Sociology and value freedom
Early positivists (see topic 19) such as Durkheim believed that sociology could be studied scientifically. Sociology could study society objectively and discover laws about how society works. For example, Durkheim objectively studied suicide rates to develop laws explaining why suicide occurs. (See topics 12 and 19.)
Weber & values
Unlike positivists, Weber recognised that values were important to sociological research. For instance, our values will influence what we choose to study i.e. we will study what we consider important (e.g. feminists see gender inequality as an important topic to study).
However, Weber argued that values must be kept out of the actual process of research, otherwise we risk hearing only what we want to hear. Nonetheless, values are important when the sociologist interprets the data because they need to be fitted into a theoretical framework (e.g. feminism, functionalism), which is inevitably shaped by the sociologist’s values.
Finally, sociologists have a moral responsibility not to hide behind objective research: it is their research and their ideas and they must take responsibility for potential harm their research could cause e.g. Einstein’s theories on physics helped create the atom bomb, which he strongly opposed.
Therefore, Weber believes values are important when selecting topics to research, interpreting data and how the findings should be used. However, values must be kept out of the actual process of research.
Value freedom and committed sociology
Goulder criticised many mid-twentieth century positivists for selling themselves to the highest bidder – i.e. whoever will pay most money for research. When this happens the sociologists’ own values become ‘relevant’. Goulder argues value free sociology is impossible – the sociologists’ values or those of the funding body will inevitably shape research – and it is not desirable – otherwise sociologists will simply sell themselves to the highest bidder.
Sociologists must take sides: Becker argued we must decide whose side we’re on, this should be the side of the underdog, the poor, oppressed, criminal, etc. However, Goulder criticised this; sociology should take the side of groups fighting back(e.g. civil rights movements USA, 1960s).
Sociological theory and values
All sociological theories are influenced by their values:
- Marxism is influenced by their views of capitalism
- Feminism is influenced by their views of patriarchy
- Functionalism is influenced by their view that social structures benefit society
Values also shape choice of methods e.g.:
- Positivists value scientific, reliable, quantitative methods
- Interpretivists value qualitative methods high in validity to gain verstehen
- Relativism = sociology = full of values so what is true is relative to my own values. Therefore, no single truths - see postmodernism
Objectivity and relativism
If we accept all sociology is full of values which view do we believe? A solution to this is relativism, which argues there is no objective, value free research: it is all seen through the values and interests of particular groups and cultures.
There are many truths: what I believe is true is true for me – but only me. This is a postmodernist view, that there are no mteanarratives or single views of the truth. However, this does undermine postmodernism – their view is no more the truth than any other