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Study Notes

Is Sociology a Science? The Case for "Yes"


Last updated 13 Jun 2020

Positivist sociologists believe that it is possible to establish objective facts through scientific research methods and the thorough collection and analysis of empirical evidence. They argue that their research follows the scientific method shown below.

A good sociologist identifies a social problem or question. Following research, they formulate a hypothesis. Although they are very unlikely to use laboratory experiments, they would argue that they use rigorous, reliable research methods that produce sound quantitative data which can be analysed, leading to conclusions that are then published in peer reviewed academic journals.

Classic positivist sociologists like Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim were firmly of this view. Indeed, when Durkheim conducted his famous study Suicide he did so in part to establish how the science of sociology could explain all human behaviour, even that which most would consider fundamentally individual and “antisocial”.

Like a natural scientist, Durkheim tested his hypothesis against a range of “variables” (e.g. religious belief) to understand the impact these social features had on suicide rates. While Durkheim’s study has been extensively criticised, he did reach conclusions that supported his hypothesis and published them in a highly influential and much read essay.

Evaluating the Case For "Yes"

Interpretivists and postmodernists believe that this misunderstands the nature of society and human behaviour. While potassium will always react with water, humans will (within certain parameters) do as they please. They cannot be scientifically studied in the same way.

Karl Popper argued that positivist sociology generally failed to be as scientific as it intended because it used inductive reasoning rather than deductive reasoning. In other words, instead of subjecting their hypothesis to falsification, trying to find evidence to disprove it, they do the opposite: they try and find evidence that supports their hypothesis. The flaw with this approach is often illustrated with swans. If you had a hypothesis that "all swans are white", you would find more and more supporting evidence with every white swan you found. But the critical evidence is the black swan that proves your hypothesis incorrect. While inductive reasoning requires a researcher to look for evidence that supports their hypothesis, true scientific method attempts to falsify the hypothesis. Popper calls this falsification. Instead of searching for supportive evidence, the researcher should try and prove that their hypothesis is untrue. If they are unable to do so, it remains the best explanation. Popper was particularly critical of some concepts within Marxism, such as false class consciousness arguing that it is not really possible to falsify.

Taking Durkheim’s study on suicide as an example, even other positivists criticise the reliability of his data and the scientific rigour of his method. The calculation of suicide rates between countries might have been inconsistent. Furthermore, some of the key concepts in the study (such as social cohesion and social control) were very difficult to operationalise. How do you scientifically measure such concepts? Sociology is full of such concepts that are almost impossible to be turned into quantitative data, and yet any other measurement would be deemed unscientific

Is Sociology a Science?

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