Objectivity and Values in Sociology

The classical sociologists and values

The Early Positivists 

  • Early positivists, Comte (1978-1857) and Durkheim (1858-1917) creation of a better society wasn’t matter of subjective values or personal opinions about what is “best”
  • Share Enlightenment/Modernist view of sociology role
  • In their view, scientific sociology would reveal one correct society
  • Sociologists = crucial role
  • Comte; sociology = “queen of the sciences”, sociologists = latter-day priests of a new scientific religion of truth

Karl Marx

  • Positivist or no?
  • Saw himself as a scientist + his method of historical materialism could reveal line of development of human society
  • Evolution through series of different types of class-based society, leads to future classless communist society where exploitation, alienation + poverty wouldn’t occur + individual would be free to achieve true potential
  • Marx’s sociology, reveal truth of this development, especially the proletariat
  • Marx takes for granted value of ideal communist society + argues his scientific approach will show us how to reach it

Max Weber

  • Makes a sharp distinction between value judgements + facts + he argues that we can’t derive one from the other
  • E.g. research shows divorcees more likely to commit suicide, but doesn’t demonstrate truth of the value judgement that we should make divorce harder to obtain
  • However, despite making sharp distinction between facts + values, Weber still saw essential role for values in research
  • 4 staged process
  • Values as a guide to research:
  • Social reality = “meaningless infinity” of facts
  • Select certain facts + study these
  • Select in terms of what we regard as important based on our own values (value relevance)
  • Values essential in enabling us to select which aspects of reality to study + develop concepts
  • Data collection and hypothesis testing
  • Must be objective + unbiased
  • E.g. no leading questions
  • Once facts are collected, we can test hypothesis; keep values out of process
  • Values in the interpretation of data
  • Facts need to be set in theoretical framework so we can understand significance + draw conclusions from them
  • Framework influenced by values, so must be explicit about them
  • Values and the sociologist as a citizen
  • Findings impact people’s lives but sociologists sometimes ignore uses to which their work is put; their job is to conduct objective research + discover facts
  • Weber rejects this view: sociologists human beings too, mustn’t dodge moral + political issues their work raises, must take responsibility
  • Weber sees values as relevant to sociologists when choosing what to research, in interpreting data + deciding the use to which the findings should be put

Value Freedom and Commitment

Modern Positivists

  • Unlike Durkheim and Comte, 20th century positivists tend to argue their own values were irrelevant to their research; 2 reasons for this
  • The desire to be scientific
  • Sociologists should remain morally neutral; find truth, not judge it
  • Critics argue this is reflected through desires to make sociology respectable
  • The social position of sociology #
  • Gouldner (1975) argues by 1950’s, American sociologist in particular had become mere “spiritless technicians”. Earlier sociology was about critical discipline, often challenging accepted authority. By 1950’s sociologists no longer “problem makers” who defined their own research problems; instead, they’d become “problem takers” who are hired by businesses + organisations to solve their problems for them
  • G argues by leaving their own values, sociologists make “gentleman’s promise” that they wouldn’t rock the boat by criticising paymasters
  • As they’re hired, their own values = irrelevant

Committed sociology

  • Myrdal (1969) argues sociologists shouldn’t spell out their values, should openly “take sides”
  • Neither possible nor desirable to keep values out of research
  • Value free sociology (in G’s view):
  • Impossible: because sociologists own values, or those of paymasters, are reflected in their own research
  • Undesirable: without values to guide research, sociologist merely selling services to highest bidder

Whose side are we on??

  • Sociologists must inevitably take sides
  • By not choosing a side, sociologist is actually taking side of the more powerful
  • Interactionist, Becker (1970) asks this question. Values always present. In tradition positivists + functionalists take viewpoint of the powerful
  • Instead of taking this viewpoint, sociologists should adopt compassionate stance + take the side of the underdogs (less known about these groups) by acknowledging them we can reveal a previously hidden side of social reality!
  • Gouldner criticises Becker for taking romantic + sentimental approach to disadvantaged groups. Instead he accepts Marxist perspective. Should side with those who are “fighting back”

Funding and Careers

  • Most sociological research funded by someone other than sociologists themselves e.g. government departments, business etc.
  • Often place that pays will control direction research takes
  • So, research influenced by paymasters values
  • For G, all research influenced by values, sociologists or paymasters

Perspectives and Methods

  • Feminism sees society as based on gender inequality + promotes the rights of women
  • Functionalism sees society as harmonious + espouses conservative values that favour the status quo
  • Marxism sees society as conflict-ridden + strives for a classless society
  • These values + assumptions influence the topics they research, concepts they develop + conclusions they reach
  • There is a link between sociologists’ methods + value stance

Objectivity and Relativism

  • If all perspectives involve values, and findings are just a reflection of them, are they a true picture of society?
  • One idea of this is known as relativism. This argues that:
  • This argues that different groups, cultures + individuals have different views as to what is true
  • There’s no independent way of judging whether any view is truer than the other
  • Relativism must go further, it argues there’s no objective truth just truths plural

Relativism and Postmodernism

  • Postmodernists take a relative view, reject the idea that any one account of social world is superior to the other
  • No perspective has any special claim to be true. This also works for Postmodernism though, so relativism is self-defeating!

Quick-Check Questions 

  1. According to Weber, the stage of data gathering is where values must not be allowed to enter
  2. True. Relativism does argue that everyone’s view of the world is equally valid
  3. Gouldner’s main criticism of modern positive sociologists is that they took no moral responsibility for their work
  4. Interactionists argue we should see things from the point of view of the underdog to balance information as things about this group are not well known
  5. “Objectivity” means there is a lack of bias in research. Researcher’s don’t allow their values or assumptions affect their overall data
  6. Many sociologists wish to be seen as scientific because science is highly respected and has a high status within society