Sociology and Values
Everyone of us has our own values and beliefs, these are shaped by many factors including our class, ethnicity or gender. This is a debate about whether sociologists who are people to, can remove their own values and beliefs from research and remain objective. This is also a debate about whether that is even desirable.
Classic Sociologists (early positivists and Weber)
Durkheim believed that science could show the perfect form of society, through scientific research and scientists could we uncover this. He valued, value free sociology and detached objectivity in order to achieve this. The perfect society was not a belief it was a scientific truth.
Karl Marx believed his method of historical analysis and historical materialism could reveal the development of people. He also argues that science can take us to the ideal communist society. Marx and Durkheim claim values and scientific fact are one and the same.
Max Weber believes that they are very different and distinct. For instance the scientific fact that divorcees are more likely to commit suicide does not demonstrate the value that we should make divorce harder to obtain, there is nothing that logically compels us to accept the value. Lots of people could have different values or what to do, make marriage harder to obtain (one value) or give the go ahead on suicide if its up to the person (another value). Even though values and fact were seen differently, he saw value in values in research.
- Values as a guide to research:- We select research topics based on value relevance to us and develop concepts to understand it. For example, Feminists value gender equality, they study women’s oppression and lead to develop concepts like patriarchy to understand it.
- Data collection and hypothesis testing:- Values in selection topics is good, but values in research collecting is bad, data should be collected objectively and when hypothesis are tested should be done so only based on facts collected not opinion.
- Values in the interpretation of data:- We all believe in different theoretical frame work (positivists and interpretivists, interactionsist etc), and when analysing data should be explicit about which one we are following so we can show unconscious bias.
- Values and the sociologist as a citizen:- Sociologists must take responsibility for the use of their research by the public and politicians and not hide behind ‘objectivity’ and 'value free’ research. For instance Einstein’s research made the atomic bomb possible, but he objected to the use of nuclear weaponry.
Value freedom (modern positivists and committed sociology)
Modern Positivists tried to remain value free because;
- The desire to appear scientific:- Science is concerned with facts and not values, so sociological study should remain neutral, just to establish truths about human behaviour not opinionise it. -This could just be seen as a way to raise the credibility of sociology not to get the best research
- Social position of sociology:- Gouldner (1975) argues that in early 20th century sociologists were seen as trouble makers who challenged accepted authority. By te 1950’s sociologists were essentially hired hands who worked for the government to solve their problems. Gouldner argues this 'hired hands’ role made them remove their own values. -Weber argues they also left their morals behind and didn’t take responsibility for their research.
Committed sociologists make a point of instilling their values into their research, actively taking sides by adopting the interests of individuals or groups. Sociologists like Myrdal and Gouldner say it is neither desirable or possible to remove values from research. Gouldner argues value free sociology is;
- Impossible:- researchers views or people who fund/pay them are going to be reflected in research.
- Undesirable:- If values are removed sociologists become hired hands and can do devastating research with no responsibility. For instance someone researching advertising for cigarette companies well aware of the latest cancer research.
Howerd Becker (1970) – Who’s side are we on?
Values in sociology are always present, except in the past they have been on the side of the powerful. If you hold no values, then naturally you take the values of the powerful. Becker argues sociology needs to study and take the side of the less powerful, the less studied and the ’underdogs’ like criminals and mental patients. Goffman (1968) argues that in order to understand the metal patient we need to take their side against the psychiatrist. - Gouldner criticises Becker and argues that he romanticises the underdog that Interactionists tend to focus on.
Gouldner argues that we should take the (Marxist) stance of those ’fighting back’ not the underdog. We shouldn’t just study the oppressed as Goffman and Becker do, but study those trying to end their oppression and unmask ways the powerful maintain dominance.
Funding and Careers
Sociologists are more likely to pick up values of those who fund them, as the people funding them choose the direction and parts researched (and subsequently not researched). They even control if it is unpublished and when. For instance, the Black Report (1980) was published on a bank holiday in hopes less would see it because it contradicted current conservative government views.
Sociologists may have different pressures for their career and this may affect research; university lecturers may be pressured to research regardless of quality or usefulness. Sociologists might not publish challenging papers lest it affect their career chances.
Perspective and Methods
We can see different sociological groups adopting different values based on a perspective of how society is or should be;Feminism:- sees society as based on gender inequality and promotes the rights of women
Functionalism:- sees society as harmonious and adopts conservative views that favour the status quo
Marxism:- society is conflict-ridden and strives for a classless society
They choose methods that best fit their perspective, for instance Interactionists favour qualitative methods as it gives access to the actors motivations and meanings. For instance Functionalists and positivist favours the establishment and thus use official statistics.
Objectivity and Relativism
If sociological research is based on a perspective then there would be no way to decided which perspective was true, if at all. Relativism states that there is no independent way to judge the truth of perspectives. Truth is relative, what is true to me is true to me, and your truth is your truth, we cannot know which is of us is actually true.
Relativism and Post-Modernism:
Post-modernism believes too that truth is relative and there is no absolute truth, theories that claim to be are just meta-narratives, like post-modernism itself.