Science is “a systematized body of knowledge”. An essential feature of scientific knowledge is that it is based upon ‘sensory observation or empirical data’. Next, the information acquired through sensory observation has been made meaningful and manageable. Thus science tries to arrive at ‘law like explanatory generalizations’. For the purpose of acquiring empirical data and for processing them into law like statements science relies on a ‘method’. The basic elements of SCIENTIFIC METHOD are:

  • Observation of an event that stimulates thinking.
  • Defining or classifying the terms or events being considered.
  • Formulating the research issue or hypothesis.
  • Generating a theory or proposition – a general statement that serves as a potential answer to the research question.
  • Creating a research design in order to test whether the theory or proposition is valid.
  • Collecting data-working through the research design to make observations.
  • Analyzing the data
  • Making conclusions and evaluating the theory

The earliest sciences to grow were physical and natural sciences. Due to their success in exploring the physical and natural world and in being able to arrive at near universal laws, they came to be viewed as models for other sciences to emulate.

Physical and natural sciences try to rely on measurement and quantification of data. Quantification brings in exactitude and makes precise comparisons possible. Sociology, being a late comer was also influenced and developed under the shadow of these positive sciences. Early sociologists conceived Sociology as a positive science. For example, influenced by biology, Herbert Spencer viewed society as an organism like entity; a unified whole made up of interconnected parts. He advocated methods of positive sciences to be used for the study of social phenomena.

Even Durkheim regarded Sociology to be a positive science. According to him social facts constitute the subject matter of Sociology. He defined social facts in such a way that they were amenable to sensory observation and exploratory generalization about them could be made by using positive science methods. Subsequently, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski and even Parsons continue to view Sociology as a positive science and so did most of the Chicago School sociologists.

“Scientific Method is a systematic and objective attempt to study a problem for the purpose of deriving general principles”. Robert Burns describes it as “a systematic investigation to find solutions to a problem”. The investigation is guided by previously collected information. Man’s knowledge grows by studying what is already known and revising past knowledge in the light of new findings.

  • While talking of research, sometimes we talk of empirical (scientific) research and sometimes of library research, historical research, social research, and so on. Empirical research involves observation of facts or interaction with people. Library research is done in library situation. Historical research is the study of history (e.g., functioning of caste system in different periods of history) or biographical research (e.g., research into the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi). Social research is a research that focuses on the study of human groups or the processes of social interaction. Scientific research is building of knowledge through collection of empirically verifiable facts. The term ‘verifiable’ here mans “which can be checked by others for accuracy”
  • Royce A. Singleton and Bruce C. Straits have said that “scientific social research consists of the process of formulating and seeking answers to questions about the social world”. For example, why do husbands batter their wives? Why do people take drugs? What are the consequences of population explosion? And so on. Similarly, the issues of inquiry may be of rural poverty, urban slums, youth crime, political corruption, exploitation of the weak, environmental pollution, and the like. To answer these questions, social scientists have devised basic guidelines, principles and techniques. Scientific sociological research, broadly speaking, is concerned with discovering, organizing and developing systematic reliable knowledge about society or social life, social action, social behaviour, social relations, social groups (like families, castes, tribes, communities, etc.), social organizations (like social, religious, political, business, etc.), and social systems and social structures.
  • Theodorson and Theodorson have maintained that scientific method is “building of a body of scientific knowledge through observation, experimentation, generalization and verification”. Their contention is that scientific inquiry develops knowledge experienced through the senses, i.e., which is based on empirical evidence. According to Manheim, scientific research involves a method characterized by objectivity, accuracy and systematization. Objectivity eliminates biases in fact-collection and interpretation: Accuracy makes sure that things are exactly as described. Systematization aims at consistency and comprehension.
  • The assumption is that any statement pertaining to any social phenomenon made on the basis of scientific inquiry can be accepted as true and meaningful, if it is empirically verifiable. Thus, individual’s idiosyncratic observations not shared by all scientists are not regarded as ‘scientific facts’. For example, a statement that “skilled workers are more undisciplined than non-skilled workers” lacks empirical validity; hence no one will accept it as a ‘scientific fact’. But, if a statement is given that “the important cause of child’s delinquent behaviour is a disorganized family”, it will be taken as scientific, considering it a proposition which has been found valid in a number of studies. “About whom” the facts will be collected in a scientific inquiry will depend upon the ‘focus of the discipline’ to which the researcher belongs. If the researcher is a sociologist, he will collect facts about social phenomena or social world.
  • Although scientific research method depends on the collection of empirical facts, yet facts alone do not constitute a science. For meaningful understanding facts must be ordered in some fashion, analysed, generalized, and related to other facts. Thus, theory construction is a vital part of the scientific inquiry. Since facts collected and findings evolved through the scientific method are interrelated with the previous findings of other scholars or earlier theories, scientific knowledge is a cumulative process.
  • The scientific method could either be an inductive method or the deductive method. Inductive method involves establishing generalizations, i.e., building generalizations inferred from specific facts, or drawing particular principles from general instances, while Deductive method involves testing generalizations, i.e., it is the process of reasoning from general principles to particular instances.

Characteristics of Scientific Research

Horton and Hunt have given following characteristics of scientific method :

  1. Verifiable evidence, i.e., factual observations which other observers can see and check.
  2. Accuracy, i.e., describing what really exists. It means truth or correctness of a statement or describing things exactly as they are and avoiding jumping to unwarranted conclusions either by exaggeration or fantasizing.
  3. Precision, i.e., making it as exact as necessary, or giving exact number or measurement. Instead of saying, “I interviewed a large number of people”, one says, “I interviewed 493 persons”. Instead of saying, “most of the people were against family planning”, one says, “seventy-two per cent people were against family planning”. Thus, in scientific precision, one avoids colorful literature and vague meanings. How much precision is needed in social science will depend upon what the situation requires.
  4. Systematization, i.e., attempting to find all the relevant data, or collecting data in a systematic and organized way so that the conclusions drawn are reliable. Data based on casual recollections are generally incomplete and give unreliable judgments and conclusions.
  5. Objectivity, i.e., being free from all biases and vested interests. It means, observation is unaffected by the observer’s values, beliefs and preferences to the extent possible and he is able to see and accept facts as they are, not as he might wish them to be. The researcher remains detached from his emotions, prejudices and needs, and guards his biases.
  6. Recording, i.e., jotting down complete details as quickly as possible. Since human memory is falliable, all data collected are recorded. Researcher will not depend on the recalled facts but will analyse the problem on the basis of the recorded data. Conclusions based on recalled unrecorded data are not trust worthy.
  7. Controlling conditions, i.e., controlling all variables except one and then attempting to examine what happens when that variable is varied. This is the basic technique in all scientific experimentation-allowing one variable to vary while holding all other variables constant. Unless all variables except one have been controlled, we cannot be sure which variable has produced the results. Though a physical scientist is able to control as many variables as he wishes in an experiment he conducts in the laboratory but a social scientist cannot control all variables as he wishes. He functions under many constraints.
  8. Training investigators, i.e., imparting necessary knowledge to investigators to make them understand what to look for, how to interpret it and avoid inaccurate data collection. When some remarkable observations are reported, the scientist first tries to know what is the observer’s level of education, training and sophistication. Does he really understand facts he reports? The scientists are always impressed by authenticated reports.

Major Steps in Scientific Research

According to Theodorson and Theodorson, scientific method involves the following steps :

  1. The problem is defined.
  2. The problem is stated in terms of a particular theoretical framework and related to relevant findings of previous research.
  3. A hypothesis (or hypotheses) relating to the problem is devised, utilizing previously accepted theoretical principles.
  4. The procedure to be used in gathering data to test the hypothesis is determined.
  5. The data regathered.
  6. The data are analysed to determine if the hypothesis is verified or rejected.
  7. Finally, The conclusions of the study are related to the original body of theory, which is modified
    in accordance with the new findings.

Kenneth D. Baily has delineated five stages of social research :

  1. Choosing the research problem and stating the hypotheses;
  2. Formulating the research design;
  3. Gathering the data;
  4. Analyzing the data; and
  5. Interpreting the results so as to test the hypotheses

Horton and Hunt have pointed out eight steps in scientific research or scientific method of investigation:

  1. Define the problem, which is worth studying through the methods of science.
  2. Review literature, so that errors of other research scholars may not be repeated.
  3. Formulate the hypothesis, i.e., propositions which can be tested.
  4. Plan the research design, i.e., outlining the process as to how, what and where the data is to be collected, processed and analysed.
  5. Collect the data, i.e., actual collection of facts and information in accordance with the research design. Sometimes it may become necessary to change the design to meet some unforeseen difficulty.
  6. Analyse the data, i.e., classify, tabulate and compare the data, making whatever tests are necessary to get the results.
  7. Draw conclusions, i.e., whether the original hypothesis is found true or false and is confirmed or rejected, or are the results inconclusive? What has the research added to our knowledge? What implications have it for sociological theory? What new questions have been posed for further research?
  8. Replicate the study. Though the above-mentioned seven steps complete a single research study but research findings are confirmed by replication. Only after several researches can the research conclusions be accepted as generally true.

The important uses of scientific research in Sociology are:

  1. It improves decision-making;
  2. It reduces uncertainty;
  3. It enables adopting new strategies;
  4. It helps in planning for the future; and
  5. It helps in ascertaining trends.

It is because of this value of scientific research that today many sociologists are engaged in research some on full-time basis and some on part-time basis. Many university teachers divide their time between teaching and research. The funds for research are provided by the UGC, UCSSR, UNICEF, Ministry of Welfare and Justice, Government of India, World Bank.

The scientific inquiry should not be conducted when availability of adequate data is doubtful, there is
time constraint, cost (of inquiry) is higher than value, and no tactical decisions need to be made.

Critique Proposition:

However, the attempts to build Sociology as a positive science were criticized by Non Positivist and Anti-Positivist. Critics have raised many questions regarding this. Following are some of the main limitations which come in the way of Sociology being a Positive Science:

  1. Problem of Experimentation: Experimentation is crucial in scientific observation to establish precise relationships between different variables. However, experimentation is only rarely possible in Sociology. The limitations are both practical and ethical. It is practically not possible to control human behaviour in a laboratory like situation and it is even ethnically undesirable to treat humans like guinea and pigs. However, experimentation is not essential feature of a science. There are mature sciences like astronomy where experiments cannot be conducted. Thus inability to conduct experiments does not automatically disqualify Sociology from being a science.
  2. Problem of Quantification: Although some aspects of sociological phenomena can be quantified using statistical methods. But, a large part of it is essentially qualitative in nature and hence are not amendable to quantitative techniques. Even, the attempts of Neo-positivist to apply quantitative techniques to sociological phenomena have met with little success.
  3. Problem of Generalization: Sociologists have not being successful in arriving at law-like generalizations through their studies. The reason for this failure lies in the very nature of the subject matter of Sociology. Human behaviour does not follow recurrent patterns like physical objects. Man is volitional by nature and human volition plays an important role in shaping human behaviour. Quite often some of the human behaviour is unique and unrepeatable, further more due to inability carry out experimentation, precise causal relations cannot be established. At best sociologists can establish statistical correlations. The generalizations which sociologist make are often in the nature of statements, representing trends of tendency statements.
  4. Problem of Objectivity : Objectivity refers to a frame of mind whereby the personal prejudices and predilections of the scientists do not contaminate the collection and analysis of data. However, it has been found that objectivity is a near impossibility in sociological research. At best the sociologist can try to minimize subjectivity.
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