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.
Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?
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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Sociology Being Value Free
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Sociology Being Value Free
There have been many assumptions that sociology is a science because
of the assumption that science is objective or value free. In
sociological research a problem arises when unconscious researchers
bias enter the hypothesis and research topic. Robert Bierstedt stated
that the results of an investigation or inquiry are independent for
external variable such as race, gender, occupation etc. Bierstedt is
quoted saying that ‘if his research is truly objective, it is
independent of any subjective elements that he may have’. Critics
could say that this definition of objective definition may revel
Bierstedt own values of patriarchal bias that he expresses in his own
Both Comte and Durkheim held that sociological research could be
performed objectively if scientific methodologies are applied. Marx
also agreed that social research could be performed objectively if
science methodologies are applied, but held very different views about
society to Comte and Durkheim.
Similar to the Positivists and the Marxists, Max Weber believed that
sociological research should be value free but did not think that
complete value freedom was possible to obtain in sociological
research. However he did believe that once a research topic had been
selected the research could be performed objectively. Weber wanted to
apply natural science method to sociological research, but he claimed
these methods could not be usefully applied unaltered to the social
world. This was due to his claims that people meaning some thing when
they interact with each other, unlike chemicals in a test tube. Weber
also argued that all researcher should not be forced to make value
judgment in relation to their research i.e. they are not required to
state what aspect of society they found desirable or undesirable to
Weber developed the term verstehen, which he described as attempting
to prevention of imputing meanings and values into research.
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Sociology Value Sociological Research Natural Science Social Research Max Weber Assumption Methodologies Variable
Gouldner was a follower of Weber he questioned what researcher are
suppose to express in their research if they are not suppose to show
any values in their research. He claims that if there was no values in
a researchers work, anyone who reader the research would not be safe
guarded against their own unconscious influences of political beliefs
etc. Gouldner claims that these values will shape the researchers
selection of problems and their preference for certain hypothesis and
the rejection of others. Gouldner claims that there is no such thing
as value free sociology, as all sociological research is based on
values a research holds about society. Gouldner wanted to reduce the
chance of biased in sociological research Gouldner claims all research
should be performed rigorously and retested to iron out and reduce the
bias in the research. Gouldner states that all researchers should
state their domain assumptions before they perform their research, to
reduce their own biases.
Becker was a labeller theorist he argued that sociological research
cannot be value free and that sociologist should aspect this fact that
it is impossible to do research, which is uncontaminated by the
researcher own beliefs and political values and sympathises. Becker
claims that no matter what perspective a researcher takes it will also
be bias toward one side of the research e.g. if a researcher was
researching into todays class structure depending on the researcher’s
up bring and own class will depend on where they will perform their
research. Becker claims that researchers will never be neutral and
value free because we are all human and our emotion will always get in
Gouldner then criticised Becker claim about value freedom in
sociological research he argues that although Becker makes it nowhere
explicit in his value free article whose side he is on. Gouldner
accuses Becker of taking the side of the underdog, although Becker
does not justify his own position. Gouldner claims that this is done
for two reasons. Firstly Becker takes the standpoint of verstehen (own
conception or reality), Gouldner claims Becker would recommend that
all studies should always be conducted from this standing point.
Beckers sentiments are always with the underdog, which Gouldner claims
creates a dilemma when performing research. Secondly Gouldner claims
that Becker will be creating a problem for his self if he sympathises
with the underdog as the social powerful are the people who fund and
allow researchers to the necessary sources. Gouldner claims that the
socially powerful could restrict or denies Becker access to his
sources due to his fondness to support the underdog, which would show
the social powerful in a bad light. Gouldner further accused Becker of
only sympathises with the underdog as he can portray them as victims
due to them being oppressed and passive, unlike the ruling class who
he would not be able to portray them as victims due to them being
powerful and politically active.
Overall sociology cannot be value free as none of the sociological
perspectives are entirely value free as they all include bias from
their founders, i.e. functionalists hold politically conservative
views that assume the existing social institutions serve a useful
purpose, this implies that anything other than slow evolutionary
change is harmful to society. Value free is a concept that was
developed by sociologist. Weber called this verstehen, which he
described as attempting to prevention of imputing meanings and values
in to research. Gouldner took Weber concept of verstehen and argued
that sociological research could not be value free, but instead the
research should be open about their dominant assumptions. Where as
Becker claims that no research will be free of the researchers values
as no matter where the researcher takes their standing point they will
always discriminate against someone. The more biases that enter a
piece of research, the more the knowledge that is reducible to the
values of researchers, where as the more rigorously the research has
been performed a higher value is placed knowledge obtained and higher
praise is placed on the to the researcher.