Can sociologists study society in the same way that scientists study the natural world?
Sociologists study society as a 'social science' however the status of sociology as a science is easily questionable when compared to how acknowledged scientists study the natural world. In order to determine whether or not sociology can be accepted as a true science it is useful to make comparisons between the studies performed by both sociologists and natural scientists on their subjects of society and the natural world respectively. At its most fundamental level, the philosophy behind knowledge, reality and being must also be scrutinized as the knowledge which is so eagerly pursued by scientists is only relevant under certain philosophical conditions.
The natural world can be accepted as what can be sensed and has matter. Scientists study the natural world using an empirical, experimental and factual approach. They investigate and analyse the workings of nature before testing each conclusion. A biologist can study the nucleus of a cell because it can be seen with a microscope and experiments show it to exist. A chemist can study hydrogen because it can be sensed through it's reactions with other chemicals. A physicist can study electricity because it can be seen to exist by lighting a bulb. They study these things in the pursuit of knowledge.
Society is different from the natural world in that it is not a 'thing' with physical existence that can be investigated with our senses. Society consists of groupings of humans, and its study looks at the way these groupings behave. When a sociologist studies society they look at behaviour and the mind. Behaviour and the mind do not take physical form like an atom does, and so it can be argued that they do not exist, and so cannot be studied scientifically. Or perhaps they do exist as chemicals inside the physical entity that is the brain, and so can be studied scientifically like any other matter.
With science, one of the main aims in seeking the 'facts' is keeping a high level of objectivity so that those facts which are sought are the same for all scientists, independent of their subjective inclinations. This objectivity would seem fairly simply, say, with study of inanimate objects. However, sociologists study people and people don't necessarily behave like inanimate objects - they may, for example, react differently to varying interviewing styles used in social research. Given a questionnaire, an interviewer may put particular emphasis on a certain answer in that questionnaire to encourage the respondent to give that answer. A level of bias is hence created, whilst such bias is perhaps far more difficult to leverage in the study of the natural world.
If an expert natural scientists proclaims that "the mass of the substance x is 5g" it may be taken as a scientific objective fact. Any number of scientists could conduct a similar study and would return the same empirical result, giving additional experimental proof and backing to the first scientists study. A sociologist has a far greater struggle in their line of study, as the majority of result they may conclude will be difficult to prove and replicate in further studies.
But whatever results are collected by both the sociologist and the natural scientists, any objectivity found is still subject to our philosophical understanding of reality, conditioned by the society and time in which we have come to live.
An understanding of what reality actually is is crucial. Philosophically there are two main camps on epistemology - there are the idealists, and there are the materialists. Idealists (such as Plato and Hegel of the past) see every material thing having been created by a powerful God or spirit, and ideas govern the material world. Conversely, materialists see matter as primary, and ideas and the mind are a product of the matter in the brain.
Most people believe that they have have 'free-will' - they can think for themselves, as an individual, independent of anything else of matter. However, this belief requires idealism in one's philosophy, yet modern science relies on a purely materialistic philosophy. Materialists would argue that any level of perceived free-will is not free-will and ideas are "nothing else than the material world reflected in the human mind, and translated into forms and thoughts" (Marx).
The mode of thought which dominates the modern capitalist philosophy and science is called the metaphysics. The 'facts' are sought after, things are dealt with separately and statically, rather than in connection and in their movement. To some, however, this is sheer reductionism, and results in many contradictions which are ignored. Everything is reduced to just characteristics and functions.
Marx and Engels found metaphysics as too limited in its scope to explain the laws governing human society and thought. They worked together to develop the method of dialectic materialism so that it could be used scientifically in relation to society. Using dialectics, society is understood not as superficial changes and existing in the now, but in its historical development and as an entity existing throughout human history which is undergoing organic developmental change. Under a dialectic philosophy, today's societies are seen as the result of a process of historical development. "Dialectical thinking stands in the same relationship to metaphysics as a motion picture to a still photograph. The one does not contradict the other, but compliments it. However, the truer, more complete approximation of reality is contained in the movie" (Sewell & Woods, 1983).
Using the positivist approach adopted by Marx and Engels enables the establishment of laws of human behaviour in the same way natural scientists have established laws of the natural world. Their approach to dialectics was a development of the philosophical theory of Hegel, although they were the first to develop this theory in scientific terms, as was documented in Engels' Anti-Dühring (1877).
Positivists view ideas, thought and mind as scientists see atoms, and should be "in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist or physiologist when he probes into a still unexplored region of the scientific domain" (Durkheim 1964: xiv). Positivism shares many similarities to the empirical research methods employed by scientists, most notably in its objective attention to detail in the collection of data. In keeping objectivity, positivists can only study that which can be seen, measured and observed with the purpose of discovering what causes things to happen.
Interpretivism (and behaviourism) opposes positivism, focusing on action theory. Human behaviour is taken to be meaningful and worthy of study beyond empiricism as it is far more than that. Interpretivists see ideas, thought and mind as mere social and mental constructs, so we cannot fully understand the world because we take our own individual view points to what is happening.
Durkheim was a positivist - he thought it both possible and desirable for sociologists to be able to establish laws of human behaviour. In his study of suicide, Durkheim found it to be the product of social forces external to the individual. People's behaviour is seen to be governed by external stimuli, and their ideas and feelings are irrelevant. As a result, the behaviour can be objectively rather than subjectively observed and measured, similar to how a scientist observes and measures the natural world.
Interpretivists or anti-positivists suggest people people apply meaning to the world, and so sociology should not even try to be scientific. Human behaviour is taken to be meaningful and so cannot be understood in the same way as natural phenomena can be. In metaphysics, a tree is a tree, there is not meaning for it being a tree, it just is. Human thoughts and ideas aren't just thoughts and ideas, they have meaning. If someone is to commit suicide then there is a meaning for them to do that. Whilst the actions of 11th September 2001 are seen by most as an act of terrorism, to those committing the acts they most likely had an entirely different meaning. Likewise, the war on terrorism can be given contradicting meanings by different individuals and societies.
To an interpretivist, reality is too complicated for numbers and quantitative analysis to be made. Qualitative methods are essential for a full understanding of social reality. Scientific objectivity cannot be upheld using these qualitative methods which require a level of subjective thought.
Underlying everything is a problem of ontology. What makes something real? What makes an apple any more real than slavery? And what exactly is an apple - where does it begin, where does it end, where does it exist? Metaphysically the apple is that 'thing' that can be touched and sensed. Dialectically it isn't that easy - it's always changing, always flowing, can never be defined. Idealistically the apple is what one believes to be an apple, and that may only be a figment of one's imagination. The apple may just be a chemical reaction experienced in sensing it.
By thinking dialectically slavery exists in the same way that an apple does, and can be explained equally scientifically, but using different scientific methods to those currently employed. In metaphysics everything must be objectively quantified to be scientific, but it may not always be possible - may never be possible.
Valid knowledge is subjective. A basic mathematical equality is that '1 + 1 = 2', and that the result can not possibly be anything other than 2. However here it can simply and swiftly be disproved - take two drinks, add them both together and you have one drink - '1 + 1 = 1'. Similar reasoning can be taken further to show that the sum is never equal to two as to do so would involve making subjective definitions. So what is a 'fact' and a 'truth' that science is so intent on discovering, when one of the most basic mathematical principles on which science is based can be so easily disproved?
Scientific method can be subjective and ambiguous, as Michael D. Sofka (1997) writes: "Reference is often made to 'The Scientific Method' as though it were one, well established, universal problem solving tool. The truth is, we do not have a good description of what scientists actually do, and we are not even close to universally prescriptions for what they should be doing." As a result, scientific method is merely an unscientific combination of common sense guesses and rules of thumb, and where one rule of thumb is contrary to another, the scientist subjectively chooses which one to follow.
At the most simple level, the natural world is studied in order to unstrained the natural world, and society is studied in order to understand society. Differences begin to arise in the use of this knowledge.
Knowledge of the natural world has many and varied uses: medicinal healing; computational devices; weapons of mass destruction. The list is endless and always growing as new discoveries are made.
A problem arises in assessing the uses of a knowledge of society in that it doesn't manifest itself in physical form. With knowledge of society one can't make a toaster, for example. Nor can one make a society. The use is that enables people to understand why people do things, what makes them behave in certain ways. Proving whether this knowledge is true is difficult to demonstrate. With natural science, a toaster can be built, and if it works, then the science behind the toaster is believed to be objective and true. Because sociologists cannot manifest any physical entity with their knowledge, the truth of their knowledge can surely be nothing but subjective.
Before any research method can be carried out there must be some theory, and in examining the objectivity of this in relation to social theory May notes that "It is commonly thought that if values enter the research process, this renders its findings void" (1997: 40). However in opposition to this he demonstrates that these values enable critical evaluation of how knowledge is produced and how it may be biased towards those who are able to "perpetuate their beliefs within society".
May argues that although social theory can be used to interpret empirical data, "it also enables a more general orientation in relation to political, historical, economic and social issues, as well as providing a basis for critical reflection on the process of research itself and social systems in general" (1997: 27). This view suggests that whilst parts of sociology may be studiable similar to the natural sciences, it can also be studied in ways that the natural sciences are not.
Sociology students are required to write essays and attend lectures on theory, and this is a prominent way in which sociology is taught. Emphasis is not necessarily on research and the results of this research, but on ways of thinking. Science, however, is taught with the emphasis on research and experimentation. Sociology provokes thought and qualitative analysis of ideas and opinions. Science involves learning formulas, structures and laws. Whilst sociology too can teach these things, it does so only as a small part of the whole.
But sociology exists as a discipline which is not so restricted as the sciences. It can be both objective and subjective, as can the very nature of the 'thing' called society that it studies. To study it as a science is to take away half of its essence, as to is to study it as everything but a science.
Perhaps the question should be not 'can' sociologists study society in the same way that scientists study the natural world, but 'do all'. Marx and Durkheim, two of three founding fathers of sociology, studied the discipline as a science, as have many others. Hence sociologists can (evidence here is in that they have) studied society like scientists study the natural world. By that line of thinking, it is irrelevant that many have also studied it as something other than a science.
But if all sociologists study society as a science, then which academic body will have their thoughts provoked by and be able to qualitatively analyse society? Equally, if it is so important to make sociology a recognised science, then it must be split in two. That sociology which can be scientifically tested, and that which cannot be. Objective sociology based on facts, laws and common scientific principles; and subjective sociology which cannot study anything objectively because that's no longer in its field, and so anything subjective can no longer be researched in objective ways.
Ridiculous of course, because this is twisting the question's intended interpretation. It's clear what it means to all that read it: "Look at natural science and how scientists study it, and do the same for sociologists and society. Look at the ways in which they study it, the methods they use, the theory the use. Then, using the research of sociologists to backup evidence and points, find out what similarities and differences there are. Ensure a rigid structure is kept throughout, with logical progression leading to a well thought out conclusion". But, as with sociology, science and life, it's a subjective interpretation because we are only human. Humans are inherently subjective.
Through exploring the study of society and the natural world a number of contradictions, difficulties and problems have arisen. There is the problem of ontology, of the very essence of being, and how a philosophical theory is required to make interpretations. Objectivity is just the accumulation of many peoples' subjectivities, and so it's superiority over subjectivity in scientific methodologies is questionable. Society can only be fully studied as scientists study the natural world if one adopts a full philosophy of dialectic materialism. With any other current philosophy, there are unacceptable scientific contradictions which cannot be resolved and so negate the scientific integrity of any findings.
[2,810 words, written in 2002]
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