According to the Oxford Dictionary, science is defined as: the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. By following this definition it could be conceived that sociology can be considered as a scientific discipline. Positivist and interpretivism are the two main theoretical arguments with regard to this issue.
The theory of positivism is based on the idea that sociology should be based upon the guidelines of the natural sciences. Whereas the theory of interpretivism would bring about the argument that the knowledge is based on people’s interpretations. People’s personal opinions would also affect whether they believe that sociological theory can be regarded as a scientific theory as subjects such as psychology and sociology are often regarded as ‘people sciences’ because they appear to follow some basic guidelines.
Positivists would argue that the methods of the natural sciences are applicable to the study of people within society, and that it will help solve social problems and achieve progress by applying these methods in the same manner as a scientific theory or experiment. They believe that reality is a separate thing existing outside of the mind, so society can be studied objectively as factual reality. A positivist sociologist would use scientific methods such as observations to study the patterns of society, in order to discover the laws that determine how society works.
These cause and effect laws can then be used to predict future events and guide social policies made as a result of these predictions and past events. A good example of one such study would be the study that Durkheim carried out on ‘Suicide as a Social Fact’ in which he used official statistics to investigate what causes a person to commit suicide. He believed that if he could show that there were social patterns and causes applicable to suicide; he would be able to prove sociology as having a scientific guideline.
However, interpretivists would challenge this view as they have no believe that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to sociology as the studies of people is different; the natural sciences deal with matters that have no consciousness, therefore its behavior and any effects on it is an automatic reaction to external forces. Whereas that is not the case for people. Interpretivists focus on meanings, therefore believing that people have their own internal reactions given to certain situations.
Interpretivist sociologists such as Douglas rejected Durkheim’s view that suicide is a social fact. He believes that it depends on the internal meanings that would lead to the eventual result of a person committing suicide because it is something that can never be found out as it is impossible to define an exact reason why a person would choose to end their life. Atkinson also agrees with this view, following the ethnomethodogist view of interpretivism and looking at the differences between how coroners define suicide.
He also concludes that suicide is a social construct, due to it being due to other people’s interpretations and the meanings. Interpretivists do not see sociology as a scientific theory as science deals with laws of cause and effect, whereas sociology would appear to deal with people’s meanings, rejecting the use of casual explanations and scientific methods. When it comes to conducting research interpretivists are more likely to use qualitative data such as personal documents and analysis. For example when the issue of suicide arises, they would require evidence of a suicide note.
However, positivists prefer to use quantitative data, such as official statics. So when suicide is considered it cannot be defined as a social fact because people attach their own meanings to make sense of it, which is internal to their consciousness. Because of this social factors may not be applicable to a person’s death, as the deceased will have their own personal reasons for the taking of their own life. Overall interpretivists see sociological theory as a purpose to uncover people’s meanings, by seeing the world through another viewpoint.
However, positivists see natural sciences as verificationalism applied to the study of observable patterns, and they feel that sociology should follow its methods. Again, not everyone accepts this view, producing three major challenges to it. The first is Karl Popper’s theory of how Science Grows. He rejects the idea of verificationalism. He supports the principle of falsification (the idea that a statement is scientific if it can be disproven (falsified) by the evidence).
In terms of theory, a theory is good if in principle it can be falsified but withstands any attempts to do so, and explains a lot of what it was made to prove. If this were true then sociology is unscientific because its theories cannot be falsified, as happened with Marx’s prediction that there will one day be a revolution. However, in other ways sociology can be scientific in the way that it can produce hypotheses that can be tested and in theory falsified by using these hypotheses. The second is Thomas Kuhn and Scientific Paradigms.
A shared framework held by members of any given scientific community. The paradigm provides a definition of science and a set of shared ideas, assumptions and methods, allowing them to do productive work. Scientists are socialised into the paradigm by means of education and training. Science cannot exist without a shared paradigm as that would indicate rivalling scientific theories, not a unified science. Kuhn therefore see’s sociology as pre-paradigmatic and pre-scientific based due to the fact that there are rivalling sociological theories that each believe themselves to be right.
Finally there is; Realism and Science. Realists believe in similarities between certain types of natural science and sociology, such as the degree to which the researcher has control over the variables of which they are researching. There are two systems. The first is closed systems: the researcher can control and measure all the variables and make precise predictions e. g. through laboratory experiments. The second is open systems: the researcher cannot control and measure all of the variables, making them unable to make precise predictions.
Sociology can study open systems where processes are too over complicated to make exact predictions. Realists also reject the positivist view that science is only concerned with observable phenomena, an example of this is that a physicist cannot directly observe a black hole, but they can still study black holes. Both natural and social sciences attempt to explain the causes of events in terms of hidden features by observing their effects. For example, social class is not something we can directly see, but its effect on things such as life chances can be observed.
On the other hand, realists see little difference between natural and social sciences, except that natural sciences are able to study closed systems in lab experiments. Overall, whether sociology is a science or not can be argued either way, but it would appear that there is more sociological evidence to suggest that sociology cannot and should not be a science. Scientific methods are not necessarily applicable to most areas of sociological study, and direct casual explanations cannot be made where individual people are involved, especially for things such as suicide where things are too personal to conduct a valid study.
Scientific methods can be used in sociology, but are used differently, as meanings have to be attached to the study of people, as people make their own decisions based on the opinion or meaning they attach to a situation. Also, there are multiple sociological theories; there is no unified sociological definition or idea. Therefore, it is impossible for sociology to be considered a science.