Contempory Social Theory
Student No: 0012286
Durkhiem is frequently referred to as a positivist, Webber as the founder of interpretative sociology. Critically compare and evaluate their methodological contributions to sociology.
This essay will be examining the methodological contributions both Durkheim and Weber have provided to sociology. It will briefly observe what Positivists are and how their methodologies influence and affect their research. It will also consider what interpretative sociology is, and why their type of methodology is used when carrying out research. It will analyse both Durkheim’s study of Suicide and also Webers study of The Protestant work ethic, and hopefully establish how each methodology was used for each particular piece of research, and why.
Emile Durkhiem, in sociology terminology is considered to be a Functionalist, in addition to also being a Positivist, however, strictly speaking, Durkheim was not a Positivist. This is because he did not follow the positivist rule that states that sociological study should be confined to observable or directly measurable phenomena.
Functionalists believe that in order for society to function correctly, there need to be shared values to help maintain social order. Society is viewed as a stable, orderly system. This stable system is in equilibrium and reflects societal consensus where the majority of members share a common set of values, beliefs, and social expectations. Functionalists also believe that society consists of interrelated parts; each part serves a function and contributes to the stability of the society.
Positivists believe that as a science, sociology can be objective and value-free. Disinterested scientific observers shouldn't and don't necessarily introduce bias into the research process. Sociology formulates social principles and laws that objectively describe the social world. "Comte argued that there was no solution to the constant argument about what society should be like - the negative approach; instead we should find out what it is like - the positive approach."
(Craib, Ian. Classical Social Theory. 1997:26)
Max Weber, born in 1868 in Germany, was the son of a Lawyer and was brought up in a household where Religon played a major role in his life. After attending Heidelberg University, he completed his first “Sociological” work on “The Situation of Farm Workers in Germany”. From around 1903, he completed most of his Sociological writings, this included the famous “Protestant work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”. Weber even taught himself Russian, in order for him to observe and study the Russian Revolution. This was, in itself putting ‘Verstehen’ into practice. Something which many Sociologists, especially Positivists such as Comte, disagreed about. Verstehen is when you imagine yourself to be in the position of the person or people who’s behaviour you are wishing to explain.
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Weber famously defined the term “Sociology” as a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order thereby to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects. In "action" is included all human behaviour when and insofar as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it. Action in this sense may be either obvious or purely hidden or subjective; it may consist of positive intervention in a situation, or of deliberately refraining from such intervention in the situation. Action is social insofar as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual, or individuals, it takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course (Webber 1897)
Weber, was involved in many pieces of sociological research. One of his most famous was “The Protestant Work Ethic”. Many sociologists had argued that Protestantism had a major role in creating a work ethic. However, Weber argued that there were certain forms of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, encouraged a distinctive attitude to work. Webber believed that this was due to how the Calvinists saw their work as a calling from God, and therefore worked with dedication and commitment.
After careful study, Weber came to the belief that the protestant ethic broke the hold of tradition while it encouraged men to apply themselves rationally to their work. Calvinism, he found, had developed a set of beliefs around the concept of predestination. . The protestant ethic therefore provided religious sanctions that fostered a spirit of rigorous discipline, encouraging men to apply themselves rationally to acquire wealth ( ).
The point of this research, was that Weber wanted to try and explain why modern capitalism emerged first in the West, and in particular, England. He done this through interpretative sociology. Weber stated that in order for modern rational capitalism to occur in the West, there needed to be not only external conditions, such as markets and wage-labour. But society needed to be in the right mental attitude, and personality. Weber believed that because Protestantism became so widespread, especially after the Reformation, it explained why rational capitalism occurred where it did, and also in the places that it did. Weber however, did not imply that Protestantism and the Reformation caused capitalism, however he did believe that it helped foster an approach to life very useful for the development and expansion of capitalism.
What made his work unique was that he stated that scientific approaches are inadequate on their own for collecting, analysing and obtaining data and that there are totally inappropriate in a subject that deals with human behaviour. Some sociologists who advocate the use of interpretative and qualitative approaches suggest that they should be used to supplement ‘scientific’ quantitative methodology, others suggest that they should replace ‘scientific’ approaches.
Sociologists have adopted varying views on the relationship between sociology and science. It is claimed by positivists that science uses established methods and procedures, and that these methods and procedures can be applied to the social sciences. They believe that social facts can be observed objectively as well as being measured and quantified. The analysis of statistics can reveal correlations, causes and in due course, laws of human behaviour. From this point of view, sociological studies using these methods can be considered scientific. Therefore Positivists see the use of scientific methods as highly desirable, and they tend to be critical of those sociologists who study subjective and unobservable mental states. The reason for this, is that they have absolutely no way of proving what they are ‘supposedly’ observing is the truth. In effect, they could merely be observing what they want to see. In addition to this, many sociologists, such as Popper, believe that it would be impossible to place yourself in the mindset of another person (Verstehen), especially since the sociologist would most likely be researching people he or she does not know. Therefore, the argument would be that research of that type would be considered by some as invalid and certainly unreliable, however this is obviously open to debate.
Durkheim, on the other hand is a Functionalist, and also a Positivist to a certain extent. Durkheim carried out a very extensive and in-depth study into suicide and the causes of it. Suicide was, and still is regarded as a highly individual act. Although there were established psychological theories for the cause of suicide, Durkheim attempted to show that suicide could not be fully explained by psychologists. This was because Durkheim believed that there were elements to suicide that sociology could explain, where psychology could not.
Durkheim believed that any amount of reasons could result in a person committing suicide, however he stated that personal reasons could not account for the Suicide rate. He used suicide statistics, from around Europe, and regarded them as social facts. He tried to establish correlations, and using the comparative method, could uncover certain patterns that would show the causal relationships that produced the suicide rates.
Durkheim claimed “The suicide rate is therefore a factual order, unified and definite, as is shown by both its permanence and its variability”. Durkhiem found through examining other correlations, that suicide rates were higher in mainly Protestant countries, as opposed to Catholic. He also found that although Jews had one of the highest insanity rates, they had the lowest rates of suicide, even lower than those of Roman Catholics. Durkheim also concluded that during times of political upheaval as well as during the War, suicide rates significantly dropped. What made Durkheim different to other Positivists was that he used both statistics on suicide rates as well as social facts, in order to determine different types of Suicide.
He concluded that suicide fell into four different catagories, which would help explain the reason for the suicide. These are, Altruistic, Fatalistic, Egoistic and Anomic. Altruistic was when the individual became so well integrated into society that they would sacrifice their own life. Egoistic was when the individual is insufficiently integrated into the social groups of society in which they belong, e.g the church. Anomic suicide took place when a person was not regulated properly by society. Such as, at times of economic depression, or times of great uncertainty. Finally, Fatalistic suicide was when the individual was restricted too much by society, but is mostly restricted to slaves.
Overall, this essay has tried to examine the methodological contributions put forward, by both Durkheim, who many viewed as a Positivist. And Weber, who was the founding fathers of Interpretative sociology. Both Sociologists were viewed highly for their work, however many also disagreed with their methodologies used when carrying out their work. Webber used the interpretative method, in order to try and see past statistics in the hope of grasping a greater understanding of why Protestantism helped rational capitalism to develop in the ways that it did. Durkheim, being a Positivist used statistics in order to determine why suicides occur at the times they do, and to certain people. He believed that it cannot be all to do with personal circumstances, and that society has a part to play in it. He concluded by establishing four different types of suicide, and that most suicides can fall into one of those categories. Although sociologists like J.D. Douglas would question the reliability of the statistics, due to the coroners decision being final, most sociologists would agree that Durkheim’s study into suicide was successful, and indeed many have tried to develop and improve on his theory. Overall, this essay has shown that one type of methodology may not always be suitable for the particular research carried out. Both Interpretative sociology and the Positivist approach equally show that they are valid methods for carrying out research, but like everything, nothing is one hundred percent accurate. Therefore, there is always room for flaw, but in the study of Sociology, there is always room for more ways of obtaining and interpreting data.