In the last essay I defined sociology as the scientific study of society. In order to understand that definition you have to understand what a science is, and that’s relatively easy. Science is an intellectual, emotional, moral, even spiritual orientation to truth. More specifically, science is the search for truth and scientists are people who actively go about searching for the truth that surrounds them. If you are searching for truth, then you are engaged in scientific activity. I am a scientist, for example, because I am involved in a search for truth.
It is true to say that science is a search for truth, but there is more to science than that. A lot of people search for truth and they wouldn’t necessarily themselves scientists. For example, you could argue that people who are spiritual or religious are searching for truth, but you wouldn’t call them scientists; nor would you call an eight-year-old child asking “why” questions (e.g. why is the sun yellow, why do the seasons turn, why do people die, etc.) a scientist. Something distinguishes the activities of the faithful or the child from the activities of a scientist, and that something is simply method or, more specifically, scientific method. Scientists search for truth, that is true; but they don’t search for the truth in a willy-nilly fashion. Unlike the child who looks up to the parent, or the faithful who look to God, priests, or religious experience, scientists turn to scientific method to help them discover the truth. Therefore, to define science we might say that science is the search for truth using scientific method.
Science is the search for truth using scientific method
Of course, the question at this point becomes, what is scientific method? Frankly, the answer to that question depends entirely on who you ask. If you as ask a natural scientist (a natural scientist is someone who looks at the physical/material world) what scientific method is, they will point to a laboratory with controlling equipment and controlled conditions as the exemplar of scientific method. That is, a natural scientist will tell you that scientific method is all about control. A natural scientist will say that if you want to find the truth of something, you have to control conditions to make sure. For example, if you are a natural scientist and you want to find out what happens when you mix “chemical a” with “chemical b,” you are going to control all conditions so you can see exactly what happens. You’ll make sure you have pure samples of each of the chemicals to be sure it just these chemicals you are mixing. You’ll also be sure to mix the chemicals in a clean glass container to ensure sure no other chemicals get in and confound the reaction. You’ll also want to mix in a laboratory where you can control temperature, sunlight, and other factors that might impact the reaction. If you are natural scientist and you want to see the truth, you are going to want to control things to make sure. You do this simply because control makes the truth easier to see. It does this for two reasons. Reason one, control makes it easier for the scientist to focus. If you mix chemicals in a laboratory where you’ve made sure nothing else gets in the way of your observations, i.e. if the light is just right, and the camera is turned on, and there’s no people milling about, the truth that you are looking for will be easier to see! In a controlled laboratory, in a controlled experiment, you’ll be less distracted, more focused, and more likely to be able to see exactly what it is you are looking at. I know this may sound a bit mundane, but nevertheless it is true, control of conditions isolates and purifies the environment so that the truth, whatever it may happen to be, comes shining clearly through.
The second reason that control makes the truth easier to see is that control simplifies and purifies. The truth is, the world is a complicated thing and sometimes sorting out the truth can be complicated as well. It is always easier to sort out the truth when you are looking for simpler truths under simpler conditions, and so natural scientists look to simplify and control. They do this by controlling and reducing the number of variables that get mixed into their laboratory experiments. This is going to sound totally obvious, but if you are a chemical scientist mixing chemicals you want to be sure that the chemicals you are mixing are pure, otherwise you’ll not be able to say with accuracy what the result of this mix is. If you mix water and salt for example, but your trickster colleague put small amounts of potassium in with the salt, your results are not going to be same as if you mix pure salt and water. If you mix salt, potassium, and water, you’ll get a little fire. If you then say that mixing salt and water gives you fire, your statement will be false because another variable will have gotten in the way. It is for this reason that scientists seek to simplify and control their experiments. They control conditions (temperature, pressure), they control substances (only working with the purest chemicals available, for example), and they even control their observation and the way they talk about it. Scientific method, as you see, is all about control; but not in a bad way. Natural scientists use control to help them sort out the truth. Using the scientific method, scientists seek to control as many variables and conditions they can so that they can focus in, pay attention, and accurately perceive whatever truth it is that they are currently after.
Now the astute reader will notice a problem with this definition. If scientists use the scientific method and the scientific method is about control, then social sciences like sociology and psychology have a major problem. If the scientific method is about control, then how do you study human beings? You can’t just throw them in a laboratory and control their entire life space, can you? Well, as it turns out, you can throw humans into a laboratory and try to control their life space and psychologists do it all the time. They get humans to sign waivers, they bring them into laboratories, they mix some variables about, and they observe to see what will happen. They do this for exactly the same reason that natural scientists do it, to control conditions to make the truth easier to analyze and discern. The more psychologists are able to control the experiment, the purer the conditions are, the more confidence they have in stating their truths. This is exactly what American psychologist Stanley Milgram did. He conducted what may be the most famous psychological experiment in the history of psychological science. He was researching authority and compliance and he wanted to know just how compliant humans could be. In order to study compliance, he brought subjects into his laboratory and asked them to apply an increasingly intense, and ultimately deadly (or so they thought), shock to a total stranger to see just how they would go. Cari Romm of The Atlantic explains:
…hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way (Romm, 2015: bold font added).
You can view a short documentary excerpt at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ
After conducting his experiment, Stanley Milgram found that a large percentage of humans would actually kill another human being if an authority figure was telling them to do it. That is, a large percentage applied a deadly shock. From this he and others basically concluded that human beings are sheep and that they are wired to follow authority. It seems like a reasonable conclusion, right; and many millions have concluded just that. Milgram’s experiment has been used to explain everything from the Holocaust to torture, and it seems like it is reasonable to do so. After all, Milgram followed the scientific method. He brought his chemicals (his people) into a laboratory, cut them off from external influence, and controlled the variables he mixed in. He was focused and attentive and he worked in a relatively pure environment. The problem is though, working with humans is a lot more complicated than working with salt and potassium. Humans have a mind of their own and they often think and react in unpredictable ways. What’s more, it is very hard to control conditions. Milgram certainly gave the impression that he controlled conditions, but as it turns out, he didn’t. Other things were going on that Milgram possibly didn’t see, and certainly did not report, that undermine people’s simplistic conclusions (i.e. that humans are sheeple with something evil inside) and that they naturally obey orders. Indeed, subsequent and more detailed analysis of his data reveal that obedience, far from being something that is an essential part of our human nature, results from a lack of appropriate training. As Hollander notes, people who disobey “take advantage of a greater range of the full continuum of possible resistance practices than do obedient ones” (Hollander, 2015, p. 440). People who resist are, essentially, skilled at resistance (Hollander, 2015). Somewhere along the line they have learned the skills they need to stand up to authority, and they do just that. Indeed, one author found that that people naturally do not follow orders. When experimenters issued statements to their subjects as an order (and not a request), they flat out refused. As Reicher and Haslam (2011, p. 168) note. “upon closer inspection, it appears that one thing that they show unequivocally is that, when requests are framed as orders, people do not obey.” Wow. Same type of experiment, totally different conclusions! Human beings are naturally disobedient, not naturally obedient.
That people do not naturally follow orders seems to make intuitive sense. Soldiers, for example, do not naturally show up at the army door with the capacity to follow orders. In fact, they show up as totally useless to the military establishment, and the establishment isn’t afraid to tell them so. Indeed, as online marine pamphlet makes clear, candidates go through intense forms of training (read indoctrination) to make them into the blindly obedient soldiers that are so useful to the military apparatus. Interestingly, they aren’t shy about admitting. They say that “drill” is the foundation of discipline (with discipline being a euphemize for obedience) and they admit that the entire run of basic training is all about training soldiers to be disciplined. They are clear that boys and girls don’t show up that way. It takes a lot of time and effort get the troops to “follow orders no matter [what] the circumstance.” You can read it for yourself below or see the beginning of training by viewing this YouTube video.
“Drill is the foundation of discipline,” said Staff Sgt. Jorge Guerrero, the senior drill instructor for Platoon 1012, Bravo Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion. “It shows the recruits’ abilities to follow orders no matter the circumstance.”
From the moment recruits arrive on Parris Island, they are taught the basic fundamentals of drill.
Their precision and attention to detail has improved a great deal by that time,” said Guerrero, of Harlingen, Texas. “During week nine, the transformation from civilian to Marine is almost complete. You don’t see that during the week of Initial Drill (Anonymous, 2011).
I don’t want to get into a big debate on what was actually going on in the authority experiments, how humans are naturally anti-authoritarian (which I believe they are), or how it takes incredible effort to create compliant and obedient human beings here. What is important here is that you realize that the conclusions that Milgram came up with were at best over simplified and at worst totally wrong. This is important, but it doesn’t mean he was not a scientist. He did exactly what scientists are supposed to do in search for truth. The problem was, he underestimated the complexity of human beings and the experimental situation he put them into. He even underestimated his own bias. He was trying to explain Nazi behaviour, trying to explain human evil, and trying to do it in a simple way, like natural scientists are able do. He wanted to control everything and come up with a simple and pure causal statement like natural scientists do. That is, he wanted to mix chemical A with chemical B and get an easy statement about the results as they occurred. He did his experiment and made just such a simple causal statement. The problem was (and is) you cannot do that in psychology because the human animal is just too complex. As researchers forty years later have discovered, if you simplify too much, you miss important nuances and details, nuances and details which might lead to totally opposite, or at least more complex, conclusions. The moral of the story, simplistic methods of natural science simply don’t hold for psychology. Psychology requires more complex, more nuanced, more sophisticated treatments of truth. Psychologists need more sophisticated methods, more sophisticated ways of observing, and even more sophisticated ways of reporting the truth than, say, a chemist working with chemicals in a chemical laboratory might need.
Now it is certainly true that psychology requires more complicated scientific methods, and it is even more true for sociology. As we saw in the previous section, sociology deals with the world that we create. It would be an understatement to say the world we create is complex. Sociology deals with institutions like your school, your family, the media, and politics, all of which we create. Sociology takes as its subject matter areas like gender, social class, racism, and the economy. All these things are highly complex. Indeed, sociology as a science deals with far more complexity than even psychology. You think Milgram had issues trying to sort out what was going on in his laboratory? You can imagine what sociologists go through. Sociologists deal with much more complicated phenomenon than other social scientists do, and they must do so without, for the most part, the benefit of laboratory methodology.
To illustrate, do a thought experiment with me. Visualize a block of metal sitting in a chair. If you are a physical scientist, it is very easy to quantify that block of metal. There are a handful of variables and measurement technologies are precise. Now, replace that lump of metal with an image of a real person sitting in the chair. Visualize a typical teenager, with pink hair, tattered clothes, piercings, and a tattoo. As you can easily imagine, the ease of measurement, quantification, and assessment has evaporated in a sea of variables and variability. Instead of dealing with a handful of easily quantifiable parameters, we are now dealing with thousands of variables from the variables of genetics to the variables of socialization to the varying institutional and social contexts in which this pink-haired person floats. Even the colour, shape, and size of room and chair may be important. And this person in the chair is only a single example in a single physical and temporal location. Try to understand this person in multiple settings, during multiple periods of life, amidst multiple social situations, and the difficulty expands exponentially. Move into the collectivity and look at this person in the context of human society and the task becomes staggering. But even though the empirical task is staggering, sociologist do try. We do set an empirical stage for our discipline and, given the complexity of what we have to work with, we do a pretty good job. And this brings me back to the topic of this week of readings, which is science and research methodology. The truth is there aren’t very many things that sociologists can meaningfully examine in a laboratory. Most topics of sociological interest have to be examined in the real world, otherwise the results will either be meaningless, or confused. This makes doing science a particular challenge for sociologists.
How do sociologists respond to challenge? They do that by expanding their methods. As you study your introductory sociology textbook you will see that sociologists use a fairly wide range of methods to determine what is true about the world around them. Since this material is covered in your textbook I won’t go into detail here except to say that broadly speaking, sociologists use two general types of empirical methods. They use qualitative methodologies, like participant observation and ethnographies, discourse analysis, and so on; and they use quantitative methodologies, which analyze quantifiable numbers like survey responses and others things that can be measured. The point I want to make here is simply this. Sociologists rarely enter into a laboratory. Because their topic matter is complex, they have to find other ways of searching for the truth.
Now, if you are new to university you may not have an issue with what I have just said. It seems reasonable to conclude that sociologists, because they study complex human phenomenon, require more sophisticated research methods. However, if you are not new to university, and in particular if you are a student of the natural sciences, you may come up with a bit of a natural science bias at this point. That is, those with training in the so-called “hard sciences” may get a chuckle with some of the methods used by sociologists. You may base your amusement on the evaluated difference between the “hard sciences” like physics and chemistry, which presumably use ridged and unambiguous measures of reality, and the so called “soft sciences” which use flaccid measures that are more ambiguous and less precise. If I were you though, I wouldn’t chuckle. On the one hand the entire distinction between “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences is ridiculously chauvinistic and absurd—a visual metaphor useful to prop up “male esteem”—but not so useful as a metaphoric representation of the distinction between branches of science. To be sure, “social facts” in sociology tend to come with statements of variation. We say that we’re ninety-five percent confident that what we are saying is true; but we say this not because our methods are weak and flaccid but because our topics of investigation are complex and difficult. Indeed, sociology deals with the most complex and difficult subject matter of all and despite this difficulty still manages to apply empirical methods in its search for truth. It is actually a feat of major methodological significance that sociologists are able to say “we know these things.” We are not looking at the relatively simple and easily quantifiable world of chemistry, or the ridged and inflexible science of engineering. We look at the most complicated of all scientific subjects, humans, and the social, political, economic, and spiritual world that they (that we) create and live. This is not a task for the faint of heart or the weak of mind. Neither is it an impossible task. It is a challenge, that is all. That sociologists can bring empirical order out of chaos is a laudable achievement of strength and persistence. The point here is not to pat ourselves on the back. The point is to say that if you are going to be a sociologist, you cannot accept the absurd and chauvinistic evaluative assessment foisted on us by natural scientists who think that what they are doing is more scientific, rigorous, and empirical. You must stand for the strength of our methods and the empirical integrity of the discipline, starting now.
And besides, what do the natural sciences really have to be superior over? Sure they’ve created a lot of technical advances, which have improved the life of mostly those in the developed nations, but on balance, they’ve arguably created the potential for incredible suffering and violence. In fact, when we scan the proliferation of surveillance and military technologies, and the growing environmental crises caused by global warming, the “hard sciences” seem to have totally lost control of things in recent years. More and better technology has made it easier to deforest, easier to modify the climactic systems of this planet, easier to pillage, easier to engage in brutal and violent wars, and easier to surveillance the entire global population. George Orwell’s classic 1984 was a child’s fairy tale compared to the techno-reality made possible by the “hard” sciences. To be sure, natural science has accomplished many great things. But you have to weigh the great things in relation to the not so great things on any scientific balance sheet, and anybody can see that in terms of social, environmental, even human dimensions, the natural sciences are not an unequivocal boon. Not that the “softer” sciences get off the hook here. The point is, simply, that we cannot evaluate our disciplines based on one-dimensional, over sexualized metaphors. Natural sciences have brought us to the brink of planetary disaster and natural scientists and for that reason alone, natural scientists should check their methodological arrogance at their door.
Anyway, as you investigate the sociological methods developed by sociologists over the years, keep in mind the discussion in this overview. The methods that sociologists use are methods that we have found useful in dealing with the awesome beauty and complexity of our human, social world. As I have tried to convey in this brief overview, this is nothing to be embarrassed or apologetic about. Speaking as a sociologist, it is something to honour. As you will see if you continue to study Sociology, for all the difficulties and complexities that go into understanding the human situation, sociologists still, like natural scientists, have come to know, with more or less certainty, things about the human, things that no natural scientists would ever be able to know. There will be always be some ambiguity but that, as they say, is the nature of the beast. And to be honest, this is what I like the most about sociology. I wouldn’t trade the complexity of sociology for the simplicity of chemistry or physics any day.
Written by Mike S.