Monday, 25 June 2012

How practical is Scientific Sociology?

‘Scientific’ sociology is understood here as Sociology’s effort to be a science- ‘positivistic’ sociology. August Comte proposed the concept of positivism as the scientifically-based sociological research that uses scientific tools such as survey, sampling, objective measurement, and cultural and historical analysis to study and understand society. 

The key components of any science are:
-      Methodology inspired from pure sciences: establishment of ‘cause-and-effect’ social laws; quantitative methods
-          Objectivity
-          Verifiable Conclusions/ Reliability
-          Value Neutrality
-      Relativism (means that there are no universal absolute principles, and all principles are subject to change- falsifiability of theories)

There are some difficulties for sociology to be a science because:
  1. Nature of subject matter: (Wo)men have consciousness thus may act differently in different contexts and  also different people may act differently in the same context.
  2. Objectivity: the researcher is also human and in her interactions with the subjects may project her prejudices on the latter.
  3. Value Neutrality: Marxists have doubts about the value neutrality of positivist thinkers because of the latter’s preoccupation with social order, social consensus and stability.
For eg: Early British Sociologists considered the market as a positive force, and thus they defined their task as one of simply gathering data on the laws by which it functioned. In doing so they concentrated on statistical data gathering, as the objective was accumulation of “pure” facts without theorizing or philosophizing. In focusing on poverty in their capitalistic society they gathered data about individuals. Since they concentrated on individuals they did not question the role of the larger system in perpetuating poverty. Also, they worked too closely with the government policy makers to arrive at a conclusion that the larger political and economic system was the problem. Instead they identified individual problems like “ignorance, spiritual destitution, impurity, bad sanitation, alcoholism etc”.
[George Ritzer 2000, Sociological Theory]

This example gives us much information on identifying the problems of making sociology scientific:
  1. Scientific research methods (quantitative methods like sampling) were used. However their focus on one category of ‘facts’ (individuals) and single method of data collection obscured their findings.
  2. Objectivity: In have a predetermined liking for the ‘market’ as a positive force, these statistican-sociologists were unable to question the role of the social system in creating poverty, and instead chose to blame the people/victim(?).
  3. Value Neutrality: The sociologists worked closely with the government to assist the latter in understanding and governing the system. Because of their proximity to the government they were unable to see the political and economic system as the problem. In doing so their value neutrality was compromised.
[My analysis: Spurthi]
Some other critiques of Sociology as a Science
-          Karl Popper argues that for a scientific understanding the total reality of an issue needs to be studied and understand. Since this total/complete understanding is not possible for sociology, sociology is not a science. Also predictability of findings is missing. Popper further says that the positivists choose methods that suit them.
-          Karl Popper says that for a subject to be scientific it must be testable through hypo-deductive reasoning. The researchers must be able to isolate an independent variable and establish causal links between it and its consequences. Such independent variables can rarely be isolated in society.
-          Ethnomethodology: culture influences social action, thus action and structure don’t have regularity like positivism believes
-          Phenomenologists like Alfred Schutz argue that actors continually construct society by giving meanings to actions and explanations of behaviour. In this scenario the detached approach of the scientist is both inappropriate and impossible.
-          Frankenberg argues that the researcher and subject should have close interaction- this goes against the positivist idea of objectivity.
-          Thomas Kuhn argues that all science operates under an ideological paradigm. Paradigm here refers to a set of beliefs that the whole community accepts as true and therefore interprets all scientific findings from that standpoint. Kuhn argues that since sociology does not have such a paradigm, it is not a science.
-          Interactionists do not agree with the positivist conception of ‘social fact’. They do not believe knowledge is concrete or testable, for them it is just a shared reality. Therefore it is fairly immaterial for them if Sociology meets the criteria of a science. Infact they question the validity of science itself, as they feel that the experimental process itself often contaminates what it is meant to observe.
[Vajiram 2008 notes]

Why does it matter if Sociology is a Science?
-          To ensure prestige so that the subject can gain funding at universities.
-          To lend weight to its findings as being backed by scientific method
-          To give protection: Sociology has been threatened in different countries as a source of subjective political criticism.
George Ritzer 2000, Sociological Theory
Vajiram notes

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