Does sociology embody the critical characteristics to justify its classification as a science and is such a classification acceptable? Since the beginning of the study of sociology in the 19th century, this has been a fundamental conflict within the field of sociology. Opinion is generally divided into two camps; those who believe that Sociology should be considered as equal in stature to the Natural Sciences and those who disagree.
Sociology, according to Ackroyd and Hughes is the “… social science that is concerned with the explanation of human behavior.” A Science, according to the Oxford dictionary is a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systemized observation of and experiment with phenomenon. (This definition is usually accorded exclusively to the natural sciences, for example Physics)
The main proponents of this argument are the positivists. Many of the founding fathers of Sociology subscribed to this school of thought. They believed that social facts could be observed objectively, measured and quantified in the way matter is quantified in terms of temperature, volume and pressure.
In Chemistry, proven theories make it possible to predict the behavior of elements. Auguste Comte transferred this to sociology, suggesting that the concept of “cause and effect” in human behavior makes it possible to formulate general laws of social development and thus predict the behavior of social agents. He theorised that the social world was made up of objective facts, independent of individuals, just waiting to be discovered. He supported the use of scientific methods of analysis to produce accurate, quantified data. (He is noted as having likened the new “scientific sociologist” to a secular priest.)
Similarly, the French social scholar C.H. Saint Simon shared the view that through the application of scientific positivism it is possible to discover the laws of social change and organization. The common thread in both lines of thought is the belief that within the study of human societies as with the natural sciences, ultimate truths exist. This however is seen as a fallacy by many interpretists, as the achievement of an absolute truth in sociology is impossible; as much as it is impossible to replicate precise conditions of previous experiments; a key pillar of science. This thus inhibits the ability to test and disprove hypotheses, another key pillar of science.
Emile Durkheim, French sociologist pioneer strengthened the argument for positivism through his conviction that the method of science can and should be applied to “the facts of moral life.” Furthermore he advocated the study of facts separated from the over simplifications of the 19th century and divorced from the ideological philosophy of the German Romantics.
To become scientific, according to Durkheim, one must “study social facts as things,” in particular, aspects of social life that shape our actions as individuals, such as the state of the economy. His most important sociological work, “Suicide, A study in Sociology,” was a practical application of his convictions, based on a comparative method 1and can be considered quite successful. Through the use of positivist methods, i.e. empirical and statistical methods and objective analysis, Durkheim introduced the concept that the suicide rate is a product of social forces, external to the individual.
Many interpretists rejoined, highlighting several shortcomings of his study and in general of the positivists approach. Taylor in his book” Beyond Durkheim: Sociology and Suicide” argued that many of Durkheim’s concepts are not testable; he claims that Durkheim conjectures invisible forces shape behavior; in so doing ignoring the first rule of positivism that social study should be confined to that which can be observed. Atkinson also attacked Durkheim’s use of statistics charging that they are open to interpretation and thus value judgments are invited.
Essential to positivist argument was Karl Marx. He was convinced that understanding was the focal point of Sociology, thus he wanted to develop a science of society that would be able to deliberately change and improve the nature of their social order. To this end, he sought laws to understand society.
Considered the antithesis of the positivist approach, interactionists for example C. Wright Mills are vociferous not only in their denunciation of it but also in their belief in alternatives. They fervently hold that a subject as distinct, in the sense that its subjects are capable of thought and conscious of their actions can and should not be merely confined to the limits of scientific approaches. They believe essential disparities discourage such.
“In Science dealing with inanimate subject matter, and with organic physiological facts, some interconnections of which an explanation is sought can be artificially isolated from their normal contexts and examined in precisely measurable laboratory conditions. In Sociology… this is completely impossible…laboratory techniques are simply not appropriate to the nature and level of human associational facts.”
(Fletcher, 1981: 77)
In contrast to positivism, interpretive sociology is less concerned with causal explanation or factual description than with human understanding. Interpretive sociologists reject the view that the focal point of Sociology is behavior that can be observed. They consider meaning, feelings and purposes as vital in the pursuit of sociological knowledge. Furthermore, the interpretists hold that attempting to separate ideology from reality is futile, that sociology can never truly be free from the values and ideas that define one person’s reality.
There is an inevitably a correlation between sociological perspective and method. Comparative studies and Survey/ statistical are both preferred methods. They both contain the level of neutrality and objectivity that is espoused by positivists. Cicourel (1976) disproved of such methods, he was of the belief “that statistics are the products of meanings and assumptions of those who construct them.” On the contrary, interaction sociology champions the use of qualitative methodology that places emphasis on description and meaning, such as questionnaires and interviews, seen as more personal and humanistic.
Max Weber’s stance on this conflict can be seen as a model for sociologists in that he effectively managed to straddle the line of both extremes. In his life he was concerned with testing and retesting the work of Marx, but he also felt an understanding of social action was as important in sociology.
Equilibrium of the two opposing perspectives has been to a degree also been found in the views of the realists Keat and Urry (1982) who support the positivist stand yet do not automatically disregard interpretive sociology because they believe “the study of unobservable meaning and motives to be perfectly compatible with a scientific subject.”
In conclusion, sociology is divided into two extreme perspectives, that is, positivism and interpretism. Though not entirely incompatible they both offer different arguments for the pursuit of study in sociology, due to large amounts of evidence that they have accumulated. A new view is however emerging that “there can be no single correct approach.” This is the view being taken by many of today’s sociologists. Over the years it has been proven that it is unrealistic to attempt to pigeonhole Sociology. A more modified definition of sociology is thus warranted; one which stresses the importance of seeking an understanding of human behavior while at the same time highlighting the need for techniques and methods that are above reproach while at the same time objective.
1In Durkheim’s famous work on suicide, he collected official statistics on suicide for a number of European countries and showed that the rates were stable over a period of time. He also collected statistics relating to a number of other variables and by statistical operations.