Values in Research

If you were a researcher, what would you research? 
Your answer is probably very different from the answers of other sociology students. Your interests, beliefs, and values are very personal to you. Scientific researchers have their personal values too, which often influence their choice of research topic and research methods. They strive for originality in their research, after all. 

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Table of contents

    It has been debated for decades, however, whether sociologists should let their research be influenced by their personal values or they should try to keep their research value-free.

    • We will look at values in research.
    • We will consider value neutrality in social research.
    • Then, we will discuss the concepts of subjectivity, objectivity and value-laden within sociological research.
    • We will mention different social values in research, such as positivism and interpretivism.
    • Finally, we will consider the ways social values can influence different stages of the research process.

    Value neutrality in social research

    Value freedom means that the social scientist successfully eliminates their own personal biases from the research, thus presenting the impartial, objective 'truth'.

    In scientific research, only information with value freedom can be regarded as fact, as it has not been compromised by the scientist’s own personal biases and prejudices. This can also apply to social scientists in sociological research.

    Values in Research Studying the word facts with a magnifying glass StudySmarterFig. 1 - In order for sociology to be regarded as a science, it needs to present objective, reliable facts.

    There are three key concepts around value freedom that social scientists must be aware of.

    Subjectivity in Research

    Subjectivity means that an individual views a certain case from a personal point of view, through their own value-judgement.

    Subjectivity in sociological research can be problematic. If data is collected and presented through the personal biases of the researcher, it is seen as an opinion, rather than a fact. In order to produce reliable, scientific research, sociologists try to eliminate subjectivity as much as possible.

    Positivists believe that subjectivity has no place in sociological research, while interpretivists claim that it is impossible to achieve pure objectivity, especially when it comes to qualitative social research.

    According to interpretivists, it is enough that the researcher is aware of the stages where subjectivity might come into the picture, and address their biases.

    Objectivity in Research

    Objectivity is the most important aspect of reliable, valid research. It means that the data was collected, observed, and recorded in a manner that was not influenced by the researcher's own personal values and beliefs.

    Sociologists all strive for personal objectivity when it comes to research. However, they have different views on how to approach research objectively, and to what extent an individual can actually remove their value-judgement from professional research.

    Objectivity is especially problematic in qualitative research, when the researcher is very involved in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.

    According to positivism, one can and should eliminate their own biases from research and discover social problems as an outside observer. Interpretivism argues that there are many interpretations of the world; a researcher can discover their own reality and truth, which might be different from another person's.

    Value-laden Research

    When research is value-laden, it represents the value-system of the researcher and makes a moral judgement on the collected data being good or bad, instead of simply presenting it objectively.

    There are different views on whether a sociologist should use their research as a platform for standing for or against an idea or movement.

    The positivist sociologist Max Weber argued that researchers must not use the discipline of sociology to express personal values and thoughts.

    On the other hand, the interpretivist sociologist Howard Becker believed that it is impossible to be impartial. The researcher must advocate for the disadvantaged in their research.

    Reliability value in research

    • Sociological research should have value freedom in order to produce reliable, certain information and knowledge that is generally true.
    • In order to explain the emergence of certain events in the social world and to predict their consequences, we must have a generalised, reliable truth unaffected by personal opinion or belief.

    • In order to compare phenomena throughout time, it is also important to have value-free sociological methods and processes that can be replicated numerous times.

    Different social values in research

    Let's look at different values in sociological research, with examples of sociologists who held them.

    Positivism in Sociological Research

    Positivists see society objectively, and seek to study it in the same way.

    Émile Durkheim (1895)

    • Sociologists can and should separate their personal beliefs from sociological research.

    • There are 'objective' truths about society, just as there are objective laws of nature. These are discoverable if sociologists use scientific research methods.

    • When sociologists uncover such truths, they can solve social problems.

    Max Weber (1919)

    • Researchers’ personal values must influence their choice of the topic of research.

    • However, the values of the researchers must not affect the research methodology.

    • Sociologists must define the exact stages of the research practice where bias could come into play.

    • Sociologists must not combine their role as researchers with their other personal and professional roles.

    • Researchers must not use the discipline of sociology to express personal values and thoughts.

    Interpretivism in Sociological Research

    Interpretivists reject the possibility of objectivity. They claim it is the task of the sociologist to choose a perspective through which to conduct research.

    Howard Becker (1970)

    • It is impossible to be impartial, so the researcher must choose a side.

    • Previously, sociologists have always been on the side of the powerful, such as the police or the government.

    • According to Becker, the sociologist must side with the disadvantaged: the marginalised communities, criminals, mental patients, etc.

    • The researcher must identify with the disadvantaged, participate in their reality through qualitative methods of research, and thus reveal their experience of the social world.

    Roger Gomm (1996)

    • Sociology can't be value-free.

    • When a researcher attempts to separate himself and his research from his personal values, instead of becoming value-free, he is actually adopting a different value system and different ethics.

    Alvin Gouldner (1970)

    • Trying to achieve value-freedom, 'dehumanised' sociologists.

    • Sociologists tried to be morally neutral, but instead became indifferent to their research and its uses, betraying themselves and the subject of sociology.

    • He criticises Becker for the idealisation of the disadvantaged.

    • Sociologists should study those who actively fight against their oppression, hence supporting them against authoritative powers.

    Marxism and feminism in Sociological Research

    • Marxists and feminists argue that the positivist idea of value freedom is simply a conservative ideology, and it aims to defend the status quo.

    • Marxists criticise the positivist idea of value freedom, claiming that when positivist sociologists present an ‘impartial’ and ‘balanced’ view of reality, they actually present the perspective of the ruling class, completely ignoring the experience of the working class.

    • Feminists claim that the positivist idea of value freedom is sexist. Feminists argue that when researchers present an 'impartial', 'balanced' picture of reality, they actually present the social values of men.

    Postmodernism in Sociological Research

    • Postmodernists reject the idea of absolute truth or a meta-narrative.

    • Truth and reality are relative to the individual or the group that we observe.

    • Many different truths are equally valid and worth researching.

    • The researcher can't and shouldn't try to be value-free; instead, they should acknowledge their biases and their personal goals for the particular research they are conducting.

    Rationalism in Sociological Research

    Let us look at the most important sociologist of rationalism, Karl R. Popper.

    Karl R. Popper (1972)

    • The individual scientist is unable to eliminate their own bias. Research ethics dictate that objectivity can only be achieved collectively, through mutual criticism.

    Values in different stages of research

    We will look at how values can appear in different stages of research and how this may affect sociologists' research.

    Originality value in research: The choice of topic

    Sociologists always strive for originality in their research. They aim to address questions that have not been addressed before and in ways that were not taken into consideration earlier. Originality has value in research, as people are more interested in new exciting topics than in already discussed, old questions. The originality of research is pretty much determined at the first stage of the research; at the choice of topic.

    Let us discuss how researchers choose their research topics. What are the points of consideration at this stage?

    • Personal values of the researcher may influence the choice of topic, such as their interests, beliefs, or socio-cultural background.

    A feminist researcher would likely choose a research topic through which they can improve or understand more about gender inequality in society.

    • Values of the specific academic community may be important, such as what the community thinks is worth researching.

    Different academic communities and universities specialise in different subjects. They are more likely to provide academic support for a researcher who wants to conduct a study in their field of interest and expertise.

    • Values of the funding institutions will have specific research priorities dependent on which cultural or political ideology the funding agencies want to promote.

    Political parties are likely to fund sociological research which supports their political ideology. Researchers often have to adopt the values of their funding agencies, regardless of their personal beliefs.

    • The values of wider society may influence the research topic, as researchers may have to take into account what is generally regarded as a 'social problem'.

    Research on unemployment in the UK specifically, rather than research on unemployment in Norway or in Africa, will attract much more attention and support from British academic and financial institutions and from the British public because it is regarded as relevant for the wider population of the country.

    Values in research methodology

    • Sociologists must aim to keep to reliability and establish a logical argument based on evidence.

    • Personal ethics, time, and the preference of the financial supporters can influence the decision about research methodology.

    • A qualitative approach uses descriptive methods, such interviews and participant observation.

    Howard Becker argued that researching the 'underdog' was easiest using qualitative research, where the researcher engaged with the subjects through participant observation. This meant the researcher obtained a sense of their reality first hand.

    • A quantitative approach uses statistical methods such as surveys and laboratory experiments.

    Positivists tend to use quantitative methods in their quest of producing objective scientific data.

    Ethical values in research

    • The personal values of the researcher must be aligned with the participants'; it is important that the researcher and the research participants understand each other the same way.

    If the researcher is from a different social, cultural, or national background, their understanding of the participants' experience can present a distorted view of reality.

    • Ethical values must be considered; sociologists should regard the consequences of the conducting and publication of research.

    If the publication of the research would mean negative consequences for the participants, the researcher might change their mind about publishing it at all, depending on their own ethics and moral judgement.

    Values in analysis

    Research conclusions in sociology often contain a judgement on people's behaviour. Behavioural traits usually fall into either one of two categories: 'normal', and 'unusual'. This decision already requires the researcher to use their own value-system of the world.

    Postmodernists argue that no written text can be value-free. Very often, sociologists present their findings in written format (such as in books and journal articles). It is inevitable that such analyses will be value-laden.

    Technological advances have made it widely possible to present research in a non-written format. Many sociologists include sound and video recordings of their experiments and interviews, presenting the sounds and behaviour of the subjects and the environment of the experiment as they 'really' happened, to eliminate researcher bias that could come through in the written description.

    This has been seen as a good approach to achieving objectivity. However, it has been pointed out that value-judgement presents itself in the editing of the sound and video recordings and in the unequal positions of the researcher (looking from behind the camera), and the subjects (observed through the lenses).

    Values in Research, Camera recording woman, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many sociologists nowadays include the footage of their recordings in their presentation of the research, aiming to give a value-free source to the research subjects.

    Values in Research - Key takeaways

    • Value freedom means that the social scientist successfully eliminates their own personal biases from the research and thus presents the impartial, objective truth.
    • According to positivist Max Weber, researchers’ personal values must influence their choice of the topic of research, but must not affect the research methodology.
    • Marxists and feminists argue that the positivist idea of value freedom is simply a conservative ideology, and it aims to defend the status quo.
    • Interpretivists reject the possibility of objectivity and claim that it is the task of the sociologist to choose a perspective through which they conduct their research.
    • Values can influence the decisions of the researcher differently at different stages of research: choice of topic, research methodology, research process, and analysis.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Values in Research
    What is the role of values in research?

    The role of personal and social values in sociological research is to direct the approach of the researcher to their subject. Values can influence the research process in different ways at many different stages.

    What is the definition of value in research?

    Personal and social values can influence a research practice at many different stages. The values of the funding and academic institutions are usually very influential in the choice of the research topic.

    What is the importance of values in research?

    Values; especially the elimination of personal values in sociological research, is important because only that information can be defined as scientific fact, which has not been compromised by the scientist's own bias and prejudices.

    What are values in sociological research?

    Personal and social values can influence a research practice at many different stages. The values of the funding and academic institutions are usually very influential in the choice of the research topic.

    What is the p-value in sociology?

    P-value refers to probability value in social research.

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