Sociology and Science

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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 27-01-13 22:55

Sociology and Science

The Enlightenment of 18th century believed the natural sciences – e.g. chemistry - held objective truths which could benefit humanity. Early modern sociologists such as Durkheim and Marx believed sociology could also be studied scientifically. However, not all sociologists agree with this.

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Comte, Durkheim and positivism

Comte was an early sociologist who helped develop the scientific approach to sociology known as positivism. This uses the principles of the natural sciences to study society. E.g. the natural world is made up of an observable reality which can be objectively studied and measured to create laws that explain things; positivists believed society can be studied in exactly the same way. This process is known as induction, where the sociologist gathers their evidence, then develops a theory. (evidence -> theory)These theories can be verified (known as verificationism) or proved correct over and over again.

Durkheim used such an approach for his study of suicide. He gathered quantitative, reliable data to objectively measure suicide rates over time and between countries. He was able to make correlations between various social facts such as suicide and integration or regulation. From his research he was able to identify a sociological cause of suicide. This cause could be explained scientifically by laws that shape behaviour.  

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Interpretivists, on the other hand, argue sociology should not be studied scientifically. They are interested in social action to understand why people behave, not how society shapes their behaviour. Unlike objects in the natural sciences, individuals have a consciousness can think how to behave and act. The meanings why people behave are what sociologists are interested in, and they use qualitative methods high in validity to achieve verstehen.

Interpretivists argue human behaviours cannot be studied objectively because we use our own views to make sense of social interactions.

Example: Douglas/Atkinson and suicide 

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Postmodernism and science

PoMo argue that sociology is not scientific. Science claims to hold a single truth – i.e. it is a metanarrative. PoMo believes there are no single truths, there are many. Sociology has many different views of the truth; therefore is not scientific.

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Popper: science and falsification - how science gr

Popper argues that science is cumulative: it is constantly developing. He rejects induction(evidence -> theory) because no matter how often we verify our theory we can never be sure it is absolutely true. He argues deduction – starting with a hypothesis and testing it (theory -> evidence) – is a more appropriate technique than induction.

Scientists should use this to falsify (not verify) their theories. E.g. the statement “all swans are white” is scientific in Popper’s view because it can be falsified (i.e. a black swan may appear). Science can then discover why some swans are black and others white.

Falsification is easier in the natural sciences because variable are easier to control. Much sociology – e.g. Marx’s theory of revolution – cannot be falsified, so it is not scientific. 

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Kuhn: Scientific paradigms

Science exists in a paradigm – a set of knowledge, beliefs and ideas that shape our understanding of the world around us. This shapes scientists’ ideas, but also limits their knowledge because events that do not fit the existing paradigm are rejected. This raises questions about the objectivity of science because scientists understand behaviour in terms of their accepted, existing paradigm.

 E.g. it was once believed the Earth was the centre of the universe. An astrologer called Copernicus argued that the Sun was at the centre, but this was rejected because it did not fit the existing paradigm of knowledge. However, Copernicus produced evidence that could not be explained by the existing paradigm. People then accepted his ideas, creating a new paradigm. 

Therefore, scientific knowledge is not cumulative but changes only occasionally. When it does change the change is sudden and the old paradigm is totally rejected. This is called a scientific revolution.

In this view, science exists in one paradigm. However, sociology exists in many paradigms, e.g. functionalism, Marxism etc – etc therefore, is not scientific.

Postmodernists would argue science is a metanarrative, when postmodernists believe there is no single view of the truth – a single paradigm would therefore, not be desirable.

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Realist views of science

Realists look for underlying structures to explain events. In this view, science takes place in a closed system where variables are controlled, and predictions made. However, sociology is an open system where variables cannot be controlled and behaviour cannot be controlled or predicted. However, it can be explained when it does occur through underlying social structures (e.g. class, poverty, patriarchy etc).

However, some sciences do operate in open systems e.g. seismology and meteorology. Earthquakes cannot be controlled or predicted, but they can be explained by the underlying structures of plate tectonics. Therefore, sociology works in the same way so could be considered scientific. 

Furthermore, not all sciences can be observed e.g. the inside of a black hole; therefore realists reject the positivist view that science must be observed. They also reject the interpretivist view that sociology is not scientific.

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