Study Notes

Is Sociology a Science? The Case for "No"


Last updated 12 Jun 2020

Interpretivists argue that the study of human society must go beyond empirical and supposedly objective evidence to include subjective views, opinions, emotions, values: the things that can't be directly observed and counted.

These are phenomena that require interpretation. Indeed, most interpretivists would go further and suggest that research cannot really establish social facts, that society is all about subjective values and interpretations and cannot be understood in a scientific way.

As such, they conclude not only that sociology is not a science, but that it should not try to be one. Humans are not like chemicals or elements, about which laws can be established and proved. Each human is unique and has the agency to make his or her own decisions.

In trying to make sociology scientific, positivists miss the truth rather than uncovering it. In trying to make everything measurable and reliable, they stop it from being real. Everything is moved into handy boxes so that it can be counted, but human feelings and meanings cannot be genuinely revealed by tick boxes and percentages. This debate, then, is right at the heart of the discussion about the merits and limitations of the research methods available to sociologists that will be discussed in a later section.

Postmodernists also argue that sociology cannot and should not try to be scientific; that theories that claim to be scientific are metanarratives: just big stories, with no real validity. However, as we shall see, they do not restrict this analysis to sociology.

The problem with the argument that sociology should not be a science is the follow up question: well then, what is it?

If sociology is focused on subjective views, interactions, meanings, and phenomena, how much use is it? The results of research might be interesting, but does it constitute a serious academic subject?

After all, telling the inside story of a violent gang, or a group of naughty schoolchildren is the stuff of journalism or reality television unless it can be used to develop more general theories.

Weber, often seen as the founding father of social action approaches to sociology, still argued that sociologists should approach their study in an entirely objective way even though they should be interested in the subjective opinions of the people they study.

Is Sociology a Science?

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