Why sociology is not a science

Let me emphasize from the outset that by branding sociology as non-science, I am by no means claiming that it is useless, just as designating medicine and technology as non-science, I am not dismissing their usefulness. When a company studies the traffic pattern of an intersection to determine if a traffic light is needed on that intersection, it is potentially saving lives. And when a sociologist studies a gang-infested urban neighborhood, (s)he may come up with recommendations that could save dozens of lives. But despite their utility, neither traffic monitoring nor sociology is to be called “science.”

Social investigators should not be offended if they are not called “scientists.” Many human endeavors are necessary and useful even though their practitioners are not labeled “scientists.”

No musician, artist, or poet is expected to be called a “scientist” even though their discipline is indispensable for human intellect and pleasure.

The procedure of gaining knowledge outlined in what is science has been forced by nature itself, and every time it was artificially interjected into a discipline by humans, it has failed. A prime example of this failure is sociology.

ComteMarxSpencerThere are three names attached to the dawn of modern sociology, Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer. A brief overview of the theories of the workings of society proposed by these three originators of sociology unravels the degree to which this discipline can be called “science.”

Comte, the “father of sociology,” the French thinker who co-coined the name of the discipline and who earlier expressed his work as “social physics,” believed that all human life passed through distinct historical stages and that, if one could grasp this progress, one could not only explain the social ills, but prescribe remedies for them. Comte thought that the best way to understand society is through the scientific method developed by the natural sciences. However, since he could not decide on the elemental matter, the building block, of society, an important prerequisite and a signature of all the natural sciences, Comte’s ambition turned into positivism and philosophy, and eventually into a ‘religion of humanity’ to replace the traditional worship.

Karl Marx, sometimes called the “true father” of modern sociology, rejected the positivist sociology of Comte and replaced it with the notion of class struggle. His underlying philosophy, dialectical materialism, is, like Comte’s, also an adaptation of scientific methodology. He places fundamental importance on the production of goods and the stratification of the population that results from the mode of production in all historical human societies: slaves and masters in the ancient societies, peasants and feudal nobility in the medieval Europe, and proletariat and capitalists in the industrial society of nineteenth-century Europe. Marx believed that the old mode of production is toppled only through a revolution carried out by the oppressed class equipped with the ideology that springs out of that class. He thought that the ultimate social structure was communism, which was classless, and was achieved via a proletarian revolution. The history of communism from its inception in 1917 to its total collapse today, is a testimony to the failure of Marxian sociology.

23 thoughts on “Why sociology is not a science”

  1. Science is the knowledge man uses to describe, understand, predict and change his environment. The science of the natural matters adopted a logical and empirical method because its subject matter was easy to predict. the science of social matters can’t adopt such empirical method because its subject matter can’t be easily predicted.
    so we mustn’t use the natural sciences as a parameter for judging the social sciences.
    therefore sociology is a science.

    1. “empirical method” in Sociology is meaningless – judged more through subjectivity than any objective process it is a pseudo-science as it attempts a traditional empirical method.

      1. Why is it that so many are under the illusion that the basic or so-called “natural” sciences aren’t conducted by people who make decisions in the course of their data collection and analysis based on their own limitations, resources, and social and cultural contexts? This aspect of science is a universal one. Objectivity, validity, and reliability, are ideals that scientists strive for but oftentimes by ignoring the inherent subjectivity of human endeavors such as science, basic scientific practices are taken as perfected and basic scientific knowledge as dogma. Fear of complexity in a complex world is truly a hindrance to understanding.

  2. sociology has a full explanatory regard to be considered as a science because the society is discussed in different ways and some scientific methods are use they include observation,experimental and statistics

  3. Wow, what a half-baked and uninformed answer!
    Let it suffice to say that you have not actually named the three key figures in sociology. Emile Durkheim and Max Weber should have been addressed in your brief essay. And why didn’t you assess Spencer’s work, after having mysteriously named him? He did at least compile some impressive comparative datasets back in the 19th Century.

    Very disappointing level of critical assessment here.

    1. Compilation of data set, even analysis of data set, does not make science. Unless you want to call polling, marketing, and insurance business science. When social scientists cannot convince one another of the truth of what they publish, their disciplines are not falsifiable (just like pseudoscience). See Characteristic 7 in http://skepticaleducator.org/charasteristics-of-science/4/ and for a concrete example, see this http://skepticaleducator.org/science-education/academic-math-intensive-science-is-not-sexist-or-is-psychology-a-science/

  4. Oh, I see this article actually has multiple pages. No matter. The only kind of observation is of the survey type? Page 2 of the article is no better informed than page 1 had been. 🙁

  5. I love sociology and really appreciate this article! However to consider sociology is not a science makes me sad but I understand! Love the argument Dennis – keep it up!0

  6. Thanks for this essay. Because this issue is generally constructed as a debate, someone needed to produce a set of claims such as this. Indeed, the scientific status (or whether it is desirable for sociology to hold itself to the standards of the basic sciences rather than the complex social sciences) of the discipline has often been discussed by sociologists themselves. There may be some valid reasons for this controversy, but I have not read any of them on this website.
    Unfortunately, the arguments contained in this essay are rooted in a narrowly defined straw man of the field of sociology. I could be more exhaustive but I will just focus on a few key areas of misrepresentation in the evidence presented here:
    First, we could take biology, physics, or chemistry theories from the 17th and 18th century and show how they have defects and that would not reflect on the present state of the field.
    Second, Social Text is not a sociology journal but rather an interdisciplinary humanities journal that has at times published work from people in social science fields. The way you have worded this section is either deliberately misleading or poorly written as Social Text is not one of “the main venues” of communicating sociological research.
    Third, sociology employs an extremely wide range of data and methods much like other scientific fields and the appropriateness of these methods is based on the specific question that a researcher is attempting to answer. You have only mentioned one and have demonstrated a shallow understanding of the sociological use of statistics. Moreover, there is a wide body of literature wherein sociologists work through how to create more objective and unbiased forms of observation and analysis which has lead to significant progress.
    I’m happy to engage further if the author or any commenters wants to respond. I have other critiques but will reserve them for a later date.

    1. “First, we could take biology, physics, or chemistry theories from the 17th and 18th century and show how they have defects and that would not reflect on the present state of the field.” Those “defects” were essential for the later development of the field. One of the main characteristics of science is Historical Continuity (which social “sciences” lack). Please see Characteristic 4 of http://skepticaleducator.org/charasteristics-of-science/

      “Second, Social Text is not a sociology journal but rather an interdisciplinary humanities journal that has at times published work from people in social science fields.” So, social scientists do publish in this journal. You can eliminate reference to Social Text from my article. That would not change anything, because the more important point is that there are different schools of social sciences with their own journals and different schools oppose each other. Please see Characteristic 7 of http://skepticaleducator.org/charasteristics-of-science/

      “Third, sociology employs an extremely wide range of data and methods much like other scientific fields and the appropriateness of these methods is based on the specific question that a researcher is attempting to answer. ” Pollsters, marketing agencies, insurance companies also “employ an extremely wide range of data.” This does not mean that they are sciences. If by “scientific method” you mean statistical analysis, then please see Characteristic 8 of http://skepticaleducator.org/charasteristics-of-science/

  7. There are some major mistakes in this post.
    Firstly, as mentioned by some of the other commentators Emile Durkheim and Max Weber are of marvellous significance if you’re going to mention the important names in Sociology. And I can confidently say after studying sociology for four years that these two are far more essential than Herbert Spencer.
    When it comes to your paragraph on Marxist Sociology, besides the minor confusion with name since marxian is not really used in Sociology, MARXISTS ARE NOT ANTI-POSITIVIST. They are among the positivist groups in Sociology including functionalists, feminists and marxists who argue that sociology should be treated like a positive science. Meaning, sociologists should favour quantitative data over qualitative data, use replicable research methods to ensure reliability and be as objective as possible.
    It is absolutely shocking that a post assessing the scientific credentials of sociology got that so wrong.
    And finally If you included Max Weber you’d see that this is the group who are anti-positivist. Action theory and Interactionist/Weberian sociologist argue that the principles of “verstehen” should be applied to sociological research, which means understanding in German. Basically these people say sociology is not a science and shouldn’t be one if a sociologist is to fully understand the society which is created on a daily basis by interaction. Consequently, they use qualitative data which is very difficult to make reliable or replicate at all. Since they pick up participant observation techniques, they are not and they don’t claim to be objective or scientific.
    Overall, Weberian sociology is not a science and Positivist sociology claims to be science yet their scientific credentials can be questioned. Personally, I think positivist sociology is a science depending on the quality of research conducted but why wouldn’t an objective researcher using replicable methods be regarded as scientific? No different than a chemist.

    Also, this seems quite wrong to say when there are still communist countries in the world, “The history of communism from its inception in 1917 to its total collapse today, is a testimony to the failure of Marxian sociology”. Even if there wasn’t any, this wouldn’t indicate the failure of Marxist Sociology with the presence of left wing, merely based on Marxist Ideology. And there’s no need to see a living legacy of any ideology to evaluate their logic.

    1. Regardless of the labels “positivist,” “anti-positivist,” — or any other label that social scientist are fond of — or people associated with those labels, the main criterion of science is falsifiability. If it ain’t falsifiable, it ain’t science! Sociology is NOT falsifiable (see the short 7th characteristic of science here http://skepticaleducator.org/charasteristics-of-science/4/ and the link in it that demonstrates clearly why social sciences in general are not falsifiable).

  8. Phrenology is not a science. It may have some of the trappings of it, but the basic idea (“the lumps on your skull will reveal some details of you”) is utter nonsense.

    Likewise, SOCIOLOGY IS NOT A SCIENCE. The basic idea is the study of groups of humans. This is flawed from the git-go, because humans are individuals and do not always act or think as predicted according to which group they belong to. For example, one cannot talk about the mindset of the good people of New York because it is a very diverse group. You many find some common pronunciations, but political affiliation is not 100% predictable. You can make sweeping statements and stereotypes, but they are only true as far as statistics. Science needs laws: 100% predictability.

    Sociology is the study of groups of people. Flawed premise.
    Psychology is the study of people. Missing something.
    Anthropology is a SCIENCE. It studies the individual as being an animal; a product of evolution.

    1. Anthropology uses biology, chemistry, and physics to study ancient humans. Like all sciences, it is part of the web of science. Sociology and psychology (as opposed to neurology) use none of the three main sciences. They are NOT part of the web.

  9. This discussion of whether or not sociology is a “science” is a meaningless “word game.” Give me your definition of “science” and I will then tell you whether or not sociology (including economics) is a science.

    The most narrow definition of a “science” is some discipline in which experiments can be run to falsify a “theory.” This is the definition offered by Karl Popper.

    But then we have the epistemological question of whether the only knowledge we can have is that derivable from falsifiable propositions.

    Two examples:

    The mainstay of undergraduate physics is the equation “force = mass x acceleration.” The joke is that everything can be derived from this. But of course this has been proven false and yet it is extremely useful for those of us calculating things at classical speeds and classical sizes.

    Sociology/economics certainly has its natural experiments. The effects of a government printing money to pay all its bills are fairly predictable. In the 20th century we have had several such natural experiments of hyper-inflation.

    More generally, rational people act predictably to monetary rewards. We can certainly run experiments where one group of employees is paid more than others — and then measure how their performance differs.

    Certainly sociology is mathematical with its chief tool being regression analysis. But in the sociological realm we have to be very careful with using a historical statistical regularity to predict the future. This is because the “data generating” system is not stable/stationary in contra- distinction to flipping coins. See David Hume, Karl Popper, and Nassim Taleb of “Black Swan” fame. Furthermore the Lucas Critique posits that a statistical regularity in the economic realm cannot be exploited for long.

    The flipping of coins is the binomial distribution and in the limit the “normal/Gaussian” distribution. I use the word “is” not the phrase “analogous to.” The past can predict the future if one’s data generating system is as stationary as that of flipping coins, drawing cards from a deck, or removing colored balls from urns in the manner of the French.

    In summary — whether or not sociology is a science is a mere word game dependent on how we define the term “science.”

    The profound question is whether we can have knowledge and predictability by means in addition to that of falsifiable proposition in the sense of Karl Popper?

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