Positivism (Compte / Durkheim / Marx)
YES - Sociology CAN and SHOULD be seen as a science
Observable external factors (social facts) influence our
behaviour and can be studied by busing the detached, objective,
empirical and quantitative methods of science.
Popper (Science Philosopher)
YES - Sociology COULD be a science, but only when it produces
testable, falsifiable hypotheses. This is difficult, because much of
what sociologists study is unobservable, so not falsifiable.
However, it IS possible e.g. Ford’s hypothesis about
comprehensive schooling leading to social mixing of the classes was
tested and falsified through her empirical research.
Kuhn (Science Historian)
YES - Sociology COULD be a science, but a single paradigm would
need to develop - this is very unlikely because there are different
paradigms which compete with each other; similarly, there are also
splits within paradigms.
Unlike Popper, Kuhn argues that scientists use verification (not fal-
sification) - to try to prove their theories to be right. and only
when challenges to a paradigm are overwhelming, does a
scientific revolution take place and a paradigm is replaced. So,
science is a social construction.
NO - Sociology CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be a science We cannot study people like we
study the natural environment because we can’t predict human behaviour. We need to ex-
plore the internal meanings which direct our behaviour. Our behaviour is not a result of
external factors. Sociologists explore internal meanings which are unobserva-
Ethically, we can’t study humans like we study objects, and we can’t study them in artificial
environments such as labs.
Humans are not puppets - what makes them different is that they have free will /
consciousness- so can choose how to behave. The phenomena which science studies
cannot decide for itself how to respond (eg an apple), humans can.
Interactionists aim to obtain validity via the use of the unstructured approach. They argue
that sociologists should use grounded theory to ensure that their research is open
minded, and that by doing this we CAN establish cause and effect.
However, ethnomethodologists argue that we CAN’T establish cause and effect
because society does not exist “out there”.
Realism - Bhaskar, Keats and Urry:
Realists claim that both Positivists and Interpretivists have misunderstood what science is.
Realists illustrate that many great scientific discoveries have not been “observed” - just
worked out by looking at their observable effects *.
YES sociology COULD be a science -
• Sociology explores unobservable phenomena (eg meanings and motives) by
observing their effects - but so does science (germs, virus’, black holes)
• Sociology operates in an open system - but so does some science * (eg weather).
So… these two issues are not a barrier to Sociology being a science. Posi-
tivism and Interpretivism can both be seen to use the scientific method.
Postmodernism and social con-
structionists - science is influenced by social
factors (eg funding, career aspirations etc).
There is NO objective scientific method.
Scientists are part of the society they explore,
just like sociologists are.
Sociology and Science - the debate…
Sociology can be considered “scientific” if it follows FIVE (VOSCOS) “rules”:
1. Value freedom *
3. Systematic methods of data collection
4. Careful analysis
5. Organised Scrutiny / continual testing and re-testing.
However, these “rules” are the focus of much debate - * especially regarding the issue of “values”.