Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a scientific approach to the study of society Essay
Scientific approach can be defined as the involvement of standards and procedures for demonstrating the empirical warrant of its findings, showing the match or fit between its statements and what is happening or has happened in the world. Scientific approaches to understanding the world can be distinguished from other approaches in two fundamental and irrelevant ways, firstly, an approach that claim to be scientific irrespective of whether or not it originates in the field of natural or human science must demonstrably have empirical relevance to the world.
Empirical relevance involves showing that any statements, descriptions and explanations used or derived from this approach can be verified or checked out in the world and secondly, an approach which necessitates the deliberate use of clear procedures which does not only show results were achieved but are also clear enough for other workers in the field to attempt to repeat them, that is, to check them out with the same or other materials and thereby test the results.
These two criteria, empirical relevance and clear procedures are bedrock assumptions built into any scientific approach. August Comte, a positivist held the view that the study of sociology should be based on principles and procedures similar to those applied to the study of natural sciences. He argued that taking this approach shows that the behaviour of human beings, like the behaviour of matter was governed by invariable laws of cause and effect.
Therefore it can be stated that the approach takes as its point that the behaviour of human beings, like the behaviour of matter can be observed and objectively measured; just as the behaviour of matter can be quantified by measures such as weight, temperature and pressure, methods of objective measurement can be devised for human behaviour; such measurement is essential to explain behaviour.
For example, in order to explain the reaction of a particular chemical to heat, it is necessary to provide exact measurements of temperature, weight and so on and from a positivist point of view such methods and assumptions are applicable to human behaviour. Natural scientists do not inquire into the meanings and purposes of matter for the obvious reason of their absence.
Thus if heat, an external stimulus, is applied to matter, that matter will react but positivist approach to human behaviour applies a similar approach that people react to external stimuli and their behaviour can be explained in terms of this reaction for example they enter into marriage and produce children in response to the demands of society; society requires such behaviour for its survival and its members simply respond to this requirement. Positivism discredits any perspective that seeks to explore factors that are not directly observable, for example meanings and feelings.
For example, if the majority of adult members of society enter into marriage and produce children, these factors can be observed and quantified. Therefore they form reliable data. However, the range of meanings that members of society give to these activities, their purposes for marriage and procreation, are not directly observable. One person may believe they entered marriage because of loneliness another because they were in love and a third because it was the thing to do and the fourth one because they wish to produce an offspring.
Reliance on this type of data for explanation assumes that individuals know the reasons for marriage and this can obscure the real cause of their behaviour. Positivist also agrees that sociology is empirical, it is based on observation and reasoning, not on imagination or revelation and its results are not speculative. It is theoretical, meaning it attempts to summarize complex observations in abstract, logically related principles, which will explain casual relationships in the subject matter. Sociology is cummulative, this means that sociological theories build one on the other.
New theories connect, extend and refine older ones. It can be objective and non-ethical meaning personal feelings and prejudices are laid aside. Anthony Giddens contends that, the conception that sociology belongs to the natural sciences, and hence would slavishly try to copy their procedures and objectives, is a mistaken one. He based his objection in part, on the premise that we cannot treat human activities as though they were determined by causes in the same way as natural events are. He also contends that the rigid cause effect approach of the natural sciences cannot be imported into the study of sociology.
According to him, institutions are a result of the peculiar ways in which groups in society structure their living. Society or social facts cannot be approached as we do objects or events in the natural world because societies only exist in so far as they are created and re-created in our own action as human beings. In social theory, we cannot treat human activities as though they were determined by causes in the same way as natural events are. Much social theory including that of Durkheim is pervaded by a tendency to think in terms of physical imagery, a tendency, which can have damaging consequences.
Social systems involve patterns of relationships among individuals and groups. Many sociologists picture these patterns as rather like the walls of a building, or the skeleton of a body. This is misleading because it implies too static or unchanging an image of what societies are like, because it does not indicate that the patterning of social systems only exists in so far as individuals actively repeat particular forms of conduct from one time and place to another. Karl Popper argues that scientists should start with a hypothesis, or a statement that is to be tested.
The statement should be precise and should state exactly what will happen in particular circumstances. On the basis of the hypothesis it should be possible to deduce predictions about the future for example Newton’s law of gravity enables hypothesis about the movement of bodies of a given mass to be made, which can be tested against future events. According to Popper it matters little how a scientific theory originate, it does not have to come from prior observation and analysis of data. Popper denies that it is even possible to produce laws that will necessary be found to be true for all time.
He argues that, logically, however many time a theory is apparently proved correct because predictions made on the basis of that theory come true, there is always the possibility that at some future date the theory will be proved wrong or falsified for example, the hypothesis that all swans are white is a scientific statement because it makes a precise prediction about the colour of any swan that can be found but no matter how many times the statement is confirmed there may be a time when a black swan can be found.
The interactionist perspective seeks to understand the process of interaction. It begins from the assumption that action is meaningful to those involved. It therefore follows that an understanding of action requires an interpretation of the meanings people give to their activities. For example, picture a man and woman in a room and the man lighting a candle. This action is open to a number of interpretations. The couple may simply require light because of blown fuse or a power cut or they may be involved in some form of ritual in which the lighted candle has a religious significance.
To understand the act it is therefore necessary to discover the meaning held by the actors. Meanings are not fixed entities as the above example shows, they depend in part on the context of the interaction. Meanings are also created, developed, modified and changed within the actual process of interaction. A pupil entering a new class may initially define that situation as threatening and even hostile. This definition may be confirmed, modified or changed depending on the pupil’s perception of the interaction that takes place in the classroom.
The teacher and fellow pupils may come to be perceived as friendly and understanding, and so the pupil’s assessment of the situation will change. The way in which actors define situations has important consequences. It represents their reality, in terms of which they structure their actions. Interactionists place particular emphasis on the idea of situation and self, they are also concerned with the process by which those definitions are constructed. One example is the definition of an individual as a deliquent.
Research has indicated that police are likely to perceive an act as deliquent if it occurs in a low-income inner city area. They also imply the concept of roles but they argue that roles are often unclear, ambiguous and vague. This lack of clarity provides actors with considerable room for negotiation, manoeuvre, improvisation and creative action. To phenomenologists, it is impossible to measure objectively any aspect of human behaviour. Humans make sense of the world by categorizing it.
Through language they distinguish between different types of objects, events, actions and people. For instance, some actions are defined as criminal and others are not; similarly some people are defined as criminals while others are seen as law-abiding. Phenomenologists believe that it is impossible to produce factual data and it is therefore impossible to produce and check causal explanations. Phenomenologists do not try to establish what causes crime; instead they try to discover how certain events come to be defined as crimes and certain people defined as criminal.
In conclusion they are different views that the various sociologists views the scientific approach to society, for instance the interactionists and phenomenologists both believes that humans do not react and respond passively to an external society. They see humans as actively creating their own meanings and their own society in interaction with each other whereas the positivist assumes that the behaviour of humans, like the behaviour of matter, can be objectively measured.