Sociology: The Work of Durkheim, Weber, Giddens and Black

The reason for such question as “Is sociology capable of providing objective truths?” derives from the fact that Sociology itself, from its birth as a science, was concerned with this problem. Originally objective truth was a prerequisite and goal of any scientific study, but, as scientific theory evolved, it became clear that all systems of knowledge are socially constructed through linguistic elaboration. Thus, science constitutes a symbolic world of its own to the same measure, if not more, as it reflects the real world (Doyle Paul Johnson, Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2008). Today it is generally recognized that the ultimate truth is inconceivable; in other words science acknowledges its limitations and aims to produce relatively objective knowledge rather than truth. The very meaning of words “sociology”, “objectivity” and “truth” vary from one theory to another. In fact this variation often defines different sociological theories.

In this paper I am going to explore why and how different theorists of sociology, i.e. Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Anthony Giddens and Donald Black, approach this problem through answering following questions: How sociology is defined in terms of subject and objective? What are the methods employed to achieve this objective and produce scientific knowledge?

In Durkheim’s time positivism was predominant; the truth was considered to be “out there” waiting to be discovered. Consequently, positivism viewed goals of science as explanation and prediction, which can be achieved by identifying relations of cause and effect, and locating regular patterns of observable events in particular, which is illustrated by the very title “Rules for the Observation of social Facts” (Durkheim “The Rules of Sociological Method”). It is evident that Durkheim never doubts the objective existence of his subject “social facts”, and insists that it has to be studied objectively “as things”: “To treat phenomena as things is to treat them as data, and that constitutes the starting point for science.” He proceeds to formulate his method for objective study where investigator should free his mind of all preconceptions, take a more passive relationship to social reality, and deal with phenomena “in terms of their inherent properties” and their “common external characteristics”; that will “yield objective results” and render it scientific, just like Natural Sciences.

Max Weber, on the other hand, opposed positivism; for him social fact does not exist on its own unless it is interpreted as such. He insists that objectivity is not needed to do science, more over it is unsuitable for Human Sciences, because he regards scientific knowledge of society and culture as selective, not objective, views of different aspects of cultural life. “Sociology … Is a science which attempts the interpretive understanding of social action in order there by to arrive at a causal explanation of its course and effects.” “Action is social insofar as, by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual, takes account of the behaviour of others and is thereby oriented in its course.” Accordingly, Weber discussed different types of understanding, the ways in which meaning can be sensitively and accurately grasped. He was less inclined treat social phenomena as “things.” These phenomena are “psychological and intellectual” and call for “emotionally empathic” understanding. Consequently, selection of meaningful social action, its understanding and interpretation constitute the method of interpretive sociology. Overall, Weber concerns not with objectivity but rather with “clarity and verifiable accuracy of insight and comprehension” achieved through case-based comparative research.

Giddens took against dominant at his time functionalism. He examined the work of Weber, Durkheim and rejected both of those approaches, stating that while society is not a collective reality, nor should the individual be treated as the central unit of analysis. In his “New Rules Of Sociological Method” he states that: “Sociology is not concerned with a pre-given universe of objects, but with is constituted or produced by the active doing subjects”. According to him there is no social life separate from the members of society that produce it, but human agency to its historic location. Furthermore, social life cannot be studied as entirely objective phenomenon because such study requires some knowledge of it, which can be achieved only by means of “immersion in a form of life”. Giddens acknowledges limitations of “descriptive metalanguages of social science” within whose boundaries sociological analysis takes place as well as two way connection between observer and the observed. In this way he actually made sociology more objective, clarifying the limits of its application.

Donald Black, contrary, uses completely different approach. He throws the human factor out off picture entirely in order to achieve a higher degree of scienticity, which attributes he describes as: testability, generality, simplicity, validity, and originality. According to his Theory of |Scienticity, Sociology as we know it is not scientific enough because it is too close to its subject- human social life: “Scienticity is a curvilinear function of social distance from the subject.” However he claims, that he can do an objective and scientific sociology – a Pure Sociology – because “it contains no assumptions, assertions, or implications about human mind or its content. It completely ignores human subjectivity, the conscious and unconscious meanings and feelings people experience, including their perceptions, cognitions, and attitudes. .. All that remains is Social life itself.” His sociology studies its subject, which is almost anything, with regard to its position in social space with the distinction between relational, cultural and functional distance. This theory is a very radical departure from classic and modern sociology, especially in it subject matter. It also substitutes question about objectivity with a measurable scienticity. Nonetheless it appears to produce easily verifiable results, which is important feature of objective truth.

In a sense, the sociology is a self reflective science through which we as humans look at ourselves, which makes its struggle to be objective understandable.