Is Sociology a science in the same sense as natural science? Why do some Sociologists agree it is and others don't? (writes Adelyne from Malaysia)

You can find this topic discussed well in any introductory text. What follows is my particular gloss on it, for what it is worth. Being an awkward soul I am also NOT following much of the conventional wisdom (that says science or positivism is 'bad', and nice friendly subjective humanistic approaches are 'good'). I tend to use some pretty old materials here -- I think of them as 'classics' -- I hope you can find them, or that you will recognise them. Sorry if they're a bit Anglocentric too -- do fit your own examples, of course.

The obvious term to discuss here is 'science'. If a 'science' is a systematic, rigorous, objective (or open) approach to a subject matter, Sociology certainly can qualify (assuming this is a good thing, of course -- see below). Some Sociological studies have clearly pursued a careful attempt to gather data about the social world, to avoid prejudiced statements, and to try to draw rational conclusions about the evidence -- my favourite examples might be, say, the famous studies of social mobility in Britain in the 1980s (Halsey et al 1980, Goldthorpe et al 1980) ( see file), or the clever attempts to pin down the extent to which America was a meritocratic society in Bowles and Gintis (1976). Incidentally the Halsey and Goldthorpe stuff has been massively discussed since 1980 -- see the British journal Sociology for example -- many issues between 1982 and 1992. Bowles and Gintis are discussed in many elementary texts too -- and on this website  (click here) . Many other works had this sort of intent too -- like Durkheim's careful study of suicide, for example, where he tried to test out various popular theories of the day, as well as coming to his own conclusions. 

It is easy to see that the founding parents, and many of their disciples, wanted to call their work 'science': the word had a much nicer ring to it then (1850s to probably as late as the 1960s), indicating 'progress' or possibly 'modernity'. Natural sciences were changing our world then, of course. 

let's go back a bit though -- there was much speculation about what it actually was that made a subject a science, of course, and an obvious view (still around) was that Sociology should simply copy where possible the methods of more established natural sciences. 'Methods' here meant experimental testing, devices to gather data (ideally quantifiable data), or, something deeper and more general, a refusal to allow any discussion of matters like 'consciousness', 'feeling', 'meaning' or whatever. 


This led Sociologists to think of the equivalent methods. Clearly we couldn't experiment on people the way biologists do on rats -- deprive rats of sleep until they die, or feed half a sample of rats a drug, kill them all and see if their livers look different, or whatever. But we could still do some kind of experiments -- show one matched control group a series of violent movies and see if they differ on attitude scales from the control group that didn't get to see the movies. Or, as in the clever studies cited above, we could gather data on the past and then manipulate it statistically -- thus Halsey asked his respondents about their early lives, the schools they went to and the jobs they finally ended up with, and then researched statistical connections between early lives, schooling and social destinations. 

Sometimes we could take advantage of existing differences in the way people live and research any differences -- early studies of the effects of TV in the late 1950s were able to find groups of kids in the UK who had never watched TV and compare them with those who had already been able to receive it. If you match up the samples in every significant way except in terms of exposure to TV, you could experimentally isolate the effects of TV on things like violent behaviour (by grouping the respondents differently and comparing the results-- essentially what statistical studies do). In the early days, you could do comparative work like this between societies, where one would be an industrial society and another a non-industrial one (lots of early theorists got very excited about these, seeing them as some sort of 'primitive' stage through which we had all passed -- very ethnocentric by modern standards). As globalisation increases, of course, comparative work on these large themes is harder to do. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of any attempt to be 'scientific', even today, for many sociologists: you can still compare different classes or genders or ethnic groups on matters like attainment, arrest rates, or any measures of social achievement or integration you wish. Some of the attempts to do this have been staggeringly ingenious -- operationalising variables so you can measure them is a genuinely creative activity in my view. Statistical techniques have improved greatly, and you can now even estimate how reliable your results are likely to be. 

The main problem with techniques like that these days, in the UK at least, is getting them funded -- this, as much as any theoretical objection (which we will come to), is responsible for the big turn away to smaller, 'qualitative' studies, in my view! It's also why it is hard to find very up-to-date examples of big quantitative studies like Halsey's.

Experimenting on human beings, ignoring their feelings and personal meanings and the rest is probably a pretty unpopular project these days for other reasons, so let me defend it a little before we move on. There are occasions when it is quite OK to ignore the meanings or feelings of people -- or rather to leave them to the people themselves to worry about. If I want to test out whether my teaching is successful, a quick way to do it might be to record attendance at my lectures. Whatever students might mean by not coming, or whatever they are feeling at the time might be a matter for later research, but I need to identify the problem first. When I worked at the UKOU, many years ago, the main concern was just to measure drop-out rates, as an essential first step. I have worked since in organisations where drop-out rates are much discussed -- but where no-one actually knows what they are because no-one has actually tried to measure them. Better a quick measurement than endless empty speculation!?

If you are training someone to fix radios, the important thing is that they can fix a range of common faults, not what they feel while they do the job. On this website, I have made an attempt to train people to bake a reasonable cake without investigating their private meanings or feelings -- check it and see what you think  (click here) . From a personal point of view, I quite like training sessions like that myself -- I don't really want to keep stopping to consider my feelings, I would rather get on with it. It's nice to have feelings and to express them -- but we can't be poets all the time! This is maybe a male thing? Or an old male thing?

Much of our economic activity runs in this cheerfully simple way -- if you want to make a successful chocolate bar you test out variants and see what happens to sales. What the punters mean by their purchase is up to them --whether they buy the candy because they like the taste or because they want to impress somebody or whatever is their private concern. Indeed, too much of an attempt to find out the deep psychological meanings why people buy candy might be viewed with some suspicion. As we'll see below, using soft methods does not guarantee that no-one is being manipulated.

Let's explore that for a minute. There has been much discussion about choosing methods that are more suitable for human beings even if this does involve a break with the idea of Sociology as a science. Some people fear the natural sciences and their power, and quite rightly -- some very scary projects have been developed. You might be worried about genetic engineering, for example, or the merciless assault on the rainforests, or the rising levels of pollution. My generation became disillusioned with natural sciences after the failures of some of the great projects -- to use nuclear power to produce cheap electricity, for example, or to design new towns that would turn into communities. We also worried that scientists could sit down calmly and advise a number of governments on their highly dubious political projects -- from the soulless bastards who calmly designed efficient crematoria for Nazi concentration camps, to those who invented a better kind of napalm for the Vietnam war, or the economists and others who advised the US Government on its illegal overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile.I might add that things don't look much better today, as governments and businesses increasingly invest in sciences (including social sciences), and bend the techniques to their own agendas.

Many believe that we should develop far more humanistic methods to stop this sort of abuse happening (there is a special feminist version of this argument too). In some cases, this would involve 'soft' or 'qualitative' forms of investigation where respondents would not just be treated as sources of data, but would be allowed to express their views. Semi-structured interviews, or participant-observation (sometimes called ethnography), or, later, life-histories, seemed more appropriate. Here, people talk or behave in a 'naturalistic' manner, and it is up to the social scientist to understand what this means to the people themselves. We have to use our usual human skills to do this -- sympathy with the other, taking the role of the other, imaginative projection into another person's or group's perspectives, trying to seek out alternative meanings in the 'texts' of other behaviours or speeches. We can still use some sort of rigour here too -- we check our interpretations against our results, we try to test them, still, by seeking out possible alternatives, or ambiguous cases or negative cases (see Becker et al 1964), perhaps. We might try to check our observations against our knowledge of people's motives, perhaps even to try and predict their behaviour (what Weber might have meant by 'causal adequacy'), or gain some knowledge which will make us more effective communicators (see Brice-Heath in Hammersley 1986a). We might check our findings against those of our colleagues, or against those of similar studies, or against those data derived from different studies (triangulation as it is usually called). Full and frank disclosure of the problems we encountered helps this process, and we might want to disclose like this to the reader too -- eg pointnig out those times when your presence as an observer probably disturbed the 'naturalistic' action taking place (an observer effect), or when you got so involved you forgot you were doing research (going native).

This general sort of approach -- to seek meaning -- draws from theoretical and political dissatisfaction with 'science', or rather with scientism (the belief that imitating the natural sciences is the only route to valid knowledge). Humans deserve to be treated humanely, it could be argued, and, what is more, they can only be really understood that way. We can only get so far treating them as objects or as sources of 'data', but not very far -- sooner or later, we do want to understand why people do not attend our lectures, why they drop out from university, why they don't think of themselves as very clever, why they think violence is acceptable, how they explain criminal behaviour to themselves and to others, and so on. Here, surveys, experiments and objective measurement are inappropriate and crude. 

Politically, we might especially want to understand underdogs, those who do not normally get a chance to explain themselves, and who normally get seen as 'thick', 'mindless', 'savages', 'uncivilised' or whatever. This is a classic theme in some of the studies I like in deviancy theory or education -- 'the lads' in Willis (1977) study are not at all the mindless troublemakers that school officials have labelled them as. They are intelligent, perceptive, and quite likeable really -- just different from and hostile to 'straight' values. Similarly, Matza  (1964) discovered that juvenile delinquents were not at all like hardened criminals with no ties to normal society, but rather were people like us, who had drifted into crime as we all do, but had not drifted back as we did.

These might be strong arguments but they are not fully accepted even so. Some people think that qualitative researchers are still treating their respondents as objects (see Jenkins in Hammersley 1986b), even though they might put on a show of concern, or of innocence. In Jenkins's 'knight's move', for example, researchers are nice and collaborative when in the field, but when they withdraw back to College, they still think they own their 'data' and use it how they like. Moreover, techniques like participant observation or field research have also had a shady past, when researchers in anthropology were only too keen to lend their skills to understand recently colonised people -- the better they were understood, the more people could be manipulated by the colonisers. Even today, some participant observations studies in particular do look a bit voyeuristic -- heroic researchers go out and live with deviants, and this gives a great deal of pleasure to nice people back home (or back at College) who can read about these exotic lives with no risk and just an occasional delicious shudder of distaste. This role for ethnographers in entertaining the nice people used to be known as 'zookeeping' (Young in Taylor et al 1975). Finally, ethnographers are only interested in finding out about rather limited subjective meanings -- the immediate ones rather than unconscious ones, nice researchable ones theoretically-privileged ones, ones that will produce some interesting research or a PhD. Just as with nasty positivist research, ethnography has traditionally been rather embarrassed about this, and not really ready to discuss it with respondents.

Methodologically, qualitative methods are still controversial too. The best qualitative researcher can find it hard to avoid 'soft quantification', for example as they try to lend significance to their work with phrases like 'more than', 'most people', 'typical (cases)' and the like. Avoiding precise measurement here is really only avoiding possible criticism. And this is the problem -- subjective methods are not objective, one might argue! Very much depends on the human skills of the researcher, how perceptive they are, and how open-minded they are prepared to be. There is almost no way for readers to check these claimed skills --we have to trust the researcher. With the best will in the world, it is easy for researchers to reproduce their own unconscious biases in their work -- thus few observers noticed the issue of gender differences among schoolkids until feminism came along, despite all the careful practising of observational techniques!

It is also true that much depends on the writing skills of the researchers too. Much ethnographic work comes alive for us and looks plausible to us because researchers write so skilfully about the strange worlds they investigate -- as a recent critique has pointed out (Clough 1992), the writing techniques look very much like those of popular television -- the creation of suspense, narrative tension, tricks to create a sense of realism and so on.


So the usual debates among Sociologists, as rendered in the usual textbooks anyway, offer a set of linked alternative positions or perspectives:

Meanings and feelings are largely irrelevant to social facts
Ethically and politically disinterested
Experimental methods, objective measures, aimed at explanation
Sociology gets as close as it can to natural science ('Positivist' or 'Systems' Sociology)
Meanings and feelings are explained as coming from real social structures or systems

Meanings and feelings are essetnially human
Ethically and politically committed (to humanism)
Subjective methods aimed at human understanding
Sociology develops a distinctive approach ('Action' Sociology)
Social systems are best understood as a special set of meanings developed by professional sociologists

I hope I have already argued that this division into separate perspectives is too simple, though. Not much actual research takes a 'pure' line -- much depends on what your funders want and expect, and most researchers use a mixture of methods.  Both natural and social scientists of all persuasions are under pressure to adopt the ethics and politics (as well as the favourite methods) of their sponsors or to reproduce at least their own unconscious biases: no method is simply wholly unethical or wholly on the side of the angels, any method can be used to exploit and manipulate people, and any knowledge, gained by any method, can be potentially liberating. Finally, some modern social theorists have tried to combine both perspectives in an overall theory-- such as Giddens on 'structuration theory' (see Craib 1992)


Methods are not really the issue anyway -- a spirit of openness is more important.   A critical intention is what is important for me --call it science if you want (others would call it 'philosophy', while my favourite theorists have called it critical theory, and located it 'between science and philosophy'). Data (whether from empirical or speculative sources) can be collected by people who use it just to confirm what they thought all along, but the truly critical spirit uses that data to test theories and find out something new. Indeed, one influential definition of a science (Popper's --  eg Popper 1974) is that it attempts to test theories to destruction, to prove them wrong -- and this involves some people being prepared to put their theories in a form which can be tested, while others set out to develop clever ways to falsify them. This is what makes science different from religious or political faiths -- those can never be proved wrong. Of course, actual sciences may not proceed in this open way in practice at all, and actual scientists may well be as 'committed' to their personal; favourite approaches as any true believer -- but there is something about the public exercise of openness that checks this tendency to slip back into religion or politics.

Personally, I admire this open spirit  -- compared with the alternatives, at least science tries to get somewhere, to make some sort of progress, even if people's ideas have to be challenged. A controversial study like Bennett's (summarised in Hammersley 1986a) tried to end the constant speculation and opinion-trading about the effect of teaching styles on pupil progress by going out to measure and test different styles -- even if he did get it a bit wrong in practice. I still prefer actual attempts to find out if TV violence has an effect on kids instead of endless well-meaning speculation about this. I still think Durkheim's study of suicide is better and more informative than the usual discussions of suicide you encounter in the press or on TV. Critics of these studies have often got extremely detailed in their criticisms of the evidence base of these studies -- but the evidence base of journalists, politicians, pundits, freelance commentators, quacks, televangelists, agony aunts and other exponents of 'common sense' is often far shakier, and not criticised enough. I know people with strong opinions on the matter who have never studied any statistics, have no personal experience, have thought very little about the topic and who just sound off with the first things that come into their heads (often something they have just read in a tabloid newspaper) -- give me 'positivist' Sociology instead any day! 

In the current climate, it might be seen as elitist to say this, or it might frighten off new students, or it might contradict fashionable ideas of 'discovery-based' learning in higher education. Students need to be told about the possible challenge of Sociology to their own personal views in a sensitive manner -- but it is nonsense to pretend that there is no challenge, that the views of a beginner are as well-developed as those of an expert. Sociological works are often daunting and difficult, but they do lead systematically to insight in my view (the only reliable route to insight into social conditions).

Any professional critic knows that any and every approach has its limits. There are no easy answers or right procedures, no simple way of 'voting' for the better perspective. There are biases and subjective elements in all approaches, as we know very well from postmodern scepticism -- but that includes the approaches we happen to sympathise with as well as those we suspect, and the ones we began with before we even did any Sociology. Far better to face the problems and still proceed, avoiding any attempt to gloss them over or 'solve' them by bits of evasion or fancy rhetoric. Sociology is as capable of doing this as natural sciences at their best -- although I am not sure it is just a theoretical matter any more, since all the social pressures of finance, regulation, education and surveillance are often pulling in the opposite direction.

OK -- rant over. Good luck with it.


Becker H, Geer B, Hughes M and Strauss A (1964) Making the Grade: the academic side of student life, New York: Wiley and Sons
Bowles S & Gintis H (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Clough P (1992) The End(s) of Ethnography: from realism to social criticism, London: Sage Publications.
Craib I (1992) Modern Social Theory: from Parsons to Habermas, 2nd edn.,London: and New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf
Goldthorpe J (in collaboration with Llewellyn C and Payne C) (1980) Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, Oxford,: Clarendon Press
Halsey A, Heath A and Ridge J (1980) Origins and Destinations: family, class and education in modern Britain, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Hammersley M (ed) (1986a) Case Studies in Classroom Research, Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press
Hammersley M (ed) (1986b) Controversies in Classroom Research, Milton Keynes and Philadelphia: Open University Press
Matza D (1964) Delinquency and Drift, New York
Popper K (1974) Conjectures and Refutations, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Taylor I ,Walton P and Young J (1975) Critical Criminology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Willis P (1977) Learning to Labour: how working-class kids get working-class jobs, Farnborough: Saxon House Press

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