Value Freedom

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Value Freedom

'The ability to make an impartial and balanced assessment of a situation or given set of facts without favour or bias.'

The idea that 'facts' should not be influenced by the researcher's own beliefs is a central aspect of 'science'.

  1. Sociology's desire to be regarded as a 'science'.
  2. Sociology and social policy; if social research is not regarded as objective and impartial it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy. (Is this true?)
  3. Problems of value freedom; the 'is/ought' debate. Any statement that Sociology 'ought' to be value free is itself unscientific and value laden - scientists can only make empirical statements about the world, any attempt at normative statements (how things ought to be) is unscientific.

The early sociologists.

Value Freedom

Comte and Durkheim clearly regarded Sociology as a science; that it could be and ought to be a science. Central to this notion of Sociology as a science was the concept of value freedom - for example, Durkheim in 'Rules of Sociological Method' argues that facts can and should be separated from values. This idea of the objectivity of sociological knowledge is particularly associated with positivism and is clearly linked with its ontological and epistemological position.


In recent years this (rather unfashionable) view of the objective nature of social research has re-emerged among 'right-wing' sociologists. However, the value freedom of the early sociologists is also open to doubt, for although they were concerned with the pursuit of truth they saw no conflict between this and the pursuit of the 'good' society - the purpose of Sociology was to find the true principles of a good, ordered, integrated society. In this view by uncovering scientific facts about society and advocating the better integration of society the sociologist was seen as pursuing the furtherance of 'pubic health', rather than imposing his views on society.

Other sociologists have attempted to outline the stages in the research process where values should be eliminated.

Weber argues that choice of topic must be influenced by values but that values must not influence the methods used particularly advocating the use of 'ideal types' for the comparison of social organisations in a value free fashion. Weber also argues that the sociologist should separate his role as a sociologist from his other roles; that Sociology should not be used as a means of expressing personal preferences and values.

Popper argues that objectivity is achieved not at the level of the individual scientist the scientist is not divested of human feelings - but at the collective level; as a consequence of mutual criticism.

Marxists; Interpretivists; feminists have suggested that the value freedom proposed by positivism is little more than 'conservatism in disguise', an elaborate defence of the status quo. Marxists argue that the positivist approach cannot be applied to social life because in social life truth is not obtained through impartiality. In class societies, understanding is distorted and the reality of a society's organisation is concealed to serve the interests of the ruling class through a process of 'ideological hegemony' - whereby existing arrangements, ways of thinking and social organisation are seen as logical and common sense.

Marxists suggest that the truth about social reality is learned through involvement in political struggle - in capitalist society, it is only the working class that are able to grasp the 'true' nature of social organisation since they are at the sharp end of the class struggle, the victims of inequality and exploitation. However, Marxists do not deny the possibility of the scientific study of society = Marxism! But it is inconceivable that such knowledge can be 'neutral' - rather than being directed at criticism of capitalist society and the creation of ideal social relations;

'Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it'. (Theses on Feuerbach)

Interpretivists suggest that there is no such thing as objective truth in the social world; for example, truth independent of social context. This view is a consequence of their ontological and epistemological position - that social reality and knowledge are subjectively constructed. If objectivity is freedom from social influences, and knowledge is a social product then objective knowledge is unattainable by man.

Taken to extreme this involves the rejection of objectivity altogether:.

'Sociological theories... carry no privileged status as being more 'objective' or nearer the 'truth' than the accounts of anyone else.'

The milder form of this criticism involves showing the various stages of the research process where values impinge; the stronger form of criticism involves the view that since Sociology is inevitably 'political' and value laden, the task of the sociologist is simply to choose sides.

Choice of topic: Influenced by personal values; the values of the sociological community as to what constitutes a 'worthwhile' project; the values of society as to what constitutes a 'social problem'; the values of the funding agencies.

Choice of method: Influenced by theoretical (ontological, epistemological) values.

During research: Structuring of questions and perception of responses is dependent on particular (inadequate) model of social action - the assumption that the respondent 'understands' the researcher's questions and that the researcher 'understands' the respondent' answers.

Publication: Involves value judgements; ethical questions of the consequences of publication on the subjects and the researcher the use to which the research may be put. In this view, objectivity in Sociology is to be found in its methods - the use of logical argument, the presentation of evidence, the search for evidence to disprove a theory.

A rather more robust view comes from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:

Gomm, (Neutrality and Commitment in Sociology) argues that 'a value free Sociology is impossible... the very idea is unsociological'.

Value Freedom

Sociologists react to political, economic and social events - and what is seen as a political or social 'issue', a social 'problem' is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality - to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.

Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a 'professional sociologist' he is merely adopting another set of values - not miraculously becoming 'value free'.

Finally, Gomm - quoting Horowitz - makes the point that value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment:

'The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.'

Gouldner, in Anti-Minotaur: 'The Myth of Value Free Sociology' (1973), argues in an attack on Weber's idea of a value free Sociology that:

'In the end, we cannot disprove the existence of minotaurs. The thing to see is that a belief in them is not so much untrue as it is absurd... Weber's brief for a value free Sociology is a tight one and, some say, logically unassailable. Yet it is also absurd. For both arguments appeal to reason but ignore experience.'

Gouldner argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgement in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.

Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: 'Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.' He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used, for example, Project Camelot.

Howard Becker, in 'Whose side are we on?' takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged. This position has been criticised by Gouldner as left wing posturing, and by right wing sociologists as dangerous bias.

Value Freedom

Feminists are critical of the 'value-free' scientific claims of 'malestream' Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. As Oakley (1974)

Male orientation may so colour

writes: 'of subject areas, reduces women to a side issue from the start.' the organisation of Sociology as a discipline that the invisibility of women is a male structured view, rather than a superficial flaw. The male focus, incorporated into the definitions.'

The position from which the sociologist studies the world is always partial, while Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.

Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bios can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker's 'Whose Side are We On') suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:

'A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women's inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women's subordination must be questioned and challenged... feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary'. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).

Value freedom and Sociology: 'right wing' perspectives..

In the 1970's and 1980's, Sociology came under attack for its 'left-wing' bias. Originally criticised for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:

'Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people... Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent... huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.'

In 'Bias against Business', Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:

'Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies - alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.'

A rather milder version of this criticism comes from Saunders in his review of sociological research on stratification:

'In the idealised world of John Goldthorpe and other ''left'' sociologists, people's destinies should be randomly determined because talents are randomly distributed. British society is thus found wanting because people of working class origins are not in the majority in all the top jobs. The argument is ludicrous, yet in modern Sociology it is all too rarely questioned.'

'Feelings run high when considering issues of inequality and power, and most if not all the sociological literature in this field has been produced by people who have their own, strongly held, personal views. The challenge far Sociology is to hold these views in check while openly and critically addressing the evidence and the arguments available to us. Not only is this possible; it is essential if Sociology is to realise its promise as a discipline...'

Background reading.

Max Weber.

Value Freedom

What are the issues raised in Weber's classic paper 'The Meaning of 'Value-Freedom' in Sociology and Economics'?

He maintained two theses. The first is a restatement of Hume, that there is an unbridgeable logical gulf between partisan prescription and non-partisan description, between assertions that something actually is the case and insistences that it ideally ought to be. Since the values we put on things are not in truth qualities of those things, sciences are concerned to describe what actually happens, and to explain why, cannot truly report that things have such intrinsic qualities, which they do not and cannot have. Of course, sociologists can and must take note of what individuals and groups value because this can offer insight into behaviour end belief. But they cannot, in the nature of things, truly record that this or that is intrinsically valuable, and therefore categorically ought to be valued.

'Propositions involving the verb 'ought' are different in kind from propositions involving the verb 'is'.' (Robbins 1949).,

Weber's second thesis is prescriptive (states a value). He never claimed that values were either dispensible or unimportant. Nor did he assert that everyone, or even that all social scientists, should always and everywhere eschew value - judgements. On the contrary. What he insisted was that the difference between fact-stating and evaluation should be neither concealed nor blurred. When anyone expresses a value Judgement, they must not pretend that it is scientifically warranted, because it cannot be. If scientists, and in particular social scientists, make recommendations for action-they should be scrupulous to make plain, what parts of what they are saying is put forward as a scientific finding, and what has the very different status of a policy proposal.

This is an imperative of intellectual honesty and respect for truth. It is worth distinguishing here between prejudices, biases and points of view. A prejudice is a conviction forced prior to any examination of the evidence. A bias in thinking is a disposition to underestimate or to overestimate in one particular direction. As such, a bias can be recognised and systematically compensated for; just as prejudices can be and will be identified and open-mindedly examined by those who prefer their beliefs to be, even if uncomfortable, well-evidenced and, hopefully true.

Literally contrued the expression 'a point of view' refers to a position and a direction of observation. What is or is not visible from a particular point of view, is not subject to the control of the persons in that position, while looking in that direction. There is therefore, nothing irredeemably subjective about differences between observations made from observers observing from different points of view.

While everyone is at every moment bound to have some point of view, and while it is no doubt practically impossible to dispose of absolutely every prejudice, we are not all subject to strong biases, which we cannot possibly recognise and for which we are genuinely unable to compensate.

Weber not only demanded value-freedomi (Wertfreiheit), in sociological investigation but also value-relevance (Werfbeziehung) in the choice of subjects for inquiry. It is entirely right and proper that sociologists should choose those questions to which the true answers, whatever these turn out to be, will in their view be most important practically. What concepts they find applicable in so doing will then be determined by those interests, although those concepts should not be defined by them (at least not in working hours) in prescriptive terms.

Adapted from Weber, The Meaning of Value freedom in Sociology and Economics.

Alvin Gouldner.

The myth of a value-free Sociology has been a powerful one. There is now tacit agreement among sociologists that it is wrong to let value judgements creep into research. So value freedom has become an established part of the way that sociologists are supposed to work.

But what is meant by value freedom?

Does the belief mean that Sociology is actually free of values, or does it mean that Sociology should (ought) to be?

Does the belief mean that sociologists should not make value judgements outside their sphere of technical competence?

Competence has nothing to do with value judgments. And, if technical competence does provide the warrant for making value judgements then there is nothing to prohibit sociologists from making them within their area of expertise. Even if technical competence provides no warrant for value judgements, sociologists are as free to do so as anyone else.

And, by the way, if technical competence provides no warrant for making value judgements, then what does?

Does value freedom mean that sociologists cannot deduce values from facts?

Does it mean that sociologists should be indifferent to moral values, or the implications of their work?

Does the belief in value freedom mean that sociologists can, covertly or unwittingly express their values bur never overtly or deliberately. Weber, for example, held that opinion might be voiced if it was distinguished from a statement of fact. If he insisted on scientific objectivity, he also warned that this was altogether different from moral indifference.

Historically, Gouldner points to the need to prop up the autonomy of the modern university, and the newer social sciences, by a policy of value freedom. Shorthand for keep out of political argument. So the doctrine of value freedom was linked to the material interests of academics. The view was that if academics kept out of politics they would be left alone to get on with their work. It is arguable now however that instead of restraining the political views of academics, that the lid should be taken off, and their views should be made plain.

However, one advantage of Value freedom is that in the suspension of value Judgement (as much as possible) it enables people to make better value Judgements. It can enable us to see ourselves from a different standpoint, a great disadvantage though is the way that the concept can lead to the separation of valves and facts: whereas in truth they are intricately connected. Also, of course, the pursuit of valve freedom can cut sociologists off from the wider society.

The doctrine does make it appear that sociologists refrain from critical comment because of a professional ethic, rather than for their own good, either because of a lack of any critical ability, or fear of reprisals. It seems that in return for a measure of autonomy and social support, many social scientists have surrendered their critical impulses.

Is the doctrine a modern extension of the medieval conflict between faith and reason, between believing something to be true and proving something to be true?

Weber's doctrine of value freedom is in this vein, it creates a gulf between science and values. The problem however is that if science cannot be the basis of value judgements then what can? Weber did argue that all values held are not equally worthy. Those consciously held are more worthy than those that are merely traditional or unthinkingly repeated. It seems that in the divide between reason and conscience, it is conscience that must have the last word. Science is to become the servant of values. Science and reason only provide the means the ends are dictated by values.

So is the doctrine of value freedom an attempt to compromise two of the deepest traditions of western thought, reason and faith?

As an educator the sociologist cannot hope to be value free. The selection of problems, the preference for certain hypotheses or conceptual schemes and the neglect of others. These are unavoidable and in this sense there can be no value free Sociology. The only choice is between an expression of one's values, as open and honest as it can be, and the vain ritual of moral neutrality which invites people to ignore the vulnerability of reason to bias. We must be aware that in offering truth we may be fooling ourselves. If a science has both constructive anti destructive potentialities then we cannot be oblivious to the difference between them. We need to attempt to mend the rift between heart and head.

Value Freedom

Source: adapted from Alvin Gouldner. Anti-Minotaur.

Peter Berger.

The sociologist, then is someone concerned with understanding society in a disciplined way. The nature of this discipline is scientific. This means that what the sociologist finds and says about the social phenomena he studies occurs within a rather strictly defined frame of reference.

One of the main characteristics of this scientific frame of reference is that operations are bound by certain rules of evidence. As a scientist, the sociologist tries to be objective, to control his personal preferences and prejudices, to perceive clearly rather than to judge normatively....The game of the sociologist, then, uses scientific rules. That is, he must concern himself with methodological questions.

Methodology does not constitute his goal. The latter, It us recall once more, is the attempt to understand society. Methodology helps in reaching this goal. In order to understand society, or that segment of it that he is studying at the moment, the sociologist will have to be concerned with the exact significance of the terms he is using. That is, he will have to be careful about terminology. This does not mean that he must invent a new language of his own, but it does mean that he cannot naively use the language of everyday discourse. That is, he is interested in understanding for its own sake. He may be aware of or even concerned with the practical applicability and consequences of his findings, but at that point he leaves the sociological frame of reference as such and moves into realms of values and beliefs and ideas that he shares with other men who are not sociologists.

Source: Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology, Penguin, pp27-29.

C W Mills.

'By their work, all students of man and society assume and imply moral and political decisions'.

Source:T. Wright Mills, 1970, p76.

Anthony Giddens.

'Sociology... is necessarily directly linked to social criticism. Sociology cannot be a neutral intellectual endeavor, indifferent to the practical consequences of its analyses for those whose conduct form its object of study'.

Source: Anthony Giddens, Sociology: A brief but Critical introduction.