Sociology as Science
July 17, 2017
Social research is a process for producing new knowledge about the social world in a structured, organized, and systematic way (Neuman, 1994:2).
I. Why Is Sociology a Science?
Why is social science (sociology) science? Is sociology simply a pseudo-science? After all, its ability to predict the future is questionable! Isn't it? What is science? In mathematics, 2 + 2 always = 4. Sociology often cannot make precise predictions.
In response, one might argue that just because the subject matter of sociology is more difficult to study than the subjects pursued in other sciences, it does not mean that the scientific method is inappropriate for the social sciences. The subject matter of sociology experiences continuous change. This fact alone renders efforts at prediction difficult. Problems relating to prediction can be found in the biological science as well. One should note the problems encountered as biologists try to track the AIDS virus. It too continually mutates.
Sociology is a science every bit as much as biology or chemistry. Social sciences, like natural and biological sciences, use a vigorous methodology. This means that a social scientist clearly states the problems he or she is interested in and clearly spells out how he or she arrives at their conclusions. Generally, social scientists ground the procedure in a body of existing literature. This is precisely how other sciences function.
II. Alternatives to Science
The scientific method of understanding society is relatively new in the grand course of human history. It arose during the Enlightenment period in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before exploring scientific sociology, let's begin with a brief discussion of other sources of social knowledge about society. I do this for two reasons:
In order to understand where we are, it is sometimes helpful to understand where we have come from and where we are going (with the lectures to follow). That is why we study history!
Further, a good way to determine the worth (or lack of worth) of anything social is within a comparative context that offers alternatives.
Often, we get our knowledge from significant others like parents, teachers, books, or political leaders. When one accepts something as true because someone in authority says it is true, then they are relying on authority. It is a quick, simple, and inexpensive way to gain information (Neuman, 1994:2-3).
The problem associated with relying on authorities is that overestimating the expertise of someone or some publication is possible. An expert in one area might ...
- try to use his or her expertise in an area where the authority has little if any knowledge. Neuman (1994:3) reminds us that "experts" used to measure intelligence by counting the number of bumps on the skull.
- An over reliance on authority may also produce problems in a democratic society. Allowing authorities to wield too much authority can be dangerous! Over reliance on authority might lead to dictatorship.
Neuman (1994:3) contends that tradition is a special case of authority, the authority of the past. "It has always been done that way." One problem with relying on tradition as a source of information is that conditions change. People can cling to past traditions without understanding why something was true in the past (e.g., A shot of whiskey cures a cold). Tradition can also be based on simple prejudices that people pass down from one generation to the next. Even if traditional knowledge was once true, it can become distorted over time. (E.g., The best way to plow a field is with a mule-drawn plow, or one should always plant by the full moon.)
C. Common Sense
Common sense is the knowledge people gain about the world through their everyday experience. It works sometimes. In fact, sociology might require that one use a little common sense when engaging in research projects. On the other hand, one still has to remember that common sense is not truth in any objective sense. It is only a shared social idea that people find comfortable and safe.
Example: Simple Dichotomies
The seemingly persistent tendency for human beings to think in terms of simple dichotomies to understand society perplexed Fernando Henrique Cardoso. To emphasize the simplicity of such thinking he used the metaphor of two space travelers encountering earth for the first time. The space travelers express shock at the simplicity of the earthlings. They might say, "the brain of these beings appears to limit their images and thoughts to binary opposites" (Cardoso, 1977).
Example: Who is Rich, Who is Poor?
Asian-Americans have the highest per capita median income in the United States while Native-Americas have to lowest. This contradicts the usually accepted notion that Blacks and Whites define the top and bottom of American society.
1. Problems with Common Sense
a. Our Experience is Limited
We cannot possibly know everything everywhere.
b. Our Interpretation of Experience is Biased
Our minds play tricks on us. We are likely to see what we want to see. We are likely to look for easy explanations and we are likely to accept ideas of people that are attractive to us. Sociologists have dubbed this tendency the "halo effect."
Example: What is Suicide?
When is a death suicide? If someone attempts to fake a suicide but actually succeeds in killing themselves, is their death suicide or accidental death?
Example: Suicide in Religious Communities
Some religious communities show a low suicide rate. Does this mean that people in these communities kill themselves at a lower rate? In some religions suicide is a mortal sin. Perhaps religious communities attempt to cover up suicides more than non religious communities. One explanation might be that suicide in religious communities would have more serious social impact on the survivors than it would in non religious communities.
Example: The Problem of "Illegal Aliens"
Common sense tells us that undocumented workers take jobs from Americans and that, in general, they create a burden for the U.S. taxpayers. Facts, however, show us that undocumented workers add more to the United States economy than they cost. Further, they tend to take jobs that most Americans don't want.
Example: Buy American! What Does This Mean?
As Americans struggled with the global economy in the 1980s, many advocated buying American products from American companies. Common sense told us that buying American would put Americans to work and make the U.S. economy stronger. Unfortunately, distinguishing between global and domestic economy became highly problematic in the 1990s as the domestic and international economies became more interconnected (See Keohane and Nye, 1977; Reich, 1991).
General Motors is an American company, but look at the international involvement the creation of a General Motors product like the LeMans (from Reich, 1991).
Of the $20,000 paid to GM, about $6,000 goes to South Korea for routine labor and assembly operations, $3,500 to Japan for advanced components (engines, transaxles, and electronics), $1,500 to West Germany for styling and design engineering, $800 to Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan for small components, $500 to Britain for advertising and marketing services, and about $100 to Ireland and Barbados for data processing. The rest -- less than $8000 -- goes to strategists in Detroit, lawyers and bankers in New York, lobbyists in Washington, insurance and health care workers all over the country, and General Motors shareholders -- most of who live in the United States, but many who are foreign nationals (Reich, 1991:113).
D. Media Myths
This one is obvious. Have you ever heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say "Hasta la vista baby" for George Bush? The TV is notorious for distorting reality about crime, romance, etc. The news also can distort truth whether intentionally or otherwise (to meet deadlines, etc.) (Neuman, 1994:4).
III. The Scientific Method
deGrasse Tyson (2014) contends that scientists “test ideas by experiment and observation, They build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything." The scientific method is a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem (Schaefer and Lamm, 1992:35). The following are some components of the scientific method.
A. Test Ideas
Don't take assumptions for granted. Don't rely on common sense. Don't rely on traditional authority figures.
B. Evidence must Be Observable
Evidence should be observable because other Sociologists might want to perform the same study in order to verify or refute findings.
1. Social Facts
Henslin (1999:16) notes that Durkheim stressed social facts. He calls them "patterns of behavior that characterize a social group." Appelbaum & Chambliss (1997:12) defines social facts as "qualities of groups that are external to individual members yet constrain their thinking and behavior." For example, one may display a particular behavior when with friends, but feel constrained to act differently when in a more formal setting. The effect of a social group on individual behavior is a social fact.
C. Describe How Evidence is Gathered
Any study of society should specify the methods the researcher used to obtain his or her information, the setting (where the researcher conducted the study), and the population (whom they studied). This is done so that other social scientists may test your findings. Social scientists are cautious in accepting the findings of other. Studies are often replicated to verify findings of initial studies.
A theory is a set of ideas [generalizations] supported by facts. Theories try to make sense out of those facts. Social scientists seldom accept theories as laws. Often they are not considered totally true. Furthermore, the subjects they attempt to explain (i.e., people and social institutions) are variable. Gergen (1982:12) in D'Andrade (p 27) states:
"It may be ventured that with all its attempts to emulate natural science inquiry, the past century of sociobehavioral research and theory has failed to yield a principle as reliable as Archimedes principle of hydrostatics or Galileo's Law of uniformly accelerated motion."
Because theories are general ideas, social scientists do not test them directly. A hypothesis is a speculative (or tentative) statement that predicts the relationship between two or more variables. It is, in essence, an educated guess. It specifies what the researcher expects to find. To be considered meaningful, a hypothesis must be testable; that is, capable of being evaluated (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 38).
IV. Basic Statistical Concepts
A. Measures of Central Tendency: Mean and Median
The mean, or average, is a number calculated by adding a series of values and then dividing by the number of values. For example, Eleven students who completed the first test had scores of 48, 57, 64, 68, 68, 70, 78, 84, 90, 92, and 95. In order to determine the mean, add the eleven scores and then divide by the number of scores (11). The mean is 74.
The median is the midpoint or number that divides a series of values (which are ranked in ascending or descending order). Eleven students who completed the first test had scores of 48, 57, 64, 68, 68, 70, 78, 84, 90, 92, and 95. The median for this group grade of students is 70.
B. Rates & Percentages
A percentage is a portion based on 100. Use of rates (and percentages) allow one to compare populations of different sizes.
Example: Comparing Populations of Different Sizes
If we are comparing contributors to a town's Baptist and Roman Catholic churches, the absolute numbers of contributors could be misleading if there were many more Baptists than Catholics living in the town. With percentages, we can obtain a more meaningful comparison, showing the proportion of persons in each group who contribute to their respective churches (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 36).
C. Statistical Control vs. Control Groups
In a sociological sense, control means that you neutralize all social characteristics (variables) except that which is under consideration. This is different from a control group. A control group is something associated with an experiment. If one is testing, say a new drug, one would get two similar populations. The new drug would be given to one group (an experimental group) and withheld from the other group (a control group). Any difference between the experimental group and the control group is probably due to the intervention (e.g., the new drug in this example).
D. Target Populations and Samples
The target population refers to everyone in a group that is studied. For example, if one wants to know how people will vote in an election, the target population is everyone who is eligible to vote. How can a researcher study a population as large as that of the United States? The answer is that one cannot study entire populations. Large populations are simply too big. The researcher, therefore, needs to look at a small subset of the population. We call this subset a sample. The trick is to make sure that your sample closely parallels the characteristics of the larger population.
1. Random Sample
Henslin (1999:126) contends that a random sample is one in which everyone in a population has the same chance of being included in a study. A random sample is necessary if one is going to attempt to generalize the findings in a study to the larger population.
Generalizability refers to a condition where a social scientist is able to apply their findings (drawn from a sample) to the larger population.
A hypothesis poses a relationship between two or more aspects of social relationships. These aspects are called variables. A variable is a measurable trait or characteristic that is subject to change under different conditions. Income, gender, occupation, and religion are variables. Variables may be independent or dependent.
1. Independent Variables
Independent variables in a hypothesis are those that influence or cause changes in another variable. In other words, an independent variable is something that is chosen by the researcher to cause a change in another variable.
2. Dependent Variables
The dependent variables are those variables are believed to be influenced by the independent variable (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992:38).
Example: Independent and Dependent Variables
Higher levels of education produce greater earnings. Education is the independent variable (it causes the change in income levels). Income level is the dependent variable. The income an individual earns "depends" or is determined by the influence of education.
One of the most common research mistakes is to assume that a high correlation between two variables means that one variable (independent) causes some change in another variable (dependent).
A correlation exists when a change in one variable coincides with a change in another variable. The two variables are regularly associated with one another. However, the mere fact that associations exist, does not necessarily mean that a change in one variable causes a change in another variable. Correlations are an indication that causality may be present. They do not necessarily indicate causation (Schaefer & Lamm, 1992: 38).
G. Spurious Correlations
A spurious correlation is one where the apparent correlation between two variables is actually caused by a third variable (Henslin, 1999:130)
H. Causal Logic (Cause and Effect)
One of the most common research mistakes is to assume that a high correlation between two variables proves that there is a causal link between them. In other words, people assume if two variables are related, then obviously one causes the other.
Causality is rather difficult to demonstrate. How can one tell whether a change in one variable is "causing" a change in another variable? There are three requirements that must exist before one can begin to think about whether there is a cause and effect relationship.
1. Temporal order:
The independent variable has to occur before the dependent variable.
2. Association (or correlation):
A change in one variable is associated with a change in the other variable.
3. Elimination of plausible alternatives:
The researcher has to ensure that the association between the two variables is not caused by a third variable (e.g., there are no spurious correlations). In order to show that one variable cause a change in another variable the scientist has to control for other factors that might be influencing the relationship.
4. Does it make sense?
Finally, there is also an implicit fourth condition. The causal relationship has to make sense or fit within a theoretical framework (Henslin, 1999:131).
I. Validity and Reliability
Validity exists when concepts and their measurement accurately represent what they claim to represent while reliability is the extent to which findings are consistent with different studies of the same thing or with the same study over time.
V. Methods of Gathering Data
Weber suggested that sociology needs several methods of investigation. The following material provides various benefits and problems associated with four methods of gathering data.
A. Case Studies (field study)
- Case studies (or field studies) explore social life in its natural setting, observing and interviewing people where they live, work, and play (Kendall, 1998:25).
- Its advantages are that the researcher can study individuals in their natural setting (e.g., at home, at work, playing, etc.).
- Case studies provided volumes of information such that at the end of the study the researcher has a thorough understanding of the individuals involved in the study.
- Drawbacks to the case study include the fact that social scientists cannot usually investigate many cases because of time constraints.
- Another problem with the case study is that the results may not be generalizable to the population at large.
B. The Survey (Interviews)
- The researcher asks questions of the cases face to face or in a questionnaire.
- The advantages are that data collection is more systematic (you ask the same questions of every case).
- Because it is systematic and generally more condensed, the researcher can investigate more cases. Survey research can, in fact, be applied to several thousand (or million) cases. The U.S. Census begins as a survey of the population.
- Findings may be generalizable to larger populations.
- When relying on a survey questionnaire, much information is lost. Facial expressions are not recorded. Environmental considerations are missed.
- Furthermore, information can be lost because the interviewer failed to ask the right question.
Kendall (1998:26) describes an experiment as a "carefully designed situation (often taking place in a laboratory) in which the researcher studies the impact of certain factors on subjects' attitudes or behaviors."
- The experiment offers a high degree of exactness because one can control everything in a laboratory setting.
- Variables can be precisely studied. Natural science uses this approach most often. So does psychology.
- It is easier to determine cause and effect relationships.
- One disadvantage with the experiment in studying social phenomena is that the environment is contrived. People do not normally carry out their lives in a laboratory setting.
- Ethical issues may also arise when performing experiments on people. The Nazi death-camp experiments represent extreme instances of ethical violation. Even in ordinary university type experiments deception and misinformation are often employed. Many consider these ethical violations.
D. Existing data (Secondary Data Analysis)
- Existing data includes government records (census), personal documents, or mass communication (published books, the news, movies).
- The Statistical Abstract of the United States is an excellent source of existing data.
- The advantages are that data are generally easy to obtain. They already exist and can be found in most university libraries.
- Much existing data are also standardized. Standardization makes it easier to compare one set of data with another.
- One problem associated with existing data is that the researcher must use the format provided. For example, a researcher studying poverty would be frustrated with the census before 1970 because there was no poverty rate in 1960 and before.
V. Problems with Science
A. Science as a Bias
The scientific perspective might cause one to look for cause and effect type relationships. Researchers may assume relationships are cause and effect where, in fact, many actions undertaken by individuals, groups, etc. involve choice. Further, while one expects cause and effect to travel in one direction, it may actually travel in the opposite direction. Furthermore, what may appear to be a cause and effect relationship between two variables may be driven by a third variable.
Example: Science as a Bias
Science itself may play a role in how one interprets a given social phenomenon. Furthermore, it may influence the solutions for social problems.
See: What is Hunger?
What is the Hawthorne effect?
B. The Power Structure of Science
People who hold positions of power within universities, private enterprise, and the government have the power to decide what is studied and published. Breaking in is difficult for dissenters. When government agencies or corporations pay "big bucks" for science, they can determine what subjects are studied and which results become public.
A quotation that appears in many research methods texts argues that "there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics." Perhaps statistics do not really lie, but the same statistics can be manipulated to defend a variety of positions.
D. Ethical Considerations
Example: Laud Humphreys's Tearoom Trade Study
The Laud Humphreys's (Humphreys, 1975) tearoom trade study was an investigation into the sexual habits of upper-class male homosexuals. The setting was a public restroom. Approximately a hundred men were observed engaging in sexual acts. Humphreys, while playing the role of a "watch queen," followed members of the establishment to their cars. There, he secretly recorded their license plate numbers.
Humphreys later obtained names and addresses of the tearoom patrons from police registers while posing as a market researcher. A year later, in disguise, Humphreys went to the homes of the tearoom patrons to gain more insight into the lives of upper class homosexuals. To gain entry, he used a deceptive story about a health survey. Humphreys was careful to keep names in safety deposit boxes, and identifiers with subject names were burned. He significantly advanced knowledge of homosexuals who frequent "tearooms" and overturned previous false beliefs about them. There has, however, been significant controversy surrounding the study: The subjects never consented. Deception was used. Further, their names could have been used to blackmail subjects, to end marriages, or to initiate criminal prosecution. The mental anguish brought upon the tearoom patrons was severely criticized (Neuman, 1994:432).
Appelbaum, Richard P. and William J. Chambliss
1997 Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: Longman.
1977 "The Consumption of Dependency Theory in the United States." Latin American Research Review 12(1977):7-24.
1986 "Three scientific world views and the covering law model." In D. Fiske and R. Shweder (eds.) Metatheory in Social Sciences.
deGrasse Tyson , Neil
2014 “Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey” Episode 1
Henslin, James M.
1999 Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach, (4th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
1971 "Tearoom Trade: Interpersonal Sex in Public Places." In Studies ion the Sociology of Sex. James M. Henslin, ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971:351-374.
Keohane, Robert O. and Joseph S. Nye
1977 Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston: Little, Brown.
Mills, C. Wright
1959 The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.
1997 Social Research Methods, 3rd Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Reich, Robert B.
1991 The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Schaefer & Lamm (1992)
Essay perfect answer
‘Sociology can and should be a science.’ To what extent do sociological arguments and evidence support this view? (33 marks)
This essay has two parts, can sociology be a science meaning what qualities can sociology and science share leading to sociology being classed as a science, and two, should sociology be a science depending on what perspective sociological theory takes, looking what society actually is and whether you should study it scientifically. Popper and Kuhn argue that sociology cannot be a science because there are fundamental differences between the two, whilst Realists argue that it could be it could be argued to share some elements just different subject matter. Positivists think sociology should be a science because essentially their whole method aims to be scientific, whilst interpretivists believe sociology should not be a science because society cannot be studied like one, the subject matters are fundamentally different.
Karl Popper argues that sociology cannot be a science because a science has to be falsifiable and has to have the highest elements of objectivity. He believes that sociology does not fulfil either and therefore cannot be one until it does. To explain, falsifiability is the term used to describe the ability to prove something wrong. For instance water boiling at 100 degrees is falsifiable because we can test it at various temperatures and see if it boils. However it is believed sociology cannot be proved wrong. For example Marxism has the idea that eventually the working class will gain class consciousness, realise their exploitation and overthrow the ruling class. This cannot be proved wrong, because Marxists could say ‘well it just hasn’t happened yet’ for the rest of time, and thus this theory is always right. Karl believes we can never have absolute knowledge of truth, and as such a good theory has to be proved wrong. This also relates to objectivity, because science aims to prove things wrong it removes the subjective opinion about something, you can collect as much data as you want that support your view and it will not be valid, but trying to actively disprove your theory is the most objective a person can be. As sociology can sometimes not be proved wrong we can assume that the studies are not objective. For example Feminism is value laden, everything oppresses women, science in itself oppresses women and they actively find different ways to support their views, hence they can never be objective. Therefore sociology cannot be a science because it can not be objective and it falls into the fallacy of induction, finding evidence to support rather than trying to disprove.
However there is some criticism particularly from the positivists who believe that sociology should be a science and it in fact can be a science because it can be objective and it can be falsified. For instance the positivist methods always aim to be scientific, they use detatched methods like non-participant observation and structured interviews, that they they do not let any of their views onto their research. They also favour using the methods of official statistics which is very detached, and can be falsified. For instance, positivists may believe that Suicide is a social fact and the result only of social and moral regulation and integration and can find this through statistics, but there is always the possibility of finding a statistics that is nether and therefore disproves the theory. Therefore sociology should be a science and can be because it can be objective and falsifiable.
Alternatively Popper might respond and argue that the objectivity and falsifiability that postivists claim is the wrong type. Whilst being detached is scientific yes, it does not automatically mean objectivity, the researcher could still in a structured interview manipulate the way they write result to fit their ideas of the hypothesis, they are only human and could interpret an answer in a way it is not supposed to be viewed. Also they do not actively try to disprove their theory, for instance Durkheim searched for evidence of patterns and trends in suicide across Europe, it is highly likely that when he came across suicide that did not fit he ignored it. Contextually at the time, statistics were not as organised so no one would even realise he missed them out. On the other hand, the Durkheim example specifically cannot be falsifiable because the terms of integration and regulation are not properly operationalised. For instance he did not define exactly what both of them were and so technically all deaths and suicides could be fitting into one or more category, having such blurred lines means we cannot prove the theory wrong because if we decide a suicide does not fit into regulation it could be argued to fit into regulation and cannot not fit into these.
On the other hand it could be argued by Feminists that science itself is malestream and whilst they claim that feminists are value laden and therefore cannot be objective it is only because science is run by males and for males and so any evidence they find will show the oppression of women because it is designed to fundamentally in the nature of being male dominated show that. Also, Harding and Hart argue that science is inadequate and holds little value to women because it does not work for women, it is based on males and for males. Science in itself is oppressive to women and so sociology one cannot be a science because it has women involved in it (feminists) and should not be a science because it is oppressive.
Realists alternatively argue that science and sociology can work together because of the controls on research that both use; open and closed systems. Whilst sociology favours open systems there are still elements of control. For instance positivists favour structured methods and in this way can control for word differentiation on answers, different questions meaning different things to different people and can be quantified. Therefore sociology can be a science because it holds some of the control systems that science does also.
Secondly, Thomas Kuhn argues that sociology cannot be a science either because science is defined by having paradigms that all scientists work under, sociology has so many conflicting theories there can be no one paradigm and therefore it cannot be a science. To explain a paradigm is a set of values and beliefs that research can be conducted under, for instance valuing the objective study of phenomenon in the world rather than the subjective opinion based study of the world, they want conscience and controlled research with little confounding variables. All scientists work under this and research is funded if it best fits the paradigm, sociology does not have one. There is a conflict between interpretivists who believe that society in our heads and so should be studied subjectively and there are positivists who believe that society is an external phenomenon that we can objectively study. Fundamentally there are differences within theories and how they study society in the same way there are fundamentally different theories for things in sociology, for instance Functionalists and the New right are explaining education but are coming up with totally different explanations for its role. Kuhn thinks that sociology is in a pre-paradigm state, where there is no one paradigm and until the conflicts between theories can be sorted out or one proved wrong, there will be no paradigm, therefore sociology cannot be a science.
Although it is suggests by sociologists like Lakatos (1970) that science does not have one overarching paradigm at a time, paradigms are a progression from history, for instance there have been many different paradigms over time, for example the enlightenment project and so sociology can be a science because rather than over history having different paradigms they have them all at once.
As well as this Post-Modernists argue that a scientific paradigm is just another meta-narrative that brings nothing new to society, and cannot help to improve it because it is of no more value than any other perspective. For instance post-modernists believe that society and the world now is so fragmented and that there are so many perspectives on everything that truth has now become relative. So science cannot be the best way forward, and the paradigm shift over time and disapline (science and sociology) does not matter, they are just meta-narratives. On the other hand post-modernists argue that science should not be allowed a monopoly of truth and to do so is dangerous. For instance if we am to be scientific we are essentially suggesting that being scientific is the best thing an academic discipline can be and it should be strived for. However it is just one version of the truth and it brings about very bad things; for instance we are now in a scientific risk society, we are aware of greater risks to our health from pollution and nuclear war because of science than we were before. Problems like degrading environment and getting MRSA or other super drug resistant bugs in us were not concerns 100 years ago, the risks created in society are greater now because of science. Essentially sociology should not be a science because it will monopolise society through its influence.
However the interpretivists agree with Kuhn in a way, because like Kuhn believes that sociology cannot be a science, they agree that sociology should not even try to be a science because the study of science and the study of the mind are totally different things. For instance science is concerned with phenomenon which do not have consciousness for instance water boiling at 100 degrees does not decide to, it just does. Whereas sociology is created through shared meaning, motivations and actions of individuals and therefore involves consciousness which science cannot study validly. The positivists whilst trying to be scientific loose validity because humans are not unconscious they have motivations and closed questions and non-participant observations are not going to get those validly. The only method of studying society that should be implemented is a subjective one. For example, Mead a symbolic interactionist argues that science cannot fully understand why motorists stop at red lights. For instance, in driving if there is a red light cars stop and wait for it to go from red and orange to green before they can go. This is not because of a force when that orange light comes on causing the cars engines to cut out, the foot on the break to push down and the car to come to a stop, it is because the motorists have attached the meaning of 'stop’ to a red light a so stop. It isn’t even because of the fear of death which animals have by instinct, most motorists don’t consider the effects of passing the red light when they stop, just that they have to stop and wait.
Also free will is not something that can be studied scientifically it is an unobservable phenomena. Whilst determinism can be studied because theoretically it has a cause and effect of behaviour, in the interpretivist world there is only free will and so attempting to study causes and effects are pointless. We may be confined by the meanings we attach to things, such as stopping at a red light, but like Blumer argues we have every ability to negotiate and change the meanings we attach.
On another note science also does not allowed Verstehen which is very close to the interpretivist theory, meaning the ability to understand a person from their perspective. Science by being objective from the paradigm that this is the best thing, restricts the information it can collect. For instance, a questionnaire on poverty seems scientific, it has closed questions, it is standardised and has a lot of control. When a person is asked how hard they feel poverty is they have the option to respond 'very hard’, however this does not give us anything. We cannot understand anything from their perspective and thus get rich useful data if we just accept their answer, we have to go in using an Ethnomethodological approach and really understand what they mean by 'very hard’ and the meanings they attach to it through their motivations.
However a criticism of this perspective from the realists is that both the interpretivists and the positivists ideas of whether sociology should be a science are wrong. For instance the interpretivists have claimed that science cannot study the means and motivations because they are unobservable, and the positivists only study the observable. But science itself is not just restricted to what they can observe. For instance black holes in far away galaxies are not observable but using science we can study them, gravity is not directly observable, there are not giant arrows in the sky pointing down all the time to show us, but it is still able to be studied. Therefore sociology can be a science because the unobservable meanings and motivations can be studied in a scientific way, however in exactly what way (maths, testing, physics etc) is undecided.
Again post-modernists would argue that interpretivists bring nothing to society by assuming that sociology shouldn’t be a science because it is just another meta-narrative which holds no more grounding than the idea that it should be a science, that science has paradigms or that sociology has no objectivity in it.
In conclusion it could be argued that the main point of clash in whether sociology can and should be a science is what exactly the phenomena that sociology is studying is. For instance if you believe that society is an external objective phenomena with structures and determinism and therefore cause and effect it could be possible that sociology could be a science if it maintained falsifiability and objectivity. However if like the interpretivists argue society is a creation of shared meanings (Garfinkel) and has no objective reality (and neither does social order) then it may not be possible to study society objective because it is not an objective phenomena. However in terms of objectivity, is it objectivity meaning detachment that science wants and demonstrably the positivists can offer or is it objectivity in terms of wanting to disprove your own theory and thus not actively supporting it with biased evidence? Depending on what type of objectivity you favour then leads to whether sociological theory like the positivists can offer than and if they can then maybe they can and should be a science. However like Kuhn if sociology does not have a paradigm can it be scientific? But then it is argued that science itself is not just one paradigm over time, there are scientific revolutions and so sociology could be a science if it can form one overarching paradigm. Overall it could be concluded that at least in the time being and depending on what objectivity you want, sociology can’t be a science and maybe shouldn’t try to be because it could lead to science having a monopoly on truth.