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Reasons why sociology is considered a science

Introduction
Sociology is sometimes referred to as social science. Tust 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.
Defining sociology
Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions. Sociologys subject matter
is diverse, ranging from crime to religion, from the family to the state, from the divisions of race
and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture, and from social stability to radical
change in whole societies. Unifying the study of these diverse subjects of study is sociologys
purpose of understanding how human action and consciousness both shape and are shaped by
surrounding cultural and social structures.
Sociology is an exciting and illuminating field of study that analyzes and explains important
matters in our personal lives, our communities, and the world. At the personal level, sociology
investigates the social causes and consequences of such things as romantic love, racial and
gender identity, family conflict, deviant behavior, aging, and religious faith. At the societal level,
sociology examines and explains matters like crime and law, poverty and wealth, prejudice and
discrimination, schools and education, business firms, urban community, and social movements.
At the global level, sociology studies such phenomena as population growth and migration, war
and peace, and economic development.
Sociologists emphasize the careful gathering and analysis of evidence about social life to
develop and enrich our understanding of key social processes. The research methods sociologists
use are varied. Sociologists observe the everyday life of groups, conduct large-scale surveys,
interpret historical documents, analyze census data, study video-taped interactions, interview
participants of groups, and conduct laboratory experiments. The research methods and theories
of sociology yield powerful insights into the social processes shaping human lives and social
problems and prospects in the contemporary world. By better understanding those social
processes, we also come to understand more clearly the forces shaping the personal experiences

and outcomes of our own lives. The ability to see and understand this connection between broad
social forces and personal experiences what C. Wright Mills called the sociological
imagination is extremely valuable academic preparation for living effective and rewarding
personal and professional lives in a changing and complex society.
Students who have been well trained in sociology know how to think critically about human
social life, and how to ask important research questions. They know how to design good social
research projects, carefully collect and analyze empirical data, and formulate and present their
research findings. Students trained in sociology also know how to help others understand the
way the social world works and how it might be changed for the better. Most generally, they
have learned how to think, evaluate, and communicate clearly, creatively, and effectively. These
are all abilities of tremendous value in a wide variety of vocational callings and professions.
Sociology offers a distinctive and enlightening way of seeing and understanding the social world
in which we live and which shapes our lives. Sociology looks beyond normal, taken-for-granted
views of reality, to provide deeper, more illuminating and challenging understandings of social
life. Through its particular analytical perspective, social theories, and research methods,
sociology is a discipline that expands our awareness and analysis of the human social
relationships, cultures, and institutions that profoundly shape both our lives and human history.
Why Sociology is a Science
The definition of sociology uses the phrase scientific study. Many people do not consider the
social or soft sciencessuch as sociology and psychologyto be true or hard sciencessuch
as chemistry and physics.
Science by its definition is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic
study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world. It aims to make sense of
the world around us, and is seen as different from other bodies of knowledge such as science,
religion and philosophy. This is mainly due to its five components. These are as follows.
Empirical means we can count and measure information and testable is defined as experiments
being able to be repeated and retested, therefore seen as more reliable. The theoretical means
science seeks out causal relationships and doesnt rely on descriptions but also to explain.

Cumulative means it builds on previous knowledge and moves our understanding of the world
forwards. Lastly, the objective details that personal feelings, prejudices etc have no place in
science. It basically has to be unbiased. It is debated as to whether sociology fits into this
definition, with strong divides in the for and against.
Whereas inherent differences exist between the soft and hard sciences, the same fundamental
principles of scientific inquiry apply. The word science comes from the Latin scire meaning to
know, and for centuries science referred to virtually any academic discipline, including
theology, languages, and literature. Only in the last hundred years or so has science come to
mean a field of study that relies on specific research values and methods. (Remember that Emile
Durkheim in the late 19th century was the first sociologist to use the scientific method.) Thus,
whether or not a particular discipline like sociology is a science depends more on the methods
used than on the particular subject area studied.
Facts obtained by data collection and theorems developed: Sociology deals with the ways
that social structure and culture are related. Social structure is defined by a variety of ideas. The
structure of a society can be seen as the society's organization, such as its religious, political, or
economical institutions, rules, routines, and relationships that create the society. Social culture
deals more with the beliefs and values of the society. Sociology is seen by some as a science,
where facts can be obtained by collecting data, and hypotheses can become theorems.
As a science, sociology would have to be value-free, and sociologists, as scientists, should not be
interested in changing society; rather, they must be interested in observing and explaining it.
Others believe that sociology, as a study of the groups of people, should be used to aid in the
creation of a better society, and therefore sociologists should be obliged to alter and possibly fix
society. The concept of sociology as a science is supported both by the founding fathers of the
field and by contemporary minds. These leading sociologists, such as Emile Durkheim, Max
Weber, and Peter Berger, support the scientific aspects of sociology.
In addition, sociology must remain neutral to the religous, political, and moral values which it
seeks to describe. The field of cosmology-the study of the universe, in particular its origin-can be
used as a model for the movement of sociology into a universally accepted, value-free science.

Stephen Hawking's best-seller A Brief History of Time, in particular its first chapter, is an ideal
source to back up this claim, as both fields-physics in the mid- and later parts of the milennium,
and sociology beginning the late 19th century-had to endure the influence of cultural factors such
as religion and politics.
Sociology uses the same controlled research methods: Sociology is a science because to study
social behavior, problems and tendencies, social scientists use the same controlled research
methods that are used in other sciences. Data is collected under the same controlled conditions
and statistically analyzed by the same methods. Continue Reading
Sociology uses experiments: Reliable scientific studies and experiments are typically replicated
and can be expected to show the same findings. Social scientists also replicate and base new
studies on previously reported studies. The scientific method supports the validity and reliability
of the study. The focus of sociological study is intangible, but it can still be measured
scientifically following standard data-gathering processes and appropriate experiment design.
Sociology is often referred to as a social science, placed in the same category as politics and
economics. It is still not regarded as a natural science such as chemistry or physics, which
involve explanations and reason. However, one argument presented as to why sociology is a
science comes from Positivists, and the reason given is due to the methods used. Positivists use
quantitative data and methods such as questionnaires in order to distinguish any trends, patterns
or correlations in an investigation. By adopting the methods of natural sciences they establish
sociology as a real science. Comte, who invented the term sociology, argued that it should be
based on the methodology of the natural sciences. This would then result in a positive science of
society which would in turn reveal the invariable laws. This is the approach that positivists take.
However, there comes a difficulty with applying these measures to the subject. In science the aim
is to achieve the same and correct answer each time the experiment is done, and this shows
reliability and validity in whatever claims that are trying to be made. If an anomaly appears steps
are taken to single out why this happened and then more often than not corrected. On the other
hand, within the realms of sociology it would be extremely hard to work out a right or wrong
answer. Also, the experiment cannot be redone as the variables cannot be controlled, whereas in a
laboratory everything can be repeated as needed. Interpretivists contribute to these criticisms,

highlighting that human beings are conscious actors. They cannot be governed by external forces
nor measured by chosen variables. In short, human behaviour cannot be studied in the same way
as the natural world and therefore scientific analysis cannot be suitable. Trying to measure
sociology through the ways of natural sciences creates difficult problems, as although it provides
a guideline in which to conduct experiments, people and society cannot be treated as objects and
therefore cannot be measured as such.
Durkheim saw this flaw, and argued that social facts, customs, belief systems, and social
institutions should be considered as things or objects. He also claimed to have discovered cause
and effect relationships between these social facts. For instance, in his study of suicides he found
correlations between social facts and suicides. However, the Interpretivists criticism is still very
much relevant. These social facts and people themselves have too many variables and
internal/external influences to be measured scientifically. Therefore, even though sociology takes
a scientific approach, the results cannot be measured or proved scientifically. This in turn, means
it cannot be scientific.
With regards to proving scientific theories, Popper believed that instead of trying to verify
theories, science operated through a process of falsification. In other words, they try to prove the
theories wrong instead of true. If the theory fails to be proved wrong then it shows that the theory
has been rigorously tested. He believes that sociology would fare better if this approach was
adopted, as what has been contributed to the subject before is not easily testable or capable of
standing up to the falsification analysis. He instead believes in the inductive approach, where
theories should come from evidence and date. The theory should not be made up first and data
then be used to test it as sociology does it now through the deductive approach. Popper believes
that sociology has the potential to become more scientific if it corrects this issue. However, he
seems to ignore the fact that even when this is corrected there will still be other problems.
Kuhn takes a similar approach to Popper, claiming that if sociology can accept one paradigm
then it can be scientific. He argues that normal science operates within an accepted framework
of concepts and procedures, or in other words, a paradigm. This scientific paradigm is rarely
questioned. It is also only replaced when in depth analysis and research is done to disprove it,
and then it will be changed by a new paradigm. Sociology differentiates itself from this, as there

is competition between various theories that are constantly being challenged. In Kuhns view,
sociology doesnt have a shared paradigm and therefore by its definition is not scientific.
Realists disagree, they believe that sociology fits well into their open systems definition, and
therefore by its definition it has to be scientific. They argue that events in the natural and social
world are produced by underlying structures and mechanisms. Sayer separated open and closed
systems by definition. He claimed that in open systems the variables cannot be controlled and in
a closed system they can be. As said before, sociology fits into an open system. He also says that
human behaviour operates within structures, therefore there can be some degree of scientific
measurement. Also, according to realists both science and sociology involve underlying
structures and processes. For instance, we cannot see social class but we recognise its effects.
Therefore, when looking at surface definitions, sociology is just as much a science as science
itself.
Feminists criticise science, claiming that it is seen as malestream knowledge entirely based on
male perceptions and understandings. This results in the further oppression of women in an
already patriarchal society, and is therefore critical of adopting a scientific approach in sociology.
Yet it should be noted that this is more of a criticism of science itself, and does not give any
indication as to whether society is actually a science or not. Therefore it is not an entirely
relevant point for this argument. Postmodernists also argue that knowledge itself is relative to the
world of those who seek it. Science has set itself up as an expert knowledge which is now
outdated. But once again, this point gives no weight to the argument of sociology as a science.
Overall, there is a large split between for and against. Realists and positivists argue that by its
definition and the theories used it is a science, yet Interpretivists and others put the extremely
valid point across that people and society cannot be measured like objects. And therefore not
scientifically. Although Durkheim put across the theory of social facts, there are too many
external and internal forces that create an indefinite number of variables that are extremely
difficult to be measured. Even though this can be attempted through scientific methods as
positivists do, it cannot be an exact science. Sociology seems to be more of an impersonation of
science. The fact that these problems exist in the first place shows that it is too flawed as a
science to be categorised in the same way as a subject like physics. In conclusion, although

valuable, sociology cannot be considered an exact or a natural science. It can only be seen as
having scientific qualities.

Methods of gathering data in sociology


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.
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.
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).
The Survey (Interviews)
The researcher asks questions of the cases face to face or in a questionnaire.
Experiment
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."
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 UBOS is an
excellent source of existing data.
Objectivity: Often, sociologists get knowledge from 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). This in itself is described as objective which is an aspect of being scientific
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 ...
1. 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.
2. 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.
Tradition
Neuman (1994) 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.)
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.

The Scientific Method


The scientific method is a systematic, organized series of steps that ensures maximum objectivity
and consistency in researching a problem (Schaefer and Lamm, 1992). The following are some
components of the scientific method.
Test Ideas
Don't take assumptions for granted. Don't rely on common sense. Don't rely on traditional
authority figures.
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.
Use of Social Facts: Henslin (1999) notes that Durkheim stressed social facts. He calls them
"patterns of behavior that characterize a social group." Appelbaum & Chambliss (1997) 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.
Sociology describes 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.
Sociology uses theory: 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) in D'Andrade (p 27) states:
"It may be ventured that with all its attempts to emulate natural science inquiry, the past century
of socio-behavioral research and theory has failed to yield a principle as reliable as Archimedes
principle of hydrostatics or Galileo's Law of uniformly accelerated motion."
Sociology Hypothesizes: 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).
Sociology incorporates the use of Basic Statistical Concepts
Mean: 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.
Median: 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.
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).

Application of 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).
Sociology deals with 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.

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.
Sociology uses Variables: 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.

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.
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.
Sociology tries to find the Correlation between variables: 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).


Spurious Correlations
A spurious correlation is one where the apparent correlation between two variables is actually
caused by a third variable (Henslin, 1999:130)

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.
Sociology research involve determining 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.
Problems with Science
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.
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.

Statistics
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.
Conclusion
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.

References
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