Is a value-free sociology either possible or desirable?

his essay is asking two questions at once. The key words in the title are 'possible' and 'desirable'. In order to achieve a high grade, both questions must be answered. An appropriate balance is the key to success. This just goes to show the importance of reading the question through a few times before you attempt to answer it. Many students panic in examinations and don't read the question through properly. This often results in good students achieving lower grades than they are capable of. Be warned.

Value freedom is the notion that sociological research can and should be carried out without the researcher's own views and values intruding into the research investigation. In other words, the socioiogist must be neutral, without biases and should not take sides. Value freedom is often associated with objectivity. According to Bierstedt, research is only objective if it is free from 'subjective elements' and 'personal desires'.

This opening paragraph simply provides a brief definition of value freedom. If you can remember a relevant quote or phrase, it always looks good in an introduction. However, if you can't remember a quote, just do what I've done and put down the key words.

The view that a value-free sociology is both possible and desirable is most closely associated with the positivist perspective. According to positivists, value freedom is achieved by following the methods and procedures of the natural sciences. However, this positivist view of an objective and value-free natural science has been challenged by Kaplan who has pointed out that researchers within the natural sciences do not necessarily follow the methodological approach which positivists maintain that natural scientists use. In addition, values must inevitably come into any research whether it is within natural science or social science. As soon as a researcher chooses one subject to study rather than another subject, that researcher has expressed a value. For example, within

In this paragraph, I've explained where the idea of value freedom comes from and how it can be achieved. This is an example of setting the scene and acts as a launch-pad into the main body of the essay.

A-Level Sociology: Essays



sociology it is evident that classical sociologists such as Durkheim and Marx, who both claimed to be objective and scientific, were in fact motivated by their own personal values. The Marxist Baritz takes this argument one stage further by saying that the values which form the basis of any piece of research are less likely to be those of the individual researcher than of the organisation or person funding the research. This argument is supported by the example of the Rowntree Trust which funds research into poverty.

Weber is a key name in the valuefreedom debate, and no essay on this subject wouldbe complete without him. This is because Weber points to the relative nature of values. Youmust make sure that you've a good understanding of Weber or your value-freedom essay willbe weak and incomplete.

Weber would agree that the values of the researcher do influence the area of study. He pointed out that values are inevitably linked to the society in which the researcher works, so different societies will give rise to different types of knowledge. The knowledge reflects the values of that particular society. For example, the Bulger case has given rise to numerous attempts to link the mass media with anti-social behaviour. Research of this nature is unlikely in a third world priority. However, Weber gation had been chosen, researcher does not make of the research. country as other issues or values take believed that once the topic of investiobjectivity was possible, providing the any value judgements upon the results

This paragraph uses information from another area of the syllabus, in this instance, health, and applies it to the question. This is a useful technique to learn.

According to Marxists, the researcher may consider the results to be value-free but there is no guarantee that others will look at the results of the research in the same manner. Marxists would argue that some research findings can be used to benefit the dominant social class. Additionally, the powerful can commission research to suit their own purposes; for example, the layout of large supermarket chains is designed by social scientists in order to maximise profits. Where research findings do not fit in with the goals of the body funding the research, the funders have the power to suppress the findings. This occurred in the case of the Conservative government which commissioned The Black Report and The Health Divide which were research investigations into the health of the nation. The results showed that bad health was linked to inequalities between the social classes. The government did not publish these reports as they might have proved damaging to Conservative policy.

Gouldner is another essential theorist in the value-freedom debate. You willnotice that the introduction of Gouldner takes the essay in a different direction. The contemporary issue of homelessness is used to support

According to the American Marxist Gouldner in his essay 'AntiMinotaur: The Myth of a Value Free Sociology', just as the mythical creature the Minotaur cannot be separated into man and bull, neither can values be separated from facts in sociology. Gouldner argues that the whole idea of a value-free sociology stems from the self-interest generated by capitalism. He claims


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that early American sociologists who had been critical of American society came under attack from those in power and as a result began to lose their academic status. In order to save themselves, they created the myth of a value-free sociology and were no longer critical of American society. However, Gouldner claims that 'sitting on the fence' and saying nothing critical about society is in itself a value, so a value-free sociology is not possible. He argues that if something is wrong in society, sociologists have a moral duty to speak out because silence concerning a social inequality is as good as support for social inequality. For example, sociologists should comment on people living and sleeping on the streets, and if they stay silent about it, then they are as good as saying that people should live and sleep on the streets. Gouldner believes that sociology is not and should not be value-free. Since the 1960s, many modern sociologists have rejected the notion that a value-free sociology is either possible or desirable. The interactionist Becker claimed that as the social world was mainly seen through the eyes of the powerful, sociologists should attempt to redress the balance by showing the social world through the eyes of the underdog. Hence, many pieces of research from the second half of the twentieth century have not been value-free, nor have they attempted to be. This trend was encapsulated in Parker's work View From the Boys, which shows crime from the point of view of those who commit it. Marxist sociologists would go further than Becker by advocating a form of sociology which is clearly political and therefore not value-free. Marxist sociology not only looks at the structured inequalities of the social world, but it frequently gives a prescription to remove these inequalities as it perceives them to be immoral. This idea that sociology is political and therefore not value-free is not exclusive to left-wing writers. For example, the New Right apply right-wing explanations, laden with right-wing values, to the causes of social problems: Marsland criticises the Welfare State for creating a culture of dependency and advocates the destruction of the Welfare State as we know it. Many sociologists concur with Gouldner in believing that sociology is not and should not be value-free.

Gouldner's argument. Can you think of different examples which equally demonstrate Gouldner's point? You need to develop the confidence to apply theoretical debates to contemporary issues. It will make your essays more enjoyable to read and write and will show that you can make the link between theory and practice.

The conclusion refers to, and

In conclusion, it appears that contemporary sociology has lost its infatuation with value freedom. Most contemporary sociologists do not see a value-free sociology as either possible or desirable. It has been accepted that values which are present in every society will become part of the socialisation process of any individual. This in itself will ensure that a value-free sociology is impossible. Those like Marsland who attack sociology for its left-wing bias are themselves guilty of their own right-wing bias through their preoccupation with maintaining the present capitalist social order.

answers, the question. It also makes further reference to why a value-free sociology isn't possible. Note that the question has been answered at various points in the essay and not just in the conclusion. Regular reference ot the question will keep your essay tight and to the point.

A-Level Sociology: Essays


Essays on value freedom are fairly clear-cut - there's a limited number of ways in which the examiner can ask the question. Therefore, unlike other essays, it's highly unlikely that you'll have trouble in interpreting the question. However, do give yourself time to read the question thoroughly and plan your answer carefully. Unli ke other areas of sociology, where there are any number of theorists who can be applied to explain a point, freedom has some specific theorists who ought to be used, namely Weber and Gouldner. In addition, as stated in the guidance notes, don't be afraid to link in other areas of sociology. In the case of this essay the subject of health has been linked with the subject of value freedom. The modularisation of A-level Sociology has encouraged students to view each topic as a separate subject. It's important, however, to recognise the interrelationships between all topics on the syllabus.

Related questions
1 2 To what extent can value judgements be kept out of sociological research? 'There is no such thing as value neutrality in sociology and it is therefore pointless to pursue it.' Evaluate this statement. How far is it true to say that values inevitably enter into any piece of sociological research?


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