Can Sociology Be Value Free? Value neutrality is a term used by Weber to indicate the necessary objectivity researchers need when investigating problems in the social sciences. Weber also cautioned against the making of value judgements which coincide with the orientation or motives of the researcher. It is important to note that although Weber believed that value neutrality was the aim of research, his view was that no science is fundamentally neutral and its observational language is never independent of the way individuals see phenomena and the questions they ask about them (Morrison 1995 pp.267, 347) It is this link between the researcher’s theoretical stand and the methods adopted that raises the question as to whether sociology can be value free. What are the arguments for and against the possibility of value free sociology? Is the answer to be found in the design of research methods? Or is all knowledge a cultural product in that what a society defines as knowledge reflects the values of that society, therefore making value free science the aim but not the achievable goal of sociology? Indeed, is the concept of value free sociology of value itself raising the notion of there being merit in a value plus sociology? This concept of value free sociology has its roots in the rise of positivism and the scientific method in the mid nineteenth century. Positivists believed that discovering laws of social development would create a better society.
A key figure in the establishing of sociology as a respectable science was Comte (1798-1857). Comte looked at human progress and decided that there are three stages to the evolutionary growth of knowledge; Each of our leading conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological or fictitious: the Metaphysical or abstract: and the Scientific or positive..In the final, the positive state the mind..applies itself to the study of their laws – that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. (Comte 1830 The Philosophy’ of Sociology’ in Thompson 1995 p. 39-40) Comte argued that the human mind develops through these three distinct phases that were inevitable and, therefore, a fact of historical development. From the final stage, the positive in which causes are explained by scientific laws, came the movement known as positivist.
Positivism came to be associated with progress and social reform. All disciplines had a historical imperative to develop away from the speculative to the positive stage, thus marking their scientific statue. (Morrison 1995 pp.24-25) In two key areas positivism differed from idealism: first it put great emphasis on the reliability of observation as the basis for theory, and secondly emphasis was laid on the search for factual regularities. Comte argued that this would lead to the formation of general laws. Observation became the central criterion of verification, verification to the formulation of laws, and these laws to the subject of repeated test in order to establish their legitimacy (Morrison 1995 pp.24-25) Observation requires an observer.
And it is here, at the heart of the positivist method, where human observes human, that the issue of value neutrality comes to the fore. The positivist tradition concentrates on producing ‘objective’ data, most often in the form of statistics. This quantative data is then subjected to analysis and causal correlations are established. An example would be Blauner (Alienation and Freedoms 1964 in McNeill 1990) It was hypothesized that different levels of alienation are causally linked with different types of industrial processes. After operationalising the concept of alienation, its presence was measured in different industrial contexts.
The main priority was that there be no suspicion that the collected data had been affected by the researchers’ own values. It should be possible for other researchers to use the same methods and arrive at similar conclusions (McNeil1 1990 p.117-8) Developments in positivism in the twentieth century led to the belief that facts could and should be separated from values. The job of the scientist was only to identify scientific laws (McNeil1 1990 p.129) However, Weber, in his Methodology of The Social Sciences, points out that all knowledge of cultural reality..is always from particular points of view. Weber also asserted that there can be no such thing as an absolutely ‘objective’ scientific analysis of culture or..of ‘social phenomena’ independent of special and ‘one-sided’ viewpoints according to which..they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes (Weber 1949 pp.S1.W2) What Weber is saying is that facts cannot speak for themselves. Social facts do not exist in their own right; what counts as a social fact is greatly determined by the moral spectacles through which we view the world ( Parkin 1986 pp.
30-31) If pure social reality, perceived by emptying the mind of all presupposition, is deemed incredible, how can sociology attain to value neutrality if its methods are biased by the observers own preconception and values? The balance advocated by Weber proves to be rather limited. Although a teacher could proclaim the results of an investigation that same teacher should refrain from using this as an opportunity to disseminate his own views. Weber was of the opinion that sociologists could distinguish between empirical knowledge and value judgements (Weber in Parkin 1986 pp.33) This view is not dissimilar to the belief that newspaper publishers record facts without bias or favour. However media theorists are quick to point out that what counts as ‘news’ is the end product of a selective social process. Some events are recorded while others are suppressed. Also the moral language used to write the news contains bias and preconceptions.
So what results are not impartial but value loaded. Could the same be said against sociological research? Just because the researcher refrains from openly disseminating his/her views on the findings does this make them value free? (Parkin 1986 p.33) A way round this would be to concede that social research involves the use of concepts and constants that are tainted by the researcher, wittingly or otherwise. That sociology could not be value free but argue that the deliberate dissemination of personal values be avoided in lectures and publications (Parkin 1986 p. 33) This belief, that the social scientist should search for objective and value free knowledge became enmeshed with the belief that the same social scientist should also be morally indifferent to any use of the knowledge by others. But taking on board the words of Weber it might be asked; At what point in the research process is it allowable for values to intrude? And also at what point should they be controlled or eliminated? (McNeill 1990 p.
130) This brings in the concept of ‘value-relevance’ where the choice of research topic may well be influenced by values of a personal context, but these ‘value-commitments’ should not leak into the methods of research (McNeill 1990 p.131) Does this mean that research is automatically compromised if value relevance is applied? It could be argued that just because a researcher’s values come into play in the selection of research area, it does not automatically follow that the researcher’s results are biased in favour of those beliefs and values. Thus a distinction can be made between the social scientist and the journalist. The social scientist’s conduct must be for a fair and balanced enquiry in which personal and political values play no part, in both the research method and in the publishing of the findings (McNeil 1990 p.12) An example of this can be found in the work done during the nineteenth century by Booth the Webbs and Mayhew. Commenting on their value laden choice of research topic and their value free research: Halsey et al say they were concerned to describe accurately and in detail the social conditions of..the more disadvantaged sections (of society), but their interest in these matters was nev …