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Study Notes

Is Sociology a Science? Paradigms - A Third Way?


Last updated 13 Jun 2020

A paradigm, in the context of theory and research, is a particular and accepted set of thoughts and assumptions about the way things are and the way research should be done.

Thomas Kuhn, an American scientist, argued that the way most people see science is not quite accurate. It is not purely objective: at a particular point in time scientific research is done within a particular paradigm. Mainstream science therefore accepts the assumptions of that paradigm and views its conclusions within those basic assumptions.

While it does that, there will be "radical science" that challenges those assumptions and so the possibility arises for a paradigm shift; with that the radical science may become the new mainstream. So contemporary scientists consider their evidence from within the taken for granted assumptions of, for example, evolution and gravity (just as scientists once took it for granted that the Earth was in the centre of the universe, or even that the Earth was flat).

As such, Kuhn argues that sociology is not a mature, mainstream science because it hasn't found a unifying paradigm. Sociologists do not share a set of assumptions about the world or about how to do research. There are functionalists and Marxists, there are positivists and interpretivists. He concludes that sociology is a "young science" but that it could, in the future, coalesce around one paradigm and become a science. However, it is a concept of science that differs significantly from that of positivist sociologists.

Postmodernists take a related view: that science is not objective or value free - it is another grand narrative. They point out how contemporary science is more abstract and less positivist and has a lesser emphasis on empiricism than science from the modern era (ideas like quantum mechanics and chaos theory).

They also point out how scientists, like other academics, carry out their research for a reason and their narrative should be contextualised. Scientists are often funded by bodies with a specific interest in the results (e.g. oil companies funding research into global warming).

Is Sociology a Science?

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