Sources Of Knowledge
- WALLACE  argues that, in all, there are four sources that we use to gain our knowledge about world:
- Authoritarian Sources derive from a person viewed as a source of true wisdom providing information for us. Becuase of our belief in this person's wisdom, we accept the explanation as true.
- Mystical Sources refer to somebody claiming an insight into the true nature of the world through some drug fuelled or religious experience.
- Logico-rational Sources of knowledge are based upon following the rules of logic - essentially, this is 'truth' that emerges from the work of philosophers.
- Scientific Knowledge rests upon generating ideas and hypotheses, and then rigorously testing them, through a variety of accepted methodologies.
- According to Wallace, scientific knowledge is superior to other sources of knowing in its use of rigorous methods by which others can replicate or refute claims made. He sugests that this is not the case with the other three sources of knowledge. This means, then, that it is really the superior methodology of science that sets it apart from other sources of knowledge. Therefore, the effectiveness and accuracy of methods from the key to science. Any subject, such as sociology, which claims to be a science has therefore to pay great attention to the quality of the methods it uses.
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- Subjects recieve funding for research from government departments, charties and commerce if they are seen to be 'scientific' and so more likely to produce reliable data that can be useful for these organisations. Subjects that are not seen as being 'scientific' are much less likely to recieve the financial support of these organisations.
- The prestige of the subject is closely connected with its funding. For well over 200 years, according to SHAPIN, the status of 'science' as the basis of knowledge, and of scientific methodology as the most effective way of researching, has been the pre-eminent method of understanding and studying the world. This reflects the modernist forms of thought, which dominated all forms of thinking and social organisation from the 18th century untill recently - when it has been challenged by late-modern or postmodern ways of thinking and forms of organisation.
- The result of sociology enjoying scientific prestige has been access to research funding, avialability of the subject at A-level and university, and academic posts for people to teach it. According to GIDDENS, much of the story of early sociology as the promotion of sociolofy as a science by all the major sociologists, such as WEBER, DURKHEIM, METON and PARSONS.
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What Is A Science
- The modernist approach to science claims that it can be distinguished from other forms of knowledge by the way in which it goes about the process of understanding the world. This modernist approach stresses five key components that distinguish science from other forms of knowledge:
- 1. Emperical - 'knowable through our senses' =. Information can be counted or measured. The tradition comes from the philosopher Locke, whom argued against metaphysical explanations of the world, which relied solely upon assuming that objects and powers existed beyond the 'physical realm'.
- 2. Testable - This leads us on to a crucial point about the importance of emperical knowledge - that it can be tested and revisited as many times as needed. This means that the knowledge gained is open to verification or refutation by others. According to KARL POPPER, once knowledge is put forward for scrutiny, it should be possible to engage in the process of falsification - that is, that the emperical model can be tested with the aim of showing it to be false. Only if all tests have been applied and the knowledge still seems accurate, can scientists assume that it is the best exisiting explanation.
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- 3. Theoretical - Many students comment that good investigative journalism is the same as sociology in that it searches out 'the truth' behind events. This is not an accurate observation, however, becuase one of the main distinguishing features of sociology, like science, is that of theory construction. A theory seeks to uncover casual relationships between phenomena rather than simply describing the phenomena rather than simply describing the phenomena.
- 4. Cumulative - Scientific theory, it is claimed, builds on previous knowledge, so that there is an ever-growing, emperically testable body of such knowledge that moves us forward in our understanding of the world.
- 5. Objective - Science blocks out personal prejudices and political views in its search for emperically testable propositions about the world.
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The Scientific Tradition In Sociology
- Sociology has sought to be recognised as a science, and one school of sociology - the positivist one - has modelled its approach as clearly as can on the physical sciences. The tradition began with the work of COMTE AND QUETELET, two founding fathers of sociology. They argued that philosophising about the world was not enough. Statistics needed to be gathered so that cause and effect could be properly proven.
- PARSONS was intent upon showing that society existed as a structure and that there were forces and social laws that existed independently of individuals. Though Parsons and MARX were in total opposition, politically and theoretically, they both shared the belief that sociology is a science.
- How do writers justify sociology as a science?
- Scientists who are dubious about sociology's claim to scientific status point out that natural objects are predictable because they simply react, whereas people have free will and are, therefore, not predictable. This makes a theoretical statement that involves making a general prediction impossible in sociology. However, although we cannot predict how individuals will act, we can predict how groups in general will act. For example, Durkheim claimed that there are clearly distinguishable patterns of suicide, with certain groups having distinctive rates over a number of years.
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- Empirical and testable
- Natural scientists argue that in the physical world, there are phenomena that exist independently of the scientists, such as temperature and density. The scientist merely has to measure rhese phenomena 'out there' waiting to be measured.
- For those sympathetic to the view that sociology is a science, this seems an unfair criticism. They argue that there are a wide range of phenomena that, although ultimately the creation of society, do exist seperately from individuals, and that constrain and limit our behaviour. For example, we are born into a society where a particular language exists and we have to conform to that language. It is, in Durkheim's words, a 'social fact' that exists independently and can be measured in an objective way. Theories can thus be tested to see whether they are true or false.
- Sociological knowledge is cumulative. Sociologists have built up knowledge over time and accumulated a stock of knowledge about society. It is this cumulative information that forms the current-day sociology that you are studying.
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- Sociologists argue that it is possible to be value free by adhering rigorously to the methodological process.
- The Methodological Process In Sociology
- It is argued that sociology is unable to follow traditional process followed by physical scientists. Critics have particulary concentrated on the difficulty of undertaking experiments in sociology. Sociologists have answered this by arguing that the sociological equivalent of an experiment is the comparative method, as used by WEBER to explain the meergence of capitalism in Britiain and by DURKHEIM in his study of suicide. The comparative method involves comparing societies to find out key differences that might explain different social phenomena.
- Sociological Criticisms Of Sociology As A Science - And Of Science As A Science
- Since the 1960s, especially with the growth of interactionist and, later, postmodern writings, there has been a range of critcisms from within sociology as to whether it can, or even, should claim to be a science.
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- Differences between the nature of society and the physical world
- The first criticism comes from those who argue that society is not comparable to the natural world and to attempt to transfer the methods and ideas of the natural sciences is mistaken. This arguement is less about methods and more about the reality of the world around us.
- SCHUTZ, there is no social world beyond our existence. Society only has an existence. Society only has an existence through the activities and beliefs of people and any attempt to study society has to recognise that we start from 'inside' the very thing we are trying to study. For Schutz, and many writers after him, the attempt to seperate oneself from society and explore it as an outsider is simply impossible. Schutz sees the role of sociology as being to explore the meanings that people construct - not to look for an external set of explanations.
- Inappropriate scientific method
- The second set of criticisms is based on the idea that scientific methods actually inhibit sociological research. BILING argues that this methodological straitjacket that scientifically orientated sociologists have imposed upon socioloy actually gets in the way of scholarship. Biling claims that, historically, academics read widely across a range of texts and diciplines and then, based upon that, they presented new ideas and insights.
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Is Science A Science
- Increasingly, natural science itself has come under fire for not matching the criteria of science discussed above. From the 1960s onwards, a number of sociologists began to put science itself 'under the microscope'. They found the traditional model of viewing science as a form of superior provider of knowledge was, to say the least, questionable. They suggest that if science itself does not actually fulfil the conditions of being a science, then why should sociology be so obsessed with it?
- The Paradigm Critique
- KUHN argues that one crucial element of science - that of cumulative progress - cannotbe true. KUHN argues instead that 'normal science' operates within a paradigm [or accepted framework of concepts regarding a particular area of knowledge]. This framework includes assumptions regarding what is important, the correct procedures, and the right sort of questions to be asking. This paradigm dominates scientific thinking, and traps throught and investigation within it. Any attempt to step outside the accepted conventions is usually ignored and rejected.
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- Science changes in a series of scientific revolutions that create their own new paradigms, rather than through the accumulation of knowledge. Kuhn suggests that over time there is a gradual build-up of evidence that does not fit into the accepted paradigm and out of this unease accommodate the previous inconsistencies. A new paradigm is born and the process begins again. Kuhn calls this the process of scientific evolutions'.
- Kuhn is himself not free from critics, however. LAKATOS 1970, for example, has argued that Kuhn's idea of paradigms is too simplistic and only applies to the past, in relation to the abandoment of ideas regarding the earth being flat, or being the centre of the universe. Modern science is largely open and much more sophisticated in its thinking. Rarely in modern science have central ideas been abandoned.
- FEYERABEND 1975 argues that science has developed in an 'anarchic way' and the belief that there has been a gradual, coherent and cumulative advance in knowledge is completely wrong. Instead, he characterises advances in science as chance, incoherence, sudden leaps foward and dead-ends. The false history that has been created is holding back scientists, as they seek to follow a false set of methodological procedures.
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- Experiments And Open/Closed Systems
- SAYER 1992 has pointed out that the model of the physical sciences presented to the public may be misleading. He argues that we need to distinguish between open and closed systems.
- Sciences such as chemistry of physiology operate in closed systems,in which all variables can be controlled. This allows experiments to be carried out. However, other physical sciences such as meterorology and seismology, operate in open systems, in which the variables cannot be controlled. These sciences recognise unpredictability. Seismology cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, though it does understand the conditions leading to earthquakes. Meterologists explain the forces producing weather, but the actual weather itself is difficult to predict. Certain sciences, therefore, do not necessarily follow the process which is claimed is a hallmark of science.
- From SAYERs viewpoint [realism] the social sciences are no different from many physical sciences. Their aim ought to be the uncovering of relationships between the wider structures that determine the way we erlatie to other people in everyday life.
- i.e The relationship between student and teacher can only be understood by referring to the education system, inequalities of power, the aim of education etc.
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- The Feminist Critique Of Science
- Feminist sociologists, too, raise doubts on the status accorded to science. Their criticisms are based on three main concerns:
- According to HARDING 1986, the [onotlogical] assumptions science has about society are based upon male perceptions and understandings. Mainstream knowledge is therefore really 'malestream' knowledge. Women understand and experience the world in different ways from men and so male and female research is intrinsically different.
- Untill recently, the majority of sociological studies were based on males, particularly in education stratification and crime. Thus as HART 1989 says, untill the 1990s we knew a lot about the lives of men and boys, but relatively little about women and girls.
- Research should not be neutral, but ought instead to be driven by the desire to change the world. RAMAZANGOGLU has argued that the role of feminist sociology ought to be transforming gender relationships in such a way as to bring about the equality of females with males. This underlying aim should therefore penetrate the subjects being studied and the methods used.
- Feminist sociologists, too, raise doubts on the status accorded to science. Their criticisms are based on three main concerns:
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- Modernity, Postmodernity And Science
- RORTY suggests that with the belief that rationality, truth, and science are all bound together, and that other ways of knowing the world are inferior.
- Postmodernists challenge this view. For RORTY, scientists have simply replaced priests as the sources of truth.
- LYOTARD 1984 has also shown that the nature of language limits and channels science becuse it provides a framework to appraoch an understanding of the world. Language both opens up possibilities and closes down others since we think within language and are unable to conceive of something that is outside out linguistic framework. This is very similar to BAUMANs critique of modernist sociology.
- Science And Value
- Scientist do not work in an ideal world. Those who fund their research lead the direction of the work, and not all science necessarily benefits the world. Cigarettes are the result of 'science', yet are the biggest killer of adults in the more affluent societies. Pharmaceutical companies have produced numerous drugs that have been directly harmful to society, including heroin, thalidomide and babiturates.BECK 1992 has pointed out that science has actually created new and serious - i,e pollition and global warming.
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Sociology And Science: The Debate In A Nutshell
- Sociology has sought scientific status in order to obtain status and acceptance as an academic subject.
- Critics from the traditional sciences have argued that sociology does not meet the criteria of science both in terms of the components [theory, objectivity, etc] and in terms of the process [hypothesis, experiment, etc].
- One group of sociologists - who have been called positivistic sociologists - have rejected this criticisms and have claimed that sociology can and does achieve the criteria to make it a social science.
- However, if we look critically at the nature of science itself, it would appear that the natural sciences also fail the criteria of being a science.
- Postmodernists argue that the whole debate itself is a reflection of outdated notions of a fixed, knowable world out there, waiting to be discovered. They argue instead that all knowledge is relative to the world of those who seek it, and that it is bounded by constraints of language and of culture.
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So Is Science A Science
- There is no simple answer to this question. According to writers such as BHASKAR 1986 and SAYER, sociology can be as scientific as the natural sciences by adopting certain procedures. At the other extreme, postmodernists such as RORTY or BAUMAN who would argue that the real question is why sociology would want to be seen as a science. The who debate reflects the process of modernity - a period which we are now leaving.
- Somewhere in the middle lie the bulk of sociologists who accept that there is a debate over the scientific nature of sociological study, but who get on with their research, attempting to make sense of society in the best and most honest way they can.
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