Value Freedom Essay Topics

"Can Sociology Be Value Free?" Value neutrality is a term used by Weber to indicate the necessary objectivity researchers need when investigating problems in the social sciences. Weber also cautioned against the making of value judgements which coincide with the orientation or motives of the researcher. It is important to note that although Weber believed that value neutrality was the aim of research. his view was that no science is fundamentally' neutral and its observational language is never independent of the way individuals see phenomena and the questions they ask about them (Morrison 1995 pp.267, 347) It is this link between the researcher's theoretical stand and the methods adopted that raises the question as to whether sociology can be value free. What are the arguments for and against the possibility of value free sociology? Is the answer to be found in the design of research methods? Or is all knowledge a cultural product in that what a society defines as knowledge reflects the values of that society. therefore making value free science the aim but not the achievable goal of sociology? Indeed. is the concept of value free sociology' of value itself raising the notion of there being merit in a value plus sociology? This concept of value free sociology has its roots in the rise of positivism and the scientific method in the mid nineteenth century. Positivists believed that discovering laws of social development would create a better society. A key figure in the establishing of sociology as a respectable science was Comte (1798-1857). Comte looked at human progress and decided that there are three stages to the evolutionary growth of knowledge. "Each of our leading conceptions, each branch of our knowledge. passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological. or fictitious: the Metaphysical or abstract: and the Scientific or positive...In the final. the positive state the mind...applies itself to the study of their laws - that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance." (Comte 1830 The Philosophy' of Sociology' in Thompson 1995 p. 39-40) Comte argued that the human mind develops through these three distinct phases that were inevitable and. therefore, a fact of historical development. From the final stage. the positive in which causes are explained by scientific laws, came the movement known as positivist. Positivist came to be associated with progress and social reform. All disciplines had a historical imperative to develop away from the speculative to the positive stage: thus marking their scientific statue. (Morrison 1995 pp.24-25) In two key areas positivist differed from idealism: first it put great emphasis on the reliability of observation as the basis for theory: and secondly emphasis was laid on the search for factual regularities. Comte argued that this 'would lead to the formation of general laws. Observation became the central criterion of verification. verification to the formulation of laws. and these laws to the subject of repeated test in order to establish their legitimacy. (Morrison 1995 pp.24-25) Observation requires an observer. And it is here, at the heart of the positivist method. where human observes human. that the issue of value neutrality' comes to the fore. The positivist tradition concentrates on producing 'objective' data. most often in the form of statistics. This quantative data is then subjected to analysis and causal correlations are established. An example would be Blauner (Alienation and Freedoms 1964 in McNeill 1990) It was hypothesized that different levels of alienation are causally linked with different types of industrial processes. After operationalising the concept of alienation. its presence was measured in different industrial contexts. The main priority was that there be no suspicion that the collected data had been affected by the researchers' own values. It should be possible for other researchers to use the same methods and arrive at similar conclusions. (McNeil1 1990 p.117-8) Developments in positivist in the twentieth century led to the belief that facts could and should be separated from values. The job of the scientist was only to identify scientific laws. (McNeil1 1990 p.129) However. Weber, in his Methodology of The Social Sciences, points out that all knowledge of cultural always from particular points of view." Weber also asserted that there can be no such thing as an .-absolutely 'objective' scientific analysis of culture or...of 'social phenomena' independent of special and 'one-sided' viewpoints according to which...they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes. (Weber 1949 pp.S1.W2) What Weber is saying is that ' f act s ' cannot speak f or themselves. Social facts do not exist in their own right; what count s as a social fact is greatly determined by '' the moral spectacles through which we view the world." ( Parkin 1986 pp. 30-31) If pure social reality. perceived by emptying the mind of all presupposition. is deemed incredible , how can sociology attain to value neutrality if its methods are biased by the observers own preconception and values? The balance advocated by Weber proves to be rather limited: Although a teacher could proclaim the results of an investigation that same teacher should refrain from us ing this as an opportunity to disseminate his own views. Weber was of the opinion that sociologists could ''distinguish between empirical knowledge and value judgements. '' ( Weber in Parkin 1986 pp.33 ) This view is not dissimilar to the belief that newspaper publishers record facts without bias or favour. However media theorists are quick to point out that what counts as ' news ' is the end product of a selective social process. Some events are recorded while others are suppressed. Also the moral language used to write the news contains bias and preconceptions. So what results are not impartial but value loaded. Could the same be said against sociological research? Just because the researcher refrains from openly disseminating his/her views on the findings does this make them value free? ( Parkin 1986 p.33 ) A way round this would be to concede that social research involves the use of concepts and constants that are tainted by the researcher. Wittingly or otherwise. That sociology could not be value free but argue that the deliberate dissemination of personal values be avoided in lectures and publications. ( Parkin 1986 p. 33 ) This belief. that the social scientist should search for objective and value free knowledge became enmeshed with the belief that the same social scientist should also be morally indifferent to any use of the knowledge by others. But taking on board the words of Weber it might be asked. ''At what point in the research process is it allowable for values to intrude? And also at what point should they be controlled or eliminated?'' (McNeill 1990 p. 130 ) This brings in the concept of value-relevance' where the choice of research topic may well be influenced by values of a personal context, but these 'value-commitments should not leak into the methods of research. ( McNeill 1990 p. 131 ) Does this mean that research is automatically compromised if value relevance is applied? It could be argued that just because a researcher's values come into play in the selection of research area , it does not automatically follow that the researcher's results are biased in favour of those beliefs and values. Thus a distinction can be made between the social scientist and the journalist. The social scientist's conduct must be for a fair and balanced enquiry in which personal and political values play no part, in both the research method and in the publishing of the findings. ( McNeil 1990 p. 12 ) An example of this can be found in the work done during the nineteenth century by Booth , the Webbs and Mayhew. Commenting on their value laden choice of research topic and their value free research. Halsey et al say they Were concerned to describe accurately and in detail the social conditions of. .. the more disadvantaged sections (of society). but their interest in these matters was never a disinterested academic one. .. the tradition thus has a double intent; on the one hand it engages in the primary sociological task of describing and documenting the ''state of society'' : on the other hand it addresses itself to central social and political issues. ( Halsey et al 1980 in McNeill 1990 p12 ) The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that there ' never has been a value free sociology. just an attempt to merge a value choice with objective research methods. ' (McNeil 1990 p13 ) During the twentieth century the positivist approach that fostered the hypothetico-deductive mode. although rational in manner came to be seen as coldly logical. In favour, especially since the 1960s. has been the phenomenological perspective. Where it is believed that the important thing about social action is the meaning it has for those involved in it. The debate about value free sociology was far from over. Kuhn ( 1960 ) argued that the set of assumptions about how the word is like are not questioned but taken for granted as being correct. Kuhn calls this a 'paradigm '. These paradigms direct both the selection and the evaluation of research results. New paradigms are produced in 'scientific revolutions ' when enough evidence accumulates against the present paradigm. Kuhn's argument is that knowledge does not exist independently. waiting to be discovered. but it is constructed and created within a framework of assumptions called paradigms by Kuhn. So al l knowledge is a product of its social context a product of scientific activity. Science is a method rather than a body of knowledge. As such the whole process can be said to be a value-process from which its products can not be said to be value free. (McNeill 1990 p. 127-8 ) During the past twenty years there has been a trend towards ''warts and all'' accounts of research. These accounts include details such as personal diaries to show the space between the researcher's results and the sociologist's personal feelings. Also frank accounts of the difficulties and tribulations of the research: and statements regarding the researcher's background. These are seen as important as to the validity and reliability of the research. (McNeill 1990 p. 129 ) Do these accounts cast doubt on the status of the work of sociologists? It could be argued that if the scientific method free of values is decreed a myth. then sociologists will see the need to respond to t his. The model of objectivity used by positivist sociologists were attacked by Gouldner. By a series of questions Gouldner striped away the veneer of value free scientific inquiry and revealed it to be upon shaky ground. Gouldner concluded his quest ions with this analysis ; I fear that there are many sociologists today who. in conceiving social science to be value-free. mean widely different things. that many hold these beliefs dogmatically without having examined seriously the grounds upon which they are credible. Weber's own views on the relation between values and the social sciences. and some current today are scarcely identical. If Weber insisted on the need to maintain scientific objectivity. he also warned that this was altogether different from moral indifference (Gouldner 1973 p. 6 ) Sociologists are themselves implicated by the events in society upon which they study. Total freedom from values would therefore be impossible without the total removal of the sociologist from society itself. After the conservatism of the post-war boom years and the decline of functionalism, sociology became increasingly fragmented. Society changes quickly and sociology can often be seen as self reflexive and the methods of understanding it need to change to keep up. Fragmented approaches to society include feminism, neo-Marxism. structuralism and postmodemism. Sociology can no longer be called a fixed discipline with these values and concepts feeding into it. Mills. in his The Sociological Imagination. critiqued functionalist and power elites. One of his conclusions has the paradox of sociology since the 1960s - to be critical and thought provoking or to be quietly empirical and merely provide value-free information on what is happening in society: Of late the conception of social science I hold has not been ascendant. My conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit inquiry by 'methodological' pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions... (Mi1ls 1970 p.27) Mills asks sociologists to question their methods and, importantly. why they are using those methods. what results are they aiming for? If it is to stay in favour with the pollers that be. then that type of sociology can not be free from values no matter the assertions of the sociologists involved. Finally a brief look at sources and their degrees of value involvement. Primary sources. that is informal ion produced through research, interviews observation and participant observation are some examples. Questionnaires are a common method employed to amass data. The drawbacks include the need to be very specific about the types of questions asked. People are self-conscious and interactive making asking any questions problematic. People have prejudices and can misinterpret the questions. People also tend to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. This is an example of the Hawthorn effect. Interviews also are affected by this phenomena. and again the questions need to be very carefully structured so that the same questions can be asked of many groups of people and balanced quantifiable data extracted. These questions need to allow for interviewer bias. Participant observation requires that the researcher live among the group under study. The problem with this approach is that the researcher tends to identify with the group failing to remain sufficiently distanced. This results in the researcher taking on board the groups values and thus colouring the research. Secondary sources must be used with care. It is important to be aware of where the information comes from and to remember that some sources are more valid than others. (Osborne 1996 pp. 131-7 ). In conclusion any sociology claiming to be entirely value free must be treated as suspect. The approach recommended by Weber is that the researcher needs to be honest about personal values and beliefs and recognise that these will come into play during the selection of the study topic. but to ensure that the methods are applied with neutrality. It is also recognised that modern sociology has become fragmented into many interest areas. This is a recognition that there is no single reality common to all that can be discovered. But if it is recognised that that the topic for research study is value relevant and that the methods applied are free from personal bias. then it can be said that this sociology is value free. This is not a total value freeness but it is relatively value free given that all the value relevant factors are accounted for. This must be balanced by the argument that sociological research is inevitably directed by values which are cultural products. Therefore the knowledge obtained is also a cultural product. So what a society defines as knowledge is a reflection of that societies values, just as another society and culture will accord other things as knowledge. Finally there is the moral issue raised by Mills, among others, of what uses the sociologists' research results are put to. These are value-issues that must be considered and dealt with just as vigorously as the value issues pertaining to the generation of sociological knowledge. BIBLIOGRAPHY Gouldner, A.W. (1973) For Sociology: Renewal and Sociology Today Penguin Harmondsworth McNeill. P. (1990) Research Methods Routledge London Mills. C.W. (1970) The-sociological Imagination Penguin Harmondsworth Morrison. K. (1995) Marx, Durkheim, Weber Sage London Parkin. F. (1986) Max Weber Routledge London Thompson. K. (1995) Key Quotations in Sociology Routledge London Weber, M. (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences Free Press New York

Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.

The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’

Positivism and Value Freedom

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.

As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.

So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.

Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.

Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.


  1. Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?

  1. Is it possible to completely objective/value free?

The ‘New Right’ – Sociology is not value free – it is left wing propaganda!

Value freedom and Sociology: ‘right wing’ perspectives..

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized 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.’

Feminism – Sociology is not value free because it is biased against women

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. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ 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 bias 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).

Interpretivism – Sociology Cannot and Should not aim to be value free

There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:

Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’.He argues that 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’ – what Positivists call 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, along similar lines to Gomm,argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment 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.

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.

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