Definite laws that dictate everything govern the natural world of such things as physics, chemistry and geology. These laws are observed through experimentation and study, which allows us to understand these ‘positive facts’. Many argue that the search for a collection of facts and laws should not be limited to the natural world, but extended to human society. One such person was French mathematician, Auguste Comte. In the nineteenth century he foresaw a science of society that would discover the laws that govern us. This has led to the creation of positivist sociology, the belief that laws of behaviour govern human society. But to what extent is this true?
Positivist sociology seeks to create a research programme that parallel’s that of the natural sciences and aims to find either direct evidence of linked occurrences in society or at least strong correlations. For instance, a sociologist may investigate a possible link between the attendance at parents’ evening and the child’s educational attainment. Many think this is unrealistic and naive. The work on suicide by one of the most famous positivist sociologists, Durkheim, is often used to argue this case. He found that the cause for suicide is not family, religion or politics, but something immeasurable, the extent of integration and moral regulation in society. This however, could also suggest that sociology can correspond to the narrow definition of science as general and concerned with identifying clearly observable causes and correlations. Despite the problems in doing so, the idea of a science for society is appealing to many, and began to emerge fully in the nineteenth century. Marx wrote, ‘the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science’. He also believed that his view of how socialism would emerge from capitalism was not merely utopian, but based on scientific analysis of historical development.
There are many arguments that defy the positivist approach, the central and most compelling of which is that it is impossible for a Sociologist to be completely objective when performing an experiment. For the most part they exist within the society they are studying and therefore will always, no matter how unintentionally, see social reality only as it is filtered through a set of value judgements. It would be impossible for them to remain entirely open-minded during a study as it is completely human to do the opposite. As a result, ideas or evidence may not be assessed in a fair-minded way. However, this is not to say that objectivity cannot be achieved in Sociology. It can be gained substantially from the mutual criticism of published works by the sociological community. This happens through the public debate of controversial topics that are fruitfully analysed by the open examination of the work.
Many argue that a major reason against Sociology being scientific is that in social life, the activities dealt with by people are meaningful to them, they confer sense and purpose which does not exist in the natural sciences. We cannot therefore describe social life accurately if we don’t know the meanings that people apply to their behaviour. For the same reason, the study of humans is also made many times more difficult than in the study of something in the natural sciences. People who are aware that they are having their actions monitored can often, either intentionally or sub-consciously alter their behaviour in order to give a different view of themselves to the reality. In questionnaires for example, the person filling out the form may well ‘help’ the researcher by giving answers they feel he or she wants. Some may say though, that the fact a human being can be talked to at all is an advantage that gives social studies the fodder to become more scientific, though the pre-mentioned unreliability of the information gained from this may prove otherwise.
Similarly to the above, the fact that people all vary as individuals detracts from the scientific nature of social studies. This, it is argued, is because with everyone having major differences, there can be no consistency to their actions. Unlike an experiment with a natural science, a social experiment carried out in two different places is likely to provide different results. Moral guidelines make it impossible to put a person in experimental conditions, but many believe that even if it could be done, variations between individuals would be so great that the results would be meaningless.
Another major problem with the positivist school of thought is the lack of an ability to accurately predict events, something that natural sciences are very good at. For reasons explained, tests are difficult to carry out, repeat and verify and it seems the best sociology can do is to give a strong correlation rather than definite and detailed prediction. This lack of precision cannot in itself show an unscientific basis however. Whereas a chemist can mix the right proportions of hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide together and accurately predict a result of salt and water, the complications with a sociology experiment mean that this level of precise prediction cannot be hoped for in analysing human behaviour. Sociology is not concerned with a one hundred per cent degree of accuracy, it is neither necessary nor possible, but this does not make it unscientific. For instance, meteorology is a science, but cannot predict the weather with certainty.
While many doubts exist as to what extent sociology can be called a science, or if it can be called that at all, some things are undeniable. Sociology does constitute of a body of knowledge, developed through systematic inquiry, and done so in the most accurate way possible. Though the techniques used to gain the information may not match the precise nature of the natural sciences, they at least approximate them and as a result the information is similar in value to that gained by the more exact methods.
The positivist thinking is not the only approach to the question of science in sociology. Realist socialists, for instance, dispute the fact that natural science is based on experiment and claim that outside the laboratory, scientists face just as many problems as sociologists. They point to the fact that we are unable to predict the weather with certainty. They also point out that scientists do not use observation alone in surmising their findings, they cannot see the transference of viruses from person to person, nor can they see continents drifting apart. These facts are learned through their effects, in this case, virus epidemics and volcanic eruptions. With this argument the realists claim that social scientists are engaged in the same type of scientific project, learning the causes only by their effects.
Another type of sociological approach is the phenomenological approach. They dismiss the search for causes and laws altogether and instead they choose to study science itself as a social construct. They argue that there humans think for themselves and can make active sense of the world, this then leads to the idea that all knowledge is socially constructed.
Essentially then, it seems that in there is no definite answer as to if sociology can be called a science, it depends entirely on your definition of science. To say that it is not a science because it is not precise and one hundred percent accurate is unfair, as we see this does not apply to the natural sciences either and is not even necessary in social studies. However, it is undeniable that Sociology has a greater number of difficulties in ensuring its information is accurate and not flawed. This stems almost entirely from the fact that the subject matter, humans, have self-awareness, which results in a number of problems for sociologists. If however, we can forgive these problems and look closely at the way data is gathered by sociologists, then it must surely be said to be scientific at least in part. With the data being obtained in a systematic, thorough way, with everything done to avoid corrupting the evidence, then surely it can be classified as scientifically acceptable. With general ideas of human behaviour and social reactions being researched, rather than precise details, a less rigorous research method, as long as it does everything possible to avoid mistakes, is justified. So if the definition of science you choose to use includes a sound research method, but not precisely accurate, then sociology can be called a science.