The Value-Neutral-Value-Free Debate Value neutrality is a definition used by Weber to show the necessary objectivity researchers the need for investigating problems in the social sciences. Weber also was concerned against the making of value judgments which correspond with the orientation or motives of the researcher. It is significant to note that though Weber believed that value neutrality was the goal of research, his view was that no science is essentially neutral and its observational language is never independent of the way individuals see phenomena and the questions they ask about them. It is this link between the researcher’s theoretical stand and the methods adopted that raises the question regarding whether sociology can be value free. What are the arguments pro and against the likelihood of value free sociology? Can the answer be found in the design of research methods? Or is all knowledge a cultural invention, therefore what a society defines as knowledge mirrors the values of that society, thus making value free science the aim but not the attainable goal of sociology? In fact, is the concept of value free sociology of value itself raising the idea of there being worth in a value plus sociology? This concept of value free sociology has its origins in the rise of positivism and the scientific method in the middle nineteenth century. Research and development in positivism in the twentieth century led to the belief that facts could and should be distinguished from values. Job of the scientist was only to identify scientific laws. Yet, several sociologists indicate that all knowledge of cultural reality…is always from scrupulous points of view.
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Facts cannot talk for themselves. Social facts do not exist in their own right; what is considered to be a social fact is greatly determined by the moral spectacles through which we view the world. If pure social reality, perceived by emptying the mind of all presupposition, is deemed incredible, how can sociology attain to value neutrality if its methods are biased by the observers own preconception and values? This belief, that the social scientist should search for objective and value free knowledge became enmeshed with the belief that the same social scientist should also be morally indifferent to any use of the knowledge by others. This brings in the concept of ‘value-relevance’ where the choice of research topic may well be influenced by values of a personal context, but these ‘value-commitments’ should not leak into the methods of research. During the twentieth century the positivist approach that fostered the hypothetic-deductive mode, although rational in manner came to be seen as coldly logical. In favor, especially since the 1960s, has been the phenomenological perspective. Where it is believed that the important thing about social action is the meaning it has for those involved in it. The debate about value free sociology was far from over. Sociologists are themselves concerned with the events in society which they study upon.
Total autonomy from values would therefore be not possible without the total removal of the sociologist from society itself. After the conservatism of the post-war boom years and the turn down of functionalism, sociology became ever more fragmented. Society changes rapidly and sociology can often be seen as self-reflexive and the methods of understanding it need to change to sustain. Fragmented approaches to society contain feminism, neo-Marxism, structuralism and postmodernism. Sociology can no longer be called a fixed discipline with the mentioned values and concepts feeding into it. Mills, in his The Sociological Imagination, critiqued functionalist and power elites. One of his conclusions has the paradox of sociology since the 1960s – to be critical and thought provoking or to be quietly empirical and simply provide value-free information on what is going on in society. Of late the conception of social science I hold has not been ascendant.
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My conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit inquiry by ‘methodological’ pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions… (Mi1ls, 1970, p.27) Mills suggests sociologists to question their methods and, significantly, why they are using those methods, what results are they striving for? If it is to remain in favor with the powers that be, then that type of sociology can not be free from values regardless of the assertions of the sociologists that are concerned. Finally a brief look at sources and their degrees of value participation. Primary sources, that is information produced through study, interviews examination and participant examination are some examples. Questionnaires are a common method employed to collect data. The disadvantages include the need to be really specific about the types of questions asked. People are self-aware and interactive makes asking questions problematic.
People have prejudice and can misread and misinterpret the questions. People also tend to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. This is an instance of the Hawthorn effect. Interviews also are influenced by this phenomenon, and again the questions need to be very cautiously structured so that the same questions can be asked of many groups of people and balanced quantifiable data extracted. These questions need to allow for interviewer bias. Participant observation involves that the researcher live inside the group under study. The problem with this method is that the researcher has a tendency to identify with the group failing to remain sufficiently remote.
This results in the researcher taking on board the groups values and therefore coloring the research. Secondary sources must be used carefully. It is important to be aware of where the information originates from and to remember that some sources are more legitimate than others. In conclusion, any sociology that claims to be completely value free must be treated with suspicion. It is also renowned that modern sociology has become disjointed into many areas of interest. This is an identification that there is no single reality common to all that can be discovered.
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But if it is recognized that that the topic for research study is value applicable and that the methods used are free from personal bias, then it is possible to say that this sociology is value free. This is not complete value freeness but it is relatively value free considering that all the value relevant factors are accounted for. This must be balanced by the argument that sociological research is unavoidably directed by values which are cultural products. Consequently, the knowledge gained is also a cultural product. So, what a society defines as knowledge is a expression of the societies values, just as another society and culture would accord other things as knowledge. Finally, there is the moral issue originated by Mills, among all others, of what uses the sociologists’ research results are put to. These are value-issues that should be considered and dealt with just as energetically as the value issues relating to the generation of sociological knowledge. Word Count: 1137 Sources: Mills, C.W.
(1970) The-sociological Imagination, Penguin: Harmondsworth..