There can be no doubt regarding the respect in which the founders of sociology held science. Auguste Comte, founder of the term sociology, believed that scientific knowledge about society could be accumulated and used to improve human existence.
Due to the differing subject matter of the social sciences to that of the natural sciences, many sociologist believe that the methods used by natural sciences to conduct research are inappropriate and limited when concerned with human behaviour. However, all sociologists do not share the same opinion or paradigm. In fact there are several schools of thought held by sociologists with regard to the accurate gathering and analysis of data. These views can be widely categorised to include:
– Functionalist, quantative or scientific approach
– Humanistic, qualitative or interpretive approach
Functionalism is a perspective that regards empirical data and sensory facts as the only valid and reliable data that can be gathered. Functionalists believe that . sociologists should aim at establishing general laws describing human behaviour from which predictions can be made. One such influential sociologist is Emile Durkheim. Durkheim (1982) believed that sociology should be the objective study of ?social facts rather than the study of individuals. He defined the term ?social fact to be. every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraintwhile at the same time existing in it?s own right independent of its individual manifestations. (Durkeim, 1966) This definition constitutes the idea that things such as morals, laws, customs, beliefs and fashions exist on their own and can be empirically studied. Functionalists believe that objective observation and measurement of the social world is not possible. Under the banner of functionalism, includes the Marxist theory, compiled be Karl Marx and the various feminist theories and collective ideas. Methodology commonly used by functionalists consists of a hypothesis to be tested and analysed. Clinical testing with two or more variables that are controlled by the researcher does this.
Interpretive perspective or humanists, on the other hand, believes the basis of sociology is the interpretation of social actions. Humanists feel the need for sociologists to explain the meaning behind human behaviours and not just that they occurred. They feel that the subject matter of the social sciences (human behaviour) is too different for the use of the natural sciences (physical entities) research methods. A fundamental sociologist in favour of this perspective is Max Weber, who firmly believes that the focus should be on the individual rather than on collectives. He emphasised the importance of recognising that human beings have a level of “free will”, which allows them to make decisions for themselves. People do things that are meaningful to them. Another prominent sociologist in favour of a humanistic approach is Anthony Giddens. Giddens has stated that .any approach to the social sciences which seeks to express their epistemology and ambitions as directly similar to those of the science of nature is condemned to failure in it?s own terms, and can only result in a limited understanding of human society.Anthony Giddens suggested that sociology should look at the reasons why people behave how they do and not purely determine behaviour. Perspectives included under the general heading of Interpretive include Phenomenology, a more radical approach to interpretive research methods that disagrees completely with the use of any naturalistic research methods and Symbolic interactionism, whose followers believe that individuals possess a self-conceptwhich is built up or modified in the process of interaction with other members of society.
Interpretive research .attempts to understand the meanings that people bring to their environment and is often descriptive. Methodology commonly used amongst interpretive research involves field tests, participant observation, personal and detailed interviews to become familiar with the subjects.
Comparisons to the natural sciences are inevitable as all disciplines stemmed throughout history from the one discipline of science. However, sociology is a combination of both interpretive and functionalist perspectives and when effectively applied to methodology one is able to make sense of human behaviour. Sociology by definition is .the description and analysis of the social forces that shape human behaviour in contemporary social life Sociologists are interested in looking at society as both individuals and groups and their effects on society as a whole. To do this appropriately and in enough detail, a combination of functionist and interpretive methodology must be used.
Because all humans enjoy the freedom of choice and the agency to defy rational thought, it becomes extremely difficult to construct laws of human behaviour, as was preferred by the functionalists. Cause and effect might never be the same for all human beings. Thus, the classic experimental mode of science would most likely not be appropriate and is unable to tell us the important information of why a subject responds in a certain manner. An empirical science cannot tell anyone what he should do rather what he can do (Weber, 1949). For research to attempt to be objective, the influence of the researcher should not occur.
A range of interpretive and scientific investigation will enable a more thorough and accurate result. Controlled laboratory testing on humans is unethical and highly unnatural. People being controlled and studied under a microscope are going to behave differently than they would in their natural setting. Alternative methods involving surveys and field participation from the interpretive approach would be more productive. For these reasons humanistic behaviour requires alternative methods to the natural sciences whilst maintaining a scientific attitude to gathering and analysing empirical data. Research should be guided by a theory but should also study all aspects of the subjects available to have a greater understanding of the results they may find. It is therefore appropriate to say that the methods used by those of the natural sciences can be applied to the social sciences.