Value neutrality is a term used by Weber to indicate the necessary objectivity researchers need when investigating problems in the social sciences. Weber also cautioned against the making of value judgements which coincide with the orientation or motives of the researcher. It is important to note that although Weber believed that value neutrality was the aim of research, his view was that no science is fundamentally neutral and its observational language is never independent of the way individuals see phenomena and the questions they ask about them (Morrison 1995 pp. 7, 347)
It is this link between the researcher’s theoretical stand and the methods adopted that raises the question as to whether sociology can be value free. What are the arguments for and against the possibility of value free sociology? Is the answer to be found in the design of research methods? Or is all knowledge a cultural product in that what a society defines as knowledge reflects the values of that society, therefore making value free science the aim but not the achievable goal of sociology?
Indeed, is the concept of value free sociology of value itself raising the notion of there being merit in a value plus sociology? This concept of value free sociology has its roots in the rise of positivism and the scientific method in the mid nineteenth century. Positivists believed that discovering laws of social development would create a better society. A key figure in the establishing of sociology as a respectable science was Comte (1798-1857).
Comte looked at human progress and decided that there are three stages to the evolutionary growth of knowledge; “Each of our leading conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passes successively through three different theoretical conditions: the Theological or fictitious: the Metaphysical or abstract: and the Scientific or positive… In the final, the positive state the mind… applies itself to the study of their laws – that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. ” (Comte 1830 The Philosophy’ of Sociology’ in Thompson 1995 p. -40)
Comte argued that the human mind develops through these three distinct phases that were inevitable and, therefore, a fact of historical development. From the final stage, the positive in which causes are explained by scientific laws, came the movement known as positivist. Positivism came to be associated with progress and social reform. All disciplines had a historical imperative to develop away from the speculative to the positive stage, thus marking their scientific statue. (Morrison 1995 pp. -25)
In two key areas positivism differed from idealism: first it put great emphasis on the reliability of observation as the basis for theory, and secondly emphasis was laid on the search for factual regularities. Comte argued that this would lead to the formation of general laws. Observation became the central criterion of verification, verification to the formulation of laws, and these laws to the subject of repeated test in order to establish their legitimacy (Morrison 1995 pp. 24-25) Observation requires an observer.
And it is here, at the heart of the positivist method, where human observes human, that the issue of value neutrality comes to the fore. The positivist tradition concentrates on producing ‘objective’ data, most often in the form of statistics. This quantative data is then subjected to analysis and causal correlations are established. An example would be Blauner (Alienation and Freedoms 1964 in McNeill 1990) It was hypothesized that different levels of alienation are causally linked with different types of industrial processes.
After operationalising the concept of alienation, its presence was measured in different industrial contexts. The main priority was that there be no suspicion that the collected data had been affected by the researchers’ own values. It should be possible for other researchers to use the same methods and arrive at similar conclusions (McNeil1 1990 p. 117-8) Developments in positivism in the twentieth century led to the belief that facts could and should be separated from values.
The job of the scientist was only to identify scientific laws (McNeil1 1990 p. 129) However, Weber, in his Methodology of The Social Sciences, points out that all knowledge of cultural reality… is always from particular points of view. Weber also asserted that there can be no such thing as an absolutely ‘objective’ scientific analysis of culture or… of ‘social phenomena’ independent of special and ‘one-sided’ viewpoints according to which… they are selected, analysed and organised for expository purposes (Weber 1949 pp. S1. W2) What Weber is saying is that facts cannot speak for themselves.
Social facts do not exist in their own right; what counts as a social fact is greatly determined by the moral spectacles through which we view the world ( Parkin 1986 pp. 30-31) 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? The balance advocated by Weber proves to be rather limited.
Although a teacher could proclaim the results of an investigation that same teacher should refrain from using this as an opportunity to disseminate his own views. Weber was of the opinion that sociologists could distinguish between empirical knowledge and value judgements (Weber in Parkin 1986 pp. 33) This view is not dissimilar to the belief that newspaper publishers record facts without bias or favour. However media theorists are quick to point out that what counts as ‘news’ is the end product of a selective social process.
Some events are recorded while others are suppressed. Also the moral language used to write the news contains bias and preconceptions. So what results are not impartial but value loaded. Could the same be said against sociological research? Just because the researcher refrains from openly disseminating his/her views on the findings does this make them value free? (Parkin 1986 p. 33) A way round this would be to concede that social research involves the use of concepts and constants that are tainted by the researcher, wittingly or otherwise.
That sociology could not be value free but argue that the deliberate dissemination of personal values be avoided in lectures and publications (Parkin 1986 p. 33) 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. But taking on board the words of Weber it might be asked; At what point in the research process is it allowable for values to intrude? And also at what point should they be controlled or eliminated? (McNeill 1990 p. 0)
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 (McNeill 1990 p. 131) Does this mean that research is automatically compromised if value relevance is applied? It could be argued that just because a researcher’s values come into play in the selection of research area, it does not automatically follow that the researcher’s results are biased in favour of those beliefs and values. Thus a distinction can be made between the social scientist and the journalist.
The social scientist’s conduct must be for a fair and balanced enquiry in which personal and political values play no part, in both the research method and in the publishing of the findings (McNeil 1990 p. 12) An example of this can be found in the work done during the nineteenth century by Booth the Webbs and Mayhew. Commenting on their value laden choice of research topic and their value free research: Halsey et al say they were concerned to describe accurately and in detail the social conditions of… the more disadvantaged sections (of society), but their interest in these matters was never a disinterested academic one… e tradition thus has a double intent; on the one hand it engages in the primary sociological task of describing and documenting the ‘state of society’, on the other hand it addresses itself to central social and political issues (Halsey et al 1980 in McNeill 1990 p12)
The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that there never has been a value free sociology, just an attempt to merge a value choice with objective research methods (McNeil 1990 p13) During the twentieth century the positivist approach that fostered the hypothetico-deductive mode, although rational in manner came to be seen as coldly logical.
In favour, 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. Kuhn (1960) argued that the set of assumptions about how the word is like are not questioned but taken for granted as being correct. Kuhn calls this a ‘paradigm’. These paradigms direct both the selection and the evaluation of research results. New paradigms are produced in ‘scientific revolutions’ when enough evidence accumulates against the present paradigm.
Kuhn’s argument is that knowledge does not exist independently, waiting to be discovered, but it is constructed and created within a framework of assumptions called paradigms by Kuhn. So all knowledge is a product of its social context a product of scientific activity. Science is a method rather than a body of knowledge. As such the whole process can be said to be a value-process from which its products can not be said to be value free (McNeill 1990 p. 127-8) During the past twenty years there has been a trend towards ‘warts and all’ accounts of research.
These accounts include details such as personal diaries to show the space between the researcher’s results and the sociologist’s personal feelings. Also frank accounts of the difficulties and tribulations of the research, and statements regarding the researcher’s background. These are seen as important as to the validity and reliability of the research (McNeill 1990 p. 129) Do these accounts cast doubt on the status of the work of sociologists? It could be argued that if the scientific method free of values is decreed a myth, then sociologists will see the need to respond to this.
The model of objectivity used by positivist sociologists were attacked by Gouldner. By a series of questions Gouldner striped away the veneer of value free scientific inquiry and revealed it to be upon shaky ground. Gouldner concluded his questions with this analysis, I fear that there are many sociologists today who, in conceiving social science to be value-free, mean widely different things, that many hold these beliefs dogmatically without having examined seriously the grounds upon which they are credible. Weber’s own views on the relation between values and the social sciences, and some current today are scarcely identical.
If Weber insisted on the need to maintain scientific objectivity, he also warned that this was altogether different from moral indifference (Gouldner 1973 p. 6) Sociologists are themselves implicated by the events in society upon which they study. Total freedom from values would therefore be impossible without the total removal of the sociologist from society itself. After the conservatism of the post-war boom years and the decline of functionalism, sociology became increasingly fragmented. Society changes quickly and sociology can often be seen as self-reflexive and the methods of understanding it need to change to keep up.
Fragmented approaches to society include feminism, neo-Marxism, structuralism and postmodemism. Sociology can no longer be called a fixed discipline with these 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 merely provide value-free information on what is happening in society. Of late the conception of social science I hold has not been ascendant.
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 asks sociologists to question their methods and, importantly, why they are using those methods, what results are they aiming for? If it is to stay in favour with the powers that be, then that type of sociology can not be free from values no matter the assertions of the sociologists involved. Finally a brief look at sources and their degrees of value involvement.
Primary sources, that is information produced through research, interviews observation and participant observation are some examples. Questionnaires are a common method employed to amass data. The drawbacks include the need to be very specific about the types of questions asked. People are self-conscious and interactive making asking any questions problematic. People have prejudices and can misinterpret the questions. People also tend to say what they think the interviewer wants them to say. This is an example of the Hawthorn effect.
Interviews also are affected by this phenomena, and again the questions need to be very carefully 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 requires that the researcher live among the group under study. The problem with this approach is that the researcher tends to identify with the group failing to remain sufficiently distanced. This results in the researcher taking on board the groups values and thus colouring the research.
Secondary sources must be used with care. It is important to be aware of where the information comes from and to remember that some sources are more valid than others (Osborne 1996 pp. 131-7). In conclusion any sociology claiming to be entirely value free must be treated as suspect. The approach recommended by Weber is that the researcher needs to be honest about personal values and beliefs and recognise that these will come into play during the selection of the study topic, but to ensure that the methods are applied with neutrality.
It is also recognised that modern sociology has become fragmented into many interest areas. This is a recognition that there is no single reality common to all that can be discovered. But if it is recognised that that the topic for research study is value relevant and that the methods applied are free from personal bias, then it can be said that this sociology is value free. This is not a total value freeness but it is relatively value free given that all the value relevant factors are accounted for.
This must be balanced by the argument that sociological research is inevitably directed by values which are cultural products. Therefore the knowledge obtained is also a cultural product. So what a society defines as knowledge is a reflection of that societies values, just as another society and culture will accord other things as knowledge. Finally there is the moral issue raised by Mills, among others, of what uses the sociologists’ research results are put to. These are value-issues that must be considered and dealt with just as vigorously as the value issues pertaining to the generation of sociological knowledge.