Sociology is studied as a social science; however its status as a science may be questioned when compared to how scientists study the natural world. In order to determine whether or not sociology is a true science it is first necessary to make comparisons between the examinations carried out by both natural scientists and sociologists and discuss some of the theories and perspectives around the topic. During this piece the views of sociologists such as Durkheim, Comte and Weber will be investigated and an overview of the ideas of positivists, interpretivists and realists will be given.
The natural world is accepted as what can be sensed and seen. Scientists study the natural world using an experimental and factual approach and analyse the workings of nature before reaching each conclusion they make, for example, a biologist can study a cell because it can be seen under a microscope and experiments have been carried out to show that it exists. Natural scientists study things in the pursuit of knowledge.
Society is different from the natural world as it is not a thing; rather a grouping of humans and its study investigates actions such as people’s behaviour. Behaviour does not take physical form like a cell does and so it can be argued that it does not exist, however on the other hand it is argued that behaviour does exist as chemicals inside the physical brain and therefore can be studied scientifically.
There are many different views when it comes to look at the question of whether Sociology should be classed as a Science. It is thought by many that there are two separate schools of thought when considering the subject of Sociology. Firstly, there is the notion that Sociology is based on fact and figures collected by using analysis and quantitive data and secondly the suggestion that Sociology is based on qualitative data and the need to understand the why, where and how’s of society.
Today there are few sociologists that are willing to label themselves positivists, yet one of the founders of sociology- Auguste Comte, called himself a positivist as he wanted sociologists to develop formal and abstract theory that could be used to remake society.
Positivists believe that Sociology is a science and that there are many similarities to the methods of research used by scientists, although it should be noted that a positivist only studies a subject when it can be observed and reported on. Emile Durkheim is seen by many as one of the greatest positivists to have lived thus far. Durkheim believed there was a need for quantitative data and in depth analysis in order to gain a true insight into society. Quantitative research in Sociology adapts traditional scientific techniques and applies them to social research; this is clear in research methods such as surveys and structured questionnaires.
Durkheim understood that fact, data and results were an accurate way to analyse society. Durkheim argued that theory should be backed up with evidence and evidence could only be gathered by the analysis of data. He believed that data collected should support theories and act as evidence. According to Durkheim (1964: xiv), positivists view things “in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain”. Positivism shares many similarities to the experimental research methods used by scientists, most obviously in the attention to detail when collecting data. Positivists can only study things that can be measured and observed, with the purpose of discovering what causes things to happen. Durkheim’s study of suicide, published in his book ‘Suicide: A Study in Sociology’ (1897), found it to be the product of social forces external to the individual and found that a person’s behaviour is subject to external stimuli and their ideas and feelings are irrelevant. From this finding Durkheim drew the conclusion that behaviour can be objectively observed and measured, similar to how a natural scientist observes and measures the world.
Auguste Comte considered Sociology to be the science of society. He looked for an empirical way of thinking towards sociological issues and stated that sociology should only be concerned with issues where results based on data collation and facts that can be found. This scientific approach to Sociology has been very powerful in relation to the understanding of the natural world. Comte believed this would make it possible to predict the further trends and patterns of society. He argued that positivism has three stages which he referred to as “the law of the three stages”, which “claims that human efforts to understand the human world have passed through theological, metaphysical and positive stages” (Giddens, 2006, page 11).
A clear statement of the interpretivist position was provided by Hughes (1976),
“Human Beings are not things to be studied in the way one studies rats, plants or rocks, but are valuing, meaning-attributing beings to be understood as subjects and known as subjects. Sociology… deals with meaningful action, and the understanding, explanation, analysis, or whatever, must be made with consideration of those meanings… To impose positivistic meaning upon the realm of social phenomenon is to distort the fundamental nature of human existence” (Hughes cited in Bilton et al p.108).
Interpretivism disagrees with positivism and focuses on action theory. Interpretivists or anti- positivists take human behaviour as worthy of study and see ideas, thought and mind as social constructs. They believe that Sociology is “the interpretation of social action” (Haralambos & Holborn p. 815) and that “social action can only be understood by interpreting the meanings and motives on which it is based” (Haralambos & Holborn p.815). Interpretivists also believe that humans cannot fully understand the world as our own individual views are taken too much into account. Interpretivists suggest that humans apply meaning to the world and therefore sociology should not attempt to be scientific, as human behaviour is meaningful it cannot be understood in the same way the natural world can be. To interpretivists, the methods of natural science are seen as inappropriate for such investigation.
Gouldner believes that when a sociologist chooses a topic to study and choses which approach they will adopt, they make ‘domain assumptions’. These are assumptions people make about social life and behaviour, an example of this may be somebody believing that men are rational or irrational. Gouldner believes that most sociologists commit themselves to a particular domain assumption which will direct the way research is carried out and how conclusions are reached. Domain assumptions are also likely to determine whether qualitative or quantitative research methods are used.
When preparing for and carrying out research, researchers must be selective, for example when writing a questionnaire, some questions will be chosen and some left out. These choices are influenced by the theories which the researcher finds credible. Once the data has been collected the results need to be interpreted as they do not always speak for themselves. Interpretivists have argued that there are many sociologists who impose their personal views on the social world and as a result may distort and misrepresent the reality that is being sought.
To inerpretivists, the study of human behaviour is too complicated to investigate with numbers and for quantitative analysis to be made and therefore reject scientific thinking and methods. Instead they believe qualitative methods, which require a level of subjective thought, are essential when trying to understand society. Qualitative data, often collected by techniques such as participant observation, involves an in-depth account or the transcript of an interview, in which a person or group’s attitude towards a certain topic is documented. Interpretivists see this type of data more vital as it is more likely to present a truer picture of people’s experiences. An example of this technique is Goffman’s study of the St Elizabeth State Mental Hospital (1968). He spent over one year at the hospital, joining in with the everyday life of the staff and patients, this allowed him to gradually build a full picture of the interaction between the staff and patients.
Another problem that arises for interpretivists is that knowledge which is gained from studying the natural world has many varied uses for example creating devices and medical healing whereas the knowledge of society does not show in physical form. For example, you cannot make a microwave out of knowledge and nor can you make a society. Sociology enables us to understand why people behave in certain ways yet proving the validity of this knowledge is difficult. When an object is built with the help of natural science, and it works, then the science behind the object is believed to be true, therefore as sociologists cannot create a physical entity with their knowledge the truth of their knowledge cannot be proven.
Sociologists believe that a researcher should concern themselves with human cultural norms, values and processes that are viewed from a subjective perspective. Weber defined sociology as “a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order to thereby arrive at a casual explanation of its course and effects” (1964 p.88). Weber believed that an explanation of social action could only be given once a person had an understanding of the motives and meanings behind human nature. Weber’s anti-positivism established an alternative to sociological positivism. Max Weber was a founder of the “Verstehen” method, which simply means understanding or interpretation. This method involves an unconnected person imagining themselves being in the situation of the person they are trying to understand and whose behaviour they are seeking to explain.
Although there are two broad traditions that shape the research carried out by sociologists, there are now many bridges joining the two as it is recognised that each are valuable when exploring society. Realists accept that there are differences between science and sociology although this approach does stress the similarities between social science and natural science. Realists such as Andrew Sayer argue that there is nothing to disqualify sociology from being a science and believe that positivist’s views about the nature of science are wrong. Sayer (1992) claims that there are differences between “closed and open systems as objects of scientific study” (Haralambos & Holborn p860). An example of a ‘closed system’ could be a scientific laboratory experiment, where conditions can be fixed and are heavily controlled. There are a large number of scientific experiments that take place outside of controlled environments and these are classed as ‘open systems’. Sayers argument is that the behaviour of human beings cannot be predicted with any accuracy as it takes place in open areas and that there is no way of controlling all of the variables that affect human behaviour. Realists do not totally overrule the fact that sociology can be called a social science and they may argue that sociology could be based on the same principles as natural science.
Ray Pawson (1989) described the view of ‘two sociologies’ as a ‘methodological myth’. Therefore he does not believe two types of sociology exist. He believes instead that there are a range of views and assumptions.
As this paper has shown, Sociology can be viewed from both a scientific and non scientific perspective. From the research carried out I believe that they way in which you interpret science effects the conclusion at which you will arrive. Sociologists such as Durkheim, one of the founders of Sociology, studied the subject as a science, which proves sociologists can study society in the same ways that scientists study the natural world; therefore it is irrelevant that other sociologists have chosen to study this subject as something other than science.
If all sociologists chose to study society as a science then that would leave nobody to qualitatively analyse society, therefore if it is important to some that sociology is recognised as a science, then it must be separated into two; sociology that can be scientifically tested and that which cannot.
Through the research carried out whilst exploring the study of the science of the natural world and sociology, the study of society, a number of contradictions have appeared. Personally I believe Sociology should be known as a ‘social science’ as there appear to be problems that arise from sociology being classed as a natural science.
As in natural science, a sociologist’s opinions are formed based on data and facts collected, it is not enough to merely provide the idea of something that is only an opinion. In order to be taken seriously sociologists must prove their findings with the assistance of data and observation. All humans have opinions; therefore if sociologists did not find evidence to back up their claims then anyone could be called a sociologist.
On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, controlled scientific experiments cannot be carried out on society and although many of the areas that are studied in sociology, such as human behaviour, are useful when trying to understand society, there are many different view points on each subject and therefore no one conclusion is drawn from every experiment carried out. Humans are inherently subjective and therefore just the accumulation of people’s subjectivities and its superiority over subjectivity in scientific methodologies is questionable. In other words, value judgements are inevitable in sociology and therefore we can never have a completely objective science of sociology.