Is sociology a science (2nd year only) – Theory and Methods

Lesson objectiveTo explore whether sociology is a science
Lesson outcomes• Both perspectives highlighting to what extent
• Strengths and weaknesses
• What arguments for and against sociology being a science

What is a science?

Comte and Durkheim saw Sociology originally as being scientific. These postivists believe that society was measurable. Interpretivists, however, opposed this concept stating that humans will not simply conform to universal laws or patterns. 

This debate focuses really on what research method should be primarily used by Sociologists. There is a view that science puts great emphasis on proof and testing and objectivity. Some argue that science is based on empiricism gaining knowledge through observing or experiencing something yourself and this is what Sociology should try to become. 

There is no definitive answer yet and the debate still goes on in the academic world today. 

There are two main and very different approaches when answering this question “Positivists” and the “Interpretivist Approach”. 

The scientific approach – positivist

The theorists who you need to know:

Karl Popper,


Popper suggests that Sociology should be studied by using the hypothetico-deductive method. To create an effective study of sociology this way, 8 key features are needed:

  1. Hypothesis: A prediction is needed. 
  2. Falsification: A test to prove the hypothesis wrong.
  3. Empirical evidence: Evidence has to be measurable, e.g. Observations.
  4. Replication: The same findings should be found when repeated.
  5. Evidence over time: Very few people have a correct hypothesis the first time. Normally vast evidence is acquired over time leading to the correct hypothesis. 
  6. Prediction: These are based on cause and effect relationships.
  7. Theory formation: When the hypothesis is deemed true, a theory is made that is solid. 
  8. Scrutiny: No evidence is 100% correct forever. It is only true until new evidence comes along. Scrutinisation is welcomed. 

As the videos below explain, the true aim of Sociology should be to use falsification to test the hypothesis. This involves finding a way to disprove the hypothesis, not prove it like many pseudo-sciences. Popper uses the example of a white swan. If we have the hypothesis that “All swans are white”, if we search the world and find all white swans, a pseudo-science would claim it true. Unless we, however, have every swan looked at, there could always be a black swan. So instead, falsification looks for the black swan. We accept the hypothesis is right until we find the black swan.  


Potsitivists believe in mostly four key points. 

1) Society is made up of what Durkheim called ‘social facts’. These exist outside of individuals and can only be measured on a macro level. 

2) Human behaviour is a response to observable social facts and can be explained in terms of cause and effect relationships. Anything that cannot be quantified should be ignored and rejected. 

3) Social facts should be treated as things, like objects in the natural world, and studied by direct observation and the use of quantitative, statistical methods of data collection otherwise sociology will always remain a subject lacking evidential proof. Durkheim attempted to show this in his study where he highlighted social integration and moral regulation were the main reasons of suicide. The Interpretivist approach could not have found this as a macro approach was needed. 

4) Sociology can be and should be an objective, value-free science if it follows similar scientific approaches to those used in natural science.  It is external structures that shape an individual, not individuals themselves, therefore we should focus on this. 


  1. The problem of predicting – human behaviour cannot be predicted with certainty. 
  2. Artificial – Sociology attempts to study humans in the real world meaning low validity and reliability (therefore it cannot be approached in a positivist way). 
  3. Ethical issues – Human beings might well object to be tested meaning low validity. A more sensitive approach needs to be taken (Interpretivist). 
  4. Interpretivists and Postmodernists believe that this misunderstands the nature of society and the study of human behaviour. Humans have free will and this cannot be always predictable. 
  5. Popper limits some Macro perspectives e.g. Marxism and false consciousness cannot be measured. 
  6. Durkheim, whilst using the Positivist approach, also showed its limitations. Some Functionalist concepts e.g. social cohesion, cannot be operationalised, yet the Positivist approach requires it so. 


Interpretivists argue three main points. 

1) To understand and explain human society, it is necessary to discover and interpret the meanings of their behaviour. Society is all subjective and cannot be understood in a scientific way. E.g. Weber’s verstehen. 

2) Meanings are not social facts, but social constructions that do not exist independent of people’s definitions. 

3) Sociologists cannot hope to explain anything without moving from quantitative to qualitative as whilst it highlights cause and effect relationships, it fails to take into account human feelings and thus, ‘are they really studying human society then”?


  1. The Hawthorne effect shows that the data of Interpretivists could be void. 
  2. If Sociology isn’t a science, what is it? A scientific subject creates answers, a pseudo-scientific subject provides theories without proof.
  3. People are still governed by societies social construction providing meanings and boundaries, therefore society can be studying positively. 

The Realist view

  1. Not all phenomena are observable – Bhaskar adopts a realist view of science. This suggests that events in both the social and natural worlds can be caused by underlying structures and processes, some which cannot be empirically observed, however, we can still find caused and effect relationships. 
  2. Prediction is not a precise process – much natural scientific research, like most sociological research, takes place in open systems where not all variables can be controlled, and scientific prediction is often difficult and imprecise. 
  3. Both positivists and interpretivists are using scientific approaches – Positivists are focusing on the observable, and intepretivists on the unobservable, but both are engaged in doing science as much as any natural scientist. 

Social constructionist approach 

  1. Science is socially constructed by the actions and interpretations of scientists themselves. 
  2. Kuhn argues scientists work within paradigms – frameworks of taken for granted scientific laws, concepts, theories, methods and assumptions. These influence how they approach research. 
  3. Scientist’s don’t always do what they claim to do – Kaplan suggests that the research process is much more haphazard, unsystematic and ad hoc than the ideal of good scientific practice suggests. 
  4. Scientists cheat. 
  5. Lack of scrutiny – there is little prestige of career progress to be gained by replicating (repeating other scientists’ work to check their findings, so scientific research is not really as carefully scrutinised as it should be. 
  6. Science is also influenced by a wide range of social factors that undermine its objectivity and vale-freedom. 

a) The values and beliefs, and career aspirations of researchers will influence whether they think issues are worth studying or not. 

b) Scientists face a constant struggle to get funding and this changes the accuracy and validity of research. 

c) The pressure to publish findings (for career progression) may mean that data are misrepresented or that exhaustive experiments to attempt to falsify are not carried out. 

Postmodernists, sociology and science

Science is simply a meta narrative claiming a monopoly of the truth, alongside similar social theories. 

There is a loss of faith in the modernist view that rational thinking and the application of scientific methods can control and improve the world. 

No sociological research provides a factual description of social life, and such research is a social construction created by researchers. 

There is no longer anything called ‘society’ or a ‘social structure’, and there is only a mass of individuals making separate choices about their lifestyles. 

Objectivity and vale-freedom are myths, created by scientists (and positivist sociologists) to try to claim their views are superior to others when all are just social constructions. 

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