Sociology as a Science

What do you think of when you consider the word 'science'? Most likely, you would think of science labs, doctors, medical equipment, space technology... the list is endless. For many, sociology is unlikely to be high on that list, if at all. 

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Table of contents

    As such, there's a large-scale debate on whether sociology is a science, through which scholars discuss how far the subject of sociology can be considered scientific.

    • In this explanation, we will explore the debate about sociology as a science.
    • We'll start by defining what the term 'sociology as a science' means, including the two sides of the debate: positivism and interpretivism.
    • Next, we'll examine the characteristics of sociology as a science in line with theories of key sociologists, followed by an exploration of the other side of the debate - arguments against sociology as a science.
    • We'll then explore the realist approach to the sociology as a science debate.
    • Then, we'll examine the challenges that sociology faces as a science, including shifting scientific paradigms and the postmodernist view.

    Defining 'sociology as a social science'

    In most academic spaces, sociology is characterized as a 'social science'. While this characterization has been subject to a lot of debate, the earliest sociologists actually established the discipline to be as close to the natural sciences as possible through the use of the scientific method.

    Sociology as a Science, books on a black wooden shelf,  StudySmarterFig. 1 - The debate about whether sociology is a science has been widely discussed by both sociologists and non-sociologists.

    • On one end of the debate, stating that sociology is a scientific subject, are positivists. They argue that due to the scientific nature of sociology and the way it is studied, it is a science in the same sense as 'traditional' scientific subjects such as physics.

    • However, interpretivists oppose this idea and argue that sociology is not a science because human behaviour holds meaning and cannot be studied solely using scientific methods.

    Characteristics of sociology as a science

    Let's take a look at what the founding fathers of sociology had to say about characterizing it as a science.

    Auguste Comte on sociology as a science

    If you're looking to name the founding father of sociology, Auguste Comte it is. He actually invented the word 'sociology', and firmly believed that it should be studied in the same way as the natural sciences. As such, he is also the pioneer of the positivist approach.

    Positivists believe that there is an outer, objective reality to human behaviour; society has natural laws in the same way as the physical world. This objective reality can be explained in terms of cause-effect relationships through scientific and value-free methods. They favour quantitative methods and data, supporting the view that sociology is a science.

    Émile Durkheim on sociology as a science

    As another one of the earliest sociologists of all time, Durkheim outlined what he referred to as 'the sociological method'. This involves a variety of rules that need to be kept in mind.

    • Social facts are the values, beliefs and institutions that underpin a society. Durkheim believed that we should look at social facts as 'things' so that we can objectively establish relationships (correlation and/or causation) between multiple variables.

    Correlation and causation are two different types of relationships. While correlation merely implies the existence of a link between two variables, a causal relationship shows that one occurrence is invariably caused by another.

    Durkheim examined a variety of variables and assessed their impact on rates of suicide. He found that the rate of suicide was inversely proportional to the level of social integration (in that those with lower levels of social integration are more likely to commit suicide). This exemplifies a number of Durkheim's rules for the sociological method:

    • Statistical evidence (such as from official statistics) showed that suicide rates differ between societies, social groups within those societies, and different points in time.

    • Keeping in mind the established link between suicide and social integration, Durkheim used correlation and analysis to discover the specific forms of social integration being discussed - this included religion, age, family situation and location.

    • Based on these factors, we need to consider that social facts exist in an external reality - this is demonstrated an external, societal impact upon the supposedly 'private' and individualised occurrence of suicide. In saying this, Durkheim is emphasising that a society based on shared norms and values would not exist if social facts existed only in our own, individual consciousness. Therefore, social facts have to be studied objectively, as external 'things'.

    • The final task in the sociological method is to establish a theory which explains a particular phenomenon. In the context of Durkheim's study of suicide, he explains the link between social integration and suicide by pointing out that individuals are social beings, and that being untethered to the social world means their life loses meaning.

    Sociology as a population science

    John Goldthorpe wrote a book called Sociology as a Population Science. Through this book, Goldthorpe suggests that sociology is indeed a science, as it looks to qualitatively validate theories and/or explanations for a variety of phenomena based on the probability of correlation and causation.

    Karl Marx on sociology as a science

    From Karl Marx's point of view, the theory regarding the development of capitalism is scientific since it can be tested on a certain level. This supports the fundamentals that determine whether a subject is scientific or not; namely, a subject is scientific if it is empirical, objective, cumulative, etc.

    Therefore, since Marx's theory of capitalism can be evaluated objectively, it makes his theory 'scientific'.

    Arguments against sociology as a science

    Contrary to positivists, interpretivists argue that studying society in a scientific way misinterprets the characteristics of society and human behaviour. For example, we cannot study humans in the same way we study the reaction of potassium if it mixes with water.

    Karl Popper on sociology as a science

    According to Karl Popper, positivist sociology fails to be as scientific as other natural sciences because it uses inductive instead of deductive reasoning. This means that, rather than finding evidence to disprove their hypothesis, positivists find evidence that supports their hypothesis.

    The flaw with such an approach can be illustrated by taking the example of swans, used by Popper. To hypothesize that 'all swans are white', the hypothesis will only appear correct if we only look for white swans. It is crucial to look for just one black swan, which will prove the hypothesis incorrect.

    Sociology as a Science, black and white swans in water, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Popper believed that scientific subjects should be falsifiable.

    In inductive reasoning, a researcher looks for evidence that supports the hypothesis; but in an accurate scientific method, the researcher falsifies the hypothesis - falsification, as Popper calls it.

    For a truly scientific approach, the researcher should attempt to prove that their hypothesis is untrue. If they fail to do so, the hypothesis remains the most accurate explanation.

    In this context, Durkheim’s study on suicide was criticized for calculation, as suicide rates between countries might differ. Furthermore, key concepts like social control and social cohesion were difficult to measure and turn into quantitative data.

    The problem of predictability

    According to interpretivists, people are conscious; they interpret situations and decide how to respond based on their personal experiences, opinions and life histories, which cannot be understood objectively. This lowers the possibility of making accurate predictions about human behaviour and society.

    Max Weber on sociology as a science

    Max Weber (1864-1920), one of the founding fathers of sociology, considered both structural and action approaches essential for understanding society and social change. In particular, he emphasised 'Verstehen'.

    The role of Verstehen in sociological research

    Weber believed that ‘Verstehen’ or empathetic understanding plays a crucial role in understanding human action and social change. According to him, before discovering the cause of action, one needs to figure out its meaning.

    Interpretivists argue that societies are socially constructed and shared by social groups. The people belonging to these groups give meaning to a situation before acting upon it.

    According to interpretivists, it is essential to interpret the meaning attached to situations in order to understand society. This can be done through qualitative methods such as informal interviews and participant observation to gather the thoughts and opinions of the individuals.

    The realist approach to science

    Realists emphasise similarities between social and natural sciences. Russell Keat and John Urry claim that science is not limited to studying observable phenomena. Natural sciences, for example, deal with unobservable ideas (such as subatomic particles) similarly to the way sociology deals with studying society and human actions - also unobservable phenomena.

    Open and closed systems of science

    Andrew Sayer proposes that there are two types of science.

    One type operates in closed systems such as physics and chemistry. The closed systems usually involve the interaction of restricted variables that can be controlled. In this case, the chances of carrying out lab-based experiments to achieve accurate results are high.

    The other type operates in open systems such as meteorology and other atmospheric sciences. However, in open systems, the variables cannot be controlled in subjects like meteorology. These subjects recognize unpredictability and are accepted as 'scientific'. This helps to conduct experiments based on observations.

    For example, a chemist creates water by burning oxygen and hydrogen gas (chemical elements) in a laboratory. On the other hand, based on forecasting models, weather events can be predicted with some degree of certainty. Moreover, these models can be improved and developed to gain a better understanding.

    According to Sayer, sociology can be considered scientific in a similar way as meteorology, but not in the way as physics or chemistry.

    Challenges sociology faces as a science: the issue of objectivity

    The objectivity of the subject matter of natural sciences has been increasingly examined. David Bloor (1976) argued that science is a part of the social world, which is itself influenced or shaped by various social factors.

    In support of this view, let us try to evaluate the processes through which scientific understanding is gained. Is science truly separate from the social world?

    Paradigms and scientific revolutions as challenges to sociology

    Scientists are often considered objective and neutral individuals that work together to develop and refine existing scientific theories. However, Thomas Kuhn challenges this idea, arguing that scientific subject matter passes through paradigmatic shifts similar to ideologies in sociological terms.

    According to Kuhn, the evolution of scientific findings is limited by what he called 'paradigms', which are fundamental ideologies that provide a framework for a better understanding of the world. These paradigms limit the kind of questions that can be asked in scientific research.

    Kuhn believes most scientists shape their professional skills working within the dominant paradigm, essentially ignoring evidence that falls outside this framework. Scientists who try to question this dominant paradigm are not considered credible and are sometimes ridiculed.

    Nonetheless, there are 'rogue scientists' who view the world with a different approach and engage in alternative research methods. When adequate evidence is gained that contradicts the existing paradigms, a paradigm shift takes place, due to which the old paradigms get replaced by new dominant paradigms.

    Philip Sutton points out that scientific findings that linked the burning of fossil fuels to a warming climate in the 1950s were mainly dismissed by the scientific community. But today, this is accepted to a large extent.

    Kuhn suggests that scientific knowledge went through a series of revolutions with a shift in paradigms. He also adds that natural science should not be characterized by consensus, since various paradigms within science are not always taken seriously.

    The postmodernist approach to sociology as a science

    The scientific perspective and the concept of sociology as a science developed out of the period of modernity. During this period, there was the belief that there is only 'one truth', one way of looking at the world and science can discover it. Postmodernists challenge this notion that science reveals the ultimate truth about the natural world.

    According to Richard Rorty, priests have been replaced by scientists due to the need for a better understanding of the world, which is now provided by technical experts. Nonetheless, even with science, there are questions left unanswered about the 'real world'.

    In addition, Jean-François Lyotard criticizes the point of view that science is not a part of the natural world. He further adds that language influences the way people interpret the world. While scientific language enlightens us about many facts, it restricts our thoughts and opinions to a certain degree.

    Science as a social construct in sociology

    The debate regarding whether sociology is a science takes an interesting turn when we question not just sociology, but science as well.

    Many sociologists are outspoken about the fact that science cannot be taken as an objective truth. This is because all the scientific knowledge doesn't tell us about nature as it really is, but rather, it tells us about nature as we have interpreted it. In other words, science is also a social construct.

    For instance, when we try to explain the behaviour of our pets (or even wild animals), we assume to know the motivations behind their actions. Unfortunately, the reality is that we can never be sure - your puppy might like to sit by the window because he enjoys the wind or likes the sounds of nature... But he could also sit by the window for entirely another reason that human beings cannot begin to imagine or relate to.

    Sociology as a Science - Key takeaways

    • Positivists see sociology as a scientific subject.

    • Interpretivists negate the idea that sociology is a science.

    • David Bloor argued that science is a part of the social world, which is itself influenced or shaped by a variety of social factors.

    • Thomas Kuhn argues that scientific subject matter passes through paradigmatic shifts that are similar to ideologies in sociological terms.

    • Andrew Sayer proposes that there are two types of science; they operate in either closed systems or open systems.

    • Postmodernists challenge this notion that science reveals the ultimate truth about the natural world.












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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sociology as a Science

    How did sociology develop as a science?

    Sociology was suggested to be a science in the 1830s by Auguste Comte, the positivist founder of sociology. He believed that sociology should have a scientific base and can be studied using empirical methods.

    How is sociology a social science?

    Sociology is a social science because it studies society, its processes and the interaction between humans and society. Sociologists may be able to make predictions about a society based on their understanding of its processes; however, these predictions may not be completely scientific as not everyone will behave as predicted. It is considered a social science for this reason and many others.

    What type of science is sociology?

    According to Auguste Comte  and Émile Durkheim, sociology is a positivist science as it can evaluate theories and analyse social facts. Interpretivists disagree and claim that sociology cannot be considered a science. However, many claim that sociology is a social science.

    What is the relationship of sociology to science?

    For positivists, sociology is a scientific subject. In order to discover the natural laws of society, positivists believe in applying the same methods used in natural sciences, such as experiments and systematic observation. For positivists, the relationship of sociology to science is a direct one. 

    What makes sociology unique in the world of science?

    David Bloor (1976) argued that science is a part of the social world, which is itself influenced or shaped by a variety of social factors.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "Kuhn's idea suggests that scientific knowledge went through a series of 'revolutions' with a shift in paradigms." True or False?

    Which two classical sociologists agree that sociology is a science?

    "Positivists define sociology as a scientific subject." True or False?


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