Introducing Western Sociologists

Introducing Western Sociologists


What is special or different about the kind of objectivity needed in social science ?

(i) To develop interpretative understanding social actions : Weber argued that the overall objective of the social sciences was to develop an ‘interpretative understanding of social action’. These sciences were thus very different from the natural sciences, which aimed to discover the objective ‘laws of nature’ governing the physical world. Since the central concern of the social sciences was with social action and since human actions necessarily involved subjective meanings, the methods of enquiry of social science also had to be different from the methods of natural science.

(ii) To understand to human behaviour : For Max Weber ‘social action’ included all human behaviour that was meaningful, that is, action to which actors attached a meaning. In studying social action the sociologist’s task was to recover the meanings attributed by the actor. To accomplish this task the sociologist had to put themselves in the actor’s place, and imagine what these meanings were or could have been.

(iii) Understanding : Sociology was thus a systematic form of ‘empathetic understanding’, that is an understanding based not on ‘feelings for’ (sympathy) but ‘feeling with’ (empathy). The empathic (or empathic) understanding which sociologits derive from this exercise enable them to access the subjective meanings and motivations of social actors.

(iv) To dicuss the special and complex kind of objectivity : Weber was among the first to discuss the special and complex kind of ‘objectivity’ that the social sciences had to cultivate. The social world was founded on subjective human meanings, values, feelings, prejudices, ideals and so on. In studying this world, the social sciences inevitably had to deal with these subjective meanings.

(v) Empathic Understanding : In order to capture these meaning and describe them accurately, social scientists had to constantly practise ‘empathetic understanding’ by putting themselves (imaginatively) in the place of the people whose actions they were studying. But this investigation had to be done objectively even though it was concerned with subjective matters.

(vi) For value neutrality : Empathic understanding required the sociologist to faithfully record the subjective meanings and motivations of social actors without allowing his/ her own personal beliefs and opinions to influence this process in any way. In other words, sociologists were meant to describe, not judge, the subjective feelings of others.

(vii) Objectivity According to Max Weber : Weber called this kind of objectivity ‘Value neutrality’. The sociologist must neutrally record subjective values without being affected by her/his own feelings/opinions about these values. Weber recognised that this was very difficult to do because social scientists were also members of society and always had their own subjective beliefs and prejudices. However, they had to practise great self, discipline — exercise an ‘iron will’ as he puts it — in order to remain ‘Value neutral’ when descrifing the values and worldviews of others.

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