Sociology and Values
- AQA, OCR
Last updated 15 Jun 2020
There is a debate in sociology about whether the discipline should be value free. This is closely connected to the objective/subjective debate.
Value freedom refers to the ability of researchers to keep their own personal biases and opinions out of the research which they are conducting. Positivists believe that all sociology should be value free. This obviously goes hand in hand with the idea of sociology being a science, because they consider an important aspect of science is unbiased objectivity. Obviously not everyone agrees with this characterisation of science, as discussed in the previous section. Positivists argue that sociology should be value free at all stages of the process: choice of topic, research design, research method, analysis and presentation of results. While positivists argue this should be the case, it is questionable. Even Durkheim had reasons for choosing his topics. For example, he lost a close friend to suicide, influencing his decision to study the topic: that is not purely objective and value free.
Interactionists argue that sociologists need to find the subjective views of their subjects. However, Weber still argued that the sociologist should remain objective and put aside their own values and opinions when conducting their research. This is an interesting balancing act. The sociologist should recognise that their subjects have values and should seek out the subjective views of their subjects. At the same time, the sociologist should keep their own values out of their research and analysis. It is not their role to make judgements about their subjects.
Marxists and feminists take a different view. They conduct research for a reason, based entirely on their values: their political opinions. They argue that sociology should be motivated by a desire to make society better. They would go further to suggest that no sociologist is actually value free. Apparent value freedom is in fact political conservatism. If your motivation is not to transform society, to expose the injustice of capitalism or patriarchy, then you are happy to maintain the status quo.
Postmodernists believe that value freedom is impossible and undesirable. Everyone has values and these influence what they do. Apparently objective, value-free sociology is a narrative, a story, done for a purpose. Researchers should acknowledge their values and realise that they themselves are not an unbiased observer; that, whatever method they choose to use, those values will inform the research at all stages.
Values are likely to come into sociology during:
Choice of topic
Although there are a number of factors that might influence a sociologist’s choice of topic, values will be among them. Believing that the topic is something worth studying is itself a value-driven decision.
Choice of method
Again, there are a range of factors that influence the choice of research method, but sometimes this will relate to the researcher’s beliefs about research and their research subjects.
While many sociologists have asserted the importance of objective, value-freedom in their analysis, conclusions are likely to involve judgements about people’s behaviour or what would be considered normal or unusual.
Presentation. Sociologists’ results will generally be presented in text form, as a journal article, book or thesis. Postmodernists would argue that it is impossible to keep oneself and one’s values out of any piece of writing.