Can Sociology Be Value Free

.. er a disinterested academic one..the tradition thus has a double intent; on the one hand it engages in the primary sociological task of describing and documenting the ‘state of society’, on the other hand it addresses itself to central social and political issues (Halsey et al 1980 in McNeill 1990 p12) The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that there never has been a value free sociology, just an attempt to merge a value choice with objective research methods (McNeil 1990 p13) During the twentieth century the positivist approach that fostered the hypothetico-deductive mode, although rational in manner came to be seen as coldly logical. In favour, especially since the 1960s, has been the phenomenological perspective. Where it is believed that the important thing about social action is the meaning it has for those involved in it. The debate about value free sociology was far from over.

Kuhn (1960) argued that the set of assumptions about how the word is like are not questioned but taken for granted as being correct. Kuhn calls this a ‘paradigm’. These paradigms direct both the selection and the evaluation of research results. New paradigms are produced in ‘scientific revolutions’ when enough evidence accumulates against the present paradigm. Kuhn’s argument is that knowledge does not exist independently, waiting to be discovered, but it is constructed and created within a framework of assumptions called paradigms by Kuhn. So all knowledge is a product of its social context a product of scientific activity.

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Science is a method rather than a body of knowledge. As such the whole process can be said to be a value-process from which its products can not be said to be value free (McNeill 1990 p.127-8) During the past twenty years there has been a trend towards ‘warts and all’ accounts of research. These accounts include details such as personal diaries to show the space between the researcher’s results and the sociologist’s personal feelings. Also frank accounts of the difficulties and tribulations of the research, and statements regarding the researcher’s background. These are seen as important as to the validity and reliability of the research (McNeill 1990 p. 129) Do these accounts cast doubt on the status of the work of sociologists? It could be argued that if the scientific method free of values is decreed a myth, then sociologists will see the need to respond to this.

The model of objectivity used by positivist sociologists were attacked by Gouldner. By a series of questions Gouldner striped away the veneer of value free scientific inquiry and revealed it to be upon shaky ground. Gouldner concluded his questions with this analysis, I fear that there are many sociologists today who, in conceiving social science to be value-free, mean widely different things, that many hold these beliefs dogmatically without having examined seriously the grounds upon which they are credible. Weber’s own views on the relation between values and the social sciences, and some current today are scarcely identical. If Weber insisted on the need to maintain scientific objectivity, he also warned that this was altogether different from moral indifference (Gouldner 1973 p.6) Sociologists are themselves implicated by the events in society upon which they study. Total freedom from values would therefore be impossible without the total removal of the sociologist from society itself.

After the conservatism of the post-war boom years and the decline of functionalism, sociology became increasingly fragmented. Society changes quickly and sociology can often be seen as self-reflexive and the methods of understanding it need to change to keep up. Fragmented approaches to society include feminism, neo-Marxism, structuralism and postmodemism. Sociology can no longer be called a fixed discipline with these values and concepts feeding into it. Mills, in his The Sociological Imagination, critiqued functionalist and power elites.

One of his conclusions has the paradox of sociology since the 1960s – to be critical and thought provoking or to be quietly empirical and merely provide value-free information on what is happening in society. Of late the conception of social science I hold has not been ascendant. My conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit inquiry by ‘methodological’ pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions.. (Mi1ls 1970 p.27) Mills asks sociologists to question their methods and, importantly, why they are using those methods, what results are they aiming for? If it is to stay in favour with the powers that be, then that type of sociology can not be free from values no matter the assertions of the sociologists involved. Finally a brief look at sources and their degrees of value involvement. Primary sources, that is information produced through research, interviews observation and participant observation are some examples. Questionnaires are a common method employed to amass data. The drawbacks include the need to be very specific about the types of questions asked. People are self-conscious and interactive making asking any questions problematic.

People have prejudices and can misinterpret the questions. People also tend to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. This is an example of the Hawthorn effect. Interviews also are affected by this phenomena, and again the questions need to be very carefully structured so that the same questions can be asked of many groups of people and balanced quantifiable data extracted. These questions need to allow for interviewer bias. Participant observation requires that the researcher live among the group under study.

The problem with this approach is that the researcher tends to identify with the group failing to remain sufficiently distanced. This results in the researcher taking on board the groups values and thus colouring the research. Secondary sources must be used with care. It is important to be aware of where the information comes from and to remember that some sources are more valid than others (Osborne 1996 pp.131-7). In conclusion any sociology claiming to be entirely value free must be treated as suspect. The approach recommended by Weber is that the researcher needs to be honest about personal values and beliefs and recognise that these will come into play during the selection of the study topic, but to ensure that the methods are applied with neutrality.

It is also recognised that modern sociology has become fragmented into many interest areas. This is a recognition that there is no single reality common to all that can be discovered. But if it is recognised that that the topic for research study is value relevant and that the methods applied are free from personal bias, then it can be said that this sociology is value free. This is not a total value freeness but it is relatively value free given that all the value relevant factors are accounted for. This must be balanced by the argument that sociological research is inevitably directed by values which are cultural products.

Therefore the knowledge obtained is also a cultural product. So what a society defines as knowledge is a reflection of that societies values, just as another society and culture will accord other things as knowledge. Finally there is the moral issue raised by Mills, among others, of what uses the sociologists’ research results are put to. These are value-issues that must be considered and dealt with just as vigorously as the value issues pertaining to the generation of sociological knowledge. Bibliography BIBLIOGRAPHY: Gouldner, A.W. (1973) For Sociology: Renewal and Critique,in Sociology Today Penguin Harmondsworth. McNeill(1990) Research Methods, Routledge London. Mills, C.W.

(1970) The-sociological Imagination, Penguin Harmondsworth. Morrison, K. (1995) Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Sage London. Parkin, F. (1986) Max Weber, Routledge London.

Thompson, K. (1995) Key Quotations in Sociology, Routledge London. Weber, M. (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Free Press New York. [2,549 words].