Objectivity, Positivism, and Epistemological Others

Note-taking for Principles of Empirical Research with Catherine Voulgarides

Weber, Max. [1904](1949). “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy,” In The Methodology of the Social Sciences, Max Weber, translated and edited by Edward Shils and Henry A. Finch. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. Pages 49-112.

Max Weber - The Methodology of the Social Sciences

Sociology arose in order to make value judgments about measures of state economic policy. For Weber, though, an empirical science can’t provide binding norms and ideals that you can use to immediately derive policy from. “An empirical science cannot tell anyone what he should do—but rather what he can do—and under certain circumstances—what he wishes to do.” Social science can attain objectivity only by keeping out the researcher’s value judgments about their subjects’ goals. In the same way, economics claims objectivity because economists don’t take positions on what people are supposed to value.

Can sociologists ever really keep value judgments out of their work? “All knowledge of cultural reality, as may be seen, is always knowledge from particular points of view.” Social reality is too complex to ever be fully described or explained, so we need to be selective about what we study. We can’t follow the lead of natural sciences and only study phenomena that full under universal natural laws, because sociology doesn’t have those.  We need to see social phenomena in their individuality. Values can help us narrow down all the complexity to the phenomena that are worth studying.

Only a small portion of existing concrete reality is colored by our value-conditioned interest and it alone is significant to us. It is significant because it reveals relationships which are important to use due to their connection with our values (76).

For Weber,  social science is objective if a settled research question gives answers to the causes of significant phenomena that don’t depend on the individual researchers’ idiosyncrasies. Social scientists can make recommendations about strategies for reaching a certain policy goal, but social science can’t take a stance on the desirability of the goal itself. Weber’s concept of objectivity is basically just freedom from values. But how do you do research at all without values? I freely confess that I do not understand this.

Merton, Robert. “On Sociological Theories of the Middle Range,” “The Bearing of Sociological Theory on Empirical Research,” and “The Bearing of Empirical Research on Sociological Theory,” in On Theoretical Sociology. Pages 39-72, 139-172.

Robert Merton - On Theoretical Sociology

Merton uses the term “sociological theory” to mean “logically interconnected sets of propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived.” He focuses on theories of the middle range:

theories that lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day-to-day research and the all-inclusive systematic efforts to develop a unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behavior, social organization and social change.

An example of a middle-range theory: the theory of relative deprivation, the idea that our sense of economic well-being depends more on comparisons with our peers than with an absolute measure of wealth. Theories are more than empirical generalizations or observed relationships between variables. “A theory comprises a set of assumptions from which empirical generalizations have themselves been derived.”

If theories are too huge and general they lose contact with empirical observation.

Until well into the nineteenth century eminent personages in medicine thought it necessary to develop a theoretical system of disease long before the antecedent empirical inquiry had been adequately developed. These garden-paths have since been closed off in medicine but this sort of effort still turns up in sociology.

Merton does some sociology of sociology when he observes that his fellow social scientists feel pressure to come up with grand unified theories of human behavior to meet the demands of policy makers. If we’re ever going to find those theories, though, it will be by forming webs of interconnected middle-range theories.

Merton cites Durkheim’s Suicide and Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as classic instances of middle-range theory. They deal with delimited problems in particular historical contexts, but they have implications for other societies and other times. Good middle range theories “have great generality, extending beyond a particular historical epoch or culture. But these theories are not derived from a unique and total system of theory.“

Sociological theories don’t easily get expressed as formulae, as “highly abbreviated symbolic expressions of relationships between sociological variables.” Instead, sociological interpretation is usually discursive. We don’t want to lose all that nuance! But that makes it hard to generalize.

There are six kinds of work that get lumped together as comprising sociological theory: (1) methodology; (2) general sociological orientations; (3) analysis of sociological concepts; (4) post factum sociological interpretations; (5) empirical generalizations in sociology and (6) sociological theory.

We need to know the difference between knowing how to test a battery of hypotheses and knowing the theory from which to derive hypotheses to be tested. A theory is more than an array of concepts; those concepts have to be  interrelated in the form of a scheme. Concepts are the definitions (or prescriptions) of what you’re observing, the variables between which you’re seeking empirical relationships. When you can logically interrelate your propositions, you’ve got yourself a theory.

Crime is an example of how theory shapes our understanding of data. How do we account for the fact that there’s a much higher rate of crime among poor people than rich people? You could formulate hypotheses: poverty or slum conditions cause criminal behavior. Or you could examine your definitions. If you take white collar crime more into account, the supposed relationship between crime and lower socioeconomic class might well disappear.

What’s the difference between drawing a conclusion from a bunch of facts and choosing a bunch of facts to explain a conclusion? How do you get beyond plausible findings to compelling evidence? You need to examine alternative explanations of your facts and show logically why one is more valid than the others.

Durkheim observed an empirical regularity, a pattern: Catholics have a lower suicide rate than Protestants. This pattern only becomes significant for theory  if you can derive it from a set of other propositions, like so:

  1. When people in a group are stressed and anxious, social cohesion provides them psychic support.
  2. Suicide rates are functions of unrelieved stress and anxiety.
  3. Catholics have greater social cohesion than Protestants.
  4. We should therefore expect lower suicide rates among Catholics than Protestants.

The fact of the differing suicide rates isn’t much use, but once we have a theory explaining that fact, we can apply it to other groups and situations. For example, we can expect that social cohesion will also offer relief from other maladaptive behaviors like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Furthermore, if Catholics experience a loss of group cohesion, we should expect them to suffer higher suicide rates.

By providing a rationale, the theory introduces a ground for prediction which is more secure than mere empirical extrapolation from previously observed trends.

In the logical model of sociology, investigators start with a hunch or hypothesis. They draw various inferences, which they subject to empirical tests. These tests confirm or refute the hypothesis. This is rarely how actual investigation actually goes. The logical model is an aspirational norm, not a description of the research experience. It exaggerates the creative role of explicit theory and downplays the creative role of observation.  Sometimes a research finding gives rise to theory, or an investigator discovers a valid result they weren’t looking for. But:

it requires a theoretically sensitized observer to detect the universal in the particular. After all, men had for centuries noticed such ‘trivial’ occurrences as slips of the tongue, slips of the pen, typographical errors, and lapses of memory, but it required the theoretic sensitivity of a Freud to see these as strategic data through which he could extend his theory of repression and symptomatic acts.

New data stimulate fresh hypotheses. Psychologists got more interested in the theory of character and personality formation in relation to social structure when new projective methods like the Rorschach test became available.

A big component of theorizing is the clarification of concepts. Theorists don’t just do this; it’s a frequent result of empirical research. The whole idea of operationalization is just method investigators use to get their concepts clear enough to be useful for research.