Objectivity & Values in Sociology

Objectivity & Values in Sociology from the theory topic for AQA A level Sociology

Classical sociologists - Early positivists & Marx

The early positivists Comte & Durkheim believed the creation of a better society was not a matter of subjective values or personal opinions. As the science of society, sociology's job was to discover the truth about how society works so in their view scientific sociology would reveal the correct society with the role of the sociologist to be objective

Karl Marx saw himself as a scientist and believed his method of historical analysis could reveal the line of development of human society. This development involved an evolution through different types of class based societies leading ultimately to a communist society in which people were free. The role of Marx's sociology was therefore to reveal the truth of this development especially to the proletariat who would overthrow capitalism. Marx takes for granted the value of the ideal communist society and argues that his scientific approach will show us how to reach it

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Classical sociologists - Weber

Max Weber makes sharp distinction between value judgements and facts and he argues that we cannot derive the one from the other unlike the other classical sociologists who believed that science could tell us what these values could be.

In Weber's view a value can be neither proved nor disproved by the facts. An example is research might show that divorcees are more likely to commit suicide but this fact does not demonstrate the truth of the value judgement so there is nothing that logically compels us to accept the value

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Classical sociologists - Weber's research

1. Values as a guide to research - We can only select facts based on what we regard as important based on their value relevance to us. Feminists value gender equality so leads them to study women's oppression and explain concepts such as patriarchy to understand it

2. Data collection & hypothesis testing - We must be objective and unbiased when collecting the facts using these facts to test a hypothesis whilst keeping our feelings out of it

3. Values in the interpretation of data - Values are important in interpreting data so we can understand their significance so we must be explicit in our values

4. Values & the sociologist as a citizen - Weber argues that sociologists are human beings who must not dodge the moral issues of their work by hiding behind objectivity. They must take moral responsibility for what they do eg Einstein helping to make the atomic bomb but being against nuclear weapons

 

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Value freedom - Modern positivists

Unlike Comte & Durkheim who were openly committed to changing society by the 20th century positivists tended to argue that their own values were irrelevant to their research for two reasons:

1. The desire to appear scientific - Science is concerned with matters of value so sociologists should remain morally neutral with their job being simply to establish the truth about people's behaviour. This is due to the desire to make sociology appear scientific especially in the early 20th century when it was just being established as an academic discipline

2. The social position of sociology - Gouldner argues that by the 1950s sociologists  had become problem takers who worked in areas such as the military and business so by leaving their own values behind they made a promise not to criticise their employers. This meant as they were employed they saw their own values as irrelevant

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Value freedom - Committed Sociology

In constrast to Positivism, Myrdal argues that sociologists should not only spell out their values but also openly take sides by encouraging the values and interests of particular groups or individuals. Committed sociologists argue that it is impossible to keep values out of research and in Gouldner's view value free sociology is:

  • impossible because either the sociologist's own values or those of their employers are bound to be reflected in their work
  • undesirable since without values to guide research sociologists are just selling their services to the highest bidder
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Value freedom - Whose side are we on?

  • Becker argues that values are always present in sociology but traditionally Positivists and Functionalists have taken the view of powerful groups such as the police
  • Sociologists should adopt a compassionate stance and take the side of the underdogs such as criminals to identify a previously hidden side of social reality
  • For example by emphasising with a mental patient we can show the hidden rationality of behaviour that the psychiatrist thinks of as irrational
  • This emphasis on empathy has links to the kinds of research methods favoured by interactionists as they prefer qualitative methods
  • However Gouldner criticises Becker for taking a sentimental approch to disadvantaged groups saying he is only concerned with the misunderstood
  • Instead Gouldner adopts a Marxist perspective and argues that sociologists should take the side of those fighting back such as political radicals
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Value freedom - Funding & Careers

Most sociological research is funded by someone other than sociologists themselves. Funding sources include the government and businesses so the sociologist's work is likely to embody the values and interests of these organisations as otherwise funding bodies may block the publication if its findings prove unacceptable to them

Sociologists also want to further their careers so this may influence their choice of topic and their interpretation of findings. Some may restrict themselves in fear for being too outspoken which could harm their prospects or result in losing their job. For Gouldner then, all research is inevitably influenced by values

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Value freedom - Perspectives & Method

Different sociological perspectives can be seen as embodying different values about how society is or should be:

  • Feminism sees society as based on gender inequality so promotes the rights of women
  • Functionalism sees society as harmonious so encourages conservative values favouring the status quo
  • Marxism sees society as conflict ridden so strives for a classless society 
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Value freedom - Objectivity & Relativism

If all perspectives involve values are their findings just a reflection of their values rather than a true picture of society? Relativism argues that:

  • Different groups, cultures and individuals, including sociologists, have different views as to what is true. Each have their own values, interests etc
  • There is no independent way of judging whether any view is truer than any other

In sociology, postmodernists take a relativist view of knowledge. They reject the idea that one social theory is superior to another and any perspective that claims to have the truth such as Marxism is simply a meta-narrative. All knowledge is just based on assumptions and values so don't have a special claim to be true

However, Relativism is self defeating as it claims to be telling us something is true whilst also saying that no one can tell us what is true

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