Last updated on July 2, 2022
There has been much argument as to the status of sociology. The general question often asked in this regard is whether sociology is a science. In this section of chapter one, attempt will be made to answer this question as objectively as one can. It is important to note that sociology as a discipline was born in the scientific age. But the question is can it be said to be a creation of the scientific spirit?
We can begin to answer the question above by saying that the problems of sociology are old problems. At least the fundamental problems of sociology are said to be older than the scientific age.
Thus, the general thinking is that the problems of sociology were perceived and promulgated without a thought of being scientific in the contemporary sense of the word. The line of argument here is that the fundamental problems of sociology (social older) has remained the proper problems of sociology into the scientific age. This must have prompted people like Auguste Comte to propose a naturalistic science of society (Coser, 1977). This science of society in the words of Auguste Comte would both explain the past development of mankind and predict its future course.
Comte’s belief was that human society must be studied in the same scientific manner as the world of nature. Further to this, he said society is subject to basic laws just as is the rest of the cosmos. He however recognized the added complexities, which the society presents.
The argument of Auguste Comte with regard to the scientific status of sociology is that if science had succeeded in studying the natural phenomena, the stage was set for a similar endeavor in the study of society. This kind of thinking really influenced Auguste Comte in pro-posing his methods of inquiry. In this regard he suggested that the methods of observation, experimentation and comparison, which have been used successfully in the natural sciences, should also be applied to the study of social phenomena.
The closeness of sociology and science is also demonstrated in the works of Herbert Spencer. For example, he showed the relationship between sociology and science in his discussion of the evolution of human societies. With regard to this and through-out his works, Herbert Spencer maintained that the evolution of human societies, far from being different from other evolutionary phenomena, it but a special case of a universally applicable natural law. He further argued that sociology can become a science only when it is based on the idea of natural, evolutionary law. In his words, he said that there can be no complete acceptance of sociology as a science so long as the belief in social order not conforming to natural law. All the same and in the final analysis, he believed that ultimately all aspects of the universe, whether organic or inorganic. Social or non-social, are subject to the laws of evolution. On the basis of this, Herbert Spencer’s sociology reflections center upon the parallels between organic and social evolution. He made several biological analogies and these occupy a privileged position in his work demonstrating the scientific status of sociology.
This discussion on whether or not, sociology is a science is also visible in the work of another founding father of sociology in the person of Max Weber. His opinion about this is clear when he advocated for a value-free sociology. He insisted in this aspect of his work that sociologists must not allow their personal biases to affect their scientific research. To him, sociologists may have their own biases, but they must not allow these to affect the outcome of their scientific study of social phenomena. In other words, sociologists must cultivate a discipline approach to whatever they study. This will enable the sociologists to see facts as they are. Max Weber also advocated objectivity in sociology, which has to do with the pursuit of scientifically verifiable knowledge. If sociologists can do all that is advocated by Weber, their discipline can approximate science to a very great extent.
This argument of sociology being a science is also found in the works of modern sociologists like Horton and Hunt (1984). In their definition of what science is, they maintained that there are two definition of science that may be useful in judging whether or not Sociology is a science. First and foremost, they see science as a body of organized, verified knowledge which has been secured through scientific investigation. In their second definition of science, they see it as a method of study whereby a body of organized verified knowledge is discovered. Since there 1S no difference in the two definitions, it means that if the first it true of sociology the second one is equally true of it.
By implication, if we accept the first definition of science, sociology according to Horton and Hunt, is a science to the extent that as a discipline, it develops a body of organized, verified knowledge based on scientific methods. Today, this argument is confirmed by the fact that sociology no longer depends on myth, folklore, and wishful thinking. Instead it now depends on scientific evidence. Because of this, Horton and Hunt believed that sociology is a science.
If we use the second definition to assess the status of sociology, it is still a science. This is because sociology relies on scientific methods of study. The rationalization for this is that all forms of behavior, whether of atoms, animals or human beings can be studied through scientific methods. Thus, as long as this is what is done in sociology, the discipline is a science.
Today, whether we like it or not, and whether or not we believe that sociology is a science, the discipline has tried to approximate science in many respects over the years. For example, Edward shills has argued that in spite of the critical remarks often made against Sociology being a science, sociology has become more scientific over the years. He noted that, today observations in sociology we are better made; new and better techniques of observation are devised and applied; and sociology theories have become more comprehensive and more differentiated. In addition, he noted that continuity is growing in sociology and like science; sociology has become increasingly a collective enterprises. In this sense, sociologists, theorists and investigators of particular problems have come to see themselves as members of a community who engage in a great common effort.
But whether this argument is correct or not, we haye to realize that sociology being a science, which we study, is so complex. Sociologists cannot predict individual behavior with the kind of precision the astronomers will calculate the movement of planets.
For instance, with remarkable precision, the astronomers can announce years in advance when a comet will next be visible from the earth. In sociology we have to understand that humans are more than physical beings. Their creative minds ensure that no two people react in exactly the same way to any event. In this regard therefore, sociologists speak of probability that category of people will act in some way, rarely expressing certainly, especially about the behavior of a specific individual.
Another limitation which sociology suffers as a result of wanting to approximate science is that because human beings respond to their surroundings, their behavior may be affected by the mere presence of a researcher. If we still use the example of an astronomer, his gazing at the moon has no effect what so ever on the contrary, people often react to being observed and in fact some of them may become anxious or defensive, while others may try to help the researcher by providing the answers or actions they think are expected of them.
It is also interesting to note that the social patterns, which sociologists study is very dynamic. That which is true in one time or place may not hold in another. This is unlike atoms and molecules which do not consciously shape their environment. But human beings do in remarkably variable ways. It is therefore suggested that while we are trying to be scientific as sociologists we must take account of diversity and change that characterize our subject matters.
Finally, because sociologists often form part of the social world they study, objectivity in social research is particularly difficult if not impossible. On the contrary, a chemist can be objective in his research because he is not personally affected by what goes on in test tubes. The problem with the sociologist is that they are part and parcel of the society they study. That is, they live in the society. This has implication on the outcome of their research as they often have difficulty in controlling or even recognizing personal values that may distort their work.
Sociologists in the Society
So far in this chapter, we have attempted to define sociology by mentioning those things that sociologist do which others do not. From the approach adopted we are able to show what sociology ought to be. From the definition too we have been able to show that Sociology is not a concept that can be used loosely. Rather, it refers to a specific discipline with its own subject matters, which are different from what other disciplines do. This is related to some her disciplines like economics, political science, management science and even geography.
Having known what sociology is all about and how it developed, we now need to look at what sociologists actually do. It is important to note that sociologists do in practice concentrate predominately on certain kinds of problem within certain kinds of societies. What is done here however is to briefly touch on the roles of sociologists in our contemporary societies?
First and foremost sociologists are research scientists. They conduct scientific research. As scientists, their major task is to discover and organize knowledge about the social life (Horton and Hunt, 1984).It is interesting to note that in the advanced countries sociologists are employed as full-time researchers by universities, government agencies, foundations or corporations and their role as scientific researcher is also desirable in the world.
Sociologists have also served as policy consultants. It should be recalled that sociology is about prediction therefore, sociological prediction can help to estimate the probable effect of social policies on human behavior. In this respect therefore, sociological on prediction can help to estimate the probable effects of special policies. As sociologists we can help to predict the effects of policy, and consequently contribution to the final selection of policy options, which will achieve the result.
In some societies, sociologists have acted as technicians. In this case they are engaged in planning and conducting community action programmes. Sociologists also play the role of advising on public relations, employee relations etc. Finally, many sociologists in the world today have taken to teaching as their career.
Sociology and other Social sciences
The social sciences are the various fields of inquiry which seek to discover what is predictable and actual about man and his action by virtue of the fact that man interacts with others. In the view of Hilgard, Atkinson and Atkinson (1975), the social sciences are different fields of inquiry which include anthropology, economics, history, political science, psychology, sociology etc. The common denominator existing among these social sciences is that they study man in society as illustrated.
Sociology and Anthropology
The discipline of sociology is so close to anthropology that most times the two of them are merged into one academic department, especially in developing countries. Anthropology, as the name implies, is a science that deals with the holistic study of man both in the so-called primitive societies and in advanced societies. However, both the sociologist and the anthropologist share a common interest in the study of the totality of man’s experience in society. But with anthropology is more interested in the totality of man’s experience in society starting from his evolution, to his tools, and the way he organizes his society, sociology is interested in the social group or society. Moreover, their methods of study differ. The anthropologist is more of a field work and participant observation, while the Sociologist relies more on social surveys.
Sociology and Economics
Economics is often regarded as the most advanced of the social science since it has been long established (over two centuries ago) and has achieved a level of scientific predication often lacking in other social sciences. Economics deals with the allocation of scare goods and resources as well as the decision or choice people make in ensuring the most prudent use of scarce resources in satisfying insatiable needs. In this sense economics can be seen as focusing only on the economic institution of society which is one of the areas sociology looks into. But while sociology examines the economic institution from the point of view of how the social group satisfies its needs for goods and services, economics examines these in details and uses a high level of mathematical abstraction in arriving at predications regarding human behaviors in the economic sector.
Sociology and Social Work
Social work can be seen as more or less an off-shoot of sociology. In fact, in many academic institutions, social work is still studied as part or appendage of sociology. Social work can be seen as a professional discipline which concerns itself with the less privileged members of society in a bid to help them so that they can help themselves. Social work is basically anchored on both science and practices of linking up the disadvantaged members of society to available services in the environment. It therefore, encourages the self-dependence and enhancement of life of this group of people. In other words, while Social work deals mainly with social problems in the society that affects human beings, sociology is deeply interested in social problems as one of its many concerns. Moreover, social work is essentially practical in nature.
Sociology and Political Science
Political science as a discipline focuses on the access and relation to power and authority in any society. It usually adopts national or level approach. Thus, it is interested in the dynamics of power authority relations in the state. Sociology on its Own also examines the issue of how society is governed, by who, and who and how though its level of emphasis is on the group which may be smaller than the nation state.
Sociology and History
History is interested in past trends in the development of society. History records past events in society and makes predication about future occurrence based on the past events. Sociology also examines society’s past or evaluation through time. In fact, the founding fathers of sociology, to understand and predict events in human society, made use of historical knowledge. In this sense, both history and sociology are interested in the factors that aid stability and change in human society. However, while history depends on the study on the past events, sociology adopts both diachronic methods relying mainly on the survey,
Sociology and Psychology
Psychology is interested in human behaviors and can be seen as the scientific study of human behavior and mental processes. Some psychologists also include animals in their own conception of the case. They define psychology as the scientific study of human and animal behaviors and their mental processes. Be that as it may, the first thing is that psychologists are also interest in human behaviors in society.
Sociology is also interested in human behavior though its emphasis is on the group level unlike psychology that focuses on individual case. Thus, while both of them are interested in behavior of individuals as a member of a social group, sociology and psychology are Complementary to each other. Sociology is complementary to psychology through a branch of psychology known as social psychology. Social psychology is concerned with how a group directly influences an individual’s behavior and how the conducts and experience of individual result in group formation.