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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sociology as a science

Sociology as a science


Science is a systemized body of knowledge. An essential feature of scientific knowledge is that it is base upon sensory observation of empirical data. The information acquired through sensory observation has to be made meaningful. Thus1 science tries to arrive at law like explanatory generalizations. For the purpose of acquiring empirical data and for processing them into law like statements science relies on method.

The basic elements of scientific method are:

Perspective of Sociology
It provides a broad view regarding the nature of reality out of which the subject matter is to be delineated.

Sociology:A Well Defined Subject Matter
It constitutes the domain of the science in which investigations have to be carried out.

Methodology of Sociology
It consists of a series of procedural steps for collection and analysis of data. The knowledge acquired with the help of the scientific method constitutes the scientific knowledge. An essential characteristic of scientific knowledge is that it is tentative in nature always subjected to empirical verification. The final test of the validity of scientific knowledge lies in its verifiability. The earliest sciences to grow were physical and natural sciences. Due to their success in exploring the physical and natural world and being able to arrive at near universal laws they came to be viewed as models for other sciences to emulate. These sciences followed methodology of observation which involved experimentation being the means for systematic and controlled observation. Comparison and classification by using the comparative method the observed data is systematically classified into different categories.

Generalizations when the data is analyzed to discover the patterns of interconnections which are presented in the form of law like one phenomenon in the preceding phenomena.

Sociology being a new subject on the horizon was also influenced and developed under the shadow of these positive sciences. The early sociologists, being under the spell of the reigning sciences of the day, took for granted that sociology was a science. According to Comte, society is created by natural laws that could be explained, just like the natural sciences. Besides, since society is an objective reality, it can be studied by applying the scientific methods, of observation, experimentation and comparison. Another 19th century sociologist, Herbert Spencer, treated sociology from the evolutionary viewpoint, that is, he was heavily indebted to the evolutionary theory of biology, a natural science. Emile Durkheim who clearly defined the field of sociology adopted a new approach. Society cannot be examined as individual entities, but as collectivities and their interactions, Social collectivity is a social fact and social facts must be regarded as things and they should be studied objectively just as in natural sciences. Moreover, Durkheim's study of society is based on statistical data, and from them he arrived at some sociological generalizations. Impressed by Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown, a 20th century anthropologist freely advocated a natural science of society, having its own laws and explanations. It is also to be observed here that all the above thinkers adopted the evolutionary and organic analyses and concepts derived from biology.

There are some of the limitations: which come in the way of sociology being a positive science. Problem of experimentation: Experimentation is crucial in scientific observation to establish precise relationships between different variables. It is practically impossible to control human behaviour in a laboratory like situation.

Problem Of Quantification With Sociology
Although some aspects of sociological phenomena can be quantified using statistical methods. But a large part of its essentially qualitative in nature and hence are not amendable to quantitative techniques.
Problem Of Generalization With Sociology
Sociologists have not being successful in arriving at law-like generalizations through their studies. Human behavior does not follow recurrent patterns like physical objects. At best sociologists can establish statistical correlations. Problem of objectivity: Objectivity refers to a frame of mind whereby the personal prejudices and predilections of the scientists do not affect the collection and analysis of data. However it has been found that objectivity is nearly impossible in sociological research. A sociologist can only minimize subjectivity.

However certain sociologists like Max Weber have questioned the very idea that sociology can ever be a positive science. He has contended that there cannot be an objective science of society since social action must be understood in terms of the meaning man gives to it. In other words, value judgments are inevitable in sociology and we can never have completely objective science of sociology. In the same manner the 19th century sociologist of Germany, George Simmel, has argued that a society is essentially a psychic interaction between human beings both as individuals and groups. Logically, sociologists should deal with the processes of happenings, but not with substances just like natural sciences.

The present view of sociologists stands like this: The basic unit in the subject matter of sociology is human being and his behavior is volatile unlike the basic units of positive sciences which conform to the law of uniformity. Such being the basic unit of sociology, experimentation under controlled conditions is impossible to arrive at like establishing precise laws just as in physics and chemistry, or even to the same extent as in natural sciences like biology, geology and metrology. Secondly, sociology is as much rational as the other sciences are. The element of irrationality is to be found in other sciences too. Thirdly, to say that other sciences deal with hard facts ruling out the role of preconceptions and biases is also a wrong view. This contention is based on the premise that a fact like electricity is objective, but a family bond is subjective. This is a narrow approach, for, every idea of man is subjective as it emanates from a person and belongs to him. As a matter of fact when a geologist approaches his subject matter, he relies on his experience, argument and knowledge to get the best results. The human part of the geologist is definitely a subjective phenomenon. Fourthly, sociologists need not be apologetic about value judgments. No value judgment is absolutely personal. Say, the statement that alcoholism is a curse is a scientific judgment because it is based on hard facts collected by sociologists. It is confirmed by further surveys. Such value judgments, therefore, are equivalent to the hypothesis in other sciences. Fifthly, it is generally argued that sociology cannot attain a true scientific status as it studies only the unique happenings of society. This is an unfair argument since the so -called superior sciences, too, are concerned with the unique happenings like the Ice Age in geology, the birth of the universe in astro-physics, and the theory of evolution in biology. Sixthly, it is argued that sociology cannot ever master an understanding of billions of social acts occurring every day. But the very fact, that the world is not a bedlam or a total chaos, is a sufficient proof that sociology has the opportunity to play the role of science. Sociologists do study and find out reasonable approximations of order that are present in the billions of social acts that occur every day. Indeed, society has ceased to be simple; it has become bafflingly complex. If today's staggering complexity of social phenomena is difficult to be understood and formulated by sociologists, the answer in the future probably may lie in the modern tools of mathematics. Sociologists can take the assistance of computer. Seventhly, the argument that unlike other sciences, sociology lacks in the law of causality, is again a fallacious contention. Sociology can establish relationships between population and war, between criminality and nebulization, etc. This does not mean that causal relationships established by sociologists are guesses because they cannot be as precise as the other scientific equations. The causal relations as established by sociologists must be understood as partial statements that are subject to continuous revisions and modifications as and when more knowledge is gained.

The limitations that are encountered in the study of social phenomena are inherent in the very subject matter of sociology and do not represent epistemological failure. It is a science since it fulfill the basic requirements of the science i.e it has perspective, a consensus with regard to subject matter and a set of methods to explore the subject matter it may not be called a positive science but it is definitively a social science.

Sociology As Interpretative Discipline


The positivistic approach to sociology tends to assume that society can shape the behavior of its members almost completely through socialization. However there is a section of sociologist who regards the above view as an over-socialized conception of man. They do not accept the belief that an individual is simply the society writ small. According to them each individual's personality carries an imprint to his unique experience along with the socially transmitted world view. Also they draw attention to the mercurial nature of man and they see in the positivistic approach an attempt to reduce man to a passive being. But these sociologists have not altogether rejected the positivist approach rather they find it inadequate and seek to supplement it with new approaches which look for new data and adopt new methods. These sociologists see their discipline as somewhat akin to literature than to natural sciences in the sense that they seek to reflect the pattern of meaning in a set of observation they have made. However there is no total consensus among these critics of positivist approach. One aspect they share in common is that they all emphasize on the importance of underlying meanings in order to understand social behavior otherwise these critics differ significantly among themselves.

One extreme there exists anti-positivist approach like that of ethnomethodologists and on the other hand there are moderate critics of positivism like Max Weber whose approach tries to build a bridge between positivist approach and extreme form of interactionism.According to Weber social reality is characterized by the presence of geist or consciousness. Due to the presence of consciousness people ascribe meanings to the situation around them which include other people too. These meanings influence the subsequent behaviour.Consequently any attempt to understand social reality must take into account these meanings and motives. These meanings ascribed by the people are partly determined by cultural norms and partly shaped by the personal experiences of the individual actors. Thus an attempt to understand social behavior should not stop simply at observation from without instead it should involve interpretation of the underlying meanings and motives. This requires the use of new method through which an empathetic liaison can be established between the observer and the actor. Empathetic liaison means that the observer tries to place himself imaginatively in the actor's position. The sociologist should try to figure out meanings and motives given by the actor. In terms of these meanings and motives he then tries to rationally explain the actor's behavior. This is the essence of Verstehen Approach advocated by Max Weber.

Other interpretative sociologists those identified as Symbolic Interactionist are content to operate with a relatively simple set of assumption about how we come to know about social phenomena. They accept the meaning that the actors attribute to social phenomena at the face value and proceed to erect their systematic interpretations on these foundations. The term symbolic interactionist used because it is through symbols that meanings, motives and attributes are conveyed. Thus an understanding of symbols can help in understanding the meanings conveyed by actors involved in the interacting situation. For example a cross x may symbolize a barbarian method of execution or a religious movement. V-sign signifies victory where Winston Churchill elevated the gesture to a symbol of national aspiration. The assumptions underlying symbolic interactionism are

1. The individual and society are regarded, as inseparable for the individual can become a human being only in a social context.
2. Human beings are viewed as acting on the basis of meaning that they give to the objects and events rather than simply reacting either to external stimuli such as social forces or internal stimuli such as drives.
3. Meanings arise from the process of interaction rather than being simply present at the outset. To some degree meanings are created, modified, developed and changed within interactive situation rather than being fixed and preformed.
4. Meanings are the result of interpretative procedures employed by actors within interactions context by taking the role of others; actors interpret the meanings and intentions of others. By means of mechanism of self-interaction, individuals modify or change definitions of their situation rehearse alternative course of interactions and consider their possible consequences. These meanings that guide actions arise in the context of interaction via a series of complex interpretative procedures.
5.The methodology of symbolic interactionism as advocated by Herbert Blumer demands that the sociologist must immerse himself in the area of life that he seek to investigate. Rather than attempting to fill data into predefined categories, he must attempt to grasp the actor's view of social reality. Since action is directed by actor meanings the sociologist must catch the process of interpretation through which the actors construct their action. This means, he must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he studies.

Another approach belonging to social anthropology that can also be categorized as an interpretive approach starts with a description of commonly accepted meanings that people attribute to social phenomena. Mere description of such meanings would simply amount to an ethnographic study of the people - an account of their culture. These sociologists are interested in understanding social phenomena in general terms. Accordingly they must move beyond to find meaning of the phenomena and try to discover patterns and regularities in these meanings that they can represent as cultural themes. Further patterns and regularities running through themes may in turn be represented as configuration of themes which taken together may be held to characterize the essential characteristics of a culture. In this way the social anthropologist Ruth Benedict characterizes the cultures of some American Indian People as Dionysian that is given to extreme and frenzied state of being and other as apollonian always seeking moderation in behavior and cultural expressions. She achieved this by tracing these features through wide range of their manifestation in the cultures of the people she examined. These interpretations of meanings at different levels of abstractions are all informed and guided by the ultimate motive establishing concepts that provide sociologist with a general way of understanding human activities and beliefs. There is yet another set of sociologists -those identified as Ethnomethodologists- who try to analyze the commonsense nature of social interactions.

The accumulated commonsense of generation results in pattern of behavioral topicalities. Social order is dependent upon people behaving in a commonsense way. Thus, social interaction must be interpreted in terms of these commonsense meanings, however for ethnomethodologist the basic problem of Sociology goes back even further than this. They begin with the assumption that society exists only in so far as members perceive its existence. So member's view of social reality must be understood. But sociologists must also be concerned with processes by which people come to establish meanings in social phenomena. They say that the aim of sociology should not be simply to identify and record the meanings that people have ascribed to situation but to understand the ways in which they generate those meanings in the first place. The idea that it is important to understand how the world looks to those who live in it is approved of by these sociologists, but they argue that the final emphasis should be on the ways in which the members of society come to see their world in the ways they do. Harold Garfinkel and Circourel are some of the important Ethnomethodologists.Since most meanings are transmitted through symbols, sociologists who want to study the interpreted procedures which members of the society use to attribute meaning typically focus their attention upon speech exchanges in which the participants are involve in making sense of each other talk. The emphasis is upon the study of ways in which people in actual situation of interaction come to see what the other person is meaning. Circourel's study of Juvenile Delinquency is an example where he traces the way in which young people come to be categorized as juvenile delinquents by the police, probationary officers and courts so on.

The account of information which interpretative sociologists require to substantiate their analysis is quite different from the information needed by positivistic sociologists. Therefore new sources of information are made use of however quite often even those methods of data collection which are used by positivist sociologist are also made use of by interpretative sociologist. For example Weber relied on official statistical records and historical documents in his study of 'The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism' direct observation is also frequently used accompanied by extensive verbatim recording of conversational exchange among the actors involved. Sometimes laboratory techniques have also been used as in the well-known experiment by Garfinkel when students were asked to take part in an experiment with Psycho-therapeutic procedures. The other methods of data collection used by interpretative sociologists include the case-studies, use of life histories, personal diaries and correspondence and other biographical records to provide insights into the subjective dimension of the social behavior.

Impact Of Revolutions On Sociology
The beginning of tradition of social sciences has been one of the major developments of the 19th century. It is often said that social sciences are mostly understood as responses to the problem of order that was created in men's minds by the weakening of the old order under the blows of French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. The European society was hard hit by these revolutions. The old order that rested on kinship, land, social class, religion, local community and monarchy became very shaky. Thinkers were more concerned about finding ways and means of reconsolidating these elements of social order. Hence the history of 19th century politics, industry and trade is basically about the practical efforts of human beings to reconsolidate these elements. The history of 19th century meant new contents and meaning to the doctrine of sociology. A new wave of intellectual and philosophical thoughts was let loose in Europe. Intellectual currents in the form of socio-political ideologies were also witnessed. The ideologies of individualism, socialism, utilitarianism, and utopianism took birth. Thinkers and intellectuals floated new ideologies and spread novel ideas.

Impact Of Revolutions On Sociology


The beginning of tradition of social sciences has been one of the major developments of the 19th century. It is often said that social sciences are mostly understood as responses to the problem of order that was created in men's minds by the weakening of the old order under the blows of French Revolution and Industrial Revolution. The European society was hard hit by these revolutions. The old order that rested on kinship, land, social class, religion, local community and monarchy became very shaky. Thinkers were more concerned about finding ways and means of reconsolidating these elements of social order. Hence the history of 19th century politics, industry and trade is basically about the practical efforts of human beings to reconsolidate these elements. The history of 19th century meant new contents and meaning to the doctrine of sociology. A new wave of intellectual and philosophical thoughts was let loose in Europe.

Intellectual currents in the form of socio-political ideologies were also witnessed. The ideologies of individualism, socialism, utilitarianism, and utopianism took birth. Thinkers and intellectuals floated new ideologies and spread novel ideas.

Fields of Sociology


A sociologist is one who has earned advanced degrees or pursued other advanced studies in sociology and is engaged in teaching, research or other professional work in the field of sociology. The careless use of the term sociologist is very common.Magzine and newspaper writers, social workers, labor leaders, government officials, social critics etc may be described incorrectly as sociologist. Sociology concentrates its study upon the group life of human beings and the product of their group living. The sociologist is especially interested in customs, traditions and values which emerge from group living and in the way group living is in turn affected by these customs, traditions and values. Sociology is interested in the way groups interact with one another and in the processes and institutions which they develop.

Sociology is subdivided into many specialized fields of which some of are:


  • Applied sociology
  • Collective behaviour
  • Community
  • Comparative sociology
  • Crime and delinquency
  • Cultural sociology
  • Demography
  • Deviant behaviour
  • Formal and complex organizations
  • Human ecology
  • Industrial sociology
  • Law and society
  • Marriage and Family
  • Medical sociology
  • Military sociology
  • Political sociology
  • Sociology of Religion
  • Urban sociology
  • Social psychology
  • Social control
  • Rural sociology
  • Sociological theory
  • Sociology of Education
Sociology is only one of the social sciences and other disciplines share its interest in many topics. Its interest in communication and public opinion is shared by psychology and political science, criminology is shared with psychology, political science and law and police science. Sociology is especially close to psychology and anthropology and overlaps them constantly.

Career in Sociology


A student who becomes interested in a subject may wonder what possibilities it holds for a career. A combination of courses which constitutes an undergraduate minor or major in sociology is not in itself preparation for a professional career as a sociologist. Undergraduate majors and minors are useful mainly as background preparation for other careers. In social work the better jobs demand a graduate degree in social work and a strong post graduate degree in social work/sociology is usually recommended. In the professions like in medicine and law there is some scope for sociology as they give better perspective to the students. Secondary schools/colleges present some demand for sociology teachers.

Civil Service positions often include sociology as one of the subjects for sitting in the examination. Sociologists are employed in small numbers by industry, trade, associations, labour unions, foundations and in fairly large numbers by research organizations in wide variety of positions very often in the administration and conduct of research. Newly emergent careers in many sorts of action programs have developed in recent years like training programs, foreign aid programs and in Humanitarian Organizations like UN.

The Roles of the Sociologist


Like all scientists sociologists are concerned with both collecting and using knowledge. As a scientist the sociologist's foremost task is to discover and organize knowledge about social life. A number of full time research sociologists are employed by universities, government agencies, foundations or corporations and many sociologists divide their time between teaching and research. Another task of the sociologist as a scientist is to clear away the misinformation and superstition which clutters so much of our social thinking.

Sociologists have helped to clear doubts about hereditary, race, class, sex differences, deviation and nearly every other aspect of behaviour. By helping replace superstition and misinformation with accurate knowledge about human behaviour sociologists are performing their most important role. Sociologists make sociological predictions. Every policy decision is based upon certain assumptions about the present and future state of the society. Most social science prediction consists not of predicting specific developments as the astronomer predicts an eclipse but of forecasting the general pattern of trends and changes which seem most probable. All such predictions or forecasts should be offered with certain humility for no certainty attends them. Instead social scientists offer them as the best most informed guesses available upon which to base our policy decisions and expectations for the future. Sociological prediction can also help to estimate the probable effects of a social policy. Every social policy decision is a prediction. A policy is begun in the hope that it will produce a desired effect. Policies have often failed because they embodied unsound assumptions and predictions.


Sociologists can help to predict the effects of a policy and thus contribute to the selection of policies which achieve the intended purposes. For example what effect does dropping out of high school have upon a youth's future earnings? One of the greatest services any scholarly group can offer is to show the society what policies are most likely to work in achieving its objectives. Some sociologists are engaged in planning and conducting community action programmes advising on public relations, employee relations, working on human relations problems etc.Often these sociologists have specialized in social psychology, industrial sociology, urban or rural sociology or the sociology of complex organizations.

The term clinical sociologist has appeared to describe the work of the sociologist as technician. To some extent this is a new name for what sociologists have been doing for a long time but it also includes a considerable broadening of the range of sociologists' efforts to be useful in society. In such positions the sociologist is working as an applied scientist. He or she has been engaged to use scientific knowledge in pursuing certain values - a harmonious and efficient working force an attractive public image of the industry or an effective community action programme.

Teaching is the major career of many sociologists. In addition to the concerns and problems of teaching in any field, the problem of value neutrality versus value commitment is a particularly acute question. The ethics of university teaching have demanded that the teacher refrain from all conscious indoctrination but it is debatable. Scientists seek to discover knowledge but should they tell the society how this knowledge should be used? The basic question is whether science specifically sociology should be value-free. For example sociologists know some things about population growth, race relations, urban development and many other matters involving questions of public policy. Early sociologists gave support to all sorts of public policies they believed in. Between 1920 and 1940 many sociologists shifted to the view that sociology should be a more nearly pure science discovering knowledge but not attempting to decree how it should be used. They sought to build sociology on the model of physics as a value-free science. As such it should be committed to no values except those of free scientific inquiry.

Sociologists generally avoided involvement in controversial issues and sought the status of pure social scientists. This view has been challenged in both physical and social science. Many sociologists today believe that sociologists should claim a major role in making decisions about public policy and should involve themselves in the major issues of our society. They feel that not only do sociologists have a duty to say what society might do about problems of race conflict, population growth, birth control, drug addiction, divorce etc but the sociologists should say what society should do about such problems.

Sociologists have agreed upon some of the propositions: Sociologists should show the relationships between values. If we wish to clean up polluted rivers we must be prepared to spend a lot of tax money in doing so. Sociologists may clarify what value sacrifices must be made if we wish to attain certain other values. A sociologist as an individual may properly make value judgements, support causes and join reform movements like any other citizen. As a scientist the sociologist may not know whether television violence is harmful to children and therefore might not make public recommendations but as a parent will make a decision according to the personal beliefs and values. Beyond this there is no complete agreement among sociologists concerning what role they should assume. Most sociologists have some firm opinions on what policies society should follow and are in considerable agreement with one another upon many of these policies.


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