Popper on Science

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Popper on Science

It should not be thought that all sociologists want to claim that sociology is a science. Some do, of course, because scientific status is sought for the subject, or because it is believed that scientific methods are applicable to the social sciences (particularly, of course positivists).

Other sociologists want nothing to do with traditional science. Part of the problem here, I believe, is that people still tend to see science as essentially an investigation of nature, and humans are significantly different from most of the objects of scientific research, and partly to do with the fact that particularly in Britain and the USA there has arisen a vast conceptual gap between the sciences and the humanities.

This has developed into a particularly rigid definition of what science is that is modelled exclusively on the methods of natural science.

Popper on Science

Those sociologists who have no great desire for their work to be considered scientific tend to be interpretive sociologists.

They would make the following claims:

  1. Science is too rigorous - sociology needs the open-minded creativity of the artist.
  2. Science is too empirical. Sociology should be committed to change.
  3. Science is too manipulative. Sociology should not aim to change society (the opposite of number 2).

C.W. Mills refers to the cook book approach of some scientifically orientated sociology text books. Mills argues that sociology is better practised with imagination and flexibility than with rigid adherence to the models of natural science. Mills complains that following scientific principles can lead sociologists into what he calls abstracted empiricism - an insightless search for facts. He argues; Sociology is a craft to be judged by its product: what works best is best.

Like Mills, Jack Douglas complains that positivism too often forces a sociologist into a particular stance, rather than a particular stance indicating a particular methodology. In other words the means become more important than the ends. Erving Goffman compares positivist methodology to the instructions on a child's chemistry set. Follow the rules and you too can be a real scientist.

It is important then to consider the nature of social research - humans are not like other research material.

  1. Humans are reflexive - they think about themselves and what is happening around them.
  2. Because they think experiments on humans can alter their behaviour.
  3. Manipulating humans may be unethical, but also in research the subjects of research may end up manipulating the researchers.
  4. Humans can lie, or deceive, as subjects of research they too might have purposes to achieve.
  5. Experimenting on humans will in many cases create an unnatural situation, thus behaviour will be untypical.
  6. The number of variables to be considered is always unknown.
  7. Replication of research is not possible.
  8. Human behaviour is meaningful. But the meanings cannot be directly observed.

Interpretivists embrace the subjective aspects of both themselves and the subjects of their research. The claim they make is that it is not possible to be passive observers of the truth. Marxists also criticise pure science because they see it as a product of capitalism.

Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, sees positivism as ideological, in concentrating only on the observable it rejects a consideration of philosophical (and unobservable) concepts such as justice, democracy and fulfilment.

Nicolai Bukarin agrees arguing that positivists ignore: All earthly sufferings, all conflicting interests, all the ups and downs of life, the hunt for profit and other earthly and vulgar things... (which were seen as having) ...no relation whatever with their science.

For Marcuse and other Marxists, sociology should adopt a critical stance. Objectivity is conservatism in disguise.