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Sociology as a Science

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During the 19th Century, science had experienced success in explaining the surroundings, and had provided knowledge in regards to being able to take control over from nature. The success had impressed the original sociologists, thus creating a positivist stance on what sociology should be. Positivists believe that the principles applied to the natural sciences can be applied to when one studies society, thus producing objective knowledge about how society works. However, interpretivists criticise the positivist scientific approach for being inadequate when trying to find facts and meanings about society. Interpretivists argue that the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action, and that we must interpret meanings and motives of actors, rather than external causes.

Positivists believe it’s possible to apply the principles of science to sociology, and that it will provide the basis for solving social problems and achieving progress. The main belief is that reality exists outside and independently of the human mind, adding that nature is made up of objective, observable, physical facts, such as rocks, cells and stars, which are external to our minds and it exists whether we like it or not. Similarly, they explain that society is an objective factual reality, as it is a real ‘thing’ made up of social facts that exists ‘out there’, independently of individuals, just like the physical world. Positivists explain that reality is patterned in a way that we can observe the empirical patterns. The role of science is to gather results regarding the observations, record them systematically, and then explain them which can develop into laws or principles and this can be applied to the . This can be applied to the work of sociologists, who can discover laws that determine how society works. This inductive reasoning involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement. Through this process our knowledge will grow, and we will begin to see more general patterns and it can follow the process of verificationism, whereby inductive reasoning leads to verifying a theory. Positivist sociologists seek to discover the causes of the patterns they observe in society, and ultimately aim to produce laws about how society works which can be used to guide social policy.

In order to uncover the laws positivists believe that sociology should take the experimental methods used in natural sciences as a model of research as this will allow the investigator to test a hypothesis in the most systematic and controlled way. Additionally, positivists use quantitative data to uncover and measure patterns of behaviour, as this allows them to produce mathematically precise statements about the relationship between the facts they are investigating to ultimately discover the laws of cause and effect that determine behaviour. Alongside the use of quantitative data and experimental methods, positivists require that researchers are objective. In sociology, the study is of people, thus they are easily influenced so it’s easy for the researcher to influence the results. Therefore, positivists will insist on employing methods that allow for maximum objectivity. An example of a positivist research study is that of Emile Durkheim who had the belief that sociology is a science and he was going to prove it by showing that suicide, a highly individual act, is caused by external social causes.He had used quantitative data from official statistics and had discovered social facts as the cause of suicide, thus claiming to have discovered a ‘real law’ based on objectivity and quantitative data guidelines found in the natural sciences.

However, interpretivist sociologists believe that sociology should not be based on the natural sciences. They argue that the positivist approach is inadequate when studying human behaviour, rather the subject matter of sociology is meaningful social action, thus we can only understand it by interpreting the meanings and motives of the actors involved. Science only deals with laws of cause and effect, but they do not study the human meanings leading to many interpretivist sociologists arguing that there is a fundamental difference between the subject matter of natural sciences and that of sociology. They point out that natural science studies matter which has no consciousness. Therefore, they can draw explanations of behaviour as straightforward reactions to external stimuli. However, sociology involves people who do have a consciousness. Their actions can only be understood in terms of the meanings that they have given to the world, and meanings are internal to people’s consciousness, not external stimuli. Mead takes this further and explains that rather than responding to external stimuli automatically, human beings interpret the meaning of a stimulus and choose how to respond to it, thus showing their free will and choice. Interpretivists ultimately argue that people aren’t manipulated by ‘social facts’, but rather they are autonomous beings who construct the world around them with their own interpretations and meanings given to their surroundings. Therefore, they reject the logic and the methods behind the natural sciences. To see the meanings that people give to the world we must see it from their viewpoint which will include abandoning the principle of being objective by putting ourselves in the place of the actor, which Weber calls verstehen.

Karl Poppers ideas about science have influenced sociology as he questions what distinguishes scientific knowledge from other forms of knowledge and what allowed for science to grow so rapidly in the last few centuries, and how this has implications on sociology. Popper takes a different stance to that of positivists as he rejects the view that the distinctive feature of science lies in inductive reasoning and verificationism. He explains that we should reject verificationism because of the ‘fallacy of induction’. Popper uses the example of arriving to the generalisation that all swans are white. It’s easy to make further observations that seem to verify this, but we cannot prove that all swans are white because one observation of a black swan will destroy the theory. Rather, what makes science a unique form of knowledge is that of falsificationism whereby a scientific statement is, in principle, capable of being falsified. Therefore, one must be able to say what evidence would count as falsifying the statement when we come to put it to the test. Popper, therefore, explains that a good theory must in



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