1. Values and Ethics in Sociology
Positivists argue that sociologists should work in the same way as other scientists –
they must observe, measure, classify and test and as a result construct theories and
‘social facts’. Theories can then be constructed which will then be tested (peer
reviewed) by other researchers.
It was Durkheim’s mission to establish sociology as a science; he argued sociology
could be as objective as the natural sciences as long as it studied social facts. In his
famous study Le Suicide (1897), he attempted to establish the social facts that
motivated people to take their own lives.
• What did Durkheim argue caused suicide?
Other sociologists argue that this is far too idealistic a stance. Even Durkheim was
motivated to conduct his research as a result of the death of a friend. Max Weber,
who is most closely associated with the idea of value freedom, was probably primarily
attempting to keep Prussian censors at bay, when he advocated this position.
Is neutrality possible?
The biggest employer of researchers in the UK is the government, who require all
those working for them to sign away their rights to publish, as a result they will surely
be less inclined to publish anything controversial.
At Warwick University in the 1970s and 1980s one of the lecturers in the Politics
Department had the title, ‘Volkswagen Lecturer in German Politics’.
• How might this undermine the neutrality of the research being undertaken?
Personal interests and beliefs will clearly influence the selection of the research being
undertaken. Carrying out research can take up years of a person’s life, researchers
must clearly have a passion for what they are doing.
• What would you do research on?
Often researchers find it difficult to get the go ahead to research a topic, Ann Oakley
found it very hard to get her supervisors to allow her to carry out research for
• Why do you think this was?
Today green issues are arguably ignored.
Foucault agues, from a postmodernist perspective, that all knowledge is that which the
powerful want to impose on the rest of society. Being ‘value free’ is therefore a set of
Committed Sociologists believe that the discipline should not be neutral. Marx was
very critical of other theorists; ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in
various ways. The point however is to change it’. Althusser argued that the role of
sociology is to expose the real nature of capitalism in order to hasten its downfall.
2. Similarly, radical feminists believe that highlighting the real nature of patriarchy will
free women, and that far too much sociology at present reflects ‘malestream’ thinking.
Howard Becker argued that sociology should always be on the side of the underdog –
the powerless. Gouldner went a step further in terms of the study of crime; he
believed that either the police officer or the criminal hold real power, this is held by
those who create the structures of oppression.
• Who do you think he meant by this?
In terms of actual research, sociologists are always obliged to take ethical
considerations into account, but in reality many sociologists such as Venkatesh
(‘Gang Leader for a Day’) cross the line.
Dick Hobbs did ethnographic research on the non-uniformed police (the C.I.D.)
and criminals in Tower Hamlets. He discovered that both groups behaved illegally,
but he refused to pass criminal information to the police. He also was also doing illicit
observation on the police. By using these methods he was arguably able to produce a
more important study than if he had stuck to the rules.
Laud Humphreys in his study ‘Tearoom Trade’ did covert research on gay sexual
encounters in public toilets. He had become an accepted member of the gay scene in
Chicago (he was not gay), and he acted as a ‘watch queen’ during their illegal
activities, pretending to be a voyeur. He also noted down car number plates and
obtained addresses through police contacts. He called on one hundred of these
contacts and interviewed them having changed his appearance, pretending to be
conducting a health survey.
Some of Humphreys colleagues at Washington University demanded that he be
sacked for using these methods, while members of the gay community praised him for
creating a greater understanding and dispelling myths and stereotypes. In other words:
the ends justified the means.
According to D. Warwick (1982) ‘Social research involving deception and
manipulation ultimately helps produce a society of cynics, liars and manipulators and
undermines the trust which is essential to a just social order’.
Gomm (2004) argues that sociology cannot be value-free as society is among other
things composed of values.
‘Patriarchal knowledge is based on the premise that the experience of only half of the
human population needs to be taken into account and the resulting version can be
imposed on the other half.’ [D. Spender – 1985]
‘There are numerous points at which bias and the intrusion of values can occur.
Values can materialise at any point during the course of research. The researcher may
3. develop an affection or sympathy, which does not necessarily present at the outset of
the investigation, for the people being studied. It is quite common, for example, for
researchers working within a qualitative research strategy, and in particular when they
use participant observation of very intensive interviewing, to develop a close affinity
with the people they study to the extent that they find it difficult to disentangle their
stance as social scientists from their subjects’ perspective. This possibility may be
exacerbated by the tendency that Becker identified for sociologists in particular to be
very sympathetic to underdog groups.’ [A.Bryman -2004]
Using material from the items and elsewhere, assess the view that values inevitably
enter sociological research in many ways.
How to tackle this question- you need to examine the debate between those who
advocate value-free and value-laden sociology. You should first present the positivists
claim that it is possible to keep values out of the research process. Then contrast this
with the view that the values of those who fund the research will inevitably influence
the process (‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’). Similarly, the politics, values and
career interests (publish in the most prestigious journals to promote your career), as
well as the choice of topic, methods and findings will always intrude into the process.
You should also consider whether it is desirable to keep values out of research and
whether Becker is right that sociologists should take sides.