OBJECTIVITY AND VALUES IN SOCIOLOGY(see text books page 270-275)
In JUNE 2011 the 33 marks THEORY & METHODS question was:
Q4 ‘Sociology can be value-free and should be value-free.’ To what extent do sociological arguments and evidence
support this claim?
Another very similar 33 mark question is:
Q4 ‘Assess the view that values can and should be kept out of sociological research’
The material in this booklet is designed to enable YOU to successfully tackle these or similar questions in the exam.
One view of science is that it produces ‘true’ knowledge. According to this view scientists take a detached and
objective approach (impartial, neutral, unbiased) to their research. They don’t allow their subjectivevalues (biased,
prejudiced or one-sided views) to get in the way of discovering the facts.
Values- what exactly are values and why are they important in Sociology?
Every member of society has values. Values can be defined in various ways:
• beliefs, opinions and prejudices about right or wrong, or good or bad.Cherished beliefs
• Ideas or beliefs that are thought to be valuable by those who hold them
• Views often linked to ideas of ‘goodness’, ‘what’s right’, ‘what’s decent’........
• Involve POLITICAL positions – what is the most preferable way to organise society.
Given that sociologists are also members of society can they study it objectively and without bias, unaffected by
their own personal values?Can sociologists’ research be ‘value free’ – free from contamination or distortion by their
values? This question has divided sociologists creating a debate and therefore a possible exam question.
Your teacher’s 3 main values are:
1. To treat everyone with respect regardless of age, gender, class, ethnicity, region etc
2. To look after my mother and father in their old age
3. To do the best I can for the pupils I teach
You will no doubt hold a different set of values, have other ideas on what is most desirable and important to you.
Write one of your own values here:
There are threeclear and distinct positions over the question of personal and political values in theory and research:
1 VALUE-FREE SOCIOLOGY
The idea that research can and should be carried out without the researcher’s beliefs and ideas intruding into the
research and influencing the design and execution of the project. This is the central characteristic of POSITIVISM –
value freedom is achieved by following the objective procedures of the natural sciences to produce true scientific
knowledge about society.
2 VALUE-LADEN SOCIOLOGY
In this view values are inevitable and it is not possible as Positivists claim for research to be value free. Sociologists
are human beings with values and study other humans with their own values. It is inevitable that values will play a
part in research. However for some in this camp value freedom is still the most preferable way to conduct research
andthe sociologistshould strive at all times to be detached and value free (even though this is never entirely possible
in practice), and declare his/her values to allow others to decide if they have interfered with their work.
3 ‘COMMITTED’ SOCIOLOGY
In this view it is actually desirable for sociologists to use their values to improve society through their work (and live
up to their values). Politicalcommitment should influence and be the reason for the research. Here the sociologist
openly declares which side they are on and makes a conscious attempt to make the world a better place through
their work. As long as the position is made clear the research can be checked and verified.
Objectivity and values in sociology
The Classical Sociologists and Values
All had important views on the question of objectivity and value freedom:
EARLY POSIVISTS: COMTE, DURKHEIM
Comte(1798-1857) andDurkheim (1858-1917)
took their inspiration from the
As the science of society the job of Sociology
was to discover the truth about how society
works and uncovering social laws/social facts
was the way they did this.
This could improve human life by solving social
By discovering the truth about how society
worked they could say objectively with scientific
certainty what was really best for society.
Comte saw sociology as queen of sciences – and
sociologists as latter day priests of a new
scientific religion of truth.
KARLMARX (1818 – 1883)
In some ways can be seen as a positivist. He saw
himself as scientist who believed his analysis of
society (historical materialism – seeing
economic production as the starting point) could
reveal the true nature of society.
Showing the proletariat the truth of capitalist
exploitation and alienation would pave the way
for communist classless society.
Marx takes for granted the value of the ideal
communist society and argues that his scientific
approach shows us how to reach it. Like Comte
and Durkheim then he sees science as helping to
‘deliver’ the good society.
However Marx was also a committed political
activist – his view that was that the only way to
change society was to understand it. He actively
agitated for working class revolution as well as
writing ‘scientific’ sociology.
Marx, Durkheim and Comte saw little distinction
between scientific facts and our values because the
believed that science could tell us what these values
Weber on the other hand makes a sharp distinction
between facts and valuejudgementsarguing that we
cannot derive values from facts. The example of divorce
illustrates this – Durkheim found that divorcees are more
likely to commit suicide however this does not infer that
divorce should therefore be outlawed (a value
judgement) because we could equally argue that suicide
is an option everyone has a right to choose (another
value judgement). Therefore to Weber values can neither
be proved or disproved by facts.
Perhaps strangely then Weber saw an essential role for
values in sociological research. He divided the research
process into 4 stages and looked at the role of values
within each stage:
1 Values as a guide to research
Values guide the choice of a sociologist’s research
because they inevitably study what is important to them
e.g. feminists study gender inequality
ARE VALUES RELEVANT AT THIS STAGE?
2 Data Collection and hypothesis testing
When we are actually collecting the facts we need to
keep values and prejudices out of the process and be
unbiased and objective. e.g. don’t ask leading questions
Once we have gathered the facts we can use them to
test a hypothesis, does the hypothesis fit the observed
facts or not?
ARE VALUES RELEVANT AT THIS STAGE?
3 Values in the interpretation of data
Values are present in the interpretation of data – bias
comes in the theoretical framework the facts are fitted
into. Sociologists need to make this perspective clear so
others can judge whether there is bias or not.
ARE VALUES RELEVANT AT THIS STAGE?
4 Values and the sociologist as a citizen
Sociologists are citizens – sociologists should take the
moral responsibility for the implications of their research
and the harm it might do e.g. Einstein’s research made
the atomic bomb possible, something Einstein opposed.
ARE VALUES RELEVANT AT THIS STAGE?
Modern Positivists –
shied away from any value commitments
Unlike Comte and Durkheim who were openly committed to re-shaping society in certain ways by the mid
C20th positivists tended to argue that their own values were irrelevant to their research. There were two
reasons for this:
REASON 1: THE DESIRE TO APPEAR SCIENTIFIC
Science is concerned with matters of fact, not value – ‘is’ questions, not ‘ought’ questions. Therefore in this
view sociologists remain morally neutral and concentrate on establishing the truth only. Critics argue that
this simply reflected the desire to make sociology respectable and to tap into the high prestige science
enjoys in modern society.
REASON 2: THE SOCIAL POSITION OF SOCIOLOGY
Gouldner (1975) critiqued the‘hired hands’ or ‘hired guns’ nature of sociologists in the 1950s.Instead of
being problem makers who defined their own research problems, they had become problem takers who
hired themselves out to the highest bidder to solve their problems for them.
Alvin Gouldner was scathing of this position – he argued that this blind obedience meant that their own
values were irrelevant to their work. Remember Weber argued that research findings often have very real
effects on people’s lives and that sociologists must take moral responsibility for the effects of their work.
Two examples illustrate the link between modern positivists and the US military:
Project Camelot was a social science research project of
the United States Army that started in 1964 and was
cancelled after congressional hearings in 1965. The goal
of the project was to assess the causes
of conflict between national groups, to anticipate social
breakdown and provide eventual solutions. The
proposal caused much controversy among social
scientists, many of whom voiced concerns that such a
study was in conflict with their professional ethics.
The project's purpose was described by the army as
“ Success in such tasks as equipping and
training indigenous forces for an internal security
mission, civic action, psychological warfare, or
other counterinsurgency action depends on a
thorough understanding of the indigenous social
structure, upon the accuracy with which changes
within the indigenous culture, particularly violent
changes, are anticipated, and the effects of
various courses of action available to the military
and other agencies of government upon the
indigenous process of change.”
HUMAN TERRAIN SYSTEM (HTM)
A recent programme developed by the US military to
study groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US military
wanted to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the coalition
forces and used social scientists to work closely with US
combat brigades in the two countries. It was their job to
feed the military information which helped them to win
the trust of the local population and to defeat the
Not surprisingly some social scientists have heavily
criticised and boycotted the HTS as unethical.
The following sociologists advocate actively taking sides by championing the values and interests of particular groups
and individuals (the least powerful)
Gunner Myrdal (1969)
Argues that sociologists should not only spell out their values, as Weber recommends, but also openly take
Alvin Gouldner (1975)
Like Myrdal argues that is neither possible nor desirable to keep values out of research. To Gouldner value
free Sociology is:
a) Impossible because either the sociologist’s own values, or those of the paymasters, are bound to be
reflected in their work
b)Undesirable since without values to guide research, sociologists are merely putting their services at the
disposal of the highest bidder. Gouldner argues that:
from such a standpoint, there is no reason why one cannot sell his knowledge to spread a
disease just as freely as he can to fight it. Indeed some sociologists have had no hesitation
about doing market research designed to sell more cigarettes, although well aware of the
implications of recent cancer research.
Howard Becker (1970) – ‘whose side are we on?’
If all Sociology is influenced by values then the sociologist must inevitably take sides. By not choosing a side
the sociologists is in fact taking the side of the more powerful against the less powerful.
Becker argues that values are always present in Sociology and that positivists and functionalists have
tended to take the viewpoint of the powerful e.g. the police. To him instead of seeing things from the
perspective of the powerful sociologists should adopt a compassionate stance and take the side of the
underdogs – the criminals, the mental patients etc. By identifying with the underdog and giving them a
voice we can reveal a previously hidden side of social reality. For example in Venkatesh’s book ‘Gang
Leader for a Day’, the outcome of a participant observation study of a Chicago gang, he identifies closely
with members of a violent and criminal subculture. In other words we must be biased in favour of the gang
and against the police and the state. The emphasis on identifying and empathising with the powerless has
clear links to the kind of research methods favoured by interactionists, for example participant observation
to gain verstehen and reveal the meanings for these ‘outsiders’.
Alvin Gouldner’s criticism of Becker
However Gouldner criticises Becker for taking a romantic and sentimental approach to disadvantaged
groups and accuses Becker of being concerned only with the misunderstood and negatively labelled exotic
specimens of deviant behaviour (pimps, hippies, weirdoes etc).
Instead Gouldner takes aMarxist position, to him sociologists should take the side of those fighting back –
political radicals struggling to change society and should not confine themselves to describing the
viewpoint of the underdog and the oppressed (as Becker does). Sociology should be committed to ending
their oppression by unmasking the ways in which the powerful maintain their position.
FUNDING AND CAREERS
In the real world sociologists are influenced by their sponsors, their ambitions and the pressures of their
1 He who pays the piper calls the tune...
Sources of funding include government departments, businesses and voluntary organisations. Often the
body who pays for the research controls the direction it takes and the kind of questions it asks, or does not
ask.Therefore the sociologist’s work is likely to reflect the values and interests of their paymasters.
In some cases funding organisations may prevent publication if the research findings prove unacceptable,
or try to bury the findings. The Black Report (1980) into class inequalities in health was released over a
bank holiday weekend to try and lessen its impact because its findings did not ‘fit’ Conservative
government policy at the time.
2 Furthering a career and naked ambition
Sociologists are often career-minded and ambitious (personal values) and may seek to enhance their
reputations by choosing a topic, theory, or perspective which is in fashion at the time. They may also tone
down findings if they feel being too outspoken will threaten their careers or further job prospects.
Sociologists in university departments are likely to be under pressure to publish research, perhaps
regardless of its quality or usefulness.
PERSPECTIVES and METHODS
For Gouldner all research is inevitably influenced by values – whether it is the values of the sociologist or
those of the funding body that pays for the research. Different perspectives hold different assumptions
and values about how society is or should be e.g.
Feminists see society as based on gender inequality and promote the rights of women
Functionalists see society as harmonious and promote conservative values that favour the status quo (for
instance that nuclear families are the best way to organise family life)
Marxists see society as based on class inequality and exploitation and advocate revolution and a classless
These assumptions and values influence the topics that they choose to research, the concepts they use,
and the conclusions they reach. Functionalists argue that inequality is good for society, Marxists that
inequality is bad because it is based on exploitation and leads to alienation.
There is also a link between the methods sociologists prefer and their values. For example:
a)Interactionists for example prefer qualitative methods which fits with their desire to empathise with the
underdog – verstehen gives enables them to see the actor’s meanings and worldview.
b)Functionalists use positivist methods and take the side of the ‘establishment’ and see things from the
viewpoint of authority hence their uncritical acceptance of official statistics produced by government
Therefore both can be criticised for selecting methods that produce facts which reflect their values and
OBJECTIVITY and RELATIVISM
If all sociological perspectives involve values we could say then that there findings are simply a reflection of
their values, rather than a true picture of society. As someone once joked where Marxists find evidence of
class consciousness others find simply moaning. Similarly where Functionalists find the warm bath theory
the Marxist-Feminist Fran Ansley found women absorbing the revolutionary potential of men, women
as‘takers of shit’.
Therefore we might conclude that there is no way of deciding which of these different versions of reality, if
any, is the true one!
One version of this idea is known as RELATIVISM. Relativism argues that:
- Different groups, cultures and individuals have different views as to what is true. Each one sees
the world in their own distinctive way, through their own perspectives, concepts, values and
- There is no way of judging whether any one view is TRUER than any other
All sociologist would agree with the first statement, for example Feminists see the world in a certain way,
Calvinists in another, Fundamental Islamists in another......
However relativism goes much further – it argues that there is NO ABSOLUTE or OBJECTIVE TRUTH, only
many versions of the truth and what you believe is true IS true, for you, but for you only. Therefore if you
believe the world is flat, or that the moon is made of cream cheese then it is because there is no way of
RELATIVISM and POSTMODERNISM
Postmodernists take this relativist view of knowledge – they reject the idea that any one account of the
social world is superior to any other. In their view there is no ‘privileged account’ of the social world which
has special access to the truth. Any perspective that claims to have the truth, like Marxism, is just a
METANARRATIVE. All knowledge, from whatever perspective is based on values and assumptions and
therefore no perspective has any special claim to be true.
CRITICISMS OF THERELATIVIST POSTMODERN POSITION (A02)
Postmodernists argue that those that claim truth are just metanarratives – this defeats the postmodern
view ironically! Why should we believe them and their claims over any other version? Relativism then is
logically self-defeating since it at the same time tells us something true while also telling us that no one can
tell us what is true!
In practice sociologists rarely go this far. After all there IS a REAL factual world out there where:
- Women are doing most of the domestic tasks
- Children still go hungry
- Black youths are being labelled as criminals by the police
- Working class pupils overall do far worse at school than middle class ones.......
Regardless of the sociologist’s values or perspective we can observe and record these
facts. Once we have established the existence of such facts they can be used to judge the
value of competing theories and perspectives. In the end it matters less whether a theory
contains certain values, than whether it can explain the world that we observe.
TASK Label each of the statements below with the appropriate view
A VALUE-FREE SOCIOLOGY
B VALUE-LADEN SOCIOLOGY
C COMMITTED SOCIOLOGY
3 Early POSITIVISTSComte and Durkheim were
very optimistic about what Sociology could do.
To them is was about studying society
scientifically, uncovering the truth about society
and using this knowledge to improve society for
all. Comte saw sociologists as latter day priests
of a new scientific religion of truth!
5 Sociological research is usually funded.
Sociologists may have to agree to having their
findings manipulated for the benefit of the
funders. For example the Black Report (1980)
clearly showed class inequalities in health but
was ‘hidden’ by the new conservative govt.
7As human beings we all have values and we
cannot escape these however hard we try. The
best thing to do is to make these values clear
both to ourselves and the readers of the
research who can then make up their own
9 Postmodernists like LYOTARD and
BAUDRILLARD argue that sociological and
scientific thinking is based on a series of values
about the nature of society itself. Science itself
is a product of modernist thinking. The values of
science and/or sociology are no ‘truer’ than any
other set of values. This is RELATIVISM – it
suggests that no one perspective has any special
claims on truth. All are equally as valid.
11 RELATIVISM Suggests that all knowledge
from whatever perspective is based on values
and assumptions and thus no perspective has a
claim to truth.Criticism: tries to tell us
something that is true while telling us that no
one can tell us what is true!
13 Marxist theorist ALTHUSSER argued that the
role of sociology is to uncover the ways in which
the ruling class control the masses. The aim for
him then is to smash capitalism by exposing
how it only operates to benefit a select few.
2‘SOCIAL FACTS’ are out there simply waiting to
4 Gouldner criticised sociologists for sitting on
the fence. He noted that HE WHO PAYS THE
PIPER CALLS THE TUNE. Sociologists were in
danger of becoming ‘problem takers’ – hired
hands to the highest bidder (government,
military, business) with no backbone or moral
responsibility. Values are inevitable – if the
sociologist gives up on values then the values of
the hirer will predominate – he argued for
6 Some Sociologists are AMBITIOUS AND
CAREER-ORIENTATED – they want to be famous
and are sometimes egotistical and overly
ambitious. This can influence their choice of
topic among other things – in other words their
values come into the research.
8Sociologists are drawn or attracted to certain
areas of social life – this is often the result of
personal issues or experiences. This may lead to
sociologists being biased in their choice of
research topics and in their selection of the
10 MODERN POSITIVSTS
See OBJECTIVE SCIENTIFIC SOCIOLOGY as
entirely POSSIBLE AND FEASIBLE. Sociologists
should remain morally neutral – their job simply
to establish truth about society. Criticism:
sociologists like this are simply seeking
credibility and respectability by standing in the
shadow of science and all the prestige this
seems to offer.
12 HOWARD BECKER argues that the
sociologist should take the side of the underdog
and look at issues from the underdog’s
perspective. He thus advocated taking sides. He
argued that if sociologists don’t take sides they
are really taking the side of the powerful.
14 Feminists like SPENDER argue that the role
of feminist sociology should be to expose the
truth of how males dominate females and thus
help to bring about a patriarchal-free society.
15 The overall aim of FEMINIST research is the
emancipation of women
17 LEFT REALISTS argue that Capitalism causes
many problems and until it can be replaced
with a better system research should
concentrate on highlighting the problems
vulnerable people face, to help to resolve them
and to protect people and improve lives
19 Karl Marx argued that his scientific analysis
revealed the truth about the historical
development of societies – that is they evolved
through a series of forms and eventually
capitalism would be replaced by a classless
society he called communism (a better society
according to him) Criticism – saying a better
society simply reveals the values in his ideas.
18 Gunnar Myrdal (1969) argues that
sociologists should openly parade their values
and ‘take sides’.
20 Karl Marx argued that his scientific analysis
revealed the truth about the historical
development of societies. However he also
argued that his role was to help to change the
world – our job is not just to understand society
but to change it by overthrowing capitalism. In
that sense his sociology is about changing
society to a more preferable form in which
exploitation is eliminated.
21 Max Weber argued that VALUES impinge on 22 Max Weber argued that once we have
research in 3 ways
chosen a research topic we must keep our
1 They always guide research in that sociologists VALUES and prejudices out of the process and
choose which bits of society to study – these are just collect facts. Gathered facts can then test a
inevitable their ‘favourite’ bits. For instance
hypothesis – do they confirm or deny it. This
feminists value gender equality and so study
according to him is objective social science.
women’s oppression. Marxists value class
equality and so study class inequality as a way
of revealing unfairness to the rest of society.
2 In using theory to interpret the data collected.
Theories depend on our values and this should
be acknowledge openly so others can decide if
bias has crept into the research
3 By taking moral responsibility for the possible
harm their research might do.
23 BECKER asks the leading question ‘Whose
side are we on?’
Marxist viewpoint. Sociologists should take
He argues that values are always present in
sides yes, but should take sides with those who
Sociology and that sociologists should take the are fighting back – the political radicals who
side of the least powerful – the mental
struggle to change things.
patients, the poor etc. This will give them a
voice and help redress the imbalance. In
By siding with the simply the underdog as
methods like PO sociologists can give these
Becker does this does not challenge the real
outsiders a voice
power in society.
CRITICISM: Gouldner argues that this is an
overly romanticised view in which sociologists
get their kicks in researching exotic deviants.
25 RELATIVISM SUCKS! There is a real unequal 26 RELATIVISM SUCKS! There is a real unequal
world out there – women do more housework! world out there – kids are abused, fight it!
Answers to Quick Check Questions on page 275
Lack of bias or preconceptions. Not allowing one’s personal views
and values to affect the collection or interpretation of data.
The stage of data gathering.
That they had stopped challenging authority and become like
hired hands, taking no moral responsibility for their work.
Because their understanding of these societies could provide
useful information e.g. for the military’s counter-insurgency
To redress the balance – unlike the views of the powerful, those of
the underdog are seldom heard.
Because science and its research methods have high status in
academic circles and in wider society.