Fact and theory

There is an intricate relation between theory and fact. The popular understanding of this relationship obscures more than it illuminates. They are generally conceived as direct opposites. Theory is confused with speculation and theory remains speculation until it is proved. When this proof is made, theory becomes fact. Facts are thought to be definite, certain, without question and their meaning to be self-evident.

Science is thought to be concerned with facts alone. Theory is supposed to be realm of philosophers. Scientific theory is therefore thought to be merely summation of facts that have been accumulated upon a given subject.

However if we observe the way scientists actually do research, it becomes clear

  1. Theory and fact are not diametrically opposed but inextricably intertwined.
  2. The theory is not speculation.
  3. Scientists are very much concerned with both theory and facts.

A fact is regarded as an empirically verifiable observation. A theory refers to the relationship between facts or to the ordering of them in some meaningful way. Facts of science are the product of observations that are not random but meaningful, i.e., theoretically relevant. Therefore we cannot think of facts and theory as being opposed rather they are interrelated in many complex ways. The development of science can be considered as a constant interplay between theory and fact.

Theory is a tool of science in these ways;

  1. It defines the major orientation of a science, by defining the kinds of data that are to be abstracted.
  2. It offers a conceptual scheme by which the relevant phenomena are systematized, classified and
  3. interrelated.
  4. It summarizes facts into empirical generalizations and systems of generalizations.
  5. It predicts facts and
  6. It points to gaps in our knowledge.

On the other hand, facts are also productive of theory in these ways :

  1. Facts help to initiate theories.
  2. They lead to the reformulation of existing theory.
  3. They cause rejection of theories that do not fit the facts.
  4. They change the focus and orientation of theory and
  5. They clarify and redefine theory.

There is interplay between theory and fact. Although popular opinion thinks of theory as being opposed to fact since theory is mere speculation, observation of what scientists actually do suggests that fact and theory stimulate each other. The growth of science is seen is seen in new facts and new theory. Facts take their ultimate meaning from the theories which summarize them, classify them, predict them, point them out and define them.

However theory may direct the scientific process, facts in turn play a significant role in the development of theory. New and anomalous facts may initiate new theories. New observations lead to the rejection and reformulation of existing theory or may demand that we redefine our theories. Concepts which had seemed definite in meaning are clarified by the specific facts relating to them. The sociologist must accept the responsibilities of the scientists who must see fact in theory and theory in fact. This is more difficult than philosophic speculation about reality or the collection of superficial certainties but it leads more surely to the achievement of scientific truth about social behavior.

In the light of above limitations, it is hard to admit that Sociology can be a positive science. Certain sociologists like Max Weber have questioned the very idea that Sociology can ever be a positive science. According to him social reality is qualitatively different from physical and natural reality. Thus the subject matter of social science is qualitatively different from that of physical and natural sciences.

Social sciences study the human behaviour which is guided by meanings and motives, and any attempt to study human behaviour would be incomplete unless it takes into account these meanings and motives. Thus Weber finds use of positive science methods alone as inadequate for the study of human behaviour in society. According to him they must be supplemented with additional methods especially relevant to social sciences like the Verstehen approach and ideal type.

Further, the limitations that are encountered in the study of social phenomena are inherent in the
very subject matter of Sociology and do not.
In fact, even matured sciences like physics encountered
similar problems because of the nature of the subject matter, the exactitude of microphysics is lost when
we study the behaviour of sub-atomic particles and sometimes even predictability is not possible as can
be seen from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle. Thus Sociology is a science since it fulfill the basic
requirements of the science viz. it has perspective, a consensus with regard to subject matter and a set of
methods to explore the subject matter, it may not be called a positive science but it is definitely a social

There are two views about the “Value neutrality and objectivity” in scientific investigation.

One that science and scientists can be value-free other that science and researchers cannot be valuefree. Weber accepts the former position. He thinks that if a researcher separates his daily life from his professional role, he can be free of biases. On the other hand, Gouldner believes that “value-free science is a myth, though it is desirable”. Manheim says: “Value-free research is a desirable goal towards which social scientists can strive without any necessary expectation of actually attaining it”. This becomes possible when the social scientists remains careful in choosing the problem of research and states what he finds, i.e. follows data wherever they lead, regardless of how much the conclusions may please or displease him or the research consumer.

The term ‘value’ here does not have an economic connotation. Value is an abstract generalized principle of behaviour expressed in concrete form in social norms to which the members of a group feel a strong commitment. ‘Scientific inquiry/investigation presents facts as they are; while a scientist has a moral responsibility of giving findings without any biases and prejudices, motivation for a scientist in conducting research is curiosity, developing theory and interest in change.

  • According to Mills and Wordsworth:
    1. Objectivity is unattainable,
    2. Some standpoint or value judgment is necessary for solving social problems,
    3. Our socialization is based on values which direct our thinking and action,
    4. Disclosing bias or personal belief is less dangerous than pretending to be value free, and
    5. Social sciences are normative.

Apart from studying what it is, they should also be concerned with what ought to be.

  • Radical critics claim that behind a façade of objectivity and neutrality, some social scientists compromise their research talents in the support of the interests of the funding agencies. Frederichs has even gone to the extent of saying that these unethical scientists have even supported racism, militarism and other forms’ of oppression.
  • But some scholars like Horton and Bouma, referring particularly to sociological research is of the opinion that the issue whether sociological research has been widely corrupted in this manner (of supporting even oppression) may be debated.
  • Becker has said that it is indisputable that problems of bias and partisanship and present in all research and that research findings are often helpful to the interests of some people and damaging to other people.

Sociology as a value-free science

The subject matter of sociology is human behavior in society. All social behavior is guided by values. Thus the study of social behavior can never be value-free if value freedom is interpreted in the sense of absence of values because values of the society under investigation form a part of the social facts to be studied by sociology. Moreover social research is in itself a type of social behavior and is guided by the value of search for true knowledge. Then what is meant as clarified by Max Weber value-free sociology means that the sociologist while carrying social research must confine called value relevance. Thus the values can operate at three levels:

  • At the level of philological interpretation.
  • At the level of ethical interpretation in assigning value to an object of enquiry.
  • At the level of rational interpretation in which the sociologists seeks the meaningful relationship between phenomena in terms of causal analysis. The point of value interpretation is to establish the value towards which an activity is directed.

Sociologists should observe value neutrality while conducting social research. It means that he should exclude ideological or non -scientific assumption from research. He should not make evaluative judgment about empirical evidence. Value judgment should be restricted to sociologists’ area of technical competence. He should make his own values open and clear and refrain from advocating particular values. Value neutrality enables the social scientists to fulfill the basic value of scientific enquiry that is search for true knowledge.

Thus sociology being a science cherishes the goal of value neutrality. According to Alvin Gouldner value-free principle did enhance the autonomy of sociology where it could steadily pursue basic problems rather than journalistically react to passing events and allowed it more freedom to pursue questions uninteresting either to the respectable or to the rebellious. It made sociology freer as Comte had wanted it to be -to pursue all its own theoretical implications. Value free principle did contribute to the intellectual growth and emancipation of the enterprise.Value-free doctrine enhanced freedom from moral compulsiveness; it permitted a partial escape from the parochial prescriptions of the sociologists’ local or native culture. Effective internalization of the value-free principle has always encouraged at least a temporary suspension of the moralizing reflexes built into the sociologist by his own society. The value-free doctrine has a paradoxical potentiality; it might enable men to make better value judgments rather than none. It could encourage a habit of mind that might help men in discriminating between their punitive drives and their ethical sentiments.

However in practice it has been extremely difficult to fulfill this goal of value neutrality. Values creep in various stages in sociological research. According to Gunnar Myrdal total value neutrality is impossible. ‘Chaos does not organize itself into cosmos. We need view points.’ Thus in order to carry out social research viewpoints are needed which form the basis of hypothesis which enables the social scientists to collect empirical data. These viewpoints involve valuations and also while formulating the hypothesis. Thus a sociologist has to be value frank and should make the values which have got incorporated in the choice of the topic of the research of the formulation of hypothesis clear and explicit at the very outset in the research. The value-free doctrine is useful both to those who want to escape from the world and to those who want to escape into it. They think of sociology as a way of getting ahead in the world by providing them with neutral techniques that may be sold on the open market to any buyer. The belief that it is not the business of sociologist to make value judgments is taken by some to mean that the market on which they can vend their skills is unlimited. Some sociologists have had no hesitation about doing market research designed to sell more cigarettes although well aware of the implications of recent cancer research. According to Gouldner the value-free doctrine from Weber’s standpoint is an effort to compromise two of the deepest traditions of the western thought, reason and faith but that his arbitration seeks to safeguard the romantic residue in modern man. Like Freud, Weber never really believed in an enduring peace or in a final resolution of this conflict. What he did was to seek a truce through the segregation of the contenders by allowing each to dominate in different spheres of life.

Problems of objectivity

  1. Objectivity is a goal of scientific investigation. Sociology also being a science aspires for the goal objectivity. Objectivity is a frame of mind so that personal prejudices, preferences or predilections of the social scientists do not contaminate the collection of analysis of data. Thus scientific investigations should be free from prejudices of race, color, religion, sex or ideological biases.
  2. The need of objectivity in sociological research has been emphasized by all important sociologists. For example Durkheim in the Rules of the Sociological Method stated that social facts must be treated as things and all preconceived notions about social facts must be abandoned. Even Max Weber emphasized the need of objectivity when he said that sociology must be value free. According to Radcliff Brown the social scientist must abandon or transcend his ethnocentric and egocentric biases while carrying out researches. Similarly Malinowski advocated cultural relativism while anthropological field work in order to ensure objectivity.
  3. However objectivity continues to be an elusive goal at the practical level. In fact one school of thought represented by Gunnar Myrdal states that total objectivity is an illusion which can never be achieved. Because all research is guided by certain viewpoints and view points involve subjectivity.Myrdal suggested that the basic viewpoints should be made clear. Further he felt that subjectivity creeps in at various stages in the course of sociological research. Merton believes that the very choice of topic is influenced by personal preferences and ideological biases of the researcher.
  4. Besides personal preferences the ideological biases acquired in the course of education and training has a bearing on the choice of the topic of research. The impact of ideological biases on social-research can be very far-reaching as seen from the study of Tepostalan village in Mexico. Robert Redfield studied it with functionalist perspective and concluded that there exists total harmony between various groups in the village while Oscar Lewis studied this village at almost the same time from Marxist perspective and found that the society was conflict ridden. Subjectivity can also creep in at the time of formulation of hypotheses. Normally hypotheses are deduced from existing body of theory. All sociological theories are produced by and limited to particular groups whose viewpoints and interests they represent. Thus formulation of hypotheses will automatically introduce a bias in the sociological research. The third stage at which subjectivity creeps in the course of research is that of collection of empirical data. No technique of data collection is perfect. Each technique may lead to subjectivity in one way or the other. In case of participant observation the observer as a result of nativisation acquires a bias in favour of the group he is studying. While in non-participant observation of the sociologist belongs to a different group than that under study he is likely to impose his values and prejudices.
  5. In all societies there are certain prejudices which affect the research studies. In case of interview as a technique the data may be influenced by context of the interview, the interaction of the participants, and participant’s definition of the situation and if adequate rapport does not extend between them there might be communication barriers. Thus according to P.V Young interview sometimes carries a subjectivity. Finally it can also affect the field limitations as reported by Andre Beteille study of Sripuram village in Tanjore where the Brahmins did not allow him to visit the untouchable locality and ask their point of view.
  6. Thus complete objectivity continues to be an elusive goal. The researcher should make his value preference clear in research monograph. Highly trained and skilled research workers should be employed. Various methods of data collection research should be used and the result obtained from one should be cross-checked with those from the other. Field limitations must be clearly stated in the research monograph.

Sociology As Interpretative Discipline

The positivistic approach to sociology tends to assume that society can shape the behavior of its members almost completely through socialization. However there is a section of sociologist who regards
the above view as an over-socialized conception of man. They do not accept the belief that an individual
is simply the society writ small.

According to them each individual’s personality carries an imprint to his unique experience along with the socially transmitted world view. Also they draw attention to the mercurial nature of man and they see in the positivistic approach an attempt to reduce man to a passive being. But these sociologists have not altogether rejected the positivist approach rather they find it inadequate and seek to supplement it with new approaches which look for new data and adopt new methods. These sociologists see their discipline as somewhat akin to literature than to natural sciences in the sense that they seek to reflect the pattern of meaning in a set of observation they have made.

However there is no total consensus among these critics of positivist approach. One aspect they share in common is that they all emphasize on the importance of underlying meanings in order to understand social behavior otherwise these critics differ significantly among themselves.

One extreme there exists anti-positivist approach like that of ethnomethodologists and on the other hand
there are moderate critics of positivism like Max Weber whose approach tries to build a bridge between
positivist approach and extreme form of interactionism.According to Weber social reality is characterized
by the presence of geist or consciousness. Due to the presence of consciousness people ascribe meanings to the situation around them which include other people too. These meanings influence the subsequent behaviour.Consequently any attempt to understand social reality must take into account these meanings and motives. These meanings ascribed by the people are partly determined by cultural norms and partly shaped by the personal experiences of the individual actors.

Thus an attempt to understand social behavior should not stop simply at observation from without instead it should involve interpretation of the underlying meanings and motives. This requires the use of new method through which an empathetic liaison can be established between the observer and the actor. Empathetic liaison means that the observer tries to place himself imaginatively in the actor’s position. The sociologist should try to figure out meanings and motives given by the actor. In terms of these meanings and motives he then tries to rationally explain the actor’s behavior. This is the essence of Verstehen Approach advocated by MaxWeber.

Other interpretative sociologists those identified as Symbolic Interactionist are content to operate with a relatively simple set of assumption about how we come to know about social phenomena. They accept the meaning that the actors attribute to social phenomena at the face value and proceed to erect their systematic interpretations on these foundations. The term symbolic interactionist used because it is through symbols that meanings, motives and attributes are conveyed. Thus an understanding of symbols can help in understanding the meanings conveyed by actors involved in the interacting situation. For example a cross x may symbolize a barbarian method of execution or a religious movement. V-sign signifies victory where Winston Churchill elevated the gesture to a symbol of national aspiration. The assumptions underlying symbolic interactionism are;

  1. The individual and society are regarded, as inseparable for the individual can become a human being
    only in a social context.
  2. Human beings are viewed as acting on the basis of meaning that they give to the objects and events rather than simply reacting either to external stimuli such as social forces or internal stimuli such as drives.
  3. Meanings arise from the process of interaction rather than being simply present at the outset. To some degree meanings are created, modified, developed and changed within interactive situation rather than being fixed and preformed.
  4. Meanings are the result of interpretative procedures employed by actors within interactions context by taking the role of others; actors interpret the meanings and intentions of others. By means of mechanism of self-interaction, individuals modify or change definitions of their situation rehearse alternative course of interactions and consider their possible consequences. These meanings that guide actions arise in the context of interaction via a series of complex interpretative procedures.
  5. The methodology of symbolic interactionism as advocated by Herbert Blumer demands that the
    sociologist must immerse himself in the area of life that he seek to investigate. Rather than attempting to fill data into predefined categories, he must attempt to grasp the actor’s view of social reality. Since action is directed by actor meanings the sociologist must catch the process of interpretation through which the actors construct their action. This means, he must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he studies.

Another approach belonging to social anthropology that can also be categorized as an interpretive approach starts with a description of commonly accepted meanings that people attribute to social phenomena. Mere description of such meanings would simply amount to an ethnographic study of the people – an account of their culture. These sociologists are interested in understanding social phenomena in general terms.

Accordingly they must move beyond to find meaning of the phenomena and try to discover patterns and regularities in these meanings that they can represent as cultural themes. Further patterns and regularities running through themes may in turn be represented as configuration of themes which taken together may be held to characterize the essential characteristics of a culture. In this way the social anthropologist Ruth Benedict characterizes the cultures of some American Indian People as Dionysian that is given to extreme and frenzied state of being and other as apollonian always seeking moderation in behavior and cultural expressions. She achieved this by tracing these features through wide range of their manifestation in the cultures of the people she examined. These interpretations of meanings at different levels of abstractions are all informed and guided by the ultimate motive establishing concepts that provide sociologist with a general way of understanding human activities and beliefs. There is yet another set of sociologists -those identified as Ethnomethodologists- who try to analyze the commonsense nature of social interactions.

The accumulated commonsense of generation results in pattern of behavioral topicalities. Social order is
dependent upon people behaving in a commonsense way. Thus, social interaction must be interpreted in
terms of these commonsense meanings, however for ethnomethodologist the basic problem of Sociology
goes back even further than this. They begin with the assumption that society exists only in so far as members perceive its existence. So member’s view of social reality must be understood. But sociologists
must also be concerned with processes by which people come to establish meanings in social phenomena. They say that the aim of sociology should not be simply to identify and record the meanings
that people have ascribed to situation but to understand the ways in which they generate those meanings in the first place. The idea that it is important to understand how the world looks to those who live in it is approved of by these sociologists, but they argue that the final emphasis should be on the ways in which the members of society come to see their world in the ways they do. Harold Garfinkel and Circourel are some of the important Ethnomethodologists.Since most meanings are transmitted through symbols, sociologists who want to study the interpreted procedures which members of the society use to attribute meaning typically focus their attention upon speech exchanges in which the participants are involve in making sense of each other talk.

The emphasis is upon the study of ways in which people in actual situation of interaction come to see what the other person is meaning. Circourel’s study of Juvenile Delinquency is an example where he traces the way in which young people come to be categorized as juvenile delinquents by the police, probationary officers and courts so on.

The account of information which interpretative sociologists require to substantiate their analysis is quite different from the information needed by positivistic sociologists. Therefore new sources of information are made use of however quite often even those methods of data collection which are used by positivist sociologist are also made use of by interpretative sociologist. For example Weber relied on official statistical records and historical documents in his study of ‘The Protestant Ethics and Spirit of Capitalism’ direct observation is also frequently used accompanied by extensive verbatim recording of conversational exchange among the actors involved. Sometimes laboratory techniques have also been used as in the well-known experiment by Garfinkel when students were asked to take part in an experiment with Psycho-therapeutic procedures. The other methods of data collection used by interpretative sociologists include the case-studies, use of life histories, personal diaries and correspondence and other biographical records to provide insights into the subjective dimension of the social behavior.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
sandip khandekar

Mam/ sir ,
Your study matterial is very nice plz provide fast