Sociology Overview: Scientific Study
What do we mean when we say that sociology is a scientific study? To answer that, we must first define science. Science is a set of procedures--careful and unbiased observations, replication, and falsification--that yields a body of knowledge about the empirical world. The key procedures are:
1. Observation. Science does not deal with nonobservables, such as the effects of a God or gods, except insofar as such beliefs are part of culture and thus affect human interaction.
2. Replication. Another trained scientific observer should be able to repeat (replicate) an experiment or observation, using the same methods, and come up with substantially the same results.
3. Falsification. Ideas--theories, logic, folk myths--can be stated in such a way that the scientific method can show them to be incorrect if indeed they are. For example, the old folk myth that women are less able to think abstractly than men has been tested with scientific procedures and found to be false.
In addition to procedures, science accumulates a body of knowledge about the empirical world that is organized into generalizations about reality and into laws, which are systems of generalizations that logically hang together and enable us to predict future events and, ultimately, to control some of the forces we have come to understand through the use of the scientific method. Prediction coupled with the idea of generalizations implies that science is probabilistic--that is, that it does not predict events with absolute certainty, but rather provides a statement about the chances for some event to occur. The weather report we receive via some form of media related communication is an example of probability. When the weather forecast says, "there is a forty percent change it will rain tonight," she/he has distilled a mass of information--cloud movements, pressure changes--in order to provide a prediction of an event: rain.
Some sciences meet this definition more completely than others. Physics, for example, is held by many to be the exemplary science. Sociology, anthropology, political science, and the other social sciences fit this definition only imperfectly, but in most instances, it is an ideal toward which they strive. Thus the sciences differ from each other more in degree than in kind.
The scientific method enables us to differentiate between fact and belief, between evidence and folk wisdom. To understand the difference between scientific evidence and folk wisdom, consider these examples of folk theories in operation.
In Tibet, as a man lies on his deathbed, a lama plucks a hair from his head so that the soul may escape through the root hole. In Turkey a hoca, or holy man, wets a dying man's throat with water because if the man's soul gets too thirsty as it plods up the hill of eternity, it may sell itself to the devil for a cool drink.
Folk theories are fabricated from beliefs that are accepted on faith or tradition. They may or may not be in accord with facts, but in either case they are accepted without substantiation. In contrast to beliefs accepted solely on faith and/or tradition, scientific theories are plausible explanations of events that are derived from observed evident.
The sociologist is interested in folk theories, for he knows they exert a powerful influence over a great many people. Moreover, what is folk theory today may become established fact tomorrow. For centuries folk belief held that particular herbs could cure particular diseases. Later, scientists established that those same herbs did have the medicinal value attributed to them. Although the sociologist is interested in folk theories, he does not accept them on faith. He demands evidence but keeps an open mind and is prepared to accept a theory if it can be verified scientifically.
Although fact can be ascertained principally through the objective viewpoint, subjective judgments are nevertheless of real significance in human interactions. They sustain man in the positions he takes on many issues. For example, they help determine whom he will love, how he will rear his children, and whether he will fight for his country.
In the final analysis, the sociologist himself....