We can define science as a set of mental and behavioural methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomenon aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. There are four components of a subject if it is to be determined as a science. It must be empirical, replicable, objective and parsimonious.
A natural science usually involves using a particular method, which is based on the following process; the phenomenon is observed; a hypothesis is formed, an appropriate form of experiment is devised; the data is collected and analysed; the hypothesis is confirmed, modified or rejected, conclusions are drawn and laws produced. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries following the period of enlightenment there was an uplifting of the creditability of science and a decline in the belief that superstition and divine intervention controlled the world.
Darwin’s new scientific theory of evolution seemed to offer a biological explanation of the origins of man. Not that it showed one species had evolved from another, that had already been suggested, but that it gave a reason why the process took place, “The survival of the fittest”. Early sociologists like Marx, Weber and Durkheim sought to examine and explain society and its changes in a similar scientific manner. Durkheim. Marx and Webber helped to produce three distinct traditions of sociological perspectives, Functionalism, Marxism and Social Action Theory.
All three of these perspectives are structural in nature, Functionalism is referred to as being consensus structuralism and the other two as conflict structuralism. What Durkheim, Marx and to a lesser extent Webber approaches had in common is that they all tend to seek to use scientific or positivist methods and explanations for social behaviour. Positivists assume that social phenomena has an existence external to the human individual in society and can thus be viewed objectively in a similar way to observation in the study of a natural science.
Thus a positivist observer can identify social facts easily and objectively and these facts can be measured by using either numerical or other scientific techniques. The positivist assumes that a hypothesis related to these measurable variables can be tested, say in a field experiment and this field experiment can be replicated. Consequently a theory arises and a general law stated. Therefore positivists believe that sociology can proceed with methodologies based upon natural science inductive models.
This opinion is enhanced by Skinner “The methods of science have been enormously successful wherever they have been tried, let us then apply them to human affairs” . Functionalism first developed in the nineteenth century and Durkheim was amongst the first and most influential. In his famous study of suicide Durkheim used quantitative data, some primary data collected by himself but the majority was secondary data collected from official reports, statistics and records. Secondary data of this type can be affected by political, religious or other social factors, as was the case in Durkheim’s study of suicide.
For example the Catholic population recorded fewer cases of suicide, probably because of their belief that suicide was considered a “mortal sin”, thus families would be reluctant to acknowledge a suicide death. Durkheim’s “Suicide” was a pioneering work in scientific sociology that challenged the notion that the explanation for suicide would be found in the disturbed psychology of an individual. He used a scientific comparative method for the analysis of different social groups. To overcome the problem of spurious correlation Durkheim devised a technique known as multivariate analysis.
This involved trying to isolate the effect of an independent variable upon the dependent variables. Positivists believe that multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables. Thus if findings are checked in a variety of contexts, e. g. different societies, then the researchers can be confident they are true facts and from these facts they may establish a law of human behaviour. Durkheim believed, like science, that human behaviour had laws and to this end claimed that “The suicide rate always rose during times of economic boom or slump”.
Durkheims’s study has been criticised for a number of reasons. First Durkheim set out to prove his theory not disprove it, second his secondary data was not collected for scientific purposes. The Marxist conflict theory has tended to see positivism as a dirty word because it equates the term with functionalism. Both functionalism and Marxism are macro-theories that offer a general explanation of society as that of a system, where an individual’s behaviour is socially controlled.
Both approaches claim to be scientific but Calvert and others suggest that they are separate and opposed tendencies in positivist sociology. Whilst functionalism is about consensus, integration and stability Marxist theory stressed conflict, coercion and change. Promoters of social interaction approaches, like Webber, argue that the subject matter of the social and natural sciences are fundamentally different and as a result the deductive methods and assumptions of the natural sciences are in appropriate.
He argued that sociological explanations of actions should start with the observation and theoretical interpretations of the subject’s state of mind. He also thought that it was possible to produce causal explanations of behaviour so long as an understanding of meaning formed part of those explanations. Phenomenologists suggest it is impossible to measure any aspect of human behaviour. They believe that it is impossible to produce factual data, statistics for example are simply the product of the opinion of the people who produce them, it is therefore impossible to check and produce causal explanations.
Sociologists unlike natural scientists conduct very few experiments in laboratories. Members of society do not in the normal course of events spend their time being observed in laboratories. The artificial nature of the laboratory and the knowledge of being observed might well affect the participant’s behaviour, e. g the Hawthorne effect. It is also impractical to fit communities within the confines of a laboratory and some social studies need a long time span.
As a consequence of the above sociologists when they carry out experiments do so mainly outside the laboratory, such experiments are known as field experiments. An example being the research conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson, Pygmalion in the classroom (1968). This experiment concerned testing the hypothesis that self-fulfilling prophecies could affect educational attainment by manipulating the independent variables of the pupils IQ scores known to teachers. The “labelling” of some pupils as being bright affected the manner and approach of the teachers.
The conclusion of the experiment was that labelling matters and some positivists may go further and suggest that this experiment attempts to prove a scientific law. There are limits as to the quantitative data that field experiments can provide and positivists have turned to techniques and strategies like the social survey that can provide data that is quantifiable, objective and replicable. A positivist claims a social survey will give an accurate measurement of attitude and opinion at the time the survey is conducted.
Booth, at the end of the nineteenth century, and Roundtree, at the beginning of the twentieth century both conducted social surveys when researching the poor of London and York. Social survey methods have become far more sophisticated and better designed since Booth and Roundtree’s era. Sampling techniques now hope to eliminate too small or unrepresentative participants by using either random or quota sampling methods. Quantitative data is obtained by either asking closed type of questions or by using a scale of answers.
There are several major difficulties associated with questionnaires in surveys as a form of research. The first being that a closed questionnaire cannot explore issues in depth, secondly the researcher can never be sure the participant is telling the truth, and when postal surveys are conducted response rate is extremely low. Interpretive sociologists vary in their views on survey research and the data it produces and many see statistical data as inadequate for producing sociological explanations of human behaviour.
Arguments against social surveys suggest that the data is an artificial creation of the researcher. Questionnaires designed by researchers assume that they (the researcher) knows what is important. Deutscher suggests “Within a society, the sociologist seeks information from and about people who operate verbally and with different vocabularies, different grammars and different sounds” thus a questionnaire which provides little opportunity to qualify meaning might not provide comparable data when administered to different members of social groups.
Popper in his book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) also sees that it is very desirable that sociologists be scientific but parts company with positivists for he suggests that science should be inductive not deductive. Popper suggests that sociologists are envious of the precise methods available to natural scientists. He suggests that the controlled experiment has the illusion to be a significant technique for the advancement of knowledge. Popper suggests that the purpose of an experiment is only to test the hypothesis and the experiment is designed to give the results preconceived.
This then questions the scientist’s values and objectivity. He suggests that scientists should make precise predictions on the basis of theories and then try and disprove or falsify them. Popper believed that science cannot deliver final incontrovertible truth since the possibility of falsification always exists, therefore there are no sociological laws. He suggests “The only human law is bloody mindlessness” (Popper). Kuhn suggest that experiments done in any period of scientific work serves only to support theories held at that time.
He suggests that scientific methods and objectivity is diluted by bias and selectivity and that scientists seek data that will confirm their theories rather than seeking information that will test or disprove them. Kuhn suggests that progress in science is not gradual but comes about by a revolution of new ideas. Modern sociologists using a variety of different research methods attempt to be as objective and value free as natural scientists claim to be. They try to keep their own personal values and prejudices out of their research processes.
They use systematic research methods to collect their data, for example, by careful design of questionnaires or the careful recording of observations and interpretations. They use evidence rather than personal opinion and hearsay to support their research and argument. They make their findings available for others to inspect, criticise, debate and if required for replication of their research to verify their findings. The study of the natural sciences has undoubtedly influenced research methods in sociology.