Sociology & Science

Revision cards covering the Sociology & Science chapter of Theory & Methods in A level AQA Sociology.


Positivism - The background

19th century sociologists such as Comte (1798-1857) were impressed by the success of science in explaining the natural world and providing the knowledge to understand it so labelled themselves as Positivists.

Positivists believe that it is desirable to apply the logic of the natural sciences to the study of society as it will bring objective and true knowledge and provide the basis for solving social problems.

Positivists believe that reality exists outside of the human mind:

  • Nature is made up of observable and physical things such as rocks and stars which are external to our minds
  • Society is an objective factual reality as it is a real thing which exists independently of individuals just like the physical world
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Positivism - Inductive reasoning

For Positivists reality is not random but patterned. It is the job of science to observe and record factual patterns systematically such as through laboratory experiments and then explain them.

Sociologists can discover laws that determine how society works just like how physicists have discovered laws that govern the workings of nature such as gravity. The method for doing so is known as inductive reasoning.

This involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement. As our knowledge grows we begin to see general patterns. An example of this is we may observe that objects, when dropped, always fall towards the earth at the same rate of acceleration.

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Positivism - Verificationism

From inductive reasoning we can develop a theory explaining all of our observations. After all of these observations have verified the theory we can claim to have discovered the truth such as the example before about objects accelerating at the same rate confirming the existence of a law of gravity, an approach known as verificationism.

Positivists believe that the patterns we observe can all be explained in the same way, by finding the facts that cause them. An example is we might explain the social fact of educational failure in terms of another social fact such as material deprivation.

Positivists aim to produce scientific laws about how society works in order to guide social policies. They favour structural explanations of social phenomena such as Marxism & Functionalism as these theories see society and its structures as exisiting outside of us to shape our behaviour patterns.

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Positivism - Objective quantitative research

Positivists believe that the experimental method used in the natural sciences is the perfect model for research as it allows the investigator to test the hypothesis in the most systematic way.

Quantitative data allows them to produce mathematically precise statements about the relationship between the facts they are investigating. By analysing this data they seek to discover the laws of cause and effect that determine behaviour.

Positivists believe that researchers should be objective and detached and not allow their own feelings or values to influence the ways they conduct their research or analyse the findings. In sociology we are dealing with people so there is a danger the researcher might influence the research unlike in the natural sciences where values do not make a difference to the research.

Positivists use methods which allow for objectivity such as questionnaires, structured interviews and official statistics as they produce reliable data.

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Interpretivism - Subject matter

Interpretivists argue that the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action which we can only understand through interpreting the meanings of those involved. They reject the use of natural science methods as they do not think sociology is a science because science only deals with laws of cause and effect and not human meanings.

To Intepretivists, natural science studies matter which has no consciousness. For example an apple falls to the ground because of gravity, it does not have a conscious so has no choice about its behaviour. In contrast sociology studies people who do have a consciousness and construct their world by attaching meanings to it.

Mead argued rather than responding automatically to external stimuli, human beings interpret the meaning of a stimulus and then choose how to respond to it. Individuals are not manipulated by external social facts but are independent who construct their world by the meanings they attach to it.

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Interpretivism - Verstehen & qualitative research

Unlike Positivists, Interpretivists reject the logic of the natural sciences. They argue that to discover the meanings people give to their actions we need to see the world through their viewpoint.

We need to abandon the detachment favoured by Positivists and instead put ourselves in the place of the actor using empathetic understanding to grasp their meanings in what Weber calls verstehen.

This is why Interpretivists favour the use of qualitative data such as participant observation and unstructured interviews as they produce more personal data which is high in validity and give the sociologist a subjective understanding of the actor's meanings.

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Interpretivism - Types

All Interpretivists seek to understand meanings but they are divided about whether or not we can combine this understanding with Positivist explanations of human behaviour.

Interactionists believe we can have casual explanations but reject the Positivist view that we should have a hypothesis before we start. Glaser & Strauss favour a bottom up approach where our ideas emerge gradually from observations we make rather than having a fixed hypothesis.

Phenomenologists & Ethnomethodologists reject the possibility of casual explanations of human behaviour. They see social reality as being the shared meanings of its members so society is not an external force but just exists in people's consciousness. Therefore there is no possibility of cause and effect explanations which Positivists like.

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Interpretivism - Postmodernism

Postmodernists also argue against the idea of a scientific sociology. This is because they regard natural science as simply a meta-narrative. Despite its claim to have special access to the truth, science's account of the world is no more valid than any other theory. 

A scientific sociology not only makes false claims about having the truth it also serves as a form of domination. An example showing this is the former Soviet Union where Marxism, a theory claiming to have scientifically discovered the ideal society, was just used to justify oppression.

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Karl Popper - The fallacy of induction

Karl Popper (1902-94) notes that many systems of thought claim to have true knowledge about the world such as religions, traditions etc as well as science. He asks what is it that makes scientific knowledge unique and able to grow so much in only a few decades

Popper rejects the other Positivist view of inductive reasoning and verificiationism. He believes we should reject verificationism because of 'the fallacy of induction

To illustrate this Popper uses the example of swans. Having observed a large number of white swans we might make the generalisation that all swans are white. It is easy for us to make observations which seem to verify this but no matter how many we observe we cannot prove that all swans are white as a single observation of a black swan destroys the theory. This means we can never prove a theory true simply by producing more observations that support it

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Karl Popper - Falsificationism & Truth

Popper believes what makes science a unique form of knowledge is falsificationism, the opposite of verificationism. A scientific statement is one that is capable of being proved wrong by evidence, such as a test would disprove the law of gravity if when we let go of an object it did not fall.

For Popper, a good theory has two features:

  • It can be falsifiable but when tested stands up to all attempts to disprove it
  • It is bold by making big generalisations that precisely predict a large number of things so is at greater risk of being falsified

Popper believes that there can never be absolute proof that any knowledge is true and a good theory isn't necessary a true theory - it is simply one that has withstood attempts to falsify it so far

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Karl Popper - Criticism & the open society

For a theory to be falsifiable it must be open to criticism from other scientists. The scientific community is open to criticism so that flaws in a theory can be readily exposed so better theories are able to develop. This is how Popper explains why scientific knowledge grows so rapidly

Popper believes that science thrives in liberal societies where there is freedom of expression. By contrast, closed societies are dominated by an official belief system which claims to hold the absolute truth such as a particular religion or a political ideology such as Nazism or Marxism

Belief systems prevent the growth of science because they conflict with the falsifiable nature of scientific knowledge. An example showing this is Galileo who was punished by the church for claiming that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa as the church taught

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Karl Popper - Implications for sociology

Popper believes that much of sociology is unscientific as many of the theories can not be tested with the possibility that they might be falsified. An example of this is Marxism predicting that a revolution will lead to a classless society but that is hasn't happened yet because of the false consciousness of the proletariat. This means it cannot be falsified as Marxism is 'correct' regardless

However, Popper believes sociology can be scientific as it is capable of producing hypotheses which can be falsified through research

Althought Popper rejects Marxism as unscientific he does not believe that untestable ideas are worthless. These ideas may be of value because they could become testable at a later date and we can examine them for logical consistency. While sociology may have a larger quantity of untestable ideas than the natural sciences this may be simply because it hasn;t been in existence for so long

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Thomas Kuhn - The paradigm

Thomas Kuhn (1970) has the idea of the paradigm. A paradigm is shared by members of a given scientific community and defines what their science is. It provides a basic framework of principles and techniques in which members of that community work telling them what nature is like

The paradigm is a set of norms as it tells scientists how to think and behave as unlike sociology students those in the natural sciences are not invited to consider rival perspectives. Scientists' conformity to the paradigm is rewarded with publication of their research giving them career success while non conformity may result in dismissal

In Kuhn's view a science cannot exist without a shared paradigm. Until there is general consensus on a single paradigm there will only be rival schools of thought, not a science as such

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Thomas Kuhn - Normal science

For most of the time the paradigm goes unquestioned and scientists do what Kuhn calls normal science. In normal science scientists engage in puzzle solving where the paradigm defines the questions and the answers with the scientists having to work out the nearest solution

For Kuhn, the advantage of the paradigm is that it allows scientists to agree on the basics of their subject with the puzzle solving work giving the paradigm more detail so enlarging their picture of nature

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Thomas Kuhn -Scientific revolutions

Not all puzzle solving is successful as from time to time scientists obtain findings contrary to those the paradigm led them to expect. As these anomalies gradually mount up, confidence in the paradigm begins to decline leading to attempts to reformulate the paradigm so as to account for the anomalies

Science has now entered a period of crisis as scientists have become demoralised. They begin to formulate rival paradigms marking the start of a scientific revolution. One paradigm will eventually win over rival paradigms so becomes accepted by the scientific community allowing normal science to resume but with a new set of basic assumptions.

The new paradigm gains support from younger scientists at first as they have less to lose than older more experienced scientists. The new theory simply triumphs because 'its oppoents eventually die'. For Kuhn the scientific community is not open and for most of the time scientists are conformists but this changes only during a scientific revolution

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Thomas Kuhn - Implications for sociology

In sociology there is no shared paradigm as there is no agreement on what to study, what method etc. For example, Functionalists disagree with Marxists about whether society is based on consenus or conflict

Kuhn believes that sociology could only become a science if these basic disagreements were solved. This is seen as impossible however as rival perspectives will always continue to exist so it is hard to image such differences being overcome to create a united paradigm

Postmodernists argue that a paradigm would not be desirable in sociology as it is like a meta-narrative which they object to as it silences minority views and falsely claims to have special access to the truth

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Realism, science & sociology - Open and Closed Sys

Realists such as Keat & Urry (1982) stress the similarities between sociology and certain kinds of natural science in terms of the degree of control the researcher has over the variables being researched

Closed systems are those where the researcher can control and measure all the relevant variables to make precise predictions of the sort Popper advocates. The typical research method is the laboratory experiment

Open systems are those where the researcher cannot control and measure all the relevant variables and so cannot make precise predictions

Realists argue that sociologists study open systems because the processes are too complex to make exact predictions such as we cannot predict the crime rate precisely because we are unable to control, measure or identify all of the variables involved

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Realism, science & sociology - Underlying structur

Realists reject the Positivist view that science is only concerned with observable phenomena because for example physicists cannot directly observe the interior of a black hole in space

For Realists both natural and social science attempt to explain the causes of events in terms of underlying processes. Although these processes are often observable we can work out that they exist by observing their effects, an example being we cannot see social class but we can see its effects on people's life chances

In this view, much of sociology is scientific as unlike Popper, Realists regard Marxism as scientifc because it sees the underlying structure of capitalism producing effects such as poverty. Similarly, sociologists can also be scientific when they interpret behaviour in terms of actors' internal meanings even though they are unobservable

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