The Case for Sociology as a Science

1. Introduction

In this paper, I try to put forward several points in favor of sociology as a science. In the course of argument, I will also discuss the problems of "value free" sociology and scope of sociology.

2. What is science?

To answer the question if sociology is a science or not, first we need to know what is science, otherwise the question does not make much sense. Actually current ph ilosophical views on the nature of science is diverse, and largely liberalized from previous views. First, they no longer accept strong criteria of falsification as a scientific method. There are several ways to formulate falsification, but her e I mean something like this: scientific theories should make observable predictions and we should discard a theory if we find only one discrepancy between a prediction of the theory and an observation. Because even physics cannot meet such a strong crite ria, now philosophers like Lakatos (1970) admit tolerance to such failure to some extent. Another new movement in philosophy is the attack on the universal laws. Cartwright (1983) argued that seemingly universal physical laws are not really universal, fro m logical point of view. This and other reasons (note1), Cartwright (1983) and Hacking (1983) presented a new view of science in which piecemeal "models", instead of universal laws and theories, play the central role of scientific investigation . Here, "models" means oversimplified mental pictures of structure. For example, planetary model of atoms is long known as an oversimplification, but still it is widely used by chemists as a convenient way for thinking about chemical reactions.

I do not have enough space to give a definition of science, but these considerations will be enough to help our judgment on the status of sociology.

3. Is sociology a science?

With the analysis of science in the previous section in mind, let us turn to sociology. Early sociologists tried to establish sociology as a science, and their arguments are mainly on the methodology of sociology. Comte claimed that sociology uses four different kinds of methodologies, namely observation, experiment, comparison and historical research as a special case of comparison (CST pp. 89-90, SCS pp.42-54). These are the methodology used in several other scientific field, especially in biology. So if his sociology had really followed these methods, it would have been a st rong case for sociology as a science. But actually he never did empirical research (CST p. 110), so we cannot take his argument at the face value. But his argument influenced on other sociologists, especially Durkheim. For Durkheim, sociology is a study o f social facts (CST p.185). A social fact is "a thing that is external to, and coercive of, the actor" (ibid., emphasis original). Because they are external, social facts cannot be investigated by introspection (ibid.). We should use empirical research. A typical use of this methodology is in his analysis of suicide (CST p.195). Durkheim used statistics on suicide rate to establish his argument that suicide is a social phenomenon. He refused alternative hypotheses because their predi ctions did not agree with the actual statistical data. This is an admirable attempt of empirical research of society, but there are several problems. Durkheim applied too strict criteria of falsification to rival accounts. Adoption of these strict criteri a is suicidal for sociology, because it is hard for a sociological theory to make a precise prediction, let alone to make a precise and correct prediction (and without this, the falsification criteria do not work). Another related problem is in his reject ion of introspection as a sociological method. This restricts the scope of sociology too narrowly, and in fact even Durkheim's own study becomes impossible. For example, Durkheim's definition of suicide is "any case of death 'resulting directly of indirec tly from a positive or negative act of an individual against himself, which he knows must produce this result'" (ED p.32). But, without using introspection, how can we decide if 'he knows' the result or not, from external evidence only?

I think that W eber's methodology provides an answer to these problems. His key word in this point is "Verstehen," a German word for "understanding" or "interpretation" (CST pp.222 -224, FMW pp. 55-56). According to him, we can "understand" other people's motivation thr ough introspection of our own intentions, and this kind of knowledge is necessary for sociology. This is exactly what Durkheim denied as a method of sociology, but as we saw above even Durkheim himself used this "understanding" in his actual work. But, o f course, the problem is if this is permissible as a scientific method. Strong falsification of a theory is almost impossible by such "interpreted" facts, because if an interpreted fact runs counter to the theory we can just change the interpretation. But , as we saw in the last section, such strong falsification is given up by philosophers of science as too strict a criteria. Moreover, the arbitrariness of interpretation is not as great as one might worry. For example, Comte's three stage theory (the deta il of the theory does not matter here) has no follower today because there is no way we can reasonably interpret the evolution of society as obeying such a law. In this case we can say that Comte's theory was falsified. As far as we have this minimal poss ibility of falsification, we can admit "Verstehen" as a scientific method of sociology, thus "interpretive" sociology as a science.

Before we proceed to next section, I would like to make a brief remark on the use of models in sociology. One of the re ason people may argue against sociology as a science is the lack of the sociological theory. We have Marx's theory, Durkheim's theory, Weber's theory and so on, but none of them are shared by all sociologists. This seems to make a strong contrast w ith other fields of science where scientists agree on the basic theories. But, as we saw in the last section, some philosophers think that even in other scientific field what scientists are working on are piecemeal models, not a universal theory. And as f or such models, we can find abundant models shared by many sociologists. Actually, this is what Weber called "ideal types" (CST pp225-228). Ideal types are constructed through exaggerating some features of real cases. By comparing with ideal types we can find characteristics of each real case. These ideal types are useful conceptual tools for sociology just in the same sense as the planetary model of atoms is a useful conceptual tool for chemists. So, in this point, the difference between sociology and o ther scientific fields is not so great as it seems to be.

4. On "value free" sociology

To talk about "value free" sociology, I introduce a distinction made by philosophers recently (e.g. Laudan 1984). This is the distinction between "epistemic values" and non-epistemic values. Epistemic values are related to a special type of question "what should we accept as knowledge (or a fact)?" Logical consistency, empirical adequacy, simplicity etc. are the criteria to answer such a question, and they ar e called epistemic values. On the other hand, other values are supposed to be used to answer the broader question "what should we do?" These are non-epistemic values. With this distinction, we will find that the claims of "value free" sociology made by ea rly sociologists were actually the claims for independence of epistemic values from other values in sociology (even though they are not conscious about this distinction).

First, let us see the case of Spencer. Spencer distinguished several kind s of emotional biases, and claimed that we should exclude these biases from sociological research (CST pp.124-125). None of these biases are epistemic value as characterized above. Moreover, the Spencer's claim that we should exclude these biases is a value judgment, but this is an epistemic value judgment, and as far as this claim itself is not affected emotional biases, to apply such a value to sociology should be O.K. So Spencer's argument agrees with my definition of "value free" sociology. The same argument applies to Weber. Weber says that teachers should not exploit the circumstances in a lecture room to imprint upon the students his personal political views (FMW pp.146-147), because the task of teacher is to teach his students to recognize" facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions" (FMW p.147). Again this is a value judgment, but epistemic one. Apparently sociology (or any other science) cannot be free from all values (because the ideal of "value free" sociology itself is a value ), but at least it can be free from non-epistemic kinds of values, when we decide what is a fact and what is not.

I guess even Marx can agree this notion of "value free" sociology to some extent. Of course in Marx's theory the value judgment and the t heory are inseparably related, but his actual arguments show that he distinguished these two things. For example, Marx criticizes Ricardo in "Theory of Surplus Value," but the primary reason he criticizes Ricardo is not that Ricardo is capitalist, but tha t Ricardo's conceptual scheme is insufficient because it cannot deal with certain cases (KM pp.398-409). Thus the criteria for this judgment is epistemic values, not other kinds of value. I think that this way of argument gives Marx's theory its pursuasiv eness.

Of course I admit non-epistemic values and sociology have many interrelationships. For example, the choice of research topic is influenced the sociologist's personal values, and sometimes a result of sociological research has immediate normativ e implications (e.g. Marx's analysis on alienated labor; KM pp. 77-87). But still, I think, at the point of accepting something as a fact, we should be free from non-epistemic values.

5. On the scope of sociology

Comte thought that sociology is the study of social statics (social structure) and social dynamics (social change) (CST p.94). Durkheim thought that sociology should deal with social facts. Simmel claimed that "everything which was not science of external nature must be science of soci ety" (SCS p.29). Does any of them have the right answer? I don't think that there is anything right or wrong on this topic, but my own preference is Simmel's answer quoted here. I think that Comte's and Durkheim's answers tried to restrict the subject fie ld of sociology to establish sociology as a independent scientific field. But now no one would doubt sociology is an independent field (even though someone might object that it is not a "scientific" field). In this situation, such a conscious self restric tion of subject matter is nothing but an obstacle to interdisciplinary cooperations with psychology and other neighbor fields. This is why I like Simmel's answer.

6. Conclusion

According to the liberalized philosophical view on science, there is nothing wrong with admitting Weber's "Verstehen" and "ideal types" as scientific method, thus admitting sociology using these method as a science. Recent distinction between epistemic and non-epistemic values makes the claim of "value free" sociology int elligible, and I think it is a reasonable position if taken in the sense I defined. I also briefly talked about the scope of sociology, and argued that we should not be restrictive on the subject matter of sociology.


1. For example, even in physics, the scientists in closely related fields sometimes accept mutually inconsistent theories in each field and have no problem. This shows that they are primarily interested in the application of the theory in their own field, and are not interest ed in the universality of the theory.References

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