Science offers humans a unique opportunity to observe and interpret the world around them, allowing us to free ourselves from the constraints of mysticism and guesswork that our ancestors relied upon to make sense of a planet which otherwise appears totally random and chaotic. The analytical, systematic process inherent to the scientific approach bases its foundations of knowledge in the naturally occurring patterns and rhythms that govern the natural world.
Scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry and physics offer not only the ability to explain the nature of matter or the processes of life, but was also able to form generalisations about their properties. Sociology, often viewed by many scientists as a poorly formed younger sibling of ‘true science’, has suffered during its short life-span a barrage of criticisms levelled against it regarding the reliability and accuracy of its methods and theories when compared to the ‘natural’ sciences.
During both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries advances in science and technology encouraged people to believe that there could be a rational explanation for everything and that scientific study could lead to the solving of all of the problems faced by human beings. Physics, under the guiding hand of Newtonian methodology, had promised comprehensive explanations of the Earth and its place in the universe. In the same way many looked on Darwinian biological theory as the explanation of life on Earth with the theory of evolution and the origin of the species.
Finally, it was anticipated that the social sciences would extend this ‘enlightenment project’ (Cavazos 2001) into explanations of the collective activities and relationships of human beings. In fact, Auguste Comte, who gave the name to sociology, confidently expected that it would provide the highest level of scientific explanation in establishing laws of human society itself. From its original purpose as the ‘science of society’, sociology has moved on to more reflexive attempts to understand how society works.
It seeks to provide insights into the many forms of relationship, both formal and informal, between people. Human beings have wants, needs and desires but the forms that these take are related to attachments to social groupings and participation in social institutions. Yet one cannot avoid the complications of sociological research and the difficulties that arise due to both the diversity and complexity of its subject: human society. Sociological explanations drawn from human behaviour are tied to the idea that social interactions among individuals cause or at least greatly influence human behaviour.
Sociology focuses on the nature of the human group and products of group living. The scientific method in sociology studies human social behaviour, specifically uniformity in human social nature, and that this uniformity may be detected and understood by sociologists through the collection of quantitative facts. Comte believed Positivism should be employed in sociological research. According to this method the steps of paramount importance are the techniques of observation, comparison (particularly historical comparison), and experimentation in the development of knowledge.
For this ‘founding father’, Sociology necessitated the use of universal “natural laws” of social life and social change. He insisted it was only through such rigorous quantitative deductions that society could be measured. However many have argued since that an approach which places all its emphasis on creating laws overlooks the essential element of change within a society. A law which holds for one microscopic organism generally be true of all the species and for the entire duration of that species’ existence.
Human communities have no definable set functions or repetitive characteristics as they depend wholly on interactions between the human components of which they are composed which may act entirely at odds with any expectations or predictions made by sociologists. Finding parallels in the domain of natural science, Herbert Spencer (Cotgrove, 1978:28) viewed society as a living organism with specific parts, each performing specific functions based on analogies to a biological model, with social change taking place like biological evolution.
This organistic approach reflects the status of ‘natural science’ among social scientists as the ‘benchmark’ against which their own theories must be measured (Fay 1998:5) and the popularity of the idea of reductionism, a hallmark of scientific investigation, in social theories. Some sociologists criticise organisism as over simplifying the interactions and frameworks of a society, and point out that whereas organs serve only one main function (though this is not strictly true all the time) people contribute in various ways and in many different contexts.
Like Comte and Spencer, Durkheim recognised that sociology was the study of society and stressed the importance of studying societies as total units, or entities in themselves. He also retained the attitude of the early social scientist towards the individual as a rather passive being whose ways of behaving thinking, and feeling were merely reflections of group expectations, laws, and customsi??. Modern sociologists appreciate the error in such thinking, they accept it is impossible to eliminate participant curiosity or interpretation from the independent variable, or the effect of experimenter bias on the results.
Many researchers now use ‘double blind’ experiments, where the experimenter is not informed of the experimental hypothesis and so cannot unconsciously or otherwise influence the subject. Briefly here, then, I have surmised the theories and approaches within sociology that advocate a positivistic, as opposed to humanistic, methodology in sociological research. While one may view sociology as an island of study, there is much evidence of the ‘sociological imagination’ suggested by Millsi?? xisting in sociological theory, whereby good quantitative research may be supported by a qualitative framework of ideas and information gathered from a number of varied sources. It may be helpful, therefore, to compare and contrast the fundamental assumptions of sociology with those of the natural sciences, but the divisions that separate the two are arbitrary and, at best, blurred through simultaneous use by sociologists.
To distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research one must first establish how to define ‘scientific’. Scientists are in general agreement on a few fundamental assumptions. One important fact is that reliable scientific theory should be internally consistent (Bruce, 2000:1) with rigorous investigation that produces a solid body of evidence. There should also exist a system of continual renewal of ideas and theories put forward, allowing constant reassessment and improvement (Bruce, 2000:2).
However it would be dangerous to separate the process of science from the results it produces, as science is conducted by human beings with their own agendas and motives, hence the element of humanity cannot be eradicated from the search for scientific fact. A professor who has devoted years to developing a particular theory will be unwilling to accept data which refutes what she holds to be unquestioningly true. Social scientists also face the perplexing problem of how to go about the empirical collection of data.
It is rare to conduct a laboratory experiment in sociology, mainly for practical reasons. Firstly, a sociologist cannot isolate a segment of the community, eliminate any confounding variables and create an environment with sufficient social and physical mimicry. The closest the sociological researcher can get are quasi-experiments in which the action of interest is observed in a variety of settings with a few key variables changed each time (Bruce 2000:7). The sociologist must also compensate in theory for the lack of replication of results which is a prominent feature of scientific fact.
The biologist who wishes to prove that a certain cell will produce a certain enzyme conducts a number of experiments with identical results each time, thus proving that the cell does produce the enzyme under controlled conditions. In sociology the social event being studied is dependent of a number of factors including the time, the individuals involved and the social context in which it took place. There can be no ‘breakdown’ of cause and effect, nor can one isolate the most important features of the event and study them in retrospect.
A reductionist approach might offer a simplistic model of study, especially useful when simple organisms or molecules are the subject, however in sociology oversimplification serves only to belittle the multi-layered, interconnecting structure that constitutes human society. However it is argued by many positivists that humans do have certain tendencies and social customs which can be, and indeed are, replicated over a period of time. Religion, for instance, may take many forms depending on cultural factors and but it is evident in every society in history and so must be a universal social behaviour.
With the idea of social complexity also comes the fact that humans are sentient beings, differing from the basic, possibly primitive, organisms of biology and the atoms and particles of chemistry and physics. Humans are not passive, they are forever trying to make sense of their surroundings; to interpret and expand on the information they have. It would be wrong to assume that participants in an experiment mechanically follow the experimenter’s instructions and come to unbiased, wholly natural conclusions. This is as true of researchers as it is of their subjects.
Sociology, as with all science, is not simply the collection of observations, instead it attempts to deduce the ‘whys? ‘ and ‘hows? ‘ of these observations and the subsequent conclusions which can be yielded. Although sociologists must lean towards projective interpretation far more than, say, a chemist simply because even the most basic human behaviour is subject to the cultural, social and generational norms that exist. When a driver shakes their fist at another motorist it could convey anger, happiness, frustration or simply be a form of greeting.
When faced with such a dearth of motives behind the actions, sociologists have no other option but to interpret the action to fit the circumstances and context in which it occurs. While they accept that not all behaviour is actually expressed, and that irrational behaviour is often devoid of meaning, sociologists do have the advantage of ‘sharing biology, psychology and a great deal of culture with their subjects’ (Bruce 2000:16) which allows them the insight into their subject on a level unattainable in many other disciplines.
As sociology progresses and continues its struggle to define itself, more and more social scientists are beginning to applaud the notion of finding a ‘middle ground’ between qualitative and quantitative in their research, which draws on the numerical simplicity of science and the informative richness of case studies or depth interviewing and so on. Sociology, while intending to explain and understand society, has incurred the wrath of both ardent humanists and extreme positivists.
With the former admonishing sociology for relying too heavily on raw data with no depth or real quality, and the latter bemoaning the lack of rigidity in the methods employed by social scientists when compared to the natural sciences. Perhaps the fundamental flaw with both perspectives is that they view sociology either as an island of academic research, with knowledge as a goal in itself, or a social science whose sole objective is to reduce society into neat, reproducible statistics.