Sociology and Science


  • ‘Founding fathers’ of sociology in the 19th Century very impressed by success of science in explaining natural world
  • Many of these sociologists, like Comte (1798-1857) who coined term ‘sociology’ call themselves ‘positivists’
  • These believe favourable to apply logic + methods of natural sciences to study of society = provide true, objective knowledge
  • Key feature of positivist approach is belief that reality exists outside and independently of the human mind:
  • NATURE is made of objective, observable, physical facts that are external to our minds + exist whether we like it or not
  • SOCIETY is an objective factual reality – a real “thing” made up of social facts that exist “out there”, independently of individuals, just like physical world

Patterns, laws and Inductive Reasoning

  • Positivists: reality isn’t random or chaotic but patterned, observe these factual patterns through science
  • Believe Durkheim’s “real laws are discoverable”; sociologists can discover laws that determine how society works
  • Method used = induction involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement. As knowledge grows, patterns appear


  • Verificationism, we can develop a theory that explains all our observations so far
  • More observations verify theory; form a general law
  • Patterns we observe, in nature or society, can all be explained the same way by finding facts that cause them
  • Positivists seek to discover causes of patterns they observe. Aim to produce general statements or scientific laws about how society works
  • Favour “macro” or structural explanations of social phenomena e.g. Functionalism and Marxism   

Objective Quantitative Research

  • Positivists use quantitative data to uncover + measure patterns of behaviour; can produce mathematically precise statements about relationships between facts
  • Seek to discover laws of cause and effect to determine behaviour
  • Researchers should be detached and objective; shouldn’t allow themselves to influence how they conduct research or analyse findings
  • If not detached, researcher may “contaminate” study e.g. through influencing interviewees so findings reflect their opinions/values
  • Employ methods to allow for maximum objectivity and detachment e.g. questionnaires, stats and so on

Positivism and Suicide

  • Durkheim (1897) studied suicide to show sociology=science with own distinct subject matter
  • If he could prove a highly individual act had social causes, would establish sociology’s scientific discipline
  • Used official stats; observed patterns in the suicide rates e.g. Protestants higher than Catholics 
  • Concluded these patterns couldn’t be product of individual motives but SOCIAL FACTS!
  • He decided, social facts that determined suicide rates were levels of integration and regulation
  • Claimed to have discovered “real law” – sociology has own unique subject matter + these can be explained scientifically


  • Argue subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action
  • Need to interpret meanings + motives
  • Unobservable internal meanings
  • Sociology isn’t a science! Interpretivists reject natural science methods
  • Fundamental difference between the two:
  • NATURAL SCIENCE: studies matter, has no consciousness. Behaviour explained as a straight forward reaction to external stimuli
  • SOCIOLGY: studies people, who do have a consciousness. People make sense of and construct their world by attaching meanings to it. Actions only understood in terms of meanings (internal stimuli)
  • G.H. Mead argued, rather than responding automatically to external stimuli, humans interpret meaning of stimulus and then choose how to respond
  • Interpretivists: humans autonomous (independent) beings, not puppets manipulated by social facts  

Verstehen and Qualitative Research

  • To discover the meanings people give to their actions, need to see the world through their eyes
  • Abandon detachment + objectivity, put ourselves in place of the individual using Weber’s verstehen
  • Use qualitative methods + data such as participant observation
  • Produce richer, more personal data = high validity

Types of Interpretivism


We can have casual explanations. Reject positivist view of having definitive hypothesis before research. Glaser and Strauss argue this risks researcher bias rather than taking actors viewpoint. Prefer “bottom-up” approach; ideas emerge gradually from observations we make during research. Can produce testable hypothesis after.

Phenomenologists and Ethnomethodologists

  • E.g. Garfinkel, reject possibility of casual explanations. Take anti-structuralist view, society isn’t a real thing “out there” determining our actions. Social reality simply shared meanings/knowledge of members. So society not an external force; exists only in people’s consciousness. So, sociology can only consist of interpretive procedures

Interpretivism and Suicide

  • Jack Douglas (1967) – rejects positivist idea of external social facts determining behaviour. We have free will + choose how to act on a basis of meaning. To understand suicide, must uncover meanings for those involved. Douglas also rejects Durkheim’s use of quantitative data; not objective facts, but social constructs resulting from labels. Douglas proposes use qualitative data to reveal actor’s meanings
  • Atkinson (1978) – agrees with Douglas that external social facts don’t determine behaviour. But, unlike D, he argues we can’t ever know “real rate” of suicide as we can’t ever know for sure what meanings the deceased held

Postmodernists, Feminism and Scientific Sociology

  • PM’s argue against scientific sociology; natural science = meta-narrative, one “big story”
  • Scientific approach dangerous as it claims monopoly of the truth, excluding other perspectives
  • Poststructuralist feminists have similar view, argue quest for a single, scientific feminist theory is a form of domination. Excludes many female groups.
  • Science = undesirable model for sociology. Hasn’t always led to progress like positivists suggest e.g. emergence of “risk society” with global warming + nuclear weapons (scientifically created dangers) undermines idea that science brings benefits to humans on a daily basis

What is Science?

  • Interpretivists reject positivist view of scientific sociology, but tend to agree with their description of natural sciences
  • But a number of sociologists, philosophers and historians have portrayed different ideas of science

Karl Popper: How Science Grows

  • Influential philosopher
  • Notes many systems of thought claim to have true knowledge about things e.g. religion, political ideologies and so on
  • Asks two questions:
  • What is it that distinguishes scientific knowledge from other forms of knowledge?
  • Why has scientific knowledge been able to grow so spectacularly in just a few centuries?

The Fallacy of Induction

  • Popper differs from positivists: doesn’t agree distinctive features of science lie in inductive reasoning + verification
  • Main reason to reject V = “the fallacy (error) of induction”
  • Induction = process of moving from observation of particular instances of something to arrive at a statement/law
  • Uses example of swans to illustrate this: “all swans” white – we can’t prove this generalisation; single black swan will destroy the theory


  • Popper: what makes science unique is very opposite of verificationism: FALSIFICATIONISM
  • Scientific methods able to be proven wrong
  • For Popper, good theories have two features:
  • It’s falsifiable but when tested, stands up to all attempts to disprove it
  • It’s bold – it claims to explain a lot. Makes big generalisations that predict large number of cases/events. It’s at greater risk of being falsified then more timid theories


  • Popper: “all knowledge is provisional, temporary, capable of refutation at any moment” – there can never be absolute proof that any knowledge is true

Criticism and the Open Society

  • In Popper’s view, science is a public activity (to be criticised) he argues this is why it grows so rapidly
  • Science thrives in “open” or liberal societies; ones that believe in free expression + the right to challenge accepted ideas
  • “Closed” societies dominated by an official belief system that claims to have an absolute truth

Implications for Sociology

  • Popper believes much sociology is unscientific because it consists of theories that can’t be put to the test with the possibility that it might be falsified
  • However, he believes sociology can be scientific because it’s capable of producing hypotheses that can be falsified
  • Although P rejects Marxism as unscientific because it’s unreliable, he doesn’t believe that untestable ideas are worthless
  • Such ideas might be useful as they could become testable later + we can examine them for clarity + logic consistency

Thomas Kuhn: Scientific Paradigm

The Paradigm

  • General idea of the paradigm: def; shared by members of a given scientific community + defines what their science is
  • Basic framework of assumptions, principles, methods + techniques within which members of that community work
  • The paradigm is thus a set of norms, or a kind of culture, because it tells scientists how they ought to think + behave
  • In Kuhn’s view, a science can’t exist without a shared paradigm. Until there’s a general consensus on a single paradigm, there will only be rival schools of thought, not a science as such

Normal Science

  • Most of the time, paradigm goes unquestioned + scientists do NORMAL SCIENCE; scientists engage in puzzle solving/our job is simply to figure out how to put the pieces together to get the right results
  • Greatest advantage of the paradigm is it allows scientists to agree on the basics of their subject + get on with productive “puzzle-solving” work
  • Contrasts massively with Popper. Watkins (1970) Popper sees falsification as the unique feature of science. Kuhn says it’s puzzle solving within a paradigm that makes science appeal

Scientific Revolutions

  • But not all puzzle solving successful. Occasionally, scientists obtain finding contrary to those the paradigm led them to expect. As anomalies grow, confidence in paradigm decreases. Results in arguments about basic assumptions
  • Science enters period of crisis. Previously taken-for-granted foundations at risk
  • Scientists begin to develop rival paradigms = scientific revolution
  • For Kuhn, rival paradigms are incommensurable – two competing paradigms can’t be judged or measured by the same set of standards to decide which is “best”
  • Eventually, one paradigm wins out + becomes accepted by scientific community, allowing normal science to resume, but with new basic assumptions
  • However, process not rational. K compares it to religious conversions. New paradigm first gains support from new scientists who have less to lose unlike senior colleagues whose reputations were built on old paradigm
  • K’s view of scientific community contrasts with Popper’s
  • POPPER = open, critical + rational, constantly seeking to falsify things
  • KUHN = not formally characterised by openness, originality or critical spirit. Scientists are conformists who unquestioningly accept key ideas of paradigm as basis for making progress

Implications for Sociology

  • Pre-paradigmatic = pre-scientific
  • Sociology can only become a science if such basic disagreements (crisis) were resolved
  • Postmodernists might argue that a paradigm would also not be desirable in sociology. Sounds suspiciously like a meta-narrative – a dominant + dominating view of what reality’s like

Realism, Science and Sociology

  • Keat + Urry (1982) stress similarities between sociology + types of natural science in terms of degree of control the researcher has over variables being studied; distinguish between open/closed systems:
  • CLOSED SYSTEMS – those where researcher can control + measure relevant variables + can make precise predictions of the sort Popper advocates. Methods include lab experiments…
  • OPEN SYSTEMS – those where researcher can’t control + measure relevant variables, so can’t make predictions
  • Realists argue sociologists study open systems where the processes are too complex to make exact predictions

Underlying Structures

  • Realists reject positivist view that science only concerned with observable phenomena
  • Keat + Urry argue science often assumes existence of unobservable structures
  • Also means interpretivists wrong in assuming sociology can’t be scientific
  • If realists correct + science can study unobservable things, then no barrier to studying meanings scientifically
  • For realists, both natural + social science attempt to explain the causes of events in terms of underlying structures + processes, can see they exist by observing effects
  • In this view, most of sociology scientific
  • Unlike interpretivists, realists see little difference between natural science + sociology, except some natural scientists are able to study closed systems under lab conditions

Quick-Check Questions

  1. “Social facts”, for Durkheim, refers to social, external aspects that are greater than the individual and influence their overall behaviour
  2. Positivists favour structural explanations of behaviour because they believe large-scale social structures are the external cause of an individuals behaviour
  3. For interpretivists, the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action
  4. Verstehen means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. This makes it easier for researchers to understand subjective meanings behind the individual’s behaviour
  5. Verificationism refers to obtaining evidence to prove someone’s theory is true, whereas Falsificationism means you attempt to prove someone’s theory isn’t true; therefore, falsifying it
  6. A paradigm is basic outline of things like assumptions and methods used shared by the members within a scientific community
  7. When Kuhn talks about normal science and scientists engaging in puzzle-solving he is talking about the paradigm which outlines questions and answers and how scientists reach them
  8. Open systems are where researchers can’t control their variables and in closed systems the researchers can control and measure their variables