Sociology as a science : A debate pertaining to positivism and its critique

  • by Dr. Surendra Singh

With its inception, sociology that developed as a discipline also marched towards establishing sociology as science.Though in its growth and development it generated a debate pertaining to its nature in terms of ‘Is Sociology a science?’ However this question cannot be answered in simple yes or no. Also the bifurcation in terms of natural v/s social science reflects more of a degree rather than of a kind.

The term discipline itself connotes an organized body of method or procedure. In the sense when we look at the etymological meaning of science it reflects the perspective of methods that is an attempt to obtain knowledge on the basis of systematic enquiry. In other words science is related with logical systematic methods by which knowledge of nature is obtained and accumulated by it.It is argued that any discipline can be equated with science if it is empirical, having theoretical perspective, being based on logic and empiricality, cumulative knowledge & without being biased, i.e., the description of the chosen phenomena on the basis of neutrality. Thus W.F. Ogburn argues that sociology is a science: that could be evaluated on the basis of reliability of knowledge, organization of knowledge and methodology. In this sense sociology tries to obtain knowledge being based on empiricism, causal connectivity, reliable sources, organization of knowledge and impliesthe methods, so that systematic enquiry can be initiated. The foundation of sociology laid down by AugusteComte is based on this fact that a science as a natural science society based upon the similar principle and procedure can be possible, social laws akin to natural laws can be found and established. Thus initiated positivism as a scientific inquiry in sociology being based on observation, experimentation and testification.Similarly Herbert Spencer freed sociology that was baptized by comte in terms of theoretical contribution though being very close to Biological evolutionism. Durkheim on the basis of methodology in tune with positivisticorientation established sociology as a science. He argues that the sociology is a science on the basis of its own methods within which he gave no place to motives, intentions and individual values however on this same pretext debate also emerged that led to the emergence of facts and values and their objectivity. In this regard Weberian sociology initiated an interpretative movement incorporating the meaning attributed by the actor behind his action. And thus in his work the perspective of value relevance found its mentioning. Though he argues that if sociology is value relevant it must be value neutral as well,since science is all about facts not of values. To himsociology is a science but need not be positivistic in orientations. In other word even if sociology is not positivistic objectivity does not prelude it. In this regard, emerged the debate between nomothetic (striving for universal laws) and ideographic (indivisualisinglaw). Thus the debate moved towards the use of methods, facts and value dichotomy and broadly towards the nature of sociology that is whether sociology is science or not? However Gouldner in terms of giving the example of minotaur i.e. body of bull and man argues that facts and values cannot be bifurcated. Similarly the interpretative sociologist, phenomenologist, symbolic interactionists raised the concern of sociology being based on universal determinism. The conscious life, probability of biasness, problem in direct experimentation difficulty in establishing cause and effect relationship, problem of objectivity and overall complex human nature were raised to argue that sociology cannot be compared to natural science. However the difference between these two branches that is natural v/s social is more of degree not of a kind. Sociology on the basis of its own methodology focuses on empiricality, systematic analysis, generalization and theoretical perspectives, assumes the pathways of science. It is true that the basicunit of analysis in sociology seems to be  human actors whose behaviors is not mechanical, of but it does not mean sociological analysis is not logical and systematic. Sociologists and their analysis focus on certain assumptions that shows a regularity. Hence a pattern, the method emphasizes on observation and verification.

It is also to be realized that the problem of sociologist is different from other sciences because the sociologists is both a product and a part of the process he attempts to observe and understand. He is also a critique, questioning the assumptions of sociology that he belongs to. Thus sociology is a science, its nature is scientific, though distinct from positive or natural science.