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Sociology as a Science

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Topics: Sociology
Sociology is defined as the scientific study of human society and social behavior although whether to classify sociology as a science has been debatable. French philosopher Auguste Comte first coined the term in 1838 from the Greek word ‘socio’ meaning interaction or association of individual and the Latin word ‘logy’ meaning study of a particular subject. Science is the systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Methodology used in science sets forth the idea that science is empirical, objective, tentative and based on the principle of cause and effect. The subject matter observed in sociology has been described as too varied, abstract and difficult to measure yet theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Auguste Comte etc. have developed hypothesis and experiments have been carried out that sociology may very well be classified a science just like biology or physics.
A key characteristic of a science is its objectivity. To be objective means that experiments and observations should not be skewed by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice. The scientist must take every possible precaution to avoid imposing his or her own values, judgments, prejudice or personal concern on the investigation thus results obtained will be unbiased. Max Weber was a http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_people German sociologist and political economistshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_economy who profoundly influenced social theory, social research and the discipline of sociology itself. Weber was concerned with the question of objectivity and subjectivityhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjectivity. Weber distinguished social action from social behavior, noting that social action must be understood through how individuals subjectively relate to one another. Study of social action through interpretative means (Verstehen) must be based upon understanding the subjective meaning and purpose that the individual attaches to their actions. Social actions may have easily identifiable and objective means, but much more subjective ends and the understanding of those ends by a scientists is subject to yet another layer of subjective understanding (that of the scientist). Weber noted that the importance of subjectivity in social sciences makes creation of full-proof, universal laws much more difficult than in natural sciences and that the amount of objective knowledge that social sciences may achieve is precariously limited. Overall, Weber supported the goal of objective science, but he noted that it is an unreachable goal – although one definitely worth striving for. Though Max Weber was in favor of sociology being objective but saw it as an impossible task, Durkheim’s study of suicide proves sociology can be objective just as any other science. After Durkheim wrote The Rules of Sociological Method, he tackled the subject of suicide as an example of how a sociologist can study a subject that seems extremely personal, with no social aspect to it – even being anti-social. It could be argued that suicide is such a personal act that it involves only personal psychology and purely individual thought processes. Durkheim's aim was not to explain or predict an individual tendency to suicide, but to explain one type of nonmaterial social facts, social currents. Social currents are characteristics of society, but may not have the permanence and stability that some parts of collective consciousness or collective representation have. In the case of suicide, these social currents are expressed as suicide rates, rates that differ among societies, and among different groups in society. These rates show regularities over time, with changes in the rates often occurring at similar times in different societies. Thus these rates can be said to be social facts (or at least the statistical representation of social facts) in the sense that they are not just personal, but are societal characteristics. Durkheim takes up the analysis of suicide in a very quantitative and statistical manner. While he did not have available to him very precise or complete data or sophisticated statistical techniques, his method is exemplary in showing how to test hypotheses, reject incorrect explanations for suicide, sort through a great variety of possible explanations, and attempt to control for extraneous factors. Some of the factors that others had used to explain suicide were heredity, climate, race, individual psychopathic states (mental illness), and imitation.
Another characteristic of a science is its tendency to be nature empirical. For something or a subject to be classified as empirical, conclusions must be derived from observation. By definition, scientific methods and principles are derivatives of observation including logic, tradition and common sense. All accepted ideas in a science are confirmed through research and observation. Positivism and the theorists who believe in this concept believe that sociology is empirical and their methodologies alone are based upon social research. Though social research is divided into quantitative and qualitative methods, this sociological method favours quantitative methods of conducting research. Some advocates of Positivism include: Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons. Positivism is the view that sociology can and should use the methods of the natural sciences, (e.g. physics and chemistry). That doesn’t usually mean using experiments because there are all sorts of ethical problems with doing that, but positivists do believe that sociologists should use quantitative methods and aim to identify and measure social structures. The classical example would be Durkheim’s study of suicide.
Anti-positivists, or interpretivists, argue the opposite. They take the view that since human beings think and reflect, scientific methods are inappropriate for the study of society. Unlike objects in nature, human beings can change their behavior if they know they are being observed. So interpretivists argue that if we want to understand social action, we have to delve into the reasons and meanings that that action has for people. These views thus reflect the main positions in a debate – now rather old – about whether sociology can or should be scientific. More recently, many sociologists avoid these polarized positions and adhere to what is called ‘realism’. Realists acknowledge that scientific methods are not foolproof and agree that humans are reflective. However, they would say that this doesn’t mean that either set of methods, positivist or interpretivist, have to be ditched. Realists argue that sociologists can be pragmatic and use whatever methods are appropriate for particular circumstances. Social reality is complex and to study it, sociologists can draw on both positivist and interpretivist methods.
For sociology to be classified as a science it must also be tentative. This means that no methodology or principle will be considered true without testing, retesting, evaluation and continued research. Dogmatic acceptance of an idea runs counter to the ideology of a science though temptation to accept paradigms as is, is sometimes tempting. Science’s tentative nature allows for further scientific progress. The very subject matter being investigated in sociology may classify it as being a tentative subject. The very nature that humans are self-aware and can make their own decisions, there are barely any absolutes thus many ideas and experiments are constantly being carried out to develop principles and paradigms. The Hawthorne effect may be used to disprove that sociology is objective but it also may be used in defense of sociology as a science as it can prove that sociology is tentative. The term Hawthorne Effect was coined to refer to the influence of the researcher on the subject’s behavior. This term originated during a study of the bank wiring room, an assembly line area, in the Western Electrical Plant. Researchers were brought in to find a way to improve productivity of workers. They found that increasing the lighting improved productivity declined again. It did not. Finally, the researchers discovered that the workers were pleased to be part of an experiment and to receive this kind of attention, which was the main reason for the increase in their productivity. It may be argued that because of sociology’s ‘abstract’ nature and difficulty in relation to natural sciences that dogmatic acceptance is inevitable but it is sociology’s ‘abstract’ nature and difficulty that makes it tentative. As humans evolve and make choices, observations and experiments take place to develop a new paradigm that caused this evolution or change in behavior.
Lastly, the characteristic of a science that can be argued to be most significant is the fact that a science is based on the principles of cause and effect. A fundamental belief in science is that nothing occurs without reason. There must always a cause that precedes an occurrence. The importance of causation in sociology is described as an aspect and belief of the positivism theory and theorist respectively. Causation refers to a relationship between two or more variables where one variable causes the other. In order for a variable to cause another, it must meet the following three criteria: the variables must be correlated, change in the independent variable must precede change in the dependent variable in time and it must be shown that a different variable is not causing the change in the two variables of interest. Some scientists may argue that sociology may not be classified as a science due to the fact that all social matter such as religion can not be explained by the principle of cause and effect yet theorists such as Herbert Spencer believe that society is systematic and follows a regimen. An English scholar, Herbert Spencer, known as one of the most brilliant intellects of modern times, contributed a great deal to the establishment of sociology as a systematic discipline. His three volumes of "Principles of Sociology", published in 1877 were the first systematic study devoted mainly to the sociological analysis. Spencer stressed the obligation of society to deal with the inter-relations between the different elements of society, to give an account of how the parts influence the whole and are in turn reacted upon. He insisted that sociology should take the whole society as its unit for analysis. He mentioned that the parts of society were not arranged unsystematically. The parts bore some constant relation and this made society as such a meaningful 'entity', a fit subject for scientific inquiry.
Sociology can be considered a science as it involves systematic methods of empirical research, analysis of data and the assessment of theories. In addition, it asks questions which can be quantified. It is the subject matter that most that disagree with sociology as a science seem to have a problem with. In natural sciences, there are infinitive amounts of absolutes that can be derived through research and experiments, hypotheses statements are easier proven in natural sciences than sociology. Evolution and change does occur in natural sciences but for the most part principles stay the same. The difficulty with sociology is that changes occur rapidly thus new paradigms are being tested and developed constantly and it is the responsibility of sociologists to develop methods of testing theories in this field while following the disciplines set in science.

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