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Sociology as Science

Updated on November 2, 2016

Science, Scientific Method and Critique

The definition of science is a controversial debate. The definition of science is discussed through two dimensions-

1) On the basis of the methodology, a discipline uses.

2) On the nature of its subject matter.

Those who favour science methodology like experimentation, observation, universalization and predictability can be called as science whereas other believe that any discipline which deals with those subject matters which do not have consciousness can be called as science. Science refers to logical systematic methods by which knowledge of the universe is obtained.

Traditionally, sciences are divided in two main branches: Natural sciences, which studies biological, physical or factual phenomena. Social science, which studies various aspects of human behaviour. Both the sciences are committed to apply scientific method, but natural sciences believe that it is not possible in human sciences because human behavior cannot be predicted experimented and generalized.

Sociology is a science or not is a debatable issues. As Stuart Chaze said “science is science whether it is biology or sociology”. August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Saint Simon tried to develop sociology like a science. August Comte said sociology studies through positive methodology, that is, only those realities that are observable.

Whereas other sociologists believe that sociology cannot be called as science because objective explanation, generalization, experimentation are not possible. Since sociology studies individual behavior intended towards group and it depends upon individual own experiences, social norms, possibility of the action and various other permutations and combinations hence human behavior cannot be generalized.

Later, it has been realized that sociology cannot be developed on the line of sciences, hence, it should be developed on the line of ‘social science’. Mac Iver correctly said that human behavior is completely unpredictable hence any theory on human behavior, especially tended towards the group cannot be proved or investigated. But, he also said that the methods of sociology are highly science but because of its subject matter sociology cannot be a classical science like physics, chemistry, mathematics and biology

Major Theoretical Strands of Research Methodology

Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic Interactionism is a major perspective used in social psychology but later it was introduced in sociology by Alwin Small but G.H. Mead, C.H. Cooley, Herbert Blumer popularized this perspective.

Symbolic Interaction is a method of interpretation which believes that society interacts through symbols. Symbol is a subject or object which carries common meaning for all the members of the society. It may be verbal, non-verbal or pictorial in its nature.

Alwin Small believed that every social structure, its institutions and the pattern of interaction is developed around certain symbol of the society.

Sociologists working in this tradition have researched a wide range of topics using variety of research methods. However, the majority of interactionists research uses qualitative research method like participate observation method and non-participation observation.

Symbolic Interactionist studies are mainly found in the areas of personality, socialization, deviance etc. Chicago School of Sociology is mainly famous for this approach. This perspective is more popular in American sociology. But it is also used in other western social sciences.

This perspective was criticized for following reasons-

1) Symbolic Interaction do not understand the structure of society in general.

2) It is popular for micro-social research and do not develop macro-social perception.

3) Symbolic Interaction cannot lead to general understanding of society rather it is compatible for group studies.

Especially G.H. Mead, Herbert Blumer and Cooley are the main sociologists who are attached with Symbolic Interactionism. Though this perspective has never been a mainstream perspective of sociology, but the theory of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ Looking-glass-self, theory of deviance are some of the major contribution made in sociology by Symbolic Interactionism.


This perspective primarily belongs to philosophy which was introduced by Edmund Husserl. In philosophy, the aim of phenomenology is to study human phenomenology without considering questions of their causes, their object reality or their appearances.

Phenomenology believes in experience or cognition. Phenomenology seeks to understand how persons construct meaning and inter subjectivity. Our experience of the world, upon which our thoughts about the world is subjective, and it is the root of all human action.

In sociology, phenomenology was introduced by Alfred Shutlz who believed that social phenomena are interpreted through the dimension of human experiences. Shutlz relied upon the anthropological studies which he believed primitive man has attached their subjectivity with the social phenomena which transformed into different social systems.

Hence, interpretation and subjectivity attached with the social phenomena should be understood by sociologists to understand customs, traditions, institutions and social organization of any society.

Phenomenology has been criticized on following grounds-

1) Completely lacks objective

2) Interpretation of subject attached with social phenomena may not be verified and permits speculation.

3) It does not permit verification, universality and objectivity from the researcher.

Conclusion - Phenomenology is one of the least used perspectives in sociology; under the influence of positivism always tended to develop itself as a sciences but phenomenology on the other hand creates lots of scope for subject. It is primarily used in philosophy to understand abstract phenomena but sociology which seeks objective do not permit subjective interpretation attached with phenomena. Observation and verification are the keys to sociology, which is largely denied in phenomenology.

Positivism and its Critique

Positivism is the first perspective of sociology. Saint Simon called the subject as social physics and tried to develop this discipline on the line of physics.

The father of sociology August Comte believed that sociology will only seek or interpret positive knowledge. By positive knowledge, he meant those knowledges which are acquired through observation. Hence, positivism seeks to develop sociology as an observational science.

Comte in his theory of ‘Law of Three Stages” believed that knowledge has evolved from theology to metaphysical to positive. Being a positivist, he tried to apply the method of natural science in sociology like experimentation, observation, classification etc. He also tried to develop the subject matter of sociology by calling sociology is the study of social statics and dynamics.

Another positivist Herbert Spencer applied the theory of Charles Darwin on evolution of society. He believed that society also follows the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ in the struggle of survival, the best institutions, customs, traditions survive whereas others extinct.

Durkheim in his book “The Rules of Sociological Method” believed that the sociology is the study of Social Facts. By Social Facts, he meant those aspects of human thinking and behavior which is external, constraint and general in nature. He also believed that for a sociologist Social Facts should be independent from the individual.

The main characteristics of positivism can be identified as following:

1) Positivism believes in only those knowledge which are observable.

2) Sociology should be developed on the line of natural science.

3) The subject matter and methods of sociology are largely influenced by that matter, terminology, perspective of the natural sciences.


Positivism has been criticized on the following grounds:

1) Positivism in the process of developing sociology on the line of natural sciences tried to ignore human subjectivity and unnecessarily forced the logic and methods of science on human behavior which is not logical.

2) Human behavior do not follow a particular line like matter. It is largely based on probability and speculation. Hence universal theory of science cannot be applied on society because of its diverse nature.

3) Positivism ignored or overlooked the possibility of developing sociology on independent line. Unnecessary dependency on natural science for matter and methods created obstacle in the development of sociology.

Max Weber accused positivist by calling their effort as blunder and instead of seeking universal theories he introduced causal explanation.

Conclusion Positivism though was later rejected by non-positivist who believed that sociology should be developed on the line of humanities and not as science. But positivism as a perspective tried to develop sociology on the line of natural sciences, introduced a culture of observation, verification, and objectivity which is still considered as the key path of sociological investigation. Positivism is responsible for developing sociology on the scientific line and later though sociology made itself free form the subject matter of natural science but the scientific methods are still followed and for the positivism should be given the credit for it.

Fact, Value and Objectivity

Fact is considered as anything which exists independent from the human mind. In other words, it is referred as empirically verifiable observation.

Sociology or any social science tries to develop its theory on the basis of available facts but in the process researcher tries to keep himself free from their own values in the course of interpretation of the facts because understanding and explanation of the fact through value neutrality can only lead to an objective theory.

Though positivist in sociology believe that sociology can develop objective theories by neutralizing the values of the researcher but later Max Weber and others believed that value neutrality is a tough job because researcher may face following challenges:

1) Researchers are socialized in a particular cultural setup and develop a sense of right and wrong, desired or undesired with any fact.

2) Individual understands anything with the perception of right/wrong hence they cannot keep them free from attaching value with any fact.

3) Fact in itself cannot interpret for human understanding, hence, it is all up to the researcher to interpret and attach a meaning with the fact

In sociology, various thinkers like MacIver, Bensiez & Bensiez, Horton & Hunt in their respective analysis believed that human being since develops their mind in a particular cultural perspective hence whenever they understand or interpret any phenomena they lose their objectivity. Hence, the goal of objectivity is not possible or remotely possible because human being cannot interpret anything objectively when it comes to understand phenomena related with human beings.

Weber believed that objectivity is possible when researcher is well trained and knows how to neutralize the values but B. Malinowsky, Lynds and Lynds, Edmond Leach in their respective studies reached to the conclusion that objectivity in absolute sense is not possible because individual cannot detach himself from the values.

Non Positivist Methodologies

1. Hypothesis

It is a set of propositions put forward for empirical testing. Various facts in theory can be logically analyzed and the relationships other than those stated in the theory and they require to be verified. Goode & Hatt believed that hypothesis is a pre-theory which is yet to be proved.

Hypothesis can only be a good hypothesis when-

- The pre-assumption is free from the biasness.

- It is concrete and clear in the mind of the researcher.

- For researcher, hypothesis is not attached with their own ego, interest or existence.

A good hypothesis has following process in course of becoming a theory-

- Collection of data

- Classification of data

- Collection of secondary data

- Deduction of data

- Creating the theory

A good hypothesis requires following preventive measures:

- Data collection must be voluminous

- Classification of data should be elaborative and neutral

- While collecting data, researcher should not be prejudiced

- Secondary data must be well collected and verified.

- Classification of data should be scientific.

Goode and Hatt believed that hypothesis is the first stage of any theory but in this process it is important for the researcher that all the precautionary measures must be taken because only a good hypothesis can lead to formation of a good theory.

2. Sampling

Sample is a portion selected from the population or universe to be studied and its conclusion applied on the whole population or the universe.

Since it is not possible in the social sciences to study the whole population, hence the researcher takes out a little portion of the population by considering it as representative and whatever outcome comes out of it is applied on whole.

There are two types of sampling:

1) Random sampling – In this, samples are chosen spontaneously so that the biasness of the researcher should not be attached.

2) Stratified/organized sampling – In this, sample is used consciously in organized manner from different groups so that sample can represent all the population.

The problem of sampling is:

- It may or may not be able to explain the whole population.

- Sampling is based on a portion of whole population, hence it is not applied on the whole population because unlike facts the human nature and its behavior are not uniform.

- Its outcome may not be representative in nature.

Sampling is one of the most popular methods in developmental and welfare sociology. Phenomena like youth unrest, illiteracy, unemployment are largely studied through sampling methods and hence it not only saves time and money it done properly, it is capable to give clear picture of the whole population.

3. Observation

According to Goode and Hatt observation can be defined as any phenomena which is present and can be understood through open eyes can be called as observation, whereas C.A. Menzer defined observation as any experimentation or inspection which is made through open eyes and ears is observation.

There are following characteristics of observation:

- It is the outcome of full use of human senses

- It is deliberate and minute study of a phenomena

- It is firsthand or direct study

- It helps to understand cause-effect relation.

- It is used in the study of collective behavior

There are two popular types of Observation

1) Participant observation

2) Non-participant observation

- In participant observation method, the researcher becomes the part of the group of which he is supposed to study and by participation they try to understand their thinking, behavior etc. The problem of this method is losing one’s objectivity and value neutrality. In social anthropology, this method is popularly used by Malinowski, Edmund Leach, etc.

- In non-participation method, researcher keeps himself distant from the group which he/she is supposed to study. It is believed that distance from group is important to maintain the value neutrality.

The demerits of observation method are following:

- There are limitations of senses.

- Possibility of artificiality in the behavior of the group.

- Incompleteness of the phenomena.

- Personal biasness of the researcher.

Merits of Observation:

- Direct study

- It helps in intense and minute study

- Study of the actual behavior

- Direct examination of the collected data is possible.

- It is an easy method.

Observation method is very popular method in anthropology but also used in sociology, especially in the study of deviance, development activities, socialization and group behavior. Though observation method cannot be applied on a larger society but for group, community or village studies, observation is highly useful method.

4. Questionnaire

It can be defined as a set of questions made by researcher which is filled by the respondents.

Lundberg believes that a good questionnaire requires clarity in the set of questions so that responder should not take help of other persons while replying the questionnaire.

There are two types of questionnaires-

- Structured Questionnaire – According to P.B. Young, structured questionnaires are those which one fixed, clear and limited and responder has to reply in the given options.

- Unstructured – In this, the number of questions are not fixed and researcher enquires till they do not get satisfaction or their purpose is solved.

There are two other types of questionnaires also popular

- Closed questionnaire – In this, the responder has to respond within the given options.

- Open questionnaire – Responder is free to reply the way they want.

There are following characteristics of good question-

- Comparatively, the number of questions should be limited.

- It should be clear and unambiguous

- The language should be easy so that responder should understand easily

- It should be not very specific and personal

- The nature of questionnaire should be like it should be examined easily.

Limitations of questionnaire:

- Time taking

- Costly

- It is effective in educated and literate society.

- The responder and the researcher both have chances of losing their value neutrality while doing the questionnaire.

- Problem of reliability

In day-to-day life, questionnaire is largely used in sociology because it is easy to know response towards any social phenomena in quick succession. During election, political policies, programs, etc. question method is popularly used. Different companies also use this method to know the response towards their product.

In general sociology, use of questionnaire is limited because researcher and respondent have large chances of losing value neutrality.


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