis to challenge his conclusions – thereby generating strong sociological debate. Is his claim that sociology cannot be value free accurate? Most people would agree with Gouldner’s view that sociology cannot be value free. He does seem to have produced an honest appraisal of how sociological research is done. One could go even further by acknowledging that this is actually what happens in research in all academic disciplines, including the natural sciences! `No doubt Gouldner would like scientists to be equally as transparent as sociologists are about who paid for the research and what the expectations of their paymaster were so that one can judge the quality of their scientific research but this is not likely to happen any time soon. Should sociology be value free? Gouldner would not even consider this question because if you believe that sociology cannot be a science you would not then ponder as to whether or not it should be. Is his claim that sociology should be value free accurate? As we shall see in the next section, some of his peers taken a more political stance to this question. Rather than admitting to your domain assumptions almost apologetically as Gouldner would seem to be advocating, Interpretativists would go even further and state that actually sociologists should openly wear their heart on their sleeve and be value laden! Conclusion: Gouldner is perhaps realistic in his stance on domain assumptions in that we all, to a certain extent, are prisoners to our class, gender, age & ethnicity and this will inevitably affect the way we see the world. Moreover, he offers a way to move forwards regardless of sociology’s inability to be value free. Gouldner would not even bother to contemplate whether it should be. HOWARD BECKER: Concepts – value laden Can sociology be value free? He would not even bother to answer this question! His contribution to the value freedom debate came in an article “whose side are you on?” He states that rather than being value free, sociologists need to go to the other end of the spectrum and conduct value-laden research. Becker claims that one cannot be a social interactionist without making value judgments and the notion that a sociologist can be objective is simply impossible. He argued that sociologists should champion the underdog e.g. the members of a youth subcultural group who have been labelled by an agent of social control as deviants. By using qualitative methods that achieve verstehen (e.g. covert participant observation), it gives a voice to the downtrodden. As a consequence, this improves their life because other members of society feel empathy and this pressurises politicians into doing something to address the situation they face e.g. pass new legislation or change policing priorities.
  6. 6. Is his claim that sociology should abandon its quest for value freedom accurate? There are many similarities between Becker’s stance and that of radical feminists like Mies who argue that all sociological research should be conducted with the explicit aim of radicalising women so they revolt against patriarchy and replace it with a female-only society. However, Gouldner famously criticised Becker by claiming that it is very arrogant of a sociologist to assume s/he can give a voice to the down-trodden. Also, Gouldner stated that Becker’s value laden approach did not actually address the source of the problem and to do so you need to adopt a domain assumption led approach such as Marxism that actually would make their lives better. Why sociology shouldn’t be value free? It is rather ironic that Becker’s assertion that sociology should be unashamedly biased allows other academics to ignore sociological research. There is something rather patronising in someone who is typically an older white middle class university educated man thinking that he can empathise with the socially marginalized and give them a voice. Maybe collecting cold hard ‘objective’ statistics would be a better way to force those in power to address the inequalities that the sociologist is so concerned about and thus, it is sensible for sociology to be value free. Is his claim that sociology shouldn’t be value free accurate? The irony is that most other academic disciplines think that all sociologists conduct value laden research and that, therefore, there is not any point debating whether sociology should or shouldn’t be value free. However, values do enter all sociological research (and, in reality, all academic research). However, because most other subjects don’t even bother to contemplate this question and act as if their research is value free then maybe sociology should just do the same and see if anyone notices! Conclusion: As was the case with the science question, it seems fairly clear that sociology cannot be value free. As regards the should, it is probably less important to be scientific today than was at the time of Durkheim but Becker’s stance leaves sociology vulnerable to being dismissed as not being as academic as other subjects. Therefore, Gouldner would seem to offer the best way forwards in this debate: state your assumptions and let the reader assess how that impacts on your findings – who knows maybe science will have to be equally as honest one day in the future!
  7. 7. Relationship between Sociology and Social Policy Social policy is an umbrella term for any piece of legislation or government objective that is designed to address the way we live our lives. A recent example was the law that came into place banning smoking from public places. This was an attempt by the government to help to reduce the risks of passive smoking to employees working in traditionally smoky environments e.g. pubs. In this instance, the justification for this new law was produced by scientists. This begs the question what is the relationship between sociology and social policy? At the most simplistic of levels, this question can be answered three ways: 1. Sociology has no relationship to social policy. Instead it is concerned with politicising an oppressed group to make them rise up and destroy the status quo. This view is associated with radical feminists and traditional Marxists. 2. The relationship between sociology and social policy depends on whether the ideological beliefs of the politician and the sociologist match! This view reflects the beliefs of new left and new right realists. 3. Sociological research directly shapes social policy. This acknowledges how many pieces of sociological research are conducted on the behalf of the government (e.g. the Census). Sociology has no relationship to social policy: MARIA MIES (RADICAL FEMINISM): would contend that sociology has no connection with social policy. By definition, social policy is about reforming the existing system to make it more tolerable for the oppressed. However, the whole point of radical feminism is that patriarchy can only be removed by revolutionary change. Mies believed that the purpose of sociological research is to reveal the true extent of the oppression of women and by doing so helping to remove false consciousness that many women are controlled by. When they appreciate the true nature of their subjugation then women will not be content with minor political reforms and instead will push for the creation of a female only society where they can be truly free. KARL MARX (TRADITIONAL MARXISM): As a historical materialist he theorised that human societies were on an inevitable and irreversible course towards the adoption of a communist economic system. He contended that capitalism, and its inequalities created by the superstructure, contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. He agreed with Mies that sociology has no relationship to social policy; however, he differs in that he also believed that, as social change was inevitable, politicisation of the masses through sociological research was unnecessary. Sociology has no relationship to social policy: Evaluation Both radical feminists and traditional Marxists have evaluated the oppressive nature of patriarchal and capitalist societies. Indeed, they could justifiably claim that little has really changed in the actual lives of the proletariat or women in spite of the numerous social policies that have been introduced over the last century. Therefore, they could claim that this proves that sociologists have spent too much time in trying to gain minor concessions through social policy rather than focussing on the bigger picture – revolutionary change. However, these very extreme views do not recognise just how the lives of ordinary people have changed as a result of the introduction of social policies inspired by sociological research, for example, the creation of the welfare state and its links back to earlier research into poverty. Moreover, British people are conservative with a small c and have always tended to reject revolutionary ideas. Therefore, Mies might have actually set back women’s liberation by alienating the very women she hoped to politicise. Moreover, how long are the proletariat supposed to wait for the inevitable replacing of capitalism with communism as promised by Marx? Surely, social policies such as the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974) have contributed to saving thousands of working class lives and helped people to have a much increased life expectancy.
  8. 8. The relationship between sociology and social policy depends on whether the ideological beliefs of the politician and the sociologist match! ANTHONY GIDDENS (THIRD WAY): During the New Labour governments of Blair and Brown (1997-2010) Giddens was informally known as Tony’s Tony. In other words, he was the person that the PM turned to when trying to tackle Britain’s social problems e.g. the high number of lone mother families. His research into social exclusion and the solutions that he advocated were translated by the government into the creation of SureStart Centres and the passing of the Tax Credit Act (2002). Quite clearly, the reason why Giddens was so influential is that his ideological vision directly matched those of the politicians. This becomes more apparent when one also evaluates the work of the think-tank Civitas and the American sociologist Murray on the same issue. As both represent a New Right ideological perspective, their ‘solutions’ were rejected by Blair and Brown. CHUBB AND MOE (NEW RIGHT): Mrs Thatcher was famously contemptuous of sociologists, however, even she sometimes took on board solutions suggested by New Right sociologists. One such piece of research was conducted by Chubb and Moe in which they advocated marketization policies in state schools. Many elements of the Education Reform Act (1988) had a direct correlation to Chubb and Moe’s views on how to raise standards in UK schools. Many other sociologists were deeply critical of the changes introduced (e.g. Gewirtz et al.), however, their voices fell on deaf ears as the Tories rejected their views because of the ideological beliefs favoured by their critics. Interestingly, even when New Labour came to power in 1997, Blair and Brown rejected calls by left-wing sociologists to end selection within schools in research conducted by Trowler and also by Whitty. This shows that even when the ideologies are similar sociologists will not always be able to persuade a government to change its social policies. Sometimes the need to keep voters on board outweighs the desire to stick to ones principles! JENNIFER SOMERVILLE (LIBERAL FEMINIST): is a firm believer in the power of social policy to tackle inequalities generated by institutional frameworks in society. In response to numerous sociological research studies which claimed that the way maternity leave operated helped to ensure the reproduction of patriarchy, the New Labour government introduced the Work and Families Act (2006). The law allowed women to transfer up to 3 months of their maternity entitlement to their partner. However, Somerville’s evaluation of this social policy revealed that it did not work because men could not afford to take unpaid leave. Therefore, Somerville advocated that a system should be introduced to pay fathers during this time to make it financially viable. However, this was clearly too costly so this amendment was never introduced. Evaluation of the relationship between sociology and social policy depends on whether the ideological beliefs of the politician and the sociologist match! It stands to reason that politicians want some kind of rationale or justification for their social policies and given that sociology is the discipline that evaluates society and offers solutions then sociologists potentially have enormous sway. As well as Giddens’s close ties with Blair and Brown, American sociologists such as Wilson and Murray gained enormous influence over the Reagan presidency (1980-1988). It could also be said that the reason why radical feminists and Marxists reject the relationship between sociology and social policy is that these ideological views have never underpinned British or American politics. However, it is also apparent that just because the sociologist has conducted a piece of research that conforms to the ideological views of the sitting government this in itself guarantees nothing! Politicians are first and foremost concerned with the media and the electorate. Secondly, all governments are concerned about the level of public spending. Consequently, if the solution costs too much in terms of votes or money then the sociologist may still be ignored. Even worse, politicians may even sacrifice their own principles and as a result may adopt a policy that is advocated by someone with whom they would normally ideologically disagree e.g. when Blair and Brown failed to end selection in schools in spite of strong voices of sociological dissent or when Cameron pledged to make it financially easier to be a stay at home Dad.
  9. 9. Sociological research directly shapes social policy: BRITISH CRIME SURVEY (BCS): The BCS is a victim survey carried out on behalf of the Home Office. It has an enormous impact on policing in England and Wales. The people who design the questions, operationalise the data, select the sample and administer the survey will no doubt have a sociological background. The results of the BCS are used to judge the effectiveness of the government and the criminal justice system as a whole and are, therefore, extremely important. For example, if the BCS reveals a rise in the level of knife crime and fear of knife crime, then this might then result in the government passing new laws e.g. Violent Crimes Reduction Act (2006) which introduced a mandatory sentence for anyone convicted of carrying a knife for no good reason. Evaluation of Sociological research direct shapes social policy: It is self-evident that a piece of research commissioned by the government in all likelihood will have a direct impact on social policy. Moreover, the government sponsors numerous such studies and many sociologists have (and still are) playing a significant role in the completion of these investigations. One can therefore say without question that sociological research does indeed shape social policy. Indeed, the catchphrase for the 2011 Census is helping tomorrow take shape. However, semantically it may be true to say that sociological research shapes social policy but the reality is that the researchers simply do what they are told! Traditionally, the sociologist sets his/her own agenda and is able to conduct their research relatively free from interference. However, a sociologist working on the BCS is not able to introduce a specific set of questions in the hope that they can persuade politicians to pass a new law on their particular cause for concern. The best that they can hope for is that working on a large scale governmental survey will look good on their CV and allow them to get a job working for a think-tank or a charity that endorses their views or gets them funding to do the research that they think will lead to the introduction of new social policies. Conclusion: Having now evaluated the three responses to the question what is the relationship between sociology and social policy it would seem apparent that radical feminists and Marxists were too dismissive of the potential for sociologists to influence the political decision-making process in a meaningful way. In addition, just because sociologists play a crucial role in the completion of several key national surveys the very fact that they are employees rather than the person with the overall vision for the research means that it is the research findings not the sociologist that can make governments change their policy. However, as we have seen with Giddens and Chubb & Moe (here) and Wilson (in the US), sociologists have had an integral role in shaping social policy. In spite of this, in the history of sociology many, many more sociologists have been ignored by policy makers than have ever been listened too. Before we get too dejected, the same can be said for lawyers, doctors and scientists – politicians are nothing if not fickle!
  10. 10. Modernity and Postmodernity Over the course of history, one of the most significant milestones was the transition from pre-modernity to modernity – the Age of Enlightenment. This event happened around the time of the industrial revolution when members of society began to believe that science (modernity) rather than God (pre-modernity) gave human beings the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. In sociological terms, this led to the birth of the classic sociological perspectives such as functionalism and Marxism. However, as society has further evolved over the past two hundred years many now argue that we have moved into a new era. Some sociologists have labelled this late modernity believing that this is a refinement of modernity as opposed to the start of something radically different (Giddens). However, others have claimed that there has been a paradigm shift as we have rejected the cherished beliefs that the secrets of the universe can be explained by big meta-narratives. In this postmodern world, sociologists no longer search for objective truths but instead look at how there are multiple discourses that shape and re-shape our realities. Pre-modernity 0~1750AD: Religion could explain the universe! Modernity The Age of Enlightenment 1750~1970AD: Science could explain the universe! Late Modernity Postmodernity Globalisation & Uncertainty 1970~:Can we explain the universe? Examples of Modernist inspired sociology: EMILE DURKHEIM (FUNCTIONALISM): Durkheim wanted to turn Comte’s vision into reality and set out on his mission to make sociology the queen of all the sciences! It was for this reason that he selected suicide to be the topic of his research as he wanted to prove that this seemingly most individual of acts was in fact explainable using positivism. This encapsulated the key belief of Enlightenment thinkers that human behaviour was controlled by objective truths – determinism rather than free will. Another key element in Durkheim’s research was that he wanted to evaluate the differences between pre-modern and modern societies. He claimed that, in the former, people bonded together with shared rituals which stressed the essential similarities between members of society, creating mechanical solidarity . However, in modernity, societies needed a strict division of labour with individual members of society and societal institutions developing greater specialisation. Each element of society and individual within it relied on the contribution of others, hence Durkheim’s concept of organic solidarity which is based around individual differences. Modernist inspired sociology: Evaluation Although modernist inspired sociologists have disagreed with each other about what concepts are the most crucial and who benefitted from living in modern capitalism the one thing that stands out is the amount of insight that their research has offered to those interested in societal problems. Many sociologists are today still employing the same methods in their quest for discovering objective truths to explain modern phenomena, such as rising crime rates. For example, Murray would contend that there is a correlation between the presence of the biological father and criminality of his male offspring in his distinctly modernist study. A significant problem for modernist sociology comes from the fact that so many of the concepts that are analysed are neither directly observable nor measureable thus breaking with the first principles of science. Indeed, many modernists would argue that this aspect alone means sociology can never be a science and was therefore not part of the Enlightenment. The social action tradition in sociology was the first to challenge the overly deterministic nature of modernist theory and assess the extent to which free will is important. Social action theorists brought in the
  11. 11. notion of agency and analysed how meaning and truth were socially constructed. However, such writers did not contend that we had entered a new era of postmodernity. The modern world of 200 years ago is radically different to today. Britain in 2018 is a multi-cultural, multi- faith and multi-media based society in an increasingly globalised world. The optimism of the Enlightenment has been replaced with an ever more cynical attitude to science and so-called meta-narratives. An example of this new approach to sociology is Dunne’s difference feminist analysis of conjugal roles in lesbian relationships being more egalitarian because they are not constrained by gender scripts. Examples of Late Modernity inspired sociology ANTHONY GIDDENS (THIRD WAY): His main contribution was to try and reconcile the structural and the social action traditions within sociology which led to the development of structuration thesis. He said that whilst social structure was important (agreeing with modernist thinking) he thought that human action could generate changes in how these structures operated. He argued that the main distinction between modernity and late modernity was the ability of people to affect change. In late modernity, he contended that the world had become more disembedded. Essentially, people had more freedom to define their own truths rather than having them imposed through a very regimented socialisation process. This reflects a key Enlightenment idea that society can change for the better, the key difference being that it is the people who are the drivers of change rather than academics through their theories and laws. However, the very fluid and ever-changing world in which we live (e.g. no-one can expect to stay in the same job for life anymore) has created uncertainty and has made people very reflexive. This reflexivity means that individuals constantly evaluate their actions and carefully plan their future choices against any perceived risk. The idea of risk has been developed by Beck and applied to topics as varied as falling marriage rates to modern criminality. Example of Late Modernity inspired sociology: Evaluation Whilst it is obviously true to say that we live in a very different world than existed at the time of the Enlightenment, this does not necessarily mean that we live in a postmodern society. The fact that white, middle class, middle aged men still dominate key positions in society would suggest that structural forces are still significant in 2018. Moreover, postmodern writers are rather passive in their attempts to shape the future, generally limiting themselves to promoting alternative discourses. However, late modernists are more optimistic about the ability of ordinary people (through their reflexivity) to mould structural forces to make the world a better place e.g. fighting for improved rights for oppressed groups. In this regard, one could see that liberal feminism conforms to the spirit of late modernist sociology. However, this vision of people-power generating social change is said to be rather naive. People are still highly sceptical about global warming and, if anything, are very complacent about the future rather than risk averse. Moreover, even when the public do protest (e.g. tuition fees) there is little evidence that those in power actually listen. As stated earlier, the world of 2018 is so different to modernity that many writers claim that we have now entered the postmodern age. Late modernists, it could be argued, are living in the past. Usher and Edwards would argue that the modernist question of what do schools do for society? is no longer relevant. Instead, they contend that in the postmodern age there are any number of education providers each of which cater for a diverse range of needs. For example, faith schools, distance learning courses and apprenticeships are widely available. This starkly contrasts with the modernist vision of writers like Coard who believed that schools were designed to make the black child feel inferior in every way. Example of Postmodern inspired sociology: FRANCOIS LYOTARD (POSTMODERN): argued a key feature of any version of ‘truth’ was its associated metanarrative. For example, in pre-modern times people had faith because they believed that they would be rewarded (go to heaven) or punished (go to hell) if they did not. Similarly, the modernist metanarrative was sold to the people on the grounds that scientific knowledge would lead to the world being a better place. Lyotard argued that ordinary people have become sceptical about the ability of science to enhance their lives especially as it has so often been used to harm rather than help people (e.g. creation of weapons of mass destruction). Consequently, this metanarrative has fallen. Moreover, other metanarratives have also been revealed to be detrimental so people are no longer prepared to accept metanarratives full-stop. Marxism,
  12. 12. which was supposed to liberate the masses, actually led to the creation of totalitarian regimes e.g. China. As a result, Lyotard claims that we have moved into a new age – postmodernity. In this brave new world, Lyotard claims, knowledge has become fragmented and there are now a range of discourses that compete to represent multiple truths. Lyotard calls these language games in which the purpose is not to try and find universal truths but rather to convince others that their discourse is more valid than that of other people. Example of Postmodern inspired sociology: Evaluation As we have seen from our investigation into postmodern views of the family and religion, there is evidence to support Lyotard’s contention that we have seen the end of the metanarrative. Members of postmodern society now have considerable freedom to define their own realities and are no longer controlled by a Christian metanarrative that promotes heterosexuality and monogamy. A woman today who wants to have a child can marry, cohabit, use a sperm donor, start a relationship with a man who already has children, adopt or have a series of one night stands until she conceives. Lyotard’s ideas are endorsed by Baumann’s research into contemporary religion. Baumann evaluated the effect of there being an absence of a metanarrative as to why individuals should obey the law. He found that in postmodernity we are all seeking a code to live our lives by. However, rather than this being prescribed to us there are now any number of discourses that individuals can select to show them the way. Postmodernists celebrate the ability of people to make choices and to define their own realities. However, late modernists argue that structural forces still control our lives. For example, maybe Madonna or Angelina Jolie can choose their route to motherhood, however, if society is so postmodern why do some many women still define themselves in terms of their maternity? Also, in any historical era, there have been a number of people who break the law – even in pre-modern times when the punishments were particularly cruel and they were convinced that they would go to hell; so Baumann might over-stretch the point that we are searching for a discourse that prevents us from being deviant. Conclusion: Having now assessed various viewpoints as regards whether we live under modernity, post-modernity or something in-between it is clear that there is no definite answer. However, the extent to which we look to science to explain the unexplained has certainly declined in the last 50 years. Our society is now more diverse and fragmented and the way we communicate and share information has changed beyond all recognition. Therefore, it would seem self evident that modernity as a framework for underpinning sociology is no longer useful. However, in other regards society is remarkably stable and the same groups still dominate key positions today as they did at the turn of the century. This implies that postmodernist writers were too quick to proclaim the end of the metanarrative as we do still seem to be governed by big stories. This therefore leaves either late modernity or postmodern Marxism. As stated, Marxist ideas do feel rather passé in 2011 so the least worst model is that typified by Giddens and Beck – late modernity.
  13. 13. Relationship between Theory & Methods Most sociologists have a predisposition towards a particular perspective e.g. one might think that our society oppresses women and as a result of this becomes a radical feminist. However, the key question that this handout is trying to address is whether perspectives have an associated methodological approach that adherents would automatically adopt. E.g. are functionalists by definition positivists? The Symbolic (Social) Interactionist Methodological Approach HERBERT BLUMER: He took the ideas of Weber (verstehen) and his mentor Mead to produce a coherent new intellectual framework within which to analyse human behaviour. 1) Symbolic or social interactionists reject the notion that people are completely controlled by external factors in a uniform fashion as Durkheim maintained and, therefore, reject the positivist methodological framework. Instead, they claim that although structures exist meaning and truth change according to the context and this leads to theories about the socially constructed nature of our world. For example, thou shalt not kill - unless one is a soldier during a conflict. They focus on small-scale interaction (e.g. the relationship between a group of pupils and their teacher). 2) Blumer stated that the researcher needs to immerse him/herself into the situation and thereby see how individuals interpret what is happening (verstehen) and this leads them to use qualitative techniques such as participant observation. Evaluation of the Symbolic (Social) Interactionist Methodological Approach: It offered a radical departure from the existing positivist methods as utilised by Marxists and functionalists and added a whole new dimension to Sociology. Moreover, there is a direct lineage between what Blumer advocated and the more radical views of Becker (see previous handout). Interactionists use their more qualitative methodological approach to show that social structures do not necessarily control human behaviour in a uniform way by focusing at the micro level. However, they are criticised for their inability to explain who created these structures in the first place. The Phenomenological Methodological Approach J ATKINSON: He starts from the premise that all understanding is based upon the belief that nothing has an intrinsic meaning e.g. a suicide is only a suicide because we know what a suicide looks like otherwise it is just another death. 1) Atkinson claims that suicide statistics are simply a compilation of decisions reached by a number of coroners about a number of deaths and, consequently, he rejects the positivist claim that they are social facts. Instead, he argues that the only question that sociologists can ask about suicide is how do deaths get categorised as suicides? His methodological approach derives from Garfinkel’s documentary method. The documentary method involves collecting a range of qualitative data on the area of interest and then evaluating the meaning that is attached to each piece of evidence to see if any patterns emerge. E.g. Atkinson found that coroners thought that if the body is found in an isolated location this means that the person did not want to be disturbed and, therefore, it is a strong indicator of suicide. Using it to predict verdicts in future cases can then check the identified pattern – this is known as being reflexive. Moreover, he found that coroners have a common-sense theory of suicide, this cannot be used to explain anything else, the analysis ends here. Evaluation of the Phenomenological Methodological Approach: In many ways the approach that Atkinson advocates reflects what we all do every day of our lives. We are confronted with a range of external stimuli, most of which we ignore and some of which we internalise. The information that we internalise is then categorised against existing experiences to allow us to understand what this means. The phenomenological approach is good in that anyone can do it but also leads to the question why do we need sociologists? Another problem is that although we all have the potential to identify meaning, some groups clearly have more power to force their interpretation of truth onto others and writers like Atkinson do not acknowledge this point or try to explain it.
  14. 14. The Strong Feminist Methodological Approach MARIA MIES: Her strong feminist methodological approach has strong links with Becker’s empowerment thesis in that it completely rejects the belief that sociology can or should be value free. Instead, the researcher should be a value laden active participant in the struggle for women’s liberation who inspires and encourages other women to join the movement. The whole purpose of the research is to reveal the true extent of the oppression of women. The final outcome of this project will be women coming together to smash the patriarchal system and replace it with a new status quo. For example, the writer may get a job as a volunteer in a women’s refuge so they might gain access to and support victims of domestic violence. Subsequently, she might interview these women and write up her findings as a demonstration of the patriarchal nature of life in the nuclear family achieving verstehen. Evaluation of the Strong Feminist Methodological Approach: It is somewhat ironic that the overtly political nature of this approach means that many women are scared off whilst at the same time it enables men to dismiss the research, because it is so extreme. Consequently, the liberal feminists may actually end up effecting more change than their more radical sisters. Another problem is that although this is a highly subjective and valid approach the results are then applied to society as a whole. This is bad practice; one should only generalise from data accrued from a representative sample. The Postmodern Methodological Approach SARA DELAMONT: She is critical of the standard way in which sociological research is undertaken and ultimately written up. This involves a researcher collecting data using a range of different methodological approaches and then making it fit in with the theories, biases and perceptions that the sociologist has to produce a coherent argument. The reader cannot access the field notes, completed questionnaires or the wealth of other material that fell on the proverbial cutting room floor and, hence, cannot judge the accuracy of the findings. In contrast, she states that those who subscribe to postmodern research ensure that multiple voices can be heard in the final text. This is achieved by presenting a range of pieces of evidence (e.g. biographical information or verbatim transcripts of interviews) and ensuring that these can be distinguishable from the author’s own interpretation of what it all means. The writer can achieve this by stating explicitly the assumptions s/he made – this is known as a reflexive voice. This ultimately allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Evaluation of the Postmodern Methodological Approach: No matter how hard one might try to provide multiple voices and be reflexive, inevitably this will involve an editorial process whereby the researcher decides what to include and what to omit. On a more basic level, if one follows the postmodern methodological approach to its logical extension there is no need for sociologists! All one would have do to is to invite people to contribute blogs or video diaries about a particular theme to a web site and then get others to decide what they think it all means.