Is sociology scientific?
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Patricia Curmi SP1151A: Research Methods and Data Analysis Seminar tutor: Ursula Wolski Date due: 27.11.02 Is sociology scientific? Science offers humans a unique opportunity to observe and interpret the world around them, allowing us to free ourselves from the constraints of mysticism and guesswork that our ancestors relied upon to make sense of a planet which otherwise appears totally random and chaotic. The analytical, systematic process inherent to the scientific approach bases its foundations of knowledge in the naturally occurring patterns and rhythms that govern the natural world. Scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry and physics offer not only the ability to explain the nature of matter or the processes of life, but was also able to form generalisations about their properties. Sociology, often viewed by many scientists as a poorly formed younger sibling of 'true science', has suffered during its short life-span a barrage of criticisms levelled against it regarding the reliability and accuracy of its methods and theories when compared to the 'natural' sciences. During both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries advances in science and technology encouraged people to believe that there could be a rational explanation for everything and that scientific study could lead to the solving of all of the problems faced by human beings. Physics, under the guiding hand of Newtonian methodology, had promised comprehensive explanations of the Earth and its place in the universe.
Modern sociologists appreciate the error in such thinking, they accept it is impossible to eliminate participant curiosity or interpretation from the independent variable, or the effect of experimenter bias on the results. Many researchers now use 'double blind' experiments, where the experimenter is not informed of the experimental hypothesis and so cannot unconsciously or otherwise influence the subject. Briefly here, then, I have surmised the theories and approaches within sociology that advocate a positivistic, as opposed to humanistic, methodology in sociological research. While one may view sociology as an island of study, there is much evidence of the 'sociological imagination' suggested by Mills² existing in sociological theory, whereby good quantitative research may be supported by a qualitative framework of ideas and information gathered from a number of varied sources. It may be helpful, therefore, to compare and contrast the fundamental assumptions of sociology with those of the natural sciences, but the divisions that separate the two are arbitrary and, at best, blurred through simultaneous use by sociologists. To distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research one must first establish how to define 'scientific'. Scientists are in general agreement on a few fundamental assumptions. One important fact is that reliable scientific theory should be internally consistent (Bruce, 2000:1) with rigorous investigation that produces a solid body of evidence. There should also exist a system of continual renewal of ideas and theories put forward, allowing constant reassessment and improvement (Bruce, 2000:2).
While they accept that not all behaviour is actually expressed, and that irrational behaviour is often devoid of meaning, sociologists do have the advantage of 'sharing biology, psychology and a great deal of culture with their subjects' (Bruce 2000:16) which allows them the insight into their subject on a level unattainable in many other disciplines. As sociology progresses and continues its struggle to define itself, more and more social scientists are beginning to applaud the notion of finding a 'middle ground' between qualitative and quantitative in their research, which draws on the numerical simplicity of science and the informative richness of case studies or depth interviewing and so on. Sociology, while intending to explain and understand society, has incurred the wrath of both ardent humanists and extreme positivists. With the former admonishing sociology for relying too heavily on raw data with no depth or real quality, and the latter bemoaning the lack of rigidity in the methods employed by social scientists when compared to the natural sciences. Perhaps the fundamental flaw with both perspectives is that they view sociology either as an island of academic research, with knowledge as a goal in itself, or a social science whose sole objective is to reduce society into neat, reproducible statistics. R E F E R E N C E S Steve Bruce Sociology: a very short introduction 2000 Oxford press Stephen Cotgrove, The Science Of Society 4th Edn.1978 Minerva series Norbert Elias, What is sociology? 1978 Hutchinson & Co. Brian Fay, Contempory philosophy of social science 1998 Blackwell
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