2. Sociology as a Science

(a) Science, scientific method and critique. (b) Major theoretical strands of research methodology. (c) Positivism and its critique. (d) Fact value and objectivity. (e) Non-positivist methodologies.


Karl Popper’s philosophy of science states that any scientific law must provide a falsifiable hypothesis, i.e. a scientific theory should be testable. Sociology in this respect fails to classify as a scientific subject simply because sociologists have not spent their time developing general laws of the kind Popper typifies. Instead they have worked to elucidate the sociological approach, defining concepts and coming up with more adequate classifications.

Another powerful argument against the scientific nature of sociology is that it has not produced anything resembling a natural law. This may be a harsh judgment keeping in mind the fact that sociology is a relatively young science. Though critics state that this defense too is outdated. It is easy to see that theories put forward by Marx, Durkheim and Weber could easily fall into the type given by Popper but all they’ve done is exaggerate the ongoing debate about the scientific character of sociology.

A major question that is also posed is whether scientific methods can be used appropriately in the study of social phenomenon or whether the study of human society requires a different theoretical model and different methods than those of the natural sciences. The problem with generalizations in sociology is that genuine novelty can result from conscious volition of the social group which would render any generalization moot. Unlike in the natural sciences where "laws" are beyond human will. Ex. the abolition of caste system by the Indian constitution. One cannot outlaw gravity or the dissolution of salt in water.

Thus, searching for general laws in sociology would be tantamount taking away individual agency. Humans are not robots which function only in pre-programmed ways, their ability to choose (between culturally limited choices is what makes them human in the first place.

A part of sociology consists of exact description within an orderly framework of categories which only involves simple theorizing. Such descriptive sociology is valuable in two ways:

  1. In case of contemporary studies, it provides data to administrators for the solution of practical problems and the formation of rational social policies.
  2. In case of historical description, it makes a contribution to humane studies.

It is in developing concepts and schemes of classification that sociology has been most productive. This is a basic requirement for any fledgling subject. A large part of the teaching of sociology consists of showing students how to appropriately use sociological terminology.

There has also been an inclination on the part of each sociological theorist to propose a new approach to the subject, and in parallel a large number of studies have been devoted to improving up on older classifications. Sometimes this has caused a misunderstanding of the concept, which have then been revised again. In the process many useful distinctions have been made, however, an adequate classification of societies, social groups and social relations has still not appeared.


Historical Sociology

It is concerned with the whole span of human history, and with all the major institutions of society. Example historical materialism as propounded by Marx, evolutionary theories as propounded by Comte and Spencer.Another form of this approach is a hallmark of the work of Max Weber and the subsequent sociologists influenced by him. The main feature of this type of study is that only particular changes of social structure and types of society are investigated (ideal type) unlike the wider scope of Marx’s work.

Philosophy of history gave historiography the notion of theoretical ideas and concerns which were absent from the works of earlier narrative historians. At the same time it gave sociology the notion of historical types of society and thus the first element of classification of societies. Historiography and sociology, it can be said differ in intention of the disciplines.

While the historian is more concerned with how the present state of affairs came to be, the sociologist is more concerned with how the present state of affairs affect the individual and other social institutions.

Comparative Method

Durkheim initially highlighted the significance of this method. He stated that as experiments were not possible in sociology thus, sociologists were obliged to use indirect experimentation i.e. the comparative method. According to Durkheim, the only way to demonstrate that one phenomenon is the cause of another is to examine cases in which the two phenomena are present or absent simultaneously and thus establish whether one does depend on the other. He also said that comparative sociology is not just a part of sociology, it is sociology itself.

Radcliffe-Brown observed that this method in itself is impotent and requires a hypothesis to be useful. It is here that the difficulties of using this approach arise. They may be in part due to the absence of a hypothesis or of a clearly formulated hypothesis. Other difficulties also arise in defining the unit of comparison.

Andre Beteille said that comparative method has a undelying eurocentric bias. Franz Boas said that sweeping generalisations based on comparisons have limitations as social institutions exist in context.


Body has parts and needs, needs are fulfilled by parts, parts are interconnected. Thus each part is essential and each need is fulfilled by the parts. Originally proposed as the organismic by Comte and Spencer but rigorously formulated by Durkheim.

This approach is heavily influenced by the biological theories of evolution and believes that each social institution serves a particular function in society, just as each organ serves a particular function in the human body. Durkheim defined the function of a social institution as the correspondence between it and the needs of the social organism. That is to say, each function fulfills a need either positively or negatively, thereby defining normal and pathological social facts.According to this approach every social activity had a function by virtue of its existence, and every social activity was so completely integrated with all the others that no single phenomenon was intelligible outside the whole social context. Thus it became extremely difficult to explain social change using functionalism in terms of external factors, if not impossible.

Formal Sociology

Largely a German approach to sociology developed by Georg Simmel. This method is mainly concerned with interactions between individuals. That is to say forms of sociation. Simmel characterized sociology as the scientific study of social forms where forms are the relations under which interactions occur. Ex a father son relationship is a form of relationships that an individual may be part of.

The idea was to study interactions between individuals till forms of social interaction could be distilled from the mix.

Of the relatively few propositions that can be made in favour of the fact that sociology is a generalizing science a large proportion are due to Simmel.


The prehistory of sociology can be assigned to a hundred years from 1750-1850 i.e. from the works of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte to the evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer. The formative years of sociology occupy a distinct place in the second half of the 19th century, with the works of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber. Characteristics of Early Sociology were as follows:

  1. It was encyclopedic. The early sociologists tried to claim it as the most synoptic of all natural sciences. Ex. Comte and the Queen of all sciences.
  2. Under the influence of philosophy of history as well as biological theories it was evolutionary, sociology sought to identify the stages of evolution of human society. Ex. Spencer and the organismic analogy.
  3. It was seen as a positive science, modeled on the character of natural sciences. Ex. Comte, Spencer.

The opposition to sociology in the early years came largely from the feeling that it aimed not at coordinating the other sciences but subsuming them within itself. The workaround by Durkheim and Weber was the promotion of the sociological approach within the existing disciplines.

Recently sociologists have been more engrossed in studying small segments of their own societies ignoring the efforts of the founders of sociology at macro theory building. These trends are in keeping with Merton’s idea of middle range theories, which don’t offer the large generalizations of the macro theories and are not blinded by the minuteness of the micro studies. The growth of economic planning also brought into greater prominence the sociological aspects of economic behavior. That is to say, what drives a person to do what he does suddenly became an interesting question in order to make them buy stuff.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)Sociology begins with Comte. He always emphasised a scientific method for analysis of human society so as to gain a thorough understanding of it. He summed it up in his famous phrase - to know, to predict, to control.For Comte society had two aspects, stability (organic) and change (critical). He was interested in how stability could be maintained and how change occurs. He also introduced the method of historical study in sociology, which for him meant the comparison of consecutive states of social development.
NOTE: for Comte individuals had no separate existence, they were subordinate to the society. The family was the basic unit of society.

He gave the theory of three stages wherein due to growth of population (internal factors) the society undergoes evolutionary changes:

Comte believed that it was not possible to go from one stage to the next without break. Critical stages would occur between each evolution which would be represented by the breakdown of old traditions and institution of new ones. He also believed that sociology would hasten the establishment of the new order.


  • Never applied his own methodology. Jumped straight to conclusions, causing Comtean positivism to fall into disrepute.
  • Ignored external factors as possible causes of change. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)He gave the quote - survival of the fittest.

According to Spencer there is one universal law which governs all reality. Law of evolution. Evolution is a continuous and spontaneous process whereby reality develops and changes. A major limitation of his work was that he was only concerned with changes in society, not with order unlike the critical and organic stages proposed by Comte. He gave three stages of evolution:

  1. Inorganic. Basic life forms.
  2. Organic. Biological.
  3. Super Organic. Social.

Spencer said that sociology was the scientific study of super organic evolution. He called it the organismic analogy. Though Comtean ideas too had traces of this, he never fully developed them, it was first developed by Spencer. Spencer further gave three functions of every society:

  1. Regulatory. Basic law and order and foreign policy.
  2. Operative. Day to day functioning of society.
  3. Distributive. Moving men and materials from A to B.

He said that “evolution is a twin process of differentiation and integration” (This later inspired Parsons' structural differentiation and value generalisation thesis of change). He further said that the degree of advancement of a society was made apparent from the differentiation in the institutions carrying out the above three functions.

Spencer advocated the comparative method and using empirical data to study social phenomena. He recognized two major problems with this approach, objectivity and data for the older stages of society. For the latter he developed the idea of contemporary fossils. Since Spencer believed that evolution was unilineal, so all societies must go through the same evolutionary process. This meant that societies which were not as “advanced” as European society were in fact giving him glimpses of the past of Europe. Hence the term contemporary fossils.
On this basis he built up an evolutionary sequence:

On this basis he built up an evolutionary sequence:

  1. Simple
Without head.
With head.
In between completely militant and industrial societies.
  1. Compound.
With a paramount chief and local chiefs.
  1. Doubly compounded.
State emerges. Civil and military administration separated.
  1. Trebly compounded.
Modern democratic state.
  1. Ethical society
Future state of society predicted by Spencer.

He considered individual initiative to be possible. This was in contradiction with the organismic analogy so he tried to rationalize it by claiming that as society progresses from militant to industrial type, individual freedom increased.

Over time, Spencer influenced a lot of people to take up evolutionary theory, but it lost vogue in the beginning of the 20th century. Some prominent followers were: William Sumner, Lester Ward, EB Tylor, LT Hobhouse, etc. Together their school of sociological thought is referred to as classical evolutionism.

CRITICISM (of classical evolutionists in general)

  1. Eurocentric nature of their theories. Europe seen as the most advanced civilization. WW I and II with all their barbarity acted as rude awakening from the myth of European societies being the most advanced civilizations.
  2. They developed premature macro theories, i.e. taking the whole society as a single unit. This was seen as academic overreach.
  3. Change was seen as a unilineal process. Ignored cultural borrowings, instead talked about psychic unity of mankind.
  4. Inadequate empirical support for their theories.Thus classical evolutionism can be best seen as a partial explanation of change in society. Neo-evolutionist theories emerged in the 1940s with Talcott Parsons.


Fact value/value neutrality refers to the researcher’s orientation towards the study sample. The researcher may have an inbuilt bias which even s/he may be unaware of and thus would inadvertently color a scientific study. The most common way to rid oneself of this is to be value frank, instead of trying to be value neutral, thereby exposing the bias. For ex. while Durkheim tried to maintain value neutrality in all his studies his bias towards solidarity and social harmony shows. Fact value becomes essential in non-positivist methodologies for ex. reflexive sociology considers the sociologist as a moral guide to society rather than as an unbiased observer.

Objectivity refers to the treatment of the phenomenon under study as an inanimate object, i.e. it can be externally observed, measured, and reported on. Objectivity is the plaything of natural sciences where unchanging laws can be observed, with sociology it becomes a bit contentious as in the subject of study here genuine novelty can result from conscious volition. Ex. positivists used objectivity most often in their quantitative studies. They wanted to have high reliability.

Subjectivity in social research can creep in at three major stages:

  1. Selection of the phenomenon to be studies. For example Durkheim preferred to look at social solidarity while Marx preferred looking at conflict.
  2. Hypothesis formulation. What correlations you wish to examine are completely dependent on your viewpoints rather than any objective criteria.
  3. Data collection. Different researchers may assign different significance to the same set of data.

RK Merton - choice of topic is subjective.G Myrdal - all research led by viewpoints and can never be completely objective.Objectivity assumed an absolute independent existence of social reality beyond the actor, thereby facilitating positive study of the same. However, thinkers like TK Oommen have later said that contextual objectivity is what can be achieved at best.


  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Reflexive sociology
  • Ethnomethodological sociology
  • Phenomenological sociology
  • Critical sociology
  • Feminist sociology

Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936)Gave the theory of Gameinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society).According to Tönnies social life comes into being on the basis of human volition. Thus two types of social organisation would result, gameinschaft and gesellschaft.

  1. GAMEINSCHAFT: Natural/Essential Will. In this type of society it is the instinctive tendencies which drive human behaviour from within. The relations are ends in themselves and the intrinsic worth of the individual is taken into account. Ex. Family relations.
  2. GESELLSCHAFT: Rational/Arbitrary Will. In this type of society the relations are means to an end. All interactions are deliberative and future oriented. The extrinsic worth of the individual is taken into account. Ex. Business relations.
    Tönnies believed that with time (increasing differentiation) gameinschaft societies would change to become gesellschaft societies.

Georg Simmel (1858-1919)He studied differentiation in society and was instrumental in the birth of micro sociological studies. Simmel said that society is an objective unity expressed in terms of reciprocal relations. With time these reciprocal relations get patterned and become forms of sociation.

With his theory of forms, Simmel introduced a new idea in sociology which was a marked departure from the evolutionist theories which had taken front stage till then. He said that while the content of the reciprocal relations may change with time and place, the form remained unchanging. Ex. a father-son relationship, coordination, competition, etc.

He proposed that a study starts by observing the content and from that distills the forms. Simmel characterised sociology as the scientific study of forms. This is what is called as formal sociology.

Sociological Imagination by CW MillsIt refers to the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society. Sociological imagination is not a theory but an outlook of society which tries to steer us into thinking away from one's usual day-to-day life and look at one's life afresh.

Specifically, the sociological imagination involves an individual developing a deep understanding of how their everyday life is a result of historical processes and occurs within a larger social context.Developed as a critique to structural functionalism which took to the idea of emergent social reality.

Structuration by Anthony Giddens

Critic of Parsons.Structuration is a social theory of the creation and reproduction of social systems that is based in the analysis of both structure and agents, without giving primacy to either. It tries to understand the influence of one on the other and derive sociological insights from this interaction.Further, in structuration theory, neither micro nor macro-focused analysis alone are sufficient.

Reflexive Sociology by Alvin Gouldner

Critic of Weber. Gypsum plant study.In sociology, reflexivity means an act of self-reference where examination or action refers to, and affects the entity instigating the action or examination. To this extent it commonly refers to the capacity of an agent to recognize forces of socialization and alter their place in the social structure.Gouldner felt that it was the duty of a sociologist to lead society on the path of progressive change. And reflexive sociology was the radical way to go about it. It was moral sociology.Supported by Jurgen Habermas as emancipatory knowledge.

Phenomenological Sociology by Alfred Schultz

Phenomenology holds that objects exists because people construct and perceive them as such. Schultz said that all human experience is grounded in the experienced world (lebenswelt). This experienced world is created by actors but goes unnoticed because people aren't paying attention and therefore perceive it as an objective reality rather than the result of their experience. Schultz aimed to develop an understanding of the social world through these lived experiences of everyday people.

Ethnomethodological Sociology by Harold Garfinkel

Garfinkel developed his theory in response to Parsonian Social Action and as an extension to Schultz's phenomenology. He holds that social reality is created and organised by everyday mundane actions of individuals. He, therefore, aimed to study the subjective perspective of actors as they undertook actions which resulted in the creation and reproduction of a social structure.Methodologies used: content analysis, interview, participant observation.

Triangulation by Alan Bryman

The idea proposes to use both positivist and non-positivist perspectives (along with quantitative and qualitative methods) to arrive at a better understanding of society.

Looking Glass Self by Charles Cooley

Objective reality may not be in tune with the subjective perception.

Ethnocentric Bias by Radcliffe Brown

Whenever we consider another culture from a base standpoint we tend to evaluate it in negative terms.

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